Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

The Foolish and the Wise

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The Foolish and the Wise

Matthew 25:1-13 | 12 November 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

On one level today’s lesson, the parable of the ten bridesmaids, touches on what motivates us to do the right thing.  Is it the stick or the carrot, the threat of hell or the promise of heaven, vinegar or honey?  Do we do the right thing for a reward or do we do the right thing to avoid punishment?  Hopefully, doing the right thing in due time becomes intrinsic.  We do the right thing because doing the right thing is the right thing.  It’s called having a moral compass.

Also, today’s lesson suggests that for us to do anything, whether it’s right or wrong, requires a deadline.  We need to know so that we can plan properly or have some sense of when we should stop procrastinating and get to work.

Speaking of deadlines, today is stewardship consecration Sunday.

2.

Our Christian gospels were written from the perspective that time and history as we know it will not go on forever and forever and always.  Neither time nor history are infinite.  They both have an expiration date. There will be a point when what is is no longer.

This idea comes from Jewish apocalypticism which influenced Jesus and the entire first generation of Christians, nearly all of whom were Jewish.  When we read the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, we discover that they talk about a Day of the Lord.

The prophets point out the all too obvious fact that the world as it is is far from how God would have it be.  Time and history stretch forward in the hopes that humanity will use the additional time and experiences to listen to God’s prophets, come to its senses, change its heart, and embrace and abide by the vision for humanity the prophets in God’s name have portrayed.  But one day, the curtain comes down.  No more time to get it right.  No more history to get it right.  We had our chance and blew it.

Micah’s vision, at least for me, is one of the most compelling.  In the 8th century BCE, in an oracle of hope, he writes to Israel in the hopes that his people will change and avert the impending exile:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

    to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

    and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

3 He shall judge between many peoples,

    and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

    and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

    neither shall they learn war any more;

4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,

    and no one shall make them afraid;

    for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”

Micah is pleading with Israel — using both carrot and stick — to change while there’s time and history.  He pleads with them to change before it’s too late.  He counsels wisdom.

On a personal and existential level we know that our own time and history are finite.  Just as each one of us has a date of birth, each one of us also has a date of death.  Just as there is a moment in time when each of us begins his or her life, there is also a moment in time when each of our lives — at least on this plane — comes to an end.

Granted medical science has gotten so sophisticated, for which by the way I am thankful, that even when people well into their 80s and 90s die we may be surprised and possibly even ask from what?  This, of course, has not been the way it has always been.  There was a time when most of one’s children did not make it to adulthood.  And most adults did not make it into old age.  This continues to be true in developing parts of the world.

In the Bible, there’s a reason life in the here and now is finite.  A finite life should motivate us to make the absolute most of each and every moment and not squander a single moment.  Psalm 90 poetically puts it this way.  This couplet is an address to God:  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart”.  For the Psalmist, making the most of every moment involves gaining wisdom.  For the Jesus follower, the God-inclined, wisdom and not foolishness is the direction in which life is headed.

2.

In today’s lesson, Jesus tells a story of ten bridesmaids.  The bridesmaids are to be ready for the bridegroom’s arrival at which time the door to the festivities will open for all to enter and celebrate.  Those who are ready will enter the open door.  Those who are not ready will miss the open door to find only a closed door.  Jesus tells the story because he wants everyone who hears it to be ready and enter through door to the festivities while the door is still open.

Neither the wise nor the foolish bridesmaids knows when the bridegroom will appear.  The foolish bridesmaids lamps are filled with oil.  The wise bridesmaids’ lamps are also filled with oil, but they have additional oil at the ready just in case the bridegroom’s arrival is delayed.  In other words, they are ready.

Obviously, Jesus’ story is about much more than who has the good sense to have extra oil on hand — the wise — and who doesn’t have the good sense to have extra oil on hand — the foolish.  We have to reach all the way back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to better understand this parable.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identifies the community’s mission.  He says, “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  [Matt. 5:14-16]

The lamps represent the community’s mission task — to be the world’s light.  But lamps that have run out of oil don’t shine any light whatsoever.

Darkness descended in Texas last Sunday.  It descended in the form of a deeply troubled, angry, violent young man with a weapon more suited to a battlefield than the streets of a small town in America.  The man used his weapon to cowardly shoot and kill 26 persons as they worshipped in the sanctuary of their church.

Where was the light last Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas?  I wasn’t there so I can’t know for sure.  Amid the carnage, it was probably very hard to see.  It was probably there in the first responders.  It was there in the actions of ordinary citizens who confronted the shooter.  It was there in the gentle words of those who comforted the dying and the grief-stricken.

Where will the light be in the days to come?  How might Christians provide leadership to a national conversation on gun violence?  The degree and frequency of gun violence in our culture seems to be a uniquely American problem.  I read one statistic from a reputable source that pointed out that though Americans are only 4% of the world’s population we own 42% of the world’s guns.  These numbers at one level reflect the fact that we are a wealthy nation.  But something else seems to be in the numbers.  If they’re true, they are troubling and suggest to me a spiritual problem — Idolatry, perhaps?  In what or whom do we really trust?  Fear, perhaps?  Aren’t people of faith also people of hope?

Once again, I’m not sure what the answer may be — I’m just a preacher — but I am sure that the answer isn’t the status quo, that is more of the same.  And, as a Christian, I’m confident that people of faith have a contribution to make toward the solution.  We have light to share and light to shine.  Light that illumines.  Light that enlightens.

In Jesus’ parable, the wise bridesmaids have extra oil.  The extra oil represents faithful, active, obedient discipleship.  This is the reason they can’t share it with the foolish bridesmaids.  I can no more borrow your discipleship than you can borrow mine.  That’s about as possible as me asking you to undertake a fitness and diet regimen on my behalf and me genuinely expecting its benefits.  That’s ludicrous.  It doesn’t work that way.

Wisdom involves cultivating one’s Christian faith and practice day in and day out over the course of a lifetime so that it’s there when the days are ordinary and routine but it’s there as well and especially when the days are extraordinary and beyond belief, perhaps even dark and hellish.

3.

Today is stewardship consecration Sunday.  I hope you brought your completed pledge card.  If not there are extras in the pews.  Or you can bring with you next Sunday or send it in this week.  Thank you.

Part of our being the world’s light is being the world’s light together as a community which takes people and buildings and money.  Your generosity makes it all happen.  And your generosity is no small piece of your stewardship.  Giving is one way we act wisely as Christians. 

Many a religious thinker, including Jesus, has pondered what external behavior is the best measure of a person’s internal disposition — that is his or her heart or spirit or soul.  In other words, what outward thing provides a window into what’s going on within us.  It’s generosity.  It’s what we give and how we give and it’s to what we give.

Amen.

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Saintly Service

Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Seek Shelter In Makeshift Camps In Jordan

Saintly Service

Matthew 23:1-12 | 5 November 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

What is a saint?  Rather, who is a saint?

Today is All Saints’ Sunday.  It’s the one Sunday a year when we remember family and friends who have died in the Lord and now reside on heaven’s bright shore.  Which begs the question, does one have to die in order to be a saint?  The short answer is no.

For most of Christian history, a saint was a very specific designation conferred by the church.  There have customarily been five steps in the process of becoming a saint.

I’ve always been fascinated by the process.  It’s a tough one.  If we were to ask a child what he or she wanted to be when they grew up and they said “a saint” we would be impressed because of how challenging and arduous the path to becoming a saint is.

Here’s the process, at least in the Roman Catholic Church.

First, the person’s local bishop investigates their life by gathering information from witnesses of their life and any writings they may have written. If the bishop finds them to be worthy of being a saint, then he submits the information that he gathered to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Second, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints can choose to reject the application or accept it and begin their own investigation of the person’s life.

Third, if the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approves of the candidate, they can choose to declare that the person lived a heroically virtuous life.

Fourth, the person must be recognized as someone in heaven which requires that a miracle has taken place through the intercession of that person. The miracle is usually a healing. The healing has to be instantaneous, permanent, and complete while also being scientifically unexplainable. Miracles have to be first verified as scientifically unexplainable by a group of independent doctors, then the person is approved by a panel of theologians, and then the final approval lies with the pope. If this is the case, a person is declared blessed.

Fifth, a second miracle is needed in order to declare someone a saint. The confirmation of a second miracle goes through the same scrutiny as the first.

This process has given us many saints — St. Joseph and St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Benedict, St. Francis and St. Thomas, and more recently St. Teresa of Calcutta.

