Dan McCoig's Sermons

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

The Apostles’ Creed: So, This is Christianity?

The Apostles’ Creed:  So, This is Christianity?

6 June 2021 | Dan McCoig

1.

It has been 450 days since our nation’s president declared a covid-19 related national public health emergency.  What have we learned in those 450 days as people of faith?  If we were to put into words a pandemic-related affirmation of faith, what would we say.

Putting into words what we believe and why is a good exercise.  It helps us to clarify for ourselves as well as others our beliefs – truths in which we place our ultimate trust.

On the Sundays I am preaching this summer, I will be preaching on one of the ten confessions of our church’s Book of Confessions, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed which dates to the second century and ending with the Belhar Confession of 1986.  The confessions will be linked on our website and our social media pages.  

Presbyterianism belongs to the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity and is therefore confessional.  That means that there have been critical moments in history when we felt compelled to declare our faith anew for the church and for the world.  Confessions have a “Here I stand” quality to them, a “This we believe” quality to them.  They challenge others to consider where they might stand and what they believe in response to the matters take up by the confession.

For example, the Apostles’ Creed, one of the church’s oldest confessions and certainly its most ecumenical, began as a baptismal formula.  Converts to the faith were instructed in the essentials of the faith and affirmed those essentials, usually on Easter Sunday at the time of their baptism, as they turned from former allegiances and loyalties to a new allegiance and loyalty to God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer of everyone and everything.  And the other confession I mentioned, the Belhar Confession [which is where we will end our journey through the confessions], is a statement of the Dutch Mission Reformed Church in South Africa that articulates the ways in which the practice of apartheid was racist and therefore a heresy of the Christian faith.  The Belhar Confession declares in no uncertain terms that structuring a society where races are separated and some races are advantaged while others are disadvantaged is incompatible with Christianity and God’s vision for humanity.

2.

Religion poses some of the most essential questions of the human experience, namely what is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds?  To whom or to what should we dedicate ourselves?  We are here for such a short period of time.  To what should we give ourselves?  What matters?

Our congregation’s monthly book study group, Faith Stretchers, read in May Dr. James Smith’s You Are What You Love:  The Spiritual Power of Habit.  The book is in our church’s library.

In the book, Smith distinguishes secular liturgies and sacred liturgies.  Secular liturgies turn us from God and neighbor and from our most authentic selves.  Consumerism, for example, is a secular liturgy.  It suggests contentment is found in acquiring and owning things.  Distorted political ideologies are another example.  They suggest that contentment is found in pursuing and holding power for its own sake.

Sacred liturgies, by contrast, turn us toward God and neighbor.  To use Smith’s word, they “re-story” us.  The Apostles’ Creed “re-stories” us.

The Apostles’ Creed shows up as a baptismal formula in the second century when Christianity was still in its infancy.  Its current form dates from the 8th century.  Converts to the faith in the earliest decades of the faith came from Judaism as well as various pantheistic and paganistic faiths throughout the ancient world.

Christianity was born in Jerusalem among Jesus’ earliest followers, nearly all of whom were Jewish.  Their experience of God was through the law of Moses and the prophets.  Their identity was formed by the exodus.  Once they were slaves in Egypt.  Now they were free people in a promised land.  This is the story they told every year at Passover.  God heard their cries and set them free and they never forgot it.  It was their sacred liturgy.

Jesus was a Jew.  His followers experienced in him a revelation of God on the order of the law and prophets, the exodus.  Just as God was healing the world through God’s covenant with God’s chosen people and their history, God in Christ Jesus was saving the world.

3.

Imagine yourself as a catechumen in the second century.  A catechumen is someone who has said he or she wishes to become a Jesus follower, a Christian.  As a catechumen, you and other catechumens would have undergone a year of instruction in the faith.  The instruction tool that the catechist, that would be your teacher, used would be what will become the Apostles’ Creed.

