Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

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. 

Saying it Right or Doing it Right?

Saying It Right or Doing it Right? | Matthew 21:23-32 

27 September 2020 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 21:23-32 [Common English Bible]

23 When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, “I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. 25 Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?”

They argued among themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.” 27 Then they replied, “We don’t know.”

Jesus also said to them, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

29 “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

30 “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. 32 For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.

1.

Here’s a question for us this morning.  What is the better thing to do?  Saying the right word or words or doing the right thing or things.  Ideally, of course, the best thing would be to say and do the right thing.  Saying one thing and doing another is called hypocrisy.  Saying something and then doing it is called integrity.

I want to tell you the story of two leaders from nearly 1000 years ago.  The first leader is Godfrey of Bouillon [bull-yan].  The second is Saladin.

On July 15, 1099 Bouillon and his military Christian crusaders breached the final defenses of Jerusalem after a months-long siege.  Bouillon and his fellow crusaders prayed the Lord’s Prayer, recited the Apostles’ Creed, sang Christian hymns, wore the Christian Cross on the breastplates of their armor and their shields.  They were demonstrably Christian, at least, by the measure of their words and emblems.

Once inside the city, Bouillon gave the order to kill all of its inhabitants — not only the combatants but also the old men and old women, young boys and girls, Muslims, and Jews.  There was to be no quarter.

Eyewitness accounts to the massacre describe the streets of Jerusalem running red with the blood of the dead.  Bouillon was criticized for his order and his men’s behavior at the time and continues to be criticized to this day.  Rightfully so.

The crusades are an ugly chapter in human history and an uglier chapter in Christian history.  The crusaders killed innocents in the name of Christ.  They assented to the truths of the faith.  They said the right things.  But look at what they did.  Lord, in your mercy.

Now for the other leader.  It’s nearly a century later.  We are at the Battle of Hattin [Hattin is near modern day Tiberias, Israel].  The year is 1187.  The Christian crusaders are defeated by Saladin and his men.  After the fall of Hattin, Saladin successfully lays siege to Jerusalem.  He and his men enter the city.

The residents of Jerusalem are rightfully terrified.  They knew what became of the Muslims and the Jews at the hands of the Christians in 1099.  They feared that they would now be slaughtered at the hands of the Muslims.  Revenge was a way of life in the medieval world.

But the non-combatant Christians in the city were not killed.  Saladin granted them amnesty for a ransom payment.  Once a resident paid his ransom he and his family could leave the city.  Some of the residents were too poor to pay the ransom.  Saladin paid it for them so that they could leave.

Also, Saladin invited the Jews to return to Jerusalem whereas the Christians had banished them.  Saladin did not destroy the Christian churches of Jerusalem.  He repurposed them. 

History remembers Saladin for his bravery and wisdom and generosity.  He epitomized European medieval chivalry.

But Saladin’s religious creed was neither Jewish nor Christian.  He was a Muslim.  Christians of the 12th century judged Saladin’s religion as heretical, apostate, pagan, ungodly — choose your adjective.  Saladin said the wrong things, as it were.  But look at his actions.  Merciful.  Compassionate.  Just.

This is on old story from a long time ago.  It’s a true story from history.  I don’t tell it to make Christians necessarily look bad, although I do tell it for us to own all of our history even the unflattering chapters.  I don’t tell the story to make Muslims necessarily look good, although I do tell it for us to understand the history of others, especially the flattering chapters that we may tend to gloss over.  It’s good to be reminded that our history is not the only history.

So, here’s the question, who did the will of God in this story from history?  Bouillon or Saladin?  One said the right thing.  One did the right thing. 

2.

Do you know the difference between authority and influence?  Authority is something conferred upon you by an institution.  For example, I have the authority to stand here and proclaim a word from the Lord.  That authority was first given to me at my ordination by Hanover Presbytery for the Presbyterian Church, USA and at my installation as pastor of this congregation by Shenandoah Presbytery.  In other words, I am credentialed.  Same goes for countless other professions.  People are authorized to do what they do by some credentialing institution or organization.  Authority is external.

Influence, by contrast, is a matter of whether people are going to listen to a thing I have to say when I stand here.  It grows out of who I am and how I conduct my life and interact with others.  I may have every credential in the book and all kinds of authority, but if I’m a scoundrel I will have no influence to speak of nor should I.  This goes for other lines of work as well.

In today’s passage, the civic and religious leaders are questioning Jesus’ authority.  He’s come into Jerusalem with quite a following.  He has taught and preached and healed.  He’s toppled the tables of commerce in the temple courtyard.  They want to know where does he get off doing and saying the stuff he says and does.  He didn’t get his authority from them and they are only ones who can grant such authority.  Jesus has no impressive letters after his name.  He has no well placed social connections.  He’s a nobody from nowhere.  Nazareth of all places.

