December 31, 2011

Why I Like New Year's Day

I do.  I like New Year's Day.  And not just because we have turned it into a slovenly day to stay home, read, watch TV, and eat endless plates of really crappy frozen snacks like Pizza Rolls and taquitos.

I like it because it gives me a little breathing room to think about beginning again.  Beginning better habits.  Starting new pursuits.  Giving myself direction, focus, and priorities.

I can't say that I always make progress.  I know that I don't meet half of my ambitions.  But none of that matters.  It's the fact that we can begin again.  We can begin again any time and any day.  But New Year's Day gives us a reason to give it another try.

I'm going to put a few things on the forefront of my time and goals in 2012.  Some of these are things I've wanted to do for a long time.  Some are things I have tried and failed at before.  But so what.  Here we go again:
  • Learn to play guitar (I got some software for Christmas to help me out this time!)
  • Learn some Spanish (not sure how, although I have had a program for this for a while, I'll try it, and some CD's)
  • Read more outside of my familiar areas of theology and spirituality (I got a Kindle fire for Christmas!)
  • Get back to regular exercise (I haven't since I started working in Austin...)
  • Being more intentionally open to the people in the room with me, whatever room that is on whatever day
  • Blogging more (Hey, this is a start!)
Here's to the silly foolish belief that we can actually become new again, January 1, or any other day, and thanks for the One who makes all things new, even us, even now.

December 25, 2011

December 24, 2011 Sermon

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2011
Michael Coffey

Luke 2:1-20
John 1:1-14 

This somewhat silent and beautiful holy night,
 we come together again
to hear an ancient nativity story 
and contemplate some odd claims about God.
We come together again,
not so differently from how we come together most of the time,
but tonight with concentrated effort and expectation.
We come together hoping again,
 maybe with some cynicism,
 maybe with some weariness,
 and maybe with some desperation.
We come together wondering
 if love can be renewed in us,
  or if we have used up all of our wishes.
We try, don’t we,
 to let others love us, to let God love us,
 to love others and God in this life,
 and maybe even to love ourselves,
  accepting what we are and what we aren’t.
We try, and at times we shine like stars in a high desert night sky.
 But too often, we grow dim and love fades within us,
  lost in the light pollution of the evening city atmosphere,
  and in our deepest regret, we even do harm instead of love.

I just saw the movie Hugo.
 Hugo is a boy who knows that the saddest thing
  is something that doesn’t live out its intended purpose.
In the story there is a mechanical man,
 a magical machine that, when wound up, can write and draw.
There is also an older man who lives in sadness
 because he no longer does what he loves,
  and sense his life was for nothing.
There is another man, a police officer,
 who is broken by war and become part rusty machine himself,
and who is damaged by a childhood of abandonment.
Hugo wants to make the mechanical man work again,
 but he discovers he doesn’t have the key.
They keyhole is heart-shaped,
 and nothing but a heart-shaped key will make it work.
In the story we come to see
 that the same is true of the other characters:
 Their heart-shaped hole is waiting to be filled
  so they can live out their purpose:
   to love and to be loved
   in the particular ways they were each made to love.

Can anything renew the love within us
 the love we ache to accept,
 the love we long to give in our particular ways,
in order to truly live our purpose
   on this short hike through the universe?
Can anything fill the heart-shaped hole in each of us?
If the answer is no,
 the only thing left to do in this day and age
  is to shop, and eat lonely meals, 
and hide behind locked doors and computer screens,
and live with regret and sadness 
at all the love we failed to give and receive.
But tonight, maybe foolishly,
 maybe without good reason except childlike wonder,
 maybe beyond what we can justify 
with the state of the world and the state of our lives,
 tonight, let’s assume that love can be renewed in us
  by the ancient nativity story 
and through odd claims 
about God and love and the human family.

