Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

A Living God

A Living God | 15 May 2022 |  Dan McCoig

Acts 17:16-31 | Common English Bible

16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

1.

Every preacher remembers their first church scuffle.  Sometimes its over something rather small and seemingly insignificant like where carpeting in the sanctuary should or shouldn’t go or what color scheme should a particular room or rooms of the church building be.  Other times it’s over something a little more substantial like the church’s stance on gun violence or systemic racism or sexual orientation or gender identity.

The little stuff and the big stuff matter.  They matter because they involve people and people matter.  

I’m thankful for the Presbyterian way of being Christian.  It’s a tradition that values reasoned discourse and the dogged pursuit of God’s justice for all.  We are in a historical moment where reasoned discourse is too often scorned and scoring points for one’s own particular view of the world at the expense of others is the order of the day.  If we stay on this path much longer, our present will be bleak and our future will be bleaker.

I’m not sure what it’s going to take for us to see all of our neighbors as people who were created by God, redeemed by God, and sustained by God — who bear God’s image.  But it’s the place we will need to get to if there is to be hope for us.

My first church scuffle involved carpeting and where it should and should not go.  I was flabbergasted that folks could get so worked up.  I was in my twenties.  I was naive.  I had no idea folks could take such intractable stands.  But they got worked up — over carpeting, or, some of them did.  It was a little unnerving.  Ultimately, the elders made their decision and most folks supported it.  After all that’s a promise congregations make when they ordain elders — to trust their judgment.  A couple of folks who didn’t made others miserable for a bit and eventually let it go.

2.

I was born in the Deep South where storytelling is treasured.  Spinning a yarn on a front porch in the shade of old tree at the end of a hot day was and is an art form.  One thing I noticed about the stories I heard before was how with each retelling the fish got bigger, the points on the buck’s antlers always grew in number, the snow got deeper, the sun got hotter, the corn stalks got higher, the apple pie got tastier, the grannies got kinder, the children got sweeter, and the bullies got meaner.  And the preacher, he got even saintlier or more trifling depending on who was telling the story.

In my humble opinion, Luke, the writer of Acts, is the best storyteller of the Christian New Testament.  And, like all storytellers he employs artistic license.

For example, Luke’s portrayal of Paul doesn’t quite square with what Paul says about himself in his letters or what others say about Paul in the New Testament as well as other writings from the Early Church era — especially when it comes to preaching.  Biblical commentator Katherine Shaner talks about the tale of the great preacher.  Paul is one such great preacher.  According to Shaner, the great preacher connects all the dots, explains the mysteries of God, dispels fear of the unknown, and convincingly transforms lives.  I’m not sure this tale of the great  preacher should inspire me or send me into fits of despair.

3.

Today’s lesson is Luke’s account of a scuffle Paul got into in Athens.  It’s a big one.  It has to do with what we give ourselves to and whether the object of our devotion is worthy of our devotion.

Paul first preaches in the Athens synagogue.  I’m guessing that didn’t go well because next he preaches in the marketplace.  We know that doesn’t go well because his audience calls him an amateur and a babbler.

Eventually, Paul is taken into custody and brought before a council of Athenians who question him.  By the time Paul shows up in Athens, the city has been a hub of learning and culture for more than three centuries.  It was the ancient world’s Cambridge or Oxford or New York or Boston.  Athens was filled with the Mediterranean world’s best and brightest, who were curious to learn all that they possibly could.

Athens was truly a cosmopolitan city, that is it was truly a city of the the world.  Every imaginable culture, language, ethnic group, race, religion was represented in Athens.

A cosmopolitan city can be a wonderful thing in that it allows its citizens to rub elbows with people who experience and make sense of the world differently.  But it can also result in conflict when those who experience and make sense of the world are chauvinistic about their views and perspectives and demean the views and perspectives of others.

In our story, the Athenians appear to be genuinely interested in what Paul has to say.  Granted, they seem skeptical that he has anything of value to teach them but they are at least willing to hear him out.

Paul gets creative in his address to the Athenians.  He contextualizes the gospel message.  In other words, he meets the Athenians where they are.  Paul notes the innate religiosity of the Athenians.  He notes the temples and the statues, one of which is to an unknown God.  And this is where Paul tries to connect with the Athenians.

Paul tells them that God has been revealed.  Not in a book or a code of behavior or by a temple or a statue.  Rather, God has been revealed in a person, namely Jesus Christ.  This person lived among us.  This person taught, healed, enjoyed the company of friends, cried, got angry, suffered, died, was resurrected.  Paul tells the Athenians that God was in Jesus Christ revealing God’s self to humanity and the heart of Christ as God’s revelation is a saving love for the world.

4.

Religious historians point out that we are in a post-Christian world.  That’s academic speak.  It means namely that in the west — think Europe and North America — there are more people who either don’t know a thing about the Christian faith and message or what they do know of it they find deeply unappealing because it so often gets represented in a negative light.  For example, “Oh, those Christians, they’re against everything, right?  And, the things they are for don’t square with who Jesus was and what Jesus’ message was all about.”

For me, the lesson of Paul’s message in Athens is a challenge to us to contextualize our presentation of the Christian gospel.  Two things that persons seem to seek more than anything else are relationships and living a life that matters.  I think the Christian faith and community score big on both of these points and should lead with them.  We should be the community that fosters relationships — with God, with one another, with strangers, with people who are different from us and from one another.  That’s what Jesus did and we are Jesus followers.  This will involve meeting people where they are rather than requiring them to come to us and be like us.

Additionally, as a community we put a high priority on love of neighbor, which takes many forms.  Food.  Shelter.  Refugee resettlement.  Friendships.  Meaningful conversations.  Assistance with life’s necessities.  What matters more than doing our part in making life less hard for others and allowing others to do the same for us? That’s what Jesus did and we are Jesus followers.

Ultimately, Paul’s message is that God in Christ, the living God, is the one worthy of giving ourselves to — mind, body, spirit.  In this living God we live and move and have our being.

Amen.

An Unlikely Emissary

An Unlikely Emissary | 1 May 2022 | Dan McCoig

Acts 9:1-19

Saul encounters the risen Jesus

9 Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, 2 seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. 6 “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

7 Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

10 In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

11 The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

15 The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19 After eating, he regained his strength.

1.

I ran across a new phrase this week.  Here it is:  “faith inferiority complex.”  Have you ever heard it?  I hadn’t.  It’s been around a while.  Author William Muehl used it in his 1986 book, Why Preach? Why Listen?

Here’s the idea behind the phrase.  According to Muehl, humans are comparative by nature.  We measure ourselves on all sorts of fronts.  Am I good enough?  Am I smart enough?  Am I talented enough?  Am I industrious enough?  Am I athletic enough?  Is there a place here for me?  Do I really belong?

We do the same sort of comparison when it comes to religious faith.  We wonder if our trust in God is adequate.  We look at other people and are convinced that their faith is more steadfast and solid than ours.  We convince ourselves that their faith is greater than ours, which can mean only one thing.  Our faith must be inferior.  You get the idea.

Comparison thinking is a downward spiral and leads to a dead end.  We will always interact with people who are “better” than we are at whatever “it” might be.  So we get to feel lousy about ourselves.  How helpful is that?  And, we will always interact with people who are “worse” that we are at whatever “it” might be.  So we get to feel great about ourselves.  How helpful is that?

2.

