Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

A Way Forward

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1.

Today’s lesson can take us in any number of directions. I want us to go in at least two.

It’s usually taken as an evangelism manifesto.  This is a legitimate interpretation.  Christianity from it’s beginning has been a missionary enterprise.  God in Christ is making the world anew and we are called to be partners in the effort.  One aspect of the partnership is spreading the news and enlisting others.  To do this, we can’t stay put.  We have to move.

A lot of recent research and study into religious communities and their health centers on the question as to why in the world someone would join and participate in a religious community, like a Christian congregation for instance.  What the research points to is that communities have to provide a compelling reason for participation otherwise folks are going to choose to use their time and energy in countless other ways.  And there are certainly more options than there used to be. 

Personally, I believe there are a lot of compelling reasons.  This is one of those vocational biases for preachers.  Here’s one of them:  Where else can you find a community that gathers regularly to commit itself anew to following the way God has put before us in the life of Jesus — a way of grace and love, justice and mercy — and opens itself to the spirit of God who provides the power necessary to honor such an audacious commitment?  I can’t find that on the golf course or in my beer club or at my bluegrass jam session or in a political affiliation.  My guess is you can’t either.

If the church went out of business, the hole that it would leave would be considerable.  The world would become all the more graceless and loveless, unjust and merciless.  I need the church.  You need the church.  The world needs the church.

2.

I’ve interpreted this text as an evangelism manifesto numerous times.  Certainly, disciple making is or at least should be at the heart of the church’s mission.

The operative words in the text as an evangelism manifesto are go, make, baptize, and teach.  Each of those verbs assumes an object.  Go where?  Into the world.  Make what?  Disciples.  Baptize whom?  Believers.  Teach what?  The way of Jesus. 

Personally, I think the first word is the most important.  Go.  If no one goes, it’s unlikely the other stuff — disciple making, baptizing, and teaching — are going to happen.

Go is such a short and simple word.  My guess is that go was one of the first words many of us learned to say and one of the first words we learned the meaning of.  If we listen closely enough, we may be able to hear the words of a loving adult say, “Let’s go.”  “It’s time to go to bed now.”  “It’s time to go to school.”  “It’s time to go to church.”

Go means to move from the place we are to another place — a different place, a new place.

A word that in some ways is similar to go but in other ways is worlds different from go is come.  Come means to move closer, usually to the person bidding another or others to come.

Both go and come involve movement.  There’s the similarity.  But here’s the difference.  Going involves me moving from the place I’m in to a new or different place.   By contrast, coming involves me bidding someone to come to where I am.

Jesus uses the word come often.  Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says to those around him:  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

This is the way Jesus usually uses the word.  He bids others to leave the place they are and come to the place where he is.  Usually, come is followed by follow.  As in, “Come and follow me.”

Interestingly enough, I can find no place where Jesus tells his followers to set up shop and bid others to come to where they have set up shop.  Jesus says quite the contrary.  He tells his followers to go where others are.  Engage them.  Tell them about the mercy you have experienced, the mercy that has changed your life.  Tell them that the same mercy is theirs, too.  The news is too good and the mission too crucial to wait for others to come.  The news is so good and the mission so crucial that Jesus followers are to go.

3.

Presbyterian Christianity has made many significant contributions to the world.  This is one of the reasons I am Christian in a Presbyterian way. 

We are builders.  Builders of schools and hospitals and churches and orphanages and retirement communities.  I believe God has called us to all of this work.  We said yes and got it done and, in God’s name, the world was made a better place.

We said yes because we believed and continue to believe that we partner with God to put ignorance on the run, to heal people, to save people, to love people, and to care for people from birth to death.  All of this remains very important work and it’s not finished.  All of it still needs all of us.

But, the focus here at the outset of the 21st century is shifting and should.  What we build now is community.  What we build now is a spiritual place in which people can call home.

The physical building remains important.  If it weren’t for these walls and what happens within them — the worship, the education, the fellowship, the service to neighbors, a lot of really good things simply wouldn’t happen as well if at all.  That’s why we built them.  That’s why we paid for them.  But they are more home base than home.  They are the place from which we launch ministry and mission.  And if we don’t take the good things that happen here and move them well beyond these walls, we are being less than faithful to Jesus’ instruction to go.

There was a time when folks would seek out a Christian congregation.  It was culturally acceptable and even expected, especially in places like the Shenandoah Valley.  But that’s not as true as it once was.

In some ways we need to think and act like the earliest church.  We need to go to where people are rather than waiting for people to come to us.  We need to re-conceptualize Christianity more as a movement and less as an organization or an institution.  How we do this is limited only by our creativity and imagination?  It’s going to take a renewed attentiveness to God’s Spirit.  And, it’s going to take a willingness to experiment, to try new and different things.

At our denomination’s most recent General Assembly this idea of Christianity as movement was captured with the words “The church has left the building.”   In May our monthly book study discussed a recent biography of 20th century Christian theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his resistance to Germany’s Nazi Party and eventually hanged for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

From prison Bonhoeffer wrote many letters which have been collected into a volume entitled Letters and Papers from Prison.  In one of his letters Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [persons] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”

Allow those words to sink in.  A church for others is a church that hears Christ’s command to go and obeys Christ’s command to go.

4.

Another way to interpret today’s lesson is as an exploration in authority.  On whose authority do Jesus’ followers go and make disciples, baptize in the name of the Trinity and teach the way of Jesus.  If it’s on their own authority, they are in trouble and so are we.  “Because I said so” doesn’t work here.  Also, if it’s on their own authority, they — and us, for that matter — would’ve run out of steam in the early going.

Christianity’s origins were rocky and that is a serious understatement.  The movement begins with an itinerant rabbi from the artisan class with no known rabbinical training.  He doesn’t like what he sees in the official Temple religion of his day.  He questioned its outsize emphasis on rule and ritual.  He questioned its apparent transactionalism — if I do this for God then God must do that for me; quid pro quo.  He wondered where God’s concern for the widow and orphan was.  He wondered where God’s concern for the outsider and the least was.

Jesus said and did many a thing that challenged his day’s status quo and paid for his words and actions with his life.  Imperial Rome thought they were done with Jesus.  Official Judaism thought they were done with Jesus.  Jesus’ own followers thought Jesus was done as well.  It was over.

Not so fast.  God raised Jesus from the grave.  At Pentecost the Spirit of God in the risen Christ descended upon Jesus’ followers who were gathered in Jerusalem.

In the closing words of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ speaks his parting words to his inner circle.  Go, make, baptize, teach.  They can do all of these things.  We can do all of these things.

Because, within us and around us and before us is the Spirit of God in Christ — a spirit of grace and love, justice and mercy — who is making the world anew.  A world that will resemble God’s kingdom, a kingdom Jesus described in his Beatitudes — where poverty of spirit is a virtue, where mournfulness is met with comfort, where the meek prevail, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where mercy is met with more mercy, where pureness of heart  sees visions of God, and peacemakers are the very children of God.

There’s a fifth verb in today’s lesson.  It’s remember.  We do not go it alone.  We do not make disciples alone.  We do not baptize alone.  We do not teach the way of Jesus alone.  We are accompanied, always.  This is the very thing we are to never forget and always remember.  Jesus is with us, always.

This promise empowers us to go.  This promise keeps us going when we would rather stop.  This promise shows us the way forward.  And the way forward is outward.

Amen.

A Savior’s Prayer

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A Savior’s Prayer

John 17:1-11 | 28 May 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

It’s not often you get to watch and listen in on the second person of the Godhead talking to the first person of the Godhead.  That’s what’s going on here. 

Jesus the Son of God is praying to God the father.  The disciples who have a front row seat for this, of course, don’t really know what they are witnessing.  They no doubt had their suspicions about who Jesus was and what his life was all about.  But, that Jesus is God incarnate is information you and I alone have as John’s readers.  It wasn’t available to the disciples in real time.  It’s a theological truth that the church arrived at as it looked back across a couple of generations and reflected on Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  John narrates this theological truth for his readers in the prologue of his gospel.

Remember the setting.  It’s Jesus’ farewell address.  The disciples have heard Jesus’ speak his goodbyes.  They know their leader is going away and are understandably sad about it as well as fearful.  Jesus sees and hears their sadness and fear.  And, he prays for them.

2.

How many times have we said to someone “I will pray for you” or had someone say to us “I’ll pray for you”?  Hopefully, some if not a lot.  Prayer is something Christians do for one another.

Prayer as we know was central to Jesus’ life.  In his public ministry we see and hear him pray many times.  In John’s gospel Jesus’ spoken prayers are usually prefaced with a remark by Jesus that he is speaking his prayer for the benefit of those within earshot.  He wants them to hear the conversation he is having with God.

There is no Lord’s Prayer in John’s gospel.  The Lord’s Prayer appears only in Matthew and Luke.  And there, it’s in answer to the disciples’ asking Jesus to teach them to pray.  Jesus tells them that when they pray to pray like this and gives them the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for prayer.

Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer, known as the Our Father in the Catholic tradition, in public worship on every Lord’s Day throughout the world and have been doing so for about two millennia.  We will do so again this morning.  And you know what?  The words have yet to have grown shop worn.  They still have their edges, as crisp and sharp as the day they were spoken.  The words of the prayer still possess a power to still the spirit and revitalize the soul and focus the mind.

What I’ve discovered about the Lord’s Prayer is this.  It’s no so much words I am speaking to God.  Rather, it’s words through which God is speaking to me.  Prayer is never about us changing God’s mind about us.  Prayer is always God changing our mind about everything — God, ourselves, others, the world.

3.

Once again, no Lord’s Prayer in John’s gospel.  We have to go elsewhere in our scripture for it.  But, there is prayer by Jesus in John’s gospel and one of them is today’s lesson.