The ancient story is Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus,
 a birth that sets the cosmos sailing in a new direction.
Everything in the story helps us hear
 that love in this world is renewed in a particular way:
  not through the empire’s power and wealth,
  not through those who account themselves great
   like Emperor Augustus.
In Luke’s story one thing startles and awakens us
 to the way God’s love is renewed in the world:
  through ordinary, even lowly, people,
from Joseph and Mary,
 caught up in a divine scheme they can barely figure out,
to shepherds minding their own business
 as they eke out a living tending sheep
 suddenly summoned by divine messengers
  to seek out God’s wonderment in their midst.
But most important, there is the newborn, 
the one who will unlock human hearts to love again,
 Jesus himself, with angelic songs singing him
  into lofty greatness above even the emporer,
 but born in lowliness, vulnerability,
 caught up in the confusing shuffle of human life.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth highlights the most startling claim:
  the renewal of God’s love
  comes through ordinary, humble, unremarkable human life.
There may be hope for us yet.

Then we get to the odd claim about God and love and humanity.
 It is the claim that God’s love in Christ, 
God’s Word or wisdom or purpose in John’s language,
 is an embodied love.
The great, strange claim that Christianity makes,
 is that God’s love is not an abstraction,
 it is not a great philosophical or religious idea,
 it is not a lofty goal so high we can never reach it or experience it.
The great Christmas claim we make
 is that God’s love comes to us in this reality,
 in the flesh, embodied and touchable and knowable,
 through action and presence and personhood.

In the Orthodox churches of the east,
 the incarnation is the central redeeming thing God does:
  God becomes enfleshed in real human life in Jesus,
   and this renews God’s love in us,
   this makes us new and more than we were on our own.
The Orthodox tradition has been willing to go farther
 in the Christian claim about incarnation
 than most of the Western churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant.
They have been willing to claim,
 that God becomes human in Christ
  so that we can become divine.
Now, this could play into our needy little egos
 and make us think we as individuals somehow become great,
 god-like, and then maybe we can get everything we ever wanted,
  and not need anyone or even need God anymore.
But that would just be our way of messing things up again.
The point is that God’s love became embodied in Jesus
 so that we can embody God’s love in ourselves.
And only when God’s love is embodied
 does it renew and transform and create new possibilities for life.

That is what we celebrate in this Christmas festival:
 We are renewed in love by God’s embodiment in Jesus,
 and we become the embodiment of the same divine love
  through the Holy Spirit and some kind of crazy trust.
If you want to know what happens when God’s love is embodied,
 just look to Jesus.
Don’t just look at the infant in the manger, though,
 look at his whole life and how he embodied love
  with persons and in society.
 Look at how transforming and world-changing Jesus was,
  for individuals, families, societies, religions, politics.
Look also at Jesus’s life and how much it costs to embody divinity:
 it will cost you your whole self,
 it will require you to let go of keeping your life safe,
 it will draw you into a story bigger than your own.

This love of God is not an easy, sentimental,
 feelings-oriented love.
It is a real, risk-taking, costly love.
It is love in the personal dimension
 that means embracing each other, 
 accepting each other as wounded souls,
 suffering how much we hurt each other,
 forgiving family and friends for their limited ways of loving,
 walking through pain and sorrow together,
 holding one another’s hands when we lie in death’s bed.
It is love in the public dimension
 that means seeking healthcare for those without money or insurance,
 sharing food and shelter with those who have lost job and home,
 shaping society toward justice that protects those most vulnerable,
 welcoming as neighbors those who build our homes 
and harvest our crops
  but are here without legal documentation.

I recently showed a documentary called
 Lord, Save Us from your Followers:
  Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?
There were two particularly powerful stories in the film.
 One was how the film’s director and narrator
 setup a confessional booth at a gay and lesbian pride festival.
 The confessional wasn’t for others to come and confess,
  it was for the church to confess its sins
  in rejecting others, and even promoting hatred.
 The men and women who came into the booth
  were shocked, surprised, and moved to tears and gratitude,
  when they sat face to face with another person
  who asked for their forgiveness in how they had treated them.