When I was in seminary we undertook countless exercises designed to put our faith journeys into words in the hopes of better understanding how we came to faith as well as our sense of call to ministry.  For many Presbyterian Christians, their faith stories often includes words on the order of, “Well, I was raised in the church.  I can’t recall a time when I was not a Christian.”

Many of my colleagues would share their faith journey with these words, almost apologetically.  It was a far cry from a lost and found story.  It was certainly very different from Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus.  It lacks the drama.  Somehow Paul’s story came to be seen as the norm, the measure — which is a misreading of the text. 

Think about your own faith journey.  How did you become a follower of Jesus?  How did you become Christian?  My guess is that there are as many ways to come to faith in Christ as there are people.  Some people come to faith primarily by way of the head.  Others come to faith primarily by way of the heart.  Usually there is a person who played a significant role in our faith formation.  Often, it’s a combination of all these as well as numerous other factors.  Here’s thing, there’s no one way.

The Evangelical Movement, which has been around since the 1730s, has blessed the world with its emphasis on persons making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and embody his teachings through love of God and love of neighbor.  The movement also created some problems in that some within the movement emphasized an almost cookie cutter approach to conversion to faith in Christ.  It held up Paul’s conversion as the ideal.

And for some persons, that’s the way it happened.  Like Paul, they were profoundly lost.  And like, Paul, by the power and grace of God, they became found and their life was never the same again.  Think of the slave ship captain John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  But for others, that’s not how it happened at all.

Religious sociologists distinguish between dramatic conversions — think Paul and his experience on the Road to Damascus — and nurtured conversions — think of the person who has never known themselves as other than Christian.  There’s a comfort that comes with having such an early faith identity.

3.

Here’s my take on Luke’s account of Paul’s conversation story in Acts.  Luke tells us this story because it is profoundly important to Paul’s identity and his missionary activity as the apostle to the Gentiles.  The conversion experience is uniquely Paul’s.  It is not typical.

Paul references his Damascus Road experience time and again in his letters to legitimize his apostleship.  He went from breathing fire against the early Christians to becoming a Christian himself and preaching the Christian gospel.  What or who could bring about such a change in a person?

Author and noted preacher William Willimon quotes writer Flannery O’Conner in talking about Paul’s Damascus Road experience.  Listen to what O’Connor wrote of Paul.  She wrote: “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”  ‘Knock him off his horse’ is a Southern idiom meaning to get one’s attention.

Paul’s conversion story invites us to consider our own conversion story.  We have one whether it’s a dramatic one or a nurtured one.  It just so happened that Paul needed to be “knocked off his horse” as it were.  I have had moments in my own life when I needed to be knocked off mine.

The central character in Paul’s conversion story is the central character in every conversion story.  God.

God changed Paul’s life.  God changed my life.  God changed your life.  God is the one whose love and grace and power changes lives.  Paul didn’t up and decide to be a Christian.  If it were left to him, he probably wouldn’t have.  Paul becoming a Christian was God’s doing through and through, start to finish.  The same goes for us.  Our becoming Christian and persevering in the Christian life is God’s doing.

This doesn’t mean our role is entirely passive.  It’s not.  We have a role to play.  Once God has gotten our attention we have to choose whether our attention will stay with God or not.

4.

Lisa and I, when we were first married, attended Asbury United Methodist Church on Churchill in Richmond.  It was a predominantly Black congregation.  The pastor was Leontine Kelly.  She would go on to become the first Black bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Rev. Kelly, in the course of her preaching, would exclaim — “Can I get a witness?”, which is an African American convention in preaching.  It’s one way the preacher connects with the congregation and asks are they hearing what’s being said, are they on board with it, are they in or not.

God needed a witness to the gospel of Christ in the ancient Mediterranean world.  God chose an unlikely witness in a most dramatic fashion.  

God needs witnesses to the gospel of Christ in our time as well.  Luke and Acts are full of stories of unlikely witnesses to Christ’s gospel — a Samaritan, an Ethiopian eunuch, a Roman centurion, Paul.

Here’s the thing.  God’s witness?  It’s you.  It’s me.  It’s us.  It’s First Presbyterian Church.  We may suffer with faith inferiority complex or not.  Such a complex is not necessarily a bad thing if it fosters humility.  It is a bad thing if it means we feel we have nothing to say or do or offer for the sake of the gospel.  Because we do.  God uses all of everyone when it comes to advancing the gospel — the likeliest of persons and the unlikeliest of persons; the likeliest of congregations and the unlikeliest of congregations.  Amen.

When the Unimaginable Happens

When the Unimaginable Happens | Easter 2022

Dan McCoig

Luke 24:1-12 | Common English Bible

24 Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. 5 The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words. 9 When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. 12 But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.

1.

Happy Easter!  The world could use some resurrection news right about now.  The world has always needed resurrection news.  Death defeated.  Life victorious.  Love winning.  Instead, here we are.  Death is on the march.  Life is on the ropes.  And hatred is winning.

Two years in pandemic mode has felt like an eternity.  The dying, the death [more than a million persons in the U.S. alone — 200,000 covid orphans], the disruptions, the division over what to do or not do to minimize transmission.  It’s been a lot and it’s been hard.

The Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014 entered a more violent and devastating phase in February.  For the past two months we have read and watched with abject horror the brutality and cruelty inflicted on Ukraine by Russia.  The images are heart wrenching.

The Easter story begins with heartache and sadness, despair and worry.  It’s early on the first day of the week, a Sunday.  The women, Luke tells us, make their way to tend to their rabbi’s body.  We know some of their names but not all of their names.  Luke identifies only the two Marys and Joanna.

I wonder if the women made their way to the tomb in silence, too sad to speak.  Or did they talk about their experiences of and with Jesus?  They may have told stories about the things he said and the things he did.  They may have told stories about how they came to follow Jesus.

I believe it was a little bit of both.  In grief, some persons prefer silence.  Other persons need to talk.  Other persons need to sit quietly and listen to other people talk about everything and nothing.

The women’s story is a story of altered expectations.  They expect to anoint Jesus’ body in preparation for burial.  They have gathered the necessary spices.  They have performed this task before.  They know the routine.

But what they find is a far cry from what they expected, which is an almost perfect description of life.

The heavy stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away.  Jesus’ body is not in the tomb.  Instead, there are two men in gleaming garments unlike any the women have ever seen before.  So, this is what angels look like!

The narrator tells us that the women didn’t know what to make of this.  Can we blame them?  Would anyone know what to make of it?

Sometimes Luke can be a master of understatement.  Not knowing what to make of what they were seeing and hearing is putting it mildly.  Think about your own experiences in the face of profoundly altered expectations, both positive and negative.

You expect one thing and get another, both when it is good and when it is bad.  The routine doctor’s appointment becomes a diagnosis no one ever wants to hear and life will never be the same again.  The waiting through the night for word from a loved one ends with a gentle knock at the front door and the loved one is there in the flesh — safe and sound.  Thank God.

Expectations are a funny thing.  We all have them.  They help us to aim for things in life that matter to us.  Expectations can lead to dread or they can lead to hope.

2.

I find myself alternating between expecting too much on some days and too little on other days, especially of myself as well as others.  I never know what the right balance is so the pendulum swings between disappointment and delightful surprise.

Jesus told his followers time and again what would become of him.  He would go to Jerusalem.  There, he would suffer and die.  But, God would also resurrect him after three days.

