February 29, 2012

Sermon for Lent 1 B - February 26, 2012


Sermon for Lent 1 B
February 26, 2012
Michael Coffey


Mark 1:9-15




You’ve gotta begin a journey somewhere.
           For Jesus, the journey began in the wilderness.
                     In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t do anything noteworthy
                                until after his baptism and wilderness time.
                     And afterwards, it is as if something wildly new has emerged.

Our church calendar tells us each year
           that the beginning of the journey toward
           the cross and resurrection that renews us
                      is in the wilderness.
Every year, we begin here,
           with Jesus, out in the wilderness.
In fact, the whole season of Lent is a 40 day metaphor
           for his 40 days in the wilderness,
           not to mention the 40 years of Israel in the wilderness.
These two basic stories tell us
           that before a time of new things comes,
           there is a time of preparation.
                     And for some reason, that preparation
                                doesn’t happen in the temple or in church
                                or at work, or at home,
                                or on 6th street or on Facebook,
                                           but in the wilderness,
                                          with very little to distract you,
                                          and only the animals and nature to teach you.


Imagine that we actually practice Lent
           the way it was invented to be practiced:
Preparation for baptism of adults
           at the Easter Vigil.
Everything we do from now until that vigil liturgy
           is meant to prod and push and teach and compel
           those about to be baptized.
It challenges them to consider it carefully,
           approach it with awe and some trembling.
It provokes them to begin to loosen the grip they hold on their own lives
                     so God in Christ by the Spirit might grab hold of them
                     in new and transformational ways.

So how does this baptismal period of teaching and formation begin?
           Jesus being baptized and pushed out into the wilderness.
           He is shoved out there, really, by the Spirit
                     so that he might be prepared for what was to come.
You might think, well, why does Jesus need this wilderness time?
           Wasn’t he already doing it right?
           Didn’t he grow up as a good boy and live as a gentle man?
You can just picture it.
           Jesus had been a good little boy,
                     and as a young man didn’t cause any trouble.
           He worked hard in his father’s wood working shop.
           He visited his mother on weekends.
           He went to synagogue and read Scripture and said his prayers.
           He didn’t stir up trouble in town.

But then, he was feeling restless.
           He was feeling an inner stirring.
He felt a pull and a push toward something new.
He was tired of always being nice,
                     when he saw so many problems around him
                     and so many people in need of healing and liberation.
And once he heard that wild John the Baptist
           he couldn’t go back.
           He knew God was calling him.

After Jesus is baptized and God tells him
           he is beloved and pleasing,
           he isn’t sent back into town to be a good boy again.
He is thrust out into the wilderness by the Spirit.
           We might pronounce that word:  wild-er-ness.
           Jesus didn’t go out there to figure out how to be a good boy.
           He went out there to figure out how to be wild enough
                     to live out the call of God in the world.
           His testing and tempting and toughening
                     aren’t about him getting ready to go back
                     into his nice, small town life.
           His wilderness time is about getting him ready to go forward
                     into the wilder-ness of living out his calling from God,
                     living out the radical love of God
                                which is a costly love that upsets and disrupts
                                all the contained love that keeps things nice and easy.
Baptized and wilderness ready, Jesus was now dangerous.
           He had God in, with, and under him
           He had identity that no one could strip away
           He had calling and purpose
that couldn’t be bought or mortgaged
or repossessed or foreclosed upon.

What would that tell you
           if you were preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil this year
           and the first seed, the first story the church planted in your mind
                     was Jesus going into the wilder-ness?
It would tell you that you needn’t worry
           about being a good boy or a good girl
                     for the rest of your life.
It would tell you that you have probably played it too safe
           in your attempts to live up to something
                     you think everyone wants you to be.
It would tell you that the baptized life
           is not a safe, nice stroll through the park
                     but a wild walk with God who calls you beloved.
It would tell you that our primary struggle
           is not in what we do most of the time,
           but in what we don’t do, in why we tame our lives so much.
It is the struggle see whom we don’t love as God loves,
           and to wrestle with the hard question of why.

Now imagine with me
           how we are experiencing the other reason
           Lent was invented:
                     Those of us who are already baptized
                     might be renewed,
                     might walk the same path as initiates again,
                     might discover new meaning and energy and vitality
                                in being the people of Jesus,
                                in being a community of costly love,
                                in being the church of death and resurrection,
                                in being called to a transformed life rooted only
                                          in God and God’s mercy for us and all people.
It means we have to wonder again
           why we keep worrying about being good boys and girls
           when we are called to be wildly free lovers of God and neighbor.
It means we have to look at the cost of living this way again
           and together, not alone, but together
                     joyfully accept the path of baptized living.