This prayer in John 17 is the final scene of Jesus’ farewell address.  The prayer begins abruptly.  Jesus is saying goodbye.  He is talking and talking.  He says to his disciples, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  And then with no transition Jesus stops talking to his disciples and starts talking to God in prayer.  He says, “Father the hour has come . . . .”

Jesus and the disciples are in the upper room.  He has served them the bread and wine of passover but with a unique twist.  The bread given and shared and the wine poured is his life given for them and the world.

In the same upper room, Jesus knelt like a servant and washed each of their feet.  They looked on in horror and wonder.  This is no behavior for a master, a leader, a rabbi.  And if Jesus is God, this is certainly no behavior for a deity.

Jesus told them that what he did for them is what love looks like.  Love is service.  It involves getting down on one’s knees and doing for others what needs to be done.  He told them that everything that heard him say and do they are now to continue saying and doing.  Just as Jesus was the way people came to see and know and trust God, now all of Jesus’ followers would be the way people would come to see and know and trust  God.

In the same upper room, Jesus told them goodbye and bolstered their spirits with his parting words, parting words we have looked at over the past several Sundays.  And, now without taking a breath or missing a beat Jesus finishes his goodbye to his followers and prays to God.

4.

Imagine what the disciples heard in that prayer.

For starters, they heard Jesus acknowledge that his time on earth was drawing to a close.  His death would not take him by surprise or God by surprise.  His death — as tragic and heart-wrenching as it was — would be revelatory.  In and through it, God’s love would shine.

In the prayer they would hear again the words “eternal life”.  What did these words conjure for them?  Perhaps they envisioned a life uninterrupted by death, either physical or spiritual.  The word “eternal” describes something that lasts forever.  It describes something that always was and always will be.  It describes something that endures no matter what.  The eternal life for which Jesus prays for his disciples comes through knowing the God whom Jesus has revealed and doing the works of the God whose works Jesus did.

Here’s the catch.  Jesus’ world wanted things to stay the same.  Status quo all the way.  No changes.  If the kingdom Jesus proclaimed took hold and started bearing fruit, a lot of people certainly stood to gain but other people stood to lose and the people who stood to lose the most were the ones with most of the power and prestige.  They weren’t going stand by idly and let Jesus say and do the things he said and did without a fight.

And, as we know, that’s exactly what happened.  They plotted to do away with Jesus and did.  Or, at least they thought they did.  They failed to take two things into consideration.  The on-going community that would bear Jesus’ name and ministry and the living presence of Jesus’ spirit in the community.

The Christian community would go on to bump up against many of the same challenges Jesus confronted.  The Jesus way of being in the world is so very different from the way world ordinarily operates.  The same worldview that sought to shut down Jesus is the same worldview that will continue to shut down the community that bears Jesus’ name.  Jesus knew this in that upper room and so did the disciples.

In my daily devotions this week, I came across this from Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.  Father Richard wrote:

The flow of grace through us is largely blocked when we are living inside a worldview of scarcity, a feeling that there’s just not enough: enough of God, enough of me, enough food, enough health care to go around, enough mercy to include and forgive all faults. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the human mind is actually incapable of imagining anything infinite or eternal. So it cannot imagine an infinite love or a God whose “love is everlasting,” as the Psalms continually shout. In other words, the mind of itself cannot know God.

Our unhealthy economics and politics persist because even Christians largely operate out of a worldview of scarcity: there is not enough land, water, money, and housing for all of us . . . .  A saint always knows that there is more than enough for our need but never enough for our greed. In the midst of the structural stinginess and over-consumption of our present world, how do we possibly change consciousness and teach the mind to operate from mercy and graciousness? It will always be an uphill battle, and it will always depend upon a foundational and sustained conversion. Even the churches tend to be stingy with grace and mercy, as Pope Francis continues to point out.

Only our personal experiences of unconditional, unearned, and infinite love and forgiveness can move us from the normal worldview of scarcity to the divine world of infinite abundance. That’s when the doors of mercy blow wide open! That’s when we begin to understand the scale-breaking nature of the Gospel.

The next thing the disciples heard Jesus say to God was this — the God who made them and chose them entrusted each and everyone of them to Jesus, who, in turn, chose them and loved them.

I don’t know of a more heart-warming and life changing experience than to know that we chosen and loved by and belong to God.  And when this chosen-ness and love and sense of belonging comes through loud and clear from the Christian community for everyone to see and hear it warms the heart and changes lives all the more.

Knowing in their heart of hearts that Jesus came from  God and through Jesus God chose them and loved them and embraced them gave the earliest Christians the place from which they could go out to continue Jesus work.  It has given Christians across the ages the same place from which to carry out their ministry.  It gives us the same place from which to carry out our ministry.

And then the disciples hear Jesus pray to God for their unity.  Those who bear Jesus’ name and follow him are many wonderful things.  It would be a stretch, however, to say that we are united.

I think I get Jesus’ prayer.  My experience tells me that groups of people that are united can accomplish far more than groups of people that are divided.  Jesus is praying for the disciples to stay together.  Speak the same of message of grace and love.  Pursue the same works of justice and mercy.  Don’t get lost in the weeds.  Have each other’s backs.

The history of the Christian church from the beginning has been one of schism.  Tragically, we have not stayed together.  We have wandered off into the weeds.  We’ve not had each others backs.  We have spoken messages that sound nothing like grace and love.  We have pursued works that look nothing like justice and mercy.  And we have judged our message and our works to be superior and the message and works of other Christians to be inferior.  On this unity thing, we obviously have work to do, prayers to say.

Unity, of course, is not uniformity.  There is no way a global faith like Christianity with more than two billion adherents representing every land and culture will ever be uniform.  But we can be united, especially if we understand unity as the acknowledgment of differences and the reconciliation of differences and the overcoming of differences.

The church on its best days is united in this sense.  Yes, we have differences.  We point them out and name them.  But these differences do not have to divide us nor should they.  We find ways to become reconciled and stay related.  And, yes, in Christ we are one.  Being in Christ can, does, and will unite us.  Unity.  This was and is our Savior’s prayer.  We should make it ours as well.

Amen.

The Promised Spirit

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The Promised Spirit

John 14:15-21 | 21 May 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

We are in John’s gospel again.  It’s where we have been throughout Eastertide.  And the context for today’s lesson is the same as it was for last Sunday’s lesson.  Jesus is saying goodbye and you can taste the dread and the fear in that upper room.  Goodbye is the last thing Jesus’ followers wanted to hear from him.  You can taste their sadness and anxiety.  That upper room was a dark and fretful place.

The disciples are afraid that when Jesus goes away life as they know it will end. They fear that the ministry that they had witnessed first-hand over the past three years — the preaching and teaching and healing — will all come to a screeching halt.  They want it to go on and on.  That’s our response to invigorating experiences.  We want them to last forever.

Jesus is telling them, “The life they experienced with and in him will go on.”  Not only will life as they know it not end it will be better.  The preaching, the teaching, the healing will go on and on and on.  Jesus’ followers can and will continue his work.  They will be okay.  And, he tells them why.

Jesus followers feared losing him.  They loved him.  They admired him.  They looked to him for wisdom.  They relied on him.  He gave them meaning and purpose.  In him, they belonged.  In him,  they knew they were loved.  They feared who they would be without him?

Loss is a horrible thing.  Loss upends our world.  And yet, loss is one of life’s constants.  No one is exempt from loss.  To live is to lose — time, pets, friends, family, our health, a job, relationships, a future.  The final loss, of course, is our own lives, to death.

I know this a dark start to this sermon but hang with me.  There is light.  With the Christian gospel, there is always light.

2.

I have to admit that I am somewhat of a sucker for studies that try to measure things about us humans.  I’ve always been curious about what people think and believe, about what they value and live for.

Gallup is one of the older organizations that have been polling and surveying people with an eye toward having numbers with which we might begin to make sense of ourselves.  For example, Gallup has been asking Americans about their belief in God since 1944.  The question has been and is “Do you, personally, believe in a God?”  In 1944, 96% of those surveyed said, “Yes.”  In 2016, last year, the number of those surveyed who said “yes” was — do you think you know the number — 89%.  Not all the different from 1944, really.

In other words, about nine in ten of us still believe in God.  I take that as a good thing.  But the Gallup survey when it comes to belief in God is more blunt instrument than precision tool.  It doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of what difference does one’s belief in God make in his or her life and the lives of the people around one.  That’s what I want to know.

Here’s my fantasy.  What if we conducted a survey and asked people, gently and humbly of course, if they loved God?  The survey question would be very simple and direct.  “Do you love God?”  That’s a yes, no, maybe, or I don’t know question.  The follow up statement could be something like “Would you please say more about that.”  As for the yeses, would the number equal 90%, be less than 90%, or be greater than 90%?  The important thing, of course, would be to get people talking about what it means to love God, what it means to love neighbor.  The church is in a unique position to foster this kind of conversation.

The three global religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — pretty much agree on what loving God involves.  It’s not just saying pretty words about the deity.  It’s not just pledging allegiance to a list of theological affirmations.  It’s not just worshipping in a certain prescribed manner.  Rather, it’s all about obeying what God has said in scripture and what God is saying in hearts by the Spirit.

I obviously can’t speak for Judaism or Islam and that’s not my job.  But I can speak for Christianity because it is my job.  In the Christian gospels, Jesus is asked directly what a person had to do to live a life that honored God, that loved God, especially in light of the fact that there are so many commandments attributed to God in the Bible.  Which of the many, many commandments should we pay the most attention to and which might we not afford quite as much attention? 

Remember what Jesus said?  He said, “Love God with all you’ve got.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Everything in scripture hangs on, grows out of, and revolves around these two commandments.

3.

How do we go about loving God with all that we’ve got and our neighbor as ourselves?  Because, it’s not instinctual.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We want it to be as instinctual as taking a breath and with discipline and practice it can be.  What is instinctual is looking out for ourselves first and foremost and people just like us. My experience is we are more likely to ask “What’s in it for me?” than we are to ask “What’s best for everyone?”   My me-self asks that first question.  My God-self asks that second question.

