Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

The Garden: Where Jesus Knows Your Name

The Garden:  Where Jesus Knows Your Name

Easter 2021 | Dan McCoig

John 20:1-18

20 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

1.

Seeing is believing.

We have five empirical senses.  Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.  Our culture tends to favor sight, however, above the other senses.

But sometimes we don’t believe what we see or we ascribe a meaning to what we see that differs from the meaning others may ascribe to it.  Social scientists tell us sometimes we see what we want to see and don’t see what we don’t want to see, which is conditioned by the life experiences that have contributed to the person we are.

Today’s lesson is John’s account of the first Easter.  It is a “seeing is believing story”.  

John’s gospel was written much later than Mark, Matthew, and Luke — a full generation later, in fact.  And, John’s gospel is quite different from Mark, Matthew, and Luke in many ways.  For example, Jesus tells very few parables in John; Jesus provides very few moral teachings in John.  Instead, what John presents are dramatic narratives of Jesus interacting with a diverse host of people and engaging in extended dialogues and discourses on one subject or another.

In our lesson for today, we meet several significant characters from Jesus’ inner circle.  I want us to focus on two of them — Mary Magdalene and John, the beloved disciple.  Mary is the first disciple to arrive at Jesus’ tomb early on that first Easter Sunday.  She is surprised and distressed by what she finds.  The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty.  Jesus’ grave has been robbed, she concludes.  Mary is overcome with tears.

John, the beloved, arrives at Jesus’ tomb after Mary.  He sees the same rolled away stone.  He sees the same empty tomb.  But, he is overcome not with tears but with joy.  What he believes has happened, although he doesn’t quite understand, is this — God has raised Jesus from the dead.  John, the gospel writer, tell us that John, beloved disciple, believed.

2.

When I read John’s gospel, I try to imagine his thought process in telling Jesus’ story.  At the end of his gospel John tells his readers why he has written his gospel.  He has written his gospel so that those who read it — that’s you and me — may come to trust Jesus as their savior and live more fully than they could possibly imagine.  John calls this life abundant life, eternal life.

But John doesn’t give us a window into his writerly decisions.  We have to do a little digging to discern them.  For example, why not just give us John’s experience of the empty tomb and his unbridled trust that God raised Jesus from the dead because the love of God in Jesus can’t be kept down, won’t stay in a tomb; God’s love will be raised and let loose in the world; God’s love in Jesus will have the final say, not the religious leadership, not Rome, not death, not anything.  Now, that’s an ending and John provides it.  That’s why we have gathered this Easter morning whether physically or virtually.

But, John also gives us Mary’s story.  Mary is confused.  She is not sure what has happened and goes to a dark place.  For her, thieves have stolen Jesus’ body.  Ultimately, Mary owns her not knowing and her misunderstanding — she mistakens the risen Lord for a gardener — and her tears.  She says “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand”, and cries.  Mary’s stark and painful honesty is difficult to witness but refreshing.

Mary’s response to the empty tomb is different than John’s because Mary is not John.  And John’s response to the empty tomb is different from Mary’s because John is not Mary.  The early Jesus movement was filled with followers like Mary and followers like John.  Today’s Jesus movement is filled with followers like Mary and followers like John.

I believe Mary was traumatized by Jesus’ crucifixion in ways I can’t begin to understand.  I believe Mary felt the daily burdens of Roman imperialism and the occupation of her homeland.  I believe Mary weathered the hostile stares and wounding slurs and ostracism that came from her community for deciding to follow Jesus.

All of these things contributed to Mary’s initial and visceral reaction to the empty tomb.  They affected her uniquely.  Anxiety and despair distort how we see what we see.  Painful experiences shape how we interpret events and the conclusions we draw about them.

Mary didn’t love Jesus any less than John.  She loved him differently.  And Jesus certainly didn’t love John any more than Mary.  Jesus loved him the way he needed to be loved.  But Mary carried things John knew nothing about and we can know nothing about.

Mary represents every follower of Jesus burdened by whatever it is they are carrying around — fear, doubts, anxiety, despair, hurt, worry, loneliness . . .  I’ve had all of these feels during the pandemic and still do.  These things made it challenging to see the empty tomb the way John the beloved saw the empty tomb.  They make it difficult for us to see the empty tomb the way John the beloved saw the empty tomb.

3.

How is that John saw what Mary saw but drew a very different conclusion?  And how is it that Mary came to see the empty tomb differently than she did initially?

First, there is seeing and there is seeing.  There is physical seeing — what our eyes tell us is there.  And then there is a seeing that involves our intuition and imagination, our mind and our heart.  Some writers call this second sight or seeing with the eyes of faith.

John saw with second sight, his eyes of faith.  To do so involved remembering Jesus’ teaching, recalling his encounters with and experiences of Jesus, which may have been more intimate and intense given that John is referred to as the beloved.  John remembered how Jesus gathered the ignored and violated and vulnerable.  John remembered how Jesus displayed God’s power through compassion and empathy.

Mary would see with this second sight, her eyes of faith, as well when she heard Jesus speak her name as he had before.  When Mary heard the risen Lord speak her name her not knowing and her misunderstanding and her tears were gathered up by the same love she knew and experienced in Jesus’ presence before his death and now experienced after his death.  Hearing her name helped her to remember.

4.

For John the gospel writer, belief is a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Easter morning is a perfect time to revisit what it is, or better yet, who it is we trust with our lives.

Belief requires a double vision of sorts.  There is what we see with our eyes that is physically in front of us.  But there is also what we see with our second sight, our eyes of faith.  With such sight, the child in the manger is the eternal Word of God.  The bread and wine on the table is the body of Christ broken for the world, the blood of Christ poured out for the world.  The neighbor who needs us, the neighbor we help, is Christ himself.  An empty tomb is the power of God’s love over all things, even death.  The family member, friend, or stranger beside us is a bearer of God’s image.  Every person we encounter is a child of God.  When we see them we get a glimpse of God and when they see us they get a glimpse of God.  The world, human and nonhuman alike, is infused with the divine; it is a sacrament.

Do you know the hymn, “In the Garden”?  Among a certain generation it is a favorite.  Listen to what author Marilynne Robinson has to say about it.  She writes:

For a long time, until just a decade ago, at most, I disliked this hymn, in part because to this day I have never heard it sung well.  Maybe it can’t be sung well.  The lyrics are uneven, and the tune is bland and grossly sentimental.  But I have come to a place in my life where the thought of people moved by the imagination of joyful companionship with Christ is so precise that every fault becomes a virtue.  I wish I could hear again every faltering soprano who has ever raised this song to heaven.  God bless them all.

Writer Thomas Long observes:  “The Mary of this old hymn claims ‘And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever know’ — but in John, because of Mary’s witness, everyone gets to know it.”  Everyone.

Happy Easter, friends.  Amen.

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time | 21 March 2021 

Dan McCoig

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Common English Bible

31 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

John 12:20-33 | Common English Bible

20 Some Greeks were among those who had come up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and made a request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” 22 Philip told Andrew, and Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

23 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One[a] to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me.

27 “Now I am deeply troubled.[b] What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

29 The crowd standing there heard and said, “It’s thunder.” Others said, “An angel spoke to him.”

30 Jesus replied, “This voice wasn’t for my benefit but for yours. 31 Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. 32 When I am lifted up[c] from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (33 He said this to show how he was going to die.)

1.

587 BCE was a disastrous year in Judean history.  For years prior to 587, the prophet Jeremiah was raising holy heck to get his fellow Judeans to change their hearts and minds and lives.  He wailed.  He smashed pots.  People walked by on the other side of the street when they saw him coming.  Jeremiah made something of a pariah of himself.

