Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

God is Speaking, Are We Listening?

God is Speaking, Are We Listening? | 17 January 2021

Dan McCoig

1 Samuel 3:1-20 | Common English Bible

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.

The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

11 The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

“He is the Lord, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”

19 So Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the Lord’s prophet.

John 1:43-51 | Common English Bible

43 The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”

46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”

Philip said, “Come and see.”

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”

Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”

49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these! 51 I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”

1.

In my humble opinion, it is the height of presumption to claim to speak definitively and with absolute certainty for the Lord God of the Universe.  But, people do it, it seems, all the time.

Also, in my humble opinion, I do believe that one can speak humbly and with faith regarding what the Lord God of the universe has “said” to him or her.  Because, this is something I do and you may do as well.  It’s my vocation, quite frankly.  The key words here are humbly and with faith.  The minute we believe we’ve got God all figured it [especially for others], we can be assured that whatever we think we’ve got all figured out isn’t God but something else entirely.

The world of the Bible belongs to a very different time and place.  There is so much that lies between the world of say a Samuel and a Nathanael, two persons we met in today’s lessons, and our world.  Samuel and Nathanael would be just as lost in our world as we would be in theirs.

But, we do have some things in common.  Samuel and Nathanael were human.  We are human.  Together, we know hunger and thirst, joy and sadness, hope and fear.  And, we also long for meaning and purpose, a relationship with the divine, to love and to know that we are loved and that our lives matter as well as the lives of others and even the planet itself.

2.

Today’s lessons are call stories.  God is calling Samuel to a task.  God is calling Nathanael to a task.  Samuel’s call is to be a prophet to kings.  He ends up being a big deal.  Nathanael’s call is to follow Jesus.  I think we can learn a thing or two from their responses to God’s call.

Our lesson from First Samuel is very, very old – nearly 3000 years old.  It’s the only story in the Bible of Samuel as a boy.  All the rest are of him as an adult prophet to Israel’s kings.

Samuel was dedicated to God’s service by his mother, Hannah, before he was even born.  As a boy, Hannah presented Samuel to the chief priest, Eli, at Shiloh, a sanctuary city where the Ark of the Covenant resided.  The ark was a gold covered chest that contained stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

In our lesson, it is night.  Eli is aged.  He has lost his eyesight.  He is asleep.  Samuel is preparing to turn in for the night as well.  He lies down in the temple in the candlelit darkness beside the ark and hears a voice calling:  “I am here.” The words “I am” are reminiscent of the words to Moses from the burning bush on Mt. Sinai.  When Moses asks who is speaking to him, the voice tells him “I am who I am.”  Samuel believes the voice is his master’s voice, Eli’s.  He reports to Eli only to discover it wasn’t Eli at all.  This happens two additional times.

After the third time, Eli says it is God who is calling Samuel.  The narrator tells us that this is something that hasn’t happened for a long time.  God for reasons the narrator doesn’t tell us has been silent.  Eli teaches Samuel how to respond.  Say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

In the story, Samuel hears God but suspects that it is Eli instead.  Eli has to teach Samuel that it is God as well as how to respond to God.  I’ll circle back around to what God has to say to Samuel. 

That’s our first call story.

3.

The second call story involves Jesus gathering his inner circle of followers.  This is something rabbis did.  They were teachers and teachers gathered students.  Jesus had already called Peter and Andrew and Philip.  

Jesus’ call to Nathanael comes by way of Philip.  Philip is so excited about his encounter with Jesus that he finds his friend Nathanael to tell him all about it.  Nathaniel is skeptical.  He’s having none of it.  Everyone knows that nothing good ever comes from a place like Nazareth.  Nathanael thought he knew everything there was to know about Jesus based solely on his hometown.  As far as Nathanael is concerned, Philip is following a pretender, a wannabe, a false prophet.  He’s wasting his time.

Maybe, perhaps.  Philip doesn’t argue his point with Nathanael regarding what he believes about Jesus and his own decision to follow him.  Rather, he issues an invitation.  Okay, skeptical Nathanael, cynical Nathaniel, know-it-all Nathaniel, “Come and see.”

And, Nathanael does.  When Nathanael sees Jesus, Jesus calls him by name [something, by the way, that God did with Samuel as well].  This catches Nathanael off guard.  Nathanael wonders how this itinerant rabbi could possibly know his name or, for that matter, anything else about him.  But he does.  Jesus’ prescience results in Nathanael’s confession of faith – “You,” says Nathanael to Jesus, “are God’s son, the king of Israel.”

That’s our second call story.

4.

There is a third call story.  It’s yours.  It’s mine.  God doesn’t and won’t leave us be.  God is always calling us and making claims upon us.  God says to us over and over again, “I am here.”  That’s what love does.  “I am here,” says God.

Here’s a claim of the Christian faith.  Our God is a living God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and present in and through the Holy Spirit.  Which means, God still speaks.  God still calls followers.

One of the high honors and privileges of my vocation as a pastor is to be a student of history and an accompanier of others on their life’s journey.  As I read and study history, especially church and Christian history, I run across story after story of people of faith who have “heard” God and responded in faith.  As a pastor, I listen to people tell the story of their life and ways in which God has spoken and acted and moved in that life and the ways that they have responded in faith.  Significant transformations in people and moments in history, I believe, begin with a call from God.

God is speaking, still.  To you.  To me.  To our congregation.  To everyone.  Sometimes, like Samuel we will need someone to help us recognize God and teach us how to respond, namely with openness.  Other times, like Nathanael, we will be skeptical, maybe even cynical, we may have to go and see for ourselves.  Is this God or someone or something else?

I don’t presume to know how God gets every person’s attention.  But, through faith, I can be open to what God may be saying and doing and encourage you to be open as well.

Nearly weeks ago, we witnessed fellow Americans entering our nation’s Capitol Building while our elected representatives were in session to certify the electoral college results.  What had become a riotous mob following a political rally entered our U.S. Capitol unlawfully and for that they should be held to account.  They assaulted our capitol police, vandalized the halls of Congress, and terrorized our elected representatives.  Their actions resulted in numerous deaths.  Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I can’t see how any of this is defensible or okay.  Republicans and Democrats alike have condemned it.

As people of faith, does God have something for us to hear, something for us to see, something for us to learn through this moment in our nation’s history.  Samuel’s lesson is this:  Be open, listen and learn.  Nathanael’s lesson is this:  Come and see.  As a person of faith, I think there are many lessons to learn from January 6, many of which will take time and distance and the diligent work of journalists, political scientists and historians.  But some lessons are evident right now.  

Hopefully, we relearned that violence is always wrong  – especially civic violence that pits fellow citizen against fellow citizen.  It does more harm than good.  It results in bloodshed and the loss of life.  Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers.  He didn’t say blessed are the violence mongers.  Jesus said to love our neighbor.  He didn’t say to hate our neighbor.

Also, the truth matters and must be told and affirmed.  Lies are corrosive and must be countered with the truth.

This brings me back to Samuel’s story.  Samuel was called to judge Eli and his son’s for their wrongdoing, namely using the sanctuary at Shiloh to enrich themselves rather than serve the people.  Justice demanded that Eli and his sons be held to account.  Samuel loved Eli and didn’t want to say to Eli what God had called him to say but did so for Israel’s sake.  Eli and his sons would never be in leadership in Israel again.  Their story is a cautionary tale in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  

5.

Here’s where I want to end this sermon.  May we attune to God’s call upon our lives.  It’s first and foremost a call to embrace the grace God shows us in Christ.  Having embraced God’s grace, it is a call to follow God.  As Christians, that means to follow Jesus and his way of love of God and neighbor and justice for the poor, and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Amen.

The Signs of God

The Signs of God | 3 January 2021 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 2:1-12 | Common English Bible

Coming of the magi

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.[a]

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

1.

You can’t play a game without knowing what the rules are.  An out in baseball is three strikes and not four.  An out in baseball is when the ball is caught on the fly and not after one bounce.  An out in baseball is when the ball beats the runner to the base and is caught by the defender.  That’s the way the game is played.

Here is a disclaimer.  Life is not a game.  It’s big, it’s wonderful.  It’s messy.  It’s magic one day and tragic another.  But, like a game there are rule-like features that expand life and rule-like features that diminish it.  There are paths that are life giving and there are paths that are life draining.  God’s path is life giving.

St. Matthew tells his gospel so that we might recognize the life of the living God among us.  Matthew wants us to have eyes to see God and ears to hear God.  He wants us to look for God and to listen for God.  Matthew wants us to be aware of the epiphanies that surround us.  He wants us to follow the stars God provides.  Because they are there far more often than we notice.

2.