Loving God and neighbors starts early.  We may have learned it from the adults in our lives.  Hopefully, they showed us how to love somebody other than ourselves by loving us.  Hopefully, they showed us how to love God by demonstrating in some way or another the goodness, justice, and mercy of God.

We may have learned it in a Christian congregation.  I can see it in this congregation and I hope you can, too.  In worship and education, fellowship and service we learn to set ourselves aside and put God in the center; we learn to set ourselves aside and put others in an equal or better place.  We learn a thing or two about empathy.

We can’t say Jesus didn’t tell us.  Because he did.  We can’t say Jesus didn’t show us.  Because he did.  But we can and do forget.  And even when we remember, we don’t always pull it off.  It’s hard.  We need help.  This is where the Advocate comes in.

The Advocate can be translated “helper.”  Help is what Jesus provided during his public ministry, his death, and his resurrection.  Jesus helped the world see the very heart of God which is love.

So long as Jesus was one man in one place at one time, bound by the limitations of a physical body, he could help only so many people.  But his spirit, the very spirit of God, could not and would not be bound by the limitations of a physical body.  Such a Spirit could and would would help countless persons see the heart of God which is love.

I don’t know about you but I was raised to never, ever ask for help of any kind.  I was raised to be self-reliant and to expect others to be self-reliant as well.  Self-reliance has served me well but it has also handicapped me.

Self-reliance can make life harder than it needs to be.  For example, if I was having  trouble with math, the solution was to figure it out on my own.  Trouble with girls?  Again, I had to figure it out.  Trouble with the meaning and purpose of life?  I had to figure it out.

In the world in which I was nurtured, asking for help was a sign of weakness.  A strong person would never ask for help.  It took me some time to learn that this was wrong, but I did.

In college, one of my best childhood friends was killed in an automobile accident.  He was drinking and driving.   He was in his car alone.  He ran off the road and into a tree.

We were in Boy Scouts together.  We went to music festivals together.  We had summer jobs together. 

I sobbed when I got the news of his death.  I sobbed at his funeral.  And then, being the strong person I was raised and socialized to be I went back to the routines of a college student.  I loved being a student.  There’s nothing better.

But I discovered that there was no joy where there once was.  I was going through the motions.  Sleep was fitful.  My appetite came and went.  I couldn’t focus on anything for any amount of time. 

I found myself calling the college’s counseling center and making an appointment and actually keeping it.  I needed help.  I needed someone to help me sort out what in the world was going on with me and the unrelenting sadness that had gripped me and was disrupting me life.  I felt like I betrayed my tribe by asking for help.  But the help restored me.  I found my way again because of the help.

My counselor listened and spoke.  His presence and empathy were a gift.  He gave me what I needed to become a whole again.

I tell you this story for several reasons.  One, asking for help is never a weakness.  It’s a strength.  Two, receiving help is never a weakness.  It’s a strength.

But there is a theological reason as well.  The Psalmist put it this way:  “Surely, God is my help . . . .” [Ps. 54]  The name for the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel is Helper.

There are things we can’t do for ourselves and will never be able to for ourselves.  And if we live a long, long life we will discover we need help with many things.

Theologically speaking,  there are things for which we need help — help we may not deserve and help we cannot earn.  Those things, chief of which is our salvation, God does for us and does so in and with and through love.  I cannot take away my sin, but God can and did.  I cannot unite with God but God can unite with me.  God did.

To remind us of this, God gives us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  To assure us of this, God gives us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  To help us live in this love, God gives us the Holy Spirit.

Historians who study religious revivals, especially Christian religious revivals, point to moments when humans seemed to have been stuck without a way forward — when we were all too bound by our limitations.  But then, there was a way.  A barrier or barriers were removed.  But then, when it appeared there would never be justice or mercy or peace, there was.  Consider the abolition of slavery in our own country in the 19th century.  Consider the end to child labor in our own country at the beginning of the last century.  I could go on.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate Pentecost, the birth of the Christian church by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God was up to something profoundly and radically new and different.  God would no longer be perceived as distant in the heavens.  God would no longer be perceived as dwelling in a particular place among a particular people.  Instead, God in Spirit was in human hearts and wild and loose in unimaginable ways.

Where people once drew lines dividing themselves from each other, God in Spirit was now drawing broad and inclusive circles around everyone.  Everyone was in and no one was out.

This is the work of the Helper Jesus promised.  This is the work of the Helper who reminds us time and again and in countless ways to love God with all that we’ve got and to love neighbors as ourselves.  We are never alone in this pursuit.  We are always accompanied.

The Way

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The Way

John 14:1-14 | 14 May 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

If I’m not mistaken, I’ve read John 14 at nearly every funeral service I’ve led over the past three decades.  Jesus’ words here are soothing, reassuring, comforting.

In serious Bible study, context is everything.  By the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples are beyond distraught.  Their world has completely unraveled.  For starters, their master and friend is saying good-bye and the end he foresees for himself is gut-wrenchingly horrific.  In the face of losing Jesus, the disciples need soothing.  They need reassuring.  They need comforting.  What can Jesus possibly say or do to help them?

He tells them to trust him and recalls their experience of him.

Loss.

Loss may be one of the biggest challenges any of us will ever face in the course of our lives.  To live is to experience loss.  There’s simply no getting around it.  And, the more we love someone or something, when it’s gone the pain is all the greater.  But the love is more than worth it.

The very first loss that I have a vivid memory of, like many first losses I imagine, was the family dog.  Butch, a boxer.  I didn’t know anything about loss before Butch’s death.  With the thoughts of a child, I thought Butch and I would grow up, but not necessarily grow old, together and live in an eternal state of youth and summer.  The sky would always be blue.  The sun would forever shine.  The leaves on the trees and the grass of the field would be perpetually a deep and enduring green.

I watched Butch age and become less mobile but to my young mind I didn’t know where his aging was headed.  I’m sure I had notions but decided not to entertain them.  It was too painful.

I cried long, slow, gasping sobs the morning Butch died.  My mother did her best to console me but was unsuccessful.  I cried because Butch was dead.  I cried because he left me alone.  I cried for the companionable days ahead of us that we would never have.

This is what loss does.  One day we are complete and the next day a piece is missing from us.  And with each successive loss another piece of us is missing, and then another.

Of course, over time there were more and far greater losses.  My childhood and youth.  Young adulthood.  Friends.  Mom and then dad.  Lisa’s dad.  And each time the loss hurt and left me reeling for a season.  I wondered what going forward would be like with so many missing pieces.

But that’s what life does.  When our hearts are full, life goes forward.  When our hearts are heavy and troubled, life still goes forward.  We can’t stop it and make it stand still.

I imagine Jesus’ disciples would like to have stopped life and make it stand still there in that upper room.

2.

I’ve tried to put myself in that upper room where Jesus made his goodbyes to his closest followers, his dearest friends.  Their world was about to experience a very large missing piece.  They listened closely to what Jesus had to say.  Something about farewells amplify our attention.  We want to hang on every word.  And as we read the words this morning, we listened closely as well to what Jesus had to say.

If we were there, in that room, how would we have begun to make sense of Jesus’ words?

His time was short, Jesus said.  He would be with them for only a very little bit longer.  One of his followers, Judas, would betray him.  One of them, the leader, Peter, would deny him.  The rest would all scatter.  We’d like to think we would have fared better, but I don’t think we would have.  I’m not sure I would have.

The future Jesus was describing was not the future with Jesus any of his followers had imagined at all.  It’s not the future any of us would have imagined either.  But it was what was happening.

In that upper room, the disciples’ hearts were deeply troubled.  Jesus’ first words as he made his goodbye to them was, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.”

How do any of us untrouble a troubled heart?  It’s like trying to unworry a worried mind.  It’s hard, really hard, especially if we are trying to do so all by our lonesome.  When worried, the more I tell myself not to worry the more worried I become because now I am worried that I can’t stop worrying.

Untroubling a troubled heart or unworrying a worried mind is an act of grace that someone or something does for us because we can’t do it ourselves no matter how hard we try.  “Believe in God,” says Jesus, “believe also in me.”  The best translation of this verse from John is this.  “‘Trust me’, says Jesus.”

With this simple message — trust me — Jesus is redirecting his followers back to their trust in the God Jesus has spent his entire ministry showing to them.

3.

Trust comes from experience.  If someone tells us they love us and then shows us they love us, we will be inclined to trust them.  If we tell someone we love them and then show them that we love them, they will be inclined to trust us.

Over the entire course of Jesus’ public ministry, his words to the world were “I love you.”  Over the entire course of his public ministry, Jesus’ actions demonstrated “I love you.”

Jesus’ followers had spent three years with him.  In those three years, the disciples heard what Jesus had to say.  Sometimes they understood and sometimes they didn’t.  But they stayed with Jesus.  The heart of his message was love.  They wanted to hear more.

They saw what he did.  Sometimes they got it and sometimes they didn’t.  But they stayed with Jesus.  The heart of his actions was love.  They wanted to see more.

They witnessed the way he related to people — from the most important people to people their society considered not very important at all.  Again, sometimes they got it and sometimes they didn’t.  But they stayed with Jesus.  What they witnessed time and again was love.  They wanted to experience more.  It turns out staying with Jesus is important.

What Jesus was telling them as he was saying his goodbyes was this — in those three years, in everything he said and everything he did and the way he treated each and every person he was showing to them the very heart of God.  It was God they were hearing.  It was God they were seeing.  It was God they were experiencing.  And this God they were hearing and seeing and experiencing was love.

Jesus says, “I am the way.”  And, the Jesus way is love.  When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” — which, in my humble  opinion, some in the Christian tradition have used to exclude everyone but folks like themselves, what he is saying is:  “The way to love is through love and I have shown you love.”  In other words, if you want to get to love, love.  There simply is no other way.

4.