The catechist would have framed your instructional time using the Socratic Method.  A question would be asked.  Answers would be given.  Those answers would be refined and then memorized by the catechumens.

There would have been three primary questions which correspond to the three paragraphs of the Apostles’ Creed.  One, what do you believe about God?  Two, what do you believe about Jesus Christ?  And three, what do you believe about the Holy Spirit?  Three questions, three answering paragraphs, and three persons in one God.  All very Trinitarian.

The Apostles’ Creed was and is revolutionary.  Affirming that God is the maker of everything and everyone and God alone possesses the power to create on such a scale countered many other narratives that described where we came from and how we got here.

If you were wondering, the first paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t conflict with science.  Remember, religion answers the big, overarching queries.  Religion is in the business of why.  Science provides us with the details regarding how it all works.  Science is in the business of what and how.  

The Apostles’ Creed tell us where we came from – God.  Science details our journey.  God can work through a Big Bang.  God can work through evolutionary processes of adaptation and mutation described by Charles Darwin.

The second paragraph is the longest.  It’s a thumbnail, biographical sketch of Jesus.  There is a remarkable amount of detail here.  The important takeaway is that Jesus was a human person who did all the kinds of things every other human person did and does.  He was conceived.  He was born.  He suffered.  He died.

But there are some things he did that went beyond human experience, things that suggest his divinity.  Things that will remain a mystery to us.  He went to hell.  God resurrected him.  He ascended into heaven.  He abides with God in heaven, from which he judges the world and from which he will return to earth at history’s end.

The third paragraph is the second longest.  It’s devoted to the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit.  The creed tells us it is the Spirit who gathers the church from all peoples.  The church is catholic, an archaic word that means universal.  The Spirit binds believers to God and to one another across time and space.  The Spirit forgives our sins so that we can begin anew over and over again.  The Spirit raises us from the dead and secures our place with God in heaven at this life’s end.

4.

Several takeaways about the Apostles’ Creed.  It reminds us that Christianity is a historical faith at whose heart is a historical person, Jesus.  The early church didn’t make this stuff up.  The modern church didn’t make this stuff up.  It happened.

And the name Apostles’ Creed tells us that these words emerged from the witness of Jesus’ original followers, words that made their way into the Christian New Testament.  Jesus’ first followers told others about Jesus and how he changed their lives.  People responded in faith and said they wanted to follow Jesus, too.  Their journey began with learning Jesus’ story, committing themselves to the story, and being baptized into the community that bears Jesus name and continues his work in the world, the church.

Jesus is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds.  Jesus is worthy of our love.  When we speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we affirm.  This is what we declare.  He is the one we love.  His love is the love that shapes us more than anyone or anything else.

Next week:  The Scots Confession of 1560:  A New Confession for a New Church.

Amen.

Regrouping

Regrouping | 16 May 2021 | Dan McCoig

Psalm 1 | Common English Bible

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed.

Acts 1:1-15, 21-26 | Common English Bible

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— 14 all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

15 During this time, the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons. Peter stood among them and said,

21 “Therefore, we must select one of those who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus lived among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken from us. This person must become along with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 So they nominated two: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.

24 They prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s deepest thoughts and desires. Show us clearly which one you have chosen from among these two 25 to take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” 26 When they cast lots, the lot fell on Matthias. He was added to the eleven apostles.

1.

Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It’s tempting to believe that yesterday was better than today and the day before yesterday was better still.  Nostalgia is suspicious of the future.  Nostalgia lives in the past.

Nostalgia takes so little effort, really.  Living in a sepia-toned past where everyone was mythically nicer and everything was mythically better asks nothing of us.  Living in the present, however, involves dealing with people as they are – when they are at their best and when they are at their worst – and the world as it is – when it is glorious and when it is atrocious.