Jesus catches on to what the civic and religious leaders are up to.  He bargains with them.  He’ll answer their question if they will answer his.  What did they make of John the Baptist?

This is an uh-oh moment if you are one of those civic or religious leaders.  The crowds flocked to John the Baptist’s ministry.  They listened to what he had to say.  They were baptized.  They changed their hearts and minds.  They reoriented their lives toward God.  They readied themselves for the messiah.  John the Baptist, although he had no authority, had a great deal of influence.

If the leaders told Jesus that John the Baptist had no authority to preach and baptize, they would find themselves on the outs with the crowds.  If the leaders told Jesus that John the Baptist’s authority came from God in heaven, then Jesus will want to know why in the world did they not listen to him and change their hearts and minds as well.  The leaders were in a pickle.  They were feeling the pinch.

The leaders were disingenuous with Jesus.  They said, “We don’t know.”  They did but didn’t want to say.  My guess is the civic and religious leaders loathed Jesus.  They had all the authority but no influence.  Jesus had no authority, at least no earthly authority, and yet he had all the influence.

3.

“We don’t know” doesn’t make it with Jesus.  The leaders will not get a direct answer from Jesus.  But, they will get a story.  It’s the story of a father and two sons.  The father tells both sons to go out into the vineyard to work.  One son says no but has a change of heart and goes to work in the vineyard.  The other son says yes but doesn’t go to work in the vineyard.  Jesus asks which of the two sons was faithful.  Which one did his father’s will?

The civic and religious leaders get it right.  The first son, of course.  But in doing so they condemn themselves because they unlike the first son didn’t have a change of heart and didn’t attend to the work given to them to do on God’s behalf.  They said all the right words but the words were not backed up by any corresponding action.

4.

Today’s lesson is a controversy story.  It’s the civic and religious leaders against Jesus.  On the side of the civic and religious leadership is Rome and the Temple.  On Jesus side is, well, Jesus.  And, the crowds.  The crowds have suffered at the hands of their Roman occupiers.  They’ve been exploited by their own religious leaders.  They like what Jesus is saying and what he has done.  They are with him and his message of change of heart and mind and a new way of being in the world — Jesus’ way of being.  Love of God.  Love of neighbor.  A place at the table for everyone.

Today’s lesson is also a change of heart story.  Why did the son first say no to his father but then do the very thing he said no to?  In Jesus’ story, all we get is he had a change of heart.

This makes me wonder how we change?  For starters, I believe, we have to care.  I suspect that the son loved his father and knew that his father loved him.  He gave this some thought and changed.  He decided to go into the vineyard after all.

Nothing changes unless there is first care.  We have to give a doggone.  I have to care, you have to care, we all have to care.  What Jesus said and did has to matter to us and matter a lot.  We have to care about it.  If it doesn’t matter to us, it won’t change our hearts and unchanged hearts can’t make the world anew so that it is more and more akin to the kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

It’s Not Fair

It’s Not Fair | Matthew 20:1-16 | 20 September 2020

Dan McCoig

Common English Bible

Workers in the vineyard

20 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’

13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”

1.

I want to tell you a story.  It’s a true story.  It’s very similar to today’s parable as told by Jesus.  I first read of this story in the New York Times a number of years ago.

It’s the story of Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments in Seattle.  Gravity Payments is a credit card processing company.

If you are not familiar with Seattle, it is a very expensive city in which to live.  This, of course, is true of so many of our nation’s big cities.

Five years ago Dan Price, the CEO, noted that it took at least a salary of $70,000 to live in Seattle.  So, he slashed his own multimillion dollar salary and brought everyone in the company whose salary was below $70,000 up to $70,000.  For him, it was the right thing to do.

Price was raised in a devout Christian home and couldn’t abide employees in his company struggling to make ends meet while he had more than enough.  Now, Price’s business partners questioned Price’s sanity, but since the raises were coming out of his compensation they agreed to it.

Initially, Price was celebrated as a champion of a true living wage.  He was heralded as someone who was doing something about income inequality in the United States.  He was considered a hero of the working class.  Some analysts predicted that other companies would follow suit.

But, not everyone was happy with Price’s decision.  The company lost some clients who believed that their fees would go up to cover the pay increases in Price’s social experiment.  Price was accused by other business people of driving wages up in the Seattle area.  The fear was that if wages got too high the result could be higher unemployment.  Price’s company lost some talented employees as well.  They left because they felt slighted.  Their increase to $70,000 a year was disproportionate to that of  others.  Some employees, the newer hires, went from $35,000 a year to $70,000 a year whereas other employees went from $60,000 a year to $70,000.  You can imagine the grumbling by long-time employees whose raises ended up being modest compared to the newer hires who got very large raises indeed.