Jerusalem had heard enough from Jeremiah.  He had become something of a broken record.  He called them on their idolatry.  He called the kings and priests on their corruption.  He called the city and the nation on their injustice toward and exploitation of the poor.  Jeremiah wept because he saw his people breaking faith with God and did everything in his power to stop it but all to no avail.

Judah’s behavior would result in God’s judgment.  And, that judgment would come in the form of exile in Babylon.  Judah would lose everything.  Their beloved Jerusalem.  The temple where they worshipped.  The king and his court.  587 was their 2020 but more devastating by a magnitude of a 100 times or more.

587 was a profound crisis for Judah.  All the things they lost were so much more than a city and a temple and their monarchy.  All the things they lost represented the presence of God in their lives and God’s covenant with them to be their God and for them to be God’s people.  They were symbols they believed to be eternal.

Who were they without Jerusalem?  Who were they without the temple?  Who were they without a king in the line of King David?  Who were they without God?

2.

Jeremiah’s message to his people before the exile was sharp and relentless.  Change.  For God’s sake, change.  Now.  While there is time.  Before it’s too late.  They wouldn’t.

Jeremiah’s message after the exile was tender and compassionate.  Hope.  For God’s sake, hope.  It’s all you have left now.  Would they?

History is full of Jeremiah’s with indictments against injustice and calls for change.  History is full of Jerusalem’s and Judah’s who turn a deaf ear to such indictments and calls for change and continue as if everything is just fine because for them it may be.  But, that doesn’t mean it is just fine for others.

Most generations have their defining moments.  That’s what a crisis is – a defining moment.  Jeremiah’s generation’s defining moment was the Babylonian exile.  My grandparents’ defining moment was the WWI and the Great Depression.  My parents’ defining moment was WWII, the Korean War, and upheavals of the 1960s.  My generation’s defining moment was the Viet Nam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Watergate.  My children’s defining moment was 9/11 and one school shooting after another with their ensuring active shooter drills.

This generation’s defining moment will be the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 and the January 6 riotous attack on our nation’s capitol building with Congress in session to certify the results of our presidential election.  Defining moments provide us opportunities to despair or to hope.  As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we know what despair looks and feels like.  We see it on the cross.  But we also know what hope looks and feels like.  We see it on Easter morning.

3.

Jeremiah’s oracle belongs to what biblical scholars call Jeremiah’s book of consolation.  Jeremiah consoles Judah with his message that though they have suffered for the hardness of their heart and breaking faith with God, God remains with them and has kept and will keep faith with them.  Nothing they do or say, no matter how egregious, will sever God’s bond to them, ever.  God’s love and fidelity are steadfast.

Yes, all the symbols of God’s presence are gone.  The temple.  Gone.  Jerusalem.  In ruins.  The king and his court.  Exiled.  But, God is still present and near.  God could never be constrained to a place or a building or an institution anyway.  The Judeans had to readjust their theology, their notions about God.

The Judeans asked where then was God now.  Jeremiah’s answer was this.  Hold your hand to your heart.  Feel its pulsing in your chest.  Sense its beat enlivening you.  There’s God.  Listen as God says, “I am here.  I love you.  Peace.”

Jeremiah uses this image of God literally writing his law of love on the hearts of everyone.  Jeremiah draws on the story of God and Moses on Mt. Sinai.  The stone tablets, on which are written the Ten Commandments, Moses carried down the mountain, the book of Exodus tells us, were written by God.  What God has to say now, according to Jeremiah, will not be written on stone tablets but on human hearts – the seat of human feeling and thought, creativity and imagination.

Where is God?  God is in you and everyone you encounter.

4.

I entitled this sermon “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time”.  It’s a riff on a book title by theologian Marcus Borg.  Borg’s title was “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”.  In the book Borg talks about all the ways he had to re-see Jesus given some of the notions of Jesus he inherited from less than healthy traditions.  I selected the word “seeing” over “meeting” because of our text in John.

The title is playful because “again” and “first time” don’t properly work together in a sentence.  But, then again, they might.

Our passage from John has Greek pilgrims, who are in Jerusalem for Passover, approach Philip and Andrew and ask to see Jesus.  News about Jesus has evidently spread beyond Galilee and Judah and into the Jewish diaspora in southern Europe beyond Palestine.  Philip and Andrew tell Jesus of the request.  Jesus takes this as an omen.

Throughout John’s gospel there is this tension of when the crisis will come.  Jesus conflicts with the religious leadership.  Jesus conflicts with the Roman civil authorities.  Jesus is misunderstood by the crowds as well as his inner circle of followers.  Up until the twelfth chapter of the gospel, Jesus says not now, later, the time must be right.  Wait for it.  It’s coming.

The visit of the Greeks is the omen that tells Jesus now is the time.  He announces his coming death through which the world will be saved.  He tells the story of the grain of wheat going into the ground but filling field after field with a life giving and nourishing harvest.  He tells the story of another way.  Hold onto your life too tightly and you will lose it.  Let go of your life and you will find it in a profound abundance you couldn’t have begun to imagine before.

The 20th century Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden wrote:  “I believe because Jesus fulfills none of my dreams, because he is in every respect the opposite of what he would be if I could have made him in my own image”.  For Auden, the path of life Jesus embodied and taught cut across the grain of commonsense, but by doing so was peculiarly persuasive.

Hold life and lose it or let go of life and find it.  Auden said these words of Jesus made him anxious and defensive and even angry.  He concluded that if we do not hate Jesus a little, we have yet to love him a lot or to begin to understand him more thoroughly.  In other words, we have yet to see him again for the first time, as it were.

5.

We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey.  This 40-day season leading up to Easter invites us to look inward and confess the ways we have broken faith with God and with our neighbors, to look inward and repent of the ways we have broken faith with God and with neighbors.  Our love of God and neighbor is always under construction, a work in progress.  There is always room, with God and the Christian community’s help, for improvement.

I take solace in the fact that the new covenant Jeremiah talks about is a unilateral covenant.  It’s God doing from start to finish.  God makes the covenant to be our God and for us to be God’s people.  God keeps the covenant to be our God and for us to be God’s people.  Gods sustains the covenant to be our God and for us to be God’s people.

I know this, as do you, because it’s written here.  In my heart.  It’s written there.  In your heart.  The covenant stands even if nations are exiled and cities fall and places of worship lie in ruins.  Yes, we may be given to despair.  It troubled Jesus to talk about his death.  It troubled Jesus to go to the cross.  On the cross, he anguished that God had abandoned him.  But, we are given to hope as well.  There is a resurrection morning.  God raised Jesus from dead.  Easter has come and Easter is coming.

Amen.

Light in Darkness

Light in the Darkness | 14 March 2021 | Dan McCoig

Numbers 21:4-9 |Common English Bible

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

John 3:14-21 | Common English Bible

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

1.

John 3:16.  Say it with me, John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but have eternal life.”

If you grew up with the Christian faith, my strong guess is that somewhere along the way you memorized John 3:16.  And, if you didn’t grow up with the Christian faith and have watched a sporting event on television – pre-pandemic – you probably noticed someone behind home plate or in the end zone bleachers or behind the scorer’s desk of a basketball court holding up a sign with “John 3:16” emblazoned in bold, block characters.