There are only two stories of Jesus’ birth in the Christian gospels.  One is in Luke.  We read it on Christmas Eve.  It’s the longest and most detailed.  The other is in Matthew.  If you don’t pay close attention, though, you will miss Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth.  In the first chapter of his gospel, Jesus’ birth is foretold.  In the second chapter of his gospel, Jesus’ birth is reported to have happened – “after Jesus was born,” Matthew writes [no fanfare, no angels, no shepherds] – and he then goes on to tell us about the visit of the Magi.  Mark doesn’t have a birth story.  Neither does John.  And only Matthew has the story of the Magi’s visit.

The Magi are some of the most intriguing characters in the story of Jesus’ birth.  In children’s Christmas pageants, they always have the most fanciful costumes.

The Christian tradition has created rich back stories for each of the Magi.  They are given names and places of origin.  This is all conjecture, of course.  But the gospel story invites conjecture.  It want us to move in and move about and play with possibilities.

Matthew’s portrayal of the Magi is much sparser.  There are three of them.  They are from the East.  They each give an unusual gift – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And, they have a message about Mary and Joseph’s child.  He is a king, they say.

The consensus among biblical scholars is that the Magi were trustworthy truth seekers.  They were empiricists who pre-dated the Scientific Revolution in Europe by a millennium and a half.  Essentially, they were the scientists of their time and culture.  They studied portents for meaning, significance, and truth.  Those portents included the movement of celestial bodies in the sky.

A star – or perhaps a certain alignment of planets similar to the recent convergence of Jupiter and Saturn – unlike any other appeared and drew their attention.  They charted the star’s path in the sky and followed it to Judea.  There they asked King Herod where the newborn king was.  This is Matthew at his literary, cheeky best.  The Magi question the king as to the whereabouts of the king.  Let that sink in for a moment.  In other words, Matthew is raising a central question that runs throughout his gospel.  Who is indeed the king?  Herod/Caesar or Christ/God.  To whom should one be loyal?

Herod is troubled by the Magi’s visit and their question.  He gathers the brightest and best in his court.  He wants to know where this child-king is.  He probably wanted to know why they had missed the portents announcing his birth.  My guess is that they didn’t but weren’t about to bring such news to Herod.  He had a reputation for shooting the messenger.  Corrupt and paranoid kings, like Herod, liked to be told what they wanted to hear and not necessarily the truth.

3.

What can we learn from this story in Matthew?  For starters, we should notice how different the Magi and Herod are from one another, especially in their response to Jesus’ birth and the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

The Magi are honest, transparent.  They tell Herod where they came from and why they are there.  They came from the East.  They followed the star.  They are there to worship the newborn king.  They trusted that Herod was an honest broker.  Surely, he would already know about the newborn king.  Surely, he would want to worship him, too.

Not so.  Herod is a villain in the gospel from day one.  He is dishonest, secretive.  He has one goal.  To retain power, with violence when necessary, and keep Rome happy.  Herod tells the Magi to seek and find the child and to tell him where the child is so that he too may worship him.

The Magi believe Herod.  He, after all, is the king.   Once they find the holy family – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – they worshipfully bow before the newborn child and present him with gifts from their treasure chests.  But they don’t report back to Herod.  They discover in a dream that Herod is anything but an honest broker.  Herod seeks the child harm.  Herod seeks the child’s death.  There can be but one king and that king is Herod.

4.

The story of the Magi is more than a morality tale.  We know that openness, honesty, and transparency are preferable to deception, secrecy, and thinly veiled evil intents.  That’s a given.  We know that embracing what God is up to in the world is preferable to resisting what God is up to in the world, namely salvation from sin and evil and salvation for God and others.

The story of the Magi is the beginning of Matthew’s story of how surprising and expansive God’s realm and reign is.  The Magi are outsiders, neither Judean nor Roman.  Outside of Jesus’ family, they are the first to know and proclaim Jesus’ identity.  They saw the signs in the sky and trusted them.

When it comes to my Christian faith, I have to be honest and admit that I have one foot in tradition and the other on the edge and sometimes over the line.  I bristle when Christians attempt to box God in and demand that God be this way or that way and no other way.  

I believe God reaches me and you through all the traditional means of grace – scripture, prayer, communion, the company of other believers, service to neighbors in need.  But I also believe that God reaches me and you through what I will call the unconventional means of grace – a restless night’s sleep, a dream, a throwaway comment in a casual conversation, a sentence from a book you weren’t paying that close attention to, a particular passage in a piece of music, the person who keeps not only the Christian faith at arm’s length but all religious faith’s at arm’s length, a moment of solitude on a casual walk on a Tuesday afternoon, an exquisite scene from a movie that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, a star, strangers, a person quite different from you and all that you hold true [the outsider].

In our Children’s Ministry, we talk about God sightings.  The idea is God is in and around us and at work all the time, but most of the time our attention is elsewhere and we may miss God in that moment.

The baby Jesus worshipped by the Magi will grow to become a man.  As a man he becomes an itinerant rabbi and gathers children around him in a culture in which children were to be seen and not heard and certainly not emulated.  Jesus said that God’s realm belonged to the children and persons who were like children.  Jesus sat a child on his lap and said, “Be like this.”

Scholars have long-debated exactly what Jesus meant by that.  Here’s one thing I believe he meant.  Children have a capacity for wonder that adults too often have allowed to fade.  And, part of that wonder involves the ability to embrace the world – all of it and not some of it – and live in the moment and when something wondrous, surprising, or inexplicable occurs ask, “Is that you, God?  Is that you?”  And they fully expect it to indeed be God.

In this new year [hopefully one in which the pandemic will be controlled], let’s, like the Magi, be more attuned to God.  With the children, let’s ask, “Is that you, God?”  And, jump for joy when we discover it in fact is God.  Right there.  In you.  With you.  Going before you.  At work.  At play.

Amen.

An Unusual Story

An Unusual Story | Christmas Eve 2020 | Dan McCoig

1.

2020 has been a hard year.  Too much suffering.  Too much death.  Too much heartache.  Too much loneliness.  Too much uncertainty.  Too much fear.  Too much division.  Too much financial hardship.  Too much disruption on so many fronts.  Christmas and its message could not come soon enough.

I want to tell you a story about power.  As I reread the Christmas story for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that it is a story about power.  There is Caesar’s power and there is God’s power.  The power that prevails is God’s power.  It’s the power of love; a love that has and will save us all – All.  The.  World.  From sin, from evil, from ourselves, for others, for the world. 

St. Luke is quite the storyteller.  Personally, I think he tells the story of the incarnation of God better than his counterparts – Matthew, Mark, and John.  Let me tell you why.

Luke takes two very different worlds and crashes them into one another.  The first world is the world of Caesar.  It’s a world of coercion and domination, of military might and exploitative taxation, of conquered and occupied lands.  It’s a world of force.  In Caesar’s world, might is what matters most.

Luke tells us that Caesar decrees a census for “all the world.”  That’s right – All.  The.  World.  In other words, Caesar is convinced there is no limit to his authority, no limit to his power.  He speaks and the world falls in line.  That’s the first world.

The second world is the world of a young peasant woman in the final month of her pregnancy making her way to her fiance’s hometown in order to comply with Caesar’s decree.  I often wonder how many other pregnant women were on the move with their families all because of the emperor’s decree.  Consider the number of peasant baby births that must have occurred on the road, at a distance from home, in surroundings that they would not have chosen were it not for that one blasted imperial decree.

That’s the way of imperial decrees – they have no regard for the persons’ lives that will be affected adversely.  Imperial decrees lack empathy.  Such decrees usually have only two thoughts in mind – what’s good for the emperor and what’s good for the empire.

Luke takes Caesar’s story and the story of the birth of a peasant baby and puts them on a collision course.  Luke knew that Rome and its power was something to be recognized, something to contend with.  But Luke also knew that the empire’s power, despite all its wealth and might, was no match for a very different kind of power that was born in Bethlehem.  He knew that the empire would collapse under its own violent weight.  All empires do – violence may win the battle, but love wins the war. 

2.

Jesus’ story can’t be told without telling the story of imperial Rome.  Imperial Rome is there at Jesus’ birth and it is there at Jesus’ death and not in a good way either time.  Imperial Rome threatens Jesus’ life before he is born with Caesar’s census decree.  Arduous travel is not recommended for women in their third trimester.

Jesus’ life is menaced throughout his public ministry as Caesar gets word of this itinerant rabbi telling his followers that there is one Lord and that Lord is God and not Caesar.  And that the one Lord is a God of justice and mercy.  Jesus’ life ends on a Roman cross after a Roman trial.

When we retell the Christmas story – the story of these two world’s colliding, Caesar’s world and the world of a God who becomes human – we are breaking two taboos.  We are talking about politics and religion in the same breath and doing so on Christmas Eve no less.

3.

