Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus-prayer

The Lord’s Prayer | Luke 11:2-4 | 9 August 2020

Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’”

1.

Consider all the things Jesus’ followers saw him say and do.  From the time Jesus called them to follow him, they had front row seats to all of Jesus’ public ministry.

I’m not sure what they thought they were getting themselves into.  Sometimes Jesus could be pretty enigmatic with his statements and often times his parables required some explanation.  When someone tells me, “Preacher, I have know I do what you were talking about,” I consider myself in good company.  The same was said of Jesus.

And, at times, Jesus would castigate his followers for entirely missing the point of what he said.  Still, they followed.  When Jesus preached, they were there.  When Jesus taught, they were there.  When Jesus healed, they were there.  When Jesus multiplied fish and bread to feed thousands of people, they were there.  When Jesus healed the broken bodies and minds of those who sought him out, they were there.  When Jesus calmed the howling winds and the stormy waves with but a word, they were there.  And when he prayed, they were there.

Of all the things that Jesus said and did, it was praying that led them to ask him to teach them how to pray similarly.  This is an interesting request.  Jesus’ inner circle, like Jesus, were Jews.  They would have been schooled in prayer from childhood on.  Twice daily, they would’ve gathered with their families and neighbors wherever they happened to be to recite the Shema from the Torah [Deuteronomy 6:4ff]: “Israel, listen!  Our God is the Lord!  Only the Lord!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and your strength.”

Jesus’ disciples would have prayed through the Book of Psalms, 150 psalms in all.   The Psalms are arranged into five books with 30 psalms in each book.  A devout Jew would read one a day for 30 days to complete the first book and then do the same for the other four books.  At the end of five months, he would begin the Psalms again and pray through them in the same manner.

Jesus’ followers would have prayed at planting time and growing time and harvest time.  They would have prayed before each meal.  They would have prayed at the high holidays marking the exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land.

Prayer was not uncommon to Jesus’ followers.  It was part of the very fabric of their lives.  They learned prayer in their homes.  They learned prayer in their synagogues.  They learned prayer from their religious leaders, their rabbis.

Now, they wanted to supplement their knowledge and practice of prayer with what Jesus could teach them.  My guess is that they saw in Jesus’ prayer life a sincerity, an authenticity, a genuineness that they desired as well.

2.

The context for Jesus teaching his followers to pray is a question from his followers after they have observed Jesus at prayer.  Also, Jesus’ followers point out that John taught his followers to pray.  Jesus should do likewise.  This is a familiar context to us, I believe.

Consider for a moment the things you know and value and practice.  My strong guess is that you witnessed such knowledge and practice in someone you admired and looked up to, perhaps someone you wanted to emulate.

We are approaching a new school year.  There is no small amount of apprehension as to what the new school year should and will look like in the midst of a pandemic.

I have friends who are teachers.  Their colleges trained them well.  In college, they acquired the knowledge of their content, they acquired the knowledge of instructional best practices and educational theory, and how to best engage students with the subject matter.  As student teachers, they were given the opportunity to put into practice what they had learned and reflect on what went well and what could have gone better.  But many of them over the years have shared with me that they learned to teach, to be a teacher by a way of a mentor who shared with them his or her experience of teaching and being a teacher.

This principle applies to most matters.  Throwing a baseball, swinging a golf club, playing a musical instrument, painting a landscape, arranging flowers.  We don’t emerge from our mother’s womb knowing how to do any of these things.  All of these things involve knowledge and technique that has to be taught and learned.  But they also involve us seeing someone else do it well and asking them to help us do it well, too.  And then putting in the necessary work and practice.

3.

Prayer.  Our lesson is what the Christian tradition calls The Lord’s Prayer because it’s the prayer the Lord taught his followers.  It could just as well be called The Disciples’ Prayer.

Here is my disclaimer.  The Lord’s Prayer requires more than one sermon to get at all that is here.  I’m being overly ambitious to think I can say it all in one sermon.  So, I’m not going to try to say it all.  I will, however, try to say what I believe is the most important stuff.

There are numerous wonderful books on the Lord’s Prayer.  I encourage you to read one or more.  One of the more recent titles is N.T. Wright’s The Lord and His Prayer.  It’s worth your time.

The prayer begins with an address.  Jesus calls God, Father.  Jesus’ followers would not have called God Father in speaking their prayers to God.  They would have called God Lord and did.

What are we to make of Jesus’ choice of the word Father when speaking to God.  The word father in Jesus’ time, which was deeply patriarchal, often connoted a “far-reaching, coercive power.”  A father was someone to be listened to and not questioned, to be obeyed.  What he said went, period, end of discussion.  A father could determine the course of your life, even arbitrarily.  Whom you could marry or not?  Whether you would receive a portion of land or not?  Whether you would receive some, all, or none of an inheritance?  Conceivably, the father’s concern for the child could be dependent upon the child’s deference to the father.  It could have been conditional.  For example, “Be the person I want you to be and I will love you.”  The relationship between child and father could be fraught with all sorts of emotions.

Jesus takes this one word, father, uses it for God and redefines it entirely.  Gone is any coerciveness.  Gone is any control or conditionality.  For Jesus, father connotes and evokes generosity and compassion and care and fidelity toward his children.  This was Jesus’ experience of God.  It was the God Jesus revealed to his followers and to the world.  It’s the God depicted in the gospels.  It was how Jesus spoke to God and spoke of God.  It was how Jesus taught his followers to speak to God and speak of God.

The word father for Jesus is a personal, relational word.  The word mother can work just as well.  So, too, can parent.  Likewise, with creator.

4.

The next thing we should notice about the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray is how communal it is.  The pronouns are all plural.  It’s our and us.  There is no mine or me.  Jesus would have a tough time with individualistic cultures like American culture where it too often is mine and me.

I remember early on in my Christian journey being self-conscious about praying the Lord’s Prayer when I was all by myself.  It seemed awkward to say “our Father”, “our debts,” “our daily bread”, “lead us not into temptation.”  In personal prayer, I had grown accustomed to speaking to God using singular pronouns – my and mine.

The prayer Jesus teaches is obviously taught to a group of people rather than one person.  It makes sense that the pronouns would all be plural.  But there’s also theological sense going on.  When we pray this prayer, whether alone or in the company of others, the pronouns are all plural because we live our life in relationship – relationship to a God we call father, in relationship to others who call God father, and in relationship to every other living creature.

When we pray this prayer, we are praying with the company of the faithful across time and space.  When we pray this prayer, we are not only praying with others we are also praying for others.  We are aligning ourselves with Jesus’ God and our God and the God of others across time and space.

5.

The last thing I want to point out is God’s reign, God’s kingdom.  Jesus embodied it.  Jesus taught it.  Jesus demonstrated it in his miracles.  Jesus prayed for it.  Jesus teaches his followers to pray for it, too.  It’s a reign marked by love, justice, and mercy.  It’s a reign marked by grace.

In the world of the Christian gospels, there is no neutral space.  You are either pursuing God’s kingdom with Christ or you are obstructing God’s kingdom.  In the world of the Christian gospels, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is darkness.  Jesus inhabited this world and taught his followers to inhabit it as well.

Evil is a power that can and must be confronted.  In the gospel, it is evil that brings disease to the mind, body, and human spirit.  It is evil that crafts lies and calls them the truth.  It is evil that seeks the destruction of what is good.  But there is also a good and that good is God, whose power will and does prevail.  It’s a power that liberates us from every imaginable bondage – especially our bondage to sin and to death.  This good, this power, is embodied by Christ, embodied by the Christian community, and pursued in prayer and by actions.

6.

The Lord’s Prayer appears in Matthew and Luke’s gospel.  I selected Luke’s version since Matthew’s version is the one we are most familiar with and pray the most.  Sometimes hearing a familiar prayer in unfamiliar words is helpful.

I want to close with Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer in his translation entitled The Message.

“Father,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.”

When the day is done and my mind won’t quit given the moment we find ourselves in, when I can’t find words to speak in prayer, I use Jesus’ words.  The words he gave us.  The Lord’s Prayer.  Usually, I use the most traditional translation from Matthew’s gospel.

Here’s where I want to leave us.  What is the point of prayer, especially The Lord’s Prayer.  The point of the prayer is to nurture our relationship with God until God’s reign, God’s kingdom lives in us and our community more and more; until the desires of God’s heart becomes the desires of our own hearts and those desires transform us and our world.

Amen.

Generosity

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Generosity | 2 August 2020 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

8 Brothers and sisters, we want to let you know about the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia. While they were being tested by many problems, their extra amount of happiness and their extreme poverty resulted in a surplus of rich generosity. I assure you that they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege[a] of sharing in this service for the saints. They even exceeded our expectations, because they gave themselves to the Lord first and to us, consistent with God’s will. As a result, we challenged Titus to finish this work of grace with you the way he had started it.

Be the best in this work of grace in the same way that you are the best in everything, such as faith, speech, knowledge, total commitment, and the love we inspired in you. I’m not giving an order, but by mentioning the commitment of others, I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love also. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.

10 I’m giving you my opinion about this. It’s to your advantage to do this, since you not only started to do it last year but you wanted to do it too. 11 Now finish the job as well so that you finish it with as much enthusiasm as you started, given what you can afford. 12 A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. 13 It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. 14 At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality. 15 As it is written, The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little.

1.

I want to begin by telling you two stories.  I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent and the guilty.

The first story is about Chip.  He lived in my neighborhood when we were boys.  We played ball together.  We fished together.  We were in scouts together.  We traded baseball cards and comic books with one another.