The Book of Acts is the story of the early Jesus movement at one of its most critical junctures.  The movement could have disbanded, folded, fizzled.  After all, its leader was executed like a common criminal.  But, as the movement’s followers experienced, Jesus was resurrected, appeared to them for more than a month, and ascended to heaven.

The Jesus movement may have been tempted to pack it in for fear of meeting the same fate as their leader and many did.  But they also had good reason to move forward – a risen Jesus, an ascended Jesus.  Their challenge now was how go on when their leader was no longer physically available to preach and teach and guide and provide counsel and a vision, but was spiritually present?  Jesus was their glue.  He was the force around which they gravitated.  

2.

Did you notice that the very first thing Jesus’ followers did after Jesus’ ascension?  The very first thing they did as they regrouped?  They waited, which is what Jesus told them to do.  They waited to receive God’s Spirit who would provide them with everything they needed to continue Jesus’ ministry.

Most of the people I know are lousy at waiting.  I’m pretty lousy at waiting.  We want to make things happen and make them happen immediately.  We want others to make things happen and to make them happen immediately.  Everything is urgent.  Nothing can wait.  The reality is closer to few things are urgent and most things can wait.

The pandemic has reintroduced us to waiting – waiting for a vaccine, waiting to see loved ones again, waiting to return to something that looks and feels like normal.  Waiting is one of those things we may not like and over which we often have little or no control but we have to do it anyway.

“Let’s wait and see” are usually words people don’t like to hear.  I believe people much prefer to hear that here’s the plan, let’s roll.  Plans are good, but only if they are the result of good information and careful thought.  Plans are disastrous when based on partial information and rushed.

Presbyterian pastor and author Tod Bolsinger wrote a helpful book on organizational leadership a few years ago.  The book is entitled, “Canoeing the Mountains.”  He uses Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and their search for a northwest passage from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean as a metaphor for adaptive leadership.

Lewis and Clark were skilled watermen.  They followed the Missouri River to its headwaters.  Their maps told them that once at the headwaters it would be smooth paddling to the Pacific Ocean.  Their maps were wrong.  Their maps did not account for 300 miles of the Rocky Mountains, desert, and another 100 miles of the Cascade Mountains.

There are three key actions of leadership exercised by Lewis and Clark – observation, interpretation, and intervention.  In other words – look, seek to make sense of what you see and consult with others as to the sense they are making of things, and then make a plan to do something.

Lewis and Clark could see that their maps were wrong and their tools, namely canoes, were ill suited to what lay ahead.  They were now in uncharted territory.  There was no map.

They had to chart a new course and discover as they went along.  In other words, they had to learn a lot of things they didn’t know.  Rather than carry their canoes across the rugged terrain before them, they had to trade their boats for horses with the help of their Shoshone guide, Sacagewea.                   

In the first chapter of Acts, the followers of Jesus, about 120 persons the writer tells, are waiting.  They are in uncharted territory.  In this pandemic and as we move toward post-pandemic, we are in uncharted territory.

I don’t know how the 120 Jesus followers felt about waiting.  In a group of 120 persons, I bet there were some who wanted to get things going while others wanted to go home.

I have never thought of waiting as a spiritual practice.  But it is.  The word for waiting is throughout our scriptures.  The psalmist in Psalm 31 declares, “All you who wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.”  Waiting is associated with strength and courage of heart.  The prophet Isaiah tells Israel, “I will wait for the Lord . . . I will hope in God.”  Waiting and hoping are closely related.

The followers of Jesus were waiting for a movement of God’s Spirit – a movement that would unite them, a movement that would crystallize and clarify their mission, a movement that would fill them with the spirit of Jesus and empower them to continue God’s work of saving the world.

3.

As the Jesus followers waited, they chose to complete the inner circle and restore their number to 12.  The average contemporary Christian doesn’t make a big fuss over the significance of certain numbers.  But in the biblical world, numerology was a big deal.  For example, the number 12 signified God’s authority, perfection, and power.  Jacob had 12 sons.  Israel had 12 tribes.  Jesus had 12 disciples.  The first words of Jesus recorded in the gospels are words he spoke in the Temple when he was 12 years old.  The new Jerusalem in heaven has 12 gates and there are 12 angels, with an angel attending each gate.  