In the western church among Protestant Christians after the Reformation, saint was redefined.  Saint and Christian, at least in some Protestant traditions, more or less became synonymous.  Anyone who confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior and sought with God’s help to follow him faithfully was a saint.  I kind of like this redefinition.  Say your name with “saint” in front of it.  St. Dan.  St. Giovanna.  St. Pat.  St. Todd.  Turn to your neighbor and say his or her name with “saint” in front of it.  It has a nice ring to it.

Hold on to those thoughts.

2.

Our scripture lesson today begins with Jesus denouncing the Pharisees.  They say all the right things but do all the wrong things.  Their religious faith and practice lacks integrity.  Plenty of talk, not enough walk.  It’s called hypocrisy.

Because they say all the right things, Jesus tells his followers to listen to them and do as they say.  But, because they do all the wrong things, Jesus tell his followers to not do as they do at all.

According to Jesus, the Pharisees liked the attention they garnered for being religious.  The best seats.  The warm regards.  A measure of prestige and importance.  But evidently, they were less than keen on doing the sometimes messy work of being religious.  Stuff like mercy and justice.

Jesus eventually gets around to spelling out what being truly religious looks like.  In the closing verses of our lesson Jesus says, “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant.”

It turns out that there is a huge element of “being” and “doing” to saintliness.  The being involves owning who we are as God’s — created by God, saved by God, sustained by God, and being transformed by God.  And the doing involves serving others because we have been served by God.  This is one of the great themes of the Bible and the Christian tradition.  There’s no getting around it.  We run into at every turn.

Thankfully, our congregation is full of saints who have heard God’s call to be God’s and to serve others in Jesus’ name repeatedly throughout our history.  You know the many chapters of our story as well as I do.

On Friday, our Weekday School celebrated its 70th anniversary.  The longest serving weekday school in the valley if I’m not mistaken.  That’s something.

The congregation in the aftermath of WWII realized that women had entered the work force in large numbers and were remaining in the work force.  Their young children needed a place to be socialized and educated.  In 1947, the school opened its doors to its first students.

Other chapters of our story of service in Jesus’ name  include CCAP; the Free Medical Clinic, now the Dr. Terry Sinclair Health Center; Jubilee Kitchen; the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter [WATTS]; the Highland Food Pantry.  And, of course, more.

Currently, we are beginning to open a new chapter in our on-going story of being God’s and serving others in the name of Jesus.  Over the past several months a work group has been exploring ways to respond to the refugee crisis in our world and providing leadership to our congregation in partnership with others in seeking to qualify as a Church World Service refugee resettlement community.  The work group, now our Mission Council’s Refugee Resettlement Team, is hosting a conversation in Fellowship Hall during today’s Sunday School hour.

Our world has always had refugees.  Currently, however, the number of refugees, given the number of crises around the globe, are at the highest ever.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

  

Our own tradition, the Christian tradition, begins with a refugee story.  The Holy Family were refugees.  Jesus’ earliest days began as an infant in his mother’s arms as she and her husband Joseph fled Judea and made their way into Egypt.  Staying meant death at the hands of King Herod.  They had to flee or die.

I’ve often wondered how much Jesus recalled from his childhood and how much Joseph and Mary told him about it.  I have to believe that Jesus’ own experience as a refugee shaped his heart of mercy and justice.  It also was the experience of his people, the Jews, as they fled slavery in Egypt.  Moses repeatedly reminded the Israelites to treat the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, the refugee kindly because they knew first hand what it was to be the alien and foreigner and stranger and refugee.  And, they knew first hand what God had done for them in the Exodus.

Jesus’ personal experience and the experience of his people certainly colored the stories he told.  In the gospels, when the lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life Jesus told him to love God with all he had and his neighbor as himself.  The lawyer then wanted Jesus to define neighbor for him.  So, Jesus told his parable of the Good Samaritan. 

A man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  A victim of extreme violence if ever there was one.  Three men saw him.  Two did nothing.  One, however, did something.  He showed mercy as best he could.  Jesus asked the lawyer who the neighbor in the story was.  The lawyer was a smart man.  He said the one who did something, the Samaritan, the one who helped.  Jesus told the lawyer to go and do likewise.  Which, by the way, is Jesus’ counsel to us.

3.

Here’s my definition of saint — those who see someone who needs help, who realizes there is indeed something they can do, and then, with God’s help, does something rather than nothing.

Saints don’t always get it right when they seek to help.  Sometimes we can get it wrong, but we learn not to do it that way and try another.  But saints refuse to get it wrong by doing nothing at all.

Why in the world do Christians get involved in helping when so often the easier path is not to?  Good question.  I think the answer lies in the fact that deep down we know that our lives are sustained by a grace that we did nothing to earn and apart from a few twists of fate or turns of history our lives might have looked quite different and if we needed help we would want people to be merciful toward us.

Here’s the take away.  You all are saints.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise and keep on living like saints.

Amen.

The Big Two: Loving God and Loving Neighbor

John_Calvin_by_Holbein

The Big Two:  Loving God and Loving Neighbor

Reformation Sunday 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

It’s not often we get to observe the 500th anniversary of something.  500 years is rather a long time.  Given that a generation is 25 years, we’re talking 20 generations.

So, what happened in 1517 that we are making such a fuss over.  Martin Luther, a devout 33 year old Augustinian monk, who loved his God and his church deeply and dearly wanted his church’s leadership to take a long, hard look at the church and its work to insure that it still aligned with who Jesus Christ was and why he had come into the world.

Luther believed that the medieval Roman Catholic Church had veered from Christianity’s main path.  He wanted to explore ways to reform the church so that it could find its way again.

It’s helpful to remember that all institutions at some point began as a movement with all the energy and enthusiasm a movement entails.  For its initial centuries Christianity was a movement.  It lived by the story of what God had done in Jesus Christ and was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and the church.  There were no church buildings.  There was no Bible. 

This movement, in time, took on more organization and structure and eventually became quite an institution. Institutions are good and have their place.  They are one very important way movements get perpetuated.

The entire Holy Roman Empire — the Mediterranean world and most of Western Europe and some of Eastern Europe — became Christian upon emperor’s Constantine’s decree in the 4th century.  Depending on your perspective, this was either a good thing or a bad thing.  Either way, Christianity became less of a movement and more of an institution.  But Christianity never forgot its movement roots.

Back to Luther.

A tipping point for Luther came in 1511 when he first visited Rome on official business for his religious order.  What Luther saw scandalized him.  The Christianity of Rome was too much institution, and to Luther’s mind a corrupt one at that, and too little movement.  To grossly oversimplify matters, the Christ in Christianity was missing.  Something had to be done.

In 1517, on the day before All Saints — October 31 — Luther enumerated 95 issues he wanted to address, known as the 95 theses.  Tradition has it that he nailed these to the castle cathedral door in Wittenberg.  Most of us first learned about the 95 theses either in Sunday school or in a high school world history class.

Some of the 95 theses were what I would call major issues.  Some of them were relatively minor issues.  The biggest issues for Luther were:

Papal supremacy and infallibility.  Can one person really reign supreme over others and in doing so be infallible in matters of faith?  Humans by our nature are fallible.

Indulgences, that is money for sins.  Can persons really buy their way to God’s forgiveness?  Can living persons buy dead persons out of purgatory and into heaven?  It was a great way to raise money for church construction but lousy theology.

Papal forgiveness of sins upon the purchase of indulgences.  Isn’t forgiveness God’s domain and didn’t God show his hand on the forgiveness front in Jesus Christ?

Ecclesial secrecy and bureaucracy.  How the church works and goes about its work should not be a secret nor should it be so bureaucratic that it moves at a snail’s pace.

The language of the mass.  Why Latin?  Nobody but the priests understood what was being said.  What about using a language people actually spoke and understood?  Worship should be intelligible as should the Bible.

Transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of communion become the actual body and blood of Christ when the priest intoned the words of institution.  Luther didn’t think so and said as much.

2.

Christianity has always been an introspective and restless religion.  It has always been a religion of pilgrims rather than settlers.  We are a people on the move, always in the direction of the kingdom of God.

In our history there have been periods when some of our leaders have become painfully aware when the gap between what the faith is really all about as articulated in the New Testament and testified to internally by the Holy Spirit and what the faith sadly has become has grown too great.  These leaders then articulate their vision for renewal and reform so that the faith can find its way once again.

My guess is that we know what this is like on a personal level.  We all have a narrative in our heads as to who we are and what we value.  For example, we tell ourselves, “I’m a good person.  I value kindness”.  And then there’s that moment when we betray the narrative.  We say or do something that isn’t good and perhaps even cruel.  Maybe we mistreat someone.  Once or twice is an aberration.  But beyond that we will have a crisis.  We will either adjust our narrative and own up to the fact that we are not good and we don’t really value kindness or we will change because living with the disconnect of saying one thing and acting contrary to it is unsustainable.  We want our real self to align with our aspirational self.