Jesus’ birth was both ordinary and extraordinary.  Lynn Japinga, a professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan remarks that “When people are challenged to think about the birth of Jesus in more realistic terms, they often resist.”  In a Christology class she teaches she requires her students to read a poem that expresses the stark reality of Jesus’ birth.  The poem is replete with language of blood and pain and pushing.  Japinga comments that some of her students are disturbed to hear that Mary pushed Jesus out between her sticky thighs.

Try as we might, we can’t tidy up Jesus’ birth.  He came into the world the same way each and every one of us did.  In the company of anxious parents.  To an exhausted mother.  And, crying – irritable and fussy, no longer within the warm waters of our mother’s womb; small, weak, vulnerable.

That’s the ordinariness of Jesus’ birth.  The humanness of Jesus’ birth.  That’s what the gospel writers want us to get.  Jesus became like us; he embodied all of humanity. 

But there is an extraordinariness to Jesus’ birth as well.  Shortly after Jesus’ birth, shepherds appear at the door with news of angels.  The shepherds told their story.  It was fantastical, beyond imagining.  God was entering the world and Mary was holding God incarnate in her arms.  Mary’s child was the Lord.  Mary’s child was the Savior.

What does the mother of a newborn do with that kind of news?  How does she begin to wrap her head and heart around what she has just been told.  The news is extraordinary.

Imagine Mary’s thoughts.  “God, in my arms.  God, needing the milk from my breast.  God, in my lap.  God, gazing upon my face as I gaze upon God’s face.  God, soiling his bed clothes.”

When our children were born I discovered that infants can’t see very far.  About a foot away, which, when you think about it, is roughly the distance between a baby’s eyes and the person holding the baby.  Neuroscientists have mapped the brains of infants and their caregivers when they are gazing into one another’s eyes.  The brain goes into high gear with all sorts of activity, all of it good.  That gaze is how infants and caregivers come to know one another.  That gaze is how infants and caregivers come to love one another.  That gaze triggers the development of compassion and empathy in both the infant and the caregiver.  It’s where love begins.

4.

On that first Christmas, as she listened to the shepherds, Mary held her baby close and gazed into his eyes.  In Jesus, she was seeing the face of God.  And, that’s the Christmas story.  In Jesus, we all see the face of God.

Fast forward to the adult Jesus.  The gospels portray him as having an uncanny ability to see all of everyone for who they were and are and would become, to know all of everyone, and to love all of them regardless.  What Jesus saw was humanity.  Broken.  Sinful.  But he also saw in each person’s brokenness and sinfulness the very image of God, he saw each person’s inherent dignity, that each person was worthy – worthy of respect, worthy of love.

It’s astonishing that Jesus loved the way he did – with passion and unconditionally.  Isn’t it?  It’s astonishing that God in Christ loved the way God did – again, passionately and unconditionally.  That’s the lesson of Christmas.  Christmas is an eye-opening holy day where we are invited to see in the Christ child God and to see in every single person we encounter the image of God.

God’s image may be tarnished in some and shine brightly in others just as it’s tarnished in us and shines brightly in us [usually all in the same day], but it’s always there if we take the time and make the effort to see.  Let’s take the time and look for it, shall we.  Merry Christmas, friends, Merry Christmas.

God’s Favor

God’s Favor | 20 December 2020 | Dan McCoig

Luke 1:26-38 | Common English Bible

Jesus’ birth foretold

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

1.

Prequels are popular in both literature and film.  A prequel is the story before the story.  It tells us how we got to the main story.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent.  We are almost upon the main story, which is Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.  But there is a prequel to the Christmas story.  That prequel is today’s lesson.

The biblical writers introduce us to faithful people time and again as they tell their stories of the activity of God in the lives of their characters.  St. Luke’s prequel to his Christmas story introduces us to faithful people.

In a moment, I want to talk about the people St. Luke introduces us to, but first, I want us to give some thought as to the faithful people we have known in our lives and their impact upon us.  I want us to give some thought as to what made them faithful.

When I think of faithful people, what comes to mind is, for the most part, how ordinary they were.  I think back to my little league baseball coach.  For all the years of my boyhood, he was there two afternoons a week and every Saturday for game day all spring and summer long.  He taught us the basics of the game.  How to throw and catch the ball, how to swing a bat, where to position ourselves in the field, and to think what we should do on offense after putting the ball in play and what we should do on defense after the ball has been put into play.  I can’t begin to tally the hours our coach poured into each of his players, into our team.  He was always there, faithfully.

The same goes for my Boy Scout leaders.  They were there weekly for each and every troop meeting.  They were there one weekend a month for every season of the year for our monthly camping trip.  They were there for a week of every summer for summer camp.  They taught us how to tie every imaginable knot for every imaginable purpose.  They taught us how to pack a pack, roll a sleeping bag, pitch a tent, make a fire and cook over it, treat a blister after a long hike, identify trees and stars, gauge wind direction, paddle a canoe.  Again, I can’t begin to tally the hours our scoutmasters poured into each scout and our troop.  They were always there, faithfully.

My baseball coach and scoutmasters weren’t extraordinary in any way I could tell.  They had jobs, families, paid mortgages, shopped for groceries, got ill, worried about the stuff that comes with living.  But they showed up for others, for someone else, and in my case for a boy who needed them as well as the countless other boys who needed them.  They said “yes” to the call of their community.  They could’ve said “no”, but they didn’t.

For me, this is a big part of what faithfulness is all about.  Saying “yes” and showing up, being there for others who need you.  That’s faithfulness.  We’ve certainly seen it during this pandemic among all of our front line workers.  I’ve seen it first hand in the volunteers and staff of our congregation.  

2.

St. Luke introduces us to Elizabeth and Mary in today’s lesson.  Elizabeth is quite old.  Mary is quite young.  Surprisingly, Elizabeth is pregnant.  Surprisingly, Mary learns that she will become pregnant.  Elizabeth’s child will be a prophet.  Mary’s child will be the Messiah, the Christ, God.

Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, initially – an angelic visitation notwithstanding, could not believe they were to become parents.  They were simply too old.  Biology then as now was the same.  

Mary, too, received a visit from an angel – a messenger from God named Gabriel.  Although Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, Luke tells us that she is not afraid.  Rather, she is confused.  Initially, again an angelic visitation notwithstanding, Mary does not believe she will become a mother.  She knew how babies were made and she hadn’t met the requirements for conception.

I want to digress here for a moment.  Consider Mary.  The Christian tradition either makes too much of her or too little of her.  She either plays a starring role in the birth of Christ and in his life or a walk on part only to fade into the wings

Personally, I believe she plays a starring role and an edgy one at that.  Biblical literature has more than its fair share of stories involving angelic visitations.  In nearly all of them, the angels have to calm folks down because they are fear stricken.  That makes sense to me.  Not so with Mary.  Mary strikes up a conversation with Gabriel and questions Gabriel about his message and how what he is telling her could possibly happen.

Mary, despite her youthfulness or maybe because of it, is bold.  Mary listens to what Gabriel has to say in response to her questions.

In the Christian tradition, there has always been a debate as to whether Mary had a say in God’s choice of her to bear the Christ child.  There are three answers that I am aware of and for me only two are feasible.  Here are the answers:  No, yes, and maybe.  The most plausible answers are yes and maybe and I’m throwing out maybe because it’s a non-answer answer.

So, yes, Mary had a say in whether she would bear the Christ child.  The Christmas story doesn’t progress without Mary saying yes.  The God of the Christian tradition is a God of grace and grace as far as I can tell is never coercive.  If it were coercive, it would cease to be grace.

Instead, grace is inviting, enticing.  God makes space for people, including Mary and us, to say yes but in the same space people, including Mary and us, can also say no.  God is obviously rooting for everyone to say yes.

Mary says yes.  She learns that with God everything is possible.  An older woman bears a child.  A young, virginal woman will do so as well.

Mary is a young woman of firsts in the Christian New Testament.  She is the first to believe the news about the child she is to bear.  She is the first to become a disciple of the child.  She is the first to prophesy as to her child’s identity and mission.  She is the first to proclaim who her child is and what he will become do – Lord and Savior.

Mary’s yes to God – “Here I am” – shows the world what radical faithfulness looks like.  Yeses make things happen.  Yeses open doors.  Yeses make paths.  Yeses overcome obstacles.  Yeses bridge divides.  Yeses set sails against which the Spirit can blow.  Yeses set the stage for hope and peace and joy and love.  A yes to God makes everything possible.

3.

In older translations of Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God.  The translation I read this morning reads “God is honoring you.”  Both translations work.

St. Luke wants us to understand what it means to be favored or honored by God through a whole new lens.  God’s favor usually meant to be blessed with health or beauty or intellect or wealth or power or position.  In other words, the idea was that one of these characteristics could somehow garner God’s attention and thus God’s favor.  But according to St. Luke and every writer in the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, that’s not how it works at all.