Chip stayed in trouble with his mother and father.  He couldn’t keep up with anything.  “Chip, where’s your baseball, your mitt, your bat,” they would ask him constantly.  “I don’t know,” he would answer.  He would get similar questions about where his fishing pole was and where his scout handbook was and what had become of all of his baseball cards and comic books.  Again, Chip’s answer was, “I don’t know.”

Chip was being less than honest with his parents.  He let them believe that he was forgetful and disorganized.  And they let Chip believe that they believed that he was forgetful and disorganized.  The truth was that Chip was generous.  The baseball, the mitt, the bat, the fishing pole, the scoutbook, the baseball cards, the comic books.  He gave them away to those he believed needed them more than he did.  You’ve, no doubt, heard the aphorism, generous to a fault.  Well, that was Chip.  If you needed it and Chip had it, he gave it to you.  If someone said about Chip, “he’ll give you the shirt off his back” they were telling you the literal truth.  Every kid in the neighborhood knew it.  So, did his parents.  I often wondered how many baseball mitts his parents bought each summer.  Indulging a kid’s generosity had to have been expensive.

Chip was also that kid that sat with the new kid that no one included and nearly everyone avoided.  Chip was also that kid that didn’t laugh at a joke that was at someone else’s expense and would say something to the kid who told the joke.  Chip was that kid that took the long way home in order to keep you company on your walk home from school because you had had a bad day.  That’s Chip’s story.

Now, I want to tell you Frankie’s story.  Frankie had a sharp tongue and used it often.  If there was something you were insecure or self-conscious about, he had a knack for honing in on it, pointing it out to everyone within ear shot, and making sure whatever it was became a point of derision, the joke du jour.  And, a lot of people would laugh at what Frankie had to say in order to avoid becoming his next victim.  Kids wanted to be on Frankie’s good side.  Not because they admired him, but because they loathed him.

Frankie was very different from Chip.  If you had something Frankie wanted, he would take it and dare you to do something about it.  He was bigger than most kids and could usually get away with it.

I remember Frankie taking a kid’s Reese’s peanut butter cups, a two pack, at lunch one day.  I was the kid.  They were my peanut butter cups.  My favorite.  I put up a tussle but Frankie got them away from me.  He didn’t eat them, though.  He opened the package, dropped both of them on the floor, and ground them into the floor with his foot with a grin on his face.  There was this perverse delight in his eyes as tears well up in my eyes.

Frankie was selfish.  He was the center of every story he told.  Everything he said and did was the biggest and the best and no one else compared.  And, Frankie, was mean.  If he ever noticed someone else’s feelings, I never saw it.

There are my two stories.  Chip and Frankie.

2.

Today’s sermon is sermon number five from a five sermon series on Second Corinthians.  In the course of this letter of Paul, Paul provides a broad range of counsel.  Today’s counsel is to be generous, even to a fault.  Be generous out of the love of God for you in Christ.  If Paul told Chip and Frankie’s story he would say, “Be like Chip.”

This passage is often used during stewardship season in a congregation’s life because it has to do with giving.  It’s a great text on giving.

The context is Paul’s collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.  The apostolic council, when they sent Paul on his missionary journeys to other nations, asked him to remember the poor in Jerusalem.  The Jewish Christians were having a particularly rough go of it.  Paul honored the council’s request by collecting an offering for them everywhere he went so that they would have adequate food and shelter.

Most sermons on this text went something like this:  1.  Learn from the way others give, for example the Macedonians [they were poor but gave nonetheless]; 2.  Give in proportion to what you have [this is where the idea of a tithe comes from – a little from a lot may be a lot but proportionally it may not be much at all and a lot from a little may be little but proportionally it’s nearly everything]; 3.  Share what you have with those who have nothing or very little.  And all of those would be good sermons.

But here’s the thing, I’m not sure we can assign rules to giving, rules to generosity.  Things like giving and generosity are more matters of the heart, matters of the spirit, matters of God’s Holy Spirit.

3.

What Paul has to say about generosity in Second Corinthians doesn’t make sense apart from his understanding of the church.  Theology has a big word for it – ecclesiology.  For Paul, the church is the one body of Christ in the world.  We are in ministry together.  When one part of the body is joyous, all parts of the body are joyous.  When one part of the body is sorrowful, all parts of the body are sorrowful.  We see each other and care for one another and know our lives are connected by ties that bind in ways we can only begin to understand.

The poor in Jerusalem who needed the help of the Corinthians and had already received the help of the Macedonians weren’t just those people over there that were having a rough go of it.  The poor in Jerusalem were a part of the Corinthians and the Corinthians were a part of them and the poor in Jerusalem needed the Corinthians.

For Paul, if the Corinthians decided to turn away from the poor in Jerusalem and not see their need, that was a problem.  And this was an issue because they were mad at Paul.  But there was a bigger problem.  And the bigger problem was this – by turning away from the poor in Jerusalem and not seeing their need, failing to be compassionate, empathetic, generous, they were risking ceasing to be the church.  The beginning of a lack of concern for a neighbor in need is the beginning of the end of the church.  There’s a word for this.  It’s selfishness.

I know that’s a strong statement but it’s true.  I will say it another way.  The beginning of a lack of concern for a neighbor in need is the beginning of the end of our humanity.

Paul’s concern for the Corinthians and their generosity grew out of his understanding of the church.  When Christians separate themselves from neighbors in need – for example, when the Corinthians considered not seeing the poor in Jerusalem – we risk separating ourselves from Christ.

4.

Paul’s counsel concerning generosity also grows out of his understanding of Christ.  Christ had it all.  The best seat in heaven, at God’s right hand.  One of the three persons in the Trinity, the Son.  He set his divinity aside though, Paul tells us, and became fully human – to know us, to live our experience, to forgive us, to love us, to guide us, to die for us, to defeat death for us, to unite us to God.  If we want an image of generosity, I think this is a good one.  I would make the case that it is the best one.

The world is in a hard place right now.  A pandemic, high unemployment, uncertainty and anxiety over whether we will ever return to a status quo that we recognize – church life, school life, social event; inequities of every sort – economic, social, racial, a changing climate; dysfunctional politics and governance.  Anger, divisiveness, and even hatred are bubbling up and spilling over.  So are sadness and despair.  From my perspective, fellow citizens see other fellow citizens as the enemy.

Where do we turn?  What’s our next move?  Those are not just rhetorical questions in a sermon that I am now going to answer.  They are sincere questions because I’m seeking their answer right along with you.  This is my first pandemic, too.  I’ve not lived in or through a moment quite like this one.

But, as a Christian, I have some ideas.  What if we lead with generosity, a generosity not only of resources but a generosity of the spirit.  What if we listen first and speak second?  What if we give others the benefit of the doubt rather that labeling them as wrongheaded and misguided?  What if we set aside what we want and consider instead what others need?  What if, when someone observes that what we said or did crossed a line, perhaps even a racial line, that we respond with gratitude and a resolve to do better next time – as in, “Thank you, I wasn’t aware.  I appreciate you pointing that out to me.  I’ll try to do better.”  Too often, as we know all too well, it doesn’t happen this way.  There’s defensiveness and then a counterattack and then a broken relationship.

5.

I want to go back to Chip’s story.  The more I thought about Chip this week the more it occurred to me that his generosity grew out of the fact that he was the type of person who made everyone he came across feel perfectly okay with who they were.  That’s rare.  And when we experience this kind of welcome, this kind of acceptance, this kind of belonging, this kind of generosity, anything and everything is possible – including salvation.  I want to be that kind of person.  I want the church to be that kind of community.  With God’s help, it’s possible.

Amen.

Walk by Faith and Not by Sight

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Walk by Faith and Not by Sight | 26 July 2020 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 5:1-21

We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven. We groan while we live in this residence. We really want to dress ourselves with our building from heaven— since we assume that when we take off this tent, we won’t find out that we are naked. Yes, while we are in this tent we groan, because we are weighed down. We want to be dressed not undressed, so that what is dying can be swallowed up by life. Now the one who prepared us for this very thing is God, and God gave us the Spirit as a down payment for our home.

So we are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. So our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. 10 We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad.

11 So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. 12 We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.

13 If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. 14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.

16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.

1.

I want you to recall a time when you misjudged a person completely, either for the better or for the worse.  You noticed what they were wearing, how they spoke, the things they said, their gender, their skin color, the car they drove, the length and style of their hair.  What else may you have noticed?  In the course of conversation you may have learned where they lived or went to school or something about their political leanings or their religious beliefs or even their lack of religious beliefs.

As a young boy, I watched people misjudge my father all the time.  He spoke in a thick East Tennessee accent.  He never finished high school.  He quit and went to war.  He wore coveralls, a hardhat, and goggles.  During the Korean War he was a mechanic.  He kept the planes flying.  He came home and worked for nearly 40 years keeping sophisticated machinery in a manufacturing facility up and running.  He was a smart man even without a formal education or social connections.  He was comfortable in his own skin.

All of us are creatures of socialization.  That is, the family and the culture and the society in which we were raised taught us how to interact with the world and make sense of it.  Much of our socialization was good and has benefited us.  Some of our socialization was bad and has hurt us as well as others.

I was socialized as a white, Christian, working class man.  I was socialized to value education as the best path to better myself.  Dad didn’t have a formal education but he wanted me to have one.  I was socialized to love my country but to be wary of its political leadership, especially its monied leadership.  I was socialized to see white skin as non-threatening but to see black skin as threatening.  I was socialized to see Christianity as a legitimate religion and other religions as illegitimate.  I was socialized to love baseball and country music.

Any of this sound familiar to you?  You were socialized as well.  We may have some things in common.

Paul was socialized.  He was a devout Jew.  He observed the practices of his faith fastidiously – the dietary laws, Sabbath keeping, prayers, the high holy days.  The heart of his faith was the law of Moses, the Torah.  He was socialized to trust fellow Judeans and distrust Gentiles.