Dan Price’s good deed did not go unpunished.  He was criticized.  But, he held firm.  His company gained new clients.  Over time, employee productivity and morale improved.  Wages in Seattle did not skyrocket as feared even though some business owners did move to raise the entry level pay at their companies.

This is what Dan Price discovered — paying a fair wage brought out the best in many workers.  He discovered it was possible to do well by doing good.

2.

Why tell Dan Price’s story?  Here’s why.  I believe it helps to understand Jesus’ parable from the perspective of the short-day workers in the story.  Too often we focus on the long-day workers and their anger and envy, their sense of being treated unfairly, of being slighted.  Too seldom do we focus on the short-day workers and their joy and esteem, of being treated graciously.

Do you know what the seven deadly sins are?  They are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.  Shawnthea Monroe, senior pastor of the Peoples Church in East Lansing, MI, a United Church of Christ congregation, observes that envy, one of the deadly sins, is at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which should really be called the parable of the generous vineyard owner.

We know this parable.  The vineyard owner hires some laborers to work a full day and others to work only portions of a full day and still others to work only an hour.  At day’s end, those who worked for only an hour receive a full day’s wage.  Those who worked a full day take note and can’t wait to receive their wages which no doubt, in all fairness, should be multiples of what those who worked for only an hour.

Turns out, everyone gets the same wage.  You can feel the anger in the story Jesus is telling.  You can taste the envy.  You can almost hear the internal shouts of those who worked all day — “It isn’t fair.”  Jesus tells the story in such a way that we find ourselves responding with our own “It’s isn’t fair.”  Equal pay for unequal work.  What kind of policy is that?  Can you imagine that as an election year slogan.  That’s a campaign destined to go down in flames.

I want to tell you a brief story about fairness.  This story was told by a friend after he had been in recovery for nearly 20 years.  Recently, his AA sponsor from his earliest years in recovery died.  The friend said early in his recovery when he wanted to resume drinking and complained about how hard recovery was he would say to his sponsor, “Life isn’t fair.”  And his sponsor would say, “Thank goodness.  If it was, given the path you were on, you would be either on the streets, dead or in jail.”  The friend never forgot that story.  We don’t get what we deserve.  Often times, we get better than we deserve.

3.

Envy is human.  Social scientists tell us that we are hardwired to compare ourselves to others.  It’s how we know where we fit into hierarchies.  Who is up or down, above or below, with or against?  We want to know.  We need to know.  Where do we fit into it all?

Social media plays on this to the Nth degree.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram have earned fortunes by getting us to check on how others are faring — better or worse.  If worse, we’re okay, at least momentarily.  If better, we grow envious and sometimes even despondent, which usually lasts longer.

When I studied English in college, I had a professor who always pushed us to identify where the central conflict was in every story.  Good stories always have tension that needs to be resolved.  The storyteller builds the tension.  The story reader will stay with the story until the tension is resolved.

The central conflict in Jesus’ parable is the moment when the workers who were in the vineyard from the very start of the day see that the workers who were in the vineyard for only an hour received the same wage.  There’s the conflict.  What’s going to be done about this injustice?

Jesus tells us.  God’s reign is different from the way things are.  In our world, the status quo — “the way things are” — involves comparisons and wanting more.  It’s a place where we are constantly enticed to be dissatisfied, to want more, where there’s never enough.  But, in God’s reign — what the kingdom of heaven is like — there is plenty and wholeness.  There is abundance.  There is enough.   Human hierarchies take a backseat.  Everyone, without exception, has a place at the table.  Social standing is irrelevant.  Who has what and how much do they have is just doesn’t matter.

This parable is one of Jesus’ status inversion stories.  Some of the people who heard the story had a lot of status and didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say.  Some of the people who had very little status and wanted very much to hear what Jesus had to say.  Jesus’ story, of course, is for everyone because Jesus confers status to everyone.

Does God love the person struggling to make ends meet?  Yes, of course God does.  Does God love the CEO who may own homes he or she doesn’t even live in?  Yes, of course God does.  Does God esteem them differently.  No, of course God doesn’t.  Each of us, equally, is one of God’s laborers in the vineyard.  We may have been here since day one or we may have showed up only yesterday, but we still have our place and it is equally important to everyone else’s place.

Is this what our world looks like right now?  Far from it.  Will we ever get to a place where our world will begin to look more like this?  With God’s help, I hope so.  But it won’t happen without you, me, us.  To use Gandhi’s words:  “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  It’s going to take a new mindset — God’s mindset.

In Jesus’ parable, the long-day workers claimed themselves worthier.  They were in the vineyard first.  The long-day workers claimed the short-day worker less worthy.  They were latecomers.  They were in the vineyard last.