God’s favor comes when God, by grace alone, chooses Mary or you or me, for a task and gifts us to fulfill it faithfully and Mary or we say yes, here I am.  And this divine favor comes into the lives of the most ordinary of folks we can imagine.  Exhibit one is Mary herself.  Young.  Poor.  Unwed.  Perhaps, a little brash – who questions an angel, anyway?

I believe every person is favored by God – chosen and gifted – and God is waiting for each of us to say yes to that thing to which God is calling us.  And when we say yes, like Mary, there will still be questions.  There will still be fears.  It’s possible to say yes and follow God without having everything squared away and nailed down.  That’s why it’s called faith instead of certitude.

Mary didn’t have to say yes to God.  I believe she wanted to say yes to God.  And when she did – when we do – she became the person God desired her to be.  She became more herself than she could have become ever before.

The same goes for us.  When we say our “Here I Am” to God, when we say our yes to God, we find joy in our calling and become more ourselves than we could have ever become before.  Amen.

No Shortcuts

No Shortcuts | 6 December 2020 | Dan McCoig

Mark 1:1-8 | Common English Bible

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1.

Think with me about origin stories, founding stories.  Stories about how things got started.  Where things got started.  Who was involved at the beginning.  What was said or written in those earliest days.

Everyone and everything has an origin story.  I thought about my own this week.  I was the second born child of three children and the first born son to a mother who never finished high school, nor did her husband, my father.  Their first born child, a daughter, died in infancy.  I believe my mother grieved her daughter’s death all the days of her life.

Mom and dad were born and raised in Appalachia – East Tennessee to be more precise.  Electricity was young in rural Tennessee and indoor plumbing sparse.  Those things would come later.

The Korean War, as awful as it was, by way of the Air Force showed my father the world and gave him skills with which to earn a livelihood and a lifelong curiosity about everything.  Those skills brought my father and my mother and me to central Virginia in the early 1960s.

I was a quiet and bookish child who wore his library card out.  My father was quiet but not my mother.  She was a talker.  Neither were particularly bookish.  I was told I got my bookishness from my aunt Louise.  My dad admired his older sister.  She finished high school.  She earned a college degree.  She was a chemist at Oak Ridge on the Manhattan Project.  Dad fostered my bookishness.  He knew where it could take me.

That’s a piece of my origin story.  Consider yours.

Movements have origin stories as well.  What we now call Christianity didn’t have a name in its earliest days and months and even years and decades.

2.

Our lesson from Mark is the Jesus’ movement’s earliest origin story.  Mark tells us so right from the start.  His gospel opens with “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ . . .”

The Jesus movement begins in the wilderness, beside a river with a man named John.  He’s dressed like a prophet from a bygone era.  He looks out of time.

People are flocking from across the region to see this man, to hear this man.  And what they hear is this:  Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.

Christianity’s origin story – I’ll call it Christianity even though that word would have been unknown to both John and to Jesus – begins with a message of change.  Change your mind.  Change your heart.  Demonstrate your change of mind and heart by going through the waters of baptism.  Ready yourself to embrace all that God has promised.

John shows up on the second Sunday of Advent every year.  I know many a preacher who has said more than once, “Oh no, not you again, meaning John.  What in the world could I possibly have to say about you that hasn’t already been said many times before.”  By the way, I’m one of those preachers.

This year, though, I want to do something different.  I want to focus on John’s audience, those hordes of souls who made the trek into the wilderness.  Who were they?  What could have possibly motivated them to make the journey from their villages into a harsh and uninviting wilderness?  And once they got there and saw John and heard John, what did they make of him?  What did they make of his message?

These are tough questions because Mark provides so little detail in his gospel.  It is the shortest of the four gospels of the New Testament, coming in at just 16 brief chapters.  Mark’s prose is terse – brief and to the point.  If we want description and detail and extended dialogue we are going to have to get that from Matthew or Luke or John’s One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately.”  He uses it frequently.  I imagine that Mark’s penmanship was just awful because I imagine him writing as quickly as he gospel reads.  He writes – this happened and immediately that happened after which, immediately this other thing happened.  Jesus is on the move in Mark’s gospel.

There is an urgency here.  And the urgency is this – God has broken into the world in Jesus to rescue the world from sin and direct the world in following ways that bring life rather than death, ways which involve following Jesus, God’s revelation.  There’s no time to waste in getting this message out.

3.

Here’s my take on some of the folks in the crowd, there in the wilderness, there by the river.  They had heard about John from a neighbor, word was getting around about him.  They had heard about his unusual appearance.  His subsistence diet of what he happened to forage from the desert.  They speculated about him.  They concluded that as odd as he was he was speaking on God’s behalf.  His challenging message – change – was divine.

To see and hear a messenger of God would make any long and arduous journey worthwhile.  But I believe there’s more to the story as well.

Some in that crowd were heart-sick, soul-sick, burdened.  They were living in Roman occupied territory.  They were treated as enemies in their own land.  This wore on them day in and day out.  There were other would-be prophets that excluded them or simply fizzled and faded because their message lacked that divine spark.

Last week, I mentioned historian Jon Meacham’s biography of Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.  It’s well worth reading.  That’s why I’m mentioning it again this week.  

Lewis grew up in the Jim Crow South in Troy, Alabama.  He describes being treated like an enemy in his own land.  As a Black man in late-1950s and 1960s America, he was unwelcome and unwanted.  There was no place for him and people of color like him.  He vowed to do whatever it took to chart a way forward where America’s segregated society would change and become what Lewis called God’s Beloved Community, a multi-racial society.  Lewis’ words drew crowds and with their corresponding actions wrought necessary change.

Back to the crowds in the wilderness.  There were others like John the baptizer who claimed to speak for God.  But, in the end their message did not change anyone or anything.  John’s message was transformative.  People heard hope.  They heard peace.

Four gospels made the Christian New Testament.  There were many other gospels out there.  The early church fathers decided, however, to go with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the most reliable, words that could be traced to the earliest Christian communities.

In my lifetime I have certainly read and heard many other gospels that claim to be Christian but grossly misuse the name Christian.  There’s the prosperity gospel — follow Jesus and God will make you rich.  There’s the consumer gospel – follow Jesus, who wants nothing more than for you to go out and buy everything your heart desires.  There’s the feel good gospel – follow Jesus and do what feels good and right and best to you.  These are aberrations.  Jesus wouldn’t recognize any of them nor would John.

The Christian Gospel is different.  As I said it begins in the wilderness, beside the river, with an oddly attired man named John, who calls for change because the revelation of God is at hand in Jesus.  This is good news that got people up and out of their villages and making a journey into the wilderness.  They saw John.  They heard John.  They went beneath the waters and emerged with vows to live anew, to live differently, to live for God.

People are hard wired for a connection with God.  We are hard wired for a connection with other people.  That’s one of the things that has made this unrelenting pandemic so hard.  We are hard wired for hope and peace, meaning and purpose, to love and be loved.  And the Christian Gospel speaks to all of these things.

The Christian Gospel in not an invitation to church, although belonging to a Christian community is absolutely integral to the Christian life.  The Christian gospel is an invitation into a relationship with God and the community of God’s people that changes lives.  This is what the gospel promises – a transformed life, a transformed world.  A life formed and characterized by love of God and neighbor, a freedom from self and for others.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  We are on our way to Christmas but we can’t get there without going through John and his message of repentance, his message of change.  There are no shortcuts, no bypasses.  We can’t go around John.  We have to go through him and hear his message once again and once again decide to change or not, to be renewed by baptismal waters or not, to follow the one, Jesus, to whom John points or not.

I began this sermon by pointing out that all movements have origin stories, founding stories.  Christianity begins with John and his message.

Aristotle, the fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, wrote in his book Poetics that every whole story has a beginning, middle, and an end.  I believe the same goes for the Christian life.  Every whole Christian life has a beginning, middle, and an end.  The Christian life begins at baptism or confirmation when we renounced sin and evil and embraced Christ and good.  The middle of the Christian life is everything else.  It’s marked by a sacrament as well, the sacrament of communion where we commune with the living God and with all others who love the living God as well.  And the end is when we take our last breath, die as well as we can, and God’s community gathers to witness to Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all who die in Christ.

I want to leave us with this quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Sacks was Great Britain’s chief rabbi for more than 20 years.  He died this year at the age of 72.  In his last book, “Morality,” he wrote:

“To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves.  To act morally. To be concerned with the welfare of others. To be someone people trust. To give. To volunteer. To listen. To smile. To be sensitive, generous, caring.”  Amen.

Beginning with the End

Beginning with the End | Mark 13:24-37 | 29 November 2020 

Dan McCoig

Mark 13:24-37 | Common English Bible

24 “In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. 25 The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. 27 Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.

28 “Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. 30 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

32 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33 Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34 It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

1.

