Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

A Celebration Miracle

water to wine

A Celebration Miracle

John 2:1-11 | 20 January 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

Imagine yourself as a gospel writer.  You’ve collected many stories about Jesus.  What he said, what he did, how he treated people, what he thought about God in those unguarded moments of heartfelt prayer to God.  You’ve interviewed some of his closest disciples.  You’ve interviewed eye-witnesses to some of his sermons and miracles.

Now, you have to decide what you are going to put into your gospel and what you are going to have to leave on the floor of your study.  As much as you would like to use it, you might lose your readers.  And you want  your readers to know and love Jesus, too.

Some of the stuff you have to use.  It’s the really big stuff.  All of those “I am” sayings.  They’re in.  Jesus’ baptism.  No doubt about it.  That’s in.  Miraculous feedings and miraculous healings.  Absolutely.  In.

There’s one story you’ve collected that you wonder about.  You’ve talked to Jesus’ mother, Mary, about it.  You’ve talked to some of the wedding guests who were there that day.  You’ve talked to the servers as well as the wine steward.  It’s an amazing story.

The story is unique.  It’s a miracle.  But it’s not a feeding miracle or a healing miracle or a nature miracle like calming the seas and walking on water.  You try to figure out what to call it.  You finally decide to call it a celebration miracle.  That seems to capture most of what it is.  Yeah, a celebration miracle.

Jesus, his mother, and some of his disciples are at this wedding in nearby Cana, just northeast of Nazareth in the hills near Mt. Tabor.  Weddings then and now are festive occasions that require no small amount of planning and oversight.  The host wants to make sure the guests are well-dined and well-wined.  No one goes home hungry or dry.

The good wine has been served but is now all gone.  The host is about to be humiliated by failing to afford his guests the proper hospitality.  The festivities are in full swing and there’s not even the customary cheap wine in reserve.

Mary is not about to let the host be humiliated.  She asks Jesus to provide the wine.  Jesus is not overly keen to do so but does as his mother requests nonetheless.  It turns out that the wine he produces is not only better than the best wine that has already been served but it is also incredibly ample.  There are jars and jars of it — enough for everyone without exception.

You as the gospel writer love this story, this celebration miracle story.  You love it so much you include it as the very first miracle story in your gospel.

Once your gospel is completed and is making its way from one Christian community to the next, folks begin to ask you why in the world you put this story of Jesus turning water into wine so front and center in your gospel.  Right there.  In the opening chapters.

2.

That’s a great question isn’t it?  Of all the miracles John could have opened his gospel with why a celebration miracle.  No one is healed.  No one is fed.  No raging, threatening storm is calmed.  If anything, a lot of people ended up drinking a lot of wine.

The beginning of the answer to the question goes like this.  In John, Jesus’ miracles are signs of God breaking anew into the world in Christ to recreate the world, to transform it. 

There are four sections to John’s gospel.  The prologue.  The book of signs [the first half of the gospel].  The book of glory [the second half of the gospel].  And the epilogue.  Today’s lesson is the first of seven signs in the book of signs.

Jesus’ celebration miracle, turning water into wine, is a word picture of how things are under the reign of God.  Human life is meaningful and pleasant.  Relationships, sexuality, community, hospitality, good food, good drink are celebrated much the way they are celebrated at a festive wedding.  In God’s reign, life flourishes, relationships thrive.

By contrast, apart from God’s reign, life marred by human sin and selfishness, life is otherwise.  It’s meaningless, unpleasant.  And all the good things God has given humanity — relationships, our sexuality, community, hospitality, good food and drink — become distorted and misused.  Instead of flourishing, life languishes.  Instead of thriving, relationships wither.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

3.

Have you ever heard the term “functional atheism”.  I’ve run across it several times over the years.  I most recently ran across it in Gil Rendle’s book Quietly Courageous.  Rendle is a respected church consultant and prolific author. Here’s his working definition.  “A functional atheist is someone who speaks about God as the active agent of salvation in the life of individuals and in producing wholeness in the world but who then assumes that nothing is going to change unless and until he or she puts his or her hand and resources to it.”

In his book, Rendle points out that the American church in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was relatively flush with resources — people, dollars, influence.  It was a time of general abundance.  Ministry became a matter of generating the necessary resources and then deploying them.  God, in many cases but certainly not all, became somewhat of an afterthought.  Rendle writes, “Instead of believing in the manna that came from God’s hand, the church learned to set its own table and provide its own feast.”

Beginning in the 1970s, resources in the church became less abundant than they once were.  Less people, less dollars, less influence.  Still, many a congregation continued to behave as if resources were virtually unlimited.  But then, as it became clear that they weren’t, abundance thinking swung drastically in the other direction toward scarcity thinking which now tends to predominate.  If abundance thinking is all about  ‘look what we have and what we can do — just about anything’, scarcity thinking is all about ‘look what we don’t have and what we can’t do — not as much as we used to’.  Scarcity thinking is demoralizing and discouraging.

There’s an alternative to abundance thinking and scarcity thinking.  Rendle calls it “enough” thinking.  To begin with, Rendle suggests that we need to realize that many a church simply no longer has the resources to continue doing what it has always done.  This is especially true of churches in whom a measure of functional atheism was present.

But then, Rendle asks, “What if [church’s and church leaders] . . . find they actually have enough?”  He asks further:  “What if God has already provided, and has activated, what is feared to be missing?”  What Rendle wants us to see is that we can trust God to have already put in place what is needed to fulfill our purpose of changing lives and communities in the name of Christ in vital and faithful ways even if those vital and faithful was in the present look differently than they looked in the past.

I believe this is where Jesus’ celebration miracle of turning the water into wine is going.  Scarcity with its attendant anxieties and fears is replaced by enough.  We can move from “Oh my, the wine is all gone” to “Wow, look there’s wine for everyone”.  With God in Christ, there is enough, always.

Living out of and into this truth involves a different approach.  If we once saw ourselves individually or together as the church to be the sole bearer of God’s Spirit to help, heal, and love the world, we need to make a shift.  Now we need to ask where and how God’s work is already at work and then find the best ways to get behind that work, to do our part with God.

I tried to think of the best possible way to illustrate this.  Tell me if this works.  It’s a story from the ministry of a congregation in Indianapolis.

Through its outreach ministries, the church used to ask what people needed and how they could help.  Then, the church would muster what resources they could and do their best.  They discovered that the resources always ran out before the needs.  By the way, that’s the way scarcity works.

Then, they began to ask people what they had rather than what they lacked, trusting that surely God is at work somehow and someway.  In other words, they abandoned their “functional atheism”.

One of their success stories was a woman who said she was a great cook.  The church took a risk and invited her to start cooking in their soup kitchen.  It was true, she was a good cook.  She then cooked for a church fellowship dinner.  Word got out.  Over time she went from cooking in several of the city’s restaurants to opening her own restaurant.  No one had ever before asked her what she had, ever.  People only saw someone who lacked.  That’s what people asked about.  With God in Christ though, there is enough.  Sometimes it takes letting go of any functional atheism we may be holding on to and embracing God’s enough.

Does that illustration help?  I hope so.

4.

This year will mark the 56th anniversary of  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C.  Tomorrow we celebrate what would have been King’s 91st birthday.

King’s dream used the biblical banquet table where there is a place for everyone because his Christian theology claimed that in God’s kingdom the table is big enough and broad enough for everyone to take his and her place.  Because of Christ, the world is new and the possibilities are new.

Listen.  King said:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

Amen.

Advertisements

God’s Happiness

way of st james sign

God’s Happiness

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 | 13 January 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

I’m a fan of Alice in Wonderland.  A real treat on my sabbatical back in 2007 was studying writing at Oxford University.  I stayed in the Meadows Quad at Oxford’s Christ Church overlooking the master’s garden in which stood the Jabberwocky tree and in which Lewis Carroll set the queen’s croquet match in Alice in Wonderland.  The college arranged croquet matches for the summer students.  So I got to play in the garden as well.

Carroll — Charles Dodgson — taught mathematics at Oxford.  Writing children’s stories was his side gig.

As I thought about Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s gospel, this scene from Alice in Wonderland kept coming to me.  Listen:

“The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’”

In this scene, the caterpillar wants to know who Alice is.  Alice has trouble answering him because she doesn’t seem to know herself anymore.  Life through the looking glass is a different place and she feels she has become a different person.  Alice frustrates herself and the caterpillar by not knowing who she is.

2.