The long-day workers — the ones with the seniority, the keepers of the tradition — learn that they don’t get to determine what is right and fair.  The vineyard owner does.  This is what Jesus wants us to hear.  We don’t get to determine what is right and fair.  God does.  And what God determines is right and fair may scandalize us.  It will be quite different from what we anticipated or expected.  But it is a rightness and fairness — just and merciful and loving — for everyone whereas too often our right and our fair is for ourselves and folks just like us only.

Amen.

Forgiving Because Our Life Depends on It

Forgiving Because Our Life Depends On It | 13 September 2020 

Dan McCoig

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

1.

I’ve read and reread Matthew’s gospel so many times over the past three plus decades that I’ve gotten to the point that I know it by heart or at least think I do.  The stories in the gospel are familiar as a well worn path to a cherished fishing hole by the riverbank.

But, with each reading I learn something new.  The Spirit shows me something I missed the last time around.  What I have noticed more and more in my most recent rereading of Matthew’s Gospel is the role of Peter.  It’s a big one.  If Jesus is the star of the gospel, Peter is at least the co-star.  He’s a lot more than a supporting character.  He is key to the story.

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples to pray.  The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray because John had taught his disciples to pray.  So, Jesus did.  He said, when you pray, pray like this . . . and he gave them the Lord’s Prayer.  A key part of the prayer is forgiveness.  The disciples were to pray that God would forgive their debts to God just as they forgave the debts of others to them.  We know the sentence from the prayer by heart:  “. . . forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . .”  That’s a challenging prayer.  Our forgiveness from God is wrapped up in the same forgiveness from God flowing through us to others.

2.

Today’s lesson begins with Peter, the gospel’s co-star because of all the ink Matthew gives him, asking Jesus, the gospel’s star, a question.  Peter doesn’t ask Jesus whether he should forgive or not.  That’s a given.  Forgive.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Peter, though, does ask whether there is a limit to forgiveness and if so, what is it?  This is a fair question.

Immediately before today’s passage in Matthew Jesus is talking to his disciples about what it takes to be a community and to stay in relationship with one another as a community.  Amanda explored this with us last week.  Jesus says that if someone sins against you, talk to them, work it out.  If that doesn’t work, get others in on the conversation and try again.  And, if that doesn’t work, involve the church.  If that doesn’t work, the community may have to move one without the offending member, which is always a sad affair.  Relationships and community meant everything to Jesus.  They were always worth every effort.

I can see where Peter got his idea that there must be a limit to forgiveness at some point.  He wants to know where it is.  He decides that seven times is about right.  The number seven in Hebrew numerology signifies perfection.  For example, Jesus was in the tomb on the seventh day of the week and was resurrected on the first day.  The seventh day is the Sabbath – the day on which God rested after creating for six days, the day on which we are to rest as well.

No, not seven times, says Jesus, but seven times seventy.  There’s a story behind Jesus’ answer.  If you don’t know Lamech [lay-mick], let me introduce you to him.  He shows up in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 4.  Lamech is a descendant of Cain.  Lamech boasts to his wives of his skill as a warrior in battle.  He boasts of killing a man for wounding him and killing a boy for striking him.  He declares that his ancestor Cain has been avenged seven times and Lamech himself has been avenged seventy times.  In the thought world of the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible, honor is everything and when dishonored or shamed the appropriate response included killing.

Jesus would have known this eye for eye, tooth for a tooth world of vengeance.  Peter would have known this world of vengeance as well.  It’s what makes the Lord’s prayer all the more radical.  If someone owes you anything, you can take it out of their hide with violence and be in the right.  The notion of forgiveness, especially extravagant forgiveness that knows no bounds, is scandalous in such a world.

Jesus’ answer to Peter turns Lamech’s boast completely around.  Whereas before revenge knew no limits, now forgiveness knows no limits.  So long as revenge is on the table as an option, community is always fragile and at risk as are the many relationships that contribute to community.  But once forgiveness is on the table as the option, community is strong and resilient as are the many relationships that contribute to community.

3.

Remember, one of the central themes of Matthew’s gospel is God’s reign.  Jesus says time and again, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” and then he tells a story.  Jesus illustrates what it means to pray to God “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  He provides similes and analogies and metaphors.

After Jesus answers Peter’s question about forgiveness, he says again, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.  From what I can gather about Peter, he did not live in a theoretical world, he lived in a practical world.  Boundless forgiveness worked in theory, but how about on the ground, in the day to day, where people live.  

Peter’s question could have been personal.  Someone could have been a significant thorn in his life and repeatedly injured him with words or actions or betrayals.  It could have been someone at the docks or someone in his synagogue.  Peter perhaps was looking for a way to do something about it and forgiveness seemed too hard, out of reach, unrealistic.  He may have even tried it a couple of times but to no avail.