Think for a moment what you do when the conversation turns to suffering and death.  As a rule, it’s not the high point of any conversation.  It’s usually the place in the conversation where someone tries to change the subject or minimize the topic.

One of my favorite short story authors is North Carolinia writer Fred Chappell.  In his collection of stories entitled “I Am One of You Forever”, there is a character who builds his own coffin and displays it front and center in his house.  He even begins to sleep in the coffin.  The character discovered that it was impossible to engage his family in any meaningful conversation about his approaching death so he goes to extremes to initiate the conversation with an object lesson.  His family could now see what they wouldn’t hear.

We don’t know if Jesus’ followers really heard what he had to say about his suffering and death.  On Good Friday, they certainly saw Jesus suffer and die as he foretold.  Also, we don’t know if Jesus’ followers really heard what he had to say about his resurrection.  On that first Easter morning, they certainly experienced the empty tomb and presence of the angels.  They heard what the angels had to say.

As I read and re-read the Easter story in Luke this week, it occurred to me that there are at least three responses to the resurrection, quite frankly something that was unimaginable.  The first is the women’s response.  They don’t know what to make of it.  I guess we can call this bewilderment.

The second response is the apostles’ response.  The women tell them what they saw and what they heard.  The apostles’ call it nonsense.  I guess we can call this disbelief or dismissal.

The third response is Peter’s.  Peter hears what the women have to say.  He then goes to the tomb to see for himself.  He wonders what in the world happened.  I guess we can call this wonder.

Author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes a blog on Substack entitled The Corners.  Her recent post on Palm Sunday was insightful.  She pointed out how too often when we read stories in the Bible where the characters behave in a way we judge to be wrongheaded in some way, we convince ourselves that we would have said the right thing or done the right thing or fully understood exactly what Jesus was talking about.  The reality, according to Bolz-Weber, is that “No, we wouldn’t have.”  Humanity is humanity.  There isn’t a new improved version.

The women and their bewilderment.  The apostles and their disbelief and dismissal.  Peter and his wonder.  Human.  They were human just as we are human.  Their responses — human.  Our responses — human.

3.

The resurrection is bewildering.  The resurrection doesn’t fit into any of the ways we make sense of the world.  I can see why folks don’t buy or dismiss it.  But the resurrection also invites wonder.

Easter is the story of God revealing God’s love in Christ through a power stronger than death.  The word for this is resurrection.

Death is the thing in human experience that is final.  It can’t be undone.  It can’t be altered.  It separates people from one another.  In its wake, it leaves grief and sorrow, tears and anguish.

Easter tells us that death isn’t final.  It can be undone.  It can be altered.  Regardless of our response — bewilderment, disbelief or dismissal, or wonder — God gets the final say and God’s final say is resurrection and resurrection is the news of a love that can’t be broken ever.  Our bond to God in Christ extends throughout the course of the whole of our life.  It extends beyond our last breath, beyond the grave.  It extends into eternity.

Such Easter news, though unimaginable, is true and good.  The resurrection reminds us yet again that God’s ways are not our ways.  The resurrection, like the scope of the universe, is beyond human comprehension.  The resurrection was not what those early followers of Jesus expected but it was what they got.  It is what the world got.  It is what the world needed most — then, now, and always.

He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Amen.

So, This is Love

So, This is Love |  14 April 2022 | Dan McCoig

John 13:1-17 | Common English Bible

13 Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. 6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

1.

People are shaped by the stories they are told and the stories they tell themselves.  Communities are shaped by the stories they are told and the stories they tell themselves.

The story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends is a story that certainly shaped the people around that table that night.  It’s a story that has shaped Christianity before there was even a word Christianity, more aptly the Jesus movement.  It’s a story that continues to shape persons who bear the name Christian or Jesus follower.  It’s a story we tell on this night every year.

2.

The story begins straightforwardly enough.  It’s the story of devout Jews gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate a Passover meal.  The traditional food and drink is served.  The traditional words are spoken.  Jesus, the group’s leader, presides over the ancient rituals.

But this particular Passover meal is different.  Jesus and his friends entered Jerusalem to considerable fanfare and expectation a few days prior.  Jesus was hailed as Israel’s liberator.  The Roman yoke of occupation and oppression would be thrown off once and for all.  Judeans could live freely and in peace — God’s desire and dream for all of humanity.

But the revolution didn’t begin as expected.  Or did it?  The writer of John describes Jesus knowing that his time had come.  Jesus knew because he was paying attention.  You can’t draw the kinds of crowds he drew and say to them the kinds of things he said without garnering the notice of the Roman authorities as well as the religious leadership of the Temple.

Jesus knew because he was spiritually attuned to not only what we can get at with our five senses but also with the eyes of his heart.  Not only were the forces of Rome and religious leadership aligning against him so, too, was evil personified, the devil.  The writer of John tells us that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus comes as the result of a provocation of the devil.

And we know that Jesus knew his time had come because as readers of the gospel we know things that people in the story don’t know.  The writer of John tells us these things in his prologue.  Jesus is God incarnate who has come to save the world.  He is light in darkness.  Light that darkness can never understand and light that darkness can never extinguish.

3.

After the meal, Jesus changes roles.  He is no longer is the presider over the meal, he becomes a servant to his friends.  With a towel around his waist and a water basin in his hands, he washes the day’s dust and dirt from their feet.

The last supper is just that, it’s the last supper.  Jesus chooses his actions carefully.  This is the way he wants his friends to remember him.  This is what he wants his friends to tell others about him.  Jesus chooses his words carefully for the same reason.

Jesus washing his friend’s feet is a word-picture for love.  This is what love is.  This is what love looks like.  Love steps away from its seat at the head of the table.  Love takes up a common towel and wash basin.  Love kneels at the feet of others.  Love takes those feet in hand and gently washes away the day’s dirt.

My guess is not one single friend of Jesus in that room that night had ever witnessed a rabbi behave quite like Jesus, ever.  The only reference point they had for Jesus’ behavior was a house servant.  Foot washing would have been his job, not a rabbi’s.

Peter, being Peter, doesn’t like it.  He wants Jesus to stop.  He wants Jesus to get up.  He wants Jesus to return to the head of the table.  He certainly doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet.

The story of the last supper awkwardly pauses at this point.  Peter resists Jesus washing his feet.  Jesus explains why he is doing what he is doing.  Jesus is showing his friends what love looks like and is telling his friends how the world will know that they are his followers and how the world will come to experience God.  It’s love.

The word vulnerability gets tossed about a lot these days.  To be vulnerable means to be exposed to possible attack or harm.  To be vulnerable means being in a position where others might hurt you.  It also means expressing aspects of yourself that you have the least confidence or certainty in.

Biblical commentators speculate whether a part of Peter’s resistance to having Jesus wash his feet involved an unwillingness be vulnerable.  I don’t think Peter feared that Jesus would harm or humiliate him.  I do think Peter may have found it humiliating or shameful to have his leader, his rabbi serve him in such a public way before all the others.  Jesus’ behavior confuses Peter.  Peter didn’t quite know what to do with such love and support and nurture from Jesus.  So, he resisted.

4.

The last supper is this loving, tender moment before all of the ugliness and meanness in the Christian gospel comes to the fore — Jesus’ arrest and trial, his beating and execution.  Peter’s denial and abandonment by the other disciples.  Jesus fills his friends with as much love as he can to sustain them for the days ahead.  The cruelty and despair.  The hatred and persecution.  The violence.

