Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

Who Is My Neighbor in the Time of Coronavirus?

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Who Is My Neighbor in the Time of Coronavirus | Dan McCoig | 22 March 2020

Luke 10:25-37 Common English Bible (CEB)

Loving your neighbor

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

1.

I’m always amazed how old, old stories become even more powerful when read in a different time and a different context and amidst different circumstances, like a pandemic.  Today’s story from St. Luke is told by Jesus.  Jesus tells the story in response to a question asked by an expert in religious law.  The expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

No doubt, most of us have heard the statement “There are no stupid questions.”  I’m not sure that is true.  There are stupid questions.  I’ve heard them.  I’ve asked them. 

Comedian Bill Engvall of Blue Collar Comedy coined the phrase “Here’s Your Sign” for people who ask “stupid” questions to identify themselves.  For example, “A trucker got his rig caught under a low overpass and a cop comes along. ‘You get your rig stuck?’ ‘Nope,’ says the trucker. ‘I was delivering this overpass and ran out of gas.’ Here’s Your Sign!”

I want to make what may seem like a peculiar suggestion.  Here it is — that the expert in religious law is asking a stupid question when he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”

2.

In the Bible, it’s always helpful to pay attention to context.  Our passage comes immediately on the heels of the return of the 72 disciples that Jesus sent throughout Galilee to declare God’s peace, to heal the sick, and to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom to everyone.  It’s possible the expert in the religious law was one of the 72.

Taking Jesus’ message to everyone may have energized him or unsettled him.  I think any time we do something new and different, it energizes and unsettles us.  My guess is that our expert in the religious law in our story had never before gone town to town and village to village and household to household with a life-changing message like Jesus’.  It certainly helped him rediscover that religion is not what you believe but how you treat others.

Still, he asks this question about eternal life.  It sounds like he wants to know what the ticket to heaven is.  That’s a misreading of the question.  What he is really asking is “what is the meaning of life?” or “why are we here?”

That’s what I would call a smart question.  We don’t ask it enough.  We don’t pursue it enough.  Life can become routine and we can be lulled into assuming that today will look like yesterday and tomorrow will look like today until it doesn’t.  Given the coronavirus pandemic we are all experiencing that life can change in a moment.  What we took for granted can no longer be taken for granted.  We are now on a very different footing.

After the expert asks Jesus what the meaning of life is, Jesus asks him what his religious texts say, what does his religious traditions tell him.  Go back to your sources, says Jesus.  By the way, they are also Jesus’ religious texts and traditions.  They are both Jewish.

The expert doesn’t have to think twice.  “Love God with all you’ve got.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That’s the answer.  The expert got it exactly right.  He rang the bell.  That’s the meaning of life — love God, love your neighbor.

3.

And then comes the stupid question.  Who is my neighbor?  How could the expert not know who his neighbor is?  He just came back from this remarkable mission.  He interacted with all sorts of folks.  Weren’t every single one of them his neighbor?  And because God loves them, he loves them and will help them if hey need it.

I’ve read and heard a lot of sermons that have speculated why the expert asked the question.  The text tells us that he asked the question to “test” Jesus.  Some of the more complicated answers involve the expert wanting to appear clever or to avoid certain types of people he considered not his neighbor.

This is where Jesus’ story comes in.  We know the story.  A man has been beaten and robbed and is lying by the side of the road.  He is near death.  Three other men traveling the same road encounter him.  The two most religious men see the hurt man and pass by on the other side of the road.  They had other, better things, even religious things to do.  Best not to get involved, they may have thought to themselves.

But one of the men, the third man, a Samaritan of all people — a race of people long despised and ill thought of and looked down upon by many ancient Judeans — stopped, tended to the man’s wounds, put the man on his own donkey, and provided the man lodging that night and paid the innkeeper to continue to lodge and feed the man until the Samaritan returned.  Two things distinguished the Samaritan.  He was moved with compassion.  And, he had mercy on the man near death.

Jesus concludes his story by asking the expert:  “So, who was the neighbor?”  Again, the expert hit it out of the park.  “The one who showed mercy,” he said.  This is what his religious texts said repeatedly.  This is what his religious traditions said repeatedly.  He knew this.  Why did he even have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

4.

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached numerous sermons on the parable of the good Samaritan.  In one of them he said what distinguished the Samaritan from the priest and the Levite was this — the priest and the Levite saw the wounded man and thought of what might happen to them if they helped him — this is the “best not get involved crowd”; the Samaritan saw the wounded man and thought of what might happen to the wounded man if he didn’t help — “this is the how can I help crowd”.

Friends — we know the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”  Our religious texts tell us who it is.  Our religious traditions tell us who it is.  Jesus tells us who it is.  Equally important, the compassion we feel welling up within us when we see someone in need tells us who it is.  It’s anyone and everyone who needs us and needs our mercy.

We are in the midst of a pandemic.  This is a crisis.  The word crisis means decision or turning point.  Crisis demands of us, “What’s it going to be — what are you going to do?  Who are you going to be?

As Christians, we are going to regard our neighbor first and foremost every time.  When people need us, we can help and will.  This congregation embodies this principle in countless ways — a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, an assistance fund, a Stephen Ministry, Guardian Angels, 12 Step Recovery Groups, small group Bible studies.

My colleague Amanda often quotes her favorite theologian, Mr. Rogers.  He’s one of mine as well.  Here’s his take on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.  Fred Rogers writes:

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility.  It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’  Then there are those who see the need and respond [like the Samaritan].  I consider those people my heroes.”

In this time of the coronavirus, every child is ours, every community is ours, the world is ours, every problem is ours.  No more us and them, no more me, only we.  And, we can’t and won’t look the other way.  Compassion and mercy won’t let us.

Remember, God is always with us and God bids us not to fear and instead to love.

Amen.

The Way God Works

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The Way God Works | Dan McCoig | 8 March 2020

Genesis 12:1-4 Common English Bible (CEB)

Abram’s family moves to Canaan

12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”[a]

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.

Ephesians 4:7-8 Common English Bible (CEB)

7 God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. 8 That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.

11 He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ.

1.

Sometimes the scriptures raise far more questions than they answer.  This used to frustrate me.  Early on in my Christian journey, I had this misguided notion that the Bible was an answer book.  That’s not true for me anymore.  The Bible has answers, alright, but it’s a little more complicated than simply asking a question and finding the answer.  I find that I have to live with the Bible’s questions for awhile and then over time answers emerge.  It’s a process that can’t be rushed. 

So, I’m okay with the questions now.  In fact, I’ve come to expect them and I’m okay with it.  I have a question.  Scripture has one, too.  I wait.  I listen.  I wait some more.  It’s not like I can tell the Spirit of God when and how and where to move anyway.

2.

This morning’s first lesson is God’s call to Abraham.  I want to read Dr. Seuss’ Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now to frame the story.

[Read book]

Marvin K. Mooney and Abraham have this in common.  They are both told to get up from where they are and go to somewhere else — somewhere new, somewhere different — and not much else.

Imagine for a moment that you are Abraham, who by the way is the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Around the year 2100 BC, he sets out on this journey at the advanced age of 75 with minimal information.  He hears the message that he should depart.  He hears the message of where he should go.  And he hears the message of what God promises to do with and for him.

Do you go or do you stay?

I’m not sure what I would do, if I am honest.  I would want to raise a few questions with God.  Why Abraham and not someone else?  Likewise, why me and not someone else?  Can’t the promises be made and fulfilled in Haran?  Why the long and arduous journey to Canaan?  About 600 miles.  Staying put minimizes the bother of travel.

Also, how did Abraham know it was God talking and not someone or something else?  How do we know it’s God talking and not someone else?

Did Abraham have any questions for God at the time of the call and if so, what were they?  And, did God say go and in the very next moment or at least that day Abraham went or was there a passage of time before Abraham went.  I’d like to think that Abraham consulted with his family, especially Sarah, and his household before setting out.