Identity.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is an identity story.  In his baptism, Jesus’ learns definitively who he is.  In Jesus’ baptism, we learn definitively who he is.

We know the story.  The setting is a riverside.  From the other gospels, we surmise it’s the Jordan.  People have gathered to hear John preach.  In response, they present themselves for baptism to signify that they were aligning themselves with John’s message of change in preparation for God’s coming kingdom.

In the crowd is Jesus.  He is one among many others who were being baptized that day.  He, too, is aligning himself with John’s message of change, of reorienting one’s mind and heart and life toward God.

Luke tells us that Jesus is praying at the time of his baptism.  It’s not clear if he was praying before, during, or after his baptism.  But, he was praying — something Jesus did at every important moment of his life.  In Luke’s gospel, prayer is the context in which people receive guidance from God; prayer is the context in which people find themselves cooperating with the work of God’s Spirit.

The theophany — a fancy theological word for ‘a God appearance’ — that accompanies Jesus’ baptism and prayer seems to be related to Jesus’ prayer.   The heavens open, the Spirit descends upon Jesus, and a heavenly voice declares Jesus God’s beloved son who makes God happy.

Now, I want to back up just a little.  Luke takes us from the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ birth to his presentation in the temple to his getting lost on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then found in the temple when he was twelve to his baptism as a grown man of about 30 years old.  Jesus’ years between the age of 12 and 30 are often referred to as the missing years.  Where Jesus was and what he was doing involves speculation.  The challenge is to pursue founded speculation rather than unfounded speculation.

Think for a moment about your own life from the age of about 12 to 30.  Childhood’s season is waning and adulthood’s season is waxing.  Adolescence and early adulthood is a time of becoming.  We are figuring out who we are and what matters versus who we aren’t and what doesn’t matter.  As religious people, God factors into this time.

In this becoming time, we often look about us for models of how best to be human in the world.  Our earliest models are parents and teachers and coaches.  In the process, we may run across some very helpful models.  But we may run across some less than helpful models.  As Christians, our primary model is Jesus.  Who he was, what he said, how he related to God, how he related to people, what he valued.  That’s what we’re aiming for.

Biblical scholars and theologians debate at what point did Jesus know that he, though human, was God.  Was it before his birth, outside of all time and space?  Was it at his birth?  Was it at his baptism?  Was it at his transfiguration?  Was is it at his crucifixion?  Was it at his resurrection?

Did Jesus come to know who he was in a moment or over time through a series of moments?  What role, if any, did a spiritual practice like prayer play?

I think the answer to all my questions is yes.  I imagine Jesus having a series of inklings as to who he is and what his life should be about.  Those inklings had to have been unsettling.  The weight of showing God to the world, of speaking truth, and shining light is heavy.  The challenges daunting.  The cost high.

Jesus had to know God, see God, hear from God, be assured by God of who he was and whose he was before pursuing the path before him.  This is what I believe Jesus prayed during all those years of becoming that are hidden from us.  I believe this is what Jesus prayed at his baptism.  Lord God, help me to know you, to see you, to hear you.

3.

In Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar asked Alice “Who are you?”  She didn’t know.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus knew who he was but is assured time and again of his identity.  He is God’s Son, beloved.  His ministry makes sense only in light of his identity.

Today, Christians have identity issues.  What I mean by this is that too often we let people and things other than Christ identify us.

Some of you may have watched college football’s national championship game between two undefeated teams, Alabama and Clemson.  I was for neither the Tide nor the Tigers.  I watched expecting a good game and got one.  I also got a bonus.  The Christian testimony of Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence. 

Lawrence is an admirable college athlete.  He is also an admirable Christian.  In an interview after the game, the 6’5” 19 year old said:

“Football is important to me, obviously, but it’s not my life; it’s not like the biggest thing in my life, I would say my faith is.  That just comes from knowing who I am outside of (football). No matter how big the situation is, it’s not going to define me. I put my identity in what Christ says and who He thinks I am and who He says I am.”

Lawrence strikes me as a young man who gets baptism.  His generation gets a bad reputation for being self-absorbed and entitled.  In my opinion it’s not true.  Lawrence and his contemporaries are altruistic and compassionate.

The church has identity issues as well.  In a recent blog article Karl Vaters wrote:

“Why does the church exist?

It’s not to get people together for meetings. Or to keep our theology pure. Or to defend our traditions. Or to look cool and appealing to the unchurched.

But it’s easy to fall into one or more of those traps if we’re not constantly reminding ourselves what we actually do exist for.”

Vaters answers his question:  “As defined . . . by Jesus himself in both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, the church exists to love God and share God’s love with others.”

But, like Jesus, we can only embody our mission by first knowing, seeing, hearing God assure us time and again of who we are and whose we are.  And we know and see and hear this in our baptism.  In baptism, God says to us, “You are mine and I love you.”

We are children of God.  Don’t let anyone or anything tell you otherwise.

We are loved by God.  Don’t let anyone or anything tell you otherwise.

You want to know what makes God happy.  When you trust that you are God’s beloved child and live accordingly.  That makes God happy.  Amen.

Christmas Eve 2018

DETAIL FROM ICON OF THE NATIVITY

Christmas Eve 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

Merry almost-Christmas.  The day is a little more than an hour away.  Thankfully in our Christian tradition Christmas spans the course of 12 days.

For the four weeks of Advent we have waited and expected.  We are now ready for all that waiting and expectancy to give way to wonder.

A long time ago I had to own up to the fact that I don’t, nor can I, bring the wonder.  At best, I can point to it as artfully as possible and hope and pray that you, with God’s help, experience it, too.

When I was in seminary, which now seems like a lifetime ago and in some ways it was, my preaching professors often wondered aloud if Christmas Eve really was a good night for preaching.  Might it be better suited, they asked, to simply retelling the old, old story through scripture reading and song?  Something, we have just done through the nine lessons and carols.  Preaching is too often associated with admonition or instruction and not associated enough with wonder.

I recall a colleague who, in my opinion, preached one of the finest Christmas Eve sermons I have ever heard.  It was less than a minute long.  I don’t remember the exact words, but I recall the heart of what he said.  For him, if there was going to be any admonition or exhortation on Christmas Eve it had to be as basic and fundamental as possible and come from the very heart of the Christian faith.  His text was Luke 2:1-20, the best know and most widely recognized Christmas story from the gospels.  My friend said:

“As promised, God has come among us.  That’s the good news.  Now, here’s what we should do about it — remember the poor, as God has and does, and love everyone as God has loved us all.”

That was it.  That was enough.

“As promised, God has come among us.  Remember the poor, as God has and does, and love everyone as God has loved us all.”

If I got your hopes up that my sermon was going to be equally brief, I apologize.  It will be brief, but not that brief.

2.

For me, the Christmas story in Luke is the story of where God comes into the world which tells us how God keeps coming into the world and how God is in the world right now.  God shows up at unlikely times, in unlikely places, and among unlikely people.

Luke loads his story up with a lot of historical information at the front end.  In my mind I hear the opening verses of Luke 2 set to John Williams’ Imperial March [Darth Vader’s theme” from Star Wars].  What Luke is describing is the kind of world into which Jesus is born.  It’s a world of empire, of occupation, of registration, and of taxation.   It’s a world of exploitation, of inequality, of injustice. In the words of one author, Luke’s opening “reminds us that Mary gives birth within the oppressive, grinding machinery of empire, the same machinery that in the end will kill her son.”

Sixteenth century Reformation-era Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel got Luke’s point loud and clear.  His 1566 painting, Census in Bethlehem, is set not in first century Palestine but in 16th century Flanders.  The painting is of a town filled with people.  They are working and playing in the snow.  Some are carrying heavy burdens on their backs.  There’s a crowd standing around a table outside of an inn.  A man behind the table is writing in a large ledger book while another man is collecting coins from each registrant.  We recognize the man leading a donkey and the pregnant women sitting upon the donkey.  They are the Holy Family.

A stealth image in the painting Bruegel wants us to see is attached to the wall of the inn, above the table where people are being counted and taxed.  It’s a plaque bearing the coat of arms of the Habsburg Empire which ruled Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th century through Philip II of Spain.  Philip was known for taxing heavily his occupied lands.

What Bruegel did with the Christmas story in his painting is what Luke wants us to do with it in our time and in our world.  Bruegel set the Christmas story right smack dab in the middle of his world.  The world portrayed in his painting.  There we see broken wagons and a small castle in ruins.  Bruegel is showing us a world of deprivation, of unfairness, of indifference.

