Dan McCoig's Sermons

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. — John Calvin

The Shadows of Christmas

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Matthew 2:13-23 Common English Bible (CEB)

Escape to Egypt

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

Murder of the Bethlehem children

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.[b]

Return from Egypt

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

The Shadows of Christmas | 29 December 2019

Dan McCoig

1.

Merry Christmas!  Today is the fifth day of Christmas.  According to the song we either gave our true love or received from our true love “five golden rings.”  A ring for every finger on at least one hand.

Advent, a season of anticipation, introspection, and preparation ended on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Day began Christmastide, a twelve day celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The mood of today’s lesson is far from festive.  It’s a dose of grim reality and then some.  I would go so far as to say the mood is dark and brooding.

We know the story well.  It is a story of what evil looks like and what evil will do to get and keep power and to prevail over good.  But it’s also a story of how evil never has the final say.  That belongs to good.

In the Christian tradition, evil is.  It is a force that opposes God and good.  It is a force that entices and enlists persons to do its bidding.  It is also a force that ultimately has been, is and will be vanquished by God.  How all this is happening is best portrayed by artists — read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or watch the Star Wars saga.

All religious traditions have their stories as to where evil comes from and what God has done, is doing, and will do about evil.  The Christian tradition personified evil as Satan or the Devil, a fallen angel who wanted to be God.  Medieval Christianity was almost obsessed with Satan/Devil to the point that Enlightenment Christianity sought to minimize any mention or emphasis on evil, Satan, or the devil.  Enlightenment thinkers pushed the tradition’s treatment of evil to the margins.  In many ways, this is the thought world we inherited.

But things happened in human history for which there was no good explanation other than evil and humanity’s complicity with evil.  The Holocaust.  The Rwandan genocide.  Chattel slavery.  The massacre of Native Americans.  Racism.  Hatred of neighbor that results in murder.  The inordinate love of money at the expense of the health of humanity and even the health of the planet.

2.

Evil shows up in the Christmas story.  I can’t imagine anything more horrific than infanticide.  Look closely at the face of the mother clutching her child to her breast in Cogniet’s painting which appears on the cover of our worship bulletin. 

My guess is that when Cogniet was creating this painting in his studio that he simply had to tell the woman model who was holding her child that Roman soldiers were coming to take the child from her and kill the child on the spot.  And not only were they coming to take and kill her child, they were coming to take and kill all the young children in the town.  Other children she knew and loved, children she saw daily in the neighborhood and at the market.  The expression on the woman’s face is that of a woman who has heard the news of a coming infanticide and sees it in her mind’s eye and is frozen by the terrible horror of it, the pure evil of it.

King Herod cooperates with evil completely.  He is the character in the story of Jesus who is singularly egomaniacal.  He cares for nothing and no one other than himself.  His god is power.  He will say and do anything to get power and keep power.  King Herod represents why Jesus is necessary.

King Herod could not be more different from the infant Jesus.  The infant Jesus is the bringer of salvation from sin, redemption of wrongs, reconciliation for estrangement.  Herod is the bringer of destruction and vengeance and retribution.

3.

One thing that strikes me every year when I read today’s lesson is the wave of death that accompanies Jesus’ birth.  Jesus doesn’t die.  But all of his contemporaries in Bethlehem do.

The angel visited Joseph and told him to seek refuge in Egypt.  But other fathers received no such angelic visitation and no such warning to flee.

I can’t explain this much less explain it away other than to say it is.  It’s going to be one of those conversations I’m going to have to have with God on the other side.

Here’s my best shot.  Evil on the magnitude of infanticide knocks goodness back on its heels and leaves it reeling for a season.  Good wins the war but on the way evil will win its share of the battles.  If there is any wisdom to be gained here it’s this.  Goodness should never be surprised at the depth and breadth and extent and reach of evil.  Goodness should expect to be challenged by evil at every turn.  Goodness must always be vigilant.

Here’s another piece of wisdom I gleaned from the story.  When the most powerful people act irresponsibly, with intent that may or may not be willfully evil, the ones who suffer are the most vulnerable.  Children.  The poor.  The powerless.  Those who are less vulnerable will muster resources and find ways to minimize the suffering.  But those who are the most vulnerable have no resources to muster and will and do suffer.

4.

I think I have depressed myself with this sermon.  But here we are.  Herod’s there in the story.  He orders the killing of all the babies in Bethlehem in the hopes that one of them would be Jesus.  But one isn’t.  Bethlehem pays a heavy price for Herod’s fear and paranoia, his love of power at all costs.

But there’s the dream and the angel and warning and flight into Egypt.  Jesus survives.  He and his father and mother become refugees in Egypt.

What are we to make of this Christmastide story?  For starters, Matthew is challenging all of his readers to choose sides.  He does this throughout his gospel.  What’s it going to be, he asks.  Jesus or Herod.  Herod of Jesus.  God or empire.  Empire or God.  Good or evil.  Evil or good.

If we happen to have a measure of status and power, wealth and privilege, what do with do with it?  Like Herod, do we use it to keep it and get more.  Or, do we seek ways to use it to enhance and expand the way of Jesus in the world?  The reality is that Christians have done both and still do both.  We have been at the forefront of oppression — the Crusades, the Inquisition, quietism of the German Church during the rise of Nazism, slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow — and we have been at the forefront of liberation — the Franciscans, the German Resistance, the Abolitionists, civil rights activists.

I tell friends that I can be ashamed that I am a Christian and be proud that I am a Christian in the same breath.  And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I am complicit with the Herod’s of the world.  I ask myself how and where and when is the church complicit with the Herod’s of the world.  This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church.  And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I can join forces with Jesus.  I have to ask myself how and where and when the church can join forces with Jesus.  This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church, too.

Amen. 

No Room for Jesus

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Painting:  Jospeh Brickey, 21st century, American

No Room for Jesus | Christmas Eve 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve preached on the Christmas story.  The number is nearly 40 times.  But it never gets old, ever.  Granted, there are some years when I wonder if I will have something else to say.  This isn’t one of them.

There are many directions we can go with the story.  Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to choose a character or characters in the story and retell the story from their perspective.  And there are a lot of named characters here — Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Joseph, Mary, shepherds, angels, God.   There are also a lot of unnamed characters here — the other pilgrims, the Holy family’s host, neighbors, and if we are feeling really creative perhaps one of the farm animals.

Here’s something that I’ve learned about stories.  Each of us can witness the same thing but tell about it differently.  What you choose to emphasize and what I choose to emphasize will seldom be the same thing.  This is called perspective.

The details that I include and believe to be absolutely essential to the story will not be the details you include and believe to be absolutely essential to the story.  And then, of course, there is the meaning we ascribe to the details of the story.  There is also the meaning we choose not to ascribe to the details of the story so that the reader or hearer can do so for himself or herself.  Our best writers always show us things rather than tells things.

For example, Luke’s Christmas story begins with an imperial census.  Caesar wants everyone to return to their city of origin so that they can be counted.  Governments count people for a lot of reasons.  Rome counted people primarily for two reasons.  For taxation and military conscription.  Caesar always wanted more money and more military power.  Those are two things Caesar could never get enough of.  He wanted to assure a steady supply of both.

But something else is afoot in the imperial census.  An ancient Hebrew prophecy is being fulfilled.  A young woman will give birth to God’s Messiah in the city of King David, Bethlehem.  Caesar was getting more money for his coffers.  Caesar was getting additional persons as possible conscripts for his military forces.  God, however, was up to something else entirely.  God was saving the world and offering a very different way to be in the world — the way of love of God and love of neighbor — in direct contrast to all the ways of money and all the ways of power and all the ways they corrupt and distort the human spirit.

If you were to ask what happened all those many nights ago, Caesar would tell his story.  And if you were favorable toward Caesar you would say, “Hooray, more money and military might for you.”  But, if you asked someone else, say one of the shepherds or Joseph or Mary or one of the angels, you would get a very different story.  And if you were favorable toward God  you would say, “Yes, there’s another way.  Love’s way.”

2.

As I read and reread the Christmas story over the past several days here’s what jumped out at me and would not leave me alone.  It’s verse seven:  “She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guest room.”

