September 26, 2011

September 25, 2011 Sermon

Sermon for Proper 21 A
September 25, 2011
Michael Coffey

I have been watching a lot of news 
in recent months.
	I’ve been listening to our political leaders
		talk and fight and tear each other down.
I can tell you without a doubt:
	I’m really sick of our politics today.
	I’m really fed up with one more leader
		getting a hold of some power or some attention
		and exploiting it all for his or her own gain.
	The funny thing is, they think we don’t see through it.
	They think we buy their rhetorical cover-ups.

But when we hear a text like the one from Philippians
	even if we were duped by politicians wrangling for power
	we can’t stay duped any more.
In just a few, concise verses
	Paul quotes what apparently was one of the earliest Christian hymns
		and exposes all our misguided trust in those who exalt themselves.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
	 6who, though he was in the form of God,
	did not regard equality with God
	as something to be exploited,
  7but emptied himself,
	taking the form of a slave,
	being born in human likeness.
	And being found in human form,
  8he humbled himself
	and became obedient to the point of death — 
	even death on a cross.

So here, Paul tells us the powerful story
	of the one who had all power and all authority
	and all glory and all honor
	and all privilege and all wealth
	and all status and all birthright
	and all pedigree and all rights
		and didn’t use any of it for his own gain.
He used it all to embody the love of God
	which is always a love that makes room for others
	in the circle of one’s concern and love.

Paul even points out the great tragic irony
	that Jesus didn’t just work hard all of his life
	to love other people and help other people love other people,
		he did that, of course.
But he even emptied himself of self-concern
	to the point of dying in humility and shame
	under the one political system that could never get
		what God was about:  the empire.
	Empires can never get what God is about
		because God is about self-emptying love
		that lets go of control and power
			in order to make room for others
			in the circle of concern and love.

The early church apparently got this
	to the point that it very quickly turned it into a hymn,
	or an early creed.
That’s what this reading from Philippians is,
	so very early the church got something
	that we have to keep getting generation after generation:
		Even if we can’t fix the political systems of our day,
		we can still live the love of God in our very real lives.
	I’m not saying we don’t work for and strive for
		and hope for and vote for
		better leaders and a better political life
			that values care of others
			more than elevating the self and grasping for power.
	But the fact that our world doesn’t get it very well
		has nothing to do with whether we
		as people bold enough to claim the way of Jesus as our way
			live with love for others as best we can.

But how can we?
	How can we in the church live something radically different
		from our common patterns in politics and business
			and institutions and organizations?
	I might even say:
		How can we in the church live something
			radically different from the church?
		Since we know the story of the human institution of the church
			is just one more example of the same old thing.

First, we begin at the proper place:
	The self-emptying love of God in Christ.
	The message here is powerful and clear:
		God is love in the way that Jesus is love:
			Emptying of self,
			letting go of using power for self,
				but using it for others.
		God is best understood, the early church tells us,
			as one who empties out
			and makes room for others in God’s self.

We are the hearers and the believers
	and the eaters and the tellers
		of this radically different God
		and powerful good news.
God isn’t a god who claims all power and authority
	and pushes us aside in order to protect God’s power and authority.
God is power and authority to love
	and to heal and to forgive
	and to bless and to renew.
The church is the place that celebrates
	the empty place in God where there is room for us.
You know, Augustine, the great early church theologian,
	famously said:  There is a God-shaped hole in each of us
		that only God can fill.
And that’s wonderful and profound and I’ll come back to that in a second.
	But I think the inverse is also true:
		There is a you shaped hole in God
		that only you can fill,
			and God keeps that space empty
			out of deep love.

This is the great power the church has
	and it is not to be confused with the political power
		that is so troubling today.
It is the power to free us all
	to live in the love of God,
	to live in God, really,
		in the empty place in God where divine love
		has made room for you, and keeps room for you.

We all have an empty place in us,
	it is emptiness, it is a dark void
		that is mysterious even to us.
We wrestle with it,
	we feel the pain of it,
	we anxiously try to fill it with anything that might make us feel better.
We mostly fill it up with our self-interest,
	our self-preservation,
	our fear-based hoarding of anything that will keep us safe
		and in control and in power.
We aren’t so different, I guess,
	from our political and institutional leaders,
	they just live it out on a grander scale.
Jesus is the gift of God
	to set us free so we can clean house,
		get rid of all the junk that has filled us up,
		have a garage sale for the soul,
		empty ourselves out
		so that we can be filled up
with the one thing that fits:  God. 
Once we have been loved by the one who makes room for us
	we have room in us for others.
Once we have been taken in by the grace of God
	we have much gracious space to take others in.
Once we have been filled by divine love
	we have divine love to pour out to others.