This is the world into which Christ first showed up.  It is the world into which Christ continually shows up.  It’s a dark world into which God shines light.

So, tonight, as we have heard again the Christmas story, may we contemplate our world.  May we contemplate ourselves.  And, may we know — in this world, in our lives, in all lives “Christ comes.”

And, if there is any question about what it means and what we should do.  Here’s a good place to start.  Remember the poor.  And, love everyone as God has loved us all.

Amen.

Whole-Hearted Praise

maryandelizabeth_web

[Image:  Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art, LLC, (c) 2018.  All rights reserved.]

Whole Hearted Praise

Luke 1:39-56 | 23 December 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

The world is one great battlefield,

With forces all arrayed;

If in my heart I do not yield,

I’ll overcome some day.

This opening stanza comes from a hymn written in 1900 by Charles Tindley.  In 1945, it was sung by tobacco worker Lucille Simmons during a bitter labor strike in Charleston, SC.  Ms. Simmons taught the song to Pete Seeger who recorded the song.  Beginning in 1959, the song — We Shall Overcome — was sung regularly at rallies, festivals and concerts throughout the 1960s and became the unofficial anthem of the American Civil Rights movement.

You may be more familiar with the refrain:

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe

We shall overcome, some day.

We Shall Overcome is perhaps the best known protest song of the 20th century — protest meaning “for the truth.”  It has been widely adapted since the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1989, it was sung by Czech protestors in Prague during the Velvet Revolution.  Bruce Springsteen sung it in Oslo in 2012 after the terrorist attacks in Norway.

The song is an anthem for what is right and against what is wrong.  It is an anthem for good and against evil.  It is an anthem for justice and against injustice.  To sing it is to align oneself against the forces of wrong and evil and injustice in the world.  To sing it is to align oneself with the forces of right and good and justice in the world.  And, as a Christian, I would add that to sing is to stand with God in rolling back the world’s darkness.

2.

Today’s lesson from Luke is a visit and a song.  Mary has gotten word from an angel about the baby she is bearing and sets out to visit with her relative Elizabeth.

The song Mary sings is familiar.  It’s Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel 2 after she receives word that she will conceive and bear a long hoped for and prayed for son, Samuel.  Listen:

The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,

    but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!

5 Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,

    but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!

    The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,

        but the mother with many sons has lost them all!

6 The Lord!

    He brings death, gives life,

        takes down to the grave, and raises up!

7 The Lord!

He makes poor, gives wealth,

    brings low, but also lifts up high!

8 God raises the poor from the dust,

    lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.

    God sits them with officials,

    gives them the seat of honor!

Mary’s song in Luke 1 is called the Magnificat.  The title comes from the first word in the Latin translation of the song which is magnifies as in “My soul magnifies the Lord . . .”

Mary is portrayed in Luke, for the most part, as a rather quiet figure.  Even as her son is visited by shepherds who have come to worship him at the bidding of angels, she is silent.  She ponders.

But here, following the Annunciation, Mary is anything but quiet.  She breaks into song.  She sings loud and long.  And what she sings is some of the most powerful theology in all of scripture.

I would rank Mary as a prophet on the order of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  I would rank her right up there with John the Baptist.

In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, she is an unlikely choice.  Very young, a girl, a family of modest means, nominally educated, dependent on others for a her well being — her father, a fiancé.  It seems that God has a thing for underdogs, outliers, folks on the margins, the least expected.

Mary’s prophetic song is cast in the past tense.  What she is saying God is going to do God has already done and therefore is certain to do in the future.  That sentence is a little like Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine so I’ll say it again.  What Mary is saying God is going to do God has already done and therefore is certain to do in the future.

And what does Mary sing.  She sings of a world put right.  She sings of a world where everyone and everything matters.  She sings of a world where the low status we may assign things and persons doesn’t count because God favors whom God favors and God favors those of worldly low status, even Mary and especially Mary.

Mary sings of a world where young girls like herself, especially herself, with a truth to speak do so because they know God is with them and God favors them.  Mary sings of a world where God is known and praised and revered for God’s mercy and not kept at a distance and loathed or avoided because of some peculiar notions of divine vengeance or punitive justice.

And the arrogant and the proud?  Mary’s song puts them on notice.  Their day has come.  It is over.  No longer will they call the shots.  God will scatter them.  The same goes for the powerful who have misused their power for their own gain and benefit at the expense of others.  God will pull them down.

And as for the poor and hungry.  They will have enough.  Their bellies will be filled.

But the hard-hearted rich.  The picture doesn’t look so good.  They will learn what it looks and feels like to be turned away empty handed — something the heavy-hearted poor have known all their lives.

Biblical scholars refer to Mary’s song as the great reversal or the great leveling.  It’s a catalog of the injustices of Mary’s day — and all days for that matter — and the way God will be putting them right in and through the child Mary bears.

Nearly 30 years ago contemporary Christian recording artist Mike Lowery released his song “Mary Did You Know?”  The song was a chart-topping hit and went on to be recorded by countless other artists — Kenny Rogers and Wynona Judd, Clay Aiken, Cee Lo Green.  It is a beautiful song.  You’ll hear it at the 10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service.  My favorite version is by a cappella group Pentatonix.

Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb?

That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.

The song ruminates on what Mary did or didn’t know about the child she was bearing.  Given the Magnificat, we know the answer to the song’s question.  Mary knew.  Mary knew.

3.

Today is Advent 4.  We lit the love the candle.

It’s appropriate that our scripture lesson is a song.  When exploring love, it’s best to turn to the arts — music, poetry, sculpture, painting.

The gospels don’t give us much information when it comes to Mary’s state of mind or the condition of her heart during her pregnancy with Jesus.  If we use our imaginations we can probably come up with a good sense of what was going on with her.  Given the fact that she was young and unmarried, fear had to have been part of the mix.  Given the fact of her miraculous conception, there had to be some wonder in there.  Given what the angel had said, there must have been curiosity as well.  Given that come what may Mary was now a mother there was love and a hope for a world worthy of not only the child she bore but all children.

In the midst of Mary’s flood of thoughts and emotions — the fear, the wonder, the curiosity, the love —God shows up, as promised, and inspires a song in her heart and a song on her lips.  This song gives her courage and a vision, satisfies her longing and her love and has done so for countless Christians across the ages who have sung and continue to sing Mary’s song.

This is the way God works as we draw near and attend to God.  Whatever may be going on in us or with us, the Holy Spirit has a way of showing up to move us through and beyond thoughts and emotions that may be getting the best of us.  The Holy Spirit has a way of inspiring in us the song, both literally and metaphorically, that we need in our hearts and on our lips.  And it is always a love song.  It is always a protest song — a song for the truth.  It is always a song of justice.

It is a song that assures us once again that God is good and just, that God loves the world unconditionally and without exception, and that God is indeed putting everything right in and through Christ and those who love, trust, and follow him.  And when we trust all of these things to be true and embody them in our loving, we can sing Mary’s song, too.

Amen.

John’s Counsel

Desert Wilderness

John’s Counsel

Luke 3:7-18 | 16 December 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

Advent.  We started with hope.  Then there was peace.  Today is joy.  Next Sunday is love.

Here’s our challenge.  Where in John the Baptist’s preaching might we find joy?

2.

In public speaking, it’s helpful to have an opening hook; that is, something that will get the listener’s attention and give him or her a reason to stick with you as you say what you want to say.  There are plenty of good hooks — a question, a joke, a personal anecdote, a provocative statement, an illustration from the day’s headlines . . .

I don’t know, however, if I would rank an insult as a good opening hook.  It’s okay if you are trying to pick a fight or start an argument but it’s a lousy idea if you really want persons to hear what you are saying, take it to heart, and act on it.  Still, John opens with an insult.  He calls his listeners a “brood of vipers,” “children of snakes.”  He’s calling them the lowest of the low.  Very few creatures are lower to the ground than a snake.

John was the son of a temple priest, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth.  Elizabeth gave birth miraculously to John well past her child-bearing years.

John would have grown up in and around the temple.  He would have been familiar with temple practices and rituals.  He would have observed all manner of persons coming to the temple to make their sacrifices — poor people, rich people, sincere people, people who at best were simply going through the motions.  He would have had a first hand seat to the commercial activity in and around the temple — the money changers, the merchants selling the birds and animals for sacrifice.  Some of them were honorable.  Others downright disreputable.