What I heard was “no room”, “no place”, “no lodging”.  This will be a theme in Jesus’ life and a theme of the way of Jesus in the Christian gospel. 

The infant Jesus became a young man and in his first sermon in the synagogue preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.  He then embodied this message.  Jesus’ message threatened civil and religious authorities alike who wanted to leave everything as it was.

And just as there was no room for Jesus at his birth, when he was an adult there was no room in the world for him and his message.  Jesus’ life ended with his arrest and trial and crucifixion.  All of which was the world’s final judgment of “no room” for Jesus.

But Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Spirit meant that Jesus’ way and Jesus’ message would live on and in and through countless others across the ages and throughout the world.  Those who made room for Jesus became and remained his followers.  Your presence here tonight tells me and this community, your desire is to make room for Jesus.

3.

Advent is over.  Throughout the season leading up to this night, we have challenged ourselves to make room for Jesus.  How did you do?  I had some good days and bad days.

Several years ago I read a Sojourners Magazine article by Greensboro, NC Presbyterian Pastor Mark Sandlin.  Sandlin entitled his article “Ten Things You Can’t Do At Christmas While Following Jesus”.  I reread the article this past week.  In light of the Christmas story in Luke, I would retitle his article “Things That Tell Jesus All Over Again There is No Room for You.”

I won’t give you all ten.  But I will give you the ones that hit home the most for me.  They may hit home for you.

  1. When Christmas has become more about stuff than anything else, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Jesus was the least acquisitive and least consumptive person I can name.  Jesus had enough stuff and no more because he discovered how little he really needed.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  2. When we forget the hungry, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Matthew 25 reminds us that when we are feeding the hungry we are feeding Jesus.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  3. When we forget the homeless, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Jesus begins his life without shelter.  Jesus lives his life with shelter provided by the kindness of friends.  Jesus dies on a Roman cross in a Roman killing field on the outskirts of the city, unsheltered, under an open sky.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  4. When we forget immigrants and refugees, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  The story of Jesus’ life begins with people on the move for the census. While still an infant Jesus and his family seek refuge in Egypt from Herod and his soldiers lest Jesus be killed along with every male child under the age of two.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”

4.

Luke’s Christmas story ends with Mary committing the events surrounding Jesus’ birth to memory and carefully considering them.  Mary made room for Jesus.  Joseph made room for Jesus.  The shepherds made room for Jesus.  Caesar did not make room for Jesus.  Quirinius did not make room for Jesus.  Many of the people we meet in the gospel did not make room for Jesus.

The Christian gospels tell the story of Jesus so that we will make room for Jesus, too.  Friends, may we make room for Jesus this night and keep room for Jesus for the rest of our days, loving God with all that we’ve got and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen.

When Joseph Became Joseph

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When Joseph Became Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25 | 22 December 2019 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 1:18-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

1.

I want you to take a few moments this morning to give some thought to that personal story or stories that matter the most to you.  This story or stories will be the one or ones that more so than any others made you who you are.  They will describe that moment or those moments when you became you.

Here’s one of mine.  I was a shy middle schooler.  Middle school was called junior high back then.  For some odd reason I was included in a lot of different groups — the athletes, the bookish crowd, the musicians, the white cool guys, the black cool guys, the cheerleaders, the artsy girls, the drama club . . .  All of these  groups didn’t exist in grade school and if they did I wasn’t all that aware of them.  The social terrain of junior high was new and unfamiliar.

What I remember is that fitting in was everything in junior high, everything.  So, it wasn’t unusual to go along in order to fit in and belong with the group you are with.  By the way,  “fitting in” is a lousy life principle.  It may be the worst.

Anyway, here’s the story.  One of the cool white guys told a joke that clearly crossed a line.  The punch line was at the expense of black persons but that’s not the word he used.   Everyone laughed, which included me.  As I laughed I noticed that one of my black friends walking down the hallway saw and heard me laugh and knew it was at him and people like him, namely black people.  I felt awful.  I felt like throwing up.  I wanted to disappear.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to scream, “I’m sorry.”  But, I didn’t do anything.  I looked the other way and pretended I didn’t see him see me.  Everyone looked the other way and pretended that what happened didn’t happen.

I knew what racism was.  I would have told you that I wasn’t a racist.  But on that day, you wouldn’t have believed me.  Something else happened on that day though, I decided to be done with racism.  I saw the pain it caused and the weird camaraderie it fostered by the folks engaging in racism.  Not only was I done with racism, I was also done with any “-ism” that dehumanized another person.  I’d like to think I became kinder, more considerate, more compassionate.  And maybe more Christian.  Maybe I did.  I at least started my journey in those directions with more commitment and dedication than before.

2. 

I am a fan of The Moth.  If you don’t know about The Moth, let me tell you about it.

The Moth was founded by George Green in 1997 in Georgia.  It is now headquartered in New York City.  It is an organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.  The Moth presents a wide-range of theme-based storytelling events across the United States and abroad, often featuring prominent literary and cultural personalities. 

The Moth broadcasts podcasts from its live events twice weekly.  It also has published several volumes of stories.

Catherine Burns is The Moth’s Artistic Director.  Here is what she says about what she does.  She writes:  “As Moth directors we spend our days helping people shape their stories.  We help people identify the most important moment in their lives (as we sometimes put it, ‘the moments when you became you’) so the audience will understand why they mattered so much.

I believe The Moth and Advent go together.  The readings for most of the four Sundays of Advent that lead up to Christmas Eve are personal stories about when these persons become most truly themselves — John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph.

Today, Advent 4, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth, but it really is the story of Joseph. 

3.

Think of the kinds of stories that begin with “This is how . . .”  There are countless legends and folk tales that take this approach.  They tell us things like why the moon disappears in phases and then reappears in phases or why the beaver’s tail is flat and the rabbit’s ears are long.

Matthew begins Jesus’ birth narrative with the words “This is how the birth of Jesus took place.”  It sounds like the beginning of an answer to a question someone has asked, doesn’t it.  I can hear someone saying to Matthew, “How was Jesus born?”

Most scholars believe that some of the very last stories of Jesus collected by the early church and included in the gospels were the birth stories.  For the first generation of followers of Jesus, the most important thing about Jesus wasn’t who his mother and father were or where he was born and the circumstances of his birth.  Rather, the most important thing about Jesus was his crucifixion — he died to save us from our sin and unite us with God — and resurrection — God raised him to vindicate his life and message — and his public ministry — love God and love neighbor — that led to his crucifixion and resurrection. 

In time, though, as folks encountered Jesus and the stories of Jesus after his death and resurrection, people asked, “Where did he come from?”

2.

So, what does Matthew tell us about Jesus’ birth?  The most important character in Jesus’ origin story is Joseph.  Joseph is one of the most silent characters in scripture.  He has no lines.  He doesn’t speak at all.  If you were the kid who didn’t want to memorize any lines for the Christmas pageant, you always signed up to be Joseph. 

Now, everything we know about him we learn from the narrator.  The narrator tells us that he is righteous, that he doesn’t want to humiliate his fiancé, Mary, that he is thoughtful, that he pays attention to his dreams.  This is who Joseph is.

As the story unfolds, all of these things about Joseph are absolutely essential to the Christmas story.  A lesser man would have made a mess of everything.  An unrighteous Joseph, a blabbermouth Joseph, a Joseph who was okay with humiliating Mary, a thoughtless Joseph, and a Joseph who disregarded his dreams would have made Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth very, very different.

By now, you should know that I have an overactive imagination.  Imagine with me running into Joseph at the synagogue ten years after Jesus birth.  We are working on a story about Jesus.  We call it a gospel.  We ask Joseph to tell us about Jesus’ birth.

He would have said something like this:

“I was young, so very young, still in my late teens.  Mary was younger.  We were engaged, not yet married.  We had very little money.  Almost none to be exact.

I was quiet.  I preferred not to speak and did so only when I had to.  No small talk for me.  Mary did most of the talking.  She could sing, too, like an angel.  I loved listening to the songs she would sing to and about her baby.  This baby was going to change the world.

