The Reign of Christ and the Missional Church (Sermon)

“The Reign of the Christ and the Missional Church”

John 18:33-38a

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Reign of Christ Sunday

11/21/21

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (NRSV)

         Pontius Pilate. Some see him as a kind of tragic/comic figure, hustling anxiously back and forth, wavering between the rabid crowd outside and the calm, inscrutable Jesus inside. This Pilate might actually prefer to let Jesus go.

         Others see him as just another scheming, egomaniacal autocrat who manipulates people and their fears in order to get what he wants while making the masses think that they are getting what they want.

         Because of John’s consistent view of what he calls “the world” and how it operates, the latter possibility seems more likely in the fourth gospel. Whatever the case, John makes it clear that the Roman governor is outmatched. It reminds me of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus advises his disciples to enter the world with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. (Matthew 10:16) And that seems to be the Jesus that John presents before Pilate.

         Why do your people want you dead? Pilate asks. Are you some kind of king?

         If you say so, says Jesus.  

         That’s like Moses standing at the burning bush and asking for some name to drop when he confronts Pharaoh. And Yahweh just says, Tell them that I AM WHO I AM sent you.

         I can imagine Moses saying, Gee, thanks. That’s really gonna spook the old boy, isn’t it?

         When Pilate asks a direct question, the Johannine Jesus—who, throughout his ministry, echoes God’s words to Moses saying: I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, I am the way, the truth, and the life—gets all cagey and mysterious. How does that help him further the work of his “kingdom”?

         The very idea of kingdom creates problems. When hearing the word king, iconic images come to mind—over-the-top displays of power and wealth. Castles, feasts, and garish robes. And these things were defended not just by armies but by the principle of the divine right of kings. And if a king held office by God’s decree and with God’s blessing, he could do no wrong. When funded by fear—especially religious fear—power can turn large groups of people into flocks of violent sheep, sheep who seem to think they’re independent-minded guard dogs or something. That’s one reason many Christians today avoid the term “kingdom of God,” preferring instead terms like the Realm of God, or the Household of God, or the Kindom of God (because we’re all kinfolk in the family of God).

         The words king and kingdom would have threatened Pilate. And he would know what to do with any challengers to the Roman government. He just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Jesus who leads his followers according to a very different drumbeat—the drumbeat of God’s eternal truth, a truth that does not bow to fear, or power, or money. And while the Pilates and the Caesars of the world canwreak havoc, they cannot, finally, control or defeat God’s truth, which is Alpha and Omega truth, original and ultimate truth—the truth of love over selfishness, grace over competition, compassion over apathy, justice over exploitation, forgiveness over vengeance.

         That’s probably why Pilate says, “What is truth,” then leaves before Jesus can answer. Pilate seems to know that if he tries to argue with Jesus on the nature of truth, he has no answer for love. Any leader who is guided by love, any leader who has the strength to lead with a heart for the people whom he or she governs will have far greater influence than one who leads by threat of violence.

Overcoming humankind’s addiction to violence is one of the great projects of any community committed to God’s truth. I think that’s why Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” because if it were, he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…”

         The realm of the Christ cannot be established and maintained through the means of worldly kingdoms—through sword and shield, rifle and bomb, pride and fear, dollars and ownership. And trying to force Jesus’ realm on anyone almost always destroys their desire to enter it. One enters the here-and-now realm of God by intentionally living for the well-being of neighbor and earth.

         Reign-of-Christ living is a day-to-day thing. We can live in love for God’s Creation one minute and cast stones the next. That’s the challenge and the beauty of the Christ’s realm: It’s not subject to our whims or even our acknowledgment. And we constantly slip in and out of it. Even when we have been out of it for some time, it’s always as close as our next act of compassion or justice toward another, or someone’s similar kindness toward us.

         Jesus concludes his earthly ministry in the same place he begins it—with a proclamation of and an invitation to the kingdom of God. Remember, after his baptism and trials in the wilderness, Jesus reappears preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

         Turn, says God’s Christ. Turn and see your neighbor and the earth through my eyes, the eyes of fear-shattering love, and you will live a new life, because you will inhabit this world from an altogether different realm.

Learning to live in the Realm of Christ is our mission.

         In the early chapters of his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren offers a critique of every mode of Christianity that accommodates itself to Caesar. The first chapter is entitled “Why I Am Missional.” And in this chapter, McLaren builds his understanding of “missional” around a bit of wisdom shared with him by a mentor he doesn’t name. That person told McLaren that “in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefit it brings to its nonadherents.”1

         Think of Abram. God calls him to a missional life saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…” (Gen 12:1-3)

         Inasmuch as God’s creatures, wherever and whoever we are, strive to live as blessings upon the rest of Creation, we inhabit and reveal the Household of God. This is what it means for us to live under the Reign of Christ.

         There’s an irony here: While we do not find our true home in any worldlykingdom, finding our home in God’s kingdom does indeed happen in this world. It happens in everyday relationships when we choose to live as blessings.

         This Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving. Giving thanks is only half of recognizing and receiving God’s blessings. The other half of full-fledged gratitude is sharing the benefits of God’s goodness with the rest of God’s good Creation.

         As a missional church, we are called live for the sake of others and the earth. And when we live this way, we do, in truth, live under the gracious, trustworthy, eternal Reign of Christ.

1A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004, p. 121.

Endings and Beginnings (Sermon)

“Endings and Beginnings”

Mark 13:1-8

Alen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/14/21

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (NRSV)

         Mark and Luke both preface Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple with the story of the widow’s two-cent offering to the temple. That juxtaposition creates a disconnect. In one breath Jesus commends a widow for her financial sacrifice, and in the next he says that the temple’s days are numbered. So, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for Jesus to have told the woman, Ma’am, keep your money; you need it more than the temple does?

         Shortly after Jesus reveals the news about the fall of the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew come to Jesus in private and ask when all of this will happen. And Jesus opens up about would-be messiahs, about wars, about tensions and military posturing between nations, and about earthquakes and famines.

         Such predictions don’t seem all that insightful, do they? When has the world ever been turmoil-free? And doomsayers thrive on predictions of utter and final destruction. This seems especially true for Christian doomsayers—and shouldn’t Christian doomsayer be an oxymoron for Resurrection people? If I were to preach doomsday theology, I would be projecting onto God my own faithless fears and judgments. For some twisted reason, though, doomsday preaching is extremely profitable.

         But I digress; besides Jesus has a surprise in store. After all of his dire warnings, he turns to his disciples and says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

         While that phrase sits in a grim shadow, it sits there as a kind of glowing coal, and Jesus represents the ruach, the pneuma. His words and actions become the very Breath of God on that smoldering, two-cent ember of hope.