As I read the gospels, it’s apparent to me that Jesus himself was a reformer.  The official Temple Judaism of his day, at least at the leadership level, had grown transactional.  One line of thinking was “If I make certain sacrifices to God in the Temple then I obligate God to perform certain duties on my behalf”.  That’s not religion.  That’s commerce.  Religion, for some anyway, had become more about appearances and less about a profound change of mind, heart, and life.

The New Testament writers tell us that Jesus came in order to show humanity the mind and heart of God.  Jesus came to show humanity what it meant to be authentically human.  He revealed God and authentic humanity in what he said and did, especially on the cross and in his resurrection.  The church is to embody Jesus and carry his word and work into the world.

Jesus came to leave no question as to what being in a right relationship with God was all about.  It involved what I will call the big two:  Loving God with all that we’ve got and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

My personal test as to whether something honors God and neighbor or not is this:  Can I hear Jesus saying it?  Can I see Jesus doing it?  If not, I’m on the wrong path.

This is a good test for the church.  Can we hear Jesus saying it?  Can we see Jesus doing it?  If not, we’re on the wrong path and it’s time for renewal, reformation.

3.

Being Christian in a Presbyterian way originates with one of the Reformation’s second generation reformers [second generation simply means the folks who came after Martin Luther], John Calvin.  You can see his not quite smiling face on the cover of the bulletin. Calvin’s ideas about being Christian make their way to North America’s shores in the 17th century by way of the British Isles.

John Calvin was a French reformer.  He was trained as a lawyer at the University of Paris.  He was captivated by the reforming ideas that were sweeping across Europe and became a theologian.  He is perhaps best known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he wrote as a guide for reading scripture, and his reforms in Geneva, Switzerland.

Today’s order of service was written by Calvin and first used in Strasbourg, France in 1542.  It is pure Calvin.  The service is designed to be simple and intelligible.  Its focus is the saving truth of the gospel.  Calvin sought to strip worship of any elements that might come between the worshipper and God, the human heart and the message of the gospel.

If Martin Luther was the initial spark and flame of the Reformation, Calvin captured the flame and codified and systematized it in order to better perpetuate it.

4.

About ten years ago author Phyllis Tickle published The Great Emergence:  How Christianity Is Changing and Why?  In the book she calls attention to an observation first made by Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.  Dyer pointed out that about every 500 years Christianity has felt compelled to hold a rummage sale.  We know what rummage sales are.  We clear out the stuff we no longer need in order make room for the stuff that will be more useful.

Christianity’s first rummage sale was 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.  The council set aside a lot of peculiar ideas as to who Jesus was and codified correct doctrine regarding Jesus — one person, two natures, human and divine.  The fifth century also saw the Fall of Rome followed by the rise of monasticism in the sixth century under Gregory the Great.

Christianity’s second rummage sale was the Great Schism of 1054.  The church divided into the Catholic West and the Orthodox East over theological differences and ecclesiastical disputes.

The third rummage sale was the Reformation.

And, according to Tickle, the fourth rummage sale is right now.  The one thing about each rummage sale is that none of them were the result of “one semi-millennial eruption”.  Rather the standing form or organized Christian faith “lost [its] hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing”.

What Christianity was waned and what Christianity was becoming waxed.  As it waned and waxed no one knew for sure what it would become.  Now that we are 500 years on from the Reformation, once again what Christianity was is waning and what it is becoming is waxing.  What is Christianity and the church becoming?  Who is our Luther?  Our Calvin?

It’s hard to say.  But we can say this:  God, of course, is always doing a new thing even if we preferred God didn’t because we like the old things.  This is an exciting moment as well as an anxious moment to be Christian.  I sense a strong movement to rediscover and follow Jesus and to unite with him and unite with others who follow him across all traditions. 

I’m still very Presbyterian.  I’m not sure I can help it or want to.  But, my Presbyterian Christianity is informed first and foremost by Jesus rather than Jesus being informed by my Presbyterian Christianity.  There’s a difference and it’s a crucial one.  This is the way Reformed Christianity works, we are not settlers; we are pligrims.  We’re always reforming.

Amen.

Whose Image?

Toy Truck Pull.001

Whose Image?

Matthew 22:15-22 | 22 October 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

One of the earliest lessons we all learn is what is ours and what is not ours.  Usually, and hopefully, we learn it in the nursery.  We are playing with one toy and notice a neighbor playing with another toy.  We reach over and grab our neighbor’s toy.  We now have two toys to play with. 

Of course, it doesn’t last long nor should it.  Usually a parent or teacher will intervene to tell us that what we have taken belongs to someone else.  It’s theirs.  Not ours.  We have to give it back.  Also, I should point out that there are tears involved.  Sorting the world out involves anguish.  It’s hard.  It takes effort.

Today’s lesson involves this question of what or who belongs to whom?  What are our obligations to others?

2.

Our scripture text is another controversy story.  Jesus’ adversaries are still after him for what he did in the Temple.  Remember, upon his entrance into Jerusalem Jesus cleared the Temple of its money changers.  As we can well imagine, this did not go over well with the Temple leadership.  Jesus took offense at what the Temple had become, a place of low commerce.  He said in no uncertain terms what the Temple should be, a place of high communion with God and neighbor.  The Temple leadership had lost sight of the Temple’s major purpose.  Institutions tend to do this over the course of their lifespans.

Jesus’ adversaries, both religious and civil, say all the right things about Jesus.  He is sincere.  He is truthful.  He is fair.  These are the kinds of things you might say about someone when you are looking for them to say or do something for you that they may be disinclined to say or do.

The reality is that Jesus’ adversaries don’t believe for a minute anything they have just said about Jesus.  After all, he is their enemy.  He is a serious threat to their position and prestige.  Jesus’ reforms, if realized, would shake things up to the point where they would find themselves on the outs.  They liked the status quo and were going to do everything in their power to retain it.

But, Jesus’ adversaries know that the crowd believes that Jesus is sincere and truthful and fair.  That’s why they are saying these things.  They are playing to the crowd because what they hope to do is turn the crowd against Jesus.

Remember, Judea was an occupied territory.  The Judeans detested and despised the Romans for the way they treated them.  And, they especially detested and despised the Romans for the taxes they levied against the Judeans to fund the occupation.

But not all the Judeans detested and despised the Romans.  Some were in cahoots with them and benefited from the occupation, namely some of the Judean religious leadership.  They derived their value, their worth, their place in the world from their relationship with the Roman authorities.  We meet their representatives in today’s lesson.

They thought they had cooked up the perfect plan to turn the crowd against Jesus and be done with him once and for all.  Their wedge issue was taxes.  If Jesus counseled non-payment, the Romans would arrest him and try him and probably execute him.  The Romans were good at vanquishing any and all threats.  Anyone who went head to head with the Romans lost.  If Jesus counseled payment, the crowds would see in Jesus just one more Roman sympathizer.  He would be diminished in their eyes.

Their scheme was a perfect lose-lose scheme.  No matter what Jesus said, they had him. 

3.

We know the rest of the story.  Jesus asks for a coin.  He asks whose image appears on the coin.  It’s Caesar’s image.  Give to Caesar what is his, Jesus counsels.  Pay your taxes.

Jesus goes on.  But, give to God what is God’s.  In other words, Rome’s demands can and should be opposed if and when they violate God’s demands.

Jesus confounds his adversaries.  They didn’t get the outcome they had hoped for.  The outcome was a theological lesson they had already learned along the way but apparently had forgotten and needed a reminder.  It’s a lesson we too have learned and may need reminding as well.

The implication in Jesus’ counsel is that just as a Roman coin bears Caesar’s image to whom the coin and the monetary system of buying and selling and giving and getting it represents belong, persons — that’s you,me, and everyone else — bear another image completely — God’s image — to whom persons and their very lives belong.

This is a fundamental affirmation of both Judaism and Christianity.  Psalm 24 was recited by Jewish worshippers as they entered the Temple:  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it . . .”  Psalm 24 is sung to this day in Christian houses of worship.

4.

My guess is that Jesus’ adversaries knew on an intellectual level that they bore God’s image and in doing so belonged first and foremost to God.  On an intellectual level, we know this, too.  But embodying this reality and living it out was and is so very hard.  It took and takes tremendous effort.  It was and is easier to let other realities define them and us and determine the course of their lives and ours.  Without daily discipline and social support, hard things get abandoned quickly.  It doesn’t mean that those hard things aren’t true, it means that they are hard and we are human.