Paul was a trusted leader in his religious community.  He was so trusted that when a group of his fellow Jews started to make claims about a Jesus of Nazareth as God’s messiah, the Lord, a Savior, his community authorized Paul to hunt them down and imprison them.  Paul did so with a great deal of zeal and passion.  His faith was true.  Their faith was false.  He knew what to do with heretics.  Arrest them.  Jail them.  Demand that they recant and return to the one, true faith.  His.

2.

Years ago, I was wrong about a man because of the color of his skin.  My socialization led me to make all kinds of judgments about him, all of which proved to be untrue.  I was ashamed of myself.  On that day, I learned that I had some work to do.  Head work.  Heart work.  Spiritual work.  I didn’t think of myself as racist.  I thought of myself as non-racist.  I discovered that I wanted to be an anti-racist.  There’s a difference.

Paul learned that he was wrong about Jesus’ followers, that he was wrong about Jesus, because of their beliefs.  The Corinthians reminded him how wrong he was and as a result they were trying to decide whether or not to listen to anything he had to say.

Paul’s turn-around experience came on the Damascus Road where the Risen Christ appeared to him.  From that day forward, Paul was a captive of Christ’s love and an emissary of that love.  He became new that day.  His old life was over.  What a lovely image, isn’t it?  Old to new in the blink of an eye.  A new that sets a course for your life that is marked by love.  That’s the Christian life.

3.

Today’s passage is long and full.  There’s a lot to talk about here.  But I want us to focus on what Paul calls walking by faith and not by sight.  It’s not embracing belief over empirical observation.  That’s not it at all.

Observation is a wonderful thing.  We rely on it a lot.  Science relies on it a lot.  But seeing objectively isn’t possible.  Our socialization gets in the way.  It can and will distort our vision.

Is there another way to see other than with our eyes?  According to Paul and the Christian tradition, yes, there is.  Paul calls it seeing or walking by faith.  Others in the Christian tradition use the image of the eyes of our heart or borrowing the eyes of God.

Paul owns up to seeing Christ and his followers all wrong.  And without God’s intervention he probably would’ve continued to see them all wrong.  He calls this seeing in a human way, which makes perfect sense because Paul, like us, was human.

But, says Paul, there is another way to regard others or see others that is less prejudicial, less bias, more equitable, more just.  It’s God’s way.  For Paul, this way begins with seeing others as persons for whom Christ died as an act of love.  This way of seeing changed Paul.  The very people he chased down, arrested, and jailed, he now identified with and served and loved.  Talk about an about face.

4.

From his Damascus Road experience forward, the controlling factor in Paul’s life became Christ and the love of God in Christ for all.  Paul is at his most universal here in Second Corinthians.

Christ died for all, he writes.  It’s not that Christ died for most or many or some or Christians, but all.  And, as followers of Christ this is how we should see and treat every person we encounter.  It won’t be easy.  People will say and do all kinds of things that will annoy us and perhaps even enrage us.  I’ve even found myself asking God whether Christ died for them, too, and whether I have to love them.  The answer is always the same.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

Walking by faith, seeing a new way is one measure that God uses for judgment.  Please make sure you hear me correctly.  We are saved by God’s grace through faith.  We are good with God because of God.  No works righteousness here.

But there’s no getting around that when everything is said and done, there will be divine reckoning.  Our words, our actions will be tallied and judged.  Granted, judged in and with love but judged nonetheless.  We will have to answer for what we have said or not said.  We will have to answer for what we have done or not done.

Here’s the measure – the love of Christ.  God by God’s Spirit has poured it into our lives.  What did we do with it?  Horde it.  Share with only the folks either just like us or most like us.  Or, share it with everyone without exception, even the persons who may be most unlike us.  Again, it’s hard.  The easy way out is not to follow Jesus, but we’ll miss out on the good stuff – joy, abundant living, becoming more fully human than we could possibly have imagined.

5.

A generation is about 30 years.  Think about the generation born in 2020, this year, and then jump to the next generation, the one that will be born in 2050.  They are going to read the same Bible we read this morning.  Hopefully, they will want to know what we had to say about scripture as well as how it, with the Spirit, formed us in Christ’s love.  God’s judgment doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the judgment of succeeding generations.  I want them to say we loved like Jesus, that we walked by faith, that we borrowed the eyes of God and found a way to see through them.  But they can only say that if we actually did.

Amen.

Treasure in Clay Jars

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Treasure in Clay Jars | 2 Corinthians 4:1-18 | 12 July 2020

Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 4 Common English Bible (CEB)

This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. Instead, we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. Instead, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are on the road to destruction. The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who don’t have faith so they couldn’t see the light of the gospel that reveals Christ’s glory. Christ is the image of God.

We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke. We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.

16 So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. 17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. 18 We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

1.

Have you ever wanted to throw in the towel?  Pack it in?  Quit?  Roll over, pull the covers over your head, and stay in bed.  Be honest with yourself.  I think it is a common temptation.  Perhaps the going got rougher than you ever thought or imagined it could get.  A loved one dies and the grief is overwhelming, the loss too heavy.  Your health changes for the worse and will not get better, the condition is chronic, progressive and the trajectory is fraught with pain and discomfort and challenges you are not sure you are up to.  The job you thought was secure isn’t anymore and financial worry has robbed you of sleep and appetite and joy.

Initially, you may have powered through as best as you could.  You kept your chin up.  You feigned calm and well-being.  You showed the world a face of stoicism.  But inside you were a wreck.  Everything was becoming too much to bear.  How could you possibly find the strength to go on?  Putting one foot in front of the other wasn’t working out so well anymore.  You discovered that there was an end to your rope after all.  You had found it.

2.

What I’m describing is despair.  In Virginia, we are now into the fifth month since an emergency was declared for the commonwealth by our governor due to COVID-19.  That’s nearly a half a year.  It feels like much longer.  There’s no small of despair going around.

So much has changed and so much will continue to change.  And as much as we would like to turn the page on all of this and go back to the way things were, it’s not possible.  One day we will turn the page on all this, that much is true, but we will be entering the way things will be and we don’t know what that looks like just yet.  We are going to have to wait and see a little longer.  The not knowing can be unsettling.

Today, we are still in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians – sermon three in a five part summer sermon series.  Sermon one was on consolation.  Sermon two was on forgiveness.  Today, sermon three, we will explore the theme of treasure in clay jars.

Remember, Second Corinthians, like nearly all of Paul’s letters, is an occasional letter.  Meaning, something or someone occasioned the letter and Paul is responding.  Something happened, someone said or did something and Paul is responding to it.  He is offering his counsel, his guidance, his two cents worth.  After all, he is a seasoned apostle who has logged a lot of miles on his missionary journeys.

We can get a sense of what Paul was so discouraged by when we read between the lines.  Apparently, Paul’s detractors had accused him of deception and of recasting the gospel to suit him and flatter his listeners.  Paul’s detractors also accused Paul of putting himself front and center too often and short-changing the gospel.  They sought to discredit Paul.  They wanted people to listen to them and not to Paul.

When I was in seminary, one of my favorite professors was my professor of homiletics – a fancy word for the art of writing and delivering sermons.  His name was Wellford Hobbie.  He said, “Never underestimate the number of times or the number of ways a single sermon can be misunderstood.”  And, he added, “Also, be prepared to be judged in your entirety by one 20 minute sermon.  Some people will take one thing you said and make it all of who you are.”  This was Dr. Hobbie’s way of telling his seminary students to be patient and gracious with themselves as well as to be patient and gracious with others even when it’s hard.

I’d like to think that some of the Christians in Corinth misunderstood Paul.  I’d like to think that they rushed to judge  Paul too quickly and unfairly.  I don’t like to think of them as downright mean although they could’ve been.

It hurts to be misunderstood.  It hurts to be judged.  Especially by the very people Paul wished to help and serve and disciple.  He loved them.  No one can hurt us quite like those we love the most.

3.

Here’s a question I want us to consider.  What kept Paul going when by all accounts he should’ve taken up another line of work?  In today’s passage, he talks about trouble and confusion and harassment and being knocked down.  This was Paul’s experience on his missionary journeys.  This was Paul’s experience with the Corinthian congregation.

Paul had good reason to say the heck with it all.  But he doesn’t.  He keeps going.

Paul uses this wonderful image of a clay pot, a clay jar.  In the ancient world such pots were used for everything – water, wine, oil, grain.  Whatever you needed stored for easy access, the clay pot was your vessel of choice.

But they could and did crack and break and required mending, often, so they could keep on getting the job done.  My guess is that Paul felt a little like a clay pot sometimes.  The communities got out of him what they needed – preaching, teaching, advice, counsel, exhortation, a listening ear, perspective.  Paul gave what he could and did so with joy, but he was human.  He had his breaking point and had to wonder sometimes if he was going to hold up.

Clay pots can be overused and overloaded.  People can be overused and overloaded.  Clay pots will crack and leak.  People will crack and leak.

When I read Second Corinthians, it sounds like Paul came close to cracking and leaking.  But then I read these words.  Paul tells us that he and his missionary companions weren’t crushed or depressed or abandoned or knocked out despite all the hardship and challenge.  The reason – the treasure within them.  The presence of Christ.  The light of God.  Their experience of grace.  Their calling.  It’s the same treasure within us.  The treasure didn’t keep them from life’s hardships and challenges but it saw them through.

4.

I don’t know of a single congregation that had “global pandemic” written into its ministry plan for 2020 and the ways a pandemic would alter how Christians do church and be church.  But here we are and it’s different, really different.

But you know what.  We are still being the church.  We are still doing church.  It may look and feel different, because it is.  Yes, we want and need to re-gather and will when it’s safe and reasonable to do so.  We will get there.