         What gives a poor widow and God’s despised Messiah the faith to give their all to an institution and a Creation that appear on the verge of collapse? To embrace and embody the trust that God can craft beginnings out of endings takes a fresh awakening to God’s redeeming presence which is already at work in the world. Through its own fear, greed, and love of violence, humankind brings countless endings on itself, and it takes a Resurrection mindset to grasp that the God of nevertheless-grace can transform those endings into raw materials for new hope and unimagined peace.

         It can be a fearsome task to face these endings. And while fear usually feels like a sure thing, it’s only the sterile delivery room of religious certainty, of “reasonable” despair, and of every self-serving idolatry. As the opposite of fear, faith is the stable of trust, that compost-rich barn in which God is birthing the New Creation.

         Jesus demonstrates unyielding trust in God. And it seems to me that he trusts God to be a verb, not some static, bearded, white-robed noun. I think we get the truest sense of God when we behold God as the very energy behind, before, and within all things. I get that from First John who writes, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 4:16) God is the very activity of abiding love, the activity of creation and re-creation at work in the universe. God is the flow of the river, the rush of the wind, the hot gurgling of the volcano, the heave of the laugh, the fall of the tear, and the joyous interplay and fertile cooperation among religions.

         In his essay, “Another Turn of the Crank,” Wendell Berry writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe,” says Berry, “that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation…with God.”

         As Love, God allows even the most revered institutions to crumble like sand castles at high tide. And they fall because their familiar and comfortable ways, as constructive as they may have been, now do more to conceal than to reveal God’s new and emerging work.

         And there’s the rub: Revelation. Bringing to light. The story of Jesus’ foretelling the destruction of the temple appears in a section of Mark which scholars call The Little Apocalypse. And while apocalyptic literature may have been hijacked by doomsayers and other fear-mongers, it was never intended to announce God’s retribution or some furious Armageddon. Apocalyptic literature is all about revealing the wholeness of God which comes, necessarily and usually primarily, through justice. Mishpat, the principle Hebrew word for justice, refers to bringing fairness, equity, and wholeness to those who have been ignored and exploited by those who hold privilege and power. Because every human being bears the image of God, mishpat means recognizing the full humanity of those who have been marginalized and abused. It also means caring for the entire Creation the way we care for our church buildings because the earth itself is the first incarnation of the Creator and the original holy text. (Romans 1:20)

         Recently, I watched some old interviews with (the now former) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Along with Nelson Mandela and others, Tutu helped to bring mishpat to South Africa. And the first step of bringing God’s holy justice was bringing an end to the openly and violently racist system of Apartheid. The process of ending something as horrific as institutional racism requires apocalyptic speech and action, speech and action that reveals prejudice, resentment, and hate as destructive because it is antithetical to God—who is love. And when the Apartheid stones had fallen, things got even more deeply apocalyptic for both black and white South Africans.

         Instead of taking advantage of the situation, Tutu led all of South Africa in a process of restoration. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, black victims and white perpetrators of Apartheid injustice were given the chance to tell their stories—to reveal the afflictions suffered and the suffering inflicted. While the process was painful, and, perhaps, not altogether perfect, it gave that nation its best chance to discover new beginnings after old arrangements had come to an end.

         One of the most remarkable things Tutu said to black South Africans, especially to those who craved vengeance, was that when people dehumanize others, they inevitably, and perhaps just as thoroughly, dehumanize themselves. Be kind to the whites, said Tutu. They need you to rediscover their humanity.1

         Showing compassion to those who so recently had showed none would be a hard pill to swallow, yet such is the justice of God’s eternal Christ, the justice that seeks restoration not revenge, the justice that announces the birth pangs of something new even amid the lamentations of loss. Through such stubborn mishpat Resurrection happens, and fresh revelations of God’s holy realm begin to appear.

         May we have the gracious vision and wisdom to discern in all that seems to be ending, signs of God’s ongoing re-creation.

And may we have the faith, hope, and love to participate in that re-creation by committing ourselves, as Christ’s body, to working for the kind of apocalyptic justice Jesus makes possible through his life, death, resurrection, and ongoing return in and for the world that God so loves.

1A quick search on YouTube will connect you to many wonderful interviews with and speeches by Desmond Tutu. The particular quotation footnoted here can be heard in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV2LURTu3eQ

Prophetic Stewardship (Sermon)

“Prophetic Stewardship”

Luke 21:1-4

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/7/21

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (NRSV)

         I don’t relish preaching stewardship sermons. Like most pastors, I know that not everyone makes a formal pledge, and those who do usually prefer to pledge the same way that Jesus urges us to pray: In private. That’s not the way of Christian stewardship, though. What we do today is a defining, and sometimes a defiant act of communal and sacramental faith.

One significant role model for us is a nameless widow who makes a four-verse appearance in Luke, and the same in Mark. As a widow in first century Jerusalem, this woman’s presence in the temple stirs the air about as much as a falling leaf. But she floats into the clutter and ruckus of Passover, and whispers her two-cent blessing­—barely a trifle against the temple’s budget.

Giving out of abundance is one thing, but giving out of poverty can be a prophetic act. I say “can be” because of how often wealthy televangelists take money from lonely people who can’t afford to give it, and then use that money to fund lavish lifestyles. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about giving that expresses a purer sense of gratitude, and a humbler trust in God who says, “my word…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Isaiah 55:11)

         Faithful temple leaders would commit significant resources to caring for people just like that widow. Over time, though, the religious community had developed a predatory appetite for wealth. Its leaders colluded with violent power to protect their hold on material privilege. So instead of caring for those who were at risk, they used their considerable influence to make people feel both vulnerable and beholden. Like many Christian leaders today, they wielded an angry and vengeful god in order to protect a status quo rather than truly proclaiming and demonstrating God’s love and justice.

         Another unmistakably Lukan attribute in this story is that the one whom the community is supposed to shelter and care for becomes the one who teaches the teachers about true gratitude and generosity. Jesus makes an enduring example of a woman who gives all she has to a broken institution.

         Look at this widow, says Jesus. She gives all she has to the temple in spite of its failures. She offers all she has not because of the community’s faithfulness to God, but because of God’s faithfulness to humankind.

         I hear Jesus saying that while the widow may give out of the scarcity of her pocketbook, even more does she give out of the abundance of her faith, hope, and love. Through some uncommon grace, she sees the presence of holiness in the Creation, and in spite of human failures, she can give to the temple because she has not given up on God.