So, Peter gets a very practical story from Jesus.  It’s as concrete as it gets.  There’s a king.  He’s settling his accounts.  One of his servants is indebted to him to the tune of 10,000 bags of gold.  We are talking a lot of money.  There’s no way the servant can repay his debt.  He pleads for mercy.  By right the king could have imprisoned him, sold his family into slavery and everything else he owned to settle the debt.  What happens next in the story is nothing short of stunning.  The king listens to his servant’s pleas.  The man wants more time.  He’ll repay the king.  But the king goes far beyond the man’s requests and grants him mercy.  The king forgives the servant of his entire debt.  The slate is wiped clean.  The man can start anew.

Can you imagine the relief?  A heavy burden has been removed completely.  The flood of gratitude in the man’s heart must have been beyond imagining, transformative.  But what happens next is painful to read.  The man runs into someone who owes him 100 coins, not much money at all really.  The man demands payment from his debtor.  The debtor makes the same pleas the man did before the king.  But the response is the opposite.  No mercy at all.  Instead, vengeance — imprisonment.

The king gets word of this.  Well, you know the rest of the story.  It doesn’t go well for the servant.  His fate becomes that of his own debtor.  The retribution he gave is the retribution he got.

4.

The point of Jesus’ story is this – forgive.  It’s the lifeblood of relationships.  It’s the lifeblood of community.  God’s forgiveness flows to us when it flows through us.  The servant in the story missed this point altogether.

Forgiveness can be challenging.  I get how hard it can be.  My ethnic heritage is Scottish.  The Scots, historically anyway, have a reputation for keeping score and having long memories of who has wronged them.  

What do we do when we are wronged?  The natural instinct is to get even.  It’s not to turn the other cheek at all.  We might fear that if we forgive we will let someone get away with something they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.  We might fear that if we forgive we are somehow allowing bad behavior to be perceived as acceptable, normalized.  Forgiveness is complex.  Forgiveness is complicated.

I think there is another point to Jesus’ parable.  It has to do with identity.  In the story, the servant is a subject of the king with an unpayable debt.  It’s too big.  There’s no way he can ever repay.  The king forgives it all.  The servant is every single one of us.  

Instead of subjects of a king, however, we are children of God and sisters and brothers of one another.  We didn’t will ourselves into being.  This life was given to us with all of its beauty as well as its tragedy.  The love of God through Christ has been given to us as well.  Unmerited.  Undeserved.  What we do with this life and this love is best seen in our relationships and our community.  We should ask always, does what we say and do acknowledge others as children of God, promote and affirm their dignity?  What do we do with our grievances?  Do we take them out on others or do we find a way, with God’s help, to forgive them.

I was reading an essay this week on Matthew 18.  The author suggested that the measure of a healthy Christian community, Matthew’s included and ours, too, is its ability or inability to recognize its interconnectedness with everyone without exception or exclusion and its ability or inability to hold up mercy as the highest good.  Another name for mercy is forgiveness.

Amen.

God’s Unusual Ways

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God’s Unusual Ways | 30 August 2020 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 16:21-28 [Common English Bible]

First prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. 22 Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” 23 But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Saving and losing life

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27 For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28 I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”

1.

Being Christian in a Presbyterian way is collaborative, democratic.  We work together.  We believe we are more likely to sense the Spirit’s movement in a group rather than alone.  I think this is one reason this pandemic is so hard.

James Madison, who wrote the U.S. Constitution, was trained by Presbyterian scholars, many from Scotland and most notably John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey in Princeton.  It’s no accident that U.S. government and Presbyterian church government have a lot in common.

Let’s participate in a thought experiment together in the spirit of being collaborative and democratic.  Imagine that you are a part of a group whose task is to address the issue of human sinfulness and humanity’s salvation.  Tall order, right?  It’s certainly above my pay grade but let’s experiment.

You are gathered around a table with your colleagues, back when we could do such things – pre-COVID.  You and your colleagues begin to brainstorm.  The first person to speak is a true blue Presbyterian Christian.  She says, “I see sin and ignorance as being highly similar.  Our salvation is education.  Teaching is the answer.  Learning is the answer.  Knowledge is the answer.  Enlightment is the answer.”  I’m with her.

The second person to speak has this to say.  “We are socialized into the many sins that beset us.  We are going to have to socialize ourselves out of them.  We have to demonstrate what authentic humanity looks like and how humans should treat one another and stigmatize bad actions.  It’s what good parents do for their children.  One good example repeated often is worth a thousand words.”

A third person speaks out.  He says, “I agree with the education bit and the socialization bit.  But the disparity between persons who receive good educations and poor educations and the disparity between people who are socialized positively and people who are socialized negatively is so great.  Until there is a greater equity and more justice, I’m not sure we can began to have those conversations.  Let’s start with a pursuit of equity and justice for God’s sake.”

The conversation continues.  More people speak.  Additional ideas are presented.  Eventually, one of the people at the table, by the way this person is Jesus of Nazareth, says “Humanity’s salvation from human sinfulness is found in my suffering, death, and resurrection.  It’s found in your self-denial and sacrifice, your ‘cross bearing’, your losing your life in order to find it.”