He would have had a backstage look at the priests of the temple.  Up close and personal.  Some of whom would have been passionate in their devotion to God and God’s people.  For others it may have been little more than a job like any other.  It paid the mortgage and fed the family.  For others it was the family business.  Grandad was a priest.  Dad was a priest.  I am priest.

John started out life as an insider.  By the time we meet him he is an outsider.

Somewhere along the way John became, to use a contemporary term, radicalized. He’s living in the wilderness.  He’s adopted an austere manner of dress and diet.  He moved to the margins.  He became profoundly dissatisfied with the way things were. 

John is a preacher of repentance and reform.  He’s a prophet.

The world as John saw it was unsustainable.  It had grown cold and corrupt, heartless and hurtful.  Where was the neighborliness.  The world didn’t look anything like the world God desired. This present world had to change or die.

3.

John complicated his prophetic task by insulting his audience.  He also made his task more difficult by preaching not in a local synagogue or in town where people were but in the wilderness.

The wilderness was exactly what the word says it is.  A wild place — untamed, uncivilized, a dangerous place, a chaotic place.  A place where anything might happen and usually did.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out in is writing about Israel’s exodus and exile that each time Israel entered the wilderness they needed to answer again two questions:  How will we now be with God?  And, how will we now be with one another?

Had John gone to the wilderness to explore such questions, to explore his own heart and mind, to simply his life perhaps, to reconnect with himself, to better connect with God?  Perhaps.  The Spirit could have driven him there the way the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Perhaps.

We may not know why John was in the wilderness but we do know that word had gotten out that he was there.  And not only was he there but he had a message for anyone who trekked into the wilderness to hear it.  And people were coming, evidently in sizable numbers.

Persons had heard of John.  They had heard of his commentary on the world.  Things were not what they should be.  Things were not as God intended.  It was time for a change because one day it would be too late.

According to Luke, here is what they heard John say to those who had gathered in the wilderness to hear him on that particular day:

“You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?  Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.  The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

John wants to know why those in his audience are there.  Why have they come?  Was it to escape the God’s coming judgment?  Good!  But escaping God’s coming judgment involves more than honoring a particular tradition or bearing a certain name or observing certain rituals.  Escaping God’s judgment involves a life change — a change John is pointing to. 

John is saying to everyone:  “The path you are on now — get off of it.  Change your heart.  Change your life.  Get on a new path, God’s path — a path of fairness and justice.”  John isn’t saying anything different from every other Hebrew prophet in Israel’s long tradition of prophetic utterances.

It’s interesting how prophetic messages work.  They can be spoken on one day by one prophet to one group of people to no effect whatsoever.  Then, they can be spoken on another day by another prophet to another group of people or by the same prophet to the same people to considerable effect.  The difference has to be the presence of God’s spirit, God’s timing, and a willingness on the part of people to open their hearts and minds enough to welcome the message and the Spirit.

In our passage, John’s message provokes a spiritual crisis in his hearers.  John’s message troubles them.  They want to get right with God.  They ask John, “What then shall we do?”

I think we understand this crisis.  Think of messages you have received that have led you to ask “What then shall I do?”  They are messages that tell us that the way things used to be are no longer an option.  Our world that was is ending or has ended.  We are going to have to change, grow, learn something new, be something new.  Staying in place or going back is no longer an option.  There’s only one way and it’s forward.  Such a crisis could have been provoked by a job loss, the end of an important relationship like a marriage, the death of a loved one, a challenging medical diagnosis, even our own impending death.

William Sloan Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City for many years in the 20th century, called these God’s complicated blessings.  In one of his prayers in worship, he prayed:  “[O God] . . . grant us to count our more complicated blessings:  our failures, which teach us so much more than success; our lack of money, which points to the only truly renewable resources, the resources of the spirit; our lack of health, yea, even the knowledge of death, for until we learn that life is limitation, we are surely formless and as shallow as a stream without banks.”

4.

Three groups ask John the same question in today’s lesson.  What then shall we do?

The first group is the crowd.  John tells them if they have enough clothing and enough food, they should share with those who don’t have enough.  In God’s kingdom, this is how it works.  It’s called justice.

The second group is the tax collectors, among the least popular group in Palestine.  They were charged with filling Rome’s coffers and often did so with an upcharge to line their own coffers.  John tells them to collect only what has been prescribed and no more.  In God’s kingdom, this is how it works.  It’s called fairness.

The third group is the Roman soldiers, they were about as popular as the tax collectors.  They were charged with enforcing Rome’s decrees, often times violently, and often did so to enrich themselves while they were at it.  John tells them to be satisfied with their wages and to not extort additional money from the citizenry with threats of violence or lies.  In God’s kingdom, this is how it works.  It’s called integrity.

John’s counsel is very practical.  The fruit that is worthy of repentance is don’t hoard, don’t cheat, don’t extort.  In other words, do right by your neighbor. 

5.

At the outset of this sermon I asked you to find joy in John’s preaching.  If you are at the wrong end of the corruption of members of the crowd or the tax collectors or the soldiers, there is plenty of joy.  If they take John’s counsel to heart and change, your life will begin to look and feel very different.  You will be treated fairly and justly.  That’s joy.

But what about the crowds and the tax collectors and the soldiers who are in the throes of behaving corruptly in a corrupt society and system.  John has told them it doesn’t have to be that way.  They don’t have to hoard.  They can share and should.  They don’t have to cheat.  They can act justly and should.  They don’t have to extort.  They can live with integrity and should.

There is another way.  A way that allows persons to sleep well at night, to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning without regret or humiliation, to look their neighbors in the face without shame.  There is joy in being liberated from an oppressive, corrupt way of life. 

This new way, God’s way, is the way John is pointing out there in the wilderness.  It’s the way that readies our minds and our hearts and our lives to welcome God in Christ.

May we ask “What then shall we do?” and then listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying to us.  It may involve making some hard changes but they will be joyful.

Amen.

Hope

WorldExtremeTransition-changing

Hope

Luke 21:25-36 | 2 December 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

It’s interesting to begin at the end.  I’ll say more.

Advent is the beginning of a new year for Christians.  And, the first gospel reading for the new year comes from the final chapters of Luke’s gospel and envisions the final consummation of all of history.

So, why begin at the end?  Good question.  Let’s see if we can make sense of it.  For starters, beginning at the end gives us a sense of where things are headed.

2.

Humans don’t do well with uncertainty, with chaos.  Uncertainty and chaos are unnerving, unsettling.  We like to have at least some sense that things will pan out a certain way and that there is some measure of order about us.  But the reality is there is no guarantee that things will pan out a certain way and there is no guarantee that life will be orderly.  Experience teaches us this time and time again.  If anything, life is surprising both in good ways and bad ways.  Life is messy.

Over the past week I have read about and watched on television the events that have been unfolding along our border between California and Mexico.  There are a lot of interests and forces at play, some of which I think I understand and many of which I need to learn more about.  The situation bewilders me and frightens me.

As a Christian, I feel called to understand the events first and foremost from the most basic human perspective.  And this attempt at understanding gives me hope.

I tried hard to imagine myself as a young father or mother who has fled a violent homeland in Central America with young children in tow.  I could envision myself marrying and having children with the highest of hopes and the love that comes along with binding my life to someone else’s and bringing other lives into the world.

But life in my home village became less and less bearable.  There were threats of violence and then acts of violence.  Apprehension and fear became my constant companions.  My wife and I talked nightly about what to do and where to go.  We became desperate.  Staying was no longer possible and going entailed risks and dangers we couldn’t begin to imagine.

I also tried hard to imagine the young border patrol officers, many if not most of whom would be younger than my own children.  I could imagine looking into the faces of the families and especially the children and seeing first hand the anxiety and the fear, the desperation.  Those faces would haunt my sleep and wake me up at peculiar hours of the night.  In the early hours of the day as my shift began, my colleagues and I would talk about whether what we were doing and how we were doing it was the right thing.  That could be us, one of my friends, remarked, that could be us.

The uncertainty and the chaos for everyone involved was palpable.

3.

Today’s passage is Luke’s apocalypse.  Jesus describes a world in transition — an old world dying and a new world being born.  A world that is no longer what it once was and a world that is not quite yet what it will become.

Transitions are fraught with uncertainty.  Transitions are fraught with chaos.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the curtain is going up or if the curtain is coming down.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the twilight is summoning day’s end and darkness or if the twilight is beckoning a new dawn and light.