Matthew’s gospel lays before us the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar.  The way of God’s kingdom and the way of the world.  But what Jesus’ adversaries didn’t get was that when it came to which way would prevail there really isn’t a question at all.  God is sovereign and not Caesar, every time.

Caesar’s way is one of might and power and wealth.  It’s the world’s way.  Jesus’ way is mighty and powerful and wealthy, but of an entirely different order.  His might is truth.  His power is love.  His wealth is grace.  It’s the way of God’s kingdom.  And, remember, it’s the way that  will prevail.

Here’s the rub.  There are 168 hours in a week.  For about 50 to 60 of those hours we are asleep.  So we won’t count those.  But for the other 100 or so hours, we live and work and play in a world that seeks to lay all sorts of claims upon us.  It tells us who we are and what we should be living for.  You are a worker, you are a consumer, you are a voter, you are . . .  And your fundamental loyalty is to your work, to acquiring stuff, to a political ideology, to . . .  It’s exhausting.

But for one of those hours, we come here.  And, here, in worship, we hear again that we are God’s.  Here, we hear and experience again that all of those other images that are cast upon us are not the images that matters most.  There is only one of those images that matters most and it’s God’s.  And, there’s nothing we had to do or say or be.  Those other images have to be earned and then sustained and then protected, sometimes violently.  Not so with this image that matters most.  By grace and grace alone, God made us in God’s image and loves us for no other reason than that is who God is, love.

This is not only good news.  It is great news.  And come Sunday I’m ready to proclaim it and hear it all again.

5.

What is God’s image?

There are countless library shelves lined with theological books who attempt to say exactly what God’s image in us is.  The short answer is that scripture doesn’t exactly tell us.  We will have to use our great big, God-given brains to explore and discover what it is — with the help of God’s Spirit, of course.

Some early Christian writers suggested that God’s image in us a physical one.  That is, we resemble God, for example Calvin preening in the mirror and seeing something of God, which Hobbes finds amusing.  Imagine God a skinny little blond-haired, freckle-faced schoolboy.

Other early Christians as well as Christians through the ages have suggested that God’s image is spiritual.  It’s those characteristics and traits that are unique to our being human.  Our intellect.  Our reason.  Our capacity to love.  Our compassion.  Our empathy.  Our capacity to imagine.  Our creativity.  Our capacity for relationships.  Take your pick.  I’m going to go with a mix of all of that.

But, I want to go a bit deeper and further.  The image of God — whatever it may be — borne by each and every human creature is the source of our worth, the compass for our journey, and our journey’s destiny.

We still have to sort out how to live in the here and now, but this here and now with all of its competing claims and allegiances do not get to define us or determine our worth.  God alone can do that.

Christianity’s insistence that humans are created in the image of God makes Christianity very dangerous.  Jesus adversaries in Matthew’s gospel were right to see Jesus as a threat.  In the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, everyone is a child of God.  There simply aren’t those who are in and those who are out, those who are up and those who are down, those who are inferior and those who are superior.  Those are designations we make.  Those are not designations God makes.  God’s designation is this:  You are my beloved child, made in my image, loved beyond measure.

Amen.

An Ugly Story

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An Ugly Story

Matthew 21:33-46 | 8 October 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Last week began with the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history.  One very well armed man shot and killed nearly 60 people and injured more than 500 from a high-rise hotel room window in Las Vegas.  2017 is turning out to be yet another lamentable year for gun violence in a long succession of similar years in our nation.  At present, there have been more than 150 mass shootings this year [U.S. Congressional Research Services defines a mass shooting as four or more persons killed or injured].  In 2017, there have been nearly 7,000 gun-related deaths, and more than 13,000 firearm injuries.

Lamentable is the best adjective I could muster to describe the gun violence.  To lament something is to passionately grieve or feel sorrow over something.  There is a book in the Bible entitled Lamentations.  By tradition, the book is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.  The poems that comprise the book lament the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the Temple, God’s dwelling place, in the sixth century BC at the hands of the Babylonians.

Listen to the opening verses of Lamentations.  They capture the writer’s profound grief and sorrow over what has befallen Jerusalem.

1 How lonely sits the city

    that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become,

    she that was great among the nations!

She that was a princess among the provinces

    has become a vassal.

2 She weeps bitterly in the night,

    with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

    she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

    they have become her enemies.

3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering

    and hard servitude;

she lives now among the nations,

    and finds no resting place;

her pursuers have all overtaken her

    in the midst of her distress.

4 The roads to Zion mourn,

    for no one comes to the festivals;

all her gates are desolate,

    her priests groan;

her young girls grieve,

    and her lot is bitter.

After Jerusalem’s inhabitants were exiled to Babylon with the rest of Judah, Jeremiah lamented:  “How long will the land mourn . . .”  which can also be translated “How long do we have to put up with this . . .”

Israel’s fall and exile was a wake up call.  After their season of lament, they — with the guidance of their prophets — set out on a path to renewal and restoration.  This path, for them, included re-covenanting with God, reaffirming the Mosaic law, and attending to social justice for the widow and orphan which had been long-neglected.  The path was never a straight line.  It was circuitous.

I keep thinking that one of our mass shootings will be our wake up call.  And, one day, together, we will set out on our own path to renewal and restoration.  But, our attention spans seem to be so short.  We move all too quickly to the next news cycle.  In doing so, we lose sight of the tragedy that had so recently horrified us and we forget about any new commitments or resolutions we may have made to try to do better.

Remember: 

2012, five years ago, Newtown, CT — 28 killed, nearly all of whom were children.

2007, ten years ago, Blacksburg, VA — 33 killed, 17 wounded.

2016, just last year, Orlando, FL — 49 killed, 58 wounded.

And, this year, Las Vegas . . .

How long?  How long?  I don’t have the answer.   There’s certainly more than one answer.  But I do know that the status quo is not working for us anymore.  Going along as if matters will somehow magically resolve themselves is a lousy strategy.  Things on the order of serious mental illness, murderous hatred, and seemingly easy access to every manner of weapon will not just magically evaporate into the mist.  Addressing these things will require all of our very best efforts.

2.

Friends, there is trouble in our world.  There is also trouble in today’s lesson from scripture.  But, there is grace both in our lesson and in our world.

I wonder what word the Spirit has for us today.

Today’s lesson, like last Sunday’s lesson, is another controversy story.  And, once again it’s all about who’s in charge — Jesus or the Temple leadership?  And, once again, Jesus tells a story.

Jesus’ story will not make a lot of sense without a working knowledge of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 118.  Isaiah 5 is a love song from the prophet to God.  Listen:

1-2 I’ll sing a ballad to the one I love,

    a love ballad about his vineyard:

The one I love had a vineyard,

    a fine, well-placed vineyard.

He hoed the soil and pulled the weeds,

    and planted the very best vines.

He built a lookout, built a winepress,

    a vineyard to be proud of.

He looked for a vintage yield of grapes,

    but for all his pains he got junk grapes.

God pours heart and soul into Israel hoping for an abundant harvest of plentiful fruit and it’s all for naught.

Psalm 118:22 reads:  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”  In the Jewish tradition, the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone was King David.  In the Christian tradition, the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone is Jesus Christ.

Here’s our challenge.  What is Jesus’ parable about?  Is it about the tenants?  Is it about the abused son?  Is it about God?  Is it about us?  Yes.

Jesus is the master of telling a story in such a way that his audience doesn’t know that it’s really all about them until the very end.  The story starts out innocently enough.

It wasn’t uncommon in Jesus’ world for a person of means to invest in and improve property and then lease it to tenants with an expectation of a good return on investment.  So far, so good.

The story takes an ugly turn when the investor sends representatives to collect his due.  The tenants behave as if the land is theirs as well as all of its improvements.  They are not going to give the landowner anything.  The harvest is theirs and theirs alone, they reason.  They beat one of the landowner’s servants, kill another, and stone yet another.  Their sense of entitlement to the land and its fruit is such that they defend it with violence.

Eventually, the landowner sends his son.  In a shame/honor culture it was one thing to kill a servant of an important person.  It was another thing altogether to kill an important person’s son.  It was unimaginable, unthinkable, it simply wasn’t done.  But that is exactly what the tenants do.

Jesus wants the religious leaders to tell him what they think the landowner should do.  They are no dummies.  They know the law, the tradition.  The landowner should kill the tenants and lease the land to tenants who will honor the man’s property and bring forth a worthy and rightful return.  This is the “gotcha” point in the text.

The religious leaders realize the story is about them.  They are the tenants who have treated the vineyard as if it is theirs and theirs alone to do with as they wish — responsible to no one and accountable to no one.  And the servants of the vineyard’s owner that the tenants beat and stoned and killed?  They are God’s prophets, like Jesus’ cousin John.  And the son they will kill in due time?  Jesus.