But Jesus goes beyond untroubling their hearts with his words, “Trust me.”  He gives them a mission.  There’s something to be said for chasing away trouble with work.  My dad certainly held this philosophy.  In fact, thinking back dad’s solution for everything was hard work. 

The mission Jesus gave to his disciples was to do the same things he did.  In other words, the kinds of things Jesus said — say those things.  The kinds of things Jesus did — do those things.  How Jesus treated people — treat people like that.  And here’s the kicker:  when we say and do Jesus-like stuff in trust that Jesus-like stuff will be greater than we can possibly imagine.  God’s going to use it.

The disciples had apprenticed with Jesus for three years.  Jesus was declaring that their apprenticeship was now over.  He was declaring them masters at the craft of love and turning them loose to go love like him.

I like the image of an apprenticeship.  Part of what we are doing Sunday in and Sunday out when we gather for worship and Sunday school, when we rub elbows with other Christians in fellowship, when we reach out in love to neighbors who need us is apprenticing ourselves to Jesus.  But there comes a day when the apprenticeship is over and we are the masters and are turned loosed to do the work we apprenticed to do.  For the disciples, that day began in the upper room.  For us, that day began when we said “yes” to Jesus and first trusted him.

5.

Jesus came to show the world the God who is love.  This is the central message of John’s gospel.

Jesus sends everyone of his followers — no exceptions —to show the world the God who is love.  This is the central message of John’s gospel.

Showing the world the God who is love is the mission of  each and everyone of us.  It is the mission of the church. 

So, how are we doing?

Some days we may be spot on and it is wonderfully sweet.  Praise God.  Other days, we may be way off and it hurts.  Lord, have mercy. But all days represent another opportunity to live anew in the love of God and show anew the love of God.  This is what grace is all about.  Praise God.

Today is Mother’s Day.  God bless the women of the world, the women of our congregation, the women in each of our lives.

Recently, I was reading an article about a man who had a problematic relationship with his father.  The problematic relationship could just as easily had been with his mother.

The man’s father was a difficult person.  He communicated poorly at best.  And when he chose to engage his son the message was usually one of disapproval.  The son grew up wondering what was wrong with himself and what he possibly could have said or done to draw such silence on most days and criticism on other days from his father.

The son became a Christian in middle age.  He sought the counsel of his parish priest.  How might he build a relationship with his father? he asked.  He had tried what seemed like everything.

The priest’s counsel was quite simple.  “Love your father.”  The man grew furious.  “I have and do,” he said, “but there is nothing to show for it.  The relationship remains as estranged as ever.”

The priest listened.  “Love him and keep loving him even if he does not love you back the way you want or even need him to.  Love is not transactional.  Love is transformational.  This is the way God loves us.  It’s not easy and it can hurt.  But love is who God is and our love is how the world sees God.”

Amen.

Jesus and Thomas

Jesus appears to Thomas - John 20:24-29

Jesus and Thomas

John 20:19-31 | 23 April 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Doubting Thomas.  Is the word “doubting” a pejorative or honorific modifier? In other words,  do we look down on Thomas because he doubted or do we look up to Thomas because he doubted?

Personally, I think it is an honorific.  I look up to Thomas because he doubted. There’s a word for people like Thomas.  The word is skeptic.  A skeptic is someone who is inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.  In many ways Presbyterian Christianity has raised skepticism to the level of art from.

I look up to Thomas for other reasons as well.  I look up to Thomas because once he experienced the risen Christ he boldly declared him his Lord and Savior and followed him.

Here’s something that I think is true when it comes to doubt.  No one is exempt.  We all do it.  Some of us, like Thomas, are just more open about it and wear our doubt on our sleeves.

2.

Several years ago Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an article entitled “Doubt is the Heart of Belief.”  The title caught my attention.

Rabbi Yoffie opens his article with these observations.  He writes:

“Doubt does not undermine belief. It is central to belief, an indispensable part of accepting God and the mandates of a religious tradition. Even fervent believers have doubts — lots of them.

The correlation between belief and doubt is not always easy to see, in large measure because of what I refer to as ‘in-your-face-believers’ — those who declare their belief in God and their embrace of religion as loudly, as frequently, and as publicly as they possibly can. Such people are all around us these days, sometimes on TV, sometimes in the workplace, sometimes in our own religious communities. Talking a little too openly about their personal faith, sharing it when there is no obvious need to do so, and affecting humility while actually displaying pride in the power of their devotion, they appear to be absolutely certain in their religious belief; surely, we say to ourselves, religious people like that have no doubts whatever.

But, of course, they do. In my experience, in fact, these are the people who are eaten alive by doubt, and that is why they feel the need to compensate with unending religious preening and public affirmations of faith.

Yet even believers who are secure in their convictions must struggle with doubt. It is natural, healthy and an ongoing part of becoming comfortable with God and religious observance. It is also inevitable. In the world in which we live, unbelief is everywhere and an option for virtually everyone; even the most insulated religious communities, vulnerable to the invasive technologies of the modern world, cannot escape it.

Therefore, belief in God today is almost never the comforting certainty that it was in the pre-modern era; it is, instead, more of a hunch, a feeling, an instinct or a hope.”

3.

Three dominant themes in John’s gospel are seeing, believing, and telling.  These themes are front and center in today’s lesson.  They are also themes of the Christian life.

Mary Magdalene is the set up for our passage.  She is the apostle to the apostles.  One could make a case that Mary Magdalene is more the first apostle than Peter. 

Mary tells the disciples about her first-hand experience of the Risen Lord who appeared to her and spoke her name and gave her a message for the others.  She says to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Mary saw.  Mary believed.  Mary told.

What did Mary see?  She saw the man who welcomed her when no one else would.  She saw the man who told her she belonged when no else would.  She saw the man who said her past — a past beset with what the scriptures describe as demonic possession — did not have to define her forever when others said that it did.  She saw the man who told her she was a child of God graced by a love that would never let her go when others said she was beyond both God’s grace and love and that there was no place for her and people like her in God’s family.  She saw him alive, breathing and speaking.

Mary went to the tomb to grieve Jesus’ death.  Jesus had mended her in ways she could never have imagined and long after she had grown hopeless.  He gave her a place to belong.  He gave her friends to call family.  He gave her a freedom from the past. He gave her grace and love.  And now, for all she knew, he was dead.  I cannot begin to imagine the weight of Mary’s heart that day at the tomb.

She went to the tomb expecting to see a dead man.  What she saw instead was a resurrected man, a living man.  He spoke her name and gave her a message and a mission.

In seeing the risen Lord, Mary believed.  In Jesus’ words and deeds God was at work loving everyone and everything, embracing everyone and everything, remaking anew everyone and everything.  In Jesus she was seeing God.  And what she saw was grace and love, a grace and love evident in Jesus’ ministry.

Mary believed.  Mary trusted.

And, Mary told.  “I have seen the Lord,” she said.

4.

In our passage, it’s evening of that first Easter Sunday.  Mary said her piece to the apostles much earlier in the day.  The apostles are now behind closed and locked doors, in the dark.

It’s difficult to see much of anything, much less a risen Lord, when walled off from the world and in the dark.  It’s difficult to see much of anything, much less a risen Lord, when hiding in fear.

The disciples who followed Jesus all the way right up to his arrest and trial abandoned him at his death.  All their hopes were now dead and in the tomb with their leader and friend, Jesus.  The man who had called them and gathered them, who had given them meaning and purpose, who had given them faith and hope and love was gone. 

They feared they would come to the same end.  It was only a matter of time before they too were arrested and tried and executed.  Powerful people in powerful positions had it in for them just as they had it in for Jesus.

But something happened.  Rather, someone happened.  The narrator reports it so matter of factly.  There in the dark.  There behind closed and locked doors.  There where you can hear and smell and touch the fear —  “Jesus came and stood among them, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In that moment, everything was changed and nothing would ever be what it once was.  In that moment, Jesus gives to his followers the spirit God gave him.  In that moment, Jesus sends his followers as God sent him.  In that moment, they become heralds of God with a message of God’s grace and love.

But one of Jesus’ followers, Thomas, was not there in that moment.  The narrator doesn’t tell us where Thomas was or what he was doing.  Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and missing out.  I mean really missing out.

The disciples tell Thomas that they, like Mary, had now seen the Lord as well.  He was as real as they were.  He spoke to them.  He showed them his wounds.  The wounds were still fresh from Friday.

Thomas is having none of it.  Thomas didn’t see Jesus.  Thomas didn’t hear Jesus.  He wasn’t buying it.  Thomas doubted.  Remember, Thomas was a skeptic.  He needed to see for himself.

Mary had her experience of the risen Lord.  The ten other disciples had their experience of the risen Lord.  But Thomas had not.  All he had to go on was what they told him and quite frankly, for him, it wasn’t enough.  It may have been enough for others, but not for him.  He needed more.

The disciples had seen, believed, and told.  Until Thomas could see he wasn’t believing or telling.

Thomas gets his heart’s desire.  Jesus appears to him as well.  Jesus speaks peace to Thomas and bids him believe.  And Thomas does.

Jesus ends his encounter with Thomas with these words:  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

5.

The gospels are not only news for us and the world about Jesus.  They are also news from a particular community at a particular time, John’s community.

Apparently, one of the concerns of John’s community was the authenticity of the discipleship of those who had not seen the risen Christ.  Was seeing Jesus a prerequisite for being a follower of Jesus?  If so, the number of followers would always be limited by the three year span of Jesus’ public ministry and the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.

Because of their own experiences of the presence of Christ in their midst, John and his community concluded that seeing Jesus with one’s heart was as authentic as seeing Jesus with one’s eyes.  Seeing Jesus with their hearts transformed them and enabled them to believe and to tell others about their experience so that they too might believe.

John’s gospel is about God becoming human in Jesus — God made flesh, God with us — to reveal God to humanity and unite God and humanity.  This was what the incarnation was all about.  It’s what we celebrated at  Christmas.