As I meditated on these themes this week
           I tried to capture them in a different way in this poem
                     which I posted on my blog:

(Read while processing up the central aisle beginning at the font)

When my time comes for ashes and dust
and final things said and momentary lament
let there be tears freely flowing in the congregation
and a bit of wailing for a while to get things going

and then let there be in the frankincensed aisles
of the church when the cross makes its way
past the black suits and the pressed handkerchiefs
and children fidgeting oblivious to grief rituals

– let there be a procession of drums stirring the souls  (drumming begins)
of those who still have heartbeat rhythms,
djembes and doumbecs, tree drums and rattle gourds
calling to the wildness of all the still living and all too tame

downbeats and syncopations
and finger riffs in complicated cadences
and hands red from so much music making
reminding everyone who came for me

in between the silences and the cadence
of the twisting walk through the labyrinth of life
I made some music, loving in time and in counterpoint,
but too tamed when it needed to echo the feral call of the  divine,

the ecstasy song of my paschal mystery stride through the universe.
But you breathers even in grief still have hands, fingers, and hearts
and before your final walk down the aisle in a little ashy urn
you’ve got a dancing pulse urging you to

more wildness and less cautious stillness
more drumming and less watching from a distance
more moving in your skin as God moves through you
in this percussive dance around the firelight of infinite love


If we’re going to walk this Lenten path together,
           let’s do it with the spirit of inner joy intended.
It isn’t a time to beat ourselves up for not being good enough,
           or for being worthy of abandonment and rejection by God.
It is a time to peel off the accumulated layers
           of trying too hard to be good according to everyone else’s rules.
It is a time to slough off fear and anxiety
           about God and one another and life and death and ashes and dust.
It is a time to prepare for Jesus’ faithful journey
           of life and death and resurrection to renew us again by God’s grace.
It is at time to be transformed again into our wilder selves,
           people who love without counting the cost,
           people who dance without worrying about being seen,
           people who walk to the beat of a different drummer.

February 27, 2012

Ooops! Wrong Savior


You wanted…. what?  Jesus to take away your troubles like a Xanax?  God to fix everything so you can come back in 2 hours and have the car ready to drive?  You wanted a savior who would solve your problems so you wouldn’t have such a hard life?

Ooops.  Wrong savior.  In spite of many centuries of misguided or troubling theologies about the cross, and in contrast to many hymns we sing old and new that contradict Jesus’ own words about the cross, Jesus says it so plainly and directly it slaps the disciples (read: us) in the face: 

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  (Mark 8:34-35)

So if Jesus does anything for us (and I do believe he does) he doesn’t take on the burden of his cross to save us from ours.  He does just the opposite.  He takes on the burden of his cross so we can take on ours.  He makes the hard life of faithfulness possible and less lonely.  He blazes the trail for us to follow.  He creates a truly human life possible, lived under the mercy of God, blood, tears, death, and all.

Let’s just admit it.  It’s really only the hard things in this life that end up telling us who we are, what we are made of, and what really matters.  It is only the struggles we work through, successfully or not, that teach us the limits and the grandeur of being human.  It is only the acceptance of suffering as a necessary part of the human condition that draws together and unites us as one in our fragile, bodily, humble reality.  It is only in confronting our death and placing our lives wholly in the fatherly arms, the motherly embrace of God, that we can finally and truly live.

If Jesus took away our struggles and hard work and suffering, he would simply be taking away the meaning and purpose of our lives, as mysterious and inscrutable as it may all be to us most of the time.  Don’t let Jesus’ cross take away yours.  It wasn’t what he was about, and it leaves you with nothing meaningful left to do. By calling us into the hard work of a life of purpose, sacrifice, and loving others, Jesus gives us back our lives.  He saves us from meaningless days and years of having nothing to do.  He opens us up to see injustice and cruelty in the world and say, “Yeah, I guess if I don’t do something, no one else will.”  He gives us back hard lives that aren’t about our small selves only, but about God’s bigger picture.  Ooops…. right savior.

February 25, 2012

The Motown Church


I saw an interview with political and entrepreneurial leaders of Detroit on MSNBC.  No American city has suffered the kind of downturn and decay as Detroit.  From a peak population of nearly 2 million in the 1950’s to well under a million today, the city has lost the economic and cultural vitality that once made it an American engine of ingenuity and creativity.  Now it is half-empty, shells of factories and homes fill the neighborhoods, and poverty and crime and limited options loom as they have for decades.

But these leaders see something happening in Detroit:  A completely new era in the making.  As buildings are torn down and empty spaces appear, there is new opportunity for creative rethinking of the American city.  Artists, business risk takers, creative thinkers, and hopeful dreamers are coming into Detroit’s central city and remaking the fabric of the city.  Strong, faithful, life-long residents are not abandoning hope, but looking at and embracing radical rebirth.  They are doing this, not because it is fun or easy or what anyone imagined or hoped for, but because there simply isn’t any other choice.

This strikes me as amazingly similar to the condition of the mainline church today. We are the Detroit of religions.  We have many empty or half-used buildings.  Our infrastructure is crumbling and becoming unbearably expensive.  We have settled into a time of decay with either denial or slow, sad, acceptance.  Like Detroit, many have written us off, and see the day when we will just close up the doors and walk away, leaving only an echo of what we were, like an old Motown song playing on an oldies station.

But, like Detroit, we have a group of crazy dreamers, faithful hangers on, newcomers with vision and artistic creativity, and leaders who are willing to risk it all for transformation.  Whether or not anyone believes it can actually happen, those Detroit dreamers are going to go for it.  It’s time we put our creative, energetic, crazy dreamer leaders up front in the church and let the necessary tear-downs and the joyful newness happen, because there simply isn’t any other choice.  But once we accept that reality, it's going to be a wild, adventurous ride down the freeway of love in a pink Cadillac.