Transition is a given for every life.  We are born, grow up and grow old, become ill, are beset by accidents, have our hearts broken and our hopes dashed, lose our faculties little by little — hearing, sight, balance, mobility, lose people we love to estrangement or death, and one day die ourselves.  And just as this is true for each individual life, it is also true for the life of congregations and communities, nations and the world.  As much as we may long for certainty and order, that’s not the way things work.

Jesus and his disciples lived in a time of significant upheaval.  Rome’s power was waxing as the emperor’s forces colonized more and more lands.  But with military conquest came resistance movements.  And with resistance movements came insurrection that pitted one vision for the future against another.  For Jesus, there was Caesar’s vision and there was God’s.  Jesus and his disciples lived in a transitional moment when what was was no longer and what will be wasn’t as yet altogether clear.  This sentence can describe many a moment in life.

Jesus casts his vision of trial and tribulation, calamity and dismay, and of pain and suffering not to scare the bejesus out of his disciples and us, but to offer a response other than bewilderment or fear.  When every thing is going sideways around us it’s easy to succumb to bewilderment.  Oh, my gosh what in the world is going on!  Like Chicken Little, we may be given to running about declaring that the sky is falling.  It’s also easy to circle the wagons and huddle in fear hoping it will all blow over and through in short order.

The alternative response Jesus is offering is one of hope.  None of us get a pass on the trial and tribulation, the calamity and dismay, the pain and the suffering.  These things are givens.  But we do get a choice as to our response.  Bewilderment.  Fear.  Or, hope.  Jesus is telling us to choose hope.

4.

Author Anne Lamott published an essay in National Geographic’s October 2018 issue entitled “Show Up with Hope:  My Plan for Facing Adversity.”  She opens her essay with these words:

“You would almost have to be nuts to be filled with hope in a world so rife with hunger, hatred, climate change, pollution, and pestilence, let alone the self-destructive or severely annoying behavior of certain people, both famous and just down the hall, none of whom we will name by name.

Yet I have boundless hope, most of the time. Hope is a sometimes cranky optimism, trust, and confidence that those I love will be OK—that they will come through, whatever life holds in store. Hope is the belief that no matter how dire things look or how long rescue or healing takes, modern science in tandem with people’s goodness and caring [and God’s grace] will boggle our minds, in the best way.

Hope is (for me) not usually the religious-looking fingers of light slanting through the clouds, or the lurid sunrise. It’s more a sturdy garment, like an old chamois shirt: a reminder that I’ve been here before, in circumstances just as frightening, and I came through, and will again. All I have to do is stay grounded in the truth.”

Anne Lamott is a Christian, a Presbyterian Christian to be precise.  As are we. The truth that grounds us is quite specific.  It’s Jesus Christ.

And, here in Luke 21, Jesus, the truth, is asking us to believe in and hope for a future we can’t see at the moment.  He is talking about the God of all time moving in our time, walking with us in it and working with us through it.  Jesus is calling us to recognize that our lives are in the hands of God who has taken back from death and destruction the power to determine our future.

In the words of author and theologian Willie Jennings, Jesus is calling us “to anchor our daily actions in the purpose of God.  God’s direction orients us in faith, not fear toward our world.”

As we lean into Advent and sound the theme of hope, I want to leave us with these words of the 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  Merton writes:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there in absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited.  But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room.  His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons . . .  With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.  He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

I will repeat the last two sentences.  They embody the reason for our hope.

“ . . . Christ is present in this world.  He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

Let us hope.

Amen.

Jesus’ Reason to Be

Fred Rogers Quotes.001

Jesus’ Reason to Be

John 18:33-37 | 25 November 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

Jesus has a lot of conversations in the Gospels.  One of  his most consequential conversations is with Pilate.  It’s a conversation that literally costs him his life.

The conversation is an interesting one.  On the one hand, there is Pilate.  He’s holding all the cards.  He was Rome’s man in Judea.  He was Caesar’s prefect.  He could levy taxes and command troops.  He could adjudicate any and all matters brought before him.  His say was final.  The decisions he made and the words he spoke carried the full force of imperial Rome.  Also, Pilate held the ultimate power — state sanctioned killing.  The power of life and death.  He could decide who lived and who died.

And, on the other hand, there is Jesus.  As far as anybody could tell, he isn’t holding any cards at all.  He was an itinerant rabbi with no known address.  He was dependent on the kindness of his followers for his food and lodging.  Any power he held was solely persuasive.  He had his words and people could decide to either hear them or not hear them, to take them to heart or not.

The conversation is between power and powerlessness.  Pilate seems to have all the power and Jesus seems to have no power at all.  If we didn’t know the arc of the story from here and how it ends, we would be foolish to throw our lot in with Jesus.  By every calculation, Pilate and his backers in Rome were the sure thing.

2.

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It marks the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year.

Christ the King Sunday is a latecomer among Christian holy days.  Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in a 1925 encyclical entitled “Quas Primas” which translates “Which First” or “That which is of primary importance.”

The 1920s were an unsettled time in the world.  Europe was still recovering from the devastation of WWI.  Christian nations waged war upon one another with a death toll of 16 million persons, seven million of whom were civilians.  In all there were 37 million military and civilian casualties. 

The world of 1925 was recovering from a flu pandemic that infected 500 million people, nearly 50 million of whom died.  There were 675,000 deaths in the United States.

On the political front, Mussolini dissolved the Italian parliament.  In Germany, Adolph Hitler published Mein Kampf in which he made his case for the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of other races, especially the Jewish people, and his plan for Aryan world rule.

Nationalism, that is a sense of national consciousness that exalts one’s own nation above all others and emphasizes the promotion of its culture and interests in opposition to the culture and interests of other nations, was on the rise.  A second world war within a single generation, more dreadful than the first, was feared and looming.

This is the context for Pope Pius XI’s encyclical.  Pius declared that for Christians Christ and not the state is the ruler in our hearts, minds, wills and bodies.  He declares as well that the Christian Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state.  The voice the church is to heed is Christ’s and not the state’s. 

Pius XI challenged the faithful to evaluate their allegiances and loyalties.  Who or what was first in their hearts and minds and wills?  The secular nation-state vied for the ultimate loyalty of its citizens.  Granted, Christians are citizens of a given nation-state but we are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God.

It’s one thing to declare Jesus Christ as our savior — he saves us from our sin, it’s another thing to declare him our Lord — he reigns in our hearts and our lives.  Christianity has long held that to be Christian we confess Christ as both Savior and Lord.

3.

Back to our text, this conversation between Pilate and Jesus.  Pilate, the political figure, understandably asks a political question.  Politics is his primary lens.  Jesus, the religious figure, understandably provides a religious answer but with profoundly political implications.  Religion is his primary lens.

Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews.  This is the charge that was brought by the religious leadership against Jesus.  It is the charge — a charge of treason against the state — that will result in Jesus’ death.  Caesar cannot and will not abide any pretenders to his throne.  All power belongs to him and to him alone.

Jesus tells Pilate that he is indeed king.  Jesus tells Pilate that he indeed has a kingdom.   But his kingship and his kingdom transcend any and all notions Pilate could possibly conceive regarding kingship and kingdoms.

What’s going on in this conversation happens a lot in John’s gospel.  Jesus and whoever he is talking to are using the same words but are understanding them quite differently.

Pilate uses the word king.  For him, it means the person with the power to tax and wage war, to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, to favor those whom he wishes to favor and to disfavor those whom he wishes to disfavor, to let live or kill.  A king is the one with an armed force to coerce certain behavior.  A king is the one with a revenue service to coerce certain behavior.  If you wanted to know who a king was and what a king was like, you need look no further than Caesar.  There’s a king.

Jesus uses the word king, too.  For him, it means the person whose power is to love and serve, to guide in ways of blessing and peace.  For him, power is not coercive, it is persuasive, it is magnetic.  If you wanted to know who a king was and what a king was like, the coming cross was the place to look.  There, Jesus would give his life for the lives of others, for the world.

Pilate uses the word kingdom.  For him, it means Caesar’s realm where folks tow the party line, keep their noses clean, pay their taxes, and pledge their fealty to the emperor regardless of what he may ask or command.

Jesus uses the word kingdom, too.  For him, it means God’s realm where folks know they are loved and in turn love others as God loves them.  It’s a realm where grace and forgiveness and mercy prevail.

By the end of the conversation, I’m not sure Pilate ever gets what Jesus is talking about.  Pilate sticks with his understanding of king and kingdom.  Jesus will go to trial, be found guilty, and condemned to die on a cross.

4.