So, the story could be about the tenants who are stand ins for the religious leadership.  God entrusted the religious leadership to guide and care for Israel.  But they chose instead to enrich themselves and exploit and neglect those in their care.  God will remove them and entrust the vineyard to others.

3.

The story could also be about the abused son who dies at the hands of the tenants.  The son is Jesus and the tenants are the leaders of the Temple.

The religious leaders want to be done with Jesus and his following.  They have seen enough of him and heard enough of him just as they had seen and heard enough of his cousin John.  Jesus is a threat to their very way of life.  They are the ones in charge and people should look up to them and admire them and listen to them.  But their neglect and exploitation of the people as well as their collaboration with the Roman occupiers has profoundly marred their standing.  Whatever authority or power they may have once wielded is now lost.

From here, we, of course, know how the story goes.  The religious leadership enlists the Romans.  Jesus is arrested, tried, and executed.  All their problems are solved.  So they think.  They can go back to the way things were.

But they don’t and can’t.  God raises Jesus from the dead and the Spirit of God in Christ continues to live in each and everyone of Jesus’ followers.  Jesus is the cornerstone upon which some stumble but upon which many stand.

And here’s the grace.  God and God’s way prevails.  We can trust this.  It’s a way where none are neglected and all are included.  Sometimes we can see it clearly and other times less clearly.  But God is working and it is always amazing.  It may happen with us or without us, but it will happen.  In Christ, God invites us and makes us family so that it happens with us and for us and for the sake the world.

Amen.

What Do You Think?

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What Do You Think?

Matthew 21:23-32 | 1 October 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Today is World Communion  Sunday.  Today, we celebrate our oneness in Christ with all our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

As I gave some thought this week to oneness and unity I recalled a story told by Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas at a conference I attended years ago.  Hauerwas was on the faculty of Duke University for many, many years.  He taught in the divinity school, the medical school, and the law school.

Hauerwas put up a poster on his office door at Duke University during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, codenamed Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  The poster featured two persons hugging one another.  It also featured in large print these words:

“A modest proposal for peace:  Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.”

Periodically, both other faculty members and students would slip notes under his door.  Invariably the notes read:  “How dare you — why should Christians only refrain from killing other Christians?  This is just another example of Christian self-centeredness.”  Sometimes persons who were offended by the poster would knock on Hauerwas’ door to challenge him verbally with similar statements.

Hauerwas’ response was this:  “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere.”  After all, his proposal for peace stated clearly that it was a modest one.

2.

World Communion Sunday is a Presbyterian gift to the larger ecumenical church.  It was first celebrated in 1933 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

The pastor was Hugh Kerr.  Kerr wanted to bring churches together in Christian unity.  He wanted churches to embrace their interconnectedness.  The world had just come out of a long, dark global war where the Christian nations of Europe slaughtered one another wholesale and appeared to be headed toward yet another long, dark global war, which within the decade it did.  Neighbor was turning against neighbor within nations and nations were turning against nations.  Kerr wondered if the church could play a role in trying to hold the world together.  Gathering around the table to commune with God and one another symbolized a commitment to unity and a stand against divisiveness.

In the name of unity, I’d like to suggest another modest proposal a la Hauerwas’ proposal.  Here it is:  “Let the Christians of the world agree that they will be kind to other Christians.”  We could even expand it.  How’s this “Let all Americans agree that they will be kind to other Americans.”

I can already here your objections and I agree with you.  Shouldn’t we be kind to everyone regardless of their religion or nationality or anything else for that matter?  Absolutely.  But, I did say that my proposal, like Hauerwas’, was modest.  We have to start somewhere.

3.

I want to introduce you to a systematic theologian.  His name is Robert Kolb.  He taught at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  Kolb is well known in Christian academic circles for his homiletic methodology.  Kolb said that when reading and studying a biblical text a preacher should always attend to four considerations.  1. Where is there “trouble in the text”?  2. Where is there “trouble in the world”?  3. Where is there grace in the text?  And, 4. Where is there grace in the world?

There is trouble aplenty in today’s text.  Today’s text is the first in a series of controversies between Jesus and the most powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem.  The set up for today’s lesson is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.

The powerful religious leaders lock horns with Jesus over the issue of authority.  The leaders are the ones who are supposed to have it and Jesus is the one who shouldn’t have it.  The religious leaders have lost their authority and Jesus is gaining authority rapidly.

The religious leaders are somebodies.  Jesus is a nobody.  The religious leaders have wealth, connections, standing in the community and in the Temple hierarchy.  They have impressive titles.  Jesus has none of this.  No money.  No connections with important people.  No standing in the community or the Temple hierarchy.

But, he does have some things.  He has integrity, character, truth and what is right, a connection with God.  And, he has a following.  People are listening to what he has to say.  They are gathering in large numbers to see and hear more from him.

This is the serious trouble in the text.  Who’s in charge?  The religious leaders?  Or, Jesus?

The religious leaders question Jesus.  Where are your credentials?  Who authorized you to say and do the things you are saying and doing?  We did not.

Jesus questions the religious leaders.  What did they make of his cousin John?  What were his credentials and who authorized his ministry?  Answer my question, Jesus tells them, and he will answer theirs.

This puts the religious leaders in a tight spot.  John had a following at least as large as Jesus’.  If they said John was a nobody they risked antagonizing people who were supposed to be loyal to them.  If they said John was a somebody like themselves, they risked betraying their own kind, their class.  Either way, the would lose.

Their answer, the oldest in the book — “I don’t know.”  They won’t answer Jesus’ question because it was simply too risky to do so.  So, they don’t.  And, Jesus won’t answer theirs.

But, Jesus will tell a story.  That’s what Jesus does.  It’s an old story, a story of brothers.  In the Jewish tradition there are many stories of brothers — Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and his brothers.  These are stories of envy and betrayal, power struggles, and sometimes reconciliation.

Jesus begins his story with a question — what do you think?  The story’s setting is a vineyard.  The vineyard is a stock symbol in the Jewish tradition.  Jesus is not asking his adversaries, the religious leadership, to offer their thoughts on his story.  Rather, he is inviting them to find and see themselves in Israel’s foundational and continuing stories.

In Jesus’ story, there is a father who asks each son to go into the vineyard and work for the day.  One son says no, but then goes anyway.  The other son says yes, but doesn’t go at all.

Jesus wants to know which of the two obeyed his father.  It’s a no brainer — the one who actually went into the vineyard and did the work and not the one who said he would but didn’t.  Jesus’ adversaries say as much.

And here is the trouble in our world.  Too many words and too little action.  Folks talk a good game but the corresponding walk is just not there.

Jesus embodies integrity.  His talk and walk are one and the same.  We call this character.  He didn’t play at being the savior.  He was and is the savior.

4.

So, where is the grace in the text?  At first glance, it may be hard to see.  I think it’s there in the reluctant or ambivalent obedience of the first son who said he wouldn’t go into the vineyard but did anyway.  I have no idea why he said no, he wouldn’t go.  But, he had a change of heart, a change of mind.  The important thing is that he went.

A word that often appears on the lips of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is “repent”.  That is, change.  Change is the point where we turn to God and begin to place our feet on the way of Jesus.  It’ something that we do not do just once but repeatedly.  God grants us the grace to change and does so not just once but repeatedly.

And this is where there is grace in our world?  We can change.  I would go so far as to say we must change.  That’s what the grace of God does.  It transforms us.  We don’t have to stay on paths that are hurting us and others. 

A table around which Christians the world over are gathering today is a good place to begin our transformation, to be done with division, to unite, to begin our journey into the vineyard which is the world and extend the same grace we have received. 

Amen.

Godly Foolishness

Forgiveness Slide.001

Godly Foolishness

Matthew 18:21-35 | 17 September 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Peter.  We meet him very early in the gospels.  He is the first disciple Jesus calls.  He is the disciple Jesus has more one on one conversations with than any other disciple.  Peter is the first to confess Jesus’ true identity — the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  Jesus declares that Peter will be the rock upon which the church will be built.  And, as Jesus’ end draws near Peter is called to account for his relationship with Jesus which does not go well at all.  The gospels’ portrayal of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is a painful read.  But, Jesus, after his resurrection restores Peter to himself and to the community.

Peter was a man of the sea, a fisherman.  He made his living plying the waters of the Sea of Galilee also known as Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias.  Geographically it is a large freshwater lake in Israel — 13 miles long and eight miles wide  and 141 feet deep with a circumference of 33 miles.

Fishing for a living brought with it challenges.  Peter had to be attentive to seasons, the weather, moon phases, cloud patterns, wind direction.  He would have learned these things from his father and grandfather, other fisherman, first hand experience.