The room goes quiet.  You can’t even hear breathing.  Nothing.  No one knows quite what to say in answer to Jesus’ remarks.  But, someone else speaks, it’s Peter – Jesus’ star disciple, the rock upon which the church is built.  Essentially, Peter tells Jesus that’s crazy talk.  No one has to suffer here.  No one has to die here.  No one has to deny himself or herself.  No one has to make sacrifices.  There has to be another way.  Right?”

Everyone around the table exhales and begins to nod their heads in agreement with Peter.  They love and follow Jesus, too, but like Peter they’re not sure at all about what Jesus is saying now.  They followed Jesus because they wanted him to put them in positions where the system worked for them the way it did for the Jewish leadership and people with money and the Romans.  Jesus was now talking about something entirely different.

Jesus was talking about taking on the status quo.  Calling it out for being wrong and unjust.  The exploitation, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the racial and ethnic chauvinism, the misogyny, the devaluing of children, the violence – might makes right.  In God’s reign, all of these things are out of bounds and have to change.  In God’s reign, Jesus’ followers say something about these injustices and do something about these injustices.  And, as a result, they like Jesus will suffer for doing so.  They like Jesus will die.  They like Jesus will be resurrected.  But the world will begin to look more and more like a place where God and God’s values reign.  Love.  Justice.  Mercy.  The beloved community forms.

2.

We are still in Matthew’s Gospel.  We will be in Matthew’s Gospel through November 22, when we will culminate with Matthew 25.  Author, scholar, and Episcopal priest the Rev. David Schlafer [who also happened to be one of the readers for my doctoral paper] calls passages in Matthew’s gospel like today’s lesson Discipleship Training Sessions.  Jesus is training his followers how to be Christ-like, which is what the word Christian means.  Every time we identify ourselves as Christian we are saying we seek, with the Spirit’s help, to be more Christ-like.

Here’s a question for us.  When was the last time you were scandalous?  Yesterday.  Last week.  Last month.  Last year.  Never.

If you answered never, that’s ordinarily a good thing.  Being scandalous is usually undesirable.  For example, Peter is being scandalous in the true sense of the word.  The Greek word means “cause for offense, stumbling block, temptation.”

In less than a chapter Peter goes from being the one who gets it absolutely right when it comes to who Jesus is and what his life means to the one who gets it absolutely wrong.  Talk about a turn around.  Peter goes from rock to stumbling block.

I think we understand Peter more than we care to admit.  Peter does not want to suffer.  Peter doesn’t want to die.  He is human and humans prefer to avoid suffering.  The death part, well, he knew that would come for him as it does for us all but he wanted to make sure it came in older age, in his sleep, peaceably with as little suffering as possible.

Peter also wanted the good life he could see around him.  He wanted to love and be loved, he wanted work that would take care of him and his family, he wanted a faith that would see him through sorrow and joy, he wanted to be kindly regarded by his family and friends.  Peter wanted the system to work for him but it wasn’t.

This is how Peter is different from me.  Because the system does work for me.  I’m white, male, heterosexual, middle class, educated, a non-recent immigrant.  I have medical insurance and a retirement plan.  The story would be different if I were a person of color, a woman, gay or lesbian, poor, uneducated, a recent immigrant or refugee and didn’t have medical insurance or a retirement plan.

The system wasn’t working for Peter.  Here’s why.  Peter was a Judean, Jewish.  His land was occupied.  The taxes he paid on his daily catch of fish were heavy, burdensome, exploitative.  And they did little for him and his fellow Judeans.  The taxes benefited the Roman occupiers and the colonials who collaborated with them.  The Romans had a way of looking down on the people in their occupied territories.  This a long story in the history of imperialism and colonialism.  Think of our own nation’s history.

Peter belonged to the artisan class.  He was several pegs below those with formal educations, those with bigger bank accounts, those with better social connections.  He had a place assigned to him in life above which he could never rise.  He knew what it felt liked to be looked over or down upon or through – things Jesus never did.  Jesus saw him, all of him, and loved him just as Jesus sees all of you and loves all of you.

This “way of the cross” Jesus was now describing in clear detail not only for Peter but for anyone else who would follow Jesus produced no small amount of anxiety in Peter.  That’s why Peter says, “God forbid” in one translation and “Never, Lord” in another translation.  It’s Peter’s way of saying there has to be another way.

But, there isn’t.  Not in Matthew’s Gospel.  Not according to Jesus.  The way is the cross.  The way is self-denial and sacrifice.  The way is losing oneself in order to find oneself.  The way is suffering, dying, and resurrecting.  It’s God’s way.  It’s God’s unusual way.