So, it wouldn’t do that there would be eleven apostles.  There should be twelve.  Judas had to be replaced but by whom?  Apparently, there were 120 followers who qualified.  The field was narrowed to two – Justus and Matthias.  The decision making process is, once again, strange to us. 

The prayer part we get.  God, who are you calling so that we may choose rightly?  That’s the way Presbyterian nominating committees work.  But then, there’s the casting of lots.  This is an ancient practice that would not have seemed strange to Peter and his colleagues.  My guess, however, is that pulling out a die to cast at a nominating committee with the person who gets the high number becoming the nominee wouldn’t go over so well.

I’ve thought long and hard over what we might learn by this practice of lot casting.  Ours is a culture where we value thoughtful deliberation, reason, the weighing of information, each person casting his or her vote.  I value all these things and don’t want to lose any of them.

But what if the deliberation, the discernment, the reason, the voting are inordinate control mechanisms that shut out the Spirit of God, that limit the Spirit of God, that attempt to constrain or even manipulate the Spirit of God [as if any of this is really possible?] instead of supplement the activity of the Spirit of God or are pursued in tandem with the Spirit of God or are employed to follow the lead of the Spirit of God or practiced as means through which the Spirit of God acts.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not suggesting we return to lot casting as a decision making model.  But I do think that underlying lot casting is a fundamental trust that God holds the past and present and future in God’s hands and we are to know and trust God’s prescience in our bones.

It’s tempting to overly romanticize the earliest Jesus movement.  The reality is the early church had issues.  It was frail.  It endured failures.  And the writer of Acts didn’t sugar coat those frailties and failures.

Consider today’s passage from Acts.  It has one betrayer of Jesus, Peter, calling on followers to select a replacement for another betrayer of Jesus, Judas.  But the early church held at its center the Holy Spirit of Jesus and sought the Spirit’s presence, guidance, and power as it undertook its work and mission.  And, not as an afterthought but as a forethought.  I believe that is our challenge, too – to hold at our center Jesus and his presence.  He is the one who called us here.  He is the one who binds us together.  He is the one who accompanies us on our journey.  He is the one who will see us through today and into the future.

Amen.

Astonishing, Scandalous, or Both

Astonishing, Scandalous, or Both | 9 May 2021 | Dan McCoig

Psalm 98 | Common English Bible

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly.

Acts 10:44-48 Common English Bible

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, 47 “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” 48 He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days.

1.

Homeostasis.  What an intriguing word?  Unless you are a science teacher or student, you probably didn’t use the word once in the past week or more.  Homeostasis is the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.  In other words, organisms like equilibrium, the status quo, and work hard to maintain it.  The more things stay the same the better; the less things change the better – this is a prevailing tendency of organisms.

Today’s lesson from Acts is a story not of homeostasis but of profound change and how that profound change came about.  It’s a story of change in the face of the way things were for centuries and still are in some cases.

There are three main characters Peter, Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit.  Our lesson is a summary of what has happened in the passages preceding it.   Hopefully, everyone is reading the Book of Acts in its entirety for Eastertide.

First, there’s Peter.  We know Peter.  He was a fisherman.  He was Jewish.  He lived in Roman occupied Palestine.  He knew his place in an economically, religiously, politically, and socially stratified society.  Things were pretty much the same as they had always been and would pretty much remain that way.  That’s the way status quos work.  They give the allusion that they are the way the world is meant to be and are best left alone.  The world stays the same until it doesn’t.

I suspect Peter presumed that he would live out his days on the shores and the waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Each morning he would arise before dawn, launch his boat, and make his way to promising fishing grounds.  Each day he would cast and monitor his nets.  Each evening he would haul in his nets – some days they were full and some days they were empty – and set a course for the shore.