Peter knew that the fishing could be very good.  But it also could be very bad.  When at its worse Peter had to muster as much savvy as he could.

Just as Peter grew skilled at reading nature’s signs in order to decide when and where and how to fish, my guess is he grew skilled in reading people as well.  Fishing was a team effort.  He needed others and others needed him to cast off, to set and trim the sail, to man the rudder and oars, to cast the nets, to haul in the nets, to dock, to account for the day’s catch, to get the day’s catch to market.  Peter, no doubt, learned who he could trust to get the job done and who he should probably not trust.

Peter set aside this fishing life on that day Jesus passed  by and called him to follow him.  We know the story.  Peter would now fish for people.

Fishing for people would be the hardest thing Peter would ever do.  Reading a cloud pattern in the sky was one thing.  Reading a cloud pattern in the human heart was a another thing altogether.  Reading a cloud pattern in his own heart was yet something else.

2.

In Peter’s read of himself and others, he recognized that forgiveness can make or break any relationship.  With it, relationships have a fighting chance.  Without it, there’s not much hope.

Last week we considered the disciples’ question to Jesus of “Who’s the greatest?”  That got an answer to they never saw coming.  The greatest — the childlike, the humble, the open-hearted, open-minded, open-handed welcomer of others.

This week, it’s another question.  Asked by Peter.  And, it’s another unexpected answer from Jesus.

Personally, I don’t think Peter’s question was hypothetical at all.  I think it was personal, from the heart.  Someone had hurt Peter.  I don’t know who it was or what he said.  I don’t know how long Peter had been carrying around the hurt.  I don’t know how many times Peter had already forgiven the person.  Had he forgiven him four or five or six times and had given some serious thought to forgiving him perhaps one last time, a seventh time?

Or, maybe Peter had hurt someone else.  I don’t know who it was or what Peter said.  I don’t know how long Peter had been carrying around the burden of knowing that he had hurt another person.  I don’t know if the other person had forgiven Peter or not and if so how many times.

Peter is looking to Jesus for real help for a real concern.  There is nothing hypothetical here.

Peter asks his question:  “How many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me?”  Peter then answers his question with what he surely must have thought was a gracious and magnanimous number of times.  Seven.

To which Jesus replies, hardly.  Try seventy times seven.  Peter wanted to put a limit on forgiveness.  He wanted to cap mercy at a certain point.  He wanted to draw a line and say beyond this point there will be no more forgiveness, no more mercy.  Jesus does just the opposite.  Forgiveness is limitless.  There is no cap on mercy.  It’s boundless.  There is no line beyond which there is no more forgiveness or mercy.

3.

At this point, I often wonder if Peter the fisherman, Peter the small business person, Peter the person who lived in the real world with both feet on the ground did not have a visceral response to Jesus’ answer.  Peter has to have wondered what world Jesus was living in.  The kind of limitless forgiveness and boundless mercy Jesus advocated and embodied simply could not and would not work in a get all you can, look out for yourself, others be damned, buck up buttercup kind of world.

Jesus may have sensed such a response within Peter.  Jesus may have seen a similar look of astonishment on the faces of the other disciples.  So, he tells a story.  The story of the unforgiving servant.

Before I talk about the parable I want to point out that, as a rule, parables should not be read as allegories.  For example, the king is God, the servant is Israel, etc.  Rather, parables are best read as simple stories that invite the reader to critically reflect on his or her own life.  My takeaway may not be your takeaway and your takeaway may not be mine.  In some ways that’s the beauty of parables.  The point often is there is no point per se but many points depending on what we need to hear and what the Spirit needs to tell us.

In today’s story Jesus is not saying in the kingdom of God this is how things are.  Rather, he is saying the kingdom of God is like . . .

The parable begins with a king squaring accounts with his servants.  One servant’s tab is sizable.  The debt is beyond repayable.  The king takes the necessary measures to reclaim some of his loss.  In this case, he decides to auction the man and his family off on the slave market.  This was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world.

Understandably, the man is horrified at the notion of being enslaved and probably even more horrified at the notion of his wife and children being enslaved.  He takes the only course of action left to him.  He begs for mercy.  He cries out for another chance, an opportunity to make things right.

Ancient near eastern monarchs were not known for kindheartedness.  The disciples probably thought they knew how this story was going to end and it was not going to be favorable for the servant.  But the story takes an unlikely turn.  The king is moved by the man’s plea and grants him mercy.  The king not only releases the man but he also erases his entire debt.  All of it.

The man who was once facing life as a slave is now free.  Not only is he free, but he is also unburdened of his enormous debt.  Talk about an experience of limitless forgiveness and boundless mercy, an experience of amazing grace.

One would think that such an experience would transform the man completely.  The story continues.  It turns out the experience does not transform the man at all.  He does not pass along the forgiveness or the mercy or the grace he was given.

Word of the man’s behavior gets back to the king and the king is understandably furious.  What is wrong with this man, the king must have wondered.  The man’s judgment on others becomes the king’s judgment of him.

4.

For me, Jesus’ parable speaks volumes about what we are to do with the forgiveness and mercy and grace God has given to us.  One word that appears numerous times throughout all of scripture is “remember”.  The biblical writers call upon to remember who we are and what God has done for because it seems we are prone to forget.

Moses told the children of Israel to remember that they were once foreigners in a foreign land, enslaved at the mercy of a tyrannical monarch.  God liberated them.  As a people who have experienced both bondage and freedom, they are to be committed to freedom for all people.  They are to extend kindness to foreigners in their midst.

The writer to the Christians in Ephesus counseled the Ephesians to remember that they once were darkness but now in the Lord they were light.  He charged them to live as children of light.

Peter ended up getting quite a story from Jesus to his question.  And we ended up getting counsel regarding what we are to do with our own experience of God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace.  We are to give it away, to keep it going and not shut it down the way the servant in the story shut it down.

I would even go so far as to note that forgiveness and mercy and grace do not become fully realized in us until we to extend them to someone else.

Amen.

Living Honorably

Living Honorably Slide.001

Living Honorably

Matthew 18:15-20 | 10 September 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

What is the one question you would ask Jesus?  It’s hard.  I have so many.

The disciples had a front row seat to Jesus’ ministry.  They heard about the kingdom of God, they saw it in action.  They signed on to be a part of it.  And one of the questions they asked . . . “Who’s the greatest?”

If the disciples were going to be Jesus’ followers they wanted to be the best they could be.  They are asking Jesus to tell them what greatness looks like so they can aspire to it.

It makes sense that with anything we undertake we want to know where the bar is.  We want to know what we are aiming at or for.  What is the gold standard, for example, when it comes to being a Jesus’ follower?  If we are going to bear Jesus’ name, how do we do so honorably?

My sense is that the Christian community has some of the highest standards for being human that I know of. Consider the passages in Matthew 18 that set the stage for today’s lesson.

Matthew 18 opens with Jesus’ followers asking him who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is.  Jesus sets a child on his knee and tells them that those who change and become like children, who exhibit humility, and welcome children are the greatest.  That’s probably not the answer they expected.

By contrast, those who see no reason to change or refuse to change, who exhibit humility’s opposite — arrogance — and do not welcome children occupy the lower places in the kingdom of heaven.  But here’s the thing, communities have a little bit of everything.  Our standards are high and we aspire to nothing but the best.  But, we are also human.  We can aspire to the moon and back but some days we just never get off of the couch.

In any given community, there are the humble and the arrogant.  There are the childlike with open hearts and minds and hands and there are the all-too-adults with closed hearts and minds and hands.  And, these two ways of being can and do also live in a single person.  I know because I’m one.  You may be one as well.

Jesus’ words are not for the person whose humility is fine-tuned and running perfectly who always says and does the perfect thing and never injures a neighbor with his or her words.  But they are for persons with room for improvement, which last I checked is all of us.

Next, Jesus turns his attention to temptations to sin.  Again, the standard is off the chart.  We are not only to be on guard for our own sake.  We are also to be on guard for the sake of others.  Jesus is telling us, “Don’t say or do anything that will contribute to someone else stumbling in his or discipleship.”  Godliness is infectious.  We can give it to others and we can be infected by it from others.  But so too is ungodliness.  We can give it to others and we can be infected by it from others.

My job is me.  Your job is you.  Our job is us.  If we value honesty, we should tell the truth.  If we value kindness, we should be kind.  If we value compassion, we should be compassionate.  How we conduct ourselves will color and flavor our community.