John 3:16.  It’s one of the Christian faith’s well-worn verses.  Committed to memory.  Recited as an affirmation in good times and bad.  It summarizes emphatically why God became incarnate in Christ – to save the world and not condemn it.  To save the world – everyone, everything, human and nonhuman.

2.

What doesn’t get memorized or even noticed that much is the sentence before John 3:16.  There’s probably a good reason for that.  In John 3:14-15, the writer references an odd story from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers.  The story is from Israel’s 40-year wilderness wandering.  It’s the kind of story that gave me nightmares as a boy.

Israel is in transit from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land.  The Israelites are tired and hungry.  They are complaining to high heaven.  That’s what I do when I’m tired and hungry.  I try not to but don’t always succeed.

They are bad mouthing Moses.  They are bad mouthing God.  They have concluded that slavery in Egypt is preferable to fatigue and hunger in the wilderness and a promise freedom in a new land they’ve only heard about and can’t yet see.  They want what they knew and don’t like what they don’t know.  They probably formed a “Let’s Go Back to Egypt” committee.  They are human.  Give us the status quo, they demanded.

And God has heard just about enough.  One commentator calls the passage from Numbers referenced in John as “weird, mysterious, even gruesome.”

God has liberated Israel from slavery.  God has fed them with manna from the sky and quenched their thirst with water from the rock.  In return, what does God get, complaints.  God is clearly not getting God’s people where they need to be in as comfortable and timely a fashion as they expected.  God needs to up God’s customer service game.

And how does God respond?  Not well.  God responds with venomous snakes, whose bites are deadly.  Personally, I’m glad God hasn’t chosen this response since then.  With poisonous snakes, Israel really has something to complain about now.  Instead of complaining though, they plea for help.  They repent of their complaining.  They repent of their ingratitude.  They stop bad mouthing Moses and God.  They change their tune.  They now ask Moses to pray that God will take the snakes away, please.

Moses prays to God.  God answers.  But, God doesn’t take the snakes away.  Instead, God provides a way for the Israelites to endure the snakes’ bites without dying.  They still have to bear the pain and the scar of the wound but will not lose their life.  Per God’s instructions, Moses fashions a bronze snake atop a pole, which Moses is to hold high so everyone can see it.  As persons are bitten, they are to look at the bronze snake and in doing so be healed of their deadly wound.  Miraculously, they will not die.  They will live.

Isn’t that an unusual story?  It’s fantastical.  There is peril.  There is salvation.  What are we to make of it?

For starters, it follows a pattern that occurs again and again not only in Israel’s wilderness wanderings but throughout scripture.  Here’s the pattern:  People sin – God judges them – People repent – God saves them – Repeat.  My experience is that we love the God saves part.  We are not so keen on the God judges part and the repentance part – changing our hearts and minds and lives is hard work.  And, we don’t dwell much on the sin part.  But it’s all there.

Experientially, that’s the way life works.  In the words of Craig Kocher, dean of the chapel at Duke University, “Sometimes suffering is the only path to redemption, and often the road to healing and light runs straight through darkness and pain.”

3.

This pandemic has felt like a long, 40-year slog through a barren and desolate wilderness full of poisonous snakes with an uncertain promised land on a distant horizon.  The pandemic has been and continues to be wearisome.  It has been and continues to be frustrating.  Living a day at a time, moment by moment with so much uncertainty takes its toll.  We are in that in-between time when we know what was but aren’t sure what will be.  It can be uncomfortable territory.

This pandemic has embodied darkness.  The illness.  The death.  The grief.  The loss of jobs.  The loss of social interaction.  The loss of the former ways of being and doing church and ministry.  The loss of classroom routines and the personal give and take between teachers and students and students and students.  The rank politicization of a biological pathogen.  The regrettable distrust of science and expertise.  The magnitude of human need, especially hunger and shelter.

It’s hard to see in darkness.  It’s hard to hope in darkness.  But the light shines the brightest in darkness.

I want to take a moment to commend the congregation of First Presbyterian Church.  For the past year, out of love for our neighbors and the best public health practices we have chosen not to congregate indoors in order to not to give the novel coronavirus an additional opportunity to find new hosts.  It was hard and we may not have always liked it, but we did it.  It was the right thing to do.  It was the loving thing to do.  It was our light shining in darkness.  Thank you.  I could not be prouder to serve as one of your leaders.

When the history of the pandemic is written and folks want to know what First Presbyterian Church did and why, we can say we played our part and put our neighbors first.  We remained the church, albeit one that had to sojourn beyond its walls for more than a year.  God has always deployed the church for God’s mission – being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  This past year that deployment looked differently than any of us could possibly have imagined.

The worship went forward as did the education and service and fellowship, and outreach.  Just as Christ was present with us when gathered physically, Christ was present with us when physically distanced.  God offered us the privilege of putting what our neighbors and community needed first and we did just that.  Again, thank you.

4.

Back to John 3:16.  It’s the Christian faith summarized in one sentence.  It’s the story of the whole of the Bible.  Who saves the world?  God saves the world.  How does God save the world?  God saves the world in and with and through love.  

And here’s the thing.  We can see this love.  It has a shape and form, a personality.  It’s a way and a life.  As Christians, we see the divine love that saves the world in Jesus Christ.

This love, Christ, sees our sin and weeps.  This love bears our sin and redeems us.  This love transforms us moment by moment, steadily over a lifetime into its own image.  This love is embodied in a people called the church who works hand in glove with God’s love to shine light in dark places, to be a beacon of light summoning persons from dark places.

This love has borne us through this horrid and relentless pandemic.  This love will bear us into a future whose contours are as yet unknown to us but are familiar to the divine love.  This love is light in darkness.

The church’s message before the pandemic was this:  God loves the world.  The church’s message during the pandemic is this:  God loves the world.  The church’s message after the pandemic will be this:  God loves the world.  It’s the light in darkness.  Amen.

Love, Selfish or Selfless?

Love, Selfish or Selfless? | 28 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

Genesis 17:1-7 | Common English Bible

God’s covenant with Abraham

17 When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.

Genesis 17:15-16 | Common English Bible

15 God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”

Mark 8:31-38 | Common English Bible

31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37 What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

1.

Patience.  Is this one of your top virtues?  I wish it were one of mine.  I’m working on it.  The apostle Paul, in his description in Corinthians of the many things love is, tells us that one of the things love is is patient.

Here’s a question for our consideration.  What is the longest period of time you have waited for someone to keep his or her promise to you?  A week, a month, a year, a decade, two decades, more?  Another way to pose the question is – do you consider yourself to be a patient person?

The reason I ask is that according to the book of Genesis Abraham and Sarah waited twenty-five years for God to keep his promise of a child to them.  Twenty-five years is roughly an entire human generation.  In that time, a child is born and matures to adulthood.  In that time, a young adult matures to middle age.  In that time, a middle-aged person matures to old age.  In that time, an older person grows older and dies.  Twenty-five years.

We live in a society that has trouble waiting twenty-five minutes for anything.  Waiting twenty-five years is inconceivable.  We seldom think generationally about anything.  In other words, patience is not our strong suit.

I tried to imagine the conversations Abraham and Sarah must have had during all those years.  The conversations must have been animated in the early months, shortly after God promised them a child.  “This time next year,” Sarah may have said to Abraham with more than a hint of joyous anticipation, “we will welcome a child into our family.”

Then, next year came and went and so did the next year and the next year and the next year.  We know that at some point Abraham and Sarah concluded that God wasn’t going to make good on God’s promise and arranged to have a child through Hagar — they named him Ishmael.