I’d like to think my quietness helped me hear God when I needed to and after Mary’s news I really needed to.    Mary told me she was pregnant.  Both Mary and I knew the child wasn’t mine.  Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy was out there, way out there.  The child was God’s.  I didn’t know what to make of what she told me.  What does anyone make of that kind of news.  I kept listening as Mary spoke through her tears.

By law, both civil and religious, I could have publicly ended our engagement.  This would have made life so much harder for everyone though.  I knew that doing the right and lawful thing was not necessarily the good and kind thing.  Being done with Mary and her baby would have been the easiest thing I could have done but it would have also been the worst thing I could have done.  I decided to end the engagement quietly with the hope we could all make our way in the world somehow.

Then there was this dream.  There would be other dreams, too.  My namesake, Joseph, was a dreamer as well.

In the dream following my conversation with Mary, I saw an angel and heard an angel.  The angel confirmed Mary’s story and told me to marry her and name the child as if the child were mine.  I had never had a dream like this.  The dream made everything harder since I had already decided what to do.  God can be like.  Just when I think I have it all figured out, God shows up with another way.

I learned a lot that day and was never the same, ever.  I learned to listen to the people I love and to trust what they tell me.  I learned to pay attention to my dreams.  I discovered that God can and does use them to connect with me and direct me.

Most importantly, I learned where God is.  God in Jesus is with us always and forever.  That’s what Emmanuel means — God with us.  I learned what God does.  God in Jesus saves us from sin.  That’s what Jesus’ name means — God saves us.  Sin never has the first or final word in human life.  That word is always grace.  God loves me, God loves you, God loves the world.  I held this love in my arms and lived with this love and get to watch what this love becomes.  And the world does, too.”

Amen.

John and Change

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Matthew 3:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)

3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

John and Change

1.

John wasn’t always John the Baptist.  Before he was John the Baptist he was just John.  Here’s what  I wonder.  What was John like before he became the Baptist?  And, how did he become the Baptist — the prophetic figure who lived in the wilderness, dressed in ways very unlike anyone else, and observed a unique diet.

John’s story — his appearance in the wilderness, his message to the crowds by the Jordan, his baptism of Jesus — is one of the few stories that shows up in all four the Christian gospels of the New Testament.  Matthew.  Mark.  Luke.  John.  John’s story also shows up in one of the more important gospels that wasn’t included by the early church fathers in the New Testament.  The Gospel of the Nazarenes.  What this means, of course, is John was and remains important in the Christian tradition and for the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

2.

Let’s talk about what we know about John before he became the Baptist.  The Bible tells us that John’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They were elderly when John was conceived and born.  Zechariah was a priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem.  Elizabeth was a relative of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

John, in all likelihood, would have been schooled and trained in the knowledge and traditions of the priesthood.  Being a priest was a family business, especially for first born males and certainly for first born, only children males like John.

John would have grown up in and around the temple.  He would have grown up in the company of his father’s colleagues, other priests.  He would’ve watched them work.  He would’ve listened to them speak the words of the liturgy in worship.  He would’ve seen how they treated people who came to temple for worship and sacrifices.

John would have enjoyed a measure of prestige and privilege as Zechariah’s son, as a priest in training.  He would have dressed the part of a priest in training.  He would spoken like a priest in training.  He would have enjoyed sumptuous feasts of a priest in training.

But something happened.  John did not become a priest in the temple.  Instead, he became something of a wild man in the wilderness.  What happened?

2.

Most scholars agree that John was influenced by the Essenes.  The Essenes were a Jewish sect like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  They aren’t mentioned in the Christian scripture because they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Essenes lived simply — their housing, their clothing, their diet.  They voluntarily chose poverty.  They practiced a daily purification ritual of confessing their sins to one another and baptizing one another by immersion to symbolize dying to sin and living for God.  They expected God to send a Messiah to save the Jews and to remake the world, one characterized by justice.  As John became more and more influenced by the Essenes, the more and more he saw how the Temple and its priesthood was complicit in injustice.

3.

John’s place of preaching and baptizing is no accident.  It’s the wilderness.  It’s an odd place to preach and baptize.  It’s very different from the nearby city.  There were people there.  In John’s rocky, barren, desert wasteland, there are no people there naturally.  The only people there are the ones who made the trek to see and hear John.

First, a word about the wilderness.  The wilderness in the Bible is a place where people go to learn who God is and who they are in relation to God.  Think Moses and the burning bush.  Think the children of Israel after the exodus.  Think Jesus after his baptism and before his public ministry.  The wilderness is a place of testing and discovery.

Wilderness is a liminal place, where heaven and earth are a little closer and if we look hard enough we can see where they touch.  Wilderness is a place where anything is possible and especially change.

Change is what John called for.  He changed.  He could no longer participate in systems that resulted in injustice.  The changes he made were radical.  His home was no longer the city.  It was the wilderness.  He no longer wore fine, freshly laundered garments befitting his social standing — the son of a priest and a priest in training.  He wore an animal hide.  He no longer dined on fish and dates and olives.  He ate bugs and honey.  As prophets often do, John was going to the extreme to announce to the world he had changed his life in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom and wanted people to see it and know it and consider how they were going to change, too.

Change is the most appropriate response to the presence of God, to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.  The crowds and us, for the matter, are going to have to decide on how we are going to change.  When God is in our midst, the status quo won’t cut it anymore.  We are going to become someone new, something new.  We are going to change.

Second, a word about the crowd who came out into the wilderness to hear John.  There were a lot of somebodies in that crowds.  Important people.  Pharisees.  Sadducees.  Community leaders.

John sees them.  He recognizes them.  And, he calls them names.  Snakes!  Personally, I believe name calling is a lousy conversation starter, especially if you want someone to hear you out.  It’s a little like our Democratic Party leadership calling Republicans “deplorables” and then wondering why they don’t want to work with you.  It’s a little like our Republican Party leadership calling Democrats “human scum” and then wondering why they don’t want to work with you.

Snakes is a loaded name for John.  Remember, it was a snake that corrupted paradise in the creation story.  It was a snake that poisoned the relationship between God and humanity.  It was a snake who made sin look like a good idea and when it turned out otherwise it was a snake who said to make sure to blame someone else, especially the woman.   John is calling out the Pharisees and the Sadducees for their corruption.  He is calling them out for poisoning the religious life of the community.

The Pharisees and Sadducees in scripture had their good points but they also had their bad points, the stuff that needed work.  The stuff John was saying to change.  That’s us, too.  We have our good points but we also have our bad points, the stuff that needs work.  The stuff John is saying to change.

In 2018, a group of Christian leaders gathered on Ash Wednesday to pray, to study, to talk and to listen.  They had become alarmed with what Christianity in the U.S. was becoming.  The group was convened by Jim Wallis of The Sojourners, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, and Tony Campolo of Red Letter Christians.

The result of the gathering was a confession of faith entitled Reclaiming Jesus.  The first confession reads:

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

4.

John’s years as a son of a priest and a priest in training gave him a front row seat to a system that increasingly was deeming some people made in the image and likeness of God and others not made in the image and likeness of God.  This showed up in how different people were treated differently.  Some were in and some were out.  Some were up and some were down.  Those who were in and up, God favored.  Those were out and down, God disfavored.  And it was usually an identity issue.  Jewish men mattered and belonged.  And the list of who didn’t matter and who didn’t belong was long and getting longer — women and children, Gentiles and Samaritans, the poor . . .  So, John changed.  His name and neighborhood, his clothing and food, and, most importantly, his mind and his heart.  And, he called those who came to see and hear him to change, too.

I’m not sure we have travelled all that far since John’s day.

5.

Dutch priest, author, and scholar Henri Nouwen in his book Who Are We?  Reclaiming Our Christian Identity talks about the five lies of identity.  They are corrosive.  The Pharisees and Sadducees may have suffered from them.  John the Baptist may have suffered from them and went into the wilderness to unlearn them.  I can sometimes see myself in them.

Here they are.  Lies, all of them.

1. I am what I have.

2. I am what I do.

3. I am what other people say or think of me.

4. I am nothing more than my worst moment.

5. I am nothing less than my best moment.

Here’s what I want for my Advent.  I want it for you, too.  I want more wilderness — actual and metaphorical —where I can better learn who God is and who I am in relation to God, where you can better learn who God is and who you are in relation to God.  It seems I forget the image and likeness in which I’m made and you’re made and everyone is made —God’s image.  I need to be reminded so, with God’s help, I can make corresponding changes. I want to replace the lies of identity with the truth of identity. 