         Another compelling thing about this story is that Jesus sees his own life reflected in the widow’s actions. Her gift to the temple anticipates Jesus’ gift to the creation.1 You, and I, and the Church can all be as selfish, power-hungry, and hurtful to one another as the temple leadership was to first century Jews. Nevertheless, for them and for us—a broken and beloved humanity—Jesus drops the two cents of his life into the offering plate of time. For his gracious efforts, his people arrest and execute him. They—We—abandon him. Nevertheless, Jesus empties himself in love for us and in praise of God. His one human life, among countless billions in human history, is a two-cent act of prophetic stewardship.

         Jesus and the widow invite us to pledge our own lives to that same prophetic adventure. To follow them is to live a nevertheless faith because yes, there’s much about us and our church that’s broken; nevertheless, we live and give in such a way as to declare our trust that God is present and at work even now redeeming and renewing the Creation. And isn’t that what Jesus refers to when he says, “Blessed are the poor”?

         For years, Jonesborough Presbyterian has supported Sunset Gap through our alternative gift fair, and since that ministry is not local, it’s probably the one with which we’re least familiar. So, last Wednesday, six members of our missions team traveled to Cosby, TN to visit Sunset Gap.

         Built in 1924 as a school and community center, Sunset Gap now focuses its efforts on serving the people of Cocke County, a county in the grip of widespread and persistent poverty.

Sunset Gap’s property straddles the Cocke and Sevier County lines, and when you stand on the high front porch of the main building, and look straight ahead, you look into Sevier County, where the road climbs up from a wooded hollow and curves to the right at the Sunset Gap’s front door. From that same porch, when you look left, you look into Cocke County. And right there, at Sunset Gap, the well-maintained Sevier County road gives way to Cocke County’s unmarked, pot-holed asphalt that rumbles and crunches through a landscape that looks like it should be many miles and border-crossings away from the consumeristic carnivals of Dollywood and Gatlinburg—which are only 15 minutes away.

         Sunset Gap is no longer a school, but it remains a PC(USA)-affiliated community center where—two cents at a time—food, clothes, school supplies, diapers, showers, laughter, and tears are shared with people living on the cusp of destitution.

         The people helped by the other ministries we support through the gift fair face similar challenges. And through September and October, you all gave nearly $6000 to help these neighbors. That’s fantastic! Thank you!

Against the unyielding need of the world, or even our region, $6000 may seem like two cents, but when we give, we give to God, who blesses, stretches, and adds other two-cent offerings from other givers. And God continues to ask us to remember and help those who cannot help themselves. And because they matter, every two cents matters.

         It reminds me of what Bob Hall from Family Promise said of your ongoing support: “It’s no small thing.” He said it twice. “Really. It’s no small thing.” Whether large or small, gifts given according to one’s ability to give, gifts given in faith, hope, and love, are no small thing. They make a difference far beyond the imagining of the giver.

         During stewardship season, the Session is not asking anyone to respond to all that’s right with Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, or to react against all that’s not so right about it. We’re trying to encourage all of us to live prophetic lives, lives that proclaim and demonstrate the holy nevertheless of faith.

         Whatever you pledge for the coming year, may you pledge in bold faith, prophetic hope, and generous love, to the broken people next to you, to the broken church around you, and to the faithful God within us all.

1Pete Peery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. “Homiletical Perspective,” pp.  285-289.

The Eastering of Job (Sermon)

“The Eastering of Job”

Job 42:2-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/24/21

         To begin our third and final look at Job, let’s remember that Job is a man of means. He has lots of livestock, lots of money.

         The storyteller also implies that Job’s excess is a sign of God’s favor. So, as ancient as this story is, chapter 1 of the Book of Job presents a god similar to that of today’s prosperity gospel. And such deities prove all-too-human. What else but pride would permit even a god to do something so un-Godly as to accept Satan’s dare to test Job?

The story vividly illustrates the way that humankind creates all manner of gods in our own image. And for 37 chapters the characters in Job continue to assume this human-imaged god. Then, in Chapter 38, something catastrophically glorious happens. As Forrest Gump says when the hurricane hits his shrimp boat, “God showed up.”

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

‘Gird up your loins…I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place…Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?

‘Have the gates of death been revealed to you…? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?

‘Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?’” (Selected verses from Job 38)

Do you see what the story does? It exposes that impressionable, weak-spirited, small-g god of chapter 1 as an absurdity, and it introduces Yahweh, the Creator, the eternal and capital-G God.

Now, Job is still suffering, still feeling broken and defeated, but he’s also enlightened and newly hopeful. He realizes that the god whom he has blamed and to whom he’s been complaining is decidedly not the God who will redeem him. Both humbled and emboldened, Job opens himself up to Yahweh.

Listen for God’s Word:

“I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours

can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel

without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered

what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me,

which I did not know.

‘Hear, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.”

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”

So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. (Job 42:1-10 NRSV)

         Now I know, Job says to God. You can be and do as you please. You will not be hindered.

Job realizes that all of his furious ranting against God rose from an understanding of God based solely on rumors.

         “But now my eye sees you,” says Job. “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Having desired death, Job has now experienced a death. And while this death does not release him from life and its bitterness, it does give him a new lease on life through a whole new kind of faith. He dies the death that all human beings must die in the process of living into more authentic images and mature understandings of God.

         Job’s new theological understanding is a kind of resurrection experience. And once Job staggers out of his tomb, God puts that new faith to work. Just like Jesus forgiving his disciples for their betrayals and denials, Job finds he must forgive andintercede for the friends who abandoned him in his suffering.

         To experience resurrection here-and-now, we forsake all of our small, vengeful, Protestant-work-ethic gods. To live an Eastered life is to live sacramentally—forgiving the unforgivable, loving the unlovable, working for justice, and recognizing God’s holy presence in the midst of the mundane. This is to have our “fortunes” restored.

         Job may have some material fortune restored, as well, and a freshly-Eastered Job handles his new wealth very differently. Job 42:15 reads: “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers.” This detail may seem trivial, but Job’s radically new generosity reveals the effects of his awareness of a holiness and a wholeness in the Creation that a chapter 1 god cannot offer. Surrounded by and saturated with Yahweh—the God who acts within yet exists beyond human comprehension—Job subverts sacrosanct tradition and makes his daughters equal to his sons. This scandal foreshadows Jesus healing on the sabbath, talking alone with a Samaritan woman, and “eating with tax collectors and sinners.”

         In its straight and narrow confines, self-serving theologies always try to distort God into something friendly to any status quo that supports privilege and ignores injustice and suffering. For instance, we do know, don’t we, that the phrase God helps those who help themselves is not biblical? Indeed, it’s antithetical to biblical witness. That god dies a slow but memorable and transformational death in the pages of Job—and on the cross.