The day came though that God made good on God’s promise.  It was on God’s time and in God’s way and not on their time and in their way.  I think this is one of the hardest things about discipleship – the waiting, the patience, the trusting.  We so often want things on our terms.  We want them when we want them and how we want them.  If we could, we would force God’s hand but we can’t.  We like control.  We want control.  We want the omniscience and omnipotence of God.  We want to transcend our creatureliness and become the Creator, which gets us into trouble every time.

The story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise of a child to them has a lot to teach us.  What we learn is not so much that they had faith that God would come through, which we know was not always the case with them.  Instead, what we learn is that God is faithful to God’s promises whether or not Abraham and Sarah believed God would be and even despite Abraham and Sarah taking matters into their own hands.

This is good news.  If there was a device that measured my faith on a scale from weak to strong, I have to be honest to admit that there would be more than a few days when my faith would measure weak.  Does this mean God’s promises and especially God’s love is removed from me or no longer near at hand because of the weakness of my faith or yours for that matter.  Thankfully, of course not.  Because, God’s commitment to me, to you, to all of humanity doesn’t waver.  It’s always strong.

God’s love may not always show up the way I want it to or when I want it to or how I want it to.  But it always shows up.  Sometimes it shows up in the most improbable and unlikely ways.  The Bible has a wonderful word for this.  It’s called steadfastness.  It describes God to a tee.  God is steadfast in God’s love for us and in keeping God’s promises to us.

2.

God’s love and promise keeping shows up in our lesson from Mark as well.  But so does human sinfulness.

Our lesson from Mark has Jesus telling his disciples and the crowds the kind of promised Messiah he will be and what it will take to follow him.  Jesus says he will suffer, be rejected, killed, and resurrected.  This is the story of Holy Week that concludes Lent.

This is not what Jesus’ followers had in mind at all.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the group, takes Jesus aside and tells him as much.  Mark provides us with no detail of the conversation.  So, we are going to have to use our informed imaginations.

Peter, like Jesus, and the other disciples were Galileans.  Galilee was a hot bed of anti-Roman sentiment.  The Galileans envisioned God’s messiah as a revolutionary who would liberate not only Galilee but all of Judea from Roman occupation and corruption in the religious leadership of the Temple.  To do so, the messiah would match and exceed Rome’s might and power.  Rome’s might and power were cruel and violent.  The roads in and out of Galilee were lined with crosses upon which dying and dead revolutionaries hung.  Might and power, Peter and the disciples figured, were necessary to get things done.  Without them nothing would change.

Jesus tells them, though, that there is another way.  It’s not the might and power of coercion and cruelty and violence and control.  It’s a different kind of strength altogether.  It’s the might and power of love.

What Peter and the other disciples didn’t expect was God’s messiah to suffer or be rejected or die or be resurrected.  My guess is that the moment Peter heard such talk he stopped listening to Jesus and started to formulate what he was going to say to Jesus.  Jesus was getting it all wrong.  He needed to listen to what Peter had to say.  Peter had it all right.

We know what Jesus said to Peter.  It was harsh.  Peter’s words were satanic.  Peter could not have misunderstood Jesus more completely.  Jesus had had a run in with Satan, a personal force adversarial to God, before – in the wilderness, for forty days.  In the wilderness, Jesus rejected the kind of messiah Satan had in mind for him and embraced the kind of messiah God had in mind for him.  Jesus’ way would not be Satan’s way, Rome’s way, the world’s way, Peter’s way.  Jesus’ way would be God’s way – and it would be a path marked by suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection; a path that would save the world.

3.

Author Frederick Buechner suggests that Jesus used his time in the wilderness exploring what it meant to be Jesus, God’s promised messiah, savior of the world.  That’s a lot to work through and figure out.  Buechner also suggests that Christians should use Lent to rediscover just what it means to be a Christian.  Personally, I prefer the term follower of Jesus.  And that’s a lot to work through and figure out.

Jesus tells us what it means to be one of his followers.  It involves self-denial and cross bearing.  The Christianity in the gospels of the New Testament is different for what often passes as Christianity in American culture.  If we were to conduct a person in the street interview and asked people about Christianity, I’m not sure self-denial and cross bearing would make the top ten.  Instead, we may get something more akin to self-fulfillment and cross avoidance.

I’m going to pick on Peter here because he’s an easy target and because I see myself in him way more than I would like.  In fact, I see a lot of us in him.

Peter didn’t want to hear Jesus’ words about self-denial and cross bearing because he was blinded by his own preconceptions and prejudices and presuppositions.  He had his own convictions about God’s messiah and how God’s messiah should go about his work.  Peter had become Jesus’ self-appointed counselor.  Peter knew what needed to be done.  He knew the way things should be.  He thought he knew better than Jesus.  Power.  Might.

Peter had a lot going on in him that got in the way of him being able to follow Jesus faithfully.  That’s true for all of us.  It’s the stuff, with God’s help, we are to deny.  Psychologists call it ego.  So, I have to ask what is it about me that most keeps me from following Jesus.  And you have to ask what is it about you that most keeps you from following Jesus.  Does it involve me foolishly thinking I somehow know better than God?  That I somehow know better than anyone else.  Because, I don’t.

And then there is the cross bearing.  For Jesus, cross bearing was literal.  In hauling his own cross to the top of Calvary, being nailed to it, and slowly dying on it after it was hoisted vertically Jesus bore the world’s sins and saved humanity from sin and self and for others.  Jesus’ cross bearing was the ultimate act of love, God’s love – an unparalleled might and power.

For us, our cross bearing is the thing to which God calls us to embody and show God’s love for others.  It will involve denying those parts within us that insist on things going our way – getting what we want, when we want it, and how we want it.  It will involve surrendering ourselves to the divine will and the divine way and divine love.  It may be doing our part to feed and shelter the poor and the hungry.  It may be doing our part of insure that there is a habitable planet for the next generation.  It may be doing our part to build an inclusive society where everyone belongs and no one is left behind.  It may be doing our part to build a literate and informed society or a healthy and strong society.  It may be doing our part to make sure everyone has enough and no one goes without.  Jesus’ spirit is already doing these things.  And Jesus’ spirit is always calling us to join him.

4.

Our lesson from Mark has one of the best questions in the Bible.  Jesus asks, “What will it profit to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?”  The answer, of course, is nothing.

Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote that we are what we love.  I believe one of the best places to begin figuring out what kind of follower of Jesus we are going to be is to ask and answer honestly, what do we love?  What we love will tell us whether our love is selfish or sacrificial.  When our love is selfish, we begin to lose our lives.  When our love is selfless, sacrificial, we begin to find our lives.  My prayer is we all begin to find our lives not only this Lent but throughout the whole of our lives. 

Amen.

A New Start

A New Start | 21 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

Genesis 9:8-17 | Common English Bible

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, 10 and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. 11 I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. 13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”

Mark 1:9-15 | Common English Bible

Jesus is baptized and tempted

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

12 At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Jesus’ message

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

1.

As a boy, I was terrified of storms.  Oddly enough, I am now fascinated by them.

I grew up on the edge of Virginia’s western Tidewater at the confluence of two large rivers, the James and the Appomattox.    In the spring and early summer, storms would arise and move up and down and across the rivers.  The skies would blacken.  The wind would blow.  Lightning would strike.  Rain would fall hard and fast and sometimes push sideways.

My elementary school was about a mile from my house.  The school’s playgrounds overlooked a broad expanse of river.  I walked to and from school each day.  But on stormy days in the spring, my mother would pick me up.  She knew how fearful I was of storms.