Every religious tradition has a story of how it all began as well as a story as to how it will all end.  Christianity is no exception.

You need to know this about me.  I am not a biblical literalist.  I take the Bible and what it says far too seriously to read it literally.  It’s helpful to remember that the Bible is a book of faith written over many years by people of faith for people of faith.  The Bible is emphatic as to where it all begin – in God and with God.  It’s emphatic as to where it will all end – in God and with God.  The biblical writers tell their story with analogies and metaphors, fantastical imagery, poetry, and song.  They tell their stories of faith so that we too will have faith as well.  They trusted God and want us to trust God, too.

Today’s lesson from Mark belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature.  The word apocalypse means “unveiling” or “revealing,” for example the Book of Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse of John.

Recent scholarship suggests that Jesus, as well as his kinsmen John the Baptist who we will talk about next week, would have been schooled through and through in apocalyptic theology – the notion that the world had grown so evil that God was going to intervene at any minute in a dramatic and undeniable fashion to put things as they should be.

Jesus was a Judean who lived in Palestine.  His homeland suffered at the hands of Babylonian armies, Greek armies, and in his time Roman armies.  The Babylonians reduced Solomon’s Temple to rubble.  The Greeks desecrated the rebuilt temple.  And within ten years of Mark writing his gospel about Jesus the Romans would reduce the rebuilt temple to rubble once again.

Imagine a young Jesus hearing the stories of his people.  The stories involved pain, suffering, loss, injustice, military occupation, political and economic exploitation.  When this is the story of your people, you can begin to get a sense of the appeal of apocalypticism – you long for a point in time when God steps in and says, “Enough!” and puts the world to rights once and for all.

2.

Our lesson is known as Mark’s little apocalypse, although there is nothing little about it other than its length.  For most of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark, he tries to keep a low profile.  However, when he enters Jerusalem everything changes.   He fields loaded questions from his adversaries in the religious leadership.  He answers their questions with such insightfulness and authority that the religious leadership begins to plot his death.  Jesus and those like him cannot be tolerated.  He is a threat.

Jesus topples tables in the temple.  He disrupts business as usual.  The temple had grown corrupt and was failing in its mission to be a house of prayer for all, both sacred and safe.  In Jerusalem, Jesus demands to be noticed.  People are compelled to respond.  Will persons follow him or seek his death?

This is where I want us to enter the story.  Presbyterian Christians have not known what it feels like to be on the bottom of culture and society, beneath history’s boot heel, in a very long time.  There was a time when we were persecuted in Europe.  There was a time when we were persecuted in the British colonies in America.  We ended up in Virginia’s valley in part because if there were going to be any violent skirmishes with the Native Americans the English wanted to make sure that any lives lost would be Scottish and Presbyterian rather than English and Anglican.

My point is that apocalyptic literature appeals to people in dire straits.  If life is going profoundly unwell for you, you want God to step in and to do so sooner rather than later.  But, if life is going well for you, you may want God to take God’s sweet time in changing the way things are.  Or, better yet, you may want God to stay in God’s heaven and leave things on earth alone.

3.

Last Sunday, we ended the Christian liturgical year with Matthew 25 where Jesus tells his parable of the judgment of the nations.  When God consummates all of history once and for all there is a sorting between the compassionate and the uncompassionate.  That’s the measure – what have we done for neighbors in need.  Something or nothing?  In other words, Matthew 25 tells us what we should be up to between now and history’s end even if we don’t know when that may be and can’t know when that may be – doing what we can to ease our neighbor’s burden.  This is the work God has given us to do.

Today, we begin a new Christian liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent.  And it’s a little odd that we begin with the end.  Some movies work this way – they show us how the story will end but we watch in order to see how the story gets there.  The same goes with some novels.

Our lesson is a bleak one.  Unimaginable suffering.  The celestial lights going out.  How possible is life on earth without the sun’s light and warmth, without the moon to regulate our planet’s tides?  The answer is obvious.  It’s not.  Again, take what Jesus is saying seriously but not literally.

He’s provoking a response from his original hearers.  He wants to get everyone’s attention.  He’s provoking a response from us, the readers of Mark and his followers 2,000 years later.  He’s illustrating how corrupt and even evil the present world order is and the fact that God sees it too and will act.

2020 has been a hard year.  It’s a year that has felt apocalyptic in far too many ways.  A pandemic.  Economic disruption.  Hunger on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.  Mounting evictions.  Loss.  Grief.  Loneliness.  Civil unrest.  Acrimonious political divisions.

If you have felt the weight of the burden of 2020, my guess you have asked on more than one occasion, “How long, O Lord?”  I’ve certainly asked that question.  The line in the Lord’s Prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – has become more poignant and urgent than ever before.

I remember learning in seminary to always look for and listen for the good news in every passage of scripture, especially as you are studying it in preparation for a sermon.  It’s there.  Sometimes it’s harder to see or hear, but it’s there.

The good news in today’s passage – the hope – is Jesus’ parable of the fig tree.  It’s a story of spring becoming summer.  Brittle branches become tender and sprout leaves as well as blossoms from which the tree’s fruit will come.  This is the nature of things.  No season lasts forever and each season portends another season to follow.

We know the curative power of time.  Time can and does heal.  But Jesus is saying much more.  He is pointing his disciples and us to the utter trustworthiness of God.  In God, Jesus knew his life was secure, come what may.  In God, Jesus wants us to know that our lives are secure, come what may.

If you have not read the historian Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Congressman from Georgia, now deceased, I commend it to you.  Lewis was beaten time and again by segregationist civil authorities as he marched throughout the American South in the 1950s and 1960s to secure voting rights for Black Americans.  As a Christian and a student and a practitioner of non-violence, he never struck back, not once.  He entrusted his life to God.  He entrusted his work to God.

I tell Lewis’ story because it gives us a window on our own work as individuals and a Christian congregation.  It’s the work of vigilance and perseverance in the work God has given to us.  It’s what Jesus means when he talks about being alert, staying awake.  Eugene Peterson talks about Christian discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Jesus came to save the world, which certainly involves disrupting it.  If we have insulated ourselves from the world’s suffering or have perhaps even been complicit in it, then Jesus’ words in Mark should terrify us.

But, if we feel the world’s suffering, and may even know it all too personally, Jesus’ words will comfort us and give us courage.  The world can and will, with God’s help and our partnership with God, change.

As we enter Advent and embrace hope – as we dream and believe – where do we long for God’s deliverance?  Which parts of us do we need to change?  Andrew Connors, a Presbyterian pastor in Baltimore, writes:

“Perhaps we long for deliverance from illness, an inability to find economic security, from routines that no longer bring us life.  Others may need to rearrange our lives to use less of the earth’s resources, to share more with our neighbors in need, or to shift from a winner-take-all mentality toward openhearted hospitality.”

One of my favorite questions is “What is the church for?”  Advent is a time to re-explore this question.  The church is for God and God’s mission of healing the world, loving the world, and holding fast to the mission as we await the Lord’s return.

Amen.

God’s Family — Who Belongs?

God’s Family – Who Belongs? | Matthew 25:31-46

22 November 2020 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 25:31-46 — Common English Bible

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

1.

Some scripture passages preach themselves and the preacher’s job is to get out of the way.  Jesus’ parable in today’s lesson is one such passage.  What is not to understand about what this teaching of Jesus is all about?  There are people who are hurting out there – they are hungry, thirsty, friendless, inadequately clothed and housed, ill, incarcerated.  There are some people who see these people in life’s narrows and do something to help them.  There are other people who see them, or maybe they don’t; either way, they don’t do anything to help them.

Those who reach out with compassion and care and concrete action to help are blessed.  Those who don’t reach out and don’t act are accursed.  See, this passage preaches itself.

I guess I can sit down now and call it a day.  End of sermon.

I could, but I won’t.  There are several other things I want to say about this passage.

2.

For starters, if you don’t know by now First Presbyterian Church’s leadership has affirmed the Matthew 25 Initiative of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  We are a Matthew 25 church.

What does that mean?  For starters, it means we take Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 very seriously as a congregation.  There are three parts to the Matthew 25 Initiative – 1] Building congregational vitality; 2] Dismantling structural racism; and 3] Eradicating systemic poverty.  All of those are tall, tall orders to fill.  It won’t happen in a day or a month or a year.  Rather, it will take years just as it took years for any given congregation to grow stale and structures that favor some and disfavor others to develop and systems that impoverish people to become entrenched.

Of late, the church has focused its energies on relief efforts in Christ’s name.  Feeding hungry people.  Sheltering persons experiencing homelessness.  Providing financial assistance to persons trying to keep the lights on and the rent paid and the prescriptions filled.  In doing all of these things, we have put a smile on God’s face.