We may feel cracked on some days.  We may feel like we are leaking on some days.  But Paul reminds us that there’s this treasure within us.  The presence of Christ.  The light of God.  Our experience of grace.  Our calling as followers of Christ.  This treasure, even if it dwells in a clay pot, will see us through every single challenge of this pandemic.

Martin Luther, the 16th century German Augustinian monk who gave birth to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, during the darkest days of the Reformation when he agonized and anguished over the church he loved so dearly and witnessed it descend into chaos and divisiveness and even violence he had not imagined reminded himself of his baptism into Christ.  He would touch his forehead and say to himself, “I am baptized.”  It was his way of reminding himself of the treasure within – the presence of Christ, the light of God, the experience of grace, his calling.

Luther’s model was Christ.  Luther’s model was Paul.

Humans are complex and complicated beings.  We are these clay pots, these clay jars.  Common vessels, really.  I don’t know why God chose such fragile vessels, but God does.  Perhaps to keep us humble.  That’s part of it.

You can put a lot of stuff in these clay pots and take a lot of stuff out of them.  They will crack and need mending countless times, so many times we may be tempted to throw them away.  But these clay pots, these clay jars are filled with treasure like no other.  The treasure of the presence of Christ.  The treasure of the light of God.  The treasure of our experience of grace.  The treasure of our calling to follow Jesus.

This treasure will hold the clay pot together in ways unimaginable.  This treasure will see us through the gravest of challenges.  This treasure will be our strength when we are weak.  It did for Christ.  It did for Paul.  It did for Luther.  It will for you and me, too.  It will for others with whom we share the gospel and serve.

Amen.

Forgiveness

forgiveness (1)

Forgiveness | 2 Corinthians 2:1-11 | 28 June 2020 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 2:1-11 Common English Bible (CEB)

So I decided that, for my own sake, I wouldn’t visit you again while I was upset. If I make you sad, who will be there to make me glad when you are sad because of me?

That’s why I wrote this very thing to you, so that when I came I wouldn’t be made sad by the ones who ought to make me happy. I have confidence in you, that my happiness means your happiness. I wrote to you in tears, with a very troubled and anxious heart. I didn’t write to make you sad but so you would know the overwhelming love that I have for you.

But if someone has made anyone sad, that person hasn’t hurt me but all of you to some degree (not to exaggerate). The punishment handed out by the majority is enough for this person. This is why you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now instead, so that this person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow. So I encourage you to show your love for this person.

This is another reason why I wrote you. I wanted to test you and see if you are obedient in everything. 10 If you forgive anyone for anything, I do too. And whatever I’ve forgiven (if I’ve forgiven anything), I did it for you in the presence of Christ. 11 This is so that we won’t be taken advantage of by Satan, because we are well aware of his schemes.

1.

What upsets you?  Think about that question for a moment or two.

The reason I ask the question is that Paul was clearly upset when he wrote his letter to the Christians in Corinth.  Something was eating away at him.  It disrupted his thoughts.  It kept him up at night.  Or he slept the day away.  It took away his appetite.  Or, it had him eating everything in the house.  He had grown irritable.  He had grown apathetic.  This is what being upset looks and feels like.  It makes us into someone we don’t quite recognize.  We are not ourselves when we are upset.  Of course, we are ourselves, but we are dealing with complex emotions that unsettle us.  And we may not know what to do with the complex emotions.

Few things, I believe, upset us more than being at odds with a person or persons or a community we love that has disappointed us somehow, that has let us down, that has failed to live up to our expectations or even their own expectations.  The person with whom we are disappointed can be ourselves.

In a recent conversation with a person of color from the military, I learned that the man could no longer bring himself to say the pledge of allegiance.  He loved his country dearly.  He had said the pledge all his life – in school, in the boy scouts, at civic club meetings, in the Marine Corps.  But no more.  The sticking point for him was the liberty and justice for all part.  Liberty might be for most in America, but not all.  And justice might be for some in America, but not all.  He clearly had grown upset.  I could see it and I could feel it.  As I listened to him tell his story, I become upset as well.  Perhaps, I wondered, the pledge of allegiance is not the affirmation of the truth I thought it was.  Rather, it described truths to which we aspire but we still have a ways to travel.

We are living in a world where there are a lot of upset people right now.  You may be one of them.  I am one of them.  Upset over the pandemic.  The illnesses, the deaths, the disruptions are numerous.  Upset over the financial uncertainty – unemployment in our nation is staggering.  Upset over the political polarization.  Upset over the civil unrest.  Upset over the needless loss of life.

What are we supposed to do with all this upset-ness?  Truth be told, it’s starting to get to me.  What did Paul do with his upset-ness?

Paul being Paul took quill to papyrus to try to work it out.  Something happened in Corinth that all the Corinthian Christians knew about but we don’t know anything about.  Paul gives us absolutely no detail.  Who was involved?  We don’t know.  What happened?  We don’t know.  Who said what and why?  We don’t know.  What in the world was going on?  We don’t know.  Paul doesn’t go into detail because the matter, evidently, was so well known to everyone, except his readers 2000 years later.

Most biblical scholars refer to it as the troublesome incident.  If we read between the lines we can begin to patch together the broad outlines of the troublesome incident.

Evidently, a member of the community said something disparaging about either Paul personally or Paul’s message.  One theory is that the person had high expectations of Paul as an orator given how gifted a writer Paul was.  But, Paul, at least according to this person, was a lousy orator.  He was a third-rate public speaker at best.  Perhaps he spoke in a low voice and couldn’t be heard.  Perhaps he mumbled.  Perhaps he was tentative with his spoken words, which was in stark contrast to how bold he was with his written words.  Whatever the incident, it upset Paul.

The community took exception to Paul being criticized and maligned and disciplined the person.  Paul gets word of the person being disciplined and fears that the community has overdone it.

We have to be honest and admit that we don’t know what the discipline was.  It’s unlikely that it was something as severe as excommunication.  Most likely, it was a good, stern talking to and a prolonged cold shoulder.  Who was this person to say such things about Paul?  The community decided to hold him at arm’s distance and not speak with me anymore to teach him a lesson.

What’s interesting in this incidence is that although Paul was hurt by the remarks of his detractor, he was equally hurt by the overreaction of the Corinthian community.  Remember, the community’s witness to Christ was everything for Paul.  If there was discord in the community, the community’s witness was tarnished.  Who would want to hear the gospel from a community that was having such a hard time living the gospel?  All of this don’t mind the messenger, heed the message is nonsense.  The messenger and message need to be aligned, in harmony with one another.

If I were to summarize the message of Paul’s letters to the various early Christian communities, it would be this – Be Christian!  That’s it, be Christian!  In other words, live up to and into your calling as a follower of Jesus Christ.  Love like Jesus did.  Pursue justice like Jesus did.  Be merciful like Jesus.  Forgive like Jesus.

And a good place to practice being Christian is in the Christian community.  Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to forgive his detractor because he has forgiven his detractor.

2.

Forgiveness is the mother’s milk of community.  Without forgiveness community isn’t possible.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and best selling author, founded the House for Sinners and Saints Lutheran Church in Denver a number of years ago.  She had a standard pitch to persons who wished to join the congregation.  “That’s great,” she would say.  Congregations as we know are places to worship, to learn, to serve, to make a difference in the world in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake.  We are glad you are here.  Welcome.  She would tell the new folks things like this.  But, then, she would add, “Count on me disappointing you.  Count on us disappointing you.  But stick around to see what God will do with the disappointment.  You will grow in grace and so will we.”

Paul’s fear was that if the Corinthians withheld their forgiveness from his detractor, grief and even self-condemnation might get the better of him.  He may even abandon the Christian community and maybe even abandon his Christian faith.  Paul didn’t want to burden anyone with grief and self-condemnation.  Paul didn’t want anyone to turn away from the Christian community.  Paul knew how to restore relationships – forgiveness – because forgiveness is what restored his relationship with God.

3.

My guess is that Paul may have been flattered by the Corinthians standing up for him and championing him.  That sort of thing feels good.  It tells you that you matter to others and that they care about you.  It’s great to have someone in your corner.

But Paul also knew that whatever the troublesome incidence was in the Corinthian community it was not all about him.  It was about so much more.  Yes, Christians will not see eye to eye on everything.  Yes, Christians will disappoint one another.  Yes, Christians will say and do hurtful things.  And all of this sort of thing is a blemish on the community.  It gets in the way of what we have to say about Christ.

But, Christians also forgive.  We say we are sorry.  We admit that we were wrong.  We ask how we can make amends.  And then we set out on the path of making amends.  This is the way we begin patch the holes in our community and become whole again.  And, personally, I believe forgiveness strengthens our witness.  After all, we forgive because God in Christ has forgiven us.  Restoration is possible because God has restored us to a relationship with God.

Author Frederick Buechner uses a powerful image for community, Christian and otherwise.  Community is like a spider web.  If you touch it in one place, for good or ill, it vibrates everywhere else across the web.  There are no isolated incidences.  Everything and everyone is both connected and interconnected.  To think otherwise is foolishness.

This is why it was so important that the Corinthians forgive Paul’s detractor and restore him to the community.  The heaviness of his heart resulted in the heaviness of Paul’s heart and had the potential of destroying the community from the inside out.

3.

One final thought.  To forgive or not to forgive is a spiritual issue.  It may be one of the most important spiritual issues.  Of late, much has been said and done in our nation that needed saying and doing, in my opinion.  But some of it was said and done with malice while some of it was said and done in the service of truth.

In Paul’s theology, if ever there was a work of the devil – God’s primary adversary – it’s an unforgiving heart.  Unforgiving hearts grow cold and will in time solidify to stone to the point where they can no longer feel.  Paul identifies unforgiveness as one of the devil’s schemes in the closing sentence of today’s passage.