In our passage, Jesus gets the final say.  He says to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

This is the turning point in the conversation.  It’s when John shows us that Pilate’s power is powerlessness and Jesus’ powerlessness is power.  Pilate will use his power to kill Jesus who is truth.  But because of God’s resurrection power, Jesus will not stay dead.  Try as it may, power cannot kill truth, ever.

Here are some of the themes sounded time again by the Christian gospels.  Power is not wealth.  Power is not status.  Power is not military might.  All of these things when wielded benevolently can accomplish important things.  But this kind of power has a way of corrupting and sending things sideways.

Rather, power is truth.  And, for Jesus truth is that God is love, a love that is connecting everyone to God and everyone to each other.  When people say yes to this truth, accept this truth they begin to hear what Jesus has to say.  This is what John means when he talks about being born of the Spirit, being born from above, being born again.

5.

Next Sunday, we begin a new Christian liturgical year.  It’s the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is a contemplative season of the church when we recollect the hope of the coming of Christ and look forward to the Lord’s coming again.

As we approach Advent, might we consider the truths that shape us and the voices they cause us to listen to above all other voices.  I recently read Fred Rogers’ biography.  Fred Rogers created, wrote, and starred in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS for more than three decades beginning in 1968.  He was also a Presbyterian minister.  Here are two fundamental truths he lived by, truths that helped him to hear the voice of Jesus.  Roger’s writes:

“I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”

And,

“Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” 

As a pastor, I often wonder what truths folks believe about church.  Author Karl Vaters in a recent article in Christianity Today posed the question, “Why does the church exist?”

Here’s some of his answer:  “It’s not to get people together for meetings.  Or to keep our theology pure.  Or to defend our traditions.  Or to look cool and appealing to the unchurched.

But it’s easy to fall into one or more of those traps if we’re not constantly reminding ourselves what we actually do exist for.

As defined clearly by Jesus himself in both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, the church exists to love God and share God’s love with others.

We’re not about meetings, denominations, or creeds — although all of those have had and will continue to have their place.  We’re about relationships.

It is our calling and our mandate to introduce people to Jesus, to connect those people with each other, then prepare them to help others meet Jesus, too.”

So, what are your truths?  Whose voice are you hearing?

Amen.

Deception Proofing

Sandals

Deception Proofing

Mark 13:1-8 | 18 November 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

If we do not live in a war zone . . . if we have not lost everything in a natural disaster . . . if we have not gone to bed hungry without knowing whether or not we will eat tomorrow . . . then we are going to have a hard time trying to understand what Jesus is talking about in Mark 13.  We are going to have to use our imaginations.  However, if we have ever been overcome with paralyzing fear for our future and the futures of those we love dearly because the present moment is so dreadful, then Mark 13 may not be so hard to understand after all.

Not understanding Jesus is a theme in Mark’s gospel.  It’s something Jesus’ disciples do often.  Jesus talks about one thing and the disciples hear something else entirely. 

Our lesson follows immediately on the heels of the widow’s offering in the temple which Amanda explored with us last Sunday.  The rich gave out of their abundance and wealth and the widow gave out of her scarcity and poverty.  Everyone paid attention to the rich as they gave.  No one but Jesus took notice of the widow as she gave.

Jesus’ religion of love for God and neighbor which looked out first and foremost for the most vulnerable, namely widows and orphans, called into question a society where those at the top had more than enough and those on the bottom had very little which all too often was far from enough.  Jesus’ religion of love for God and neighbor called into question institutions that either actively supported injustices outright or passively looked the other way as injustices were committed.

For Jesus and those who followed him, this had to change.  The kingdom of God is not in the business of propping up the status quo.  Rather, it is all about change in the name of goodness and love.  The kingdom of God is not in the business of providing cover for any particular political ideology or the prevailing mores of a society whether it’s ancient Rome or current day United States, especially if the ideology or mores dehumanize people in any way.

Jesus took issue with the temple and its practices.  He judged many of the temple’s practices corrupt.  The temple as a house of prayer and a haven for the widow and the orphan too often resembled a place of exploitative commerce where the haves won at the expense of the have nots.  This is what Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is all about.

2.

After observing people making their offerings in the temple and commenting on it, Jesus with his disciples in tow begins to make his way out of the temple through the streets of Jerusalem to the nearby Mount of Olives.  One of the disciples breaks the silence with an observation.  “Teacher, look!  What awesome stones and buildings!”

This sounds to me a little like small talk.  It’s the kind of thing you would say on a long car trip after a prolonged silence.

We don’t know who the disciple was.  My guess it was Peter.  It sounds like Peter, doesn’t it?  Like Jesus, the disciple would have been an artisan, perhaps a fisherman, from the Galilean countryside.  For him as well as the other disciples, Jerusalem would have been a sight to behold.  It would have been hard not to have been impressed.

The disciple does not get the response he was expecting.  Perhaps he was expecting Jesus to agree with him.  Yep, impressive indeed!  That’s what others were probably thinking and perhaps some of them said as much.  Instead, Jesus casts a vision where everything around them would be reduced to rubble.  None of it will last.  It’s ephemeral.  It will all come down.  The rest of their walk to the Mount of Olives was in silence.

Jesus’ response starkly contrasts what the disciples should be impressed by and what they are impressed by.  It contrasts what they should pay attention to and what they actually pay attention to.  On the one hand there is the widow and her offering and on the other hand there is the grandeur of the temple and the city of Jerusalem.  They see the beauty of the structure but are blind to some of the corruption at its heart.

We should not be too hard on the disciples here.  All of us are socialized to look up rather the down.  It’s the way the world works.  That doesn’t make it okay though.  When we look up we see impressive buildings and important people that represent wealth and status.  When we look down we see more humble buildings and more modest people who may not be all that impressive, who may be on the margins, who may have very little wealth or no wealth at all and who may have very little status or no status at all.  Like the widow in the temple.

In the temple, Jesus was teaching his disciples to see what he saw and to value the things he valued — namely, a poor woman.  I believe this is the aim of the Christian life.  To see the world in Christ and through Christ.  It makes all the difference.

Jesus’ lesson apparently didn’t stick.  The disciples may have noticed the widow for a moment but they went right back to noticing what they had been taught to notice and value all their lives.  They were deceived into believing what the world valued most was what was truly lasting.  They were taken in by the shiny bauble.    

3.

Jesus’ brand of Judaism was influenced by apocalypticism — that is, a world view where good and evil are locked in a cosmic battle.  The word apocalypse means “to reveal” or “to unveil” so reality can finally be seen clearly for what it is.  Things are not always what they seem to be.

In this world view, physical events in the here and now correspond to spiritual events in the cosmos.  Persons are called upon to side with good and denounce and resist evil.  In our baptisms we signed up to be on God’s side, the side of ultimate good.  Jesus’ apocalypticism makes its way into Christianity, most notably in the Book of Revelation.

When Jesus and his disciples make it to the Mount of Olives, Andrew asks Jesus to say more about the destruction of the temple.  And Jesus does.

Jesus describes what would have been regularly occurring events of his day, events that persist in our day.  War, natural disaster, famine.  These things should not surprise anyone.  They are part of the human condition.  And, though these things strike fear into us all, fear should never have the final say and when God is involved fear never does have the final say.

Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of the future is designed to instill comfort and hope in the present for persons who are suffering the most.  As horrendous as the present moment may be there will be a future moment when good will prevail and blessing rather than curse will be the order of the day.  Stand fast in this truth, says Jesus.  Remain faithful.  And, above all else, don’t give in to fear, ever.

4.

I entitled this sermon “Deception Proofing.”  I took the title from Jesus’ counsel in our passage.  Jesus says, “Watch out that no one deceives you.”

For me, this is the take away of the passage.  The disciples were deceived in to thinking that big buildings and important people were what mattered most and that generous widows mattered the least.  The disciples were deceived into thinking that fear was the way to face the world rather than hope.

Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis calls this the idolatry of grandeur.  She writes:  “The idolatry of grandeur is a perennial problem for us. We might even say it is a constant crisis of the human condition. We can’t seem to bypass that which pulls us toward what is not ours, what seems out of reach, what appears to be so much better than what we have, even who we are.”

I think she is on to something.  Grandeur all too often becomes our measure of what is good and true and right.  Bigger is better.  Louder is better.  More is better.  Winning alone is what matters most.  In the kingdom of God, none of this is true.

As Christians, what counters grandeur’s deception?  How do we see things clearly, know things clearly?  Our measure can’t be grandeur, if it is we have to dismiss Jesus.  We have to dismiss the disciples.  We have to dismiss St. Paul.  We have to dismiss many a saint from across the ages.  We have the dismiss the work of the Spirit in our own lives and own experience.