After God raised Jesus from the dead, God remained with humanity in and through the Holy Spirit.  God in Christ is still with us.  That’s the message of Easter.  That’s the news we celebrate throughout the fifty days of Eastertide.  God is not dead in a grave.  God is not far removed in heaven.  God is here, now, present as grace, present as love.

The gospel writer John wants us to say with Mary and the disciples including Thomas that we have seen the Lord.  He wants us to trust the Lord.  He wants us to tell our own stories of transformative encounters with Jesus.  This is the good news are we are its voice.

Amen.

A Brand New Day

resurrection-ivan-filichev

A Brand New Day

Matthew 28:1-10 | 16 April 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Here’s a question for you:  If you know how a story begins, how good are you at predicting how it will end?  Or how’s this, let’s say you know most of the story, can you predict, more or less, the rest?

Think about some of the greatest stories of all time.  I was curious as to what the top stories of all time might be.  It turns out there is an algorithm for just such a query.  For all I know, there now may be an algorithm for just about everything.

About 25 years ago, Walter Cronkite teamed up with the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel on a documentary entitled “Great Books”.  The project identified and talked about the world’s greatest stories.  The project generated a master list of books from 114 different lists.  A mathematical equation was created that took into account the number of times a book appeared on each list  and the ranking of the given book.  The more often the book appeared and the higher it was ranked the more likely the book appeared on the list of the greatest books.

So, here’s the three greatest books in reverse order.  If you’ve read them all, hooray for you.  If not, you can add them to your summer reading list.

3. Ulysses by James Joyce

2. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Here’s where I am going with this.  Great stories have several things in common.  For starters, they are told masterfully.  Joyce, Proust, and Cervantes were masterful storytellers.  But great stories also have something to say that is so gripping that once it gets a hold of us it won’t let us go and we can’t shake it.  Again, true for Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, and Don Quixote.

Not only do great stories have something to say, but they are plotted in such a way that we remain on the edge of our seats right up until the final paragraph and even with the final paragraph we are left with a measure of wonder and awe.

2.

Speaking of wonder and awe, Happy Easter!

Today’s lesson is from Matthew’s gospel, the opening verses of the very last chapter.  If we didn’t already know how the story of Jesus ends, my strong guess is that we would never have imagined it.  Too often our imaginations stop at the grave.  Dead people stay dead.  Always have, always will.  Or, do they?

I know I wouldn’t have seen the ending, especially in light of the way Jesus’ story began.  The story doesn’t go at all where its beginning might foretell.

Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy.  I can’t imagine a worse way to grab your reader in the opening sentences in such a way that he’ll stay with you until the end of the story.  The genealogy begins with Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac and lists fathers, mothers and sons for 42 generations all the way up to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s important information and locates Jesus within the history of his people.  Matthew’s audience, after all, is Jewish Christians.  But as for an engaging opening, it simply isn’t.

After the genealogy, however, things do get exciting.  Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is troubling.  It’s the story of a man, Joseph, who is afraid to marry his disgraced betrothed, Mary, who is pregnant and the child is not his.  Fear plays a big part throughout Matthew’s gospel and what people hear from Jesus or God time and again throughout Matthew’s Gospel regarding fear is this:  “Don’t be afraid.”  Not because we can muster fearlessness from within but because we can trust God who overcomes all things, including our fear.

Joseph’s plans are to dismiss Mary to fend for herself and move forward with his own life.  That’s where the plot of the story seems to be taking us.  But there is a twist.  In biblical literature, I’ve discovered that there is almost always a twist because with God there is always a twist.  That’s the way God is.  God is like that.

Joseph learns by way of an angelic vision in a dream that the child Mary bears has been miraculously conceived by God’s Holy Spirit and will be the savior of the world.  Because of the vision Joseph does not dismiss Mary.  Because of the vision he stays with her and their son, Jesus.

The story then gets even more exciting, if not odd.  The new born child is visited by mysterious men from the east. These men are noted for reading the stars for portents of divine activity.  The men present infant Jesus with gifts.  They recognize Jesus as someone.  There is something divine about him.

The plot thickens.  Enter King Herod.  Paranoid Herod.  Power-hungry Herod.  A Herod who will not tolerate any dissent or challenges to his authority.  Herod who wants to know where he can find this Jesus in order to kill him.  Jesus is marked for death from the beginning.

And, when Herod is duped by the mysterious men and doesn’t learn who Jesus is and where Jesus is he orders the murder of every child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem.

This is perhaps the saddest plot development in the story of Jesus.  We learn how cruel and brutal the world can be and is.  What a horrible world where the most powerful people slaughter the least powerful people.

3.

I reread Matthew’s gospel in one sitting last week.  I usually pick one of the gospels and read it through during Holy Week.  I commend this practice to you.

What occurred to me as I reread Matthew was that at nearly every point where Jesus says or does something of really important, a darkness descends, a shadow appears.  For example, in one moment Jesus is baptized by John as God’s beloved son and in the next moment he is in the desert face to face with God’s adversary, the devil.

There is a constant sense of foreboding.  I found myself growing anxious.  Jesus and his followers were going to come to bad end.  I cared about them and wanted them to be okay and was discovering that if the story stays on its trajectory Jesus wasn’t going to be okay at all.  His followers weren’t going to be okay.  And maybe I wasn’t going to be okay.

This dark pattern persists throughout Matthew.  In the course of a single week Jesus goes from king to criminal, from a high peak to a despairingly low valley.  On Palm Sunday, he was hailed by the crowds as king and savior.  On Thursday, he was arrested.  On Friday, he was tried and executed with the shouts of the once adoring crowd now in his ears.  Their words are no longer adoring.  Their words are now menacing.  “Crucify him!” they scream.  End of story.  The main character has nothing more to say or do, his life has ended, he is dead.

An early and untimely death is what seemed to be awaiting Jesus all along.  Everybody that was somebody had it in for him.  He never had a chance.

If someone were to ask me where, in light of its beginning, Jesus’ story was going I would have to say the grave, death.

4.

I would have been wrong.

Easter is a surprise.  It was a surprise from the beginning.  It will always be a surprise.

For those who thought the story was over, it was a surprise.  There were the local Roman officials.  They had made short work of one more person who disturbed the peace of their tiny corner of the empire.  Perhaps now they could get a good night’s sleep.  Good riddance, Jesus.

There were the local religious officials.  They wanted nothing more than for things to go back to the way they were before Jesus showed up on the scene and said and did the things he said and did.  People could get notions if Jesus were allowed to keep going on about God as so boundlessly gracious and loving.  The religious officials were no doubt delighted that the Romans finally restored a measure of order once again.  Good riddance, Jesus.

There were the crowds, fickle as always.  They had probably already started looking about for another leader who might say and do the things they longed to hear and see.  Things that would speak to their longing hearts.  They had certainly pinned their hopes on Jesus but now that he was gone, well, good riddance, Jesus.  Regrettably, their hope was for naught.

There were the women, the two Marys.  After the sabbath, they made their way to the tomb to pay their respects, to honor Jesus one last time.  They loved him so dearly.  They feared for his life and now their fear had become reality.  Their hearts could not have been any heavier.

Easter is a surprise.  It is a surprise because when God is involved we may think we know how a story may end but we don’t and we won’t and we can’t.  Thank goodness and thank God.  This is good news. 

Because usually the end to any given story that I might imagine has to follow in some way the plot of everything that has gone before.  And all of my experience tells me that the Romans of the world always come out on top and the Jesuses of the world always come out on the bottom.  Might matters more than anything.  Convention wins.  This is a bleak world.

But, with Easter there is the plot twist of all plot twists.  Neither might [the Romans] nor convention [the religious leadership] nor the emotions of the moment [the crowd] nor fear [the Marys] carry the day.

Here’s the message of Easter.  God carries the day.  Always has.  Always will.  In the words of author Anne Lamott:  “God bats last!”  And on that first Easter morning, boy, did God bat last.

In raising Jesus from death to life, God vindicates everything Jesus said, God vindicates everything Jesus did.  In Jesus we see a power and a love that makes its own way — a way of grace, a way of love that gives help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless.

Nobody saw something like the Resurrection coming.  But it came.

Easter is a surprise.  It was and is too good to imagine.  That’s the way God’s grace and love are.  Surprisingly unimaginable, a brand new day, if you will. 

Amen.

Lazarus Unbound

Lazarus JPEG.001

Lazarus Unbound

John 11:1-44 | 2 April 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

What if the only things we knew about Jesus came from one fragment of John’s gospel and that fragment was John 11?  This is not too far-fetched of a “what if” thought experiment.  After all, the earliest Christian communities didn’t have written scriptures.  They had stories that were told and retold aloud, an oral tradition.  These stories weren’t written down until well after they had been told.

We could learn a lot if John 11 was all we had.  There is plenty here.  We have place names and people names.  We have dialogue.  We have narratorial observations.  We have theological affirmations.  We have speculation as to the meaning of things.  We have a resurrection.

Of course, we know much more about Jesus beyond what we have here in John 11.  For starters, we have the rest of John’s gospel. 

John’s gospel is a very highly structured piece of literature.  John 11 is the exact center of the gospel.  Ten chapters precede it.  Ten chapters follow it.  It is the rhetorical heart of the gospel.  But, it is also the theological heart of the gospel.

Martha’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, God’s anointed, the One sent by God, is the very theological heart of the story.  It’s a confession the writer wants us to make as well.  It’s the point of all of John’s gospel.  He tells us this in the very last chapter.

2.

Take a few moments to review your life.  My guess is that your review will have high points and low points, loves and losses, surprises and disappointments, accomplishments and failures, moments of great courage and moments of crippling fear, seasons of strength and seasons of weakness.