Is it just me or are these the kinds of questions you might’ve asked as well?  They are all such Presbyterian questions.

All of these questions have both a long answer and a short answer.  For the sake of preaching a sermon of reasonable length and getting us all to lunch on time, I’m going to go with the short answer.

The short answer is that Abraham didn’t know the answer to all those questions.  He may have, but the text doesn’t tell us.  Biblical literature seldom gives us a person’s interior dialogue.  We’re not privy to his or her thoughts.  What biblical literature does give us is exterior dialogue and action.

Here’s the short answer:  Abraham trusted God.  That’s the point of our story.  Abraham trusted God the promise keeper — land, nationhood, renown.  Abraham trusted God the blesser — Abraham and his land, nation, and renown and through Abraham the world.  For Abraham that was enough.  God was trustworthy.  God’s promises were trustworthy.  God’s blessings were trustworthy.

What does this ancient story have to do with the Christian church and Christians in the 21st century?  For starters, it challenges us to trust God, to trust God’s promises, and to trust God’s blessings.

We can ask all the questions we want.  And, we should.  And some of the questions will have ready answers.  Other questions we are going to have to sit with and live with and the answers may not be readily forthcoming.  However, this should not deter us from trusting God.

Next, we need to remind ourselves of how God gets things done in the world.  For example, how does God love?  God gets things done in the world through people.  God loves through people.  That quiet voice that says feed your hungry neighbor, help the refugee fleeing violence, take a stand for peace and against violence.  That tug at your heart that says hold the hand of your neighbor whose heart is breaking over a difficult medical diagnosis or whose marriage is ending or whose adult child is lost to addiction.  That’s God getting it done and God is getting it done through people — me, you, us.

Finally, trusting God will involve moving — from familiar territory to unfamiliar territory.  From comfortable and known places to uncomfortable and unknown places.  The Bible is a book where everyone is on the move and in the journey God is encountered.  That’s Abraham’s story.  That’s Paul’s story.  That’s Jesus’ story.  Staying put and keeping things as they are is not the way of God’s people.  God’s people have always been a pilgrim people.  The key image of Lent is journey — journey to Jerusalem and the cross.  Jesus never says stay right where you are.  He always says, “Follow me.”

3.

Our lesson from the New Testament is from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus.  Once again, Paul is providing counsel to one of the early Christian communities.

As with our lesson last Sunday, Paul is setting the record straight as to who is gifted by the Spirit in the Christian community and who is not.  Everyone, without exception, in the Christian community is gifted by the Spirit.

Paul quotes Psalm 68 which portrays a conquering military leader who demands gifts from those whom he has conquered.  It describes the leader’s parade down from the heights of Mt. Zion into Jerusalem with the war-won spoils of his military campaign.

Paul repurposes the image and turns it on its head.  Christ is the leader and has rescued the world from sin and death and instead of taking gifts, he gives them.

And, similar to last Sunday’s lesson in Corinthians one of the primary purposes of each and every gift you have received from Christ and I have received from Christ and this congregation has received from Christ is “serving and building up the body of Christ.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with a young father who faithfully brought his two sons to church to Sunday school every Sunday.  He, however, often times went back home to read the Sunday morning paper.  He was a delightful young man and I enjoyed his company.

One Sunday I mustered the nerve to ask him what he hoped his sons were getting from their religious education.  He answered right away.  He said “I want them to grow up to live decent, respectable lives.”  I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want that for their children.  But that’s a far cry from what the Christian faith is all about.

The Spirit does not dwell in us and gift us so that we will be decent; so that we will be respectable.  The Spirit dwells in us and gifts us so that we will become more and more mature in Christ, so that we will say and do more Christlike things each and every day, so that God through us can bless the world.

The church is the place where we bask in the Spirit’s presence, where we celebrate the Spirit’s activity, where we explore and learn about the Spirit’s activity, where we practice the Spirit’s gifts so we can take them out into the world.

I love the word Paul uses for “equipping” it’s the same word used in surgery for setting a broken limb or putting a joint back in place so that the limb or joint are useful again.  It’s the same word in politics used for bringing together opposing factions so that government can work effectively.  It’s the same word for mending a fishing net so that net can do what it’s supposed to — catch and hold fish.

Do you see the pattern here?  The Christian community is given gifts so that it can help put the world right, so our weekly prayer — “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Because that’s the way God gets things done.  Through people — you, me, us.

Amen.

Don’t Be Ignorant

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Don’t Be Ignorant | Dan McCoig | 1 March 2020

Matthew 25:14-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

Parable of the valuable coins

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Common English Bible (CEB)

Spiritual gifts

12 Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. 2 You know that when you were Gentiles you were often misled by false gods that can’t even speak. 3 So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, “Jesus is cursed!” when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 8 A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, 9 faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, 10 performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. 11 All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.

1.

Let’s play a game.  We’ll call it person in the pew interviews.   Here’s how it works.  I ask questions and you answer them in your head.  It would be a bit chaotic if everyone shouted out their answers at the same time.  There are two questions. Ready.

The first question is “What do you know?”  Now, that is a wide open question.  “About what” is a reasonable response.  I’m going to let you decide the about what part.

The point is we all have this body of knowledge that we walk around with in our heads.  It got there through observation, experience, good teaching, the counsel of others, sustained study, practice.

If we are going to be good at something in life we are going to have to know a lot about it and keep learning a lot about it.  Last I checked, there’s no short cut to knowledge.

There’s a second question as well.  Here it is, “What don’t you know?”  That’s a very different question than “what do you know?”  For me, what I don’t know is far more than what I do know.  I’ll go out on a limb here, but I believe this is true for everyone.  Some folks may claim to “know it all” but they are making that up.  Plus “knowing it all” is the beginning of the end of learning.  Saying, “I don’t know” is the beginning of learning.

2.

Let me tell you a Dad story.  I’m in sixth grade.  Valentine’s Day is fast approaching.  There is a lot of peer pressure to capture the attention of one of the girls in our grade and invite her to be your valentine.  It’s lunch time.  The boys at my table are discussing their strategies — flowers, chocolates, a fancy card.  I decide to offer my idea.  Who could possibly want flowers or a fancy card?  Chocolates, maybe, but not the kind that comes in a sampler.  A Hersey bar is perfect, you can’t improve on it.  What about something truly special — a brand new pack of this season’s baseball cards?  That says love loud and clear, doesn’t it.

The table went silent.  Then came the laughter.  Then came the teasing.  Finally, one of the more mature boys remarked that I had to be the most ignorant person ever when it came to girls.  He was probably right.  Still, I tried hard to disappear in place.

That evening, tearfully, I shared my story with my dad.  He listened.  When I finished, he said, “What’s wrong with being ignorant?  Nothing at all.  It simple means you don’t know and now you can go and find out.  That’s called learning.  It sure beats pretending to know something when you don’t.”  I had to admit I hadn’t thought of it that way at all.  In the Christian tradition, embracing our unknowing is the beginning of a teachable spirit.

That’s one of my hopes for us this Lent.  A renewed teachable spirit.

3.

Our lesson from Corinthians is Paul instructing the Christians in Corinth about spiritual gifts.  It was something they either didn’t know anything about or what they knew was partial or wrong.  In other words, they were ignorant and Paul wanted them to be knowledgeable.

Paul founded the Corinthian congregation.  About the year 50, Paul preached and taught in Corinth.  He gathered a congregation.  He trained leaders for the new Christian community.  Then he set out for the next stop on his missionary journey.

Corinth was a big city.  It was one of Greece’s largest cities during Paul’s day with a population of 90,000.  Urbane.  Sophisticated.  Learned.  The Corinthians were knowledgeable folks and took a measure of pride in being knowledgeable folks.

But before Paul’s missionary activity they were ignorant of the one God who made everything, and this God’s work in Jesus Christ to save the world, this God’s work in the Holy Spirit to gift followers of Jesus, change them and through them change the world.  Paul proclaimed these things.  Paul taught these things.