Near the end of the film there is a beautiful and powerful story
 of a church in Seattle that lives out incarnate love
 in a city filled with homelessness and lost souls.
They head downtown on Saturday nights
 to feed the people living in the streets.
But more than that,
 they shampoo their hair,
 they wash their feet,
 they listen to their stories and their struggles,
 they embrace them as fellow members 
of the human family divinely loved.
These two stories are beautiful examples
 of divine love embodied in real life.
This embodiment of divine love
breaks down the barriers between us
and draws us into the unity we share with each other 
and with God.

At the heart of the church’s life is the meal of divine love.
The reason we take the Eucharist, Holy communion, 
with such reverence and seriousness 
and ecstatic joy and great thanksgiving, 
is that it is the ongoing renewal of embodied love in us.
We, once again, receiving Christ, become Christ, 
become embodied love in a world dying to be loved, 
become a community that bears the cost of love,
become our true purpose, as our heart-shaped hole is filled. 
The reason for being part of the church 
is so we might more fully embody divine love for the world, 
which we cannot do on our own, 
not without God and not without each other.
Because love is not a lonely, self-centered project 
meant to prove our individual worth.
Love is the God and community centered process of becoming one,
 one with each other, one with God,
 one in Christ, the incarnate Word,
  the embodied love that renews us even now.

We celebrate at Christmas and in the church always
that Jesus embodies God’s love fully.
But we need not claim that Jesus embodies God’s love uniquely.
If Jesus alone embodied God’s love,
  then it only lasted 30 years or so
   in a small corner of the world.
 But, God’s work among us by the Spirit
  is to continue the embodiment, the incarnation,
  through real, ordinary people
  people whose lives are caught up the love story of Jesus
  people who have died to their old life
   of resisting the cost of embodied love,
   and are ready to freely and joyfully love as God loves.

December 18, 2011

Sermon December 18, 2011

Sermon for Advent 4 B
December 18, 2011
Michael Coffey 
Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:46-55 

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
 everywhere you go…
Yes, it is.
 But we have a week to go.
 And that gives us a week to ponder something,
  something that prepares us for Christmas joy
  in this final Advent time of waiting:
   God needs an entry point.
   Christ needs a way into this world,
 and this week is our time to consider:
  The way Christ comes into this world matters.
  And Christ is still looking for ways into this world today.

Mary got the news from the angel Gabriel.
 Gabriel, by the way, means warrior of God.
 So Gabriel has got some important things to get done
  on God’s behalf.
 And in this instance, it is to help Mary see and accept
  how it is God works God’s wonders.
You can hear the conversation:
 Hey Mary!   
 Guess what!?  
Um, ok, what?
 God is about to come into the world
 through a newborn Messiah and set people free.
   Oh, OK, well, it’s about time.
   But why are you telling me?
   Shouldn’t you be at the priest’s house
   or talking to the Jerusalem political machine?
 No, Mary, that’s just it.
 God needs a way into the world,
so God is coming into the world through you.

And then you can just hear a pause, a silence,
a moment of bewilderment and wonder,
a second to consider what is happening and how and why.
At first, she is puzzled:
 How can this be?
And the angel Gabriel reminds her:
 God has always brought renewal through women
  who didn’t fit the bill,
  too old, too young, 
too unseemly, too much outside the fold.
 And Gabriel says:
  Nothing will be impossible for God.
Mary, trusting only in the God who indeed does the impossible,
 says:  Here am I, servant of the Lord; 
let it be with me as you have said.