Jesus tells his friends to go do likewise.  To take the love he poured into them and pour it into others.  God is love.  Love is the mark of the Christian community.  Love brought us here tonight.  Love will see us through tomorrow.  Love is how we got here and why we are here.  Love will see us through this life.  Love will see us through and beyond death.

Peter had to open himself to love in order to love. He had to be vulnerable.  We have to open ourselves to love in order to love as well, God’s love in Christ.  Amen.

Everyone Gets Grace

Everyone Gets Grace | 27 March 2022 | Dan McCoig

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 | Common English Bible

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Jesus told them this parable:

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

1.

A good story raises more questions than it answers.  The story Jesus tells in Luke 15 — the parable of the prodigal son — is a story that raises more questions than it answers.

But first, the setting.  We have to go back to the very beginning of chapter 15.  The context for Jesus telling all of his lost and found stories in Luke 15 is grumbling by the religious leadership.  Grumbling is something the religious leaders do a lot in the New Testament gospels.

The religious leaders don’t like who Jesus is associating with.  They don’t like who he is sharing meals with.  What self-respecting rabbi associates with sinners? They want Jesus to be more like them.  “Good” people are worthy of their attention.  “Bad” people are not worthy of their attention.

Jesus catches wind of the grumbling and launches into his series of stories about lost and found things.  Our lesson is the story of a lost and found son.  Hold on to that thought.

2.

All of us are distressed by the war in Europe.  Russia invaded their neighbor to the west, Ukraine, and is laying waste to Ukraine’s towns and cities with its bombing campaigns.  You have seen the images.  You have read the accounts.  It’s horrific.  Unconscionable.  It’s criminal to terrorize and kill indiscriminately.  And justice will not be delayed indefinitely. 

Tragically, Russia’s war against Ukraine came with the blessing of the leadership [not to be confused with the membership] of Russian Orthodox Church.  It pains me to no end that any religious body would ever bless violence of any kind.  And, yet there is a long history of religious bodies doing just that.  God weeps at what is done in God’s name.

The parable of the prodigal son shows up every Lent.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition it shows up in the lectionary a couple of Sundays before it shows up in the lectionary of the Western church.  In a recent news article I read about some Russian Orthodox congregations hearing a novel interpretation of the parable.

Here it is:  Ukraine is the prodigal son who is lost.  Russia is the father who is welcoming Ukraine home.  Of course, nothing was said about the use of extreme violence — bombing, terrorizing, maiming, and killing — to coerce the son into returning home.  My guess is the church had to draw a line somewhere as they distorted Jesus’ story.

I share this story because this is what a church in service to a political ideology looks like.  The Russian Orthodox Church, founded in 988 in Kyviv, Ukraine, went underground after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when the Bolshevik’s executed 28 bishops and 1200 priests.  Stalin rehabilitated the church in the 1940s to bolster the Soviet war effort and used the church as a propaganda arm.

The church made a peace of sorts with the Russian government after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but at a high cost.  The church became beholden to the party and its ideology which corrupted the Christian gospel.

What I just sketched out is an oversimplification of a long and complex history with a lot of nuance but it covers the high points.  There is a lesson in there for us.  As Christians, we should always be wary of being co-opted by political parties and their ideologies, especially parties and ideologies that espouse violence as an acceptable solution to any problem.  Once co-opted it is very hard if not impossible to regain our witness to the truth of the gospel.

3.

I shared that misinterpretation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son to help us consider an interpretation that captures the spirit of Jesus ministry and message.  We know the story and its characters.

There is a younger son, an older son, and a father.  Every time we hear a story we can’t help but identify with one of the characters more so than the other characters.  That’s by design.  Good storytellers draw us in and invite us to see the world through particular characters.

In Jesus’ story, the younger son asks for his inheritance while his father is still living and sets out for a far country where he squanders it all.  Destitute and hungry, he comes to himself and decides to go home to beg his father to at the very least let him live among the servants.  The older son stays home and attends to his responsibilities.  The father not only welcomes his younger son home but does so in grand style — fine clothes, a ring for his finger, a fatted calf upon which to feast.  The older son is beside himself over his father’s behavior.

Remember when I said that good stories raise more questions than they answer.  Boy, are there a lot of questions raised in this story.  Commentator Ashley Birt points out several — Why would the younger son take so much [half of the estate] from his father only to waste it?  Why wouldn’t the older brother celebrate the fact that his brother is back?  Why wouldn’t the father (or anyone, for the matter) bother to tell the older son what’s going on?

Good questions.  And I bet Jesus wants us to ask them, ponder them, live with them.

Ultimately, Jesus’ story is not so much about the younger son or the older son or the father.  Rather, Jesus’ story is about grace and who gets it and why.  In the story, everyone gets grace.  The younger son and all of his wastefulness.  He gets grace.  The older son and all of his frustration.  He gets grace.  Even the father and all of his humiliation and heartache.  He gets grace.  Grace for himself.  Grace to embrace each son.

Why do they all get grace?  Because that’s the nature of grace.  It’s never earned or lost.  It’s always given and the giver is God.

Just as in the story everyone gets grace, everyone in life gets grace, too.  Big lives and little lives.  Full lives and empty lives.  Tidy lives and messy lives.  Simple lives and complicated lives.  Seemingly perfect lives and clearly imperfect lives.  They all get God’s grace and like the father in the story they get to give it away as well.

Grace doesn’t quite make sense.  Commentators have long noted that it is “lavish” and “illogical”.  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s “unearned”.  Yep.  And thank God.

Amen.

A Fig Tree Story

A Fig Tree Story by Dan McCoig

Luke 13:1-9 | Common English Bible | 20 March 2022

13 Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. 4 What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

6 Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ 8 The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. 9 Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

1.

Sometimes Jesus is hard to listen to.  Ordinarily, we don’t associate death threats with Jesus.  But, that’s what’s going on in the first part of today’s lesson.

Jesus is presented with two accounts of recent events where people died.  The first occasion people died at the hands of the Rome’s imperial governor in Judea, Pilate, for their religious practices.  The second occasion people died in an accident.  Jesus doesn’t address why the people died.  He knew all too well that’s the fallen world we live in.  People die, sometimes needlessly and senselessly and all too young because of harsh and heartless rulers.  Think of the Ukrainian neighborhoods that are being shelled by Russian tanks.  And people die in a world where accidents happen.  People die and it hurts to lose them.

I’m with Jesus up to this point.  But then Jesus uses the accounts to say that a similar fate will befall his listeners if they don’t change their ways.  Jesus’s message seems to be “change or die.”  This is a truism.  No one and nothing remains the same unless it is already dead or inanimate.

Change is a part of Jesus’ message.  Change of heart.  Change of mind.  Change of life.  The religious word is repent.  That is, stop going down paths marked by selfishness and injustice, turn, and start down paths marked by selflessness and justice.  This is what change looks like.  The way of Jesus is the way of love and life.

Here in Luke may be the one instance where Jesus equates the failure to change with death.  Either way Jesus wants us to take seriously the need to repent.

Remember in Luke’s gospel, the heart of Jesus’ preaching ministry is good news for the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.  Jesus’ world, not unlike ours, was one where the poor were exploited.  They were looked over and around and through.  Persons were incarcerated at the whim of the authorities with one rule for the haves and one rule for the have nots.  Persons were oppressed by imperial Rome and the leadership of the Temple.  