Paul quotes this early Christian hymn
	to make clear the powerful message of the Gospel:
		Jesus is God’s self-emptying love for us
		that is now available to all.
And then he says:
	Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus.
	Let the same self-emptying love be in you.
	Let the same pattern of living in God and loving others be yours.
	Let the same acceptance of the power grabbing empire
		lead you to live beyond and above the politics of the day.

But you say:
	Pastor Coffey,
		if we live that way in real life,
		everyone else will take advantage of us.
		Everyone will see how vulnerable we are.
		Everyone will abuse our loving attitude
			and use us for their own gain.
	We can’t be that na├»ve and weak.
	How could that change anything?

What did they say about Jesus,
	those early Christians who lived in the power corrupted empire?
  8he humbled himself
	and became obedient to the point of death — 
	even death on a cross.

Yes, our human political and business and institutional world
	will not give up power easily
	or suddenly see how loving Christians are
		and get all warm and fuzzy
			like the end of a Hollywood fantasy.
So what?
	That’s the whole point.
	Somewhere, someone, some people,
		have to embody the vulnerable, self-emptying love of God
		in this world, or transformation of this world won’t happen.
And the one thing we know,
	as people who gather around the gifts of self-emptying love
		in bread broken and wine poured out,
		the only thing that transforms us or anything
			is the love of God that makes room for others,
			and this love is costly,
			it costs us ourselves, as it cost Jesus himself.

We know that in order to truly be ourselves beloved by God
	we have to find meaningful and purposeful ways
		to give ourselves away.
We are looking today for great reasons
	to empty ourselves, give ourselves away,
	instead of filling ourselves,
		or wasting the gift we have to give,
		which is the gift of our beloved selves in God.
We are needing to keep offering our young people,
	and our more cynical and worn-out older people,
	great reasons to love others greatly.

Yes, we have to decide here and now,
	like we do every week when we gather,
	that we are going to live a higher functioning life
		than the majority of the world around us.
We are going to risk humility
	in order for divine love to be enacted and shared.
We are going to die with Jesus
	and be exalted with Jesus,
	which is an exalting we cannot give ourselves,
		but which we know is God’s endless gift to us.

September 4, 2011

Sermon 9/4/11

Sermon for Proper 18 A
September 4, 2011
Michael Coffey

Text: Matthew 18:15-20 

What kind of community would you want to join?  
Being a part of a community in one form or another 
is a part of our lives.  
Church community.  
Civic community.  
High school class.  
Ethnic group.  
Political group.
We live in these various communities as part of our lives and identities.  
Some of them we are born into.  
Some of them we choose.  
What kind would you choose to join?  
How do you pick?  
Do you wonder if they are conservative or liberal?  
Exclusive or inclusive?  
A group of folks who are clones of each other, 
or a mixed bag with contentious discussions?  
Maybe you would follow the old adage of Groucho Marx, 
and not join any group that would have you as a member.

As I thought about these questions, 
I realized that the whole notion of community 
has become rather fragile for us.  
What does it mean anymore to be part of a group?  
What does it mean to live life with others, 
instead of only with yourself?  
The idea of community has lost some meaning for us 
in our subdivided, 
cell phone talking and texting,
internet surfing, 
politically contentious,
privatized world.

I have to bring up this question about joining communities 
because Matthew’s Gospel is largely about what it means 
to be a part of one particular community.  
He uses a word that no other Gospel writer uses, 
and we hear it in today’s reading: church.  
Now, church is probably not the best translation
	of the Greek work ekklesia.
We might get a better sense of the word
	if it were translated assembly or gathering.
		It is a word about community,
		not about institution or religion,
		as church often connotes.
Matthew tells us more about what it means 
to be a part of a community called church 
than does any other.  
And Matthew seems to be describing a community of disciples 
who walk a fine line between two extemes.  
Those two extremes are something like this.

Let’s say you like cycling.  
You want to join a group of cyclists.  
You decided to join Club Excellence.  
They have high expectations of each member.  
They set goals for themselves that seem unattainable, 
and yet they have gone very far.  
They go to races to win, 
and win they do.  
They have the best average race time per member of any club.  
The problem is, they have little room for mistakes.  
They don’t accept low achievers.  
They don’t let you stay long if you roll in at the end of the race.  
They even got rid of someone for getting a flat tire during a race, 
because he couldn’t fix it fast enough.  
They went far and did great things.  
But there was little grace or room for forgiveness
	for the inevitable failures and faults of real people.  
You decide if it sounds too harsh for you.