Fishing is what Peter did.  A fisherman was who Peter was.  It provided his identity and his livelihood.  It fed and sheltered his family.

Peter’s encounter with an itinerant Galilean rabbi changed everything.  The rabbi’s name was Jesus.  He told Peter that God’s kingdom was at hand.  He invited Peter to follow him.  Astonishingly, Peter did.  Peter was the very first follower Jesus called.

Peter followed Jesus throughout Jesus’ public ministry.  He was there for everything Jesus said and did.  The teaching, the preaching, the miracles.  The arrest and the trial and the execution.  The resurrection, too.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus when asked if he was a follower.  He told people he didn’t know Jesus and that they were mistaken.  The thought that he did such a thing still stung despite the fact that Jesus forgave and restored Peter to his community of followers.

At Pentecost, in Jerusalem, Peter received Jesus’ Spirit and told the pilgrims from throughout the region about Jesus and God’s work in him to save the world.  Peter was now an apostle – one sent by God; Peter was now a preacher – one who proclaims God’s salvation.  Everything changed because of Peter’s encounter with Jesus.

2.

Cornelius was as different from Peter as we can imagine.  He was not Jewish.  He was not Galilean.  He was not a member of the laboring classes.  Cornelius was a high ranking Roman official.  He commanded people and money.  He was an occupier rather than one of the occupied.  The line between Cornelius’ world and Peter’s world was stark and clear.  It was a boundary that was to be maintained at all costs and never to be crossed.

Cornelius was what was known as a God-fearer.  Though not a Jew, he studied the tenets of Judaism.  Though not Jew, he practiced aspects of Judaism, such as daily prayer and the giving of alms to the poor.  As a Gentile, he knew his place.  He was never to move beyond the court of the Gentiles of the Temple.  The inner court was reserved for Jews.  They were God’s people and he wasn’t.

Cornelius and Peter meet.  How the meeting came to be is both astonishing and scandalous.  The meeting resulted in Cornelius’ and his family’s baptism into the way of Jesus, a shared meal between Cornelius’ family and Peter’s companions, and many Gentiles receiving Jesus’ Spirit after Peter preached.

This encounter between Cornelius and Peter begins with a vision.  I think this is true of nearly all profound change.  Someone has to dream it first and then share their dream with others.  

Peter is praying.  As he prayed, he saw a spread of food forbidden to devout Jews.  And he heard a voice tell him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This confuses Peter.  All his life he observed the Jewish law, dietary and otherwise.  And now, there is this shift in what is unclean and what is pure.  In the vision, Peter learns that to God everything is pure and nothing is unclean.  God does not divide the world into Jews and Gentiles, the pure and the unclean, and neither should Peter and other followers of Jesus.  A barrier has been taken down.  A boundary has been crossed.

Cornelius is praying, too.  He hears God telling him to invite a man named Peter to visit him and his family.  This is something Gentiles didn’t do and if they did Jews would never accept the invitation.  But, astonishingly Cornelius invites.  And astonishingly, Peter accepts.  Another barrier is taken down.  Another boundary is crossed.

3.

The change in the story is that the religion of Jesus becomes radically universal.  There are no more lines between who is in and who is out.  No one gets to determine who receives God’s Spirit and who doesn’t other than God and God is pretty clear where God stands.  Everyone is included and everyone belongs.

And the change occurs because two very different persons prayed and in their prayers they listened to and for God and when they heard what God had to show and tell them they obeyed.  All of this was God’s doing in and through the Holy Spirit.  That’s the prevailing theme of the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is one of the more dangerous books of the Bible.  It is a threat to the way things are.  It tells story after story of how God’s Spirit transforms everyone and everything.  It tells stories of how visions and prayers and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit initiate new things, different things, things that bless and build rather than curse and tear down.  It’s a book that takes seriously the visions of the faithful, the prayers of the faithful, and movements of God’s Spirit.