Jesus saw this injustice.  He felt this injustice.  He spoke against it.  He suffered under this injustice.  He was a Palestinian Jew in a land occupied by imperial Rome.  He was a nobody and was reminded of this reality daily by his occupiers.

Jesus’ message was that it doesn’t have to be this way.  His message was that there was another way.  Jesus embodied this other way.  His way.

That’s the first part of our lesson.

2.

The second part of our lesson is a story Jesus tells.  It’s the story of a fig tree.  The tree has not produced fruit.  The farm’s owner wants his farmer to cut it down.  It’s using soil and water and taking up space with nothing to show for it.  The farmer pleads to give the tree another year to be fruitful.  Perhaps with some additional fertilizer and time, it will bear fruit.  If not, then it will be time to cut it down and cast it away.

What should we make of this story, especially coming on the heels of Jesus’ call to change or die?

I’ve read this story countless times.  Sermons I have preached on it have usually been along the lines “we are to bear fruit — that’s what Jesus followers do — and if we fail to do so we jeopardize both our spiritual and physical life.”  The grace in the story is that the farmer provides additional nurture and time.  In other words, the tree gets another chance to bear fruit.  And if not, well you know the consequences.

This morning, I want to do something different though.  I want to tell you how one person of color reads this story.  Her name is the Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia.  Rev. Abazia writes:

‘Wait a little longer.’

‘Work hard to show what you are capable of.’

‘Trust me . . .’

As a person of color, I hear these comments on a regular basis.  On my best days, [Luke 13] ignites a fire to change the systems and structures that regularly oppress marginalized people.  Other times I wonder, ‘Am I being pacified just enough to stick around?’

The first thing I want to know is why a fig tree is in the midst of a vineyard.  The tree would not be of primary focus in a field cultivating grapes, apparently planted only so that no inch of the ground is squandered.

Abazia continues, 

Many of us experience the world as a fig tree in the midst of grape vines.  We are placed in fields not meant for us and yet expected to thrive.  People discount and doubt us, threatening to cut us down if we don’t produce in the ways that have been defined on our behalf.  We are afterthoughts demanded to bear fruit or be destroyed.

The story of the fig tree reminds us that the world’s expectations do not need to be ours.  The gardener puts their faith in that which they have no control.  Digging a bigger hole and filling it with manure, they tend to the tree with everything it needs to grow into its purpose.  Perhaps this means bearing figs.  Or maybe it provides shade for the laborers during the harvest, an opportunity for the gardener to tend to the field in a new way, or transformation of the owner’s ability see beyond the commodification of the land.

Abazia concludes,

Those living a fig tree existence are invited to be nourished and tended to so that, in time, we grow into our purpose.  People with power are reminded to disrupt their knowledge of how the world works and their complicity in earthly systems and measurements so that everyone has an opportunity to thrive.  And still others provide nurture in solidarity, trusting that intentional care will lead to new life. 

Together, we invest in a fruitful Creation.

If I am honest, I have to admit that I have never really considered Jesus’ parable of the fig tree from a perspective quite like that of Abazia’s.  I’ve not known what it means to be a fig tree amidst a vineyard producing grapes.  I’ve lived my life as a grapevine among other grapevines.  But I know and love people who have lived and are living their lives as fig trees among grapevines with the expectation that they be grapevines.

3.

So, what are we to make of this fig tree story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel?

For starters, I think we can say that there are no lost causes and no one or nothing is worthless.  Just as the fig tree required a little extra TLC, some additional resources, a measure of hope, so do you, so does everyone.

Our systems and our society has done a number on all of us.  It has given us lousy measures for worth like commerce and production, output and success, status and achievement, ethnicity, and even sexual orientation and gender identity.  If you are on the right side of the equation for these measures of worth, you have value.  If you are on the wrong side of the equation for these measures of worth, you don’t have value.  And, of course, the folks on the “right” side of the equation are the gatekeepers.

One commentator I read this week asks a great question:  “Can the fig tree have worth even if it never produces any figs?”  Sit with that question for just moment.

If we answer no, we should do what the landowner in Jesus’ story says to do.  Cut it down and move on.  But if we answer yes, then we are starting down a new path.   We are changing. We will have chosen to be patient with the fig tree.  We will have chosen to nurture the fig tree.  We will begin looking at what other qualities the fig tree may have.

Maybe this is what Jesus wants us to get out of his story.  Part of the change he is calling us to make is the way we see the world; the way we see neighbors.  No one is a waste or resources.  Everyone has value.  Everyone.

Amen.

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

Luke 4:1-13 | Common English Bible

4 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

1.

Can you tell the difference between the truth and a lie?  Fact and fiction?  Information and disinformation?  I hope so.  When we lose this ability, we are indeed lost.

Today’s lesson — the temptation of Jesus in the desert from Luke’s gospel — involves a truth teller, Jesus, and a liar, the devil.

2.

I’m a fan of idioms.  Their pithy way of getting to the heart of an idea.  Their brilliant way of putting big ideas in as few words as possible.

Here’s an idiom I admire:  Tell the truth and shame the devil.  The phrase shows up in an Anglican clergyman’s sermon in 1555.  The Rev. Hugh Latimer published a volume of his sermons entitled Twenty Seven Sermons in which the phrase appears.  Nearly 50 years later William Shakespeare included it in one of his historical plays, Henry IV, Part I, spoken by the character Hotspur.

In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the truth and I would presume that he shamed the devil.  I have to admit that I’ve always wondered whether the devil can be shamed.

In the Christian spiritual tradition as well as other religious traditions there are certain things that just are.  We can read about them in scripture and we can point to them in human experience.

For example, there is good in the world and there is evil in the world.  We desire the good but are tempted by the evil.  Choosing the good over the evil takes serious effort.  We need resources beyond ourselves — from God and from our community.

There is truth in the world and there are lies in the world.  We want to embrace the truth and to tell the truth but are tempted by lies and tempted to repeat the lies.  Choosing truth over lies takes serious effort.  We need resources beyond ourselves — from God and from our community.

The devil in the Christian tradition is evil personified.  As evil personified, the devil cannot tell the truth.  The devil tells only lies.  And that is what he is doing in his temptation of Jesus in the desert.  He is telling Jesus lies.

We’ve heard these lies before because the devil tells us the same lies.  The devil’s first lie is — prove you are worthy.  Turn this stone to bread.  Perform for me.  If you don’t perform, you are nobody.

What is the measure of anyone’s worth.  Is it what they can do?  Is it what they can produce?  Is it what they can earn?  Is it the grades they can make or the athletic prowess they possess?

All of these are lousy measures of a person’s worth.  They may be admirable traits but have nothing to do with one’s worthiness as a human.

As Christians, we affirm that everyone’s worth is immeasurable because everyone’s worth is given by God.  God made us in God’s image.  God made everyone in God’s image.  There is no discussion of who’s worthy and who’s not worthy.  There is no discussion of what one has to do or not do to demonstrate one’s worth.  All are worthy.  All have worth.

That we should ever question anyone’s worth is a lie.  The devil told it and it keeps getting repeated.  It’s time to tell the truth and shame the devil.

3.

The devil’s second lie is do what I ask and I will give you the most important thing in the world — might, fame, fortune.  We’ve heard this lie before.

I’m a music lover.  Legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Routes 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for his musical virtuosity.  Three years later, the devil collected his due.  Johnson died a young man.