One day, as the school day neared its end, I gazed out the window and noticed the bend in the trees from the wind, the dimming of the light from the gathering storm clouds.  I could feel my heart race, my mouth grow dry, a flutter of nausea in my stomach, tears beginning to well up in my eyes.  The bell rang.  I gathered my things and made my way down the hallway and out of the building as if nothing was wrong.

I stood on the sidewalk near the front of the school where my mom picked me up on days like this.  The school buses came and went.  Other moms came and went.  The teachers went back inside.  The storm gathered strength.  Mom had not yet come.   I waited a little longer.  Still, no mom.  No shelter from the storm.  Mom would not come.  I began my walk home at a pace much quicker than usual, bordering on a run.  My mind went to dark places and imagined horrible things.

I can still see this day in my mind’s eyes.  I can feel the wind and smell the gathering rain.  I can hear the frantic rustle of the leaves and the creaking of tree limbs.  I can sense the awful weight of feeling alone and forgotten.

2.

Being forgotten is painful, burdensome, traumatizing.  By contrast, being remembered is joyous, heartening, healing.

Today’s first lesson belongs to what is known in biblical studies as Genesis’ primeval history – the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  The primeval history in the Bible is everything that precedes God’s call of Abraham.

It’s important to know that this story was written by priests during Israel’s time of exile.  The priests are writing for an Israel that has lost everything – loved ones, land, livelihoods, culture, religious spaces.  They were far from home and wondered if they would ever return.  They were foreigners in a foreign land.

Did they complain?  They were human.  Of course they did.  They took their hurt and loss and sadness and anger and fear for the future out on one another, their leaders, even God.  They wondered if God had forgotten them, abandoned them.  This thought terrified them.  What if God had forgotten them?  They needed to know whether this was true or not.  So, the priests tell their story.

Our lesson is the conclusion of their story — the flood story, which completely undoes the creation story.  Out of nothing, God creates everything that is and declares it good.  But what God declares good goes sideways.  The flood reverts everything to nothingness once again.  Human sinfulness tarnished the good creation.  The human heart inclined itself toward evil and away from God.  God decided to start over in the hopes of getting it right the second time.

The priests’ message in telling the story of the flood is to remind the exiles that things have been bad before, really bad – everything under water bad, all of life wiped out bad, God furious with humanity bad.  And, to also remind the exiles that God did not forget humanity then and has not forgotten humanity now nor will God forget humanity ever.

The floodwaters receded.  The land dried. A rainbow appeared in the sky signifying promise and hope.  The ark opened and its living cargo spread across the new land into a new day for a new start.  God remembered humanity then and has remembered humanity now and vows to remember humanity always.

The health and wealth gospel of American Christianity has done a profound disservice to the gospel of the New Testament.  The health and wealth gospel makes promises that God doesn’t make.  For example, the promise of a trouble free life – no pain, no hurt, no tears, no heartache, no death.  It takes a lot of looking the other way and magical thinking to embrace such a gospel.

The reality is we live in a world where there is pain and hurt and tears and heartache and death.  All of that comes with being human, being mortal.  And we don’t need to compound life’s vagaries by ascribing them to God or suggesting that God is somehow absent or has forgotten us.

3.

We have begun the season of Lent – the 40 days prior to Easter, excluding Sundays.  Lent is an introspective season, a penitential season.  It invites us to go below the surface and to dig into our life and faith more deeply.  

Lent begins with owning our mortality.  “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return,” intones the liturgy on Ash Wednesday.  Christianity is not a faith that views the world through rose colored glasses.  It is an honest faith.

Lent also turns us toward an opportunity for a new start, a fresh beginning.  Though the Christian faith is In a year’s time, the light of our faith can dim.  Our hearts’ love for Christ can fade.  We may find ourselves treading water amidst rising floodwaters, gasping for air.  This pandemic has felt a little like that.  But, like the frightened boy whose mother never comes during the storm or like the exiles who fear that they have been abandoned by God, we may wonder if we have indeed been forgotten by God never to be remembered again.

Lent extends an invitation to rekindle our faith.  The flood story, like so much of the Bible, is not the story of how humanity’s heart changes after encountering God.  If that were so I’m in trouble and so too are you.  My heart changes with each God-encounter but doesn’t stay changed.  Repentance, change, is not a one and done proposition.  It’s a process.  Rather, the flood story, again like so much of the Bible, is the story of God who remains faithful to humanity despite the inclination of our hearts to evil.  I don’t know of any better news than this.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating.  There is nothing you can say or do to make God love you any less or any more.  Period.  Full stop.

4.

Our lesson from Mark involves water, too.  Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The Jordan River in song and literature symbolizes a place of new beginnings.

Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the Christian gospels.  Its author was not an educated person.  Mark’s gospel lacks the eloquence and lyricism of the other gospels.  It has an oral quality to it which should be unsurprising since it was spoken repeatedly in community after community long before it was ever written down.

Mark’s gospel begins Jesus’ story very differently than Matthew, Luke, and John.  Matthew and Luke start with Jesus’ birth.  John starts with a cosmic prologue outside of time and space.  But, Mark . . . Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism – a ritual of rebirth, a ritual of new beginnings, a ritual of a new start.  Mark’s gospel begins beside the Jordan River.

The world then as now needed good news.  So much of the news was bad.  Humanity’s story is all too familiar — evil vanquishing good, lies overshadowing truth, violence crushing peace, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, justice for some and injustice for many.  Mark had good news, though.  That news was Jesus, who descended beneath the waters of the Jordan and emerged from them as the Christ – God’s beloved revelation of God’s self and true humanity.

Mark’s good news in Jesus is one more reminder that God has not forgotten humanity, that God remembers humanity and saves humanity from sin and self and for others.  It’s hard to say where humanity and our history is headed.  Are we ascending or descending?  Are we standing still or going sideways?  Is the curtain coming down or going up?  Are we in the early innings or the late innings?

The observation that humanity and our history has an arc that is long and bends toward justice is hard to prove.  It’s more a statement of faith, a matter of belief, the heart’s hopeful desire.  I believe it though and not because I’m an optimist but because I’m a Christian, because of God in Christ and God in Christ’s fidelity to humanity on not only our best days but also on our worst days, especially on our worst days.

Our challenge as Jesus followers is to embody God’s good news for humanity in Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to do it perfectly.  In fact, we can’t.  But with the help of God’s Spirit, we can be a rainbow across a cloudy sky; we can be a dove of peace signifying God’s presence in the world.  That’s what we are here for.  May this be part of our new start this Lenten season.

Amen.

Sticking with Jesus

Sticking with Jesus | 14 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

2 Kings 2:1-12 | Common English Bible

Elijah goes to heaven

Now the Lord was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”

Elisha said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”

Elijah said, “Elisha, stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”

He said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”

Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So both of them went on together. Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. Elijah then took his coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?”

Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.”

10 Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.”

11 They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.

12 Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.

Mark 9:2-9 | Common English Bible

Jesus transformed

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.

1.

There are some passages of scripture that reveal to the preacher exactly what they mean and the message the Spirit has for the faithful.  There are other passages of scripture that are equally revelatory but on first reading it’s not exactly clear what they mean or what the message the Spirit has for the faithful at all.  Today’s lessons fall into this latter category.  Let’s walk this path of meaning together.

In seminary, clergy in training are taught numerous methods for reading and interpreting the Bible.  A good place to start when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible is with the plain and ordinary sense of the text.  In other words, what are the words saying, literally?