4.

Think with me about boundaries.  There are a lot of them in our world.  I certainly grew up with a lot of them.  It’s taken years to overcome them.  In my childhood, boys did boy things and girls did girl things with the rare exception.  White people lived in one part of town and black people lived in another part of town.  White children went to one school and black children went to another.  Rich people lived in one part of town and poor people lived in another part of town.  A lot of this persists.  As a boy, I got the impression that this was the way things were supposed to be.

Sadly, I learned all the slurs for people who were different from me and people like me – slurs for people of color, slurs for girls, slurs for poor people, slurs for people whose sexuality or gender identity wasn’t heteronormative, slurs for people who were neuro-diverse.  I used them, too, because it was normative.  It was awful, absolutely awful.

But, thankfully, I learned better because of my Christian faith and the Christian faith of those I admired.  In the Christian community, among Jesus’ followers, I discovered that there was no room for any –ism that segregated one child of God from another – racism, sexism, ableism, classism . . .

In today’s lesson, the Holy Spirit gives Peter and Cornelius a vision of the ever-expanding scope of God’s grace.  God’s grace knows no bounds, breaks down every barrier, crosses every boundary.

The Holy Spirit helped Peter and Cornelius see the world differently.  The new world they saw was astonishing to some and scandalous to others.  It was surely welcomed by some but resisted and even despised by others.

My takeaway from today’s passage is this.  Pray.  Things happen when we pray and one of them might be that we get a glimpse of God’s dream for our world.

Look and listen.  See what God shows us.  Hear what God tells us.

Follow.  Go where God calls us.  Like Cornelius it may be risking an invitation across a long-standing barrier to someone beyond our circle on the other side of a boundary.  Like Peter it may be risking saying yes to an invitation and breaching a barrier, crossing boundaries, expanding circles.

I don’t know if Peter and Cornelius became fast friends.  They may have.  I hope so.  They spent several days together under one roof, sharing numerous meals, telling stories no doubt of the work of the Spirit in their lives.  I’m certainly aware that they were going against a lot of societal and cultural tides.  Remember homeostasis – keep things as they are, change nothing.  Maintain the barriers, observe the boundaries.  But, their meeting, the baptism, the shared lodging and meals across significant boundaries was a start and it began with prayer and a vision and a yes to the Spirit’s movement.

Like Peter, as followers of Jesus, we take prayer seriously, too.  We take visions seriously as well.  We encourage saying yes to God’s Spirit, a Spirit who has already crossed every boundary humans have erected and is calling us as partners on the journey.

Amen.

Peter, John, and the Holy Spirit

Peter, John, and the Holy Spirit | 25 April 2021

Dan McCoig

Psalm 23 | Common English Bible

A psalm of David.

23 The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live[b] in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.

Acts 4:5-12 | Common English Bible

The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

1.

Let me tell you a story.

Yosef was thankful for his friends and neighbors.  Every day they would place him on a makeshift carry made of two poles and sail cloth and take him to one the most used Temple gates before afternoon prayers.  There, at the gate called Beautiful, he would beg from those entering the temple to pray.  This was his life.  This was his livelihood.  Without the kindness of strangers he would have no shelter.  Without the kindness of strangers he would have no food.

Some days he would get enough money to eat.  Other days he would not.  His stomach would growl with a hunger about which he could do nothing.  Yosef’s pain was not in his stomach alone.  It was also in his heart.

Yosef had not been able to walk since birth.  He learned how and where to beg since he was a little boy.  As a rule, people on their way to afternoon prayers were generous but not always and sometimes not at all.

Yosef noticed who would look at him and who would turn away and who would look right through him.  He noticed who slowed their pace to place a few coins in his basket.  He noticed who quickened their pace to get by him as quickly as possible.