Mary then takes off to see Elizabeth,
 who is on the other end of the spectrum of problematic pregnancy,
 and Mary sings her amazing song,
  known commonly by its Latin liturgical name the Magnificat:
   the magnification of God,
  Mary’s song of praise and protest.
It is surely a song of praise,
but a protest song?
It’s not “Give peace a chance” or “We shall overcome”
 or even that “What do we want” chant 
you always hear at demonstrations, 
and people tell you when they want it now, 
whatever it is.
But this song is different,
 because it comes from ancient lips
 and it is about amazing things and impossible possibilities
  that come from God alone.
This song is different because it is a song of praise and protest,
 not merely protest.

Still, you might be wondering about that word, protest.
I’m particularly interested in it this week
since Time magazine chose as person of the year: the protestor.
Not any one protestor, but all of those persons in the past year
 all over the world, who have changed the direction of the world:
  those involved in the Arab spring,
  the Madison rally,
  the Occupy Wall Street movement,
  the homeowners facing foreclosure who refuse to leave.
In the Time magazine article, it says:
All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' 
political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — 
sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. 
They are fervent small-d democrats. 
Two decades after the final failure and abandonment of communism, 
they believe they're experiencing the failure of hell-bent megascaled crony 
hypercapitalism and pine for some third way, a new social contract. 

Well, you don’t have to listen for long
to Mary’s song of praise and protest
to think that Mary might have been Time’s person of the year:

46bMy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
     47my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
     From this day all generations will call me blessed;
49you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
     and holy is your name.
50You have mercy on those who fear you,
     from generation to generation.   
51You have shown strength with your arm;
     and scattered the proud in their conceit,
52casting down the mighty from their thrones
     and lifting up the lowly.
53You have filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.
54You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
     to remember the promise of mercy,
55the promise made to our forebears,
     to Abraham and his children forever.  

Throughout generations Mary has been remembered and hailed
 as the great example of the feminine.
And in traditions that have lost Mary as part of their faith practice,
 there is something lost of the feminine.
However, the feminine we see in Mary and her song
 is not a passive, submissive, I’ll do whatever you say femininity.
This is more like Mary the feminine warrior whom Gabriel called to action,
 Mary the great woman protestor,
 Mary the wonderful witness to God’s great turning of the world.

We often think of the word “protest” and “protestor”
 as emphasizing what you are against.
  To protest is to be against something, in our common usage.
But the word itself means the opposite:
 To pro-test is to speak for something,
 to witness for something,
 to give public speech for what you are seeking and dreaming.
And in the case of Mary and Scripture and people of faith:
 to give witness to what God is for:
lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, 
freeing the oppressed, strengthening the weak, 
tending the neglected.
So there it is, right there in Mary’s song of praise and protest:
 What God is for, what God is about.

And most important for us today:  
What is God’s entry point into the world:
Mary realized her lowliness,
 her very sense of disqualification,
was the entry point for God to work in this world.
 Mary sings praise to God,
 Mary gives protest for God,
  by singing about the way God comes into the world,
  the way God turns the world around: through lowliness.
This itself turns the world on its head.
 Everyone assumes that God’s entry point into the world
 is through loftiness, and power, and wealth, and success,
  and a proven business model,
  and a screen tested plot,
  and guarantees that nothing will fail.
But not this God.
Not the God of Scripture.
 Not the God of Israel.
 Not the God of Mary.
 Not the God of Jesus.
  The only way this God 
brings the true good news into the world
  is through lowliness,
  because the good news is that human lowliness
   is where God is pleased to dwell.

Contemplate it this week.
We have a great gift this year:
Advent is as long as possible.
We have an extended period of time between this Sunday of Mary,
and the birth of Jesus.
Ponder it this whole week.
Stop pondering if you can have enough money 
to make Christmas happen,
or if you can be good enough to bring reconciliation,
or if you have been successful enough this year
to justify your existence,
or if you have risen high enough in the ranks
of human esteem.
Ponder this instead:
 Our disqualifications are useful to God.
Our lowliness is God’s access point for doing good news things.
Our greatness is most often a hindrance.
Our successes and prestigious positions
most often get in the way.
Our need to be accounted as something in the human ordering of things
is a road block to God’s work in us
because we get in the way.
Instead of getting out of the way and following 
and embracing what God is about,
we lead with our own agendas and our puffed up egos
and our need for lifting ourselves up.
What Mary sings praise to God
 because the entry point of God into this world
 comes through human lowliness,
  because there, and only there,
  can God do the lifting up of our souls
   so our souls will sing magnification of God 
and not ourselves.