Now, consider those moments you were keenly aware of God’s presence and activity.  Consider as well the moments you were keenly aware of what felt like God’s absence and inactivity.  My guess is that if we were to share our stories we would discover some common themes.  For example, when life is on something like cruise control — when everything’s working reasonably well, when things are going pretty much according to plan, when we have most of what we need or want —we kind of know that God is there but our attentiveness to God is pretty low.  However, when life speeds up or slows down and the moment becomes intense whether the intensity is driven by good news or bad news we find ourselves turning to God like never before.  We want to hear from God, to sense God, to connect with God.  We find ourselves talking to God like never before.  We find ourselves listening for God like never before.

So, here’s a question for each of us.  How does God best get our attention?  That’s what God is after, a relationship with us.  You see, God is in love with us and wants us to be in love with God.  Not because God is needy and incomplete without our love.  Rather, because without the love of God we are incomplete.  This is the story of John’s gospel.  Remember John 3:16:  “God so loved the world . . .”

All of these thoughts occurred to me this week as I walked around with John 11 in my head.  John 11 is about ways God gets our attention.  Sometimes the sign God uses is a really small one.  But sometimes, the sign God uses is a really big one.  It’s so big that it gets everyone’s attention.  God’s presence and power become undeniable.  This was the experience of John’s community.

3.

As I pointed out last Sunday, the first half of John’s gospel is known as the book of signs.  The signs work like parables in the other gospels.  They point to who God is and what God is up to in the world.  God is love and love is what God is up to in the world.  In love, God is making everyone and everything new.

The book of signs ends with the ultimate sign, the sign of all signs, the mother of signs.  Resurrection.  Jesus raises a dead man to life.  The man, Lazarus.

The raising of Lazarus is the climax of John’s book of signs, the first half of his gospel.  The raising of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection.  Ironically the raising of Lazarus comes at the height of Jesus’ public ministry and from this point on Jesus’ circles become smaller and smaller, his path becomes more and more narrow.  He interacts with fewer and fewer people, namely only his disciples.  He readies them for what is coming.  He prepares them to trust him and to trust God who is in him.

4.

When reading John’s gospel it’s helpful to remind ourselves of our location in life.  And, more important, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the community to whom and out of which John was writing.

For example, nearly all of the people I know and associate with have enough for a life of dignity with some left over for leisure and ease.  Having enough with some left over is good.  But, it makes it harder to understand and empathize with neighbors who don’t have enough for a life of dignity and certainly don’t have enough for leisure or ease.

John’s community of Jewish Christians were on the outs with the leadership of their synagogues because they had taken up with Christ.  The synagogue was more than just the center of a community’s religious life.  It was the center of social and economic and political life as well.  On the outs with the synagogue meant living on life’s margins, being thought ill of, looked down upon, considered less than.  Humans have been inflicting emotional and psychic wounds along these lines for a long time.  Regrettably, we still do.

Lazarus was Jesus’ friend.  His name is significant.  His name means God helps.  When a person can’t secure what he needs to sustain his existence he understands in ways others may never be able to understand what it means to look to God for help, a help that often comes through the mercy of neighbors and the kindness of strangers.

John tells us that Lazarus was ill, so ill that he died.  I want you to imagine with me what may have contributed to Lazarus’ being sick to the point of death.  We have to imagine because the gospel doesn’t tell us.  I’m fully aware that many illnesses in the ancient world resulted in death.  Even a minor infection could result in death.

Here is what I imagined.  What if Lazarus died in part because he was on the bottom of his society.  This occurred to me when I read a recent report that concluded that being poor and uneducated is a health risk that shortens one’s life.

Living on life’s margins was and is costly to one’s physical health.  Lazarus’ food supply may have been insecure as was perhaps his water supply.  Living on life’s margins was and is costly to one’s mental health.  If people demean you often enough and long enough you start believing them.  You begin seeing yourself as worthless.

Remember, Lazarus was Jesus’ friend.  We read in the gospels all the horrible things that got said about Jesus.  We can only imagine the horrible things that got said about those closest to Jesus, namely his friends.

In the course of the story, Jesus is led to his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  And, there, Jesus’ weeps.

What moved Jesus to tears?  What moves any of us to tears?

5.

I am moved to tears when I see other people cry whether the tears are of joy or sorrow. I am moved to tears, usually tears of anger, when I witness unmitigated thoughtlessness or cruelty.  I am moved to tears, again tears of anger, when I witness gross injustice.  I am moved to tears in the face of apathy and indifference.

John doesn’t explain Jesus’ tears.  He simply reports that “Jesus began to weep.”  However, there are clues.  The context for the verse is ritualistic mourning and weeping at the deceased’s tomb.  Mary is weeping, her neighbors are weeping, officials from the synagogue are weeping.  Jesus weeps.

Jesus’ tears are then followed by action.  He shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”  At this point in the story, I would loved to have been in the crowd to see the looks on the faces of everyone present.  I’m not sure the look on my own face would have been any different.

Word of Jesus’ signs was certainly getting around.  Water into wine, healing of the official’s son in Capernaum, healing of a paralyzed man in Bethesda, feeding of the 5000 with scant bread and fish, walking on water, giving sight to the man blind from birth.  Impressive.  Miraculous.  Godly.

But, calling forth a dead man from his tomb back to life.  The looks on the faces had to have included shock, astonishment, incredulity.  Jesus had done remarkable things up to this point but in death he may have met more than his match.  Regaining health after illness is one thing.  Regaining life after death is another thing altogether.

Imagine everyone’s surprise as Lazarus came out, Mummy-like, still wrapped and bound in grave cloths.  “Unbind him, and let him go,” said Jesus.

6.

Remember, in John 8 Jesus declared himself the light of the world.  In John 9, Jesus gave sight to a blind man who saw Jesus for who he was — God’s light shining in the world.  In today’s passage, Jesus tells us that he is “Resurrection and Life.”  John is literally showing us what Jesus as Resurrection and Life looks like.

The details of Lazarus’ death, resurrection, unbinding, and new life are not our details.  But, his story is our story.  It is the story being bound and being unbound.  It’s the story we tell when we say “I was blind but now I see.”  It’s the story we tell when we say “I was lost but now I’m found.”  It’s the story we tell when we say “I was dead but now am alive.”  The turning point:  The grace of God in Christ.  Our seeing wasn’t our doing, it was God’s.  Our being found wasn’t our doing, it was God’s.  Our living after dying wasn’t our doing, it was God’s.

If we were to make a list of the things that spiritually bind us and deaden us, what would be on it.  Here’s a list that occurred to me:

Anger

Fear

Loneliness

Shame

Deception

Covetousness

Addiction

Hopelessness

Compulsion

Arrogance

Imagine the things on your list as strips of grave cloth that bind and restrict you.  They immobilize you.  Then hear Jesus’ words:  “Unbind him.  Unbind her.  Let him go.  Let her go.”

Jesus raised Lazarus.  God raised Jesus.  Jesus raises us.

Jesus as Life came to unbind us all.  Jesus as Life came to free us all.  This is the news of the gospel.

By the grace of God in Christ, I am unbound.  You are unbound.  We are unbound.  Live free in the grace of God.

Seeing and Believing

Blind But Now I See

Seeing and Believing

John 9:1-41 | 26 March 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

It never ceases to amaze me that a group of people who see and hear the exact same thing don’t really see and hear the exact same thing at all.  Why?  Well, for a lot of reasons.  One of them is that their point of view and frame of reference differ.

Certainly, what happened, happened.  And, if it were recorded, we could play it back and say, “See!”  But, seldom is there a playback — although in our day and age this is quickly changing.  Now just about everything is recorded.  And if there was a recording we may discover it didn’t quite happen the way we thought it did.  And, it’s possible that we’d rather folks not know.

What I am getting at is this — what we see is often colored by what we want to see or what we need to see; what we hear is often colored by what we want to hear or what we need to hear.

We are products of the world in which we have been nurtured, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  Either way it’s a world in which we are so enmeshed we can become blinded, as it were, to other things — especially things outside of the ordinary — that God wants us to see and hear and experience and say and do and be.

A small group within our congregation is reading the devotional Lenten book by Walter Brueggemann entitled A Way Other Than Our Own.  One of the readings for this past week included these sentences.  They struck me as a good set up for today’s sermon.  Brueggemann writes:

“Lent is a time to think about another diet, another nourishment, another loyalty.  In various ways, we are all seduced, domesticated, and bought off — economically, religiously, intellectually, politically, morally.  It is the story of our life.  Bought-off people never have power for life.”

2.

In today’s longish lesson, something happens — a healing.  This healing provokes mixed reactions.  Some folks respond to the healing positively.  Other folks respond to the healing negatively.  John, the writer, wants us to ask “what happened?” along with the characters in the story.  He wants us to ask “what does it mean?” along with the characters in the story.

The first half of John’s gospel is called the Book of Signs.  Signs in John’s gospel work the way parables do in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They point to who God is and what God is like and what God is up to in the world. 

The sign in today’s lesson is Jesus giving a blind man sight.  Physical blindness is a stand in for spiritual blindness.  Physical sight is a stand in for spiritual sight.  When the man “sees” for the first time, he sees the physical world but he also “sees” that God is in Jesus making the world new.

In the previous chapter, John 8, Jesus says he is the light of the world.  In our lesson in John 9, John portrays what Jesus as the light of the world is all about.  It’s this:  Because of Jesus, those who don’t see and acknowledge as much, now see.  This is what Jesus does as the light of the world.

3.

Let’s consider some of the characters in our story and their responses to Jesus’ miraculous healing.  We have the blind man himself, the disciples, the man’s neighbors, the blind man’s parents, and the Pharisees.

The story begins with the disciples asking a question they quickly learn from Jesus is the wrong question.  The disciples were raised in a tradition that taught that there was a relationship between sin and sickness.  The man was blind because of a sin he committed.  Since he was blind from birth his sin would have to have been in utero.  Or, the man was blind because of a sin committed by his parents.