Our measure for what matters most is Christ.  Who he was, what he said, who he is in Spirit, alive in our lives, alive in the church, alive in the world.  Our measure for whether something is good or true or right is Christ.  Christ is our true north.  Christ is our still point.  Christ is our plumb line.  Christ is our anchor.  Apart from Christ, we will be deceived.  Apart from Christ, we will even deceive ourselves.

This past week, I read an essay by Dr. Samuel Cruz of Union Theological Seminary in New York.  The essay stuck with me.  In his essay, Dr. Cruz reminds his readers that Jesus came to transform you, me, the world by showing what redeeming sin and living to love looks like, what choosing good and resisting evil looks like.  Sin for Jesus was and remains something very specific — oppression, exploitation, abuse of the least — the widow, the orphan, the poor, the migrant, the refugee, the LGBTQ person.  Systems, like the temple in Jesus’ day, that oppressed or exploited or abused persons, especially those that do so in God’s name, need to be transformed even if it means dismantling them and making them entirely anew.

This is what Jesus set in motion in his life and ministry and especially in his death and resurrection.  This is what we continue to undertake in Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Almost There

Join+the+Journey+2

Almost There

Mark 12:28-34 | 4 November 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

I don’t know about you, but All Saints Day could not come fast enough for me this year.  Our world needs more saints and less demons.  I need more saints and less demons in my life.

In today’s scripture lesson, we meet an unlikely saint.  And, in my experience, the best saints are the unlikeliest saints.

Let’s start with an imaginative exercise.  Envision a saint in your life, either from the past or the present, who has helped you become a little more saintly yourself . . .  Who was she?  Who was he?  How did they make you more saintly?

Here’s my story.

My saint was my high school government teacher.  When I had him he was in his late 40s.  His energy and enthusiasm level for his subject matter and his students was off the chart.  So was his expectation of the level of  work he wanted from his students.  For example, every Monday morning he would post ten words he had gleaned randomly from the Oxford English Dictionary.  Come Friday, we would have to define each of the words and use them intelligently in a sentence.  My vocabulary grew by nearly 400 words that year. 

I often wondered what this had to do with the subject of U.S. Government.  The answer was nothing and everything.  As for subject matter and content, nothing.  But as for teaching me to be more literate and more articulate and more precise in my use of language, everything.  And, teaching me, above all, to be curious.

Here’s another example, my teacher gave of himself and his resources in the community and expected his students to do so as well.  Good things happened because good people opened their wallets and their hearts and moved their feet.  What did this have to do with the subject of U.S. Government.  Nothing and everything.  Again, as for subject matter and content, nothing.  But as for teaching me to be engaged and, above all, generous, everything.

Mr. Sober was a sailor and a marine in WWII.  He taught for 40 years.  In 1980, he was Virginia’s teacher of the year.  He died nearly ten years ago at the age of 83.

He was one of my saints.  I went to school to learn.  What I got was character formation along with the learning.  I was expecting a teacher at the front of the classroom.  I got a saint. 

Mr. Sober fostered in me a curious mind and a generous heart.  I thank God for him as well as the many other saints on earth and in heaven.  We need them.  I need them

2.

Today’s lesson from Mark’s gospel involves a conversation which follows fast on the heals of other conversations in Mark’s gospel.  In this conversation we meet a saint, an unlikely saint.

Our passage opens with a scribe overhearing a heated conversation between Jesus and other scribes.  The scribes — legal experts and religious scholars — are interrogating Jesus, an itinerant rabbi from the artisan class without legal or religious training.  In Mark’s gospel, the scribes are Jesus’ antagonists, his adversaries.  They don’t much like Jesus.  He’s a threat to the status quo.

The scribes have taken issue with Jesus’ parable of the tenant farmers who beat up the landowner’s managers and go on to kill the landowner’s son.  The scribes hear in Jesus’ story an indictment.  The managers were Israel’s prophets and Jesus is the son who will soon die like the son in the story.  The tenant farmers are those who reject Israel’s prophets and Jesus.

The scribes pose a couple of “gotcha” scenarios so that they can get Jesus to say something with which they can indict him before the Roman authorities.  No one liked the Romans and their heavy-handed, greedy, and often corrupt taxation policies.  So, one of the questions had to do with whether persons should pay taxes to Caesar or not.  If Jesus said yes, he would jeopardize his standing in the eyes of the crowds who were beginning to follow him.  If Jesus said no, he faced arrest, trial, and punishment for sedition by the Romans.  They had him.

It turns out, they didn’t.  We know the story.  Jesus’ answer was to give Caesar his due but give God God’s due.  Caesar provided governmental services.  God provided life itself.

The scribes were not happy with Jesus’ answer.  So, another “gotcha” question was posed.  To whom is a woman married in the after life if she had numerous husbands in this life.  Her first husband or her last husband?  This question was designed to put Jesus at odds with the Sadducees, a Jewish sect that considered the Torah alone to be authoritative and thereby dismissed the rabbinic oral tradition.  Resurrection is not in the Torah but it is in the rabbinic oral tradition.

Again, Jesus’ answer doesn’t further the scribes’ effort to entangle Jesus.  Jesus says that in resurrection life, earthly social conventions like marriage are irrelevant.  Also, in God’s heavenly kingdom which has come to earth in Jesus a woman will not be defined by her relationship with a man.

These conversations or disputes between Jesus and the scribes are all too like the conversations we listen to and engage in.  The scribes, on the whole, aren’t interested in hearing what Jesus feels or thinks about things.  They simply want to assert their position and find a way to minimize and marginalize Jesus’ position.

3.

I told you we were going to meet an unlikely saint in the story.  He is the scribe who asks Jesus not a “gotcha” question but a “I want to know you, to learn from you — what do you feel and think” kind of question.

“Which commandment is the most important of all?” he asks.  This is a biggy.  It will overshadow tax policy and marriage, divorce, remarriage kinds of question.  And we know the answer.  If we haven’t memorized it by now, we should plan to do so.

Jesus says, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.  No other commandment is greater than these.”

Jesus’ answer comes from Deuteronomy.  It is known within Judaism as the “shema”.  “Shema” is the first word of the passage from Deuteronomy that is the centerpiece of morning and evening prayers in the Jewish tradition — “hear” or “listen”.  Jesus would have heard it in worship all his life.  The scribe would have heard it all his life as well.

The scribe, for me, is a saint in this story in that he is curious.  He genuinely and sincerely wants to know Jesus and to hear what Jesus has to say.  What Jesus feels and thinks.  For me, that’s the perfect definition of a saint.

And the scribe’s response tells Jesus that he heard what Jesus said.  Jesus tells him he is now closer to the kingdom, that is understanding God’s way and will in the world, a will and a way of love for God with everything one’s got and a love for neighbor as self.

The scribe’s response tells Jesus that he has the loving God with mind down.  In his mind he now knows the great commandment.  This puts him closer to the kingdom.  He is near.

What will put the scribe over the top and in the kingdom?  For that matter, what puts us in God’s kingdom?  When we move our love for God and neighbor from our mind into love for God and neighbor to our heart, our strength, our very being.

Jesus’ remark that the scribe is close is one way of saying, “You are on the right track.  You’ve got it here [Jesus pointing to his head], now get it everywhere else.  God’s way of love in the world requires not just a part of you but all of you.  And, by the way, there is no love for God apart from love for neighbor.  There just isn’t.”

4.

Here’s this week’s take away.  Several actually.

Let’s be done with “gotcha” conversations and engage in “I really want to know you and what you feel and think and have to say” conversations.  The scribe is our model.  All his buddies played “gotcha.”  He didn’t and as a result grew.

How close are we to God’s kingdom?  Where are we and where are we going?  Like the scribe, we will know we are on the right path and are closer than we were before when we “know” that our religion is all about love of God and love of neighbor.

To move further on the journey and enter God’s kingdom, the rest of all of who we are is required — heart, strength, being.  Our words, our actions, and, yes, even our money.  Consecration Sunday is next Sunday.

I like that the Christian church has ritualized giving in worship.  It’s a moment for generosity that allows the church to pursue love as a community in many, many ways.  I like that we ritualize stewardship each fall when we are given the opportunity to commit ourselves and our money to God’s kingdom.

The scribe wanted to love God and neighbor some.  With the mind alone should’ve been enough he may have thought.  Jesus wanted the scribe and us to love God and neighbor not just some but a lot.  With everything we’ve got.  The Spirit will tell us when it’s enough.