But there was also a time when we not only provided relief but we advocated with time and money and energy and imagination and intelligence and love for change in structures and systems that diminished neighbors.  The Christian church contributed to the abolition of slavery.  The Christian church contributed to child labor laws.  The Christian church contributed to the idea of a living wage and 40-hour work week.  The Christian church contributed to the idea of public education.  The Christian church contributed to the conservation of public lands.  The Christian church contributed to resolving differences between nations through diplomacy rather than violence.  The list goes on.

Recently, our book study group read Walter Brueggemann’s Materiality as Resistance:  Five Elements of Moral Action in the Real World.  One of the things he said in the book has stuck with me.  He said, our nation does a pretty good job at caring for persons experiencing homelessness – providing shelter and food.  But, our nation also does a pretty good job at creating homelessness – wages persons can’t live on, lack of health insurance or inadequate health insurance . . .  Brueggemann’s point, in part, is to laud our relief efforts but to challenge us in our development efforts.

3.

Let’s take a deeper dive into Matthew 25.  The Jesus we meet here is the same Jesus we have been reading about throughout Matthew’s gospel.  He is the same Jesus we follow as Christians.

He is still the Jesus who embraced all the wrong people of his day and included them in his movement – the poor, women, children, persons with diseases of either the body or the mind, tax collectors, Romans, the rich whose wealth had isolated them from the community and their own souls.  He is the Jesus who told them that God loved them, too.

But, we see another side of Jesus in Matthew 25.  Jesus is telling his disciples – he is telling us – that there are serious consequences, eternal consequences, to a lack of compassion.  Jesus, who ordinarily doesn’t draw lines or make distinctions, is drawing a very sharp line in Matthew 25.  He is making a very clear distinction.  The line is between those who act compassionately and those who do not.  The distinction is between those who are generous and charitable toward neighbors who need them and those who are ungenerous and uncharitable toward neighbors who need them.

At this point, some context is in order.  Matthew is writing for his community who is mostly Jewish.  Jesus has been dead for more than 50 years.  His followers have told and retold stories about what Jesus said and what he did and how he treated others.  They talked about his death.  They talked about his resurrection.  They talked about his post-resurrection appearances.  They talked about his presence through the Holy Spirit.

Over time, the early Christian community began to become less and less identified with local synagogues.  In the early Jewish community, there were markers that determined who belonged to God’s family – familial ties, ritual observances, the recitation of sacred scripture.  The early Christian community was developing its own markers, many of them similar to the Jewish community out of which it grew.

A key question for any religious community is what does belonging mean, what does belonging look like.  For better or for worse, my formative years as a young Christian came during the ascendancy of evangelicalism.  In other words, persons who belonged were those who could talk convincingly about their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  They could point to a time when they were not Christian and did not belong to God’s family.  They could point to a moment when they confessed their sins, declared Christ their Lord and Savior.  And, following that conversion experience they then knew they were Christian and belonged to God’s family.

So, I got the idea that having a particular experience and saying the right words and believing certain things made a person a Christian, made a person a member of God’s family.  Now, all of those are very important.

But, here’s the thing, Jesus says nothing about belief or religious identity in Matthew 25.  He says everything about behavior that is compassionate and caring.  Being Christian, belonging to the family of God has to do with whether we are kind or not, full stop.  That’s the main thing.

Jesus is very Jewish in this, by the way.  You can’t read the Hebrew prophets without running across a profound concern for the widow and the orphan and the stranger and challenges from the prophets to do something to help them.

3.

The more I read the Christian gospels the more I hear our early Christian brothers and sisters working out what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to bear the name Christian, what it means to belong to God in the world.

Matthew 25 is crystal clear, in my opinion, about who belongs to God’s family, who is a Jesus follower, who can bear the name Christian with integrity.  First, it is the person in need.  He or she may be hungry or thirsty, naked or homeless, ill or imprisoned, wounded by trauma or loss, embittered by life’s experiences.  None of these things exclude a person from the family of God.  Instead, they include persons in the family of God.  All of these persons belong.

There’s another group that belongs, too.  It’s the persons who see those in distress and do something – it might be a meal, a coat, shelter, a donation to an advocacy group, marching for change . . . there’s no limit to how these persons can act caringly, compassionately, generously.

4.

Mainline Protestant Christian preachers like me seldom talk about judgment.  I think it’s because preachers in other traditions became fixated on it, which led my tradition to lead instead with Jesus’ love and mercy.

But, here we are.  Matthew 25.  Judgment is right there.  Here’s what we know from this passage.  There are consequences to a lack of compassion.  Not caring will result in a hard heart in this life and being accursed in the next – neither of which are good.

Those who didn’t care in Jesus’ parable would’ve if they knew it was Jesus they were caring for.  They were motivated by recognition and reward.  You can almost hear them say, “Boy, Jesus, if we knew it was you we wouldn’t have been so callous.”  Those who cared in Jesus’ parable cared because in Christ it was who they had become – people who cared and couldn’t help but act.

If you don’t know about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, I encourage you to take the time to learn something about her and her movement.  Day’s movement grew directly out of Matthew 25.  It was born in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression.  Today, “187 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.”

Day often observed that Jesus’ instruction was very simple, but living it out was difficult.  I agree with that.  But the living it out is what is necessary and in doing so we will change the world in Christ’s name and image and find the joy and peace for which our own souls so desperately long.

Amen.

A World Upended

A World Upended | Matthew 5:1-12 | 1 November 2020

Dan McCoig

Matthew 5:1-12 [New Revised Standard Version]

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1.

I am a word lover.  Words fascinate me.  Where they come from.  What they mean.  How they are used or misused.  How their meanings change over time.

Consider the word ‘crisis’.  The word is transliterated almost letter for letter from the language from which we get our word, that is Greek.  It’s spelled kappa-rho-iota-sigma-eta or transliterated:  k-r-i-s-i-s.  It means decision.  The word gets to us by way of Latin and Middle English.

This stuff may bore you, if so, I apologize.  It excites me.  I have been a logophile – word lover — for as long as I can remember.

Here’s where I am going with this.  The world is in a crisis right now, a public health crisis.  That is, we are at a place of decision.  How are we going to decide?  What will we do?  Which direction will we take?  The nature of a crisis is that it demands a decision.

Hold on to those thoughts.

2.

Today’s lesson presented Jesus’ world with a crisis.  I would add that it presents us with a crisis as well.  A spiritual crisis to be sure, but a spiritual crisis that has implications for every other aspect of our life – economic, political, religious, social . . . you name it.

Here’s the crisis.

An itinerant rabbi appeared on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  He had a small inner circle of followers, his disciples, and an outer circle of persons who may become followers.  There was another circle as well – persons who opposed him, the Temple leadership, Roman authorities.

This itinerant rabbi on the hill had a name, Jesus.  He had a place of origin.  He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.  He had parents, Mary and Joseph.  He had brothers and sisters, most notably James.  He was a person of religious faith.  He was a Jew.  He looked to the teachings of Moses and the words of the Hebrew prophets for guidance and wisdom.  He prayed the Psalms.

He began his public ministry of preaching and teaching and healing and performing miracles with these words:  “Repent.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In other words, change – change your mind, change your heart, change your life’s direction.  Heaven has come to earth in the person of Jesus and nothing will ever be the same again.  Ever.

Some of the people on the hill that day embraced Jesus’ message.  Most of them were the meek.  In the Bible, meek means something quite different than what it means in our current usage.  If we describe someone as meek today, we are probably saying he or she is quiet, gentle, perhaps even easily imposed upon.  The word meek is usually paired with the word mild as in “he is meek and mild.”

In the Bible, the meek were the people of the land.  Persons we would call the salt of the earth.  The tenant farmers, the day laborers, the shepherds, the fishermen, artisans.  Their lives were fragile, precarious.  Their livelihood was subject to the whims of landowners [some of whom could be unjust], the weather, wind direction on the waters, their health.  Poverty and hunger and homelessness were never far away, always lurking nearby.  Jerusalem required the fruit of their labor, in fact depended upon it, and would suffer without it.

When Jesus said they – the meek – would inherit the earth, he no doubt got their and everyone else’s attention.  Because, everyone knew who inherited the earth – those who lived the good life, which in Jesus’ day meant being male, a landowner, monied, having wives, having children – especially boys.  In other words, what mattered most was position and power and possessions.  The more you had of each the more of a somebody you were.  The less you had of each the less of a somebody you were.  In other words, you were a nobody without position, without power, and without possessions.  All of these things are what people most sought after.  They are what people most valued.  They are what people most clung to.

Jesus’ message was completely out of tune, out of sync, misaligned with his times and, for that matter, ours as well.  Poverty?  Peacemaking?  Persecution?  Roman society privileged the already privileged and saw through or around or didn’t see at all anyone else – the poor, women, non-Romans.  The official Temple religion followed suit – the privileged were privileged.  Everyone else – not so much.