Amen.

Preparing

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Matthew 24:36-44 Common English Bible (CEB)

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.

Preparing | 1 December 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

This is the story of Norm and Will.  They are friends.  They are both Christians.  They both love Jesus and seek to follow him.

Norm and Will take the season of Advent very seriously.  It’s a season of preparation.  A time to take a longer and harder and closer look at one’s discipleship.  How am I doing as a follower of Jesus?  If people didn’t know me would they conclude that I am a Christian?  How can they tell?

Norm has always been fascinated with some of the more exotic teachings of the faith.  That is the word he uses.  Exotic.  Will would use the word fringe.

Norm is intrigued by the idea that there will come a time when Jesus will come back and everything as we know it will change dramatically.  This world with all of its heartache and woe will be transformed into a new world where hearts neither ache nor are they heavy.  Who doesn’t want to live in that world? 

In college Norm took every Bible class he could.  He cleared the library’s stacks of books on Christian apocalypticism.  He read and reread the Left Behind novels and debated their meaning endlessly with anyone who would listen.  He watched “Second Coming of Jesus” minded TV preachers.  He listened to their podcasts.  He contrasted and compared their timelines of what was going to happen and to whom and how and the impact on those who would end up on Jesus’ good side and those who would end up on Jesus’ bad side.  Norm, of course, wanted to be on Jesus’ good side and thought his reading and study helped.  But he could always imagine himself reading more and studying more.

For Norm, all this meant being prepared.  When Jesus returned he would be in the know.  He would be ready.  He kept his head in the game, to use a phrase his baseball coach used to shout at him repeatedly.

Will’s Christian faith was different.  He knew all about the passages that so mesmerized Norm but he didn’t dwell on them.  Truth be told, he found it odd that the church still read them every Advent.  He often wondered why.  He didn’t like them.  He found them off putting.  The passages seemed so bizarre.  They belonged to such a different time and different place that he wondered if they even had anything to say to the church in the 21st century.  As far as he was concerned, they really didn’t.  He kept these thoughts to himself, though.

Will understood that the early church was certainly preoccupied with Jesus’ coming back and coming back soon to make just an unjust world.  The earliest Christians suffered at the hands of the Romans.  They were marginalized by the Jewish leadership in many of the synagogues.  Affirming Jesus as Lord and Savior and practicing his way of loving neighbor and God in the world was costly.  Sometimes being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman and Rome preferred good Romans. 

The early Christians wondered how long they could endure.  They wondered how long they could persevere.   They longed for Jesus’ return.  And the sooner the better.

Will, however, wasn’t persecuted by the civil authorities for being Christian.  He lived in a land where freedom of religion was foundational.  Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom predated James Madison’s 1789 Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. 

Will read his Bible as much as Norm read his.  But he read more broadly — Old Testament and New Testament, prophets and letters, poetry and gospels.  Will worshiped publicly with other Christians weekly as did Norm.  Will put his money where his mouth was just like Norm as well.  He pledged each fall to his congregation’s annual budget and gave to his local congregation regularly.

Will also made a point of using his time to help neighbors in his community.  His principles was this — if Jesus said or did it, he wanted to say or do it, too.  For example, because Jesus fed hungry people he would feed hungry people.

So, one year Will committed to serving in his church’s soup kitchen every single Saturday.  He got to know people in the community he had only seen in passing.  He learned their names and stories about their lives.  Food insecurity was no longer a phrase.  When he heard the word he saw faces and knew their names.  Some were new to hard times.  Others were passing through hard times and could see the way out.  For others, hard times had become a way of life.  Everyone was thankful that Will’s church noticed them and cared about them and provided not only a weekly meal but a place to be in the company of others.  The kitchen provided food for the body and the dining tables provided food for the soul.

Another year Will volunteered with a local literacy organization after he read about the recent influx of immigrants in his community for whom English was a new language.  Because Jesus removed barriers that excluded people, Will would remove barriers as well.  Will could only imagine how hard it might be to start over in a new country with a new language.  Perhaps he could make the transition for his community’s newest neighbors a little easier.  He hoped so and worked at it.

When Will and Norm got together periodically Norm would ask Will how his “neighbor projects” were going.  In turn, Will would ask Norm how his “end time” studies were coming along.

Will would jokingly ask Norm if today was the day, meaning the day Jesus came back.  Norm would smile sheepishly and mutter, “Maybe.”  Norm would then ask Will facetiously, “And if it is the day what becomes of all your neighbor projects?”  The exchange was always good natured and without malice, but there was a slight edge to it.

That’s the story of Norm and Will.

2.

Friends, it’s Advent again.  Like Norm and Will, we are Christians.  Like Norm and Will we love and seek to follow Jesus.  Advent is also a season for us to look at our discipleship a little longer and harder and closer.  How are we doing?

Advent always begins with an apocalyptic reading that counsels preparedness.  Today’s lesson from Matthew does just that.

The early Christian community valued faithfulness to Jesus and his way of being devoted to God — love of God and love of neighbor — more highly than anything else.  I’d like to think that the 21st century Christian community shares the same value but on some days that’s not always apparent.

Preparedness is an interesting idea.  The other side of the coin is unpreparedness.

One of my earliest encounters with a street corner evangelist was nearly 50 years ago.  He was practicing what I will call fright or scare evangelism.  His line was “If you die tonight, will you go to heaven or hell.”  The answer he was looking for was “I don’t know” so he could tell me just what to say so that my passage to heaven would be assured.  For him, that’s what preparedness was all about.  Saying the right words in this life — usually Jesus is my Lord and Savior — to have the best possible outcome in the next life.

The fright or scare evangelism approach never set well with me.  Nor did saying certain words.  Jesus was a holy man, a savior, the Lord.  He wasn’t a magician.

Preparedness, at least by my reading of the Christian gospel, involves being faithful to Jesus and staying faithful to Jesus.  And being and staying faithful to Jesus means loving God in this life with everything we have and loving our neighbors in this life with everything we have and trusting everything to God, including when and how this world ends and when and how a new world begins and what becomes of the people in this world and the next.

3.

Recently, I overheard Norm and Will talking in a local cafe down the street.  The topic of their conversation was Judgment Day.  Norm, expectedly, was doing most of the talking.  Will was listening even though his gaze was on something out the window and in the distance.

When Norm finished talking Will said, “You know, I believe every day is judgment day.  Not in the sense that God is out to get me or get you or catch any of us saying or doing something we know better than to say or do.  That’s not who the God of grace in the Bible is.  That’s a mean school principal.  Rather, every day is judgment day because we get to wake up, put our feet on the floor and ask ourselves, “How am I going to live in the way of Jesus Christ today?”  And every evening when the day is done as we lay our heads upon our pillows we get to ask ourselves, “Well, how well did I trust Jesus Christ today?”

There was a silence.  Norm said nothing.  Will said nothing.  More silence.  Then, Will added, “That’s what I believe.  It’s not easy because we get so preoccupied with so many other things — things we can’t know, things we can’t control, things we can only speculate about.  Being Christian is all about being faithful and staying faithful.  Loving God.  Loving neighbor.  Living in Christ’s way.  Trusting Christ.  I need God’s help to do this.  I need your help to do this. I need the church to do this.  That’s what I believe.”

After a few more moments of silence I heard Norm say to Will, “That’s what I believe, too.”

Will and Norm got up and walked to the door.  I watched them leave the cafe and walk down the street.  Snow flurries had begun to fall.  I heard myself say aloud, “That’s what I believe, too.”  May we observe a holy Advent.  Amen.

Taking Stock

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Taking Stock

17 November 2019 | Dan McCoig

Luke 21:5-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

1.

What impresses you most?

I have to admit that I have a thing for beautiful buildings.  I like architecture that is a feast for the senses.  Several years ago I stood in Antoni Guadi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  It was almost too much.  The lines and light, the heights and the lengths, the sculpture and the colors.

I had a similar experience when I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Phoenix.  The house seemingly grows out of its mountain desert home.