Nothing delights the devil more than pitting persons against one another, having them nurse their grievances, convincing themselves that they are right and everyone else is wrong, and refusing to seek forgiveness and restoration.  That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news.  Nothing delights God more than uniting persons with one another, having them let go of their grievances, convincing them that there is more than one way to be and act,  and ask for and extend forgiveness and restoration.  With God’s help, this is what makes for community.  It’s work.  It begins with words but requires action as well.

Amen.

Consolation

consolation

Consolation | 2 Corinthians 1:1-11 | 21 June 2020 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 1:1-11 Common English Bible (CEB)

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother.

To God’s church that is in Corinth, along with all of God’s people throughout Achaia.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! He is the compassionate Father and God of all comfort. He’s the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. That is because we receive so much comfort through Christ in the same way that we share so many of Christ’s sufferings. So if we have trouble, it is to bring you comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is to bring you comfort from the experience of endurance while you go through the same sufferings that we also suffer. Our hope for you is certain, because we know that as you are partners in suffering, so also you are partners in comfort.

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people

1.

Recall a time you needed to be consoled.  Given the present moment it shouldn’t be all that difficult to do.  Consolation is the comfort we receive, especially after a loss or disappointment.  This pandemic, the economic downturn, the civil and social unrest over our society’s inequities have resulted in one loss after another and disappointments too numerous to count.  Worldwide the number infections is approaching eight million with the number of deaths approaching one-half million.

I’m fully aware that the global population is just over seven billion people and percentage-wise the death toll is not that big.  But the eight million people who became infected by covid-19 and the nearly half-million who have died, each have a name and a family and friends who love them.  As important as numbers are, they only tell part of the story.  The real story is who the person was and how he or she lived and what mattered to him or her.  Where did they find joy?  Where did they find sorrow?  What made them laugh?  What made them cry?

What does consolation look like in the face of this ongoing pandemic?  What does consolation look like in the face of the financial strain brought on by the pandemic?  What does consolation look like for black and brown brothers and sisters who are sick and tired of being sick and tired and want what every person wants – to be treated fairly, with respect and dignity, and not to be discounted or demeaned because of the color of their skin.

2.

Beginning today, over the course of the summer months I am preaching five sermons on Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Paul sounds five themes in this letter:  Consolation, Forgiveness, Treasure in Clay Jars, Walking by Faith and Not by Sight, and Generosity.  I would encourage you over the next week to read Second Corinthians through in one sitting.  It’s Paul’s third longest letter but it is still not that long.  And then reread it, because Paul’s prose can be challenging in places and requires more than one reading.

In nearly every one of Paul’s other letters to the churches throughout the Mediterranean region, he begins with a word of thanks to God for those to whom he is writing.  Not so with second Corinthians.

Paul knows the Corinthian congregation. He has visited them twice before and hopes to visit with them a third time because the previous visits had not gone as well as he hoped.  The Corinthians congregation had its issues, they were prickly.

Instead of a thanksgiving, Paul begins with a blessing for the Corinthians by the God of all mercy and all consolation.  In five verses he uses the word “console” [the CEB translates the word “comfort” because it’s a word we are more likely to use and understand] ten times.  The consolation God provides, the comfort God provides is for the purpose that we in turn would offer the same consolation and the same comfort to others.

This is a central point in Jewish and Christian theology.  Remember, Paul was a devout Jew before he was a devout Christian.  His Jewish faith taught him that God saved and liberated persons from whatever oppressed them so that they could be of service to others – so that we could be of service to others.  We are blessed to be a blessing.  Service is the whole point of God’s salvation.  We are saved to serve.  Paul sees this same theology at work in Christ.

Our salvation and our being empowered to serve others is God’s doing.  The Corinthians worried as to whether they were up to the tasks of embodying Christ and carrying forth Christ’s message.  They feared they were too weak and lacked the necessary strength.  Paul is writing in part to remind the Corinthians that God in Christ provides them with all the strength they need.

Imagine conducting person in the street interviews regarding religious matters, especially salvation.  I can recall being stopped by street corner evangelists and asked “if I was saved?”  But, I can’t recall anyone ever – at least outside of a Sunday school class or a Sunday sermon – asking me “why I was saved?”  Two very different questions – are you saved?  Why are you saved?

Evidently, some in the Corinthian community may have lost sight of why they were saved.  Paul doesn’t question their relationship with God.  He starts from a place where he knows that they already have one.  They are saved, not, of course, as a result of anything they have said or done but as a result of who God is.  But Paul may have begun to wonder if the Corinthians had lost sight of why God saved them or for that matter why God saves anyone.

I want to tell you a story.  I was born in the 50s, came of age in the 60s, and entered adulthood in the 70s.  The world, then as now, was changing rapidly.  There was the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Bobby Kennedy.  The integration of schools.  Cities were burning.  There was the Vietnam War.  An American president resigned in disgrace.  Economically, our nation was experiencing high unemployment and double digit inflation.  I could add to the list but I will stop there.

You know what my church had to say about these as well as other matters that were emblazoned in bold each morning above the fold in the newspaper.  You know what my church had to say about segregation, racial inequality, war, corruption in politics.  Very little as I recall.  Almost nothing, really.  Crickets.  It was an odd kind of religious leadership.

The Jesus preached from the pulpit of my formative years was mostly a personal Jesus.  Salvation was personal, too.  I was saved.  Jesus saved me.  And, the reason – so I could go to heaven.  That was why I was saved.  I needn’t concern myself with other matters.  They were somehow outside of religious concerns.

It was a while before I realized that Jesus is more than my Jesus, that he is the world’s Jesus.  It was a while before I realized that salvation wasn’t just for me and my little world – that salvation was big, really big, it was social and it encompassed a world that I couldn’t begin to imagine, a world full of people.  And Jesus had a whole lot more in mind that just getting me to heaven and getting everyone else to heaven.  That Jesus saved me and everyone else – yes, the whole world – so that we would be free to serve others because we were so bound to the service of ourselves and our own interests which resulted in injustice.

It took me awhile to learn that serving others meant standing beside them.  That’s what Christians do.  That serving others meant speaking up for them, especially if their voices aren’t being heard.  That’s what Christians do.  That serving others meant sharing with them what we have, especially if they don’t have enough.  That’s what Christians do.  That serving others meant not saying a thing and simply listening, especially when they know more about what they are talking about and we don’t know.  That’s what Christians do.  That’s why God saved me.  That’s why God saved you.  That’s why God saved the world.  And, on our own, we are not up to it.  We are weak.  But with God in Christ, we are up to it.  God strengthens us.  This is what “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer is all about – on earth as it is in heaven.

This what Paul is reminding the Corinthians of here in the opening of his letter.  God didn’t save them because God liked them best or they had garnered God’s attention in some way.  God saved them to continue the work of Christ, the work of service in Christ’s name.

3.

In college, I was a history major.  History majors are trained to take the measure of a moment in time.  They are trained to ask, “What is this moment?”  “How did we get here?”  “Why did we end up at this moment rather than another?”

America is having a moment right now, I believe.  The Christian church is having a moment as well.  The challenge, of course, is to properly identify it.  And, that’s hard.  I’m reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s observation that life only makes sense looking backward; it’s a shame we have to live it looking forward.  In any given moment, we can’t know what history’s verdict will be; yet, we still have to live in and through the moment nonetheless as faithfully as we can, trusting Christ each and every step along the way.

I believe that we are at a moment where justice has come to matter more than it ever has, at least in my lifetime.  I believe we are at a moment where inequity is no longer tolerable – in fact, it is unbearable.  Things that we didn’t see or chose not to see, like racism, are fast becoming unacceptable.  It is also an uneasy moment because on our way to living more fully in God’s reign or, to use civic language, on our way to a more perfect union, the road can be rocky and circuitous.  History seldom moves across smooth terrain and in a straight line.  My experience is the same goes for the journey of faith – it’s often bumpy with many a sharp turn along the way.

And in this moment, I want Christians to remember what the church said and how it behaved.  I want Christians to remember that the church lived into and from its salvation and served others in the name of Christ.  Standing with those who needed standing with.  Speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.  Denouncing ugly ideas about race that holds white skin color as superior and black and brown skin color inferior or, uglier yet, ideas about race that holds white skin color as the skin color by which all others are measured and judged, which is one of racism’s most insidious manifestations.

It’s tempting for the church to turn inward when the world becomes scary.  I get that.  There are chapters in our history where this is exactly what we have done.  The church in this country was late to the game when it came to saying and then doing something about the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor, Jim Crow, segregation . . .   Let’s learn from these painful chapters and get better, do better with God’s help. 

But Christ calls us to turn outward every time.  The pandemic has disrupted so much of life and livelihoods.  But it has taken us beyond the walls of our buildings and campus, which is a complicated blessing.  I miss being with you in person but my heart is warmed to see the ways in which we are becoming more intentionally the body of Christ in this community.

Jesus calls us to look and see and act.  Our consolation in Christ, our comfort in Christ, our salvation in Christ unites us not only to Christ but to all of humanity as well.  When brothers and sisters rejoice, we rejoice with them.  When they sorrow, we sorrow with them.  We who have experienced and know God’s salvation in Christ become partners with God in fostering the same salvation for fellow brothers and sisters.

It will not be easy work.  It will cost us.  Paul’s work was not easy work.  It cost him.  But it is the work of God whose Spirit enables us.

Next week we will be reading chapter two and exploring what St. Paul has to tell us about forgiveness.

Amen.

Beginnings

 

Black and Whtie

Beginnings | Genesis 1:1-4 and Matthew 28:16-20 | 7 June 2020 | Dan McCoig

Genesis 1:1-4 Common English Bible (CEB)

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.