Jesus, as the revelation of God and an embodiment of God’s way of doing things, turns everything upside down.  He doesn’t bless the status quo, he challenges it.  In Jesus, favor is granted to those who had never before been favored – the poor and poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who passionately sought to make things right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.

I’m a Kurt Vonnegut fan.  Vonnegut, a WWII prisoner of war and an American author, is best known for his WWII novel Slaughterhouse Five.  Vonnegut, in an essay from his collection entitled A Man Without a Country, wrote:

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes.  But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings.  And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus.  I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.  ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom?  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon?  Give me a break!”

3.

It’s no secret that the values of Jesus and the predominant values of the world in which we live are different, very different.  The world uses one measuring stick for the good life.  Jesus uses an entirely different measuring stick for the good life.

I don’t know if you have ever done the exercise where you write your own eulogy.  If you have, you know how enlightening it can be.  If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.

A eulogy is a public remembrance of someone’s life after he or she has died.  It talks about what mattered to him or her.  It talks about what he or she lived for and the difference those things made in the lives of other people – family, friends, the community.

Wouldn’t it be great if you were remembered primarily as someone who not only loved Jesus but also exhibited his values and their justice as articulated in the Beatitudes?  Wouldn’t it be great if First Presbyterian Church and Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes often came out in the same sentence?

Today is All Saints’ Day when the church remembers brothers and sisters who have left the church militant, this life, and joined the church triumphant, the next life, to use the language of our confessions.  In the Protestant Christian tradition, a saint is not someone who has gone through an ecclesiastical review and been canonized by an institutional hierarchy [as important as such a process is].  Rather, a saint is someone who has entrusted his or her life to Jesus Christ and sought to practice the Jesus-way over the course of his or her life – the denunciation of injustice, standing up for and beside the poor and oppressed, hating evil [yes, hating evil], loving good, pursuing justice.  These are the things God honors.  These are the things that are exalted in the eyes of God.

4.

Tuesday is election day in our nation.  I am non-partisan as is the First Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  You will not hear an endorsement of any candidate from this pulpit.  Our congregation has Christians who are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents and I like that way.  You will hear, however, an admonition from me to vote – to have your say in our self-governing, democratic republic.  The United States is the world’s oldest democracy.  And, as you vote, I would encourage you to have your Christian faith inform your politics instead of your politics informing your Christian faith.  Politics that inform Christian faith is heresy.

Remember, at the heart of the Christian faith is this itinerant rabbi on the side of a hill outside of Jerusalem declaring blessed the meek and the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemaker.  His message presented his first hearers with a crisis.  What are we going to do about this man and his message?  His message presents us, Matthew’s readers two millennia later, with no less of a crisis.  What are we going to do about this man and his message?  And here, I am fiercely bias.  Let’s follow him.  Let’s follow him.

Amen.

An Enduring Question

An Enduring Question | 25 October 2020 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 22:34-40 [Common English Bible]

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

1.

When I was a boy I spent nearly every cent I made on my paper route on baseball cards.  I would deliver the local paper every weekday.  On Saturdays, I would go house to house to collect from the subscribers.  I would set aside the money due the newspaper and gather up the money due me for delivering the newspaper.

I would then set out for the corner store in my neighborhood that had a display of baseball cards and comic books.  I recall buying no less than at least 10 packs of cards each week and sometimes more, which costs about a dollar.  Each pack cost ten cents and had between eight and 14 cards in it.  You can well imagine that it didn’t take long for me to amass shoeboxes and cigar boxes full of baseball cards.

My friends and I would read and nearly memorize ever statistic on the back of each player’s card.  We would debate endlessly on who the greatest player was as well as the criteria that made our choice for the greatest indeed being the greatest.  By the way, the twelve year old me made a pretty good case that Brooks Robinson, the Orioles’ third baseman was the greatest.

I remembered this about my boyhood as I read today’s lesson.  We remain in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew’s Gospel has many conflict and controversy stories.  Today’s lesson is such a story.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day would debate often and endlessly regarding the 613 commands in the book of Leviticus. Which was the most important command?  Which one was the least important?  Which was the greatest and perhaps even encompassed all the others?

Such debate was not unusual.  No one felt threatened by it.  If anything, it was seen as an opportunity to learn and grow.  This is why the rabbis debated – to learn, to grow, to deepen their understanding.

These religious leaders decide to pose one of their questions to Jesus.  But here’s the thing, the question doesn’t come across as an invitation to a conversation where everyone can learn something.  The narrator tells us as much.  Rather, the question comes across as a test.  It has a “gotcha” feel to it.

Let’s stop here and think about questions.  Questions get asked for many reasons.  We ask them when we don’t know something and someone else does.  That is, we ask questions to learn.  This is the best use of a question, in my opinion.

But questions also get asked to put people on the spot, to give the asker a sense of superiority, perhaps even to humiliate the person to whom the question is posed.  That is, the question really isn’t a question at all because the asker already knows the answer he or she is looking for.  This is perhaps the worst use of a question.

2.

So, what kind of question is the religious leadership’s question in today’s lesson?  Were they indeed interested in what Jesus might teach them regarding the greatest commandment?  Or, did they have an answer in mind, and assumed others in on the conversation had an answer in mind as well, and sought to humiliate Jesus, assuming he was going get the answer wrong?  After all, he was a nobody from nowhere, at least from where they stood.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus’ answer would not have been all that different from the answer the religious leaders had in mind.  It’s Judaism at its best.  It becomes Christianity at its best.  I would go so far as to say it’s religion at its best regardless of the name of the religion.

Every religious tradition addresses in some way what it means for persons to give themselves completely to God.  Jesus, as a devout Jew, would have been instructed in this matter.  The key word is love.  Love of God with heart, soul, and mind.  And, love of neighbor as oneself.  Christianity inherited many things from Judaism.  This is perhaps our greatest inheritance.

For Jesus and his contemporaries, love of God with the heart involved our emotions, our thoughts, the choices we make.  Love of God with the soul involved our body, our feelings, our consciousness.  Love of God with the mind involved our understanding.  The founder of Presbyterian Christianity, the 16th century French Reformer John Calvin, emphasized love of God with the mind, which helps explain our pursuit of education and the founding of many Presbyterian institutions of higher learning.  By the way, Reformation Day is October 31.  This year marks the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Since trick or treating may too high risk of an activity, maybe we can stay home and read our John Calvin.

Love of God.  That’s the first part of Jesus’ answer.  The second part is love of neighbor.  Loving God, some would argue, is the easy part.  What’s not to love about love itself – which is who and what God is?  But, loving neighbor is a bit more challenging.  Humans, we can be prickly at times – us humans can say and do things others may not understand and may even take issue with.  Others can hurt us and those we love.  They may require help from us that we may not want to give.

In Jesus’ answer, love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.  If we can’t love our neighbor, any declaration of our love for God will ring hollow, empty.  If we love God, we can’t help but loving our neighbor.

As students of the Bible, we know that context is everything.  Jesus’ answer, in part, quotes the book of Leviticus [chapter 19] from the Hebrew Bible, our Christian Old Testament.  Leviticus commands the Israelites to love their neighbors only after a series of directives that guide behavior toward the community’s weakest members.  For example, the book commands that farmers not harvest the edges of their fields so that the poor may glean from them; that they leave stray ears of corn on the ground so that the poor may pick them up and feed their families; the same goes for fallen grapes in the vineyard.  Leave them for others.  Don’t harvest more than you need and make sure there is always something for others in the community.  

Leviticus also lays out commandments for paying laborers their due and not discriminating against persons with disabilities.  Additionally, Leviticus implores the Israelites to treat everyone equally by showing no partiality, to speak and act honestly toward all, and to not stand idly by when another’s life may be at stake.

The religious leadership we meet in Matthew’s gospel knew and studied the Book of Leviticus.   When the religious leadership talked about loving one’s neighbor they knew what it meant.  It meant those things I just spelled out from Leviticus 19.  When Jesus talked about loving one’s neighbor he knew what it meant as well.  It meant those things I just spelled out from Leviticus 19.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, neighbor love is bias toward persons on the margins.  Those least likely to be seen.  Those least likely to be heard.  Those most likely to be looked over or through.  Those most likely to be silenced or talked over or shouted down.  These are our neighbors.  These are the ones we are to love.

3.

Studying and discussing scripture and formulating our theology is important work.  But it is incomplete work if it doesn’t result in changed lives and ethical behavior.  It’s good to be informed; it’s better to be transformed.

As I read Matthew’s Gospel, what I come away with is that Jesus has had it with the religious leadership.  They have become stuck.  They have fallen too much in love with the words on their scrolls and the sound of their own voices as they debate endlessly the meaning of this or that command of God.  And they have done so so often and for so long that they have lost sight of what matters most.  There are neighbors at their door to be loved.