         Both Job and Jesus live and die in ways that proclaim a God who helps those who cannot help themselves. Their stories reveal that true knowledge of God includes the embrace of suffering as well as happiness. And both stories reveal that blessings—material and spiritual—are only truly blessings when they are shared in humble and generous gratitude and when they become acts of justice and peacemaking.

That’s especially true when they are shared with people who do not “deserve” them—like Job’s prayers for his friends and like Jesus’ life itself. And don’t such things define grace?

         Richard Rohr is fond of saying that Jesus comes not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God. It seems to me that Job’s story has that same mission. It has become, for me, a kind of CliffsNotes version of how individuals and faith communities progress from Santa Claus and fairy godmother images of God to images that inspire awe, humility, hope, and action—images that inspire us to participate in God’s resurrecting presence in this beautiful if all-too-broken world.

         I usually cringe when I see pithy little sayings that churches post on yard signs. In my opinion, too many of them express theological positions worthy only of the god of the first chapter of Job. Recently, though, I saw one that said very simply, “The struggle is real. So is God.”

         If Jonesborough Presbyterian is a vibrant, relevant faith community, it’s not because of good staffing and programming. Those things can help, of course, but the real difference occurs when we choose, individually and corporately, to acknowledge and enter the suffering of the people next to us in the pew, at the grocery store, the post office, the ball game, the coffee shop…

Job and Jesus both tell us that God is Eastering the Creation toward justice through the ways of love and the means of grace. Through many deaths and resurrections, God is transforming us into a people of gratitude and generosity in and for a world which sits among ashes, crying out for deliverance.

Now, while we can’t do the delivering, we can offer our hands, our feet, our voices, and our prayers to God who speaks, acts, and loves through us.

So even now, whether through us or in spite of us, God is Eastering the Creation and making all things new.

A Bitter Intimacy (Sermon)

“A Bitter Intimacy”

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/17/21

         Last week we began looking at Job. And because much happens between the first and the twenty-third chapters, let’s review a little. 

         Job is a man of wealth and renown. He’s also hospitable and generous. His ten children seem a little spoiled by privilege, but all in all, life is exceptionally good for Job.

         Then God brags on Job to Satan—twice. And twice, Satan challenges God to make things difficult on Job so God can see what happens when humans face suffering.

         You do it, says God. Just don’t kill him.

         In less than two chapters, Job has lost everything except one irate wife. “Curse God, and die!” she says. But Job, while wishing himself dead, curses only the night of his conception and the day of his birth.

Then we meet Job’s three “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, all of whom say basically the same thing: Job, you have to be guilty of something. Confess it, and move on.

Throughout these conversations, Job maintains his innocence. And in chapter 19, he explodes in defiance saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

Handel uses those words in the Easter portion of The Messiah, but while he uses them to proclaim the risen Christ, Job is declaring that he has a vindicator, someone who will help him get justice against God who has so uselessly and unjustly abused him. “[My Redeemer] will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been…destroyed,” says Job, “then in my flesh I shall see God.”

Hearing that, Eliphaz scolds Job saying, “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities.”

In today’s text, an indignant Job says:

2“Today also my complaint is bitter;

[God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning.

3Oh, that I knew where I might find [God],

that I might come even to his dwelling!

4I would lay my case before him,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

5I would learn what [God] would answer me,

and understand what he would say to me.

6Would [God] contend with me in the greatness of his power?

No; but he would give heed to me.

7There an upright person could reason with him,

and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. 

8“If I go forward, [God] is not there;

or backward, I cannot perceive him;

9on the left he hides,

and I cannot behold him;

I turn to the right,

but I cannot see him. 

16God has made my heart faint;

the Almighty has terrified me;

17If only I could vanish in darkness,

and thick darkness would cover my face!”

(Job 23:1-9, 16-17  NRSV)

Job wishes he could “vanish in darkness.” He also knows that he can’t. One thing that Job is acknowledging is that human suffering happens within the context of intimacy with God. Sometimes it’s a rather bitter intimacy, but intimacy, nonetheless. And if we can’t share our deepest anger, fear, and hurt with those with whom we are most intimate, do we really love them? Do we really trust them? What or whom are we trying to protect if we offer to God nothing but laundered and starched formality?

When people seem to be angry with God, and uncomfortable with feeling that way, I always refer them to three particular psalms of lament. In these psalms, the poets do more than give voice to their pain or their community’s pain. They call God out and demand action. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cries Psalm 22. In Psalm 44, the psalmist accuses God of abandonment saying, “You have rejected us and abased us…You have sold your people for a trifle…[and] made us…a laughingstock…” Psalm 88 ends in utter despair: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in complete darkness.”

         I think we need to feel free to express to God our hearts’ rawest and most bitter intimacies. Sometimes lament is the most honest prayer we can pray and our most sincere affirmation of faith. Lament takes seriously our faith that God creates the world and declares it good, even when good is not what we’re experiencing. The bitter intimacy of lament calls on God to show up and to redeem our suffering.

         Job’s tortured laments do all of these things. They also declare his innocence. Elie Wiesel says that Job’s “innocence troubled him, left him in the dark.” Had Job felt guilty, “his guilt might [have given] the experience…meaning. [Job] demanded…an answer that would show him unequivocally that [humankind] is not a toy…Job turned against God to find and confront [God]. He defied [God] to come closer to Him.”1

         “Moreover,” says Wiesel, “Job needed God because he felt abandoned by…his wife [and] his friends,” all of whom projected their own resentment toward and fear of God onto Job, even as he suffered.­2

         Wiesel is saying that Job’s angry laments declare his faith that his suffering, and that human suffering in general, is not God’s will. And it’s very often through our most passionate, unfiltered protests that we draw closest to God who, as James Finley says, “protects us from nothing [and] sustains us in all things.”3

         One challenge for us is that we tend to recognize God’s sustaining faithfulness most fully in retrospect. The writer of Psalm 23, for example, would have nothing hopeful to say without having already traversed the “valley of the shadow of death.” He can “fear no evil” only by having already faced some kind of fearsome malice. And perhaps only someone who survived something like the Nazi Holocaust—someone like Elie Weisel—can write an honest commentary on the Book of Job.

         We live in our own worrisome times. And it’s often easier to act like Job’s wife or one of his “friends” and lash out in judgment at each other. As followers of Jesus, though, our calling is to claim the gifts of our suffering and to enter the bitter intimacy of the world’s lament. When we lend our voices, hands, and feet to the Creation’s suffering, we help reveal the reconciling and resurrecting love of God.