Matthew 28:16-20 Common English Bible (CEB)

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

1.

What is the Bible?  What kind of a book is it?  How should it be used?

The Bible isn’t a science book.  It baffles my mind when people read it as one.

The Bible is a religious book.  It’s written by people of faith to people of faith in order to build up and encourage faith.

The Bible has its truths to tell for those who will listen.  And it order to hear it we must read and reread it.   Let’s listen.

2.

Genesis is the very first book of the Hebrew scriptures and the very first book of the Christian Old Testament.  It tells the story of how everything and everyone got here.  There are many authors of Genesis, at least four by most scholars’ counts.  Some of them are writing as early as 1000 years before Christ and some of them are writing much later – about 500 to 600 years before Christ.  Today’s lesson falls into the latter category.

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  Our lesson is from the first creation story.  Let’s use our imaginations in order to better understand the lesson.

Israel has been invaded and its people exiled to Babylon, modern day Iraq.  Everything Israel knew and loved, honored and cherished is gone.  Their world has change profoundly.  They are in a foreign land.  It doesn’t look like home or sound like home or smell like home.  Everything is different.  They grieve their losses.  They are hoping they can return from exile soon.  We know the story, though.  They will be in exile for 70 years, that’s almost three generations.

Their captors have demoralized them completely.  Their beloved Jerusalem has been sacked.  Their place of worship, the Temple – the very dwelling place of God – is nothing more than rubble along with the rest of the city.

This provoked a theological crisis for Israel.  If God’s city and God’s dwelling place are no more and God’s people no longer inhabit a land of their own, does that mean God is no more.  Maybe?  In the ancient world, a victory for your army meant a victory for your god.  A loss for your army meant a loss for your god.  The Babylonians’ god was Marduk.  Israel’s God was Yahweh.  The Babylonians and Marduk were the victors.  Israel and Yahweh were the vanquished.

Israel’s priests were in exile in Babylon along with Israel’s people.  They, no doubt, had numerous theological conversations regarding whose god was living and true.  Did the former way of thinking work anymore?  If it did, that mean God was dead.  Their God went down in defeat with Israel and Jerusalem and the Temple.  Or did God?

The priests are standing on the Mesopotamian plain in the hour just before dawn.  It has been a sleepless night for them.  They have talked and talked.  Where is their God?  Who is their God?

They begin to recite.  They recite aloud the story of the world’s beginnings.  This story will comfort and strengthen their fellow exiled brothers and sisters.  It will announce and affirm that their God, Yahweh, is a living God and that the Babylonian god, Marduk, is an idol.

Their God, Yahweh, cannot be constrained or restricted to one place, Jerusalem, or one building, the Temple, or even one people, Israel.  Their God, Yahweh, is the Creator of everything and everyone.

Dawn begins to break.  Together these 6th century BCE priests recite worshipfully the words that will become on first chapter of Genesis.  They look to the eastern horizon and say together:  “When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was without shape and form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s winds swept over the waters . . .”

These priests were not just theologians.  They were artists.  They were poets.  They could see in their mind’s eye what the world may have looked like before creation, before God’s wind [that is the Spirit] blew in and through and around the shapeless, formless, dark void.  And they could also see in their mind’s eye what the world became at the dawn of creation as God spoke light itself into being, a light that rolled back the darkness.  They could see in their mind’s eye the delight God took in creating.  They repeated this refrain in their poetry, their liturgy, their theological reflection on creation.  It was good.  It was good.  It was good.

Their God, Yahweh, created all that was and declared all that was good.  Israel’s military defeat could not change this.  Israel’s exile could not change this.  Israel’s theological crisis could not change this.  God was God and Marduk wasn’t.

3.

I need the creation story right about now.  Because I’m feeling a little like an exile even though I know full well that even with the pandemic, economic disruption, and social unrest my experience doesn’t began to compare with the Israeli exiles in Babylon.  I still have shelter and food and health and family.  Still, it’s my experience and it feels like exile.

I need to hear again that the pandemic, the economic disruption, and the social unrest doesn’t alter the Creator’s relationship to the creation, that the goodness and love that were there from the first are still here.  I need to hear again that the Spirit that was there from the first is still here.  I need to hear again that the light that rolled back the darkness from the first still rolls back the darkness.  I need to hear again that it’s good, very good, both then and now.

My life, like yours, looks and feels different than it once was.  We are all in this fluid moment.  The former order is gone and it’s not clear what the new order will look like.  In many ways this is the way life and faith work.  There’s order.  Then, disorder.  Then, reorder.  Most of us like the order, the status quo, that’s assuming that it’s working for us.  But when the current order is unsustainable or is working for some of us but not all of us, we should not be surprised by disorder.  It’s necessary and without it we can’t get to reorder.

To say we as a nation are divided is stating the obvious.  We are divided along so many lines I wonder what it will take to mend them all.  The inequalities are glaring – economic, educational, social, racial, judicial.

The treatment I am afforded because I am a white, educated, middle class man is not the treatment afforded to persons of color, persons who may be less educated, persons whose social and economic class may be different from mine.  And it’s wrong.  There’s no other way to say it.  It goes against God’s good creation.  We have words for these inequities.  Racism.  Classism.  I would even go so far as to use the word sin.

Naming and facing a problem is a good place to start.  Given the unrest we are witnessing across our land, I think we are beyond the naming phase and have entered the facing phase.  The facing phase is becoming better educated about matters like race in America.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and author, suggests a good place to start is with curiosity.  Why have our cities erupted in protests at the killing of yet another black man by police officers in Minneapolis?  And it’s not enough to answer the question as if our answer is the right one or the only one, as if we really know.  Because, personally, I don’t fully know.  We will have to ask persons who have lived the black experience in a predominantly white society and then listen to them tell their story without us saying a thing.

And then there is the doing something about it phase.  I never learned to talk about race and inequality in my formative years.  I inherited a broken lens through which to see the world, a disordered lens.  Whites lived, worked, and worshiped in one place and blacks lived, worked, and worshiped elsewhere.  I got the sense that that’s the way it had been and that’s the way it should be.  That it was the way it had been was the truth.  That it was the way it should be was a lie.  I lived in an apartheid nation and no one ever told me.  I certainly had my suspicions but there was this eerie silence when it came to race.

I don’t know what your role might be in changing the world.  But, I bet you do.  Listen to God’s Spirit.  I know what my role is, part of which is being curious and learning about things I know far too little about and another part is preaching this sermon.  And, I know that as Christians, looking the other way and not seeing inequality or seeing it and pretending it’s not all that bad is no longer okay.  That day has come and gone.

Benjamin Franklin, one of our nation’s more prescient founders, remarked in 1790 that one day we would have to live up to our national creeds and the sooner the better.  The Declaration of Independence and slaveholding cannot live together.  A society whose government treats one group of persons as fully human and another group of persons as less than human will come apart, violently.  We did.  In 1861.  At a very high cost in human life.

I don’t know if we are coming apart right now.  I hope not even though it feels a little like that.  I pray not.  I trust that God will help us find a new way, a better way, a way that reflects God’s goodness that was there at the dawn of creation but has been so sullied by our human sinfulness.

4.

Here’s my seque to our second lesson.  It’s the very last words of Matthew’s gospel.  It’s Jesus’ charge to his followers as he ascends to heaven.  It’s the Great Commission.  These words are all about change, transformation.

Jesus’ followers, the church, are given their mission.  It’s to go and make disciples.  Notice that it isn’t to set up camp, wait for folks to come to us, and then invite people to follow Jesus, too.  It’s go.  Meet people where they are.  Embrace them for who they are and how they are.  That’s called grace.  Most of them will be very different from me, from us, and that’s okay.  It’s the good world God made.

The next piece of Jesus’ commission is to baptize.  Baptism in the early church was a radical rite of initiation.  It indicated that a person had heard what Jesus had to say about changing one’s heart and mind, turned from sin and turned to God.  The old life and its way were over and done with and a new life and its way, Jesus’ way, was beginning.

And the final piece is to teach.  Remember, Jesus was a rabbi.  Teaching was his thing.  So, it’s not surprising to hear Jesus tell us to teach.  Teach persons to love God and neighbor.  Teach persons to turn the other cheek.  Teach persons to forgive.  Teach persons to help the most vulnerable.  Teach persons everything Jesus said and did.

And I know of no better method of instruction than by example.  Because we know folks won’t listen to us until it’s evident that it matters to us and it matters so much we put into practice what we say.

Amen.

Pentecost in a Pandemic

celebrate-pentecost-FEATURED

Acts 2:1-21 Common English Bible (CEB)

Pentecost

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

1.

How patient are you?  And, when it comes to living with uncertainty, how would you rate yourself?  Patience is one of those virtues I have had to work on my entire life.  I’m still working on it.  I’m better than I used to be but I still have work to do.  Same goes for uncertainty.  I like to know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen and who’s involved and what comes next.  I’ve gotten better at living with uncertainty.  I’ve learned to say I don’t know but God does and leave it at that.  But it’s taken many years and a lot of work to get to that place.

 

Again, how about you?  How patient are you?  How do you fare in the face of uncertainty?

 

Those are two key questions for Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem in today’s lesson.  Thanks to June and Carl for reading it for us while sporting their Pentecost red.  Perhaps some of you are sporting your red pajamas on this Day of Pentecost as you tune in to our online worship.

 

The disciples are doing what Jesus told them to do.  Go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t know how long they would have to wait.  It could have been like a long car ride where the youngest person in the family will always ask “Are we there, yet?”  And, the question will not be asked just once but countless times until you’re there.