In Paul’s absence, questions arose about spiritual gifts.  The prevailing view was that the Spirit gifted some believers but not all believers and that some gifts were superior to others. 

Paul writes to the Corinthians to tell them the truth about spiritual gifts.  The Holy Spirit gifts all believers.  No exceptions.  And there is no hierarchy of gifts.  All gifts have value in that they come from the same Spirit and are for the same purpose, namely to bless and build the community.  Christians aren’t gifted by the Spirit for their own sake, but for the sake of others.

Here’s something no Christian can say — “I’m not gifted.”  Because you are.  If you don’t know what your gifts are pray that God will show you, ask a trusted friend, take one of the many gifts inventories that live online, go to our new Lenten Sunday School class on spiritual gifts, experiment exercising a particular gift and see how it goes [you may succeed wildly, bingo that’s one of your gifts; or you may fail miserably, time to try again and fail better next time.]

4.

Jesus’ parable from Matthew addresses how folks are to use their gifts.  Gifts are to be multiplied and expanded and not hoarded or buried.  Notice that the person who buried his gift did so out of fear. 

Jesus always comes at things from the perspective of abundance.  There is always enough and then some.  In fact, Jesus questions the perspective of scarcity where the fear is there isn’t enough.

5.

Lent began on Wednesday.  Over the course of the next 40 days we will make our way with Jesus and his friends to Jerusalem and the cross.  Our theme this Lent is to gift up something for Lent.  We have several tools to help us, like 40 acts of giving.

Another tool is the cross you either got on Ash Wednesday or you are getting now.  I want you to put this cross somewhere where you can’t miss it.  It will be your lens this Lenten season and hopefully beyond.  The idea is to see each and every person we encounter, including ourselves, as God sees us — made by God in God’s image, loved by Christ, and gifted by the Holy Spirit.  That’s who you are.  The people you encounter, that’s who they are.

And every time we are tempted to exclude someone as not being made by God in God’s image and not loved by Christ and not gifted by the Spirit, we need to pick up this cross and remind ourselves that that’s not true.  What’s true is the opposite.

The world we live in may condition love.  But the world into which we are saved by God through Christ does not condition love and is symbolized in the cross.

When I see you through the cross, here’s what I see:

Made by God in God’s image.

Loved by Christ.

Gifted by the Spirit.

Amen.

The Shadows of Christmas

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Matthew 2:13-23 Common English Bible (CEB)

Escape to Egypt

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

Murder of the Bethlehem children

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.[b]

Return from Egypt

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

The Shadows of Christmas | 29 December 2019

Dan McCoig

1.

Merry Christmas!  Today is the fifth day of Christmas.  According to the song we either gave our true love or received from our true love “five golden rings.”  A ring for every finger on at least one hand.

Advent, a season of anticipation, introspection, and preparation ended on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Day began Christmastide, a twelve day celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The mood of today’s lesson is far from festive.  It’s a dose of grim reality and then some.  I would go so far as to say the mood is dark and brooding.

We know the story well.  It is a story of what evil looks like and what evil will do to get and keep power and to prevail over good.  But it’s also a story of how evil never has the final say.  That belongs to good.

In the Christian tradition, evil is.  It is a force that opposes God and good.  It is a force that entices and enlists persons to do its bidding.  It is also a force that ultimately has been, is and will be vanquished by God.  How all this is happening is best portrayed by artists — read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or watch the Star Wars saga.

All religious traditions have their stories as to where evil comes from and what God has done, is doing, and will do about evil.  The Christian tradition personified evil as Satan or the Devil, a fallen angel who wanted to be God.  Medieval Christianity was almost obsessed with Satan/Devil to the point that Enlightenment Christianity sought to minimize any mention or emphasis on evil, Satan, or the devil.  Enlightenment thinkers pushed the tradition’s treatment of evil to the margins.  In many ways, this is the thought world we inherited.

But things happened in human history for which there was no good explanation other than evil and humanity’s complicity with evil.  The Holocaust.  The Rwandan genocide.  Chattel slavery.  The massacre of Native Americans.  Racism.  Hatred of neighbor that results in murder.  The inordinate love of money at the expense of the health of humanity and even the health of the planet.

2.

Evil shows up in the Christmas story.  I can’t imagine anything more horrific than infanticide.  Look closely at the face of the mother clutching her child to her breast in Cogniet’s painting which appears on the cover of our worship bulletin. 

My guess is that when Cogniet was creating this painting in his studio that he simply had to tell the woman model who was holding her child that Roman soldiers were coming to take the child from her and kill the child on the spot.  And not only were they coming to take and kill her child, they were coming to take and kill all the young children in the town.  Other children she knew and loved, children she saw daily in the neighborhood and at the market.  The expression on the woman’s face is that of a woman who has heard the news of a coming infanticide and sees it in her mind’s eye and is frozen by the terrible horror of it, the pure evil of it.

King Herod cooperates with evil completely.  He is the character in the story of Jesus who is singularly egomaniacal.  He cares for nothing and no one other than himself.  His god is power.  He will say and do anything to get power and keep power.  King Herod represents why Jesus is necessary.

King Herod could not be more different from the infant Jesus.  The infant Jesus is the bringer of salvation from sin, redemption of wrongs, reconciliation for estrangement.  Herod is the bringer of destruction and vengeance and retribution.

3.

One thing that strikes me every year when I read today’s lesson is the wave of death that accompanies Jesus’ birth.  Jesus doesn’t die.  But all of his contemporaries in Bethlehem do.

The angel visited Joseph and told him to seek refuge in Egypt.  But other fathers received no such angelic visitation and no such warning to flee.

I can’t explain this much less explain it away other than to say it is.  It’s going to be one of those conversations I’m going to have to have with God on the other side.

Here’s my best shot.  Evil on the magnitude of infanticide knocks goodness back on its heels and leaves it reeling for a season.  Good wins the war but on the way evil will win its share of the battles.  If there is any wisdom to be gained here it’s this.  Goodness should never be surprised at the depth and breadth and extent and reach of evil.  Goodness should expect to be challenged by evil at every turn.  Goodness must always be vigilant.

Here’s another piece of wisdom I gleaned from the story.  When the most powerful people act irresponsibly, with intent that may or may not be willfully evil, the ones who suffer are the most vulnerable.  Children.  The poor.  The powerless.  Those who are less vulnerable will muster resources and find ways to minimize the suffering.  But those who are the most vulnerable have no resources to muster and will and do suffer.

4.

I think I have depressed myself with this sermon.  But here we are.  Herod’s there in the story.  He orders the killing of all the babies in Bethlehem in the hopes that one of them would be Jesus.  But one isn’t.  Bethlehem pays a heavy price for Herod’s fear and paranoia, his love of power at all costs.

But there’s the dream and the angel and warning and flight into Egypt.  Jesus survives.  He and his father and mother become refugees in Egypt.

What are we to make of this Christmastide story?  For starters, Matthew is challenging all of his readers to choose sides.  He does this throughout his gospel.  What’s it going to be, he asks.  Jesus or Herod.  Herod of Jesus.  God or empire.  Empire or God.  Good or evil.  Evil or good.

If we happen to have a measure of status and power, wealth and privilege, what do with do with it?  Like Herod, do we use it to keep it and get more.  Or, do we seek ways to use it to enhance and expand the way of Jesus in the world?  The reality is that Christians have done both and still do both.  We have been at the forefront of oppression — the Crusades, the Inquisition, quietism of the German Church during the rise of Nazism, slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow — and we have been at the forefront of liberation — the Franciscans, the German Resistance, the Abolitionists, civil rights activists.

I tell friends that I can be ashamed that I am a Christian and be proud that I am a Christian in the same breath.  And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I am complicit with the Herod’s of the world.  I ask myself how and where and when is the church complicit with the Herod’s of the world.  This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church.  And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I can join forces with Jesus.  I have to ask myself how and where and when the church can join forces with Jesus.  This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church, too.