The Gospel is a protest message, 
it is a public message about what God is doing, 
what and who God is for, 
and what people who want to be a part of God’s good news 
are about.
We can fight and resist it.
 We can keep trying to show ourselves worthy and better than others
  through our wealth and our positions above others
  and our materialism and our cars
  and our ability to control others
  and our power and our degrees and our intelligence.
Or, we can listen to Mary’s song of praise and protest
 and learn from Mary herself,
 and reply to God’s desire to come into the world in Christ
  through our lowliness,
  and respond, as she did:  Let it be.
And then, we might finally be ready
 to get Christmas, really get it,
 and sing that little ditty:  
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
  everywhere you go…

December 5, 2011

Sermon for December 4, 2011

Sermon for Advent 2 B
December 4, 2011
Michael Coffey

I’d like to convince you
 as we come together during this middle of Advent time
 that what we are waiting for is not Christmas Day.
I know we all get caught up in the Christmas frenzy
 which right about now might have you wondering
 if you’ll ever get everything done.
  There are children’s concerts,
  and caroling, and parties with friends,
  and Conspirare and Ensemble VIII
   and Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland Holiday show
   and the Nutcracker!
 Shopping?  Traffic?  Wrapping?  Shipping?
 Cooking? Sending cards and letters?
  Why do we do this to ourselves?
It gets crazy and can run you down.
 If Advent is about waiting for Christmas Day,
  then forget it, we’re not waiting, we’re doing it,
  and it’s exhausting.

But Advent is more about life than about the pre-Christmas psychodrama.
I’d like to convince you that what we are waiting for in Advent, 
and more so, what we are waiting for in life,
  is nothing less than God, God in Christ,  
God becoming real again,
 God making sense again,
 God filling up the emptiness again,
 God coming into this day, this time,
  this need, this ache, our doubt, my fear,
   not just those of long ago,
   or those yet to be.
 We are waiting for God, the God of here and now.

It seems strange in a way,
 because God is always here, with us, 
  in the now, present, close.
Yet, something else is needed,
 some kind of preparation,
 some kind of renewal,
  so that God as great idea of presence and closeness
   and mercy and love
  can be known deeply as the God of real presence, 
palpable closeness,
   genuine mercy, tangible love.

Isaiah and John the Baptist
 called people to prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way, not for a holiday,
 or even a wonderful family gathering,
 or a midnight mass,
  but prepare the way of the Lord!
Prepare the way for God,
 the God whom you are waiting for,
 the God who acts in ways that bring life
  and stir up justice
  and renew the love in our hearts.
Both Isaiah and John say it:
 Prepare the way of the Lord!
 Get ready, for God is coming to you again!

Isaiah’s people were living a dead end in exile in Babylon, 
a hopeless time after terrible suffering.
  They gave up on God entirely,
  they believed only in bad news
  and settled on shopping and greed and hopelessness.
Isaiah says to them:
 There is no dead end with God!
 Prepare the way!  The Lord is coming to bring us new life!
 Let go of your past that makes you feel like a failure!
  There’s nothing left to be forgiven for!
 Open your hearts!  Comfort each other!
  Stop believing the bad news!
  God is coming. And this is the good news!