La Sagrada Familia and Taliesin West are meant to move the human spirit.  They speak of durability and permanence.  They invite reverence and awe.

2.

Today’s lesson from Luke is set in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple was beyond impressive.  It was grand.  It was beautiful.  It was God’s home.

The Temple embodied the very best of Israel’s traditions.  We encounter the Temple early in Luke’s gospel when God’s Spirit guides Simeon into the temple where he meets Joseph and Mary and their infant son, Jesus.  Simeon holds Jesus, blesses him, and declares him the world’s savior.

Jesus as a young boy returns to the Temple when his parents pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.  In the Temple, Jesus sits with the elders in order to learn from them as he matures.

As an adult Jesus visits the Temple repeatedly and declares it a place of fasting and prayer.  Toward the end of his life, Jesus attempts to protect the Temple as house of prayer.

But Jesus’ attitude toward the Temple takes a different turn in today’s lesson.  Luke tells us that “some people” were talking about the Temple.  They admire the stones and furnishings.

Jesus chimes in.  Essentially, he says, don’t get too attached; it won’t last.  It’s not God.  Like everything else, it will pass.  Talk about a conversation ender.

The second Temple, constructed after the Babylonian exile, stood for nearly 600 years.  It would have been hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be around for another 600 years if not indefinitely.  It was built to instill a sense of permanence and durability.  For Jesus to suggest that its days were numbered would have been a hard pill to swallow.

3.

What does Jesus base his remarks on?  What does he know that others don’t?  What is he seeing that others aren’t?

I believe Jesus bases his remarks on his wisdom and uses his wisdom to make sense of his observations and knowledge of human history.  Jesus’ ministry and message in Luke’s gospel is unique.  It is similar to the other three gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John.  But it also has an emphasis all its own.

Jesus is deeply compassionate in Luke.  He cares for the poor and the oppressed and marginalized.  He associates publicly with people no one else associates with — Samaritans, Gentiles, and women.  The news of Jesus’ birth comes to those lowest on the social ladder — shepherds.  Jesus’ ministry was to and for everyone but especially those society had rejected or diminished in value.

Jesus’ ministry and message were not popular.  They made him a lot of enemies, some of whom were quite powerful and threatened his liberty and life.  Jesus talks about other would-be saviors with their own ministries and messages.  Apparently, they may have adopted some of Jesus’ ministry and message but minimized the harder and more demanding aspects in order to gain acceptability and popularity.  Watch out for these folks, Jesus warns.

Love of God means Love of God all the time and with all we’ve got and not just when it works for us and in measured amounts.  Love of neighbor means love of all neighbors and not just the ones we like or the ones who can do something for us or the ones who see the world our way or the ones we understand.

4.

Jesus’ litany of what has gone on in human history and what was going on in human history and what is still going on human history and what will continue to go on in human history is disheartening and difficult to listen to.  It’s like Jesus is reading the front page of the same newspaper I’m reading.  War.  Rebellion.  One nation fighting another.  Natural disasters.  Food shortages.  Widespread disease.  Religious persecution.  Betrayal.  Hatred.  Death.

All of these things are the experience of all too many of our fellow travelers on this life’s journey.  If our lives have been relatively free of chaos and distress, disruption and destruction, that is a remarkable thing and it probably has led us to believe things being pretty much okay is the way things should always be.  If we’re honest, we know that this is an illusion.

Our love for and trust in God does not result in good things only or prevent bad things.  Our love for and trust in God is what accompanies us and see us through the good and the bad of life. 

Those folks looking at the Temple surely had to believe that it would always be there just as it was.  They couldn’t possibly envision a future without it.  They no doubt had trouble with the picture Jesus was painting.  And yet, within a generation and a half of Jesus’ death, Rome will have sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

5.

As I read and reread this week’s lesson and came to the end of this sermon, I found myself asking what does Jesus want us to hear?  What is it Jesus wants us to do?  What is it Jesus wants us to be?

Here’s what I concluded.

I believe Jesus wants us to seriously consider what impresses us and why.  The folks Jesus was talking to were impressed by the Temple’s stones and furnishings.  I would have been impressed to.  And, it seems that Jesus senses that not only were they impressed by the stones and the furnishings but they also trusted them to help provide a still point in their life, an anchor, a compass.

A building can’t do that.  It can symbolize a still point, an anchor, a compass.  It can point to a still point, an anchor, a compass.  But it can’t be those things.  God alone can be those things.

So, Jesus is challenging us to look closely at what we put our ultimate trust in.  Is it worthy of our trust?  Is it reliable?  Will it see us through?

I also believe that Jesus wants us to re-evaluate our perspective on and in life.  You’ve probably heard the observation made Richard Halverson, Presbyterian minister at Fourth Church in Bethesda and Chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1994.  Halverson wrote:

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution.  Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture.  And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

And, in America, as an enterprise, Christianity absorbed some of America’s emphasis on health and wealth.  Following Jesus somehow obligated God to keep us healthy and make us rich.  This became the health and wealth gospel.  It’s still around.  By the way, this is nowhere in the Christian gospel.

What is in the Christian gospel is God’s promise in Christ to be present with us and provide us with exactly what we need — be it comfort or strength or guidance or direction or hope or peace — when things in life go south or sideways or both at the same time.

God in Christ is the one in whom we are to trust.  God in Christ is the one to whom we turn when life is good and when life is anything but good. 

One last thing.  Jesus wants us to know what truly lasts.  And what truly lasts is God’s love for us.  What truly lasts is our love for others.    

Amen.

Resurrection Matters

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Resurrection Matters

10 November 2019 | Dan McCoig

Haggai 1:15-2:9 Common English Bible (CEB)

15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

2 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet: 2 Say to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and to the chief priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and to the rest of the people:

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
How does it look to you now?
Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?

So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the Lord.
Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son,
and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord.
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt,
my spirit stands in your midst.
Don’t fear.

This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
In just a little while, I will make the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land quake.

I will make all the nations quake.
The wealth of all the nations will come.
I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

The silver and the gold belong to me, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will provide prosperity in this place, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

Luke 20:27-38 Common English Bible (CEB)

27 Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”

1.

Here’s a question.  What would you point to that signifies the presence of God in our midst?  Is it a person or a place or thing?  Is it words or actions?  It might even be a smell.

It could be a cross.  It could be a Bible.  It could be a communion table.  It could be a beach.  It could be a mountaintop.  It could be a memory of an indelible experience.  It could be a sublime work of art — a painting, a sculpture, a symphony, a novel, a poem.  It’s the “something” that for you that says more than anything else God is here — right here, right now, always.  It’s a sign pointing to God.  It’s a sign embodying God.  It’s a source of comfort and strength.

Where is God is one of those fundamental theological questions that has been around forever.  The Christianity as institution people might point to the number of people in the pews or the dollars in the collection plate or the condition of the physical plant of the church or the dedication and skill of the staff and volunteers of the congregation.  Those are the sorts of things that signify tangibly God’s presence.

The reason so many hearts ached as Notre Dame Cathedral burned in the heart of Paris was that the cathedral signified God’s presence even in a city now known more for it secularity than its religiosity.  For centuries Notre Dame was a beacon of the divine that summoned humanity to look upon and gaze into the heavens.

I have to admit that I have institutionalist inclinations.  I love a sanctuary full of people singing and praying their hearts out.  I love a bright and shiny campus and a brilliant and hard working staff and a company of dedicated volunteers.  God can certainly get some things done in and through and with such institutional trappings that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

There are also the Christianity as movement people.  They will point to other things that signify God’s presence.  People are loved and served and encouraged in Christ’s name.  People are welcomed and included and made to feel at home in Christ’s name.  Broken relationships are healed in Christ’s name.  These things happen not just in words but through actions.

I have to admit that I have movement inclinations as well.  I love a Christian community where people are busy trying to outdo one another in the loving and serving and encouraging department.  I love a Christian community where people are not just welcomed but included and not just included but come to fully belong.  God can certainly get some things done in and through and with such movement trappings.

2.

For sixth century BCE Israel the Temple in Jerusalem signified God’s presence more than anything else.  And now it was in ruins.  The beauty, the grandeur, the centuries of history and tradition . . .  Gone.  Where was God now?  Where might God’s people gather?  God was gone and the people were scattered.

The Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, exiled its population and reduced the Temple to rubble.  Decades passed.  After two generations, the exiles were invited to return to their land and their city to rebuild.

This is the setting for Haggai’s prophecy.  Haggai recognizes that some among the returning exiles would have seen and known and now remembered the Temple as it was.  He recognized how traumatizing seeing the rubble where the Temple once was must have been.

The people wondered if they would ever regain what was lost.  Would the Temple ever be rebuilt?  Would Israel ever return to the life it once had?

Haggai’s answer is a yes and a no.  Israel would rebuild.  But it would be different because the people are different and the historical moment is different.  The past is past.  The present is present.  The future is future.  Israel’s challenge will be to live in the present with wisdom gained from the past and an enduring hope for a future God has promised. 

I believe that is God’s people’s challenge in every age.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It’s tempting to believe that our best days are behind us when churches were fuller, budgets bigger, and programming more extensive.  Who doesn’t want all of those things.  So, let’s go back and do the stuff that gave us those results.

That’s not how it works, though.  The church has good days and bad, best days and worst.  Regardless of the days, our calling, with God’s help, is faithfulness and creativity and imagination.  Haggai’s words still ring true:  “Be strong . . . don’t be afraid . . . God is with you.”

Israel’s challenge from Haggai was to explore what strength and fearlessness looked like in post-exilic Israel beginning in the late 6th century BCE.  Our challenge is to explore what strength and fearlessness look like in 2019.

3.

The Christian faith has a word that captures strength and fearlessness.  Are you ready for it?  The word is resurrection.  Resurrection connects today’s lessons from Haggai and Luke.

Luke 20 belongs to a section in Luke’s gospel known as the confrontational passages.  Jesus and the religious authorities are fussing and fighting about one thing and then another. 

The Sadducees, a Jewish sect for whom the written Law alone was authoritative [they rejected the oral tradition and the resurrection] pose a “resurrection” question to Jesus.  The scenario they propose is highly unlikely.  The Sadducees are pretending to be serious and high minded when in reality they simply want to get Jesus to say something they can use against him.  They are practicing an early form of “gotcha journalism.”

The Sadducees don’t believe that resurrection is a thing and craft a scenario to demonstrate how unworkable resurrection really is.  Jesus, by contrast, believes that resurrection is very much a thing and that the Sadducees’ scenario only demonstrates how much they are missing the whole point about resurrection.

The Sadducees want to make sure they keep the law.  The law wants to make sure widows are taken care of and do not become either beggars or prostitutes.  The way to take care of widows in a patriarchal culture is to require any brothers of a widow’s husband to marry her.  What happens though if/when a widow goes through seven brothers.  To whom is she wed — read belong to — post-resurrection, in the afterlife.

Jesus’ eyes have to be rolling at this point.  Life on this side of the resurrection is one thing.  Life on the other side of the resurrection is another.  Ideally, life on the other side of the resurrection should influence this life and not the other way around.

In ancient Israel’s patriarchal culture, a woman in life on this side of the resurrection is safe and secure only in relation to either a father or brother or husband.  Those relationships make her someone.  Apart from those relationships, she is no one.  But in life on the other side of the resurrection a woman is someone independently of her relationship with a father or brother or husband.  She is someone, period.  For that matter, everyone is someone.  This affirmation is part of Jesus’ radical message.

4.

Here’s my take away on these passages.  There is a tension between nostalgia and resurrection, between what was and always has been and what God is bringing into being in Jesus Christ and those who follow him.  There is a tension between going back to what was and keeping things that way and going forward to what God envisions for us and embracing them.

Nostalgia is tempting.  It promises safety and security.  Resurrection is risky.  It’s new.  It’s different.  We don’t have much experience with it.  It’s going to take our strength, our fearlessness.  Here’s the exciting thing, though, it’s where God is and it’s where God wants us, too — in God and with God.

Amen.

Relating to God

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Relating to God | 27 October 2019 | Dan McCoig

Joel 2:23-32 Common English Bible (CEB)

23 

Children of Zion,
rejoice and be glad in the Lord your God,
because he will give you the early rain as a sign of righteousness;
he will pour down abundant rain for you,
the early and the late rain, as before.

24 

The threshing floors will be full of grain;
the vats will overflow with new wine and fresh oil.

25 

I will repay you for the years
that the cutting locust,
the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten—
my great army, which I sent against you.

26 

You will eat abundantly and be satisfied,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has done wonders for you;
and my people will never again be put to shame.

27 

You will know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God—no other exists;
never again will my people be put to shame.

28 

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.

29 

In those days, I will also pour out my
spirit on the male and female slaves.

30 I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 32 But everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the Lord has promised; and in Jerusalem, the Lord will summon those who survive.

Luke 18:9-14 Common English Bible (CEB)

9 Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

1.

Happy Reformation Sunday!  502 years ago, on October 31, 1517 — All Hallow’s Eve — a reform minded German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 items he wanted the church to address in order to become a better church.

Late medieval Europe was a different time.  If you had issues with the church, you stayed and fought to make things better.  The tendency in our age is to drift away or leave.  For the Luther, the church was too important to dispose of or abandon.

Central to Luther’s issues was the idea that the Bible is the authority for Christian faith and practice and that our salvation is not our doing it’s God’s doing.  We’re not saved by saying or doing all the right stuff — whatever that may be.  We are saved by God’s grace and our trust in God’s grace.  It’s right there in the gospel, but the church wobbled off the path for a season and still does.

So, Happy Reformation Sunday!

The lesson from Luke’s gospel is a fitting Reformation Sunday lesson.  It’s a story told by Jesus about two people and the two very different ways they relate to God.

Both of the people in the story are Jewish and religious.  They both are praying in the temple in Jerusalem.  One of the persons is very religious.  In fact, he is one of the most religious persons in his culture.  He is a Pharisee.  The word “pharisee” means “separated one”.

Pharisees intentionally separated themselves from everyone and everything that might jeopardize their religious purity.  They were meticulous in keeping the law as a way of expressing their love of and devotion to God.  They sought to associate only with people and situations who shared their love of and devotion to God.

Often times they went beyond what the law commanded.  If the law said fast once a week, they fasted twice each week.  If the law said give a tenth of some things, they gave a tenth of everything.  For the Pharisees, it wasn’t enough to fast, they wanted to fast more.  For the Pharisees, it wasn’t enough to give some, they wanted to give more.

This was the upside to being a Pharisee.  They were super devout.  There was a downside, though.  Their devotion was comparative.  They compared their piety to that of others and always found themselves to be more pious. 

Also, what about persons who weren’t religious your way?  How did you treat them, how did you relate to them?  For the Pharisee, not well, usually as inferiors. 

How is it, I wonder, that in my religious upbringing I got the notion that Pharisees were the villains in the Christian gospels?  After all the Pharisees invited Jesus to their parties and warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him.

The answer to the question is complex.  One answer has to do with Christianity’s antagonistic view of Judaism that resulted in centuries of anti-Semitism throughout western civilization.  Never mind that Jesus and most of his earliest followers were all Jewish.  But the message that got conveyed often sounded something like this — Christianity gets humanity’s relationship with God right and Judaism gets humanity’s relationship with God wrong.  So, too, does all other religions.  This is a misreading of the heart of the Christian faith.

But, it does just so happen that in the story that Jesus tells here in Luke the Pharisee does get his relationship with God terribly wrong.  But it’s not his religion that is the problem, it’s what he has made of his religion.  Before saying more about the Pharisee, let’s meet the other character.

The other character, as I said, is Jewish and religious, too.  Like the Pharisee, he is praying in the temple.  This character has none of the standing or prestige of the Pharisee.  He is a tax collector.  He is loathed for his collaboration with the Roman occupiers.  His wealth was built on the backs of his neighbors.  He took a percentage from the taxes he collected.

2.

Here’s a nuance in the story that I have been exploring lately.  Both the Pharisee and the tax collector were complicit in oppressive systems that favored the few at the expense of the many.  The Pharisee had made peace with his complicity.  The tax collector was tormented by his complicity.