In our lesson from Kings, we have a story about God taking the prophet Elijah directly from earth to heaven without the prophet dying.  Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, is told more than once what is about to happen and responds repeatedly that he doesn’t want to talk about it.  Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit after he departs.  In other words, he wants Elijah’s prophetic life-force times two – all the energy and imagination and courage and boldness and fearlessness that Elijah brought to his prophetic work.  It’s a deathbed wish in reverse – Elisha is asking Elijah for something after Elijah is gone.  That’s the story.

It’s an ancient story with points of reference that are unfamiliar to us.  For starters, there’s the deathlessness.  Elijah doesn’t die.  Even the most important person in the Hebrew Bible, Moses, died.  Just as people are born, people die.  But not Elijah.  How is it that when it came to death, God gave Elijah a pass?  I don’t know and the story doesn’t tell us.  It simply reports the event.  One moment Elijah is here.  The next moment, in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses amidst a windstorm, Elijah is heaven bound.  It’s one way that scripture tells us that Elijah is a very important person.

The other detail is Elisha’s wish for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, which Elisha will receive if he witnesses Elijah’s exit from earth and entrance into heaven.  This vision will impart Elijah’s spirit times two onto Elisha.  I’m not sure how that works, but it’s there in the story.

There are a lot of end of life conversations in the Bible.  They usually involve the request for a blessing or the giving of a blessing.  They do not involve asking for the departing person’s animating life-force.

2.

The next step in reading and interpreting the Bible is to consult scholars who have devoted their lives to disciplines like biblical languages, literature, culture, customs, and history.  One of the scholars I consulted suggests that our lesson from 2 Kings about Elijah and Elisha is, by design, a disruptive story.  It’s supposed to upset our rationality and push the bounds of what we think we know and understand about God and God’s ways.

The prophet in the Hebrew tradition, like Elijah and Elisha, was unique.  In the rest of ancient Near East, the king was the absolute sovereign.  No one questioned his judgment or challenged his decisions.  And, kings being kings were predictable in their behavior.  For the most part, they did what people in power do, namely anything and everything to keep and expand their power.  Occasionally, there would be the benevolent king who would use his power for good, for justice.

But, in the Hebrew tradition, there was a check on the king – the prophet.  The prophet’s job was to keep the king faithful to God and God’s covenant with Israel.  When the king lied or stole or exploited the poor or tilted justice in favor of the rich, the prophet was there to call him on it every time.

Being a prophet was hard work.  That’s why there are so many stories in the Bible where the person God is calling to be a prophet says, “Thanks but no thanks, I’d rather not” or they come up with an excuse of one sort or another not to take God up on God’s call.  Imagine telling the most powerful person you know something he doesn’t want to hear.  That’s hard.  Prophets led challenging lives and lived with souls that troubled them.

In the book of Kings, we learn that prophets belonged to guilds where they studied the art and craft of prophesying.  We learn that they apprenticed themselves to a master.  Being a prophet involved first becoming a prophet.  Elisha, for example, had to put in the time and the training with Elijah and others in the guild.

3.

This is a good segue to our New Testament lesson.  It’s the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Jesus gathers Peter, James, and John to accompany him to the mountaintop.  There, they are provided a moment of clarity in a vision – Jesus is God’s beloved.  They are to listen to him.  In time, they are to tell others about him.

Like the lesson from Kings, this story pushes the bounds of rationality.  Heaven and earth intersect.  Ancestors from centuries past appear and speak.  So, too, does God.  Apparently, there is more to reality than meets the naked eye. 

I have to admit there was a time in my discipleship when I was bit uneasy with some of the more supernatural elements of the Bible.  I understand why Thomas Jefferson cut out the portions of the gospels that he couldn’t square with reason – no miraculous healings or feedings, no resurrection.  However, over time I chose, however, to embrace the supernatural elements and to live with them to see and hear what God’s Spirit might have to say through them.

What I discovered is if reality is limited only to what I can get at with my empirical senses and what I can grasp with my understanding, then reality is indeed limited.  I’ve made the world too small.  I’ve made God too small.  Even science tells us that there is more that we can’t see than there is that we can see.  But, if I rediscover my childlike wonder as the primary lens through which I encounter the world, then the world becomes larger, God becomes larger.

The best analogy of life is a journey.  Same goes for Christian discipleship.  Every journey has a beginning point – birth – and an ending point – death.  Every journey has its middle – that place where there are twists and turns, peaks and valleys, wrong turns and right turns, two steps forward and one step backward and a lot of steps sideways, chosen companions and unchosen companions.

Peter, James, and John are told to keep silence about what they experienced with Jesus on the mountaintop.  It’s an odd instruction.  Are you kidding me?  How can I not tell someone.  

They do eventually get to tell their story but only after Jesus’ resurrection, when it will make more sense to them.  At the point of the experience, they witnessed something they had never seen before.  They didn’t know fully what it meant.  They were going to have to stick with Jesus.  They were going to have to learn more from him.  They were going to have to practice what they learned from Jesus.  With time and experience, the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration would come into focus.

Being a disciple of Jesus is a little like being a prophet in the Hebrew tradition.  It begins with becoming.  As much as I would like to say I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and mean it, it’s not completely true.  Rather, it’s more accurate for me to say I’m becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I’m a work in progress the way Elisha and Peter and James and John were works in progress.  

Some days I’m closer to the path than others.  But, there is always a ways to go.  There’s never an arrival point where my love for God and neighbor is full and consistent, always other centered and never selfish.  I take comfort that the great saints of the Christian tradition saw discipleship this way as well.

This goes for the church, too.  We can say we are the church – a gathering of God’s people through whom God loves the world.  That’s what church is for after all.  But, a more accurate statement is that we are becoming the church.  We are journeying with God.

4.

In our lesson from Kings, Elisha tells Elijah, “I won’t leave you.”  This means that Elisha will not abandon Elijah – who he was and what he taught.

Mark’s transfiguration story provides Peter, James, and John  with an experience in which they become bound to Jesus, in which they too might say to their master, “I won’t leave you.”  I believe God still provides us with transfigured experiences that bind us to God and to one another – our baptisms, communion, solitude, conversation, the love of a friend or family member, reconciliation, a dream, a vision, a dark night of the soul, music, a wilderness path, a mountain ridge, the hardships of a pandemic, loss, grief, pain, exquisite joy.  Like Peter, James, and John, we may misinterpret them.  But like Peter, James, and John, if we hold on to Jesus and keep holding on to Jesus we will come to know him as God’s beloved, to know ourselves as God’s beloved, and to know everyone we encounter as God’s beloved.  

Amen.

A Necessary Reminder

A Necessary Reminder | 7 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

Isaiah 40:21-31 | Common English Bible

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
    Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning?
    Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?
22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon—
    its inhabitants are like locusts—
    stretches out the skies like a curtain
    and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling.
23     God makes dignitaries useless
    and the earth’s judges into nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth
    when God breathes on them, and they dry up;
    the windstorm carries them off like straw.
25 So to whom will you compare me,
    and who is my equal? says the holy one.

Power for the weary

26 Look up at the sky and consider:
    Who created these?
    The one who brings out their attendants one by one,
    summoning each of them by name.
Because of God’s great strength
    and mighty power, not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, Jacob,
    and declare, Israel,
    “My way is hidden from the Lord,
    my God ignores my predicament”?
28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
    The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the creator of the ends of the earth.
    He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
His understanding is beyond human reach,
29     giving power to the tired
    and reviving the exhausted.
30 Youths will become tired and weary,
    young men will certainly stumble;
31     but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength;
    they will fly up on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not be tired;
    they will walk and not be weary.