Listen to another voice on this passage.  It’s a Black voice.  It’s a woman’s voice.  It’s the voice of author, scholar, and African Methodist Episcopal clergy Raquel Lettsome.  She writes:

Perhaps [this] story has become too sanitized.  We are now so comfortable with the end of the story, so confident in Jesus’ resurrection, that his crucifixion no longer looms large.  Jesus is no longer a threat to established religion or the sociopolitical system many religious groups lobby to uphold.  The teachings of Jesus no longer confront but instead endorse the way things are.  The result is that for many professing followers of Jesus, Jesus and the religious rulers are of one accord, backed by the government and backing the government.

3.

You’ve got to love Peter.  You know one reason I know in my bones the gospels are true.  Because, if I were one the gospel writers there’s a lot of stuff about Peter I would leave out.  It makes the faith look bad.  If you’re trying to make your case for the faith you want to put your best face and foot forward.  Peter just muddies up stuff.

But here he is.  Getting it right, getting it wrong.  Saying all the right things, saying all the wrong things.  Peter the rock, Peter the stumbling block.

All the gospel writers have Peter in their story of Jesus.  There he is.  Front and center.  Peter’s problems are our problems.  His focus is too often on himself and not often enough on Jesus.  Matthew calls these “human things” and “divine things”.  Peter has been socialized to see the world one way and Jesus is calling him to see it another.  Peter has strong ideas as to how things should be and how things should go and Jesus is calling him to see them being and going another way entirely.  If Peter holds tight to his way, he risks losing himself.  Jesus is saying it’s possible to get everything you want but in doing so to lose yourself.  But if Peter embraces Jesus’ way, he will find himself.  The same holds true for us.

Before closing, I want to go back to that earlier question regarding the last time you were scandalous.  Maybe the church needs to be scandalous – that is, offensive – when it comes to the status quo where some benefit but too many, quite frankly, don’t.  This troubled Jesus in his time.  It should trouble us in our time.  If we are scandalous – a word that shows up in the English language in the 16th century and means “irreligious” – when it comes to the cause of Christ, it will cost us, but we will find ourselves, our true selves, because we have lost ourselves in contributing to making the world anew in Christ’s name and image.

Amen.

How About You? | Matthew 16:13-20

jesus-teaching

How About You? | 23 August 2020 | Dan McCoig

Peter’s declaration about Jesus

13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.

1.

Jesus has never struck me as someone overly concerned about his image or reputation.  I’ve known people who are and I think, it must be exhausting to be them.  Apparently, they constantly monitor what they say and how they look and what they do to determine how it will play before others.  I’m not altogether what their motivation is.  To be liked?  Perhaps.  To be popular?  Perhaps.  To be well thought of?  Perhaps.  To avoid confrontation?  Perhaps.  To not rock the boat?  Perhaps.  I don’t know.

I’ve always admired people who are comfortable in their own skin.  They know who they are and what they value.  This knowledge drives their lives.  I’ve always pitied people who never quite seem to arrive at a place where they know who they are and what they value.  They, too often, let others tell them who they are.  Too often, their values shift with the winds.  I recall a sermon I heard ages ago where the preacher noted that the truths of life, capital T, can never be broken.  Instead, we break ourselves upon them when we violate or neglect them and in doing so leave a wake of destruction.

2.

Today, we begin our Harvest Season.  Our theme is Peace is Doing, Not Waiting.  We will be reading from the Gospel of Matthew every Sunday from now through November 22, culminating with Matthew 25.  Recently, our church’s leadership, the Session, endorsed the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s Matthew 25 Initiative, making us a Matthew 25 Church.  The emphases of the Matthew 25 Initiative are:

  • Building congregational vitality
  • Dismantling structural racism
  • Eradicating systemic poverty

During this season I invite you to read Matthew’s gospel through at least a couple of times.  Good books always require multiple readings.

There are 28 chapters in Matthew.  Read a chapter a day.  In two month’s time, you’ve read the gospel through twice.  In October we will be having a Sunday school class on Matthew.

Pay attention to what Jesus is like.  What he says and how he says it.  Pay attention to how Jesus interacts with people – those who are favorable to him and his message as well as those who seek him and his followers serious harm.  Pay attention to the disciples and how they relate to Jesus – understanding him on some days and misunderstanding him on others.  Put yourself in the story.  What do you see and hear and feel?  If you were to speak, what would you say?  Ask, how is the Jesus I meet in the gospel alike or different than the way he is often presented by the church and Christians in our time?

The point of the Christian gospels is not so much to give us information about Jesus, but to present Jesus to us so that our encounter with him will transform us and our world.  The Christian faith isn’t information.  The Christian faith is transformation.

3.

Today’s lesson is a conversation between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus has been busy in Matthew’s gospel in the run up to this conversation.  He has had a run in with his chief opponents, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  He has miraculously fed a crowd of 4,000 folks and another crowd of 5,000.  He has healed diseases of the body and of the mind and of the spirit.  He has calmed a storm and walked on water.