We should be able to see straight through the devil’s second lie.  Might, fame, and fortune are not the devil’s to give.  Might, fame, and fortune are not the most important things in the world, either.

Augustine, the 5th century Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote “Our hearts are restless until they rest in the Lord.”  Part of what it means to be human is to be restless.  We always have a sense that we can be more, we can do more.  We yearn.  This is part of what restlessness looks and feels like.

Our restlessness is not, however, soothed by might or fame or fortune.  Rather, our restlessness becomes rest when we rest in God.  We rest in God by loving God and serving God.  This is the truth Jesus told in the desert.  It’s time for us to tell the same truth and shame the devil.

4.

The devil’s third lie is an interesting one.  Be religious in public and spectacular ways to compel God to act in public and spectacular ways.  The devil is no fan of going into one’s closet to pray and making gifts to the poor in private.  The devil is a fan of religion for show and the showier the better.

We’ve heard this lie before, too.  We see this lie regularly.  Spectacular religious displays are no way to relate to one’s Creator.  Oh, by the way, we can’t compel God to act or not act.  That’s another lie.  This is the truth Jesus told in the desert.  It’s a truth we need to tell and shame the devil.

5.

Lent began on Wednesday and lasts for the next 40 days, excluding Sundays, until Easter Sunday.  Lent is an opportunity for introspection, for spiritual examination.  Nothing focuses the heart and mind quite like a crisis.

Right now, we are witnessing a horrifying turn in the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014.  The misery inflicted on countless innocents in Ukraine by a ruthless autocrat in Russia is unimaginable and is likely to only worsen.  

I’m no politician.  I’d probably make a lousy one.  I’m a preacher.  But as a preacher I know that ideas matter.  Which I believe most politicians believe as well.

One thing at stake in Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine is ideas.  One idea is that people should be free to elect the government of their choosing.  This is called democracy.  Another idea is that people should submit to the will of the person or party in power.  This is called autocracy.  Ukraine, like the United States, is a democracy.  Russia is an autocracy.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a story that pits good against evil, truth against lies.  Certain forms of government are more beneficial for people than other forms of government.  This doesn’t mean they are always on the side of the good, but they are inclined in the direction of the good.  Certain forms of government are injurious to people.  This doesn’t mean they are always on the side of evil, but they are inclined in the direction of evil.  The same goes for truth and lies.

The 18th century English author Samuel Johnson wrote in 1758:  “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

Of late, love of truth has taken a backseat in our society as well as other parts of the world.  When truth tellers go silent, the devil has his day.  When truth tellers start repeating the devil’s lies, the devil has his day.

Might we, this Lenten season, fall in love with the truth all over again?  And tell it — loud and long.

Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  American author Flannery O’Connor riffed on Jesus’ words.  She wrote, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”

Both are a good thing.  As Jesus followers, may we tell the truth and shame the devil.  May we be free and odd.

Amen.

A Path Less Trod

A Path Less Trod | 20 February 2022 | Dan McCoig

Luke 6:27-38 | Common English Bible

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

1.

The Bible is a big book.  Actually, it’s a library of 66 different books written by many different authors over the course of about 1400 years.  Books within the Bible are sacred to three global religions:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Being a collection of 66 books, the Bible has a lot of words in it.  You know one word that is not in the Bible.  Christianity.  It’s not there, not even once.  The word Christian is.  It’s used in Acts to describe followers of Christ in Syria.

I’ve often wondered why the word Christianity isn’t in the book that Christianity holds so dear.  There are a lot of reasons, I suppose.  For starters, Christianity as an institution that we would recognize really doesn’t show up until more than three centuries after Jesus’ public ministry, death, and resurrection.  The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century and issued an edict declaring his empire Christian.

If you were a peasant in the far reaches of the empire, you were suddenly Christian.  You may have never heard the name Jesus Christ, but as a subject of the emperor you were now one of Christ’s followers.

The fourth century was an unusual time for Christianity.  What was once a movement based on the words and teachings of an itinerant, Judean rabbi — Jesus of Nazareth — in whom his followers experienced a revelation of God, was now an institution closely associated with the political and military might of the emperor and his legions.  No doubt, Jesus would have found this to be the oddest turn of events since he critiqued Caesar’s empire for its treatment of the people it occupied and its admiration of wealth and power above all things.

2.

So, why my survey of some of Christianity’s early history?  Here’s why.  I wanted to share all of that with you in order to ask us question.  It’s this.  What does a Christian life look like?

What makes a person a Christian, that is a follower of Jesus?  Is it a political designation like it was during the Constantinian era of the Roman empire and the ensuing centuries?  Is it a cultural designation?  Western and European equals Christian.  The former colonies of Western European powers equals Christian.  Is it a theological designation?  If I can say the Apostes’ Creed and mean at least most of it, does that make me Christian?

Or, is it a spiritual designation with a healthy dose of Christ-like behavior?  You know where I am headed with this.  This is the answer.

Currently, there is actually a movement afoot that questions whether the word Christian is helpful anymore in that it has been appropriated by ideologies and movements that are incongruous with Christ’s life and teachings, for example Christian Nationalism.  According to Christian Nationalism, Christ is on the side of my nation state and stands against all other nation states.  This can’t be squared with the Christ of the gospels.  Christian Racial Supremacists.  According to this ideology, Christ favors my race — white — and stands against other races.  This can’t be squared with the Christ of the gospels.

Brothers and sisters who are deeply devoted to Christ no longer want to be called Christian.  They prefer to be called Christ follower or Jesus follower.  For them, it’s a more accurate descriptor.  It identifies a person with whom they have a relationship.  It identifies a person they wish to follow, to emulate, to embody.

I believe this is the beginning of what makes a person a Christian or a Christ follower or a Jesus follower.  It begins with a relationship initiated by God in Christ through the Spirit.  For some it starts dramatically.  They were lost and then found.  For others it’s more gradual.  A slow turning from one path to another.  For everyone, it’s a process that involves the whole of one’s life.  The German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche called it “a long obedience in the same direction”.

3.

In addition to the relationship component of being Christian or a Christ follower or a Jesus follower, there is the behavioral component.  Another word for the behavioral component is ethics.  Is it possible to discern the Christian life from a person’s behavior?

Our passage from Luke’s gospel is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke.  It’s all about behavior.  It’s ethics through and through.

Jesus begins by saying who he is talking to.  He’s talking to those who are willing to hear.  Anyone who has tried to convey important information to another person knows that there is a profound difference between someone who wants to hear what you have to say and someone who couldn’t care less what you have to say.  There’s a big difference between a motivated learned and an unmotivated learner.

I had more than one hard headed uncle growing up.  The saying in the family was one might as well be talking to a fence post when talking to uncle so and so.  The meaning being that those uncles didn’t care much to hear what anyone had to say to them, they had pretty much made up their minds about everything.

Jesus’ words are for teachable spirits.  With God’s help, we have to discern whether we have teachable spirits or not.  I’d like to think that all Christians, all Christ followers, all Jesus followers have teachable spirits; that is, we are all willing to hear.  And then Jesus gets into the heart of his sermon.

G.K. Chesterton, the Christian English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic published a collection of essays in 1910 entitled “What’s Wrong with the World?”  His answer was pretty straightforward.  He wrote:  “What’s wrong with the world?  I am.  Yours truly.”  In reflecting on his own Christian life and commitments as well as his behavior Chesterton remarked that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult; and left untried.” 

Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Plain may be his most idealistic.  They run counter to everything we have been taught and they way we have been socialized.

If someone makes us his or her enemy, we make them our enemy right back.  If someone hates us, we hate them right back.  If someone curses us, we curse them right back.  If someone hits us we hit them right back.  If someone takes from us, we take from them.

To all of this, Jesus says no, no, no.  Love.  Bless.  Turn the other cheek.  Give.  Jesus ends the part of his sermon that is today’s lesson with “The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

This takes me back to Chesterton’s answer as to what’s wrong with the world.  He said, “I am”.  I can say, “I am”.  Maybe you can, too.

The golden rule is humanity’s highest standard.  We miss it more often than we meet it.  The portion we give may be too small, stingy, self-interested, narrow.  And the resulting world is small and stingy, self-interested and narrow.

What if we heard Jesus anew and with the help of his Spirit our portion became expansive and generous, selfless and broad.  I daresay the world would begin to be different.

Amen. 

A Topsy-Turvy View of the World

A Topsy-Turvy View of the World | 13 February 2022

Dan McCoig

Luke 6:17-26  |  Common English Bible

Jesus’ popularity increases

17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. 19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.

Happy people and doomed people

20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

“Happy are you who are poor,
    because God’s kingdom is yours.

21 

Happy are you who hunger now,
    because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now,
    because you will laugh.

22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.

24 

But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.

25 

How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
    because you will mourn and weep.

26 

How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
    Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

1.

Think about the way being blessed warms your heart.  A kind word.  A smile in your direction, meant only for you.  You matter.  Now think about the way being cursed crushes your spirit.  A unkind word.  A scowl or a glare, meant only for you.  You don’t matter.

Blessing and curse.  Jesus blesses folks in today’s lesson.  But he also curses folks as well.

2.

Over the years, I have been intrigued by the headings that editorial boards select to introduce passages of scripture.  For example, today’s lesson includes what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.  A similar sermon appears in Matthew’s gospel, but it is known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount.  The content is similar, but Luke recalls Jesus delivering the sermon on the coastal plain and Matthew recalls Jesus delivering the sermon on a high hill.  The geography of Palestine has both features — coastal plains and hills.

I looked at five different translations of today’s text from the King James Version to the translation I read — the Common English Bible.  The King James Version translators did not add a subtitle to the lesson.  The Common English Bible translators did — its Happy and Doomed People.  Other translation subtitles were Your Blessed, The Beatitudes, Blessings and Woes, all of which are fairly descriptive.

After this sermon, you can tell me what subtitle you would select to introduce your reader to the passage.  You get to imagine yourself as a member of the translation’s editorial board.

3.

Here’s a question for us to ponder.  Who are Jesus’ words for?  The question has been asked by countless others before me and will be asked by countless others after me.

As you might well imagine, there is more than one answer to that question.  One answer is that Jesus’ words are for everyone.  Well, yes and no.  Another answer is that Jesus’ words are for those who have made a commitment to follow Jesus.  Well, yes.

To begin to answer the question — who are Jesus’ words for? — it’s helpful to understand the gospel writer’s intended audience.  Today’s lesson is from Luke.  Luke is writing for an audience of one — Theophilus, his benefactor.  Theophilus is a follower of Jesus and wants to learn more about Jesus but is unsure as to which accounts of Jesus’ life are reliable.  So, Luke is afforded the resources by Theophilus to research Jesus’ story by talking to eyewitnesses to what Jesus said and did and what became of him at the hands of the religious and civil authorities and then writing Jesus’ story for Theophilus, and, as it turns out for posterity.  Here we are reading it two millennia later.

I think this is a pattern for Jesus and his ministry.  What he has to say is binding for those who have committed to him and his way in at the world.  But what he has to say is meant to be heard by anybody and everybody who may be listening in because they too may commit to him and his way in the world.

That’s exactly what’s going on in today’s lesson.  Jesus is talking to his disciples.  They are in.  But a crowd has gathered and they can hear what Jesus is telling his disciples.  They may be deciding whether they are in or not.

Like so many religious figures in history, Jesus was and is an iconoclast.  He doesn’t fit the mold.  What he says and does upsets norms and unsettles conventions.

The very people Jesus curses in today’s lesson are the very people human civilization admires and celebrates.  The rich.  The comfortable.  The well fed.  The cheerful.  The well thought of.  According to Jesus, in God’s kingdom, these are the doomed.

By contrast, the very people human civilization marginalizes and dismisses are, again according to Jesus and in God’s kingdom, blessed.  The poor and hungry.  The mournful and hated.

Remember, Jesus shows us God — who God is and what God is like.  Today’s lesson forces us to deal with God’s preference for those at the bottom of society.

I’m not sure I can explain why God favors the poor the way God does.  There may not be an explanation.  God is free and sovereign and can favor who God chooses to favor.  I do think there is something to learn here, though.

By over emphasizing wealth and comfort, plenty and abundance, cheerfulness and happiness, perhaps we have failed to see neighbors for whom all of these things are, quite frankly, out of reach.  And by not seeing them we have a hard time doing our part in helping them whether it’s by direct aid or advocating systemic change.

4.

Jesus’ woes in Luke 6 are hard to hear for those on the receiving end of the woes.  This includes many if not most Presbyterian Christians.  Historically, given Presbyterian Christianity emphasis on education, industry, and frugality Presbyterian Christians have done relatively well for themselves.

Now the danger in doing relatively well for oneself is beginning to think it was our doing and our doing alone.  We certainly played our role and did our part but it wasn’t our doing alone.  Others had a hand in it as well.

The earliest Protestant Christians in the generations immediately following the 16th century Reformation in Europe were embarrassed by the wealth they were amassing as the continent began to urbanize and trade and commerce became more widespread.  They fretted over the impact their wealth would have upon their soul in this life and the next.  They concluded that they had a God-given obligation to use their newfound wealth for the sake of others in their community.  Schools were built.  Literacy promoted.  Hospitals were built and healthcare provided.  Widows and orphans were housed and provided for.

Protestant Christianity developed a theology of wealth that emphasized stewardship.  One was a steward or a manager of his or her wealth and was to administer not only for himself or herself and one’s family but for the sake of neighbors whose resources were insufficient.

5.

There’s our history lesson for today.  Back to our lesson in scripture.  This is a dangerous lesson to read literally for persons who have enough and then some.  Read literally, I would have to conclude that I’m cursed by God.  But there are other ways to read scripture, thankfully.

One, if we have enough did we come by it justly?  This is a complicated question.  In other words, did the system that benefited me benefit everyone equally?  We are not  going to answer this question in a single sermon but it’s a question we have to ask and consider thoughtfully over time.

Two, if we have enough, do we see neighbors who don’t?  And if we don’t, what do we plan to do about it? And, if we do, what do we plan to do about it?

Luke’s gospel lifts up all the persons who routinely are looked over or around or through so that his readers will see them the way Jesus saw them.  As people who matter to God in a society where they don’t matter to anyone else.  Luke lifts up children and women, the poor and the ill, the stranger and the other.

There is a lot that Christianity can do better at and I am glad we are working on it.  But there is stuff that Christianity got right — granted it took some time — that makes me swell with pride.  Child labor laws.  Women’s rights.  Social services.  Abolition.  Desegregation.  Inclusivity.  Christianity’s fingerprints are all over the movements that pursued and secured justice in these areas.  Is there still work to do?  Of course there is.  But we have accomplished a lot and are in a better place than we once were.