Mark 1:29-39 | Common English Bible

Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law

29 After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. 31 He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

Jesus’ ministry spreads

32 That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered near the door. 34 He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

35 Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. 36 Simon and those with him tracked him down. 37 When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

38 He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” 39 He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

1.

We are nearly a year into this pandemic.  I don’t know about you but I now know more about what it means to be tired and exhausted and weary than I think I ever knew before.  Oh, and lonely.

Some of the hardest work we do as humans is adjusting to a reality other than the one we envisioned.  We all carry around in our heads a notion as to how things should go and then we bump into how they actually go, which requires no small amount of adaptability on our part.

I wrestled as to whether or not to open my sermon with any mention of the pandemic.  I’m personally tired of hearing about it and the numerous concessions it has exacted from all of us.  But not talking about it doesn’t make the pandemic go away.  If anything, not addressing the pandemic and the ways it has altered and disrupted so many aspects of life and living borders on denial and wishful thinking.

There is a thread that runs through so much of our Christian scriptures and it’s this – are we going to be okay?  Was the past as good as it gets?  Is the present, with all its anguish, as good as it gets?  Or, will there be a tomorrow and will that tomorrow be brighter and more hopeful than today?

In our lesson from Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to exiles in Babylon.  They are far removed from their land, their culture, their food, their religious spaces.  Exile is not how they saw their life unfolding.  But, here they were.  In Babylon and not Israel.  They have been in exile for so long, about 60 to 70 years.  Their place of exile after two generations was all that they knew.

Perhaps in the early days and weeks and months and years of the exile, they held out some measure of hope of returning home.  But then those days and weeks and months and years became decades.  A generation passed.  Another generation passed.  Any hope they had of returning was thread bare at best.  This is what life looked like.  They weren’t going home.  Perhaps they had resigned themselves to the reality that the past was as good as it got.  Israel as the exiles knew it was over.

Isaiah speaks to the desperation of the exiles.  He speaks to their weariness and exhaustion.  He reminds them of things they knew but because of their despair they had forgotten or simply couldn’t muster the energy to recall.

“Don’t you know?  Haven’t you heard?,” the prophet asks rhetorically.  Of course, they know.  Of course, they have heard.  It’s the prophet’s way of saying, “Remember.”  He then recounts the majesty and power and grandeur and faithfulness of the God who created and sustains everything that is and who made a covenant with Father Abraham through whom God would bless all of humanity.  He asks the exiles to look up and look out to the thing God was about to do.

And the thing God was about to do was to bring the exiles home in a highly unlikely and unusual way.  Persia was rising in the east and overtaking the Assyrians.  Persia’s policy was to allow exiles to return to their homelands.  A new day was dawning.  The covenant God made with Father Abraham was still living and active.  The exiles were going to be okay.  The past wasn’t their best days.  They had a future.

2.

There are many definitions and descriptions of religion and its purpose in human life.  Here’s one I find helpful and work from most of the time.  Religion is beliefs and practices that restore our bonds to God and to our fellow humans [Old French:  “religio”, to bind].  Where we are broken, it mends us.  When we are in pieces, it makes us whole.

But, when we are looking down and our hearts are heavy and our minds distracted and disturbed, we forget.  We lose sight of our bond to God.  We lose sight of our bond to others.  We draw inward and become lost, blinded, fearful.  Seeing the light or any light becomes harder because the hole has become deeper and the darkness denser.

Someone has to remind us or maybe we have to remind someone – Remember, in Christ you are a child of God, in Christ you are a brother or sister or sibling to all of humanity.  God made you.  God loves you.  God will sustain you.  Yes, right now is hard and things may get harder, but remember – in Christ you are a child of God, a brother, sister, sibling to all humanity.  This moment doesn’t change that.  No moment changes that.  Nothing changes that.  I need to hear that right about now and often.  You may need to hear it as well.  I believe that church needs to proclaim this now more than ever.

Isaiah called the exiles to trust God – for today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows.  I believe the Spirit is using this word to call us to do no less – to trust God for today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows.

3.

I had to read today’s two lessons several times before I could begin to see the connection between them.  Illness and exile are similar.  Illness separates us from our health and makes it difficult to find joy in living.  Exile separates us from home and makes it difficult to feel at ease, at rest.  This pandemic has separated us from so very much and for so long now as well.

Illness, especially serious illness, makes us wonder if we are going to be okay.  Exile, especially prolonged exile, makes us wonder if we will ever sense something like home again.  The pandemic, now nearing the one year mark, makes us wonder if and when a semblance of normalcy might be regained.

The gospels portray Jesus as a preacher, teacher, and miracle worker.  The one thing that differentiates Jesus’ preaching and his teaching from his miracles is that whereas he often initiates his preaching and teaching he never initiates a miracle.  This is the gospels way of saying that it’s Jesus’ message that is central and that the miracles flow out of the message.

And Jesus’ message is that in Jesus God has drawn near.  The Christian faith tells us that if we want to know what God is like look at Jesus, listen to him, notice the way he treats people.  That’s God.  The Christian faith tells us that if we want to know what authentic humanity is like look at Jesus, listen to him, notice that way he relates to God and treats people.  That’s authentic humanity.

Jesus was a person who prayed.  It’s something he does in today’s lesson from Mark.  Prayer was one way Jesus stayed tethered to God and his neighbors.  Prayer is where Jesus remembered.  Prayer reminded Jesus of who he was and whose he was.  Prayer helped Jesus to focus on his mission of proclaiming God’s good news to all, of revealing God’s love to all.  Prayer was the place where Jesus rediscovered the kind of person he needed to be in order to remain faithful to God.  Prayer, for Jesus, was transformative.

My guess is that as we make our way through this pandemic as people of faith that we have said our prayers more frequently and more prolifically than ever before.  I know I have.  It’s kept me centered when I felt myself coming apart or drifting into dark places I’d rather not go.  Prayer is where I’ve rediscovered my freedom as a child of God to live joyfully.

Sometimes my prayers have involved words – spoken, written, the words of others.  Sometimes my prayers have involved silence . . .  Sometimes my prayers have been spontaneous and made up on the fly.  Other times, they have been more formal and ritualistic.  One prayer that gets me through is the serenity prayer – not the short form that is familiar in the 12 Step Recovery movement, but the long form, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  This prayer shows me the way home when I am feeling exiled.  This prayer heals my spirit when it is ill and broken.  This prayer re-instills hope when I despair in the face of the pandemic.  The prayer reads:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at at time,
Enjoying one moment at a time.
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Christ did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would like it.

Trusting that Christ will make all things right,
If I surrender to Christ’s will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this world
And supremely happy in the next.  Amen.

God’s Grace — All In or Not?

God’s Grace – All In or Not? | 24 January 2021

Dan McCoig

Jonah 3:1-5 | Common English Bible

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)

Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

Mark 1:14-20 | Common English Bible

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, 15 saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

1.

What do we do with information we’d rather not hear – the bad news?  It could be a challenging medical diagnosis.  It could be a “Dear John” or “Dear Jane” letter.  A relationship we thought was on solid footing is coming apart.  It could be the boss telling you that you didn’t get that promotion or that your position has been eliminated.  It could be a rejection letter from that school you had your heart set on.  It could be an election turning out differently from what you had hoped.