Amen. 

No Room for Jesus

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Painting:  Jospeh Brickey, 21st century, American

No Room for Jesus | Christmas Eve 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve preached on the Christmas story.  The number is nearly 40 times.  But it never gets old, ever.  Granted, there are some years when I wonder if I will have something else to say.  This isn’t one of them.

There are many directions we can go with the story.  Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to choose a character or characters in the story and retell the story from their perspective.  And there are a lot of named characters here — Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, Joseph, Mary, shepherds, angels, God.   There are also a lot of unnamed characters here — the other pilgrims, the Holy family’s host, neighbors, and if we are feeling really creative perhaps one of the farm animals.

Here’s something that I’ve learned about stories.  Each of us can witness the same thing but tell about it differently.  What you choose to emphasize and what I choose to emphasize will seldom be the same thing.  This is called perspective.

The details that I include and believe to be absolutely essential to the story will not be the details you include and believe to be absolutely essential to the story.  And then, of course, there is the meaning we ascribe to the details of the story.  There is also the meaning we choose not to ascribe to the details of the story so that the reader or hearer can do so for himself or herself.  Our best writers always show us things rather than tells things.

For example, Luke’s Christmas story begins with an imperial census.  Caesar wants everyone to return to their city of origin so that they can be counted.  Governments count people for a lot of reasons.  Rome counted people primarily for two reasons.  For taxation and military conscription.  Caesar always wanted more money and more military power.  Those are two things Caesar could never get enough of.  He wanted to assure a steady supply of both.

But something else is afoot in the imperial census.  An ancient Hebrew prophecy is being fulfilled.  A young woman will give birth to God’s Messiah in the city of King David, Bethlehem.  Caesar was getting more money for his coffers.  Caesar was getting additional persons as possible conscripts for his military forces.  God, however, was up to something else entirely.  God was saving the world and offering a very different way to be in the world — the way of love of God and love of neighbor — in direct contrast to all the ways of money and all the ways of power and all the ways they corrupt and distort the human spirit.

If you were to ask what happened all those many nights ago, Caesar would tell his story.  And if you were favorable toward Caesar you would say, “Hooray, more money and military might for you.”  But, if you asked someone else, say one of the shepherds or Joseph or Mary or one of the angels, you would get a very different story.  And if you were favorable toward God  you would say, “Yes, there’s another way.  Love’s way.”

2.

As I read and reread the Christmas story over the past several days here’s what jumped out at me and would not leave me alone.  It’s verse seven:  “She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guest room.”

What I heard was “no room”, “no place”, “no lodging”.  This will be a theme in Jesus’ life and a theme of the way of Jesus in the Christian gospel. 

The infant Jesus became a young man and in his first sermon in the synagogue preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.  He then embodied this message.  Jesus’ message threatened civil and religious authorities alike who wanted to leave everything as it was.

And just as there was no room for Jesus at his birth, when he was an adult there was no room in the world for him and his message.  Jesus’ life ended with his arrest and trial and crucifixion.  All of which was the world’s final judgment of “no room” for Jesus.

But Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Spirit meant that Jesus’ way and Jesus’ message would live on and in and through countless others across the ages and throughout the world.  Those who made room for Jesus became and remained his followers.  Your presence here tonight tells me and this community, your desire is to make room for Jesus.

3.

Advent is over.  Throughout the season leading up to this night, we have challenged ourselves to make room for Jesus.  How did you do?  I had some good days and bad days.

Several years ago I read a Sojourners Magazine article by Greensboro, NC Presbyterian Pastor Mark Sandlin.  Sandlin entitled his article “Ten Things You Can’t Do At Christmas While Following Jesus”.  I reread the article this past week.  In light of the Christmas story in Luke, I would retitle his article “Things That Tell Jesus All Over Again There is No Room for You.”

I won’t give you all ten.  But I will give you the ones that hit home the most for me.  They may hit home for you.

  1. When Christmas has become more about stuff than anything else, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Jesus was the least acquisitive and least consumptive person I can name.  Jesus had enough stuff and no more because he discovered how little he really needed.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  2. When we forget the hungry, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Matthew 25 reminds us that when we are feeding the hungry we are feeding Jesus.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  3. When we forget the homeless, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  Jesus begins his life without shelter.  Jesus lives his life with shelter provided by the kindness of friends.  Jesus dies on a Roman cross in a Roman killing field on the outskirts of the city, unsheltered, under an open sky.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”
  4. When we forget immigrants and refugees, we’ve left less room for Jesus.  The story of Jesus’ life begins with people on the move for the census. While still an infant Jesus and his family seek refuge in Egypt from Herod and his soldiers lest Jesus be killed along with every male child under the age of two.  So, the world said, “No room for you, Jesus.”

4.

Luke’s Christmas story ends with Mary committing the events surrounding Jesus’ birth to memory and carefully considering them.  Mary made room for Jesus.  Joseph made room for Jesus.  The shepherds made room for Jesus.  Caesar did not make room for Jesus.  Quirinius did not make room for Jesus.  Many of the people we meet in the gospel did not make room for Jesus.

The Christian gospels tell the story of Jesus so that we will make room for Jesus, too.  Friends, may we make room for Jesus this night and keep room for Jesus for the rest of our days, loving God with all that we’ve got and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen.

When Joseph Became Joseph

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When Joseph Became Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25 | 22 December 2019 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 1:18-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

1.

I want you to take a few moments this morning to give some thought to that personal story or stories that matter the most to you.  This story or stories will be the one or ones that more so than any others made you who you are.  They will describe that moment or those moments when you became you.

Here’s one of mine.  I was a shy middle schooler.  Middle school was called junior high back then.  For some odd reason I was included in a lot of different groups — the athletes, the bookish crowd, the musicians, the white cool guys, the black cool guys, the cheerleaders, the artsy girls, the drama club . . .  All of these  groups didn’t exist in grade school and if they did I wasn’t all that aware of them.  The social terrain of junior high was new and unfamiliar.

What I remember is that fitting in was everything in junior high, everything.  So, it wasn’t unusual to go along in order to fit in and belong with the group you are with.  By the way,  “fitting in” is a lousy life principle.  It may be the worst.

Anyway, here’s the story.  One of the cool white guys told a joke that clearly crossed a line.  The punch line was at the expense of black persons but that’s not the word he used.   Everyone laughed, which included me.  As I laughed I noticed that one of my black friends walking down the hallway saw and heard me laugh and knew it was at him and people like him, namely black people.  I felt awful.  I felt like throwing up.  I wanted to disappear.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to scream, “I’m sorry.”  But, I didn’t do anything.  I looked the other way and pretended I didn’t see him see me.  Everyone looked the other way and pretended that what happened didn’t happen.

I knew what racism was.  I would have told you that I wasn’t a racist.  But on that day, you wouldn’t have believed me.  Something else happened on that day though, I decided to be done with racism.  I saw the pain it caused and the weird camaraderie it fostered by the folks engaging in racism.  Not only was I done with racism, I was also done with any “-ism” that dehumanized another person.  I’d like to think I became kinder, more considerate, more compassionate.  And maybe more Christian.  Maybe I did.  I at least started my journey in those directions with more commitment and dedication than before.

2. 

I am a fan of The Moth.  If you don’t know about The Moth, let me tell you about it.

The Moth was founded by George Green in 1997 in Georgia.  It is now headquartered in New York City.  It is an organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.  The Moth presents a wide-range of theme-based storytelling events across the United States and abroad, often featuring prominent literary and cultural personalities. 

The Moth broadcasts podcasts from its live events twice weekly.  It also has published several volumes of stories.

Catherine Burns is The Moth’s Artistic Director.  Here is what she says about what she does.  She writes:  “As Moth directors we spend our days helping people shape their stories.  We help people identify the most important moment in their lives (as we sometimes put it, ‘the moments when you became you’) so the audience will understand why they mattered so much.