Jesus has been busy.  Jesus’ actions were drawing a lot of attention.  Who in the world was this person?  Who can do such things?  The disciples were there.  They heard the questions.  They also heard the answers people were suggesting.  They also had questions of their own.

Jesus question of who folks say that he is has nothing to do with Jesus wondering about his image, his reputation.  I’m not sure those sorts of things mattered to him at all.  Jesus question is for his followers to understand him better.  Yes, he is powerful like an Elijah.  Yes, he is charismatic like a John the Baptist.  Yes, he is prophetic like Jeremiah.  But he is more.  He is the revelation of God.  In everything Jesus says and does, he is showing people God.  The words of truth, the acts of healing and compassion, the miracles that calm storms and feed people with food left over – that’s who God is, that’s what God is like.

Jesus asks Peter specifically to answer.  How about you?  Who do you say that I am?  And, Peter gets it exactly right.  “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

This is the sort of answer no one arrives at because they are smart enough or good enough or virtuous enough or liked enough.  This is the sort of answer no one arrives at because they have their theology in order and neatly arranged.  This is the sort of answer that comes from God’s spirit directly to Peter’s spirit and to ours as well.

Don’t ask me why some see God in Jesus and some don’t.  Matthew wondered the same thing in his gospel.  There are stories in Matthew’s Gospel where some see Jesus for who he is, God, and others can’t see him for who he is at all and project all sorts of other identities on him.  It’s the Spirit’s doing.  That’s one point of today’s lesson.

4.

Next, our lesson turns its attention to the church.  The word church occurs only twice in the Christian gospels.  Both times are in Matthew’s Gospel.  One of them is right here in today’s lesson.

The word church occurs a lot more in Paul’s letters of the New Testament, which predate the gospels by nearly a generation.  Scholars suggest that we run across the word church in Matthew because Matthew’s community was wondering about who the church is and what the church should be about.

I don’t know about you but I grew tired of this pandemic some time ago.  I’ve lost count of the persons who have told me they want their former lives back – B.C.:  before covid.  I get it.  The layer of complexity and potential hazard this pandemic has added to life feels like a weight on the shoulders or a chain around the feet.  It complicates our interactions and decisions.

Regrettably, we will be in this pandemic for a season or two more if not longer.  If we hadn’t cultivated the virtue of patience with God’s help before, now is a good time to begin doing so.

The pandemic has disrupted everything.  You name it, it’s been disrupted.  School life.  Disrupted.  Civic life.  Disrupted.  Economic life and commerce.  Disrupted.  Church life.  Disrupted.  It makes me want to stomp my feet and holler.

Notice what Jesus tells Peter about the church.  First, Peter gets his new name.  No more Simon for him.  He is now Peter and will be forever.  The Rock.  Second, Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church upon him.  It’s helpful here to know what Jesus meant when he used the word church.  Church is God’s called out company, an assembly of the faithful.

For the moment, we, the church – God’s called out company, God’s assembly of the faithful – are away from our familiar spaces and are missing so many familiar faces.  But we remain the church.  God still entrusts us to be Jesus hands and feet, head and heart in the world.  God still entrusts us to embody Jesus in the world – to say Jesus-like things, to do Jesus-like things.  The other plagues throughout human history were not able to derail the church from its work and mission.  This plague will not derail the church from its work and mission either.

5.

The church’s identity is bound to Jesus’ identity.  Just as the gospels present Jesus to their readers so that others may respond to him in trust and follow him in life, so, too, is the church to present Jesus to the world so that the world may respond to him in trust and follow him in life.  But we all need something, rather someone, to show us and others what trusting Jesus looks like, what following Jesus looks like.

Peter was the early church’s rock upon which others could build their own faith and discipleship.  He was an odd choice.  Impetuous.  He had a habit of speaking before thinking.  He could be timid and cautious, too.  He could boldly proclaim Jesus as God in one moment and withdraw and deny that he ever knew Jesus in the next moment.  Sounds human to me.  And, that’s the point.  That’s the stuff the church is built on.  That’s the stuff the church is built from.  Human stuff.  Peter.  You.  Me.  Us.  But its this human stuff that is infused with God’s spirit – a spirit in and through us that can and will revitalize a congregation, can and will dismantle racism, can and will eradicate poverty.

Peter tells us who Jesus is.  Matthew presents Jesus to us.  How about us?  Do we tell others who Jesus is?  Better yet, do we as a church present Jesus – the Jesus in the gospels?  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

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

Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Generosity

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Generosity | 2 August 2020 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are my two stories.  Chip and Frankie.

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

5.

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

Amen.

Walk by Faith and Not by Sight

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

2 Corinthians 5:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

Amen.