Yosef had a lot of time to think as he sat in the afternoon sun, begging.  Yosef thought of the man named Jesus who entered Jerusalem on top of a donkey.  There was a lot of commotion that day.  Shouts of hosanna.  The waving of palm branches.  Some said the man was God’s anointed.  This Jesus had come to save not only Israel but the whole world.  This Jesus made time for everyone – children, women, Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, widows, orphans, the poor, and people like himself who could not walk.  

Yosef thought of the man’s arrest, trial, and execution.  Jesus’ followers were now telling people that God raised him from the dead and that Jesus’ spirit was alive in them, in all who trusted him, in the world.  Yosef didn’t know what to make of this so-called Jesus movement.  But it was spreading.  People’s live were being changed.  Jesus’ followers were becoming known for their hopefulness and boldness, their compassion and kindness, their passion for justice, their radical embrace of anyone and everyone.  Was Jesus God’s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ?  Was his spirit really now alive and loose and at work?  Yosef didn’t know.  He certainly hoped so.  He certainly hoped so.

That one particular afternoon was typical.  It was no different from so many other afternoons.  Hot and dry, monotonous.  The dust from passersby irritated Yosef’s eyes and throat.  He was looking away and rubbing his eyes when suddenly two men stopped at the place where he was sitting.  People seldom went so far as to stop.  Yosef hoped they would be as generous with their money as they were with their time.

Yosef looked up and noticed that the two men were looking right at him.  Eye contact was unusual for Yosef.  People normally would glance at him and look away quickly.  But these men gazed at him.  They really saw him.  And then they spoke to him.  This never happened.

The men told him that they were poor, too.  They had no money to give him.  Then one of them, Yosef learned that his name was Peter, took Yosef’s hand, invoked Jesus’ name and power, and bid Yosef to walk.  At first this angered Yosef.  Yosef had dreamt of walking all his life.  He also knew that the likelihood of doing so was pretty slim.  He had heard tales of healers and miracle workers.  But the tales were usually untrue, almost always a ruse to separate people from their money.

But Yosef arose.  Yosef stood.  Yosef walked.  Yosef’s anger turned to hope and joy and gratitude.  He was so happy he wept.  Who was this man who healed him?  Who was this man that took his broken body and made it whole?  Yosef shouted his praises.  Yosef walked back and forth excitedly.  He even danced.

2.

The Book of Acts in the Christian New Testament is the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the earliest Jesus movement, what we call the apostolic church.  Today’s lesson is the end result of Peter healing a man at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate before afternoon prayers.

The leaders of the Temple arrested both Peter and John and questioned them.  The leaders did not authorize Peter and John to heal in God’s name.  The leaders did not authorize Peter and John to proclaim their message that God was in Jesus saving the world.  Jesus was dead.  There is no such thing as resurrection.  End of story.

For the leaders of the Temple, Peter and John’s story of Jesus’ resurrection was wishful thinking at best and rabble rousing at worst.  The religious leaders were in charge of all things religious and one of those things was maintaining things as they were so as not to garner any unwanted attention of the Roman occupiers.  Plus, the religious leadership had grown accustomed to their place and position and prestige, all of which Jesus threatened.  Now his followers were threatening it likewise.

Peter and John tell the council their story.  Everything was God in Jesus’ doing, the Holy Spirit’s doing.  Their stopping.  Their seeing the man.  Their speaking with the man.  The man’s healing.  All of it.  God’s doing by the Holy Spirit through them.

3.

If you haven’t read the Book of Acts in one sitting in a while, I encourage you to do so this Eastertide.  The Book of Acts is the very first chapter in the story of the church.  It’s a story that is still being written in you and me.

The church’s birth is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s mission is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s boldness and faithfulness is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s call to discipleship and call for justice is the Holy Spirit’s doing.

The story of the church is the story of a movement that begins with Jesus Christ – what he said, what he did, what troubled him, what he came to put to rights.  When we declare ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, we say the kind of things he said; we do the kinds of things he did; what troubled him troubles us; what he came to put to rights we seek to put to rights.