We get information we’d rather not hear all the time.  No life is exempt from bad news.  Sometimes we absorb it with as much stoicism as we can muster so that we can retreat and find time to process it.  Sometimes we go after the messenger.  Who is he or she, anyway?  Sometimes we get angry and lash out at others.  We turn our hurt outward and aim it at others who probably have enough of their own stuff to deal with already.  Sometimes we deny the information.  It can’t be true.  It isn’t true.  Sometimes we create a different narrative that departs significantly from the true information we received but would rather not have heard.  This isn’t cancer, we tell ourselves.  It’s something else.  It will resolve itself with a little time.  We delude ourselves.  This is called magical thinking and isn’t helpful.

My friends in recovery tell me that the healing begins when they stop saying “I’m not an addict” and start saying, “I’m an addict.”

It’s best to hear the truth, whatever it may be, and embrace it even if it takes more time and effort than we imagined.  As Christians, we know the words of Christ:  “You will know the truth and the truth will set yu free.”

2.

Today’s lesson from Jonah involves Jonah getting information he would rather not hear.  God calls Jonah to take a message of repentance to Nineveh because God wants to save them rather than damn them.

Jonah’s story, I believe, is a familiar one.  Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, which is modern day Mosul, Iraq.  Jonah doesn’t want to deliver God’s message of repentance – an opportunity for Nineveh to change, to chart a new course, to turn the page, to avoid destruction.  Jonah would rather God damn Nineveh.

But Jonah is a prophet.  It’s the job of a prophet to deliver messages from God.  Jonah’s heart isn’t in it, though.  He hates the Ninevites.  He despises them.  The thought of God offering them the same grace that God offers to the Israelites is unbearable.  The thought of God including them in the same embrace of grace makes Jonah seethe.  Jonah doesn’t want Ninevites in his community.  Jonah wants God to hate the same people he hates.

It’s helpful to know a little ancient history that underlies Jonah’s hatred of the Ninevites.  They were Assyrians.  In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians invaded and colonized northern Israel and exiled its people.  The invasion, colonization, and exile was harsh and cruel in the extreme.  Jonah’s hatred, though repugnant, has a backstory.

Jonah does his best to avoid God and avoid the message God wants him to carry to Nineveh.  Essentially, he runs away.  In his flight, he discovers there’s really no getting away from God — not even in the depths of the sea or the belly of a fish.

Jonah relents with an “Alright already, I’ll do it.”  But, again, his heart isn’t in it.

Nineveh was the crown city of ancient Assyria.  The Book of Jonah tells us that the city was so large that it took three days to walk the city from one side to the other.  That’s big.  There were a lot of people there – about 120,000 at the time of the Book of Jonah.

Jonah walks about a day into the city.  He stands on a street corner and says his piece, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown,” and leaves.  I imagine not many of Nineveh’s 120,000 residents heard Jonah.  My guess is that Jonah was hoping that only a small fraction heard and that small fraction wouldn’t heed the message.

To Jonah’s surprise, people heard what he had to say and repented, all of them, and displayed their repentance by fasting and donning sackcloth and ash.  And, God withheld the destruction Jonah had hoped would befall Nineveh.  God honored their repentance with salvation.  The city and all of its inhabitants were spared.  

Jonah was angry.  How could God be gracious to people as repugnant to Jonah as the Ninevites?  God should have smited them and smited them good.  Jonah learns, of course, that God gets to be gracious to whom God chooses to be gracious because, well, that’s who God is and what God is about – grace!

Jonah’s story poses some interesting questions for us.  We can talk a good game about being all for God and God’s reign and the expansiveness and inclusiveness of God’s grace, but do we mean it in our heart of hearts and more importantly do we practice it with our actions.  Are we really all in when it comes to the grace of God for all or do we hold back and might we be a little half-hearted sometimes?

The Christian community has a checkered history when it comes to extending or withholding God’s grace, especially when it comes to persons who are different.  We have abided some pretty dark chapters in our nation’s  history — the removal of Native Americans from their land, enslavement of African Americans, Jim Crow, segregation, lousy wages and dangerous working conditions for the most recent immigrants, a cold shoulder to desperate refugees who have run out of options, the role of women – their education and franchise, the place and rights of LGBTQ persons.

Many Christian traditions provided suspect biblical and theological cover – the Presbyterian tradition included — for things we should have never provided cover for.  We looked away instead of at what we should have seen.  We were silent or when we had something to say it was too little too late.  When there was a call to action, we sometimes chose not to hear it.

I first learned of Jonah in Sunday school.  He was a somewhat comical character.  He stewed and pouted because God was gracious to people he didn’t like.  Nobody does that, right?  That was my take away as a boy.  Studying the book as an adult, its message hits too close to home.  It turns out that people still expect God to condemn people they don’t like just like Jonah.  It turns out that people still pout when God is gracious to whom God is gracious without consulting them first.

That’s Jonah’s story.

3.

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel is a call story, similar to last week’s lessons from First Samuel and John’s Gospel.  Jesus is once again gathering followers – Simon and Andrew, James and John.  They are fishermen.

Mark’s gospel is unique in that the very first demonstration of Jesus’ authority is not a miracle – no exorcism at the outset, no calming of a storm or walking on water, no feeding multitudes.  Instead, it’s a simple invitation to folks at or near the bottom of society to follow him.  Galilean fishermen of all people.  At the core of Jesus’ call is the message he will proclaim, the message his followers will study, embody, and proclaim.  Mark calls it Good News.

The Good News comes in three parts.  Part one is that God’s reign has come near in Jesus.  Part two is a call to repentance – a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of life.  And part three is an invitation to trust God’s reign and trust God’s power to transform people and societies and systems and worlds.

What is novel about the Good News is that it is universal.  It’s not just for some, it’s for all.  It’s for everyone.  Everyone is invited into God’s reign.  Everyone is also invited to repent.  And everyone is invited to trust God.

Just as the lesson from Jonah presented us with some challenging questions, so too does the lesson from Mark.  If we believe we embody God’s reign consistently – love of God and love of neighbor and justice for the poor – and if we believe our hearts and minds and lives are aligned with God’s reign and we don’t need to change one darn thing about ourselves or our congregation or our local community or our nation and if we trust God’s transformative power consistently as well, then the lesson from Mark isn’t for us and must be for someone else.

But, looking to my own life as well as looking about me, I realize that the message is for me and you and our congregation and our community and our nation and our world.  It’s for all of us.

Fishermen.  If you have ever watched the show Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel you know that fishermen have rough edges and can use salty language.  But that they are also hard working and face the elements with honesty and resolve.  I like the image Jesus uses for what he will make of his followers.  Previously they fished for, well, fish.  But, in time, as they follow Jesus and learn from him they will fish for humanity.  It’s Jesus’ clever way of saying that his followers and the community that will become the Christian church are living lures that will attract fellow children of God to God’s reign – love of God and neighbor, justice for the poor.

Hold that image in your mind’s eye.  You are God’s living lure for the world – a lure of love of God and love of neighbor, a lure of justice for the poor.

God’s call to Jonah to go to Nineveh was an all-in proposition.  Jesus’ call to discipleship is an all-in proposition.  Half-measures and half-heartedness won’t do.  The same goes for God’s grace – we’re all in or not.  I say, let’s go all in.  

Amen.

God is Speaking, Are We Listening?

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

Dan McCoig

1 Samuel 3:1-20 | Common English Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

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

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

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

John 1:43-51 | Common English Bible

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

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

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

Philip said, “Come and see.”

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

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

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s our first call story.

3.

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

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

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

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

That’s our second call story.

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

Amen.

The Signs of God

The Signs of God | 3 January 2021 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 2:1-12 | Common English Bible

Coming of the magi

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

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.