 

That’s the waiting part.  But what about the uncertainty part?  Jesus had talked about the Holy Spirit on many occasions.  He promised that following his arrest, trial, execution, resurrection, and ascension that his followers would not be left alone.  They would not be orphaned.  They would – we would – receive the Holy Spirit to live in us and be beside and go before us, to comfort us, to empower us, to help us say and do things that we could never say or do on our own.

 

Patience and uncertainty were thrust upon the disciples on the first Pentecost.  Granted, the person who told them to wait in Jerusalem was Jesus, someone they knew and loved and followed and learned from for the past three years.  So, there’s that.  They knew Jesus was trustworthy and would not lead them astray.  But the whole receiving the Holy Spirit thing had to leave them a little unsettled.  What would that look like?  What would it feel like?  What would it sound like?  I imagined that they had more than one conversation as they waited upon the Holy Spirit.

 

2.

I listened to a lecture on homiletics last week.  Homiletics is the art of writing and preaching sermons.  It’s what seminaries work hard at teaching their students.  They do a good job in getting the process started but in my opinion it’s good congregations that make good preachers.  I learned to preach in my first congregation by doing my best, realizing that it was falling short, listening to trusted members of the congregation, and then trying harder the next time and relying ever more on God.  This is called failing up.

 

Anyway, the lecturer said that every scripture lesson sounds different during this pandemic.  And she was absolutely right.  We see different things.  We hear different things.  Take today’s lesson for example.  I know I have preached close to 30 or more Pentecost sermons.  I don’t think I ever paid so much attention to the waiting and the uncertainty.  Why did I pay so much attention to the disciples’ waiting and the uncertainty this year?  The pandemic.  What else?

 

We are all doing a lot waiting during this pandemic.  Waiting for news from medical scientists on breakthroughs for COVID-19 treatments and perhaps even a vaccine.  Waiting for news from governmental officials as to when it may be safe once again to be in groups of people without potential harm, especially indoors.  Waiting for news from school officials as to what the school year in the fall will look like whether it’s preschool, K through 12, or college.  Waiting for news from church leadership as to when it is safe once again to gather in-person worship of God in addition to online worship.  Waiting to resume a life that is at least in some ways similar to the lives we once led.  Waiting on ourselves and our neighbors to change our behavior to stop the transmission of the virus – masks, distancing, avoiding crowds of people for prolonged periods of time.  Waiting for people to stop getting sick with COVID-19 and waiting for people to stop dying from COVID-19.  Waiting.

 

We are also living with a lot of uncertainty.  As I read and watch the news, bright investigative journalists are asking all the right questions.  But, in the midst of this pandemic, sometimes the answer is we need more data and right now we don’t know.  Or, our data is incomplete and we know some things but we have more to learn.  Or, I hear two authorities interpreting the data differently, which confuses me to no end.  This is uncertainty.

 

One epidemiologist caught my attention with his baseball analogy.  Dr. Mark Ohlsterholm of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine observed that when it comes to mitigating, containing, and eradicating COVID-19, we are in the second inning of a nine inning ballgame.  That analogy made sense to me.  As a baseball fan, I know that with seven more innings to play anything and everything can happen and usually does.  There is a lot of uncertainty and you want to know the outcome but won’t until the last out of the ninth inning and even then the game may be tied and will have to go into extra innings.

 

3.

So, there were the disciples in Jerusalem.  Waiting.  Not knowing.  And then it happened.  A noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky.  It filled the house where they were gathered.  Tongues as of fire that came to rest on each of them.  Then, they spoke.  But not in their language, other languages – the languages of the many different people in a city like Jerusalem.

 

Nobody knew what to make of it.  Not the disciples.  They were hard working-class men from Galilee in Judea.  Not the Parthians or Medes or Elamites or Mesopotamians or Cappadocians or Pontusians or Asians or Phrygians or Pamphylians or Egyptians or Libyans or Cyrenians or Romans or Cretans or Arabs who heard the Galileans speak in their language.

 

It’s up to Peter to make sense of all of this.  First, he counters the observation that the Galileans must be drunk.  Not so, he says, too early.  And then he begins his sermon.  What everyone is witnessing is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy by the Hebrew prophet Joel.  Peter quotes Joel, “God will pour forth his spirit upon all flesh, everyone – the young and the old, men and women, boys and girls, the free and the bound – and they will dream dreams and see visions.”

 

And in the context of Peter’s sermon, the dream is one world, the vision is one world.  A world created by God in Christ, saved by God in Christ, and transformed by God in the Holy Spirit.

 

4.

Pentecost, technically the 50th day after Passover on the Jewish Calendar [remember, Jesus and all the very first disciples were Jewish], is the birthday of the church.  What was before a rag-tag assembly of men and women and children who followed Jesus about hanging on his every word and action and trying to make sense of what he was saying and doing as best they could, becomes a Spirit-filled community with a mission from on high, a mission from God himself – to witness to everything Jesus said and did, to say and do the kinds of things Jesus said and did.  It’s a mission that crosses every human divide and breaks down every human barrier and begins with the language divide and barrier and won’t stop until every divide is crossed and every barrier dismantled.

 

My guess is that if I time traveled to the period of the church Luke portrays in the Book of Acts, I wouldn’t recognize that church initially.  It was a church constantly on the move, always fluid.  Peter is on the go, preaching the gospel.  Paul is on the go, preaching the gospel.  It is a church that improvises more often than not.  It’s figuring things out as it moves forward.  People are gathering in homes for worship and study and companionship.  Church buildings are in the distant future.

 

And if Peter or Paul were to time travel to the 21st century, they wouldn’t recognize the church initially.  Church as a place would be foreign to them.  We would have to explain this to them.  Church with unassailable traditions would be foreign to them.  Something else we would have to explain.  Hopefully, they would recognize our devotion to Jesus, our service to neighbor, our commitment to one another.  But, the other stuff would either have to grow on them or they would take issue with it.  And we know at least Paul had no trouble straightening the church out when it had gone off the rails.

 

The one thing that is true, however, of the first century church and the 21st century church is this – the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is who we honor this day, who we celebrate this day, and who we lean on and rely on and seek out every day – the Spirit who dwells in us but who is also alive and moving in and through and across the world over.

 

I have to wonder what a Pentecost in our day might look and feel like.  What would a fresh breath of God into our world look and feel like in this moment?  Instead of enabling us to cross language barriers, what other barriers might the Spirit be leading us across?  What other divides might the Spirit be leading us to reconcile and unite?  Are they ideological, political, racial.  I can think of more than a few and I bet you can, too, but I’m out of time for this week.

Amen.

Love, I’ll Say it Again, Love

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Love, I’ll Say it Again, Love | 17 May 2020 | Dan McCoig

1.

Imagine that you are a cultural anthropologist.  You are walking about a city you have never visited before, among a people you have never met before, much like the apostle Paul in Athens in today’s first lesson.

You are curious.  You notice the buildings and the layout of the streets.  You notice the shops.  You smell the food.  You are beginning to get a slight feel for who these people are what matters to them. You also notice the religious temples and the shrines to deities that are important to the people you are presently meeting.  One of them says, “To an unknown God.”

This starts you thinking about religion and faith.  Things that are very important to you.  You recognize, as did Paul, that people are religious whether they own up to it or not.  We are meaning makers at heart.  Paul was a subject of the Roman empire.  The language of the empire was Latin.  Religion in Latin meant ‘obligation,’ ‘bond,’ ‘reverence.’  The Athenians sensed an obligation, a bond, and reverence toward many things — learning, democracy, their nation-state, but also to supernatural beings like their pantheon of deities.  They knew what it meant to be religious.  Paul hopes to redirect their religiosity, to share what he has experienced to be true.

2.

What Paul is doing in today’s passage is what every person should do who has a message of profound significance he or she wants to share with others.  He observes.  He listens.  It reminds me of the folk wisdom that there is a reason we have two eyes and two ears and only one mouth.  We should always look and listen first and foremost and long before we speak.  One, it will help us to learn.  But, two, it will let the folks who we are speaking to know that they matter.

Paul starts with the Athenians’ innate religiosity.  He suggests that their unknown God is now known in Jesus Christ.  Paul is saying that if you want to know what God is like and what God is up to and what matters most to God, take a look and a listen to Jesus Christ.  He is God revealed.  He is God.

Do you know what the largest religious demographic in the United States is?  It’s the ‘nones’ — n, o, n, e.  That is, people who, when asked about their religious status, check the box marked ‘none.’

Religious sociologists who research deeply this sort of thing tell us that there are many reasons a person is a ‘none.’  Chief among them, when it comes to the Christian faith, is that the church has done a lousy job of presenting the Jesus of the Gospels.  We’ve too often portrayed Jesus as being against all sorts of things he would never be against.  We’ve too often portrayed Jesus as being for all sorts of things he would never be for.  We’ve equated Jesus with all sorts of political ideologies to the point that Jesus is unrecognizable.

And, we’ve done a lousy job of listening.  The ‘nones’ are religious.  They want and need and seek meaning in their lives just like you and me.  They want and need and seek ways to make a difference in the world just like you and me.  But they no longer see the church as a place to explore meaning or a place through which to make a difference.  And that’s on us, I’m sad to say.  We’ve been perceived — wrongly I would argue — as being overly interested with internal matters and minimally interested in external matters.

I hate this pandemic.  I hate the illness and death.  I hate the economic disruption and financial strain.  I hate that children and teachers are missing school.  I hate the uncertainty of when or if we will get to a place where we don’t risk infecting someone or having someone infect us.  I hate how something biological has become political where people pick sides and pit neighbor against neighbor.  I hate not seeing my children and grandchildren.  I hate that there’s no baseball.  I hate not being able to play bluegrass music with my friends on Wednesday nights.  I hate it.  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

But the pandemic has done some helpful things for us.  It’s reminded us in stark terms that the church is more than a place, it’s people.  And not only people but people who are on a mission, God’s mission — to love, to do justice, to be merciful.  In other words, to be more like Jesus.  We are rediscovering that “Jesus has left the building and the church has decided to follow him.”