Today’s Hebrew Bible lesson, Psalm 23, is usually associated as a reading reserved for funerals.  It is perfectly suited to that setting.  But it also is suited for every day discipleship.  It’s all in there. God as our shepherd, Christ as our shepherd, the Holy Spirit as our shepherd provides us with everything we need when we need it and how we need it – rest for our weariness; comfort and strength amidst our fears; goodness and mercy for every step of the journey, including death.

I see the Holy Spirit shepherding Peter and John.  When they healed the man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple; when they proclaimed the gospel to the Temple’s religious leadership.

Our lesson from Acts is a timely one.  I believe it pushes us to attune our lives and the life of our congregation more and more to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  I see the Holy Spirit shepherding us.

The apostolic church had to sort out how to relate to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  They were accustomed to relating to a physical Jesus Christ, someone like themselves.  But now, things were different, very different.  Sorting out how to relate to the Spirit of Jesus Christ called upon them to reinvigorate their prayer life, their worship life, their discipleship life.  It called upon them to rediscover a depth of trust in God they may have never known before.

Last year and this year have been tough.  The pandemic has been disruptive and that is putting it mildly.  It has laid bare things that we perhaps have had the luxury or privilege of not seeing – inequalities and inequities in income and education and health care and internet access – the list goes on; political polarization that pits neighbor against neighbor; racism; climate change; gun violence.

When Jesus looked at his world, he knew there was work to do.  It looked nothing like what his God had in mind.  When Jesus’ first followers looked at their world, they knew there was work to do.  It looked nothing like what Jesus had in mind.  When we look at our world, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to see; what is the Holy Spirit calling us say; what is the Holy Spirit calling us do in God’s name?

The Holy Spirit told Peter and John to see the man at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate because no one else would.  The Holy Spirit has a way of helping us see what we wouldn’t see if it were not for the Spirit and what too many too often won’t see.  The Holy Spirit called them to be instruments in making the man whole.  I believe the Holy Spirit is doing exactly that right here and right now.  The Holy Spirit is calling us to open our eyes to see what is before us – not to turn away, not to walk past – but to see and once we have seen to be the Spirit’s instruments in bringing a measure of the goodness and mercy God has shown us in Christ to the matter.  And the matter may be inequality or inequity; it may be climate change; it may be political polarization; it may be racism; it may be gun violence.

Here’s what I know.  Just as the Spirit counted on Peter and John and Peter and John counted on the Spirit and a man was made whole, the Spirit is counting on us and we can count on the Spirit and things can change and will change for the better and in God’s name; things can be made whole.

Amen.

The Garden: Where Jesus Knows Your Name

The Garden:  Where Jesus Knows Your Name

Easter 2021 | Dan McCoig

John 20:1-18

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

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

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

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

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

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

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

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

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

1.

Seeing is believing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter, friends.  Amen.

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time | 21 March 2021 

Dan McCoig

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Common English Bible

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

John 12:20-33 | Common English Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

Amen.

Light in Darkness

Light in the Darkness | 14 March 2021 | Dan McCoig

Numbers 21:4-9 |Common English Bible

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

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

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

John 3:14-21 | Common English Bible

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

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

1.

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Selfish or Selfless?

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

Genesis 17:1-7 | Common English Bible

God’s covenant with Abraham

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

Genesis 17:15-16 | Common English Bible

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

Mark 8:31-38 | Common English Bible

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

Amen.

A New Start

A New Start | 21 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

Genesis 9:8-17 | Common English Bible

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

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

Mark 1:9-15 | Common English Bible

Jesus is baptized and tempted

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

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

Jesus’ message

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sticking with Jesus

Sticking with Jesus | 14 February 2021 | Dan McCoig

2 Kings 2:1-12 | Common English Bible

Elijah goes to heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 9:2-9 | Common English Bible

Jesus transformed

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

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

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

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

Amen.