I believe The Moth and Advent go together.  The readings for most of the four Sundays of Advent that lead up to Christmas Eve are personal stories about when these persons become most truly themselves — John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph.

Today, Advent 4, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth, but it really is the story of Joseph. 

3.

Think of the kinds of stories that begin with “This is how . . .”  There are countless legends and folk tales that take this approach.  They tell us things like why the moon disappears in phases and then reappears in phases or why the beaver’s tail is flat and the rabbit’s ears are long.

Matthew begins Jesus’ birth narrative with the words “This is how the birth of Jesus took place.”  It sounds like the beginning of an answer to a question someone has asked, doesn’t it.  I can hear someone saying to Matthew, “How was Jesus born?”

Most scholars believe that some of the very last stories of Jesus collected by the early church and included in the gospels were the birth stories.  For the first generation of followers of Jesus, the most important thing about Jesus wasn’t who his mother and father were or where he was born and the circumstances of his birth.  Rather, the most important thing about Jesus was his crucifixion — he died to save us from our sin and unite us with God — and resurrection — God raised him to vindicate his life and message — and his public ministry — love God and love neighbor — that led to his crucifixion and resurrection. 

In time, though, as folks encountered Jesus and the stories of Jesus after his death and resurrection, people asked, “Where did he come from?”

2.

So, what does Matthew tell us about Jesus’ birth?  The most important character in Jesus’ origin story is Joseph.  Joseph is one of the most silent characters in scripture.  He has no lines.  He doesn’t speak at all.  If you were the kid who didn’t want to memorize any lines for the Christmas pageant, you always signed up to be Joseph. 

Now, everything we know about him we learn from the narrator.  The narrator tells us that he is righteous, that he doesn’t want to humiliate his fiancé, Mary, that he is thoughtful, that he pays attention to his dreams.  This is who Joseph is.

As the story unfolds, all of these things about Joseph are absolutely essential to the Christmas story.  A lesser man would have made a mess of everything.  An unrighteous Joseph, a blabbermouth Joseph, a Joseph who was okay with humiliating Mary, a thoughtless Joseph, and a Joseph who disregarded his dreams would have made Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth very, very different.

By now, you should know that I have an overactive imagination.  Imagine with me running into Joseph at the synagogue ten years after Jesus birth.  We are working on a story about Jesus.  We call it a gospel.  We ask Joseph to tell us about Jesus’ birth.

He would have said something like this:

“I was young, so very young, still in my late teens.  Mary was younger.  We were engaged, not yet married.  We had very little money.  Almost none to be exact.

I was quiet.  I preferred not to speak and did so only when I had to.  No small talk for me.  Mary did most of the talking.  She could sing, too, like an angel.  I loved listening to the songs she would sing to and about her baby.  This baby was going to change the world.

I’d like to think my quietness helped me hear God when I needed to and after Mary’s news I really needed to.    Mary told me she was pregnant.  Both Mary and I knew the child wasn’t mine.  Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy was out there, way out there.  The child was God’s.  I didn’t know what to make of what she told me.  What does anyone make of that kind of news.  I kept listening as Mary spoke through her tears.

By law, both civil and religious, I could have publicly ended our engagement.  This would have made life so much harder for everyone though.  I knew that doing the right and lawful thing was not necessarily the good and kind thing.  Being done with Mary and her baby would have been the easiest thing I could have done but it would have also been the worst thing I could have done.  I decided to end the engagement quietly with the hope we could all make our way in the world somehow.

Then there was this dream.  There would be other dreams, too.  My namesake, Joseph, was a dreamer as well.

In the dream following my conversation with Mary, I saw an angel and heard an angel.  The angel confirmed Mary’s story and told me to marry her and name the child as if the child were mine.  I had never had a dream like this.  The dream made everything harder since I had already decided what to do.  God can be like.  Just when I think I have it all figured out, God shows up with another way.

I learned a lot that day and was never the same, ever.  I learned to listen to the people I love and to trust what they tell me.  I learned to pay attention to my dreams.  I discovered that God can and does use them to connect with me and direct me.

Most importantly, I learned where God is.  God in Jesus is with us always and forever.  That’s what Emmanuel means — God with us.  I learned what God does.  God in Jesus saves us from sin.  That’s what Jesus’ name means — God saves us.  Sin never has the first or final word in human life.  That word is always grace.  God loves me, God loves you, God loves the world.  I held this love in my arms and lived with this love and get to watch what this love becomes.  And the world does, too.”

Amen.

John and Change

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Matthew 3:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)

3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

John and Change

1.

John wasn’t always John the Baptist.  Before he was John the Baptist he was just John.  Here’s what  I wonder.  What was John like before he became the Baptist?  And, how did he become the Baptist — the prophetic figure who lived in the wilderness, dressed in ways very unlike anyone else, and observed a unique diet.

John’s story — his appearance in the wilderness, his message to the crowds by the Jordan, his baptism of Jesus — is one of the few stories that shows up in all four the Christian gospels of the New Testament.  Matthew.  Mark.  Luke.  John.  John’s story also shows up in one of the more important gospels that wasn’t included by the early church fathers in the New Testament.  The Gospel of the Nazarenes.  What this means, of course, is John was and remains important in the Christian tradition and for the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

2.

Let’s talk about what we know about John before he became the Baptist.  The Bible tells us that John’s parents were Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They were elderly when John was conceived and born.  Zechariah was a priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem.  Elizabeth was a relative of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

John, in all likelihood, would have been schooled and trained in the knowledge and traditions of the priesthood.  Being a priest was a family business, especially for first born males and certainly for first born, only children males like John.

John would have grown up in and around the temple.  He would have grown up in the company of his father’s colleagues, other priests.  He would’ve watched them work.  He would’ve listened to them speak the words of the liturgy in worship.  He would’ve seen how they treated people who came to temple for worship and sacrifices.

John would have enjoyed a measure of prestige and privilege as Zechariah’s son, as a priest in training.  He would have dressed the part of a priest in training.  He would spoken like a priest in training.  He would have enjoyed sumptuous feasts of a priest in training.

But something happened.  John did not become a priest in the temple.  Instead, he became something of a wild man in the wilderness.  What happened?

2.

Most scholars agree that John was influenced by the Essenes.  The Essenes were a Jewish sect like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  They aren’t mentioned in the Christian scripture because they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Essenes lived simply — their housing, their clothing, their diet.  They voluntarily chose poverty.  They practiced a daily purification ritual of confessing their sins to one another and baptizing one another by immersion to symbolize dying to sin and living for God.  They expected God to send a Messiah to save the Jews and to remake the world, one characterized by justice.  As John became more and more influenced by the Essenes, the more and more he saw how the Temple and its priesthood was complicit in injustice.

3.

John’s place of preaching and baptizing is no accident.  It’s the wilderness.  It’s an odd place to preach and baptize.  It’s very different from the nearby city.  There were people there.  In John’s rocky, barren, desert wasteland, there are no people there naturally.  The only people there are the ones who made the trek to see and hear John.

First, a word about the wilderness.  The wilderness in the Bible is a place where people go to learn who God is and who they are in relation to God.  Think Moses and the burning bush.  Think the children of Israel after the exodus.  Think Jesus after his baptism and before his public ministry.  The wilderness is a place of testing and discovery.

Wilderness is a liminal place, where heaven and earth are a little closer and if we look hard enough we can see where they touch.  Wilderness is a place where anything is possible and especially change.

Change is what John called for.  He changed.  He could no longer participate in systems that resulted in injustice.  The changes he made were radical.  His home was no longer the city.  It was the wilderness.  He no longer wore fine, freshly laundered garments befitting his social standing — the son of a priest and a priest in training.  He wore an animal hide.  He no longer dined on fish and dates and olives.  He ate bugs and honey.  As prophets often do, John was going to the extreme to announce to the world he had changed his life in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom and wanted people to see it and know it and consider how they were going to change, too.