Then there is this other group.  
They’re the laid back kind of folks.  
They go to races to have fun.  
They’re the ones who bring all the beer.  
They let anyone in, and kick no one out.  
They have a great time together just being together.  
They have no goals, 
and have achieved little, 
except a certain kind of notoriety.  
They have plenty of room for error, 
because there are no expectations.
You decide if they would help you achieve your goals.

Neither one of these hypothetical communities
is the kind of community in Matthew’s Gospel,
	the church or assembly or gathering.  
In fact, Matthew is showing us the community of Jesus’ disciples 
as walking a fine line between the two.  
At first reading, Matthew’s Gospel sounds harsh.  
Jesus has high expectations of his followers, 
the highest, 
higher than the Pharisees had of others.  
They were to seek the highest kind of human living, 
righteousness as Jesus himself lived it.  
I used to read Matthew’s Gospel and get really depressed.  
I was sure I would get kicked out of the club.
I was sure if I got a flat tire or crashed
there would be little room 
among the Jesus’ band of over-achievers for me.

But then you get to Matthew’s chapter 18.  
The one we hear part of today, 
and part of next week.  
Surprisingly and unlike any community we might experience,
In the midst of a community with high expectations, 
there is an abundance of forgiveness.  
Jesus tells us that when someone in the church sins, 
well, now wait a minute.  
That right there tells you something.  
This was never supposed to be an ideal community.  
It was never about everyone getting it right all of the time.  
It was always about real folks, 
real problems, real struggle,
real faults and failures. 
So there is built into the structure of the whole thing a lifestyle of grace.  
If someone in the church, 
the Jesus community of high expectations for human living, 
if someone there sins, you must forgive.  
Oh, wow.  
You can get a flat tire and get back in the race.  
You can have a bad day and come back next week.  
You can really miss the mark, and be made new again.

To be sure, Matthew won’t let us think the church 
is about cheap grace and low expectations.  
As the people who gather in Jesus’ name, 
we have a calling in that holy name that is staggering.  
Live with his kind of righteous integrity.  
Strive for the highest form of human living.  
Go for gold in our lives of service, faith, love, and relationships.  
But all of that would be too much to take 
if it weren’t for the built-in understanding 
that what makes us most of all like Jesus, 
is our ability to forgive, 
to accept one another as we are today.

Today’s Gospel reading can easily be misread.  
It could be taken as a strict, three-strikes and you’re out 
kind of forgiveness.  
It could seem like a wooden, constitutional process 
for handling grievances and people’s problems.
It has often been used that way in the church.  
But that is a mistake.  
It does mean we take sin and repentance seriously, 
but it also means we are always to be about forgiveness, 
not rigid moralism, 
about grace, 
not impossible expectations, 
about acceptance of one another, 
because we know we are all on the same mysterious journey.  

All of this is true and possible because of whose name we gather in.  
We gather in the name of Jesus, 
and where we do that, 
he is present and risen and abounding in mercy.  
He is present not only as we gather in prayer and worship, 
but in how we seek God’s righteousness together, 
and in how we forgive on another.
Where Jesus is, there is grace and mercy.

This all assumes something as yet unsaid: 
That this community is terribly important,
that this gathering of folks is about something so central to our lives 
that we are willing to forgive one another to make it work.
Too often, many of the relationships we have today
	are not deep and abiding,
	many of our communities are fragile and short-lived.
We might get connected on Facebook
		or in a political group,
		or in a shared interest activity,
	but as soon as things get difficult,
		or someone offends, it’s all too easy to walk away or disband.
To be honest,
	much of the time,
	church community doesn’t mean that much to people.
It is surprisingly and disappointingly easy
	to just come and go,
	have a scuffle and move on,
	dislike someone or something and pick another franchise.
But to deal with problems,
	to seek reconciliation where pain was inflicted,
	to ask for and seek forgiveness,
	to grant such grace to one another,
	to grow and change together….
		To go to all that trouble
		would mean it must actually matter to be a part
		of church, of this church,
			of this community.
And this is true of all of our relationships
	that really matter, that we value,
	that give us life and meaning,
	that we would never just lightly toss aside.
I sense, too, for many of us,
	even if we aren’t always living up to it,
	this community actually does matter.
We sacrifice for it, we dedicate time and energy to it,
	we love one another and forgive one another for it,
	we sense that we are better human beings within it,
	and better connected to God through it.

What kind of community would you want to join?  
How about one that can call you to your highest level of human living, 
and one that can pick you up when you fall?  
How about this one, 
where God is calling us to this kind of living, 
and where Jesus is here offering us the trustworthy word
		of God’s grace and forgiveness,
	and where the Spirit is empowering and celebrating 
all that is excellent and faithful about us.