         And remember: Healthy lament always begins with our own intimate struggles with God. When people of faith do not feel free to be bitterly honest with God, we will almost certainly, like Job’s wife and friends, project onto others our bitterness toward God. And misdirected bitterness can cause any of us to judge and even condemn people who need and deserve compassion.

If the story of Job does nothing else, it invites us into the deepest, darkest, most faith-threatening pain in our lives and in the world. And it dares us, in the midst of that pain, to draw near to God—who, quite frankly, has nothing in common with that irresponsible, anthropomorphic deity who turns Job over to Satan.

          It’s interesting. Job wishes he could “vanish in darkness.” His lament has a counterpoint in the poet’s grateful affirmation when he says, in Psalm 139, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you.”

I think Job’s story helps to create space for us to prepare for and to meet the God being revealed in Jesus—the Christ.

The One who comes to us as one of us.

The One who suffers with us.

The God who, ultimately, transforms all suffering, all “darkness,” into redeeming and life-sustaining light.

1Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Random House, NY, 1976, p. 198.

2Ibid., p. 199.

3https://cac.org/suffering-week-2-summary-2018-10-27/

The Labyrinth of Job (Sermon)

“The Labyrinth of Job”

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/10/21

1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”

10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (NRSV)

         Job: History or legend? A flesh-and-blood human being? Or an amalgamation of human experience in general and of Jewish experience in particular? Is the question WAS Job real? or IS Job real?

In his book Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Jewish scholar and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, writes an essay entitled “Job: Our Contemporary.” In that essay Wiesel wrestles with the stories around the story.

“Once upon a time,” he says of Job. “When? Nobody knows. [Job’s] name is mentioned by Ezekiel in passing, along with those of Noah, and Daniel—was he a contemporary of one or the other? Possibly. Other legends link him alternately to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Solomon…and…the Babylonian exile. [Job] would thus have lived…more than eight hundred [years].”1

Later in the same essay, Wiesel describes Job as one who “was everywhere and everything at the same time…[a man characterized by] peregrinations through provinces and centuries.”2

To ask, “WAS Job real?” forces us to deal with nearly a millennium of conflicting stories. So, we enter a kind of maze, and a maze is just a complicated playground for which there is, typically, only one right answer. You enter in one place and, eventually, by trial and error, find the exit at another. The point of a maze is simply the entertainment of getting lost. The experience leaves you essentially unchanged.

Now, to ask, IS Job real? is to ask an entirely different question. It brings us into the moment. It acknowledges unmerited suffering, and dares to ask, “If God allows human suffering, does that mean that God, in some way, causes it?”

To ask if Job is real is to enter not a maze, but a labyrinth. A labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice in which a person walks a set path with twists and turns similar to a maze, but its purpose is engaging Mystery, not becoming mystified. A labyrinth can be trusted. When walking a labyrinth, one follows the pathway, shedding distractions, pretensions, and fear. The center of the labyrinth offers a place of stillness, reflection, and divine encounter. It also becomes a place of metanoia, of turning around, a place to begin anew. To leave the elaborate coil of a labyrinth, you simply retrace your steps, and, assuming due discipline, you become a refreshed pilgrim reentering the world.

To ask if Job is real is to enter his story as one would enter a labyrinth. At the center of this story-labyrinth, we encounter God in, of all places, a gut-wrenching experience of human suffering. When traveling with Job as a path of divine encounter, we discover that regardless of whether or not he existed as a particular individual, Job most certainly is real.

In discovering the immediate is-ness of Job, we walk shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the characters in the story. Entering the labyrinth, we deal first with God bragging on a righteous Job. Irked by God’s boasting, Satan dares God to test Job’s spiritual mettle.

Make any human being miserable enough, says Satan, and they’ll turn on you in less time than it takes to ask ‘Why?’.

And what are we to make of God accepting Satan’s dare? Do your worst, says God, just don’t kill him.

Seriously? Who wants to walk justly, kindly, and humbly with that God?

Then we meet Job’s wife. She reminds us that it wasn’t just Job who lost everything. Her family and fortune are gone, too. And she’s furious! So, she dares her husband to test God’s faithfulness the way Satan dares God to test Job’s faithfulness.

Now we can start dealing with Job. Instead of eating the seductive apple of vengeance as tempted by his wife, Job lies down in an ash heap, scrapes his oozing sores with a potsherd, and wishes himself dead.

“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived,’” he cries. “Why did I not die at birth?” (Job 3:3, 11)

Utter despair is not exactly where one expects to find God, is it? Indeed, many people dismiss the very notion of God when caught in the grip of suffering that seems to have neither purpose nor end. And I can’t blame anyone for that, especially those who have been taught that a lack of suffering and a surplus of comfort prove God’s presence and favor. For generations, the Church has infected the world with such dis-grace. We have funneled people into a kind of doctrinal maze, saying, There’s only one way out of your suffering, only one way out this world. You must enter here. Turn there. Memorize this. Believe that. Say it, and don’t doubt. Just accept and believe everything this way.

Perhaps there’s comfort in such certainty. In a maze, however, we have more in common with lab rats than disciples on a journey. When we confront suffering, the labyrinth of faith leads us through that suffering, not away from it. And there we encounter God.

Now—I do not think God causes illness, addiction, abuse, poverty, war, accidents, natural disasters, or anything else. Not to come close to us, not to punish us, or even to strengthen us. I don’t think God causes suffering because I don’t think God revels in the Creation’s pain. I do trust that God never abandons us in our suffering. I think God, as the Ultimate Opportunist, uses those experiences to reveal God’s faithfulness and the reality and the nature of Resurrection. And perhaps it’s true that the suffering which is often most revelatory for us is the suffering into which we enter on purpose—particularly the suffering of others. And Jesus leads us into that pain. Jesus—who asks us to follow him more than to believe in him—guides us into the labyrinth of human experience where we encounter God’s relentless grace at the heart of both “great love and great suffering.”3

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink…[or] a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing…[or] sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Why is it that Jesus is often far more real in the projects than the palaces?

We’re going to walk with Job for the next two weeks, and as we do, I encourage you to spend time with this remarkable story. Enter it on purpose, as you would a labyrinth. Read it. Pray it. Most of all, trust it. Let a very real Job point you toward suffering—your own, someone else’s, or the raging, cultural pain around us. Be honest about any feelings of bewilderment, anger, betrayal, or despair. And when you feel that you just can’t go any further, stop. Be still. Open your heart to the grace of the living and loving God.

Then turn, and begin your journey outward—retracing your steps, back through the labyrinth of faith, where you may claim and share God’s healing, transformation, and hope.

1Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Random House, NY, 1976, p. 188.

2Ibid., p. 190.

3Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 50-53.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (Sermon)

“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”

Matthew 20:1-16 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/3/21

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

         The longer I sloshed around in this story, the more it became a kind of chattering brook. Then the brook became a river, and the deeper I waded into the river, the more urgently the flow tugged at my whole being. Then it became almost a flood, a force pulling me deeper and pushing me further. Anything I might have expected, anything I might have fished for in that river began to rise and converge into an insistent cataract of holy purpose. And at least for me, it became a call to ever-deepening transformation—personally, spiritually, vocationally.

         As a Christian, I’m committed to the intentional community called the church. And as a pastor, I have a very personal stake in the well-being of the organization. It’s in my own best interests to maintain the integrity of the institution as well as its message.

Problems arise, though, when church leaders, both professionals and lay people, allow that personal stake to become the guiding influence. It leads us to work to maintain the church rather than to serve God. Now, pastors know that if the church falls apart, so do our careers. No more salary, or benefits, or self-actualization. Pastors and lay leaders alike also know that if the church falls apart, certain very comfortable arrangements of authority could disintegrate and leave us feeling powerless.

         At some point, almost all institutions—governments, corporations, universities, congregations, denominations, and religions in general—face the temptation to exist simply to survive. When infected by selfishness, institutions focus on maintaining the arrangements that benefit those who hold authority. And when that happens, the institution exits for its own sake. As such, it becomes little more than a ravenous beast who aligns itself with worldly power and consumes far more in resources than it produces in benefit for others.

Think of the tobacco and the fossil fuel industries that knowingly market products which, in the big picture, diminish the lives of its customers and which, in the process, stress local communities and the global environment. Such institutions make healthcare much more expensive, but since it’s all about money, and since money is all about power, the status quo continues unhindered.

And since I’ve never asked if my investments or the investments of any church I’ve ever served are benefitting financially from such institutions, I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here. That makes me part of the problem. 

         Pharaoh, Jezebel, Caesar, the Pharisees—all of these are biblical metaphors for political, economic, and religious institutions infected with individualistic greed, fear, and denial.

Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus—all of these reformers and transformers are, in some way, products of their institutions, yet as enlightened, inside agitators, they become gifts of God for the people of God, whether God’s people understand and welcome them or not.

Through the prophetic words and actions of these human gifts, God reveals God’s presence in, with, and for the creation. The trouble with the most faithful prophets is that they seem, at first, to represent far more in the way of threat than hope. They call institutions into question and call people to live lives transformed by new depths of perception of and trust in things like loving and being loved, offering and receiving compassion, and sharing—for the well-being of all—the God-given, material and spiritual abundance of the Creation.

As prophet and agitator, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard to challenge the greed and individualism of his own day and to reveal the deeply communal nature of the realm of God

         The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a landowner who chooses to give as generously to workers who labor for one hour as he does to those who labor all day.

         This scandalizing parable challenges everything that we’ve been taught lies at the foundation of our institutions. It dares to reveal that God’s true prophets are known by their connection to an autonomous and gratuitous Generosity that gauges individual worth on the basis that every person is a God-imaged human being, and not on his or her relative productivity.

‘That’s irresponsible!’ we say. ‘If such reckless open-handedness were to become standard, it would ruin everything. Everyone would show up at 5:00pm expecting a day’s wage for an hour’s work!’

         There may be truth in that. So, how else might institutions adopt more gratuitously generous practices? Offer a minimum wage that is at least a living wage? Offer longer maternity leave? Offer paternity leave? Offer more vacation time? While some economic arguments against these kinds of measures may have institution-maintaining merit, Jesus’ parable clearly lays the foundation for biblical advocacy of such generosity.

I can’t impact many decisions in institutions beyond the small community of this congregation; but, as the saying goes, “It’s always five o’clock somewhere.” It’s always time for you, for me, for us to express our faith in God by living more generously than we might think is warranted or healthy.

Five o’clock urgency has been on us for the last two years of pandemic. In my opinion, wearing the mask when you’re inside and around others, getting the vaccine, continuing to be careful about physical distancing are not threats to “individual liberty.” They’re simple acts of generosity.

Five o’clock urgency cries out in the form of Afghan refugees seeking safety and new beginnings.

Five o’clock urgency is, every day, sending people in search of help at food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters throughout the world.

It’s five o’clock all over God’s creation. And institutions that exist for their own sake will simply dismiss each critical moment with anemic “thoughts and prayers.” Unless they discern some clear financial reward or political advantage for taking positive action, institutions that exist for their own sake will do nothing.

We are all of us, in some way, part of those institutions. As followers of Jesus in a season of five o’clock struggle, it’s always time to act as enlightened prophets, as inside agitators. It’s always time for us to enter the rising river and to offer gratuitous generosity on behalf of a suffering Creation. As the physical violence and the violent rhetoric continually remind us, participating God’s realm of undeserved kindness can be perceived as weakness. Then again, it can also be the difference between life and death for many people. And I firmly believe that, in the long run, no weapon will ever make any person or community safer than gratuitously generous practices of faith, hope, love.

Jesus’ parable says that the kingdom of heaven is not manifest in some new world order imposed by some powerful institution. His followers manifest the kingdom of heaven in their daily willingness to actively engage and witness to Jesus’ alternative way of life—a life marked by a generosity so profound that few institutions (including, sadly enough, the church) dare to participate in it.

As we come to this table on World Communion Sunday, we proclaim yet again (Even if we don’t know how to enjoy it fully!) the boundless, and the perfect and perfecting love of God.

So, all of you, come to the table. Enter the rising river, and embrace the overwhelming generosity of God’s Christ.

Defying the Lines (Sermon)

“Defying the Lines”

Mark 9:38-50

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/26/21

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (NRSV)

         One of the painful realities about living in human community is that at some point, each of us is going to feel left out. Some feel it first at home—thus terms like “black sheep” and “red-headed stepchild.” Virtually everyone feels it during school—especially middle or high school. Some never suffer that loneliness as acutely as others, but feeling pushed to the edge is a universal experience. And no matter where one feels it, the message is pretty much the same: “Go away. You’re not one of us.” And oh, how that hurts! 

         Among the sins of the church, and perhaps chief among them, is its blatant, and often willful, marginalizing of certain human beings. There’s no use denying it, especially in a culture still suffering the effects of human slavery. We say that all are welcome. And perhaps all are welcome—to visit. But are all people truly welcome in the church? In this church?

         Even Jesus’ own disciples draw lines. They boast to Jesus that they muzzled someone who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name because, they said, He wasn’t one of us.

         Jesus is not impressed. What? You stopped someone from healing people in my name—because he wasn’t one of you?

         Don’t do that again, says Jesus. If folks are helping others in my name, even if they don’t really know me or care much about me, leave them be. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Anyone who truly cares for others is one of us.