Finally, in the run up to our passage, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.  Ninety-nine sheep stay in the pasture and are safe and sound.  But one wanders away to the point of becoming lost.  The shepherd lights out after the one that has become lost.  God is like that.  God is delighted that the 99 are okay in the pasture but will always pursue the one until the one is returned home.  This delights God all the more.  God does not want to lose anyone.  No one is expendable and everyone is valuable.

This is an odd calculus, a divine calculus.  A human calculus would be to write the one off and be good with the remaining 99.

2.

Today’s lesson makes the most sense when we consider these passages that lead into it.  In a community with such high aspirations — openness and humility, careful consideration of others to the point where we weigh our words and actions carefully, and pursuit of one at the risk of the many — what rule or rules are there when there is failure in the community to live up to its highest aspirations?  Because there will be failures at which point we can pack it in and call it quits or find the restart button.

Jesus, the person who set the bar so very high to begin with, gives us such a rule.  For starters, when someone sins against us — sin here is in the sense of failing to hit the mark they have set for themselves or we have set for them — we have an obligation to seek them out privately.  In that private conversation we are to say, “This is what you said or did and this is how it hurt me,” and then listen.  The person may respond, “Yes I did and I am sorry.”

Or, the person may say, “You’ve got it all wrong.  I said or did no such thing or the meaning you ascribe to it is amiss or . . . .”  This is where Jesus counsels another person to help get at the truth of the matter.  And, if there is still an impasse Jesus’ counsel involves still more people, and, if necessary, eventually the entire community.

The goal in this process is reconciliation, restoration.  People are so important and the community is so important, attempts should always be made to mend any tears in the fabric of the community.  No one should ever be written out of the community unless as the very, very last resort and then only after all other measures at reconciliation and restoration have been pursued.

3.

It’s an interesting thing to read Jesus’ words here in Matthew 18 in the current contentious context of public discourse in the United States.  Granted, Jesus’ words are to the church and not to a nation.  The difference is that in a church we assume a high level of commitment to Jesus, to one another, and to the entire Christian community.  It would be presumptuous to make a similar assumption about our nation at large.  And we know first hand that as a community centered on Jesus our witness to him is damaged unless we of all people can find a way with God’s help to reconcile with one another when we hurt each other.  If Christians speak and behave divisively, why should the nation listen to anything we have to say about reconciliation and restoration.  Reconciliation and restoration should start with us.

Here’s my “what if” for the day.  What if the Christian community’s gift to our nation is a model of how persons reconcile themselves to one another after we have said or done things to hurt one another?  How as Christians can we become best known as reconcilers, restorers.

Now, the Presbyterian Church has not been the best model of reconciliation.  After all, we are the denomination that split in 1861 over the issue of slavery and did not reunite until 122 years later in 1983.  And even then we were not sure we could trust one another.  We had our squabbles and still do.

To our credit, however, shortly after the northern church and the southern church reunited, we discovered that we could use some ground rules to help us work into and through our new relationship after having been divided for so long.  So, we crafted some.

We affirmed three fundamental commitments.  First, in a spirit of trust and love, we promised we would give others a hearing . . . we would listen before we answered.  Second, we would speak the truth in love.  And third, we would maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  Those are commitments worth making and keeping front and center.  And, I believe they are commitments in short supply but high demand.

4.

Next month we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  So, stay tuned.  I get excited about this sort of thing.  On October 29 to be exact.

The 16th century Reformers sought to reform the church in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as attested to in the Bible.  It was a thorough going effort whose impact, both for good and ill, is still with us.

One of the things the Reformers took a good long look at was the church.  They concluded that there were two fundamental marks of the church:  the church was anywhere the gospel was preached and heard and the sacraments — baptism and communion — celebrated.  To this, John Knox and the Scottish reformers added a third mark:  discipline.

Discipline not in a punitive sense but discipline in the sense of making clear the significance of belonging to the Christian community where persons are nourished in the way of Jesus and are committed to achieving compassion and justice for everyone.

Being Christian meant something and should mean something.  And in light of Matthew 18, being Christian means no less than belonging to a community whose members are committed to one another, who avoid actions that may cause others to stumble, who care for the most vulnerable, and restore any who may go astray.

On our best days, we are that community and we are those people.  And even on our worst days, we seek reconciliation and restoration and start over.

Amen.

Peter Speaks UP

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Peter Speaks Up

Matthew 16:13-20 | 27 August 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Think of the truth claims that we affirm and live by and their impact on our lives and the lives of the people around us.  Red means stop and green means go.  If we ignore this simple truth, we risk harm to ourselves and others at every intersection with a traffic light.  Everyone at the intersection is banking on me to abide by this truth and I am banking of them to abide by this truth.  It keeps everyone from getting hurt.

Honesty is the best policy.  I can still hear this remark in my father’s voice.  Tell the truth the first time, he would say, and you never have to worry about keeping your story straight.  No relationship lasts very long without honesty.  By contrast, dishonesty results in hurt, distrust, chaos.  No lying is one of the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai and for good reason.

God is a truth teller.  God’s people are to be truth tellers.  Without the truth, all relationships fail.  Truth is what we owe others.  Truth is what we expect of others.

American author Mark Twain in one his notebooks lamented the lack of honesty in American life at the turn of the 20th century.  In 1902, Twain wrote:  “Honesty:  the best of all the lost arts.”

At the heart of the Christian faith is a truth claim that matters more than perhaps we will ever know.  Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  There is a lot to unpack in that claim.  Who is Jesus Christ?  What kind of Lord and Savior is he?  Lord of what or whom?  Savior of what or whom?  Savior from what or whom?  Savior for what or whom?

And this truth claim will impact how we relate to ourselves, others, and God.

2.

Today’s lesson is the end of the third major section of Matthew’s gospel.  There are six major sections in all.

This third major section, five chapters in all, is all about what folks are making of Jesus and the kingdom he is proclaiming.

Jesus has said what he came to say and done what he came to do.  Now, folks are to take their measure of him.  Who is he?  What is he up to?  More to the point, what is God up to in Jesus?  After his identify is firmly established in chapter sixteen, the remainder of Matthew’s gospel is devoted to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the Cross.

By chapter sixteen, the disciples have heard Jesus say many things.  They have seen him do many things.  They have also heard the religious authorities as well as the crowds say a thing or two about Jesus’ identity.  Some of what they had to say was positive.  Some of what they had to say was quite negative.  Jesus was controversial.  He did not leave a lot of room to remain neutral.  Only the most apathetic can pull off remaining indifferent to Jesus.

Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi.  This location is not accidental.  Caesarea Philippi was a city associated with various displays of imperial power as well as a shrine to Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. 

Citizens of the empire would have been expected to declare Caesar as lord.  Citizens of the area in and around Caesarea Philippi would have been expected to declare Pan as savior.  People could point to statues of Caesar and say, “Look, Caesar, our lord”.  They could point to the temple of Pan and say, “Look, Pan, our savior”. 

Jesus’ presence and public ministry challenges both of these claims.  Is Caesar lord?  Is Pan savior?  Or is there another lord, another savior — one from God.  Jesus asks what people were now saying about him?  To them, who was he?

As it turns out, folks had a lot to say about Jesus.  They had obviously given it some thought.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah.  One of the other prophets.

All of these suggested identities for Jesus have this in common — they are prophets through whom God spoke a word to God’s people.  People were trying their best to understand Jesus and their best efforts involved associating him with the best of their religious traditions.  Since Jesus’ primary audience was Judeans, it’s not surprising that they answered John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah.  Perhaps one of them was reincarnated in Jesus.  Made sense.  Jesus said prophet-like things.  Jesus did prophet-like things.

This assessment worked to a point.  But what about the miracles — feeding 5000 people, walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead?  Prophets never did stuff like that.  “Prophet” didn’t quite get at Jesus’ identity.  Folks, the disciples and Peter included, were going to have to reach bigger.

I’ve imagined the conversation in Matthew 16 between Jesus and the disciples many times.  I can hear Jesus ask the question.  I can hear the the disciples confer among themselves in a low mutter.  I can then hear several of them dutifully give the answers they have heard.  Their answers come across more as reported information than personal testimony.  They are saying, “This is what we’ve heard” and not “This is what I believe”.  And then there is silence.  Jesus is weighing what they have said.  The disciples may be weighing what they said as well and perhaps rethinking their answers.  And then there is more silence.  Then, Peter being Peter blurts out:  “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  This is not reported information.  This is personal, even eye-witness testimony.

3.

Today’s lesson pushes us to consider our own confessions about Jesus’ identity and his relationship to us and our relationship to him.  Consider what we know about Jesus and how we came by what we know about Jesus.