Amen.

Faith and Transformation

133951367-19b9052d-83d1-4fef-96d2-69a16e6f3b88

Faith and Transformation

Mark 10:46-52 | 28 October 2018 | Dan McCoig

1.

This week has been a tough one for our republic.  Mail bombs to prominent political leadership.  Mass shooting in a place of worship. 

Here are several questions that are haunting me right about now.  How do humans change?  How do WE change?  How does the world change?

Listen to Martin’s story.

He was born more than 500 years ago in Eisleben [Ice-lay-ben], Saxony, southwest of Berlin.  As a teenager he began his law studies at the University of Erfurt.

As young man in his early 20s, he was caught in a severe storm.  He feared for his life and prayed to St. Anne [Mary’s mother, Jesus’ grandmother] to save him.  His prayer included a vow to abandon his law career and become an Augustinian monk.  Martin survived the storm and became a monk.

After completing his studies and training to become a monk at the monastery in Erfurt, he was assigned by his bishop to the new university in Wittenberg as a lecturer.  Luther talked about humanity’s need to abide by the church’s sacramental system in order to be assured of God’s acceptance in this life and eternal life in heaven.  Being Christian had become a matter of saying certain words and doing certain things in a prescribed manner.  In time, this troubled Martin deeply.  He could always imagine himself being more faithful and more obedient in the practice of his faith.  He wondered if he could ever be faithful enough or obedient enough for God.  Spoiler alert:  Martin discovered grace — God’s unmerited favor.

Martin’s superiors decided that a pilgrimage to Rome was exactly what Martin needed.  Luther walked the 1000 miles from Wittenberg to Rome.  The pilgrimage only made matters worst.  His journey took him across and through humble peasant fields and villages.  When he arrived in Rome, the opulence and grandeur and affluence overwhelmed him.  The lives of Roman clerics and nobles and merchants looked very different and were far removed from the lives of Saxony’s peasantry.

Martin returned to Saxony more troubled than ever.  He couldn’t square what he saw and heard and felt in Rome with the simple life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth he read about and studied in the Christian gospels.  He couldn’t square some of the church’s teachings and practices with Jesus’ teachings and practices.  Martin became ever more discontented.   He needed to change.  Things needed to change.

Martin made a list of all the things that needed to be addressed, things that needed to be changed.  There were 95 in all.  He presented them at the Wittenberg Cathedral for debate and discussion and action.

Martin was prevailed upon by the church’s hierarchy to leave well enough alone.  He was one man.  Who was he to question the church, a centuries old institution that dominated all of European cultural life? Martin would not and did not leave well enough alone.

Martin is, of course, Martin Luther, the monk who set the Protestant Reformation in motion 501 years ago on October 31, 1517.  In the words of historian and professor David Mayes,

“Luther took his shots at the system, yet he also lived up to all the reforms he pushed through. The people listened to him because they could see Luther laboring to bring Christianity back to the point where Christ had established it—a simple faith in God, a direct relationship with Christ, contentment with the calling God gives each individual, and living righteously in the midst of the world.”

How do people change?  How does the world change?  When we become fed up with a status quo that isn’t working any more and dream of a new and better way and then doggedly pursue that way.  That’s how we change and how the world changes.

2.

Today’s Bible passage is from Mark’s gospel.  We meet Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus is discontent.  He’s tired of being blind.  He’s tired of being poor.  He’s tired of being ritually unclean in the eyes of the religious authorities.  His name literally translates “son of the unclean or the defiled.”  He wants to see.  He wants to provide for himself.  He wants the religious circle to make a place for him.  He’s tired of his disability, his poverty, and his low social status keeping him on the bottom and at the margins.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem where Jesus will continue his preaching tour.  Along the way, just outside Jericho, even among the gathering crowd they hear Bartimaeus.  They hear him before they see him.

“Jesus, son of David, show me mercy,” says Bartimaeus.  The disciples scold him.  They tell him to be quiet. 

My guess is that Bartimaeus was not the only person in the throng pleading for Jesus to say something to them or do something for them.  The disciples couldn’t possibly scold and hush up everyone.  In all likelihood, they ignored most of the pleas and kept walking on their way.

But Bartimaeus’ plea was different.  He is the first person in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus son of David.  This is a treasonous title.  It was a title that would surely draw the attention of the Roman authorities.  In Jesus, Bartimaeus saw not only a wise rabbi or a miracle worker, he also saw an heir to a throne, a ruler.  Caesar could tolerate a rabbi, a healer.  Caesar would not tolerate a pretender to his power as emperor.

The last thing the disciples needed or wanted was the crowd to began chanting in unison, “Behold, the Son of David!” as Jesus passed.  As readers who know what comes next in Mark’s gospel, we know that this will happen in due course.  Now was neither the time nor place.

“Hush,” they tell Bartimaeus, which has the opposite effect.  Bartimaeus just gets louder.  “Jesus, son of David.  Show me mercy.”

We know the rest of the story.  Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants.  Bartimaeus says he wants to see.  Jesus says, “Go, your faith has healed you.”  Bartimaeus receives his sight and joins Jesus’ followers.

3.

Bartimaeus’ story is the story of a blind man seeing and people with perfect vision not seeing at all.  Blindness and sight are themes in Mark’s gospel.  The disciples are presented time and again as spiritually blind.  They fail to see time again.  They don’t get it.  Peter declares Jesus as messiah but can’t fathom a place for suffering and death in Jesus’ messiahship.  John and James want to be great but can’t see how greatness comes only through serving others.

How was it that Bartimaeus saw Jesus for who he was and what his life and ministry meant when those closest to Jesus didn’t?  Was it his being differently abled, his physical blindness, that attuned him to spiritual realities that others missed?  Perhaps.  Was it his poverty?  He was a beggar who sat by the side of the road and listened as humanity paraded past him daily.  Did this experience attune him to spiritual realities that others missed?  Perhaps.  Was it his ritual uncleanness?  He was on the far margins of his culture and society.  Good and decent people would have nothing to do with him.  Was it this experience that attuned him to spiritual realities that others missed?  Perhaps.

Where others looked away, Jesus saw Bartimaeus.  Where others wouldn’t listen to him, Jesus listened.  Where others wouldn’t speak with him, Jesus spoke to him.  Where others wouldn’t respond to his pleas, Jesus responded to him.

This is what Jesus does everywhere in the gospels and through his Spirit and the church continues to do.  Jesus crosses all the boundaries.  Jesus draws God’s family circle wider and wider and wider until everyone is included, especially those on the far margins.

Jesus, to put it mildly, rejected the temple religion of his day, rejected the Roman norms.  Jesus was and indeed is royal.  But his kingship and kingdom are of a different order altogether.

Jesus’ life story and the church’s story is a story of how people change and how the world changes.  It’s a story of discontent.  The world and its ways are not the way things are supposed to be.  Mostly, however, it’s the story of a love — God’s love in Christ — that grabs us and will not let us go.  It’s the story of our trust in that love, our reliance on that love, our embodying that love.  It’s the story of the change in our own lives wrought by that love and of the change we pursue in the world in the name of that love and for the sake of that love.

4.

Here’s my take away from this sermon.  What are our discontents — with ourselves and with our world — and what are we saying and doing in God’s name and for God’s sake to be and make the change to address them?  What are we fed up with?

One step in addressing this question is owning our blindspots.  What should we be seeing that we are missing?

Listen to these words of theologian Walter Brueggemann.  This is his critique of American Christianity at the dawn of the 21st century.  I believe he is on to something.  He writes:

“The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

Have we given up?  Are we settling?  Remember, in our baptisms we were bound to Christ and Christ’s people, we were bound to Christ’s way of love in the world.

I have to wonder, though, if at times I have trouble seeing Jesus to whom I am bound and seeing what Jesus wants me to see because I’m may be more loyal to my country than I am to Jesus or more loyal to things than I am to Jesus or more loyal to going along with the use of violence as a way of getting things done than to Jesus or more loyal to my paycheck and my bank account than I am to Jesus.  Have you ever wondered any of those things?

Christian faith that changes our hearts and minds and the world is first, last, and always about Jesus.  When it stops being about Jesus it stops being Christian faith.  Christian faith that gets in bed with patriotism or consumerism or violence or wealth for its own sake can’t change anything because it has stopped being Christian faith.  It’s something else entirely

Remember how we change and how the world changes.

Amen.