In today’s passage I see Jesus taking issue with religion as little more than a series of rules.  If we say the right things and do the right things, God and I are good.  If we fail to say and do the right things, God and I are on the outs.  That’s not a transformational faith.  That’s a transactional faith.

I have had a love-hate relationship with the Christian faith, but not with Jesus, most of my life, mostly a love relationship, thankfully.  Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I do.  I’m most disheartened by the Christian faith when it has been reduced to a small set of do’s or don’ts.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  Christianity is an ethical religion and has its do’s – like love God and neighbor – and its don’ts – like don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie.

I become most disheartened by the faith when it has put God in a box as it were, when it has drawn boundaries beyond which God cannot be or go.  In today’s lesson, I hear Jesus saying to his detractors as well as to us, that God is more expansive than we can imagine.  God is more expansive than the 613 commands in Leviticus.  God is more expansive than love itself.  But if we want to begin to get a glimpse of the God Jesus reveals start with love – love of God, love of neighbor – and stay with love.  One simple act of love of neighbor during this pandemic is abiding by the basic public health measures that reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus – wearing a mask, watching our distance, washing our hands, and avoiding indoor crowds for any length of time more than 15 minutes, if possible.  These are short term sacrifices we can make as we enter the eighth month of the pandemic.  A friend put it in perspective for me when he pointed out that his and my grandparents made sacrifices for 10 years during the Great Depression of 1929-1939.  Ten years!  

If we think we can reduce God to one of our agendas, we need to think again.  If we think we can reduce God to words on a page regardless of how sacred the book containing those pages might be, we need to think again.  If we think we can reduce God to a place regardless of how sublime that place might be, we need to think again.  God breaks loose of every boundary we build for God.  And this is a good thing because I know my horizons are never expansive enough and this may be true for you as well.  This is good news, friends.  This is good news.  Amen.

God’s Ongoing Invitation

Matthew 22:1-14 | Dan McCoig | 11 October 2020

Matthew 22:1-14

22 Jesus responded by speaking again in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!”’ But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them.

“The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’

10 “Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. 11 Now when the king came in and saw the guests, he spotted a man who wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. 12 He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to his servants, ‘Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’

14 “Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.”

1.

What does Christianity look like when it gets it wrong?  Let’s take our time to give this question some thought.  As we are thinking I want to pose a more positive question – what does Christianity look like when it gets it right?

Christianity has always been one generation from extinction.  It is both fragile and resilient.  This pandemic has revealed the faith’s fragility and its resilence.

Okay, back to our questions.  Here is how I answered the first question – what Christianity looks like when we get it wrong.  We get it wrong when we are hypocritical.  We get it wrong when we are judgmental.  We get it wrong when we prefer power more than justice.

Jesus didn’t like hypocrites.  He had a nose for hypocrisy and could smell it a mile away.  He uses the word “hypocrites” twelve times in Matthew’s Gospel.  He calls out the religious leaders for making a show of generosity when in reality they were stingy.  He calls them out for making a show a being prayerful when they were more interested in having people see them commune with God than their actually communing with God.  The same goes for fasting.  He calls them out for making sure others knew they were fasting rather than their using the fast to reorient their focus upon God.

Hypocrisy is about as attractive in the 21st century as it was in the first century.  Our faith has to be more than for show.  It has to change our lives so we can participate with God in changing the world.  It’s hard to call the Prince of Peace Lord and then look the other way when it comes to violence.

The Millennial Generation gets a lot of attention – folks born between 1981-1996.  They now outnumber all other generations, including my own, the Baby Boomers, that is folks born between 1946-1964.  Many Millennials have taken a pass on religion, at least on institutional religion.  When asked about religious affiliation they check the box beside the word “none”.  Do you know why?  The religion they have experienced, especially Christianity, comes off as being hyper-judgmental.  The Jesus they read about in scripture is gracious and makes room for everyone.  How does so much of Christianity wind up on such a different path?

Christians trading justice for power is an old story that shows up in every generation.  When we go with might instead of right we betray the faith.  It’s not a good look for Christians.

These are some of the ways that Christianity gets it wrong.  It’s my list.  I bet you have yours.

But, Christianity gets it right, too.  And, it’s wonderful.  Every time we say everyone is welcome and demonstrate it by pulling out a chair at the table and offering it with an open heart to the person others may not know what to make of – the person of color, the differently abled, the gay or lesbian person, the person battling addiction, the person living with mental illness . . .  That’s getting it right.

Every time the church stands up and unequivocally affirms that in God’s realm there is no place for ideas as insidious as racism, where one race is superior and all others are inferior . . .  That’s getting it right.

Every time the church becomes a community that celebrates the birth of a child, grieves the death of a loved one, anguishes over the loss of a relationship or a job and does so together . . .  That’s getting it right.

Every time the church does all that Matthew 25 stuff – the feeding the hungry and providing drink for the thirsty, inviting the stranger in and clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner . . . That’s getting it right.

Again, there’s my list.  Christianity can get it wrong, God help us.  But, Christianity can get it right, praise the Lord.

2.

Today’s lesson is another parable – the parable of the wedding feast.  This image of God’s realm as a great banquet is common one in ancient Jewish and Christian literature.

Theodore Wardlaw, the president of Austin Seminary in Texas, tells a story of when he was a young pastor in one of his earliest congregations.  The church had an early childhood learning center much like our Weekday School.  His study was near the playground.  After recess, the teachers would line their young charges up and give them a rather stern lecture before re-entering the building.  The lecture was on behavior becoming of God’s house.  

The teacher would point to the building and say, “Boys and girls, I know you have heard me say this many times, but you cannot be reminded often enough how to behave in God’s house.  Now when you go inside these doors, there is to be no talking, no laughing, no giggling, no playing, no running, no tickling . . .” According to Wardlaw, the teacher really like to emphasize the “no tickling”.  Apparently, the teacher was trying list every behavior that might upset God.  She went on, “No chasing, no breaking in line, no fighting, no slapping, no kissing . . .”

One day, says Wardlaw, he walked out of his study into the hallway.  One of the children was at the water fountain in the hall getting a drink of water.  At the sight of the preacher, the child gasped, shrank away, and said, “I’m sorry.”  Obviously, this young child had learned that God’s realm was serious business.

I would agree.  It is serious business but not when it comes to the rules we make up that draw weird lines between who is in and who is out and who is worthy and who is unworthy and what makes for acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Rather, it is serious business when it comes to the love and justice and mercy of God that we see in Christ and seek to exhibit toward one another and in the world.

If someone were to ask you what God’s realm is like would you say, “Oh, it’s serious business.”  Maybe.  Or, might you go with Jesus’ image – it’s a party, a wedding feast, a great banquet.

Holocaust survivor, activist, and author Elie Wiesel has written that the celebration of life is more important than mourning for the dead.  These are his words:  “When a wedding procession encounters a funeral procession in the street the mourners must halt so as to allow the wedding to proceed.  Surely you know the respect we show our dead, but a wedding – a symbol of life and renewal, symbol of promise, too – takes precedence.”

The symbols for God’s realm are all celebratory.  Wedding receptions.  Banquets.  Holiday feasts.  The bread of life.  The cup of blessing.

In his parable, Jesus is telling us that God is inviting us to a party – all the time and forever.  And it’s a party unlike any other we ever known or seen.  Everyone is there.  Rich and poor, black and white, straight and gay, the abled and the differently abled, red and blue, Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, the well and the sick.  I mean everyone is there.  The divides are all gone.  Were they ever as real as we made them out to be anyway?

The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew’s gospel is quirky.  It shouldn’t be read as an allegory otherwise God as the king comes off as being touchy and mean.

The most challenging part of the story is the guest who was bound and tossed out for being inappropriately attired.  As a child, this meant I had to dress up for church.  As a seminarian I discovered that’s not what it’s about at all.

Author Fred Craddock has the best take on the guest who was kicked out.  Even when the realm of God is like a party, there is a distinction between being invited to the party and being ready for the party.  Craddock writes:  “Matthew knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness; he knew that for those who presume upon grace, forgiveness does not fulfill righteousness but negates it.  Matthew is apparently addressing a church that has lost the distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behavior.”

Here’s my take.  The guest who got the boot brought through the door with him an apparel that reeked of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and a little too much of might makes right.  The apparel should have had the aroma of gladness and thanksgiving.  That’s my read.

3.

Here’s the good news in today’s passage.  God keeps issuing the invitation.  It arrives for us and for all daily.  Will we say yes and if we say yes will we, in fact, be ready.  In Jesus’ story, some did and some didn’t.  Some did and were ready and some did and weren’t ready.

And here’s the challenge in today’s passage.  The kingdom is a party for all.  Now that Jesus has given us a glimpse of this what are we going to do about it?

Amen.