The Pharisee’s system was the official temple religion which spelled out the practices necessary to be a member in good standing with the people of God.  These practices involved prayer and sabbath keeping, tithing and lending practices.  Observing the practices helped connect persons to God and one another.  But, for some, the practices were burdensome and perhaps even financially difficult to observe.  Additionally, the system had grown corrupt and resulted in exploitation.

The Pharisee benefited from the system and saw no need to question it much less call for its reform.  The system was working for him and people like him.  The status quo was a good thing.  And this is where the Pharisees and Jesus often butted heads.

The tax collector’s system was the Roman occupation.  The occupation cost money and the money came from the taxes levied on the occupied by the occupiers.  This is always an uneasy relationship.  The occupiers enlisted local collaborators to do their dirty work.  The tax collector in Jesus’s story was one such collaborator.

The tax collector benefited from this system.  It made him financially comfortable but spiritually miserable.  It ate at his soul.  The system was wrong and corrupt and hurt countless people, his people.  He knew it wasn’t sustainable.

3.

So, Jesus says, look at these two people praying in the temple.  What should we make of them?  We would expect the Pharisee to be the hero and the tax collector to be the villain.  But in good Jesus fashion, Jesus turns the tables.  This is one of the many divine reversals in Luke’s gospel.

The key to Jesus’ story is his audience.  The audience is, and I quote directly from Luke, “certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”  If this is our problem, this story is for us.  And my guess is that no one is free of a certain amount of smugness.  The danger Jesus is pointing out is believing that we have it altogether and that our having it altogether is our doing poisons our relationship with God and neighbor.  We begin to see ourselves as deserving and others as undeserving, that we’re entitled and others aren’t, that any privilege we might enjoy is the way things should be. 

Such persons are the folks Jesus wants to hear his story.  The Pharisee in the story is a person like this.  He is complicit in a system that works for him but not for everyone and he has talked himself into believing that the system and the way it works is the way the world should be.  It’s good and right and true and should be left alone.  And if there are folks who are not getting with the program and have trouble with it, they can be disregarded with disdain.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, tells a story in his new book Christ and Crisis of coming of age in racially divided Detroit in the 1960s.  One summer he befriends a black man he meets at work.  He is at his friend’s house.  He and the friend are about to go out and the friend’s mother says, “Remember, if there is trouble, move away and hide.  Don’t let the police see you.  They will hurt you.”  Wallis realizes that this is the opposite of advice he would’ve received from his parents.  They would have said, “If there is trouble, find the police.  They will help you.”  The system worked for him but not his friend, a system he had never before given any thought to until that very moment.

4.

Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is about reforming our perspective and relating to God the only way we can — by grace through faith.  How honest are we about the systems in which we participate and their impact not only on us and people just like us but on everyone, even people very different from us?  Jesus saw the tax collector and people like the tax collector and wanted his followers to see him as well.  And, do I really want my relationship with God based on what I say and what I do and how I present it all to God or do I want it based on God’s grace?  This was Martin Luther’s question 502 years ago.

Jesus wants us to go with grace.  Luther wants us to go with grace.  I want to go with grace.  Grace is the only way.  Grace alone saves us and grace alone helps us see ourselves and the world in true perspective.  By grace we dream the dreams of God and by grace we see the visions of God.  Amen.

Prayer, Justice, and Faith

Hands And Leaf Worship Background Image

Prayer, Justice, and Faith

20 October 2019 | Dan McCoig

Jeremiah 31:27-34 Common English Bible (CEB)

27 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will plant seeds in Israel and Judah, and both people and animals will spring up. 28 Just as I watched over them to dig up and pull down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and plant, declares the Lord. 29 In those days, people will no longer say:

Sour grapes eaten by parents
leave a bitter taste in the mouths of their children.

30 

Because everyone will die for their own sins:
whoever eats sour grapes
will have a bitter taste in their own mouths.

31 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

Luke 18:1-8 Common English Bible (CEB)

Justice for the faithful

18 Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, 5 but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” 6 The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8 I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

1.

When reading a passage or passages from the Bible I find it helpful to ask who is the story about?  Is it about God?  Or, is it about us?

The Bible is a collection of books written by people of faith to people of faith for people of faith.  It has important things to tell us about who God is and what God is like.  It has important things to tell us about who we are and what we are like.  It is a book that God’s Spirit uses to speak to us.

Let’s consider our lessons from Jeremiah and Luke through this lens.  Who is the story about?  What is it telling us about God and humanity?

2.

First, Jeremiah.

We have been in the book of Jeremiah all fall.  Today is our last reading from Jeremiah for this year.   Our passage comes from the section of Jeremiah known as the Book of Consolation.

Jeremiah is writing to the exiles in Babylon.  They have lost everything — land, Temple, livelihood, monarchy.  And, perhaps even God.  They despair of life ever looking or feeling like something they would recognize as normal and worth living.

In good human fashion, they wonder how they came to such an awful moment in life.  How did we get here?, they wondered.  One answer involved blaming their forebears, their ancestors, the previous generation.  Whose fault is this, they wondered.  The exiles concluded that they were suffering because of the sins of those who went before them.  This was the conventional wisdom.

Jeremiah says, not so fast.  Yes, the previous generation was faithless.  Their faithlessness resulted in exile.  But now, no one will answer for the sins of someone else.  Each person will answer for his or her own sins.  Each person is responsible for his or her relationship with God.  Our relationship with God is our job — not parents’, not priests’, not temples’.  Ours.

Also, whereas previously the measure for what was right and what was wrong, good and bad, true and false was the law God gave to Israel through Moses on Sinai — the law was how God’s people knew God — now the measure for what was right and what was wrong is the human heart on which God inscribed a new covenant.  For Christians, Jesus Christ embodies this new covenant.

Our relationship with God is immediate and direct.  It’s not mediated by a priest or a temple or a religious code.   The presence of God is as near to us as our own heartbeat.

What is it exactly that God has written on our hearts?  In my imagination and taking my cues from Jeremiah, here’s what I believe it is:  “I am your God.  You are my child.  I love you beyond measure.  Now, love as you have been loved.”

This new covenant — a covenant of the heart — got exiles through their darkest moments.  It gave them hope.  God was there even though their holy city was gone and with it their temple and their land.  God saw them and heard them and had not stopped loving them despite all the deprivations of the exile.  God’s activity did not stop at the Babylonian border.

3.

Now, to Luke.

This is an interesting parable.  I’ve heard some bad sermons preached on it and may have even delivered one or two myself.  It is a parable that has been misinterpreted in glorious fashion.

Here’s how the standard misinterpretation goes.  God is the judge and we are the widow.  If we bug God loud enough and long enough, God will finally take notice and give us a hearing.  This is awful.

I don’t know where to begin.  The judge is not the God figure in the story.  The judge is everything God isn’t.  The judge is the anti-God figure.

And the widow is not the every person in the story.  She is the exceptional person.

The context for Jesus’ parable is his preaching of God’s kingdom — a kingdom characterized by love, where the last are first and forgiveness is the rule, where the peacemakers are God’s children and the pure in heart see God, where there’s room at the table for everyone without exception, where your worth isn’t measured by your bank account or education but by the fact that God loves you, where the hungry are fed and the homeless housed.

Jesus’ followers were inspired by Jesus’ preaching and teaching.  They longed for God’s kingdom as well.  With each passing day and week and month and year they had to wonder when if ever God’s kingdom would be realized.  Because they could clearly see that love was not what characterized the world, that those with the most got more of everything and those with the least got less of everything, that the hungry stayed that way, that the homeless stayed that way.  “How long, O Lord,” they cried in despair.

Jesus answers them with a story.  There are two characters in the story.  A judge and a widow.  The judge is the way the world is.  Self-interested and self-serving.  Unconcerned for others.  Unconcerned for justice.  Godless.  The widow is a person Jesus’ followers should aspire to be like.

In the story, the judge has all the power but won’t use it for justice.  The widow has none of the power but will use the two things she has to seek justice — her voice and her persistence.

4.

Back in May, I attended a preaching conference in Minneapolis.  One of the presenters was Barbara Lundblad.  Lundblad is a distinguished preacher, scholar, and author.  She is an emerita preaching professor at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary.