For some of us, our first stories of Jesus came at the knee of a trusted loved one.  Perhaps a parent or grandparent, a Sunday school teacher.  Or, it may have come not through words at all but through an image.  One of the early images I can recall of Jesus is a print of a kind-eyed, gently smiling Jesus sitting in a meadow.  On his lap are children of every imaginable ethnicity — “all the colors of the world” as the song goes.  Jesus was this adult who had time in his day to sit in a field and be overrun by a small brood of children.  One point of this image I believe was to love persons into the arms of God.

In high school I can recall reading New England Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.  In the sermon, I learned that God was mad and Jesus as God’s revelation had come to express God’s anger.  One point of the sermon I gathered was to scare persons into the arms of God.

About 20 years ago Chicago Tribune investigative report er Lee Stroebel published his book The Case for Christ.  The book examines the historical record regarding Jesus, analyzes the data, and researches the most puzzling aspect of Jesus’ life, namely the resurrection.  Something happened to Stroebel in the course of writing the book.  He became a Christian.  He started out to simply report about Jesus.  He ended up personally writing about Jesus as his Lord and his Savior, something he did not set out to do.

I’m not sure whether Peter knew what he was going to say exactly in answer to Jesus’ question on that day.  Surely he knew all the other answers that were being reported.  He could have echoed the answers of the other disciples.  Instead though, he blurted out an answer that got to the heart of Jesus’ identity and changed the course of the rest of his life.

Jesus was the one sent by God to reveal God fully to the world, said Peter, and so says the church.  No longer would there be any question of what God was like or what God’s disposition toward the world was.  We could see these things in Jesus — what he said, what he did, how he interacted with people.  God is love and God’s disposition toward the world is grace.

4.

The closing verses of our lesson involve what Jesus came to build — the church, a community that embodies his revelation of God, a community that declares that God is love and God is grace and lives by this declaration.  The closing verses also involve the importance of the community’s actions.  Heaven takes notice.  What we say and what we do and how we say it and how we do it — with love and with grace — matters eternally.

Then, Jesus oddly, mysteriously tells the disciples to say nothing, to keep his identity a secret.  This is the Messianic Secret and would take another sermon to unpack.  But for the purposes of this sermon, here’s what I think it means.  If we have a choice to either speak or act in order to communicate Jesus, we should choose actions every time.  Because, telling people God loves them means nothing if we don’t show them that God loves them.

St. Francis of Assisi put it this:  “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words”.

Amen.

Food for the Hungry

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Food for the Hungry

Matthew 14:13-21 | 6 August 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

How do you respond to an overwhelming challenge?  Some folks live for overwhelming challenges.  The more the better.  Other folks look for a path of least resistance and take it as soon as possible.  Most folks, however, are somewhere in between.  The reality, of course, is that there will be times when the challenge before us is overwhelming.

Today’s scripture lesson involves an overwhelming challenge.  The hour is late.  The place is isolated.  The resources are scant.  The crowd is large.  The crowd is hungry.

Jesus’ mind is elsewhere.  He has just received word that Herod, the Roman emperor’s man in Judea, has beheaded his cousin John. 

Jesus’ and John’s mothers visited with one another during their pregnancies.  John’s prophetic work laid the groundwork for Jesus’ ministry.  John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  He was there when the heavens opened and God’s voice declared Jesus as God’s son with God was pleased.

Hearing of John’s death could not have been easy for Jesus, especially the gruesome manner in which John died.  This is why he withdraws.  He needs to wrap his head around what became of his cousin and what may be in store for him.  He sets out on the lake in a boat for alone time, down time, to grieve.

But the crowds from the surrounding towns also heard of John’s death.  They also knew something of Jesus’ relationship to John.  They followed Jesus from the shore.

Jesus’ moment to be alone, to grieve, is cut short.

2.

The challenge in today’s lesson is what to do about a hungry crowd.  Two resolutions are suggested.  One by the disciples and one by Jesus.

The disciples are the realists.  They are looking at the crowd size.  5000 people.  They are also looking at where they are.  The middle of nowhere.  They are looking at the time of day.  It’s late.  And, they are looking at their resources.  Five loaves of bread and two fish.  Reality tells the disciples that the only option that makes any sense whatsoever is to send the crowds away to fend for themselves as best they can.  They conclude that they can’t help them.  They aren’t being mean, they are simply being realistic.

Jesus is the “let’s see what’s possible” leader.  He’s looking at the same information as the the disciples.  Too many people at a late hour in a remote area with not nearly enough food to go around.  But Jesus doesn’t share the disciples advice to send them away.  Instead, he tells the disciples to give them something to eat.

This is where the disciples plead scant resources.  They’ve done the math.  Five loaves of bread and two fish will not feed 5000 people.

We know the rest of the story.  Jesus takes the bread and the fish, seats the crowds, looks to heaven, and through his disciples begins feeding everyone present.  Everyone eats his fill and there is food to spare.  Twelve baskets full to be exact.

3.

In Matthew 13, Jesus told story after story illustrating what the kingdom of God is like.  In Matthew 13, Jesus was a teacher.

Here, in Matthew 14, Jesus demonstrates the kingdom of God.  In Matthew 14, Jesus is a miracle worker.  Feeding a small village with five loaves of bread and two fish cannot be explained without the word miraculous.  A miracle is improbable, extraordinary.  It’s inexplicable apart from some supernatural intervention.

In Matthew 13, the disciples learned about the kingdom of God.  In Matthew 14, the disciples experience first hand the kingdom of God.  They see it.  They put their hands on it and can feel it.

The kingdom of God is hungry people who eat their fill with food leftover for still more others to eat their fill.  The kingdom of God is abundance in the face of scarcity.  The kingdom of God can take what is when shared, even when folks believe it’s not enough, and make more of it so that it will be enough.

The kingdom of God is food for the hungry whether its hunger of the belly or hunger of the heart.  Daily, 795 million people in the world will not have enough to eat to lead a healthy active life.  That’s one person out of every nine people on the planet.  Imagine all of the hunger-related illnesses, all of the hunger-related developmental disabilities in children.  It’s sickening.

Jesus’ feeding miracle began with compassion.  Our own feeding miracles begin with compassion as well.  We see the hunger and feel the ache in our heart and are moved to do something.  Doing nothing is no longer an option.  This is the reason for many hunger relief ministries by Christians the world over — Bread for the World, the Presbyterian Hunger Program — and even right here in our our own community — 4 Cents a Meal Offering, Jubilee Kitchen, the Highland Food Pantry, CCAP, WATTS’ breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

It’s tempting to send people away and to advise Jesus to do the same.  The need is so great and our resources look so meager.  But sending people away is really never an option for the Christian community.  What is an option is inviting people to stay, to sit, to commune, and together see what God is going to do when we offer what we have so that others may come to have as well.  This is the kingdom of God.

4.

Here’s a science lesson.  Remember that science project on metamorphosis you did when you were in elementary school.  My guess is you don’t.  I don’t.  But you may remember when you helped a child or grandchild or neighborhood kid.

There are two types of metamorphosis — complete and incomplete.  An example of a complete metamorphosis is when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  This process takes four distinct phases [egg, larva, pupa, adult] and the butterfly looks nothing like the caterpillar.  Talk about serious transformation, serious change.  An example of incomplete metamorphosis is when an egg hatches and a chick emerges and grows into a chicken.  The chicken resembles the chick, it’s just a larger, perhaps better version of its former self.

I believe Christians metamorphose completely and incompletely.  I certainly see this in the disciples in Matthew’s gospel as well as in my own discipleship.  On some things, the change is complete.  On other things the change is in process and on its way.

St. Paul is one of the better stories of what complete transformation looks like.  The Paul before Christ violently pursued and persecuted Christians.  The Paul after Christ became Christianity’s chief proponent and most prolific writer.

My guess is that the disciples who were on hand for Jesus’ miracle of feeding of the 5000 never looked at hungry people the same way again.  Nor did they look at resources, no matter who scant, the same way again. 

They changed that day.  Matthew tells us the story because he wants us to change, too.  That’s the whole point of this religion stuff. 

Hungry people were no longer people to be sent away to fend for themselves.  They were neighbors in need toward whom compassion was the appropriate response.  Is this what we see?  If so, it’s a miracle.  Because too often this is not what is seen by all too many persons.

And a few loaves of bread and couple of fish were no longer seen as insufficient, not enough, an excuse to do nothing.  They were the stuff that could be offered to God with which they, in partnership with God, could do something miraculous.  If this is what we see, it’s also a miracle because our world has more than its fair share of realists — “the problem is too big and our resources are too small so let’s do nothing” — and not enough “let’s see what God will do” folks.  I’ve been both and still am.  With God’s help, though, I’m more in the “let’s see what God will do” camp.

Amen.