         The presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ is not limited to professing Christians. If we think we can lay that kind of claim to God, then we’re declaring that God is small enough to fit into our minds, our doctrines, our imaginations. In John, when Nicodemus struggles with the same need for control, Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8) God is Creative Love and Redemptive Justice on the deepest, broadest, and most incomprehensibly gracious scale. And it’s a sad irony that Jesus’ disciples—ancient and modern—often have the most trouble understanding and accepting that. 

         Apparently feeling the need to get his disciples’ attention, Jesus launches into a stomach-turning tirade. If you become a stumbling block to others, he says, tie that block around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, rip it off. If your eye causes you to sin, yank it out.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?

         In three months, we’re going to get all sentimental and glassy-eyed about the birth of gentle Jesus meek and mild. And here he’s telling us to mutilate ourselves when we’re unfaithful!

         A group of us are reading Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ. And last Monday night we discussed the chapter on the Lord’s Supper. In that chapter Rohr makes a distinction between ceremonies and rituals. “Ceremonies,” says Rohr, “normally confirm and celebrate the status quo and deny the shadow side of things.”1 That is to say, they artificially comfort and validate us. They make us feel right enough in and of ourselves to draw lines that define who’s in and who’s out. In contrast, says Rohr, a “true ritual offers an alternative universe.”2 And that is to say, it transforms us. It gives us new hands, feet, and eyes with which to experience and engage the world.

Rituals have to jolt us, though. They have to shake us up so that we canimagine God differently, and so that we can understand that the possibilities for us far exceed our comfortable but rather inert symbols. Think about it: We’ve not only ceremonialized the images of cross, body, and blood, we have domesticated them into jewelry and tableware engraved with the names of donors. But those same images shocked and offended first-century Jews. Implying uncleanness, they defied the well-defined lines of the Law.

The sacramental images of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ should unsettle us and make us think. And we tame them when we think only about Jesus “dying for my sins.” When we lift that cup to our lips, though, we are defying lines. We are, says Rohr, acknowledging that all blood that is spilled unjustly is Jesus’ blood.3 The disrupting image of the Eucharist calls us to see Christ’s body and blood in all suffering. We, then, commit to the cause of Creative Love and Redemptive Justice, those gracious new hands, feet, and eyes that have replaced the selfish ones Jesus dares us to get rid of.

         Maybe it helps to read Mark 9 in light of Jesus saying things like let whoever is without sin throw the first stone, and take the log out of your own eye so you can see the speck in your neighbor’s eye. (John 8:7 and Mt. 7:8) In that context, we hear Jesus challenging our rampant theological, social, and political polarization. And honestly, when I’m talking with someone, especially these days, I often catch myself trying to sniff out the things that not only distinguish me from them, but the things which I think grant me a right to judge. If I were to take Jesus’ teaching literally, I should be nothing but a torso tied to a millstone lying at the bottom of the sea.

Following Jesus gives no one authority to judge. Indeed, it calls us to demonstrate the grace and forgiveness that we can access only by the grace and forgiveness of God.

That grace, that forgiveness is the salt of which Jesus speaks. What is saltyabout true disciples is their willingness to live as signs of God’s kingdom on earth. And Christ-like saltiness is costly seasoning. Discipleship is not about engaging the world as ones who enjoy heroic certainty and authority. It’s about loving freely and serving vulnerably as Christ loves and serves.

         This week I came across a quotation by tennis great Arthur Ashe, who was known for his bold advocacy on behalf of those in need. “True heroism,” said Ashe, “is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but to serve others at whatever cost.”4

         The heroism of discipleship doesn’t conquer the world. It transforms the world. It heals the world. It salts the world with grace. Autocrats and despots will always wage their wars. They will always draw lines and divide people with fear and hate. Nonetheless, God’s eternal and universal Christ is always padding around the edges, sowing seeds in good soil, kneading in yeast, sprinkling salt, and evoking acts of radical hospitality and non-violent justice by true disciples—whoever they may be.

The job description of the Christ includes defying the lines established by kings, nations, and even religions. And inasmuch as we follow Jesus in defying those lines—in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—we will experience “peace with one another.” For we discover the peace of which Jesus speaks when we recognize the deep interdependence within the Creation, and when we embrace one another as fellow laborers in the fields of God’s kingdom.

Indeed, how can we labor effectively (much less enjoyably!) without the peace created by welcoming ALL people—family, friend, enemy, and stranger?

1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 133.

2Ibid.

3Ibid. p. 134

4https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/arthur_ashe_124531

Humility – A Holy Undoing (Sermon)

“Humility – A Holy Undoing”

Mark 9:30-37

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/19/21

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (NRSV)

Jesus is leading his disciples on a kind of lonely journey through Galilee. He knows that in lonely places, people can either come to fresh new understandings and energies, or they can come undone. The irony is that those fresh, understandings and energies usually require a certain degree of undoing. Tribal elders, therapists, the Holy Spirit, and other teachers often guide individuals or groups into lonely places for coming-undone experiences that lead to transformation or healing.

Jesus seems to know that when his disciples face their rabbi’s death, they will, in some way, come undone. So, as the embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus keeps their lonely-place journey through Galilee a secret. He knows that coming-undone experiences are more effectively and healthfully accomplished beside still waters, and when attended by a patient, compassionate shepherd.

Jesus learns this for himself at his temptation. He enters the wilderness alone and faces all the selfish possibilities lying right at his fingertips. With the Spirit’s help, he pushes through the allure of greed and pride, and his experience becomes a gracious undoing that benefits all of us. And it benefits us because the totality of Jesus’ human experience belongs to more than himself. Jesus is God’s Son because his life represents the archetype of all human experience. So, when the disciples begin to imagine that Jesus may actually die, and when they try to imagine their life after his death, they face temptations similar to those that Jesus overcomes.

“What were you arguing about on the way,” Jesus asks. Their embarrassed silence says it all. Out in that lonely place, confronting the reality of life without Jesus and his shepherding grace, the disciples fall into temptation. They try to intimidate their way into dominance over each other. As Jesus leads his followers through the shadows of a lonely, death-ridden valley, they turn their terrifyingly gracious experience into a childish political primary.

One can almost see Jesus shaking his head as he says, Listen. True greatness requires a willingness to come undone. It’s called humility. And if you really want to lead well, learn to serve well.

Then Jesus, shrewd teacher that he is, picks up a child and says, in effect, Here I am. How you welcome a child reflects how you welcome me—and, thus, how you welcome God.