Lundblad’s text was Luke 18:1-8.  Lundblad posed an interesting question.  She asked if Jesus’ parable of the judge and the widow was about our prayer or God’s justice or our faith.  Her answer — yes.  It’s a story about all of those things.  They belong together.

Here’s what she meant.  If we pray without working for justice, our prayers are empty.  If we work for justice without praying, we will think it all depends on us.  If we pray and work for justice without faith, we will fall into despair when justice isn’t done.

5.

In the 1850s, Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker declared:  “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  In the 1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, quoted Parker.

Here we are in the early decades of a new century and a new millennium and the universe’s long moral arc still has some bending toward justice to do.  With people of faith in every age, we find ourselves crying out as well, “How long, O Lord?”

In our hearts, God has written his message of love.  It’s this message that sustains and inspires us to raise our voices with the widow to pursue justice.  It’s what we pray for and what we work for, trusting all the while that it’s who God is and what God is up to and it will come to pass.

6.

Jesus recognized how tempting and easy it is to lose heart when justice comes on a timetable different from ours.  He recognized how hard it was to go on in the face of injustice.  He showed us how and in his story the widow shows us how.

As Jesus’ followers we are not to wait passively for God to act once and for all and accept the status quo in a world rife with injustice.  Instead we are to pursue justice like the widow, with constancy and resolve.

Jesus asks some challenging questions at the end of his story.  We need to hear these questions over and over again.  Will we be faithful?  May the answer be yes.  Will we persist?  May the answer be yes.

Amen.

Faith Enough

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Faith Enough | 6 October 2019

Lamentations 1:1-6 Common English Bible (CEB)

Jerusalem’s suffering

Oh, no!
She sits alone, the city that was once full of people.
Once great among nations, she has become like a widow.
Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek.
None of her lovers comfort her.
All her friends lied to her; they have become her enemies.

Judah was exiled after suffering and hard service.
She lives among the nations; she finds no rest.
All who were chasing her caught her—
right in the middle of her distress.

Zion’s roads are in mourning; no one comes to the festivals.
All her gates are deserted. Her priests are groaning,
her young women grieving. She is bitter.

Her adversaries have become rulers; her enemies relax.
Certainly the Lord caused her grief because of her many wrong acts.
Her children have gone away, captive before the enemy.

Daughter Zion lost all her glory.
Her officials are like deer that can’t find pasture.
They have gone away, frail, before the hunter.

Luke 17:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)

Faithful service

17 Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. 2 It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. 3 Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. 4 Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.”

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8 Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9 You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10 In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”

Faith Enough

1.

Being a sunny day theologian is easy.  The sun is shining.  The skies are blue.  The warmth of the sun and coolness of the gentle breeze combine for the perfect temperature.  God is in God’s heaven and everything is right with the world.  In the words author Garrison Keillor uses to describe his fictional Lake Wobegan, Minnesota:  “ . . . where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

But, what about being a rainy day theologian?  It’s hard.  The sun isn’t shining.  It hasn’t shone for days and the long term forecast is nothing but stormy weather.  The skies are dark and grey, ominous even.  And the wind.  It’s harsh and cold, bone chilling.

The work of a theologian, and I happen to believe we are all practicing theologians, is to ask where God is and what God is up to and what God wants of us?

Our lesson from Jeremiah’s Lamentations is rainy day theology.  Jerusalem has fallen.  The people are exiled.  There is no light.  Only darkness, a darkness that touches everyone and everything.

The prophet laments what has become of his people and his city and his land.  The consequences of the people’s infidelity, waywardness, injustice, idolatry were grave in the extreme.

I believe the worst punishment for human sin is the sin itself.  We have to live in the world our sin has created.  If violence is our sin, we have to live in a violent world.  If lying is our sin, we have to live in a world of lies.  If godlessness is our sin, we have to live in a godless world.

Presbyterian preachers are trained in seminary to read scripture with an eye toward the good news.  We are trained to ask, “Where’s the grace?”  It’s hard to find it in Lamentations.  But it’s there.  It’s a faint glimmer.  When Judah returns to God, God will restore Judah.  In the Bible, punishment leads to restoration and restoration follows punishment.

Lamentations is also a cautionary tale.  The prophet Jeremiah is challenging his listeners, and his readers, to see what brought Judah to ruin and to own their words and actions that may lead to a similar ruin.

Author Dan Dick sees personal, communal, and global dimensions in Jeremiah’s lament.  Personally, he suggests, we should take a hard, honest, and painful look at all we have thought, said, and done.  Communally, we should be down our knees apologizing to God and one another for our unfaithfulness and selfish behavior.  We should confess every way we have been unkind, unfair, unfeeling, unthinking, and unfaithful.  And, globally — which is fitting on this World Communion Sunday — we should ask forgiveness for apathy in the face of violence, and indifference in the face of injustice. 

2.

Jesus’ disciples are practicing a little rainy day theology in our lesson from Luke.  Remember, Luke’s gospel tells the story of how the fledgling church met the many challenges it was facing.  It tells the story of how Jesus’ followers struggled to follow him.  It was not always easy.  Often times, it was very hard.

Jesus identifies some of the harder aspects of being one of his followers.  Don’t cause or contribute to someone else’s sin.  Don’t sin yourself.  Help others who sin, which sometimes may involve a word of warning.  Forgive.

All of this is hard stuff and if we think it’s easy we’re not trying.  Jesus calls his followers to filter our words and actions so that what we say and do won’t contribute to someone else’s sin.  This means holding my tongue and taking another course of action because if I say that or do this it’s going to hurt rather than help my neighbor.  It means that the church will weigh its words and actions appropriately in deference to neighbors.  The standard, of course, is can we imagine Jesus saying that?  Can we imagine Jesus doing this?

The leaders of Jesus’ followers, the apostles, get that following Jesus and leading Jesus’ followers is no Sunday stroll through the park.  They are going to need help.  So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith.

This is an interesting request to say the least.  It commoditizes faith.  It makes faith something that one person can give to another.  It makes faith something that comes in different sizes — small, medium, large, and jumbo.  Given the challenges of following Jesus, it’s as if the apostles are asking Jesus to supersize their faith for them.  They figure that a supersized faith will solve everything.

Faith doesn’t work that way.  I remember leading many confirmation classes over the years.  Sometimes I would get the distinct impression that some parents expected me to give their 13 year old son or daughter a Christian faith to sustain them throughout all the years of their life.  I would point out that I can’t do this.  The church can’t do this.  God, however, has already done this.  And together, we can help foster faith and nurture faith and provide a community in which to practice faith.  But all of this requires discipline and commitment and yes, even work.  Faith isn’t a commodity we can buy or sell or trade.  Faith is a discipline we practice.

So, faith doesn’t work the way the apostles think it works.  That’s why Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure, here’s some additional faith to go with the faith you have.”  Instead, he tells the apostles that they already have the faith they need.   It may be minuscule, like a mustard seed, but it’s enough.  Now, what are you going to do with it?  How are you going to use it?

Two of the more unattractive human foibles are blaming and excuse making.  You know what I’m talking about.  It’s not my fault.  It’s yours.  We see attempts at this in Lamentations.  But Jeremiah says, “Nope, it’s our fault, period.”  My guess is that we see blaming in our lives.  Shame on us.

And, we see excuse making in Luke.  The apostles seem to be saying, “We say and do things that are unlike Jesus and hurt neighbors because we don’t have enough faith.  Give us some more faith and we won’t say and do those things.”  My guess is we see excuse making in our lives, too.  Shame on us.

Jesus calls each one of us as well as First Presbyterian Church to live a faithful life.  This faithful life takes everything we’ve got — time, energy, and yes, even money.

How many times have we heard or said, “I’d be more faithful if only I had more time.  I’d be more imaginative or creative if only I had more energy.  I’d be more generous if only I had more money.”

The apostles are saying something similar.  “Jesus, we’d follow you more closely if only we had more faith.”  We need to hear Jesus answer.

Jesus is saying we have the time we need to be faithful.  Now use it.  We have the energy to be imaginative and creative, now use it.  We have the money to be generous, now use it.  We have the faith to change the world in Jesus’ name.  Now use it.

Amen.