John the Baptist
 called people out to the wilderness,
 out away from the cities where Roman coercion
  and fear-mongering robbed people of faith and trust in God.
John called them out into the wild
 to find the renewal that comes only when you get away
  and let the trees and the water and the sun teach you.
 Let go of everything that keeps you from God.
 Let go of your fear and sin and doubt
  and confess it and drown it and leave it all behind in the river!
John called them out and said: Prepare the way!
 God is coming!  Empty yourself!  Forgive each other!
Forgive yourself! Let go of blame!
Trust in the Lord!  Renew your mind!
Stop believing in bad news!
God is coming.  And this is good news!

Now to get to the rest of the sermon,
 we need to learn a song:
  Prepare the way of the Lord… And God will come to you.

Like the people of Isaiah’s time,
 like the people of John the Baptist’s time,
 we stop hearing that God is good news.
 We hear the bad news all the time.
  We hear that violence runs the world.
  We hear that money corrupts everything good.
  We hear that we are caught up in systems of injustice.
  We hear that only a very few will know the good life.
  We hear that everything we have failed at
   is being tallied and recorded 
and can and will be used against us.
  We hear all of this and we believe only in bad news.
  Dead ends.  Lost dreams.  Low expectations of ourselves,
   and worse, far worse, low expectations of God.

So Isaiah and John have something to say to us.
 Isaiah has to find some way to say it, 
so he practically invents a new term: Gospel!  Good news! 
 Prepare the way. Renew your mind.
 Stop believing in bad news. 
Believe in the good news. God is coming!

They tell us there are definite ways to prepare the way
 for God to come into our lives again,
 to be real again, to be present to us again.
It’s hard to hear it,
 because we are afraid that if we get it wrong,
  if we don’t do the right kind of repentance,
  if we don’t really mean it deeply enough,
   then somehow God will be absent,
   the bad news will win,
   the dead end is really the end and really dead.

But all of these things we do to prepare the way,
 don’t cause God to act,
 they don’t earn us the good news.
  The simply open us up to the full reality
   of the God who is always good news for us.
 The God of grace we know in Jesus by the Spirit
  is always that God for us, even in the bad news times.
 We don’t determine God’s goodness and grace,
  but we do affect whether we trust it
  and sail in it and let it take us to new places.

It’s like all of the signals floating around us
 all of the time in the airwaves.
TV and radio broadcasts fill the air around us and travel through us.
 Which ones do we tune into?
 So-called reality TV, where everyone acts like ego-centric children?
 Politicized news that always needs an enemy to blame?
 Terrible religion that creates doubt and fear in people
  about God and God’s good news ways?
 Bad news is everywhere, and it isn’t hard to tune into it.
  But tuning into good news,
  tuning into the reality of God,
   means finding the stations and the signals
   that let us hear what is already there.

As we sing the song again,
 in between each part of the refrain that you sing
  I will sing ways we prepare the way of the Lord.
 It’s a way to meditate on how we come to know good news again,
  and so it will help us prepare the way.

Prepare the way of the Lord, open your heart, and God will come to you.
1. Open your heart
2. Empty yourself
3. Let go of fear
4. Let go of blame
5. Renew your mind
6. Forgive each other
7. Forgive yourself
8. Trust in the Lord
9. Love one another
10. Welcome the stranger
11. Comfort each other
12. Give praise to God

Doing these things prepares the way of the Lord.
 They don’t make God be good news for us.
 They open us to the God who is already good news.
 They tune our minds and hearts to the good news message
  already broadcast by Isaiah and John and Jesus.
 They drown out all the bad news we keep believing and despairing over.
 They prepare us to see God in Christ becoming real again,
  God making sense again,
  God filling up the emptiness again,
  God coming into this day, this time, this gathering,
   this bread, this wine,
   this need, this ache, our doubt, my fear,
    and not just those of long ago,
    or those yet to be, but here and now.

Open your hearts. Renew your minds.
Prepare the way of the Lord, and God will come to you,
God in Christ Jesus,
 God who is already here,
 God who is already real presence in Christ,
 God who invites us to the meal of tangible love,
 God who is already now,
 God who is nearer to you than you are to yourself,
 God who is already and always good news.