The world needs all of these things right now more than ever —love, justice, mercy.  Because, the pandemic has also shown us all the places where our society is broken — the inequalities, the lack of wages that aren’t enough to live on, spotty or nonexistent health care coverage, attitudes and practices that dismiss whole swaths of humanity as expendable — the elderly, minorities.  None of this is excusable or sustainable.

The passage from Acts is one of several of Paul’s sermons in the book.  The heart of the sermon is verse 26 — “From one person,” says Paul, “God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.”  Here Paul is pointing to the unity of humanity.  Frederick Douglass quoted this verse often when advocating the abolition of slavery and the dignity of every human person.  It was and is a difficult argument for Christians to deny and especially white Christians for whom the system has worked well.  Racism won’t go away on its own.  Racism won’t go away with only people of color advocating for change.  Racism needs people as white as I am saying enough is enough and advocating for change, too.

3.

The lesson from John follows the passage Amanda explored last week.  It’s a part of Jesus’ farewell discourse as well.  Jesus is making his good-byes.  This is his last opportunity before his arrest, trial, and execution to tell them what matters more than anything else.

What would you want to say if you knew your life was ending before the week was out?  I can’t guess your exact words but I bet you they would include “I love you” spoken to the people you love and words of encouragement to love others as well.

That’s exactly what Jesus did.  His friends were anxious and afraid.  They didn’t want to think about life without Jesus.  They feared abandonment.

When we are anxious and afraid, we are at our worst when it comes to remembering important lessons and making good decisions.  The anxiety and fear cloud our minds.  They cloud our hearts.

Jesus doesn’t say anything new when he is making his good-byes.  He returns to what he has been telling his friends all along.  Love.  Love God.  Love one another.  Love others.  Love the world.

I don’t mean to brag but I am an excellent speller.  There is a reason for this.  When I was a grade school student I had a teacher who told me the best way to remember anything was to repeat it and then repeat it some more.  Repeat to remember, she would say.

That’s what Jesus is doing.  He is repeating his message of love so that his friends will never forget it and always practice it.  He is repeating his message of love so that we will never forget it and always practice it.

And there’s something else, we won’t tread the path of love alone.  Jesus is promising the presence of his living Spirit in the community as he makes his good-byes as well.  When we are prone to forget, the Spirit and the Christian community will help us remember.  When we are prone to give up or give in, the Spirit and the Christian community will hold us up and help us to go on.

This is the heart of the Christian faith, love.  This is the heart of the meaning of human existence, love.  God is love.  Always has been and always will be.

Amen.

Hearing Voices

Good Shepherd 5

Hearing Voices | 3 May 2020 | Dan McCoig

Acts 2:42-47 Common English Bible (CEB)

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

John 10:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)

10 I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

1.

My experience is that most of us live in at least two worlds.  The way the world actually is and the way we believe the world should be.  I’m reminded of the line from one of Senator Robert Kennedy’s speeches.  He said: “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

Our world as it actually is is very different from the world we woke up to a couple of months ago.  A couple of months ago children went to schools where their classmates and teachers awaited them for another day of learning.  Adults went to their places of work to attend to their responsibilities, earn a livelihood, and make a life for their families.  Grocery shopping and going to the doctor or pharmacy was routine and didn’t require masking and gloving up and following the directional arrows on the floor.  And the store shelves were filled with what we wanted and needed.  It was a different world.  It’s a world we understood and liked, a world that made sense.

Now, the world that is is quite different.  There is a highly infectious virus that has the ability to make many of us very sick and in some cases kill us.  We are advised by scientists and physicians and public health experts to stay at home if possible and when we venture out to keep our distance from one another.  We are advised to wear masks that cover our noses and mouths.  We are advised to wash and rewash our hands regularly and do so for at least 20 seconds, singing “Happy Birthday to You” through twice.  Personally, I sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

What about the world as it should be?  For Christians we call this the reign of God or the kingdom of God.  It’s what Jesus talks about again and again throughout the gospels.  It’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s a world where neighbors are loved, where justice is indeed for everyone and especially the poor, where there is enough with plenty left over, where peace is pursued more passionately than war is prepared for.  It’s a world where everyone’s well being matters and not just mine or yours. 

It’s a world that President Franklin Roosevelt captured to a degree in his 1941 State of the Union address.  Roosevelt called for the peoples of the entire world to embrace what he called the four fundamental freedoms:  Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

2.

Today’s lessons, on this fourth Sunday of Eastertide, talk about a world as it should be.  The first lesson is Luke’s description of the earliest church after Jesus’ ascension.  It was communal through and through.  Folks looked out for one another.

According to Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, the early church had four fundamental commitments.  He tells us they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  These were what mattered most to them.

The apostles’ teaching was the oral tradition of what Jesus said and did as witnessed by his inner circle, the first twelve disciples.  The community was the believers who had chosen to follow Jesus and live by his words.  The shared meals were all the times they gathered at table to nourish their bodies with good food and their spirits with one another’s company and when they did so they made sure everyone had enough food and enough company.  And the prayers were the way in which they shared their hearts and minds with God and listened for God’s own heart and mind so they might align their hearts and minds with God’s heart and mind.

This is the way the early church was for a brief season.  We know it didn’t last.  After all humans are human.  Even divinely redeemed humans are still humans.  We have our issues and will continue to have our issues.  Lord, keep helping us.

Some believers made the apostles’ teaching say what they wanted it to say that would advantage them and disadvantage others.  The community abandoned its inclusivity and began to draw lines between who was in and who was out with God favoring the insiders and disfavoring the outsiders.  The shared meals became anything but shared.  People got what they could for themselves and let others fend for themselves.  And prayer devolved from transformation into a transaction – God do this or that for me, that’s your job after all.

It’s not a pretty story.  It pains me to tell it.  And still, the church has never lost sight of its beginning.  It has never lost sight of this aspirational passage from Acts written by Luke.  It’s still one of our foundational texts for what church should look and feel and act like.  It’s what a spirit led community is.  Our restlessness for what we can be and what we should be as a Christian community is a work of the Spirit, who never leaves us alone, and should mess with us the most when we are making a mess of things.

3.

The lesson from John’s gospel is all about community in general and community leadership specifically.  Every time we read the Christian gospels we should do so with their historical context in mind.  Jesus was a Jew.  Judea was an occupied territory of the Roman empire.  And there is never any love lost been the colonizer and the colonized.

Rome’s emperor was Caesar.  Caesar was lord.  Caesar was the shepherd over his subjects.  Caesar’s voice was the voice to be listened to and heeded.  Caesar would keep you safe and secure – because you were his source of taxation and military conscription.

The “I am” sayings in John’s gospel are an affront to the Roman occupiers.  They are an affront to Caesar himself.  Remember when Moses asked the voice who spoke to him from the burning bush on Mt. Horeb for a name.  The voice of God told Moses, “I am who I am.”

When Jesus says I am the good shepherd or I am the gate, such as in in our passage today, he is saying I am your Lord and God and Caesar isn’t.  I will shepherd you for your own good and not for my own glory or might.  I will lead you through a gate where there will be nourishing pastures.

I’m not sure we can even begin to imagine or understand the pressure not to listen for the voice of Jesus in the early centuries of the church’s history, the pressure not to follow Jesus.  Caesar did not tolerate leaders and movements that questioned or threatened his rule.  Caesar’s rule seldom had the welfare of his subjects uppermost in his mind.  The Caesars throughout history were and are not known for their benevolence.

John is writing his gospel to a community that is hearing a multitude of voices.  Our time is no different.  There are a multitude of voices, many of whom speak in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, as do I.  Hopefully they do so with a great deal of humility.  Preachers at best are vessels.   I love Nadia Bolz-Weber’s pre-preaching prayer, “Lord, don’t let me goof this up.”  [Only she uses a different word than goof.]

Here’s one voice I heard loud and clear this week.  It came from the oddest quarter. It’s a remark made by the actor Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight K. Shrute on The Office.  Wilson wrote:  “The metamorphosis of Jesus Christ from a humble servant of the abject poor to a symbol that stands for gun rights, prosperity theology, anti-science, limited government (that neglects the destitute) and fierce nationalism is truly the strangest transformation in human history.”

4.

Friends:  Our commonwealth’s covid-19 mitigation measures have been in place since March 12.  They haven’t been easy.  The disruptions, especially the economic disruptions, have been significant and are hurting a lot of people.  But in the long run, I believe, they are helping a lot of people.  The measures are also countercultural for American society.  We are individualists.  It’s the air we breathe and the water we drink.  No one is more important than I am.  You were taught to believe the same thing about yourself.  But that’s not Jesus’ voice.  That’s not the voice of the Christian faith.  Nothing is more important than each and every member of the community, obviously yourself included.  This is not a “I’m in it for myself moment” this is a “we are in this together moment.”  Christianity is communal.   

Might this dreadful pause in which we find ourselves give us ample opportunity to reattune ourselves to the one voice that matters, God’s, and as we listen to that voice rediscover the kind of community we can be and should be.

Listen to these words of college professor, author, and church consultant David Brubaker.  He writes: “Perhaps the greatest takeaway from our current virtual reality is that we were never meant primarily to attend a congregation, but to be a congregation. In this crisis time, we can explore more deeply what it means to be a congregation. After all, what is a “congregation” but a group of human beings who “congregate” periodically, to connect with and encourage one another—and then to scatter once again…to love and to serve.”

Be well and stay well and take care of each other, friends. 

Amen.