6.

Take away time.  There is no “success equals God’s blessing” preaching in Jesus’ ministry.  There is no prosperity gospel.  What there is is a call to discipleship that requires us to hear what Jesus has to say and to take it to heart.  It will involve us living simply so others may simply live.  It will involve us standing in solidarity with neighbors different from ourselves.

Jesus’ ministry turned the world upside down and is still turning the world upside down.  God has a role for us in this divine churning.

Amen. 

Was It Something Jesus Said?

Was It Something Jesus Said? |  Luke 4:21-30 |  30 January 2022 Dan McCoig

Luke 4:21-30  |  Common English Bible

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”

23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” 24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. 25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”

28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.

1.

Imagine being in a religious gathering where someone says something that angers everyone in the room — I mean everyone — to the point they run him out of the gathering, through the town, to a nearby cliff over which they plan to throw the person who has angered them to their death.  This is one heck of a way to end Sabbath worship.  The sermon was either really good and got under people’s skin or really bad and folks didn’t want to hear another like it or it was both.

This scenario captures today’s lesson.

There is a lot to unpack here.  Let’s start with the crowd’s anger.  We’ll get to Jesus’ words that provoked their anger in due time.

The synagogue was the center of the town’s religious life.  The faithful would gather to worship God, to be instructed in the traditions and practices of the faith by the rabbi.  Life’s milestones were celebrated there — births, weddings, deaths.

The faithful had come to expect synagogue life to look and feel a certain way.  There were norms to be observed.  What was done and said was to be done and said in a certain way.  When to stand.  When to sit.  What scroll from which to read.  The general tenor of commentary on the scripture that was read.  Actions and words that strayed too far from the norms were suspect.  There’s the customary way to do it.  Best to stick with custom.

Jesus would have been schooled in the norms and expectations of the synagogue, especially the synagogue in Nazareth.  Nazareth was his hometown.  It’s where he grew up.  The Nazareth synagogue was his home synagogue.  It’s where he was nurtured in the faith.

Jesus is visiting from his home in Capernaum.  His preaching, teaching, and healing ministry has garnered him a reputation.  His hometown and home synagogue is no doubt bursting with pride.  Jesus’ good name means a good name for Nazareth as well.

In worship, Jesus is handed a scroll from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  It’s the lesson Amanda read last Sunday.  Jesus reads it.  At the heart of the reading is this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

    to proclaim release to the prisoners

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to liberate the oppressed,

    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today’s lesson goes further in Luke 4.  We learn that Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy.  We also get a history lesson in the ways God has worked beyond and in and through non-Judeans.  This contributed to provoking everyone’s anger.  Evidently, the folks in the synagogue that day had a pretty set idea of who God was and how God was supposed to work and through whom God was supposed to work.  Jesus had upset their religious apple cart.

Where does Jesus get off telling them God speaks and acts where and when and to whom God chooses whether in Israel or beyond and whether to Judeans or Gentiles?  Where does Jesus get off bringing poverty and incarceration, oppression and physical frailty, freedom from indebtedness into a sermon in the synagogue.  Everyone knows rabbis shouldn’t talk about this stuff, especially in Sabbath worship from the pulpit.  All of that pride in Jesus turns quickly to murderous anger.

2.

Christianity and Judaism are kissing cousins.  It’s good to remind ourselves that Jesus was Jewish.  Christianity is a later religious expression with deep roots in Judaism.

In all religions, there is often a tension between emphasizing an inner spirituality and an outer pursuit of justice.  An inner spirituality focuses on things like scripture reading and prayer, one’s relationship to and with God, ritual and worship.  All of these things are good and necessary but if they fail to transform us they are hollow.  If they don’t inspire us to pursue justice, we are going through the motions.  We are mouthing all the right words but our feet aren’t moving.

An outer pursuit of justice is concerned with the well-being of neighbors and the systems that affect neighbors.  Do people have what they need for a life of dignity — employment, housing, education, healthcare, food . . ?  And, if not, why not?  And what should we as religious people be doing about it.  This emphasis is good and necessary, too, but apart from a spiritual foundation such a pursuit can become disheartening.

Jesus’ words in the synagogue wed the life of the spirit with the heart and hands of an activist for justice.  Jesus’ relationship to God mattered deeply.  Jesus prayed, worshipped, gathered with fellow Jews.  But he also heard the words of the prophets through whom God spelled out in no uncertain terms God’s special concern for the least, the marginalized —  to use the language Jesus quoted from Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue:  the poor and imprisoned, the blind and oppressed, the indebted.

Jesus’ words in the Nazareth synagogue portrayed God’s grace and embrace as all-encompassing, expansive, inclusive.  His hometown family and friends no doubt understood what Jesus was saying and describing, but they also reacted viscerally.  Nazareth was their town.  The Nazareth synagogue was their synagogue.  God was their God.  Such thinking may have fostered a certain coziness to it.

Jesus was meddling.  He should leave well enough alone.  Let us have synagogue life our way.  This justice stuff is too hard and it hurts to think about it and hurts to have to do something about it.

Luke 4 is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  What Jesus has to say and do from this point on bumps up against the religious and political status quo at every turn.  Caesar and his imperial occupation is put on notice.  The religious leadership of the temple in Jerusalem that has collaborated with the imperial occupation is put on notice.

Just because things are a certain way does not mean they are ordained that way by God.  Sometimes the way things are are that way because the people who are benefiting from the status quo have the means to make sure nothing changes.  Or, they are that way because no one with a voice and power cares enough to change them.

3.

The resistance to Jesus and his ministry saturates the gospels through and through.  Today’s lesson is horrific.  Jesus is literally run out of town on a rail and barely escapes being thrown over a cliff to his death.  I’m still not sure how he made it out alive.

But what Jesus had to say in the synagogue in Nazareth continues to reverberate across the millennia.  What does it mean for people who love and follow God to pay attention to the things and people that matter the most to God — justice and mercy, peace and love, health and well-being, holiness and happiness.

What Jesus had to say in the synagogue in Nazareth continues to challenge people who love and follow God to say what needs to be said in the face of injustice.  Still challenges people who love and follow God to do what needs to be done.

I could give a lot of specifics here.  And in doing so, given enough time end up goring everyone’s sacred cow.  But I’ll only give a couple.

One thing that is deeply wrong and surely breaks God’s heart is the divisions we have created in our communities, nation, and world.  Tribalism has always been a bad look for humanity where my tribe has the only truth and all other tribes are ignorant and need to be enlightened by my tribe.  Last I checked, everyone is made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly.

And that’s my modest proposal.  There may be a lot about me that some folks don’t like.  And there may be a lot about some folks that I don’t like.  But neither of us get to dismiss one another’s God-given humanity.  That’s out of bounds.

Another thing that is deeply wrong is a world of abundance where some have more than enough and others don’t have enough.  I can’t begin to imagine the ways that this breaks God’s heart.

I don’t have the answer to this issue.  There is no simple answer.  Any answer will be complex and require all the expertise we can muster.  

Jesus pointed us in the right direction, but as we can tell from today’s lesson folks really didn’t want his counsel.  His counsel:  Do something, share.  Speak up.  Act.  And Jesus showed us how in and through his public ministry, in and through his selflessness and sacrifice.

Amen.