Change is the most appropriate response to the presence of God, to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.  The crowds and us, for the matter, are going to have to decide on how we are going to change.  When God is in our midst, the status quo won’t cut it anymore.  We are going to become someone new, something new.  We are going to change.

Second, a word about the crowd who came out into the wilderness to hear John.  There were a lot of somebodies in that crowds.  Important people.  Pharisees.  Sadducees.  Community leaders.

John sees them.  He recognizes them.  And, he calls them names.  Snakes!  Personally, I believe name calling is a lousy conversation starter, especially if you want someone to hear you out.  It’s a little like our Democratic Party leadership calling Republicans “deplorables” and then wondering why they don’t want to work with you.  It’s a little like our Republican Party leadership calling Democrats “human scum” and then wondering why they don’t want to work with you.

Snakes is a loaded name for John.  Remember, it was a snake that corrupted paradise in the creation story.  It was a snake that poisoned the relationship between God and humanity.  It was a snake who made sin look like a good idea and when it turned out otherwise it was a snake who said to make sure to blame someone else, especially the woman.   John is calling out the Pharisees and the Sadducees for their corruption.  He is calling them out for poisoning the religious life of the community.

The Pharisees and Sadducees in scripture had their good points but they also had their bad points, the stuff that needed work.  The stuff John was saying to change.  That’s us, too.  We have our good points but we also have our bad points, the stuff that needs work.  The stuff John is saying to change.

In 2018, a group of Christian leaders gathered on Ash Wednesday to pray, to study, to talk and to listen.  They had become alarmed with what Christianity in the U.S. was becoming.  The group was convened by Jim Wallis of The Sojourners, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, and Tony Campolo of Red Letter Christians.

The result of the gathering was a confession of faith entitled Reclaiming Jesus.  The first confession reads:

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

4.

John’s years as a son of a priest and a priest in training gave him a front row seat to a system that increasingly was deeming some people made in the image and likeness of God and others not made in the image and likeness of God.  This showed up in how different people were treated differently.  Some were in and some were out.  Some were up and some were down.  Those who were in and up, God favored.  Those were out and down, God disfavored.  And it was usually an identity issue.  Jewish men mattered and belonged.  And the list of who didn’t matter and who didn’t belong was long and getting longer — women and children, Gentiles and Samaritans, the poor . . .  So, John changed.  His name and neighborhood, his clothing and food, and, most importantly, his mind and his heart.  And, he called those who came to see and hear him to change, too.

I’m not sure we have travelled all that far since John’s day.

5.

Dutch priest, author, and scholar Henri Nouwen in his book Who Are We?  Reclaiming Our Christian Identity talks about the five lies of identity.  They are corrosive.  The Pharisees and Sadducees may have suffered from them.  John the Baptist may have suffered from them and went into the wilderness to unlearn them.  I can sometimes see myself in them.

Here they are.  Lies, all of them.

1. I am what I have.

2. I am what I do.

3. I am what other people say or think of me.

4. I am nothing more than my worst moment.

5. I am nothing less than my best moment.

Here’s what I want for my Advent.  I want it for you, too.  I want more wilderness — actual and metaphorical —where I can better learn who God is and who I am in relation to God, where you can better learn who God is and who you are in relation to God.  It seems I forget the image and likeness in which I’m made and you’re made and everyone is made —God’s image.  I need to be reminded so, with God’s help, I can make corresponding changes. I want to replace the lies of identity with the truth of identity. 

Amen.

Preparing

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Matthew 24:36-44 Common English Bible (CEB)

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.

Preparing | 1 December 2019 | Dan McCoig

1.

This is the story of Norm and Will.  They are friends.  They are both Christians.  They both love Jesus and seek to follow him.

Norm and Will take the season of Advent very seriously.  It’s a season of preparation.  A time to take a longer and harder and closer look at one’s discipleship.  How am I doing as a follower of Jesus?  If people didn’t know me would they conclude that I am a Christian?  How can they tell?

Norm has always been fascinated with some of the more exotic teachings of the faith.  That is the word he uses.  Exotic.  Will would use the word fringe.

Norm is intrigued by the idea that there will come a time when Jesus will come back and everything as we know it will change dramatically.  This world with all of its heartache and woe will be transformed into a new world where hearts neither ache nor are they heavy.  Who doesn’t want to live in that world? 

In college Norm took every Bible class he could.  He cleared the library’s stacks of books on Christian apocalypticism.  He read and reread the Left Behind novels and debated their meaning endlessly with anyone who would listen.  He watched “Second Coming of Jesus” minded TV preachers.  He listened to their podcasts.  He contrasted and compared their timelines of what was going to happen and to whom and how and the impact on those who would end up on Jesus’ good side and those who would end up on Jesus’ bad side.  Norm, of course, wanted to be on Jesus’ good side and thought his reading and study helped.  But he could always imagine himself reading more and studying more.

For Norm, all this meant being prepared.  When Jesus returned he would be in the know.  He would be ready.  He kept his head in the game, to use a phrase his baseball coach used to shout at him repeatedly.

Will’s Christian faith was different.  He knew all about the passages that so mesmerized Norm but he didn’t dwell on them.  Truth be told, he found it odd that the church still read them every Advent.  He often wondered why.  He didn’t like them.  He found them off putting.  The passages seemed so bizarre.  They belonged to such a different time and different place that he wondered if they even had anything to say to the church in the 21st century.  As far as he was concerned, they really didn’t.  He kept these thoughts to himself, though.

Will understood that the early church was certainly preoccupied with Jesus’ coming back and coming back soon to make just an unjust world.  The earliest Christians suffered at the hands of the Romans.  They were marginalized by the Jewish leadership in many of the synagogues.  Affirming Jesus as Lord and Savior and practicing his way of loving neighbor and God in the world was costly.  Sometimes being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman and Rome preferred good Romans. 

The early Christians wondered how long they could endure.  They wondered how long they could persevere.   They longed for Jesus’ return.  And the sooner the better.

Will, however, wasn’t persecuted by the civil authorities for being Christian.  He lived in a land where freedom of religion was foundational.  Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom predated James Madison’s 1789 Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. 

Will read his Bible as much as Norm read his.  But he read more broadly — Old Testament and New Testament, prophets and letters, poetry and gospels.  Will worshiped publicly with other Christians weekly as did Norm.  Will put his money where his mouth was just like Norm as well.  He pledged each fall to his congregation’s annual budget and gave to his local congregation regularly.

Will also made a point of using his time to help neighbors in his community.  His principles was this — if Jesus said or did it, he wanted to say or do it, too.  For example, because Jesus fed hungry people he would feed hungry people.

So, one year Will committed to serving in his church’s soup kitchen every single Saturday.  He got to know people in the community he had only seen in passing.  He learned their names and stories about their lives.  Food insecurity was no longer a phrase.  When he heard the word he saw faces and knew their names.  Some were new to hard times.  Others were passing through hard times and could see the way out.  For others, hard times had become a way of life.  Everyone was thankful that Will’s church noticed them and cared about them and provided not only a weekly meal but a place to be in the company of others.  The kitchen provided food for the body and the dining tables provided food for the soul.

Another year Will volunteered with a local literacy organization after he read about the recent influx of immigrants in his community for whom English was a new language.  Because Jesus removed barriers that excluded people, Will would remove barriers as well.  Will could only imagine how hard it might be to start over in a new country with a new language.  Perhaps he could make the transition for his community’s newest neighbors a little easier.  He hoped so and worked at it.

When Will and Norm got together periodically Norm would ask Will how his “neighbor projects” were going.  In turn, Will would ask Norm how his “end time” studies were coming along.

Will would jokingly ask Norm if today was the day, meaning the day Jesus came back.  Norm would smile sheepishly and mutter, “Maybe.”  Norm would then ask Will facetiously, “And if it is the day what becomes of all your neighbor projects?”  The exchange was always good natured and without malice, but there was a slight edge to it.