The disciples were doing something we are all tempted to do.  Namely, to connect dots that can’t be connected.  To impose a cause and effect relationship where it doesn’t belong.  To know more than we can actually know.  To make a judgment call that isn’t ours to make.

The man was blind because the man was  blind.  If the year was 2017, we could offer a much more informed and sophisticated answer taking into account what could be learned through medical science.  But the year was the year 30 give or take a year.  That man must have said or done something to offend God.  His parents’ must have done something to offend God.  And, God took it personally and blinded the man.  That’s not Jesus’ theology and it shouldn’t be ours.

Jesus points out that this is not how it works at all, so stop it.  Jesus’ job and the job of those who follow him is to do something to help in the world where help is needed.  The man could not see.  Jesus helped him to see.  That’s who Jesus is and what Jesus does.

Some Christian traditions are especially prone to connecting dots that can’t be connected and impose cause and effect relationships where they don’t belong.  Some Christian traditions are tempted to make judgment calls that aren’t theirs to make.  Some Christian traditions are tempted to blame rather than help.  Think here the wrongheaded blame assigned for the AIDS crisis and epidemic of the 1980s or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.  Blame only compounds tragedy.  A tit-for-tat theology is not how things work at all.

Jesus’ healing miracle in John 9 has to be the most graphic in the gospels.  In other places in the gospel, Jesus speaks and good things happen.  Here Jesus speaks and spits into dirt and massages mud into the man’s eyes.  Folks who study idioms suggest that this is the beginning of the toast “Here’s mud in your eye”, which may or may not be true.

The man’s neighbors are the first to offer an explanation as to what has happened.  The man who was blind and begged for his bread now sees and no longer has to rely on the kindness of others for his daily bread.  Some of them get it.  He’s been healed.  Praise God.  Others don’t.  They suggest it’s not really him.  It’s someone else.  A fraud is being perpetuated.

The man insists that he indeed is the former blind beggar.  His neighbors tell him to explain himself.  He tells his story of what Jesus did for him.  His neighbors want to meet this Jesus.  Who wouldn’t?

They also take the man to the religious authorities, the Pharisees.  The man tells his story of what Jesus did for him one more time, this time for the Pharisees.

The Pharisees are divided as to what to make of Jesus.  Is he God?  Is he from God?  He can’t be, say some.  He must be, say others.  How else can he do something like giving a man his sight?  They ask the man his opinion as to who Jesus is.  This is a very threatening question.  A prophet, says the man boldly.

The Pharisees need more information.  They call in the man’s parents.  The parents confirm that the man is indeed their son.  They confirm he was born blind and has been blind all his life.  But now, yes, he sees.  As to how this happened and who did it, they plead ignorance and suggest the Pharisees ask their son.  He’s an adult.  He can speak for himself.

The responses of the Pharisees and the parents are key responses in the story.  The Pharisees were inclined to dismiss the man and his story and in doing so dismiss Jesus.

For the Pharisees, what happened didn’t happen and if it did happen it didn’t happen the way the man said it happened.  At stake was their theology and their status as the keepers of that theology.  If what the man said was true, their world and all worlds were disrupted.  They wanted the world to stay the same.  They wanted nothing to do with disruption.

In their minds, the Pharisees knew all that there was to know about God and who God was and how God worked.  They suffered from I will call the sin of certainty. 

For the Pharisees, God’s character was embodied in their law.  God revealed his character in the law as given through Moses.  There was no room for a Jesus in their system.

In our lesson, the Pharisees are the ones who do not see.  They are the blind.  They do not see because they have decided beforehand the way the world has to be.  They have decided beforehand what should be seen and what should not be seen.  They “know” and others do not.  All of this contributes to their inability to see, their blindness 

I can be Pharisaical, too.  I can not see.  I can be blind.  My guess is you can be Pharisaical as well but I will only speak for myself.  I am Pharisaical every time I think I know when I don’t, every time I insist reality should be something other than what it is.

Pharisaical has entered the English language.  It means to be marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.  In other words, the Pharisees wanted to see what they wanted to see and ironically, as a result, don’t see.  They are blinded.

The Pharisees’ blindness effects the man’s parents.  The man’s parents are intimidated by the Pharisees.  They know what the Pharisees want to hear.  The Pharisees want the man’s parents to disavow the whole thing.  There was no miraculous healing, they want them to say.  Jesus did no such thing, they want them to say.

The Pharisees are the ones in positions of authority.  They have the power to make the parents’ life uncomfortable.  The parents know this.  They get out of a tight spot by saying they don’t know, ask our son.

The parents represent everyone who goes along to get along whether out of fear or to curry favor with persons in power or something else altogether.  The parents represent everyone who remains silent for the sake of personal peace at the cost of social peace.  But going along to get along and silence too often allow the spiritually blind to carry the day.

4.

The response of the man who is healed is the response the gospel writer wants us to pay attention to.  The man tells the story of his experience with Jesus repeatedly.  He says again and again, “I was blind but now I see.”  [Sounds like lyrics from a song.]

And, here’s our take away.  The man’s story may not be our story in detail but it is very much our story writ large.  I was blind.  You were blind.  We were blind.  Because of Jesus, however, I see.  You see.  We see.  As Christians, this is the story that shapes our lives.  It is the story we are tell others so by God’s grace they, too, may see as well.  And, trust.  And be shaped by the same grace.

Amen.

Rebirth

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Rebirth

John 3:1-17 | 12 March 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

I was in seminary during the salad days of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  It seemed people either hated Mr. Falwell or loved him.  Often times, his public statements left little room for any middle ground.

No doubt about it, Mr. Falwell made some very important contributions to evangelical Christianity.  The university he founded in Lynchburg in 1971, Liberty, is the largest Christian university in the world with 15,000 residential students and 100,000 online students.

Mr. Falwell’s ministry, however, was not without controversy.  He garnered the favor of some and the ire of others when he remarked:  “If you’re not a born-again Christian, you’re a failure as a human being.”

It appeared that Mr. Falwell was a dualistic or binary thinker.  The world was either one thing or another and the two things were often pitted against one another.  People were either one thing or another.  Given his statement, the world was populated by two kinds of people — born again Christians and failures.  Everyone, without exception, was either one or the other.  In my congregation at the time, I can recall folks, though Christian, who did not self-identify as “born again”.  Given a very public preacher’s pronouncement, they wondered about their worth as both a human being and as a Christian.

Personally, I happen to believe that the world and people are too complex to be reduced by binary and dualistic thought patterns of either/or.  Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and founder of New Mexico’s Center for Action and Contemplation has helped me with some of my thinking in this area.  He writes:

“Dualistic thinking, or the ‘egoic operating system,’ as my friend and colleague Cynthia Bourgeault calls it, is our way of reading reality from the position of our private and small self. ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘How will I look if I do this?’ This is the ego’s preferred way of seeing reality. It is the ordinary ‘hardware’ of almost all Western people, even those who think of themselves as Christians. The church has neglected its central work of teaching prayer and contemplation, allowing the language of institutional religion itself to remain dualistic and largely argumentative. We ended up confusing information with enlightenment, mind with soul, and thinking with experiencing—yet these are very different paths.

The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets. Yet depth and breadth of perception should be the primary arena for all authentic religion. How else could we possibly search for God?”

2.

Our lesson for today from John’s gospel introduces us to Nicodemus.  Nicodemus is searching for God.  His dualism may be getting in the way.

Our lesson is an account of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, the oddest of bedfellows.  Nicodemus was rich, important, well thought of.  He had status.  He was a teacher of the religious law.  Jesus was poor, unimportant, not really known well enough for folks to even have much of an opinion about him.  He had no status to speak of.  He was a Galilean peasant.

Nicodemus, given that he was a somebody, didn’t want to be seen with Jesus, given that he was a nobody.  Being seen with a nobody could tarnish the reputation of a somebody like him.  So, he visits Jesus at night under the cover of darkness.

We have to read the previous chapter in order to get a handle on what motivated Nicodemus to seek Jesus out in the first place.  There, the narrator tells us, “When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” [Jn 2:23]

It’s helpful to know how John organized his gospel. In addition to a prologue and an epilogue, there are two books in the gospel.  The book of signs and the book of glory.  The book of signs is the first half of the gospel.  The book of glory is the second half of the gospel.

There are seven signs in the book of signs:

Changing water into wine at Cana

Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum

Healing the paralytic at Bethesda

Feeding the 5000

Jesus walking on water

Healing the man blind from birth

The raising of Lazarus

Seven, in biblical numerology, is the perfect number.  There are seven days of the week.  God created all that is in a week, technically working for six days and resting on the seventh.

The signs in John’s gospel provide a window on who Jesus is and what his life is all about.  In that Jesus is the revelation of God, they, like the parables in Matthew Mark, and Luke,  provide a window on who God is and what God is up to in the world, namely newness.  Water becomes wine.  Brokenness is mended.  Hunger is filled.  Storms are calmed.  Death is defeated and in its place there is Life.

Nicodemus had either witnessed a sign first hand or been told about a sign by someone he trusted.  Either way he wants to learn more.  He seeks out Jesus.

3.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus with an observation.  Jesus is doing some remarkable things, he points out.  Apart from a serious connection with God, such things would not be possible.

Jesus owns up to the fact that what he is doing are indeed signs of the Kingdom of God breaking into human history.  These signs are showing God to the world, bidding the world to see, trust, and follow a new way, God’s way.

But not everyone sees them for what they are.  Some see and others do not.  Those that see, says Jesus, are the “re-born”, “the born anew”, the “born again”, the “born from above”.  It is God’s doing, as mysterious as where the wind comes from and where the wind goes. This confuses Nicodemus.

There is lot in Nicodemus to admire.  I like him.  He is curious about Jesus and he’s brave enough to follow where his curiosity leads him.

But Nicodemus, being the human that he is, has issues.  We all do.   And, being a lead character in this small piece of John’s gospel, his issues are on display for everyone to see.