Because children represent women’s work, this is a scandal. No self-respecting, first-century male gets significantly involved in the lives of children. Jesus is leading his followers into yet another lonely place where accepted arrangements begin to break down. He gives them the chance to realize that the difference between being humiliated and being humbled is the difference between living as hostile competitors who seek power over others and living intentionally and gratefully as cooperating equals—with all people.

“For by the grace given to me,” Paul says to the Romans, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) Paul goes on to say that we are all members of one body. Only in humility can we truly appreciate and love one another as necessary members of the same body. To live humbly requires an often-painful transformation. Biblical literature uses the stark metaphor of death to describe that transformation. And spiritual deaths always involve some kind of lonely-place experience. Primitive cultures often created that experience.

One day, during my grandfather’s struggle with cancer, he told his daughter, my mother, “Now I understand why the Indians used to take their old people out into the wilderness and leave them.”

Those heart-wrenching words reveal the weight of one man’s physical suffering. They also reveal how burdensome good intentions can be on the one who suffers.

When someone we care about is suffering, it’s who we are not only to bring food, small talk, flowers, and Hallmark cards, but also expectations of a valiant fight against disease or despair. And while we intend such things as expressions of love and offerings of grace, just as often they become attempts to control a situation. They become ways to argue with mortality about who is the greatest. Sometimes the most comforting presence in the face of suffering is that friend who sits silently and patiently with us, that friend who resists the temptation to cloak suffering with platitudes and trinkets, that gifted friend who, like the angels and wild beasts of Jesus’ temptation, simply sits with us while we, as the old spiritual declares, walk that lonesome valley.

Any argument with mortality, like any argument about relative greatness, is the stomachache that follows a feast on the poisonous fruit of pride. Pride may well be the seminal offense from which all other sins arise. Think about it: Is there anytransgression that doesn’t germinate in one person’s assumption of superiority over other human beings, over the earth, and thus over God? The opposing virtue to pride is humility. So, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to take a child and tell a bunch of prideful men that to be truly great, one must learn true humility first?

In ravenously competitive cultures like ours, humility is often considered a weakness. So, it requires a spiritual death, and nothing can make pride come undone like loneliness—like the experience of desperate need for others. This is exactly what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In foretelling his death, Jesus prepares his disciples for experiences of acute spiritual poverty. They will need each other. And they will not be able to carry on Jesus’ work without humbly depending on fellow servants.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in the very next story in Mark’s gospel, we hear the disciples boast to Jesus that they saw a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they silenced him.

He wasn’t one of us, they say.

And Jesus stuns them with a rebuke: Why in God’s name did you do that? Why are you still trying to argue about greatness? Whoever is not against us is for us! Welcome their help!

When confronting our limits as human beings, when realizing that we’re not so great as we’d like to think, the Spirit leads us into a lonely place—into spiritual poverty. And there we die one healing death after another. For as often as we find ourselves striving for superiority and victorious “rightness” over one another, we need to die those deaths.

Our lonely journeys through these transforming spiritual deaths and into humility lead us ever-deeper into experiences of Resurrection. And Resurrection empowers us for living lives of self-emptying service, lives in which we participate in God’s here-and-now kingdom of grace, justice, and peace.

And isn’t that the deeply undoing yet liberating truth of what it means to be saved?

Divine Things/Human Things (Sermon)

“Divine Things, Human Things”

Mark 8:27-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/12/21

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (NRSV)

         Simon Peter. The Rock. Bold and brash to a fault. And faithful, too—even though when Peter denies Jesus on that dark Thursday night, he denies everything Christ-like in himself.

In Mark 8, Peter steps out in prophetic faith to declare out loud what others have surely begun to hope: Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Messiah. Jesus affirms Peter’s confession, and it seems to embolden the disciple all the more. When Jesus speaks of his suffering, rejection, and death, Peter grants himself authority to scold God’s Anointed One.

         With a blistering rebuke of his own, Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan”—The Adversary—and basically tells him to get lost. Then he says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

         My heart goes out to old Saint Pete. His mouth is not getting all that far ahead of his brain. He has seen Jesus do some pretty crazy things, and by and large, they’ve been human things. Peter has watched as Jesus touched, healed, and fed people. He has listened to Jesus teach through those grounded, earthy stories called parables. If Peter sets his mind on human things, who can blame him?

         Maybe the problem is that, at the moment, human things are all Peter sees. And Jesus is saying that it’s time to understand human things differently, because woven into the DNA of those tangible, earthy realities are strands of eternal holiness. And Jesus is holding his disciples accountable for recognizing divine things within human things. When he speaks of his imminent suffering, Jesus wants his followers to hear more than bad news. He wants them to smell the air, taste the water, and feel the sand beneath their feet in that new realm where Resurrection is reuniting and reconciling divine things and human things. If they fail to experience the eternal wrapped up in the temporal, then Friday may never become Good Friday for them.

         Ironically enough, setting our minds on divine things means looking ever more closely at the Creation around us and opening ourselves to those places where heaven and earth intersect. That place of intersection is what Incarnation is all about. And that means that revelation occurs when we realize that material and spiritual realities have transcended the limits we impose upon them. We watch them meld into one another like lovers. Such holiness is everywhere. There’s very little in God’s Creation which cannot, in some way, convey something of the divine things that Jesus invites us to see.

In her poetry, Mary Oliver captured the magnificent coexistence of Creator and Creation. And she found that beauty in the simplest gifts and experiences. Listen for the holiness in her poem entitled, “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?1

         When the poet looks at that grasshopper, and when that grasshopper looks back, when it eats from that human hand, the world’s beauty and wonder become more beautiful and wonderful. The concrete fact of that grasshopper’s existence reveals itself as sacred. Mary Oliver helps us to understand that to separate divine things and human things means denying the Incarnation.

What if we looked at each other that way? What if we made a deliberate effort to look at the holiness in each other? Would we be able to look past not just our differences, but past all those things that make us intolerant of differences? And would we be able to seek understanding and to create new community instead of always trying to win some kind of conquest over those with whom we disagree?

         Perhaps now more than ever, such efforts are crucial. And as disheartening as it can be even to imagine human beings coming together, the Gospel declares that healing is not only possible, it is underway.

Still, complications arise when we discover how threatening it can feel to practice Incarnational hope. The Holy Spirit, divine gadfly that she is, always leads us to live over against those institutions and attitudes we associate with security and even righteousness, but which ultimately hide the fresh workings of the divine within the Creation. And because we have so revered some of those institutions and so nurtured some of those attitudes, the journey of discipleship may feel, at first, like unfaithfulness.

Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John dropping their nets and leaving their families to fend for themselves.

Like the rich young man selling all he has, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus.

Like Ananias going to extend grace to that violent, Christian-persecutor named Saul