That’s the story of Norm and Will.

2.

Friends, it’s Advent again.  Like Norm and Will, we are Christians.  Like Norm and Will we love and seek to follow Jesus.  Advent is also a season for us to look at our discipleship a little longer and harder and closer.  How are we doing?

Advent always begins with an apocalyptic reading that counsels preparedness.  Today’s lesson from Matthew does just that.

The early Christian community valued faithfulness to Jesus and his way of being devoted to God — love of God and love of neighbor — more highly than anything else.  I’d like to think that the 21st century Christian community shares the same value but on some days that’s not always apparent.

Preparedness is an interesting idea.  The other side of the coin is unpreparedness.

One of my earliest encounters with a street corner evangelist was nearly 50 years ago.  He was practicing what I will call fright or scare evangelism.  His line was “If you die tonight, will you go to heaven or hell.”  The answer he was looking for was “I don’t know” so he could tell me just what to say so that my passage to heaven would be assured.  For him, that’s what preparedness was all about.  Saying the right words in this life — usually Jesus is my Lord and Savior — to have the best possible outcome in the next life.

The fright or scare evangelism approach never set well with me.  Nor did saying certain words.  Jesus was a holy man, a savior, the Lord.  He wasn’t a magician.

Preparedness, at least by my reading of the Christian gospel, involves being faithful to Jesus and staying faithful to Jesus.  And being and staying faithful to Jesus means loving God in this life with everything we have and loving our neighbors in this life with everything we have and trusting everything to God, including when and how this world ends and when and how a new world begins and what becomes of the people in this world and the next.

3.

Recently, I overheard Norm and Will talking in a local cafe down the street.  The topic of their conversation was Judgment Day.  Norm, expectedly, was doing most of the talking.  Will was listening even though his gaze was on something out the window and in the distance.

When Norm finished talking Will said, “You know, I believe every day is judgment day.  Not in the sense that God is out to get me or get you or catch any of us saying or doing something we know better than to say or do.  That’s not who the God of grace in the Bible is.  That’s a mean school principal.  Rather, every day is judgment day because we get to wake up, put our feet on the floor and ask ourselves, “How am I going to live in the way of Jesus Christ today?”  And every evening when the day is done as we lay our heads upon our pillows we get to ask ourselves, “Well, how well did I trust Jesus Christ today?”

There was a silence.  Norm said nothing.  Will said nothing.  More silence.  Then, Will added, “That’s what I believe.  It’s not easy because we get so preoccupied with so many other things — things we can’t know, things we can’t control, things we can only speculate about.  Being Christian is all about being faithful and staying faithful.  Loving God.  Loving neighbor.  Living in Christ’s way.  Trusting Christ.  I need God’s help to do this.  I need your help to do this. I need the church to do this.  That’s what I believe.”

After a few more moments of silence I heard Norm say to Will, “That’s what I believe, too.”

Will and Norm got up and walked to the door.  I watched them leave the cafe and walk down the street.  Snow flurries had begun to fall.  I heard myself say aloud, “That’s what I believe, too.”  May we observe a holy Advent.  Amen.

Taking Stock

time to evaluate concept clock

Taking Stock

17 November 2019 | Dan McCoig

Luke 21:5-19 Common English Bible (CEB)

5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

1.

What impresses you most?

I have to admit that I have a thing for beautiful buildings.  I like architecture that is a feast for the senses.  Several years ago I stood in Antoni Guadi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  It was almost too much.  The lines and light, the heights and the lengths, the sculpture and the colors.

I had a similar experience when I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Phoenix.  The house seemingly grows out of its mountain desert home.

La Sagrada Familia and Taliesin West are meant to move the human spirit.  They speak of durability and permanence.  They invite reverence and awe.

2.

Today’s lesson from Luke is set in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple was beyond impressive.  It was grand.  It was beautiful.  It was God’s home.

The Temple embodied the very best of Israel’s traditions.  We encounter the Temple early in Luke’s gospel when God’s Spirit guides Simeon into the temple where he meets Joseph and Mary and their infant son, Jesus.  Simeon holds Jesus, blesses him, and declares him the world’s savior.

Jesus as a young boy returns to the Temple when his parents pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.  In the Temple, Jesus sits with the elders in order to learn from them as he matures.

As an adult Jesus visits the Temple repeatedly and declares it a place of fasting and prayer.  Toward the end of his life, Jesus attempts to protect the Temple as house of prayer.

But Jesus’ attitude toward the Temple takes a different turn in today’s lesson.  Luke tells us that “some people” were talking about the Temple.  They admire the stones and furnishings.

Jesus chimes in.  Essentially, he says, don’t get too attached; it won’t last.  It’s not God.  Like everything else, it will pass.  Talk about a conversation ender.

The second Temple, constructed after the Babylonian exile, stood for nearly 600 years.  It would have been hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be around for another 600 years if not indefinitely.  It was built to instill a sense of permanence and durability.  For Jesus to suggest that its days were numbered would have been a hard pill to swallow.

3.

What does Jesus base his remarks on?  What does he know that others don’t?  What is he seeing that others aren’t?

I believe Jesus bases his remarks on his wisdom and uses his wisdom to make sense of his observations and knowledge of human history.  Jesus’ ministry and message in Luke’s gospel is unique.  It is similar to the other three gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John.  But it also has an emphasis all its own.

Jesus is deeply compassionate in Luke.  He cares for the poor and the oppressed and marginalized.  He associates publicly with people no one else associates with — Samaritans, Gentiles, and women.  The news of Jesus’ birth comes to those lowest on the social ladder — shepherds.  Jesus’ ministry was to and for everyone but especially those society had rejected or diminished in value.

Jesus’ ministry and message were not popular.  They made him a lot of enemies, some of whom were quite powerful and threatened his liberty and life.  Jesus talks about other would-be saviors with their own ministries and messages.  Apparently, they may have adopted some of Jesus’ ministry and message but minimized the harder and more demanding aspects in order to gain acceptability and popularity.  Watch out for these folks, Jesus warns.

Love of God means Love of God all the time and with all we’ve got and not just when it works for us and in measured amounts.  Love of neighbor means love of all neighbors and not just the ones we like or the ones who can do something for us or the ones who see the world our way or the ones we understand.

4.

Jesus’ litany of what has gone on in human history and what was going on in human history and what is still going on human history and what will continue to go on in human history is disheartening and difficult to listen to.  It’s like Jesus is reading the front page of the same newspaper I’m reading.  War.  Rebellion.  One nation fighting another.  Natural disasters.  Food shortages.  Widespread disease.  Religious persecution.  Betrayal.  Hatred.  Death.

All of these things are the experience of all too many of our fellow travelers on this life’s journey.  If our lives have been relatively free of chaos and distress, disruption and destruction, that is a remarkable thing and it probably has led us to believe things being pretty much okay is the way things should always be.  If we’re honest, we know that this is an illusion.

Our love for and trust in God does not result in good things only or prevent bad things.  Our love for and trust in God is what accompanies us and see us through the good and the bad of life. 

Those folks looking at the Temple surely had to believe that it would always be there just as it was.  They couldn’t possibly envision a future without it.  They no doubt had trouble with the picture Jesus was painting.  And yet, within a generation and a half of Jesus’ death, Rome will have sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

5.

As I read and reread this week’s lesson and came to the end of this sermon, I found myself asking what does Jesus want us to hear?  What is it Jesus wants us to do?  What is it Jesus wants us to be?

Here’s what I concluded.

I believe Jesus wants us to seriously consider what impresses us and why.  The folks Jesus was talking to were impressed by the Temple’s stones and furnishings.  I would have been impressed to.  And, it seems that Jesus senses that not only were they impressed by the stones and the furnishings but they also trusted them to help provide a still point in their life, an anchor, a compass.