As it turns out, Nicodemus is one of the persons who doesn’t see.  He can’t get past the fact that rebirth is an anatomical impossibility.  It can’t be done.  He hears the words Jesus is speaking but fails to grasp what Jesus is saying.

Nicodemus’ failures as I see them, because I can suffer the same failures, are failures of humility and imagination.  I’ve discovered that it’s hard to learn anything new if I think I know it all.  I’ve discovered that it’s hard to see anything different or new when I am convinced that all other possibilities have been exhausted and the shape of the thing in the moment will be the shape of the thing for all eternity.

Nicodemus knew all about how persons are born.  He says as much to Jesus.  As for people who are re-born, well he’d never heard of such an notion. Nicodemus could imagine a birth.  He wasn’t sure he could imagine a re-birth.  And, if he couldn’t imagine it it can’t possibly be.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Nicodemus.  He stays with Jesus.  He wants to know more, to understand more.  I gather that he wants to see.  He desires to see.  That’s a start.

Some of the healthiest moves we can make in our spiritual journey with God are the moves from places of humility where we say things like, “I don’t know, Lord, teach me.”  The Christian tradition calls this a teachable spirit.

Also, some of the healthiest moves we can make in our spiritual journey with God are the moves from places of imagination where we say things like, “Lord, I don’t see, show me.”

Ignatius of Loyola, b. 1491 – d. 1556, the founder of the Society of Jesus, was a bright man.  He had an advanced degree from the finest university in Europe of his day, the University of Paris.  His analytical and critical thinking skills were superb.  They are evident in his writings.  But, the mental quality of thought that drove his spiritual life and would go on to influence his religious order, the Jesuits, was imagination.

No doubt you are familiar with what a noted 20th century theoretical physicist had to say about imagination.  Albert Einstein wrote:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Ignatius talked about imagination as “entering into the vision of God”.  Fr. David Fleming, SJ, writes that Ignatius counseled Christians to imagine that:

“God is looking down on our turbulent world. We imagine God’s concern for the world. We see God intervening by sending Jesus into the maelstrom of life. This type of imagining helps us see things from God’s perspective and take on God’s qualities of love, compassion, and understanding.”

Ignatius also talked about imagination in terms placing ourselves fully within the stories in the gospels.  By becoming on-looker participants in each story we will imagine and see things we may have missed before.  We watch Jesus — the way he walks, the way he gestures, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face.  We hear what he says and imagine what else he may have said.

4.

Nicodemus’ questions of Jesus result in an extended monologue by Jesus.  The heart of what Jesus has to say is verses sixteen and seventeen:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In all our thinking about God and in all our imagining about God, what we are to see is this — God’s love, God’s love, God’s love.  This is what all of Jesus’ signs point to.  This is what Jesus points to.  It is what Jesus embodies.

Love.  It is what the church points to.  It is what the church embodies.

Amen.

Temptation

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Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11 | 5 March 2017 | Dan McCoig

1.

Who are you?  And who told you so?  Good questions.  I believe those are Lenten kind of questions.  Jesus asked them, too.

As I was turning those questions over in my own mind I ran across these words from Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She writes:

“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school–they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.”

Lent began on Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday sounds the themes of human frailty and life’s uncertainty.  Frailty and uncertainty, whether we like it or not, are our companions on this earthly journey.  We try to fool ourselves into believing that we will always be strong and that everything is a sure thing but we know it’s not true.  Ash Wednesday is the one day on the Christian calendar when we dare admit boldly that we are frail and life is uncertain.

Christians mark this 40 day period — exclusive of Sundays — with self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, works of charity, and reading and meditating on scripture, listening and looking always for what the Holy Spirit has to say to and show us.  That is a very tall order.

The idea is this.  Given our frailty and the uncertainty of life, who are?  How ought we to live?  What will we live for?  Will we live the days God has given us well and wisely, faithfully and obediently?  Or, will we squander them and live them foolishly?

The gospel reading on the First Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  There in the wilderness, Jesus is confronted with choices that will establish his identity and set the course for his life and ministry.

2.

“Wilderness” has entered our language as an idiom.  For example, a lone voice in the wilderness is someone whose message in the moment it was first spoken was disregarded as out of sync but over time proved to be truer than anyone could have imagined.  Think John the Baptist.  Here, the wilderness is distant, removed, on the fringe, far outside the mainstream.  But, from that wilderness there comes a saving word.

Also, someone who is in the wilderness is usually someone who has fallen out of favor for unpopular statements or positions.  The wilderness is the place where he or she seeks renewal.  In that wilderness there is a saving word to be found.

And, there is “wilderness experience.”  A wilderness experience is usually a time of discovery, either by design or imposed by circumstances.  A person who undergoes a wilderness experience learns something that he or she otherwise, apart from the wilderness experience, would not have learned.  Think Henry David Thoreau or John Muir.  The wilderness was absolutely necessary.

The Church of Scotland has a wonderful phrase using wilderness.  Church leaders, observing the decline of institutional forms of Christianity, are recognizing the rise in more organic, informal Christian practices.  They call these signs a “rewilding of the gospel”.

3.

The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness was a time and a place of preparation for his public ministry.  It was a time of trial, a time of testing.  He experienced and learned things during that time and in that place that he needed in order to fulfill his mission.

In his 40 days in the desert, Jesus prepared for his public ministry.  He learned that there is more to life than the body.  Food and drink, exercise and sleep for the body are good.  But there is also the mind and the spirit.  Who are we and why are we here?  What’s of the utmost value and what is secondary?  How does one live before God and in relationship to others?  These are intellectual questions.  These are spiritual questions.

In the wilderness, Jesus learned what was necessary for life.  This was his first temptation.

Just as the body needed food and drink, exercise and sleep, the mind and spirit needed God.  In God, Jesus found his identity and purpose as do we.

In the wilderness, Jesus also learned that his relationship with God was to be taken seriously and not to be trifled with.  This was his second temptation.

The tempter Jesus encounters in the wilderness is an interesting figure in the Bible.  The tempter is referred to either as the devil or satan, words that convey opposition to God.  A devil is a slanderer or accuser.  A satan is an adversary.  The tempter is the antithesis of all that is good and true.

Jesus’ second temptation has always captured my imagination because it portrays Jesus and the devil both employing scripture to make their points.  The devil quotes the Psalms.  Jesus quotes Deuteronomy.  They both get the words right but only Jesus gets the words and the spirit right.  The devil is using scripture toward an end for which it was never intended.  The devil has an agenda — the undoing of Jesus — and will say and do anything in its service.  Jesus’ too has an agenda.  His agenda is fidelity to God and the identity and mission to which God called him.

Jesus wasn’t about to engage in parlor tricks for the sake of a little fame and notoriety or to entertain the devil.  His relationship to God was far more substantive and important and was for other purposes altogether, holy purposes.

In the desert, Jesus also came to understand a thing or two about single-heartedness, single-mindedness.  The devil wanted Jesus to divide his loyalties, to serve masters other than God, to take his cues from sources other than God.  And the pay off was considerable — fortune and power, land and prestige.  Again, to say yes to what the devil had in mind would have been a betrayal of Jesus’ identity and mission, something Jesus didn’t do.

It’s always dangerous to try to know more than one can know when reading scripture.  I’ve always wanted to know how serious Jesus’ temptations were.  Could he have failed?  Could things have gone otherwise?

Personally, I believe things could have gone another way.  After all, Jesus was human.  Also, if what Jesus was going to say and do in response to the temptations was a foregone conclusion, the temptations were a sham and Matthew is playing us.

But the temptations were not a sham and Matthew is not playing us.  Jesus’ identity and mission were on the line.  Would Jesus be true to God or not?  True to himself or not?  Jesus stayed true to both.

4.

One way to read the story of Jesus is as a story of what it looks like to trust God.  Jesus shows us throughout the gospels what trust in God looks like.  Jesus shows us throughout the gospels that God is always trustworthy.

The tempter’s entreaties in today’s lesson make perfect sense.  Bread over an empty stomach.  This is the temptation to put one’s well being first.  What’s more basic than food.  A relationship with God, but in the service of parlaying it into a measure of recognition for oneself.  And leadership, but not for the sake of service.  Instead for the prestige and acclaim.

When we read further in Matthew’s gospel Jesus does perform a miracle involving bread, but not to satisfy his own hunger.  He does so to feed others, many others.

When we read further in Matthew’s gospel Jesus does put his relationship to God to the test.  It’s in the garden when he submits to God’s will rather than his own.  It’s on the cross when he entrusts himself to God with his dying words.  Again, he doesn’t do so for recognition or acclaim.  He does so for others.

And, again, when we read further in Matthew’s gospel Jesus does become a king, but a king of a kingdom unlike any other.  A king who lays down his life for all of humanity.  A king who shows the world what true power looks like.  It is not the power of might.  It is the power of love.

5.

Wilderness experiences and temptations are not one and done events in life.  They recur time and time again.  Our identity as God’s own is always challenged.  God tells us we are his.  The world says no, we are not.  Temptations to be something other than God’s will always arise.

Sometimes we seek wilderness experiences and sometimes wilderness experiences find us.  Through them God will give us exactly what we need.  It may not look or feel like it at the time, but it is.  God’s grace is never absent even when our trust feels like it has grown threadbare.

6.

We are in the early days of our Lenten journey as we make our way to Jerusalem, the cross, and Easter morning.  Remember the promise of the gospel.

Matthew’s gospel begins with God with us and ends with God with us — always, to the end of the age.  What this means is that Jesus has gone before us into all the wildernesses.  He has withstood all the trials and tests.  There is no place too desolate, too distant, too challenging.  Jesus has been there and overcome it for each one of us.

Jesus shows us what trust in God looks like.  Jesus shows us that God is trustworthy.  And when our trust grows thin or weak or weary and it does and will, Jesus gives us his own trust in God to hold us and sustain us and make us whole.  It’s called grace.

Amen.