A building can’t do that.  It can symbolize a still point, an anchor, a compass.  It can point to a still point, an anchor, a compass.  But it can’t be those things.  God alone can be those things.

So, Jesus is challenging us to look closely at what we put our ultimate trust in.  Is it worthy of our trust?  Is it reliable?  Will it see us through?

I also believe that Jesus wants us to re-evaluate our perspective on and in life.  You’ve probably heard the observation made Richard Halverson, Presbyterian minister at Fourth Church in Bethesda and Chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1994.  Halverson wrote:

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution.  Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture.  And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

And, in America, as an enterprise, Christianity absorbed some of America’s emphasis on health and wealth.  Following Jesus somehow obligated God to keep us healthy and make us rich.  This became the health and wealth gospel.  It’s still around.  By the way, this is nowhere in the Christian gospel.

What is in the Christian gospel is God’s promise in Christ to be present with us and provide us with exactly what we need — be it comfort or strength or guidance or direction or hope or peace — when things in life go south or sideways or both at the same time.

God in Christ is the one in whom we are to trust.  God in Christ is the one to whom we turn when life is good and when life is anything but good. 

One last thing.  Jesus wants us to know what truly lasts.  And what truly lasts is God’s love for us.  What truly lasts is our love for others.    

Amen.

Resurrection Matters

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Resurrection Matters

10 November 2019 | Dan McCoig

Haggai 1:15-2:9 Common English Bible (CEB)

15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

2 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the Lord’s word came through Haggai the prophet: 2 Say to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, and to the chief priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and to the rest of the people:

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
How does it look to you now?
Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?

So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the Lord.
Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son,
and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord.
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt,
my spirit stands in your midst.
Don’t fear.

This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
In just a little while, I will make the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land quake.

I will make all the nations quake.
The wealth of all the nations will come.
I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

The silver and the gold belong to me, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will provide prosperity in this place, says the Lord of heavenly forces.

Luke 20:27-38 Common English Bible (CEB)

27 Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”

1.

Here’s a question.  What would you point to that signifies the presence of God in our midst?  Is it a person or a place or thing?  Is it words or actions?  It might even be a smell.

It could be a cross.  It could be a Bible.  It could be a communion table.  It could be a beach.  It could be a mountaintop.  It could be a memory of an indelible experience.  It could be a sublime work of art — a painting, a sculpture, a symphony, a novel, a poem.  It’s the “something” that for you that says more than anything else God is here — right here, right now, always.  It’s a sign pointing to God.  It’s a sign embodying God.  It’s a source of comfort and strength.

Where is God is one of those fundamental theological questions that has been around forever.  The Christianity as institution people might point to the number of people in the pews or the dollars in the collection plate or the condition of the physical plant of the church or the dedication and skill of the staff and volunteers of the congregation.  Those are the sorts of things that signify tangibly God’s presence.

The reason so many hearts ached as Notre Dame Cathedral burned in the heart of Paris was that the cathedral signified God’s presence even in a city now known more for it secularity than its religiosity.  For centuries Notre Dame was a beacon of the divine that summoned humanity to look upon and gaze into the heavens.

I have to admit that I have institutionalist inclinations.  I love a sanctuary full of people singing and praying their hearts out.  I love a bright and shiny campus and a brilliant and hard working staff and a company of dedicated volunteers.  God can certainly get some things done in and through and with such institutional trappings that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

There are also the Christianity as movement people.  They will point to other things that signify God’s presence.  People are loved and served and encouraged in Christ’s name.  People are welcomed and included and made to feel at home in Christ’s name.  Broken relationships are healed in Christ’s name.  These things happen not just in words but through actions.

I have to admit that I have movement inclinations as well.  I love a Christian community where people are busy trying to outdo one another in the loving and serving and encouraging department.  I love a Christian community where people are not just welcomed but included and not just included but come to fully belong.  God can certainly get some things done in and through and with such movement trappings.

2.

For sixth century BCE Israel the Temple in Jerusalem signified God’s presence more than anything else.  And now it was in ruins.  The beauty, the grandeur, the centuries of history and tradition . . .  Gone.  Where was God now?  Where might God’s people gather?  God was gone and the people were scattered.

The Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, exiled its population and reduced the Temple to rubble.  Decades passed.  After two generations, the exiles were invited to return to their land and their city to rebuild.

This is the setting for Haggai’s prophecy.  Haggai recognizes that some among the returning exiles would have seen and known and now remembered the Temple as it was.  He recognized how traumatizing seeing the rubble where the Temple once was must have been.

The people wondered if they would ever regain what was lost.  Would the Temple ever be rebuilt?  Would Israel ever return to the life it once had?

Haggai’s answer is a yes and a no.  Israel would rebuild.  But it would be different because the people are different and the historical moment is different.  The past is past.  The present is present.  The future is future.  Israel’s challenge will be to live in the present with wisdom gained from the past and an enduring hope for a future God has promised. 

I believe that is God’s people’s challenge in every age.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It’s tempting to believe that our best days are behind us when churches were fuller, budgets bigger, and programming more extensive.  Who doesn’t want all of those things.  So, let’s go back and do the stuff that gave us those results.

That’s not how it works, though.  The church has good days and bad, best days and worst.  Regardless of the days, our calling, with God’s help, is faithfulness and creativity and imagination.  Haggai’s words still ring true:  “Be strong . . . don’t be afraid . . . God is with you.”

Israel’s challenge from Haggai was to explore what strength and fearlessness looked like in post-exilic Israel beginning in the late 6th century BCE.  Our challenge is to explore what strength and fearlessness look like in 2019.

3.

The Christian faith has a word that captures strength and fearlessness.  Are you ready for it?  The word is resurrection.  Resurrection connects today’s lessons from Haggai and Luke.

Luke 20 belongs to a section in Luke’s gospel known as the confrontational passages.  Jesus and the religious authorities are fussing and fighting about one thing and then another. 

The Sadducees, a Jewish sect for whom the written Law alone was authoritative [they rejected the oral tradition and the resurrection] pose a “resurrection” question to Jesus.  The scenario they propose is highly unlikely.  The Sadducees are pretending to be serious and high minded when in reality they simply want to get Jesus to say something they can use against him.  They are practicing an early form of “gotcha journalism.”

The Sadducees don’t believe that resurrection is a thing and craft a scenario to demonstrate how unworkable resurrection really is.  Jesus, by contrast, believes that resurrection is very much a thing and that the Sadducees’ scenario only demonstrates how much they are missing the whole point about resurrection.

The Sadducees want to make sure they keep the law.  The law wants to make sure widows are taken care of and do not become either beggars or prostitutes.  The way to take care of widows in a patriarchal culture is to require any brothers of a widow’s husband to marry her.  What happens though if/when a widow goes through seven brothers.  To whom is she wed — read belong to — post-resurrection, in the afterlife.

Jesus’ eyes have to be rolling at this point.  Life on this side of the resurrection is one thing.  Life on the other side of the resurrection is another.  Ideally, life on the other side of the resurrection should influence this life and not the other way around.

In ancient Israel’s patriarchal culture, a woman in life on this side of the resurrection is safe and secure only in relation to either a father or brother or husband.  Those relationships make her someone.  Apart from those relationships, she is no one.  But in life on the other side of the resurrection a woman is someone independently of her relationship with a father or brother or husband.  She is someone, period.  For that matter, everyone is someone.  This affirmation is part of Jesus’ radical message.

4.

Here’s my take away on these passages.  There is a tension between nostalgia and resurrection, between what was and always has been and what God is bringing into being in Jesus Christ and those who follow him.  There is a tension between going back to what was and keeping things that way and going forward to what God envisions for us and embracing them.

Nostalgia is tempting.  It promises safety and security.  Resurrection is risky.  It’s new.  It’s different.  We don’t have much experience with it.  It’s going to take our strength, our fearlessness.  Here’s the exciting thing, though, it’s where God is and it’s where God wants us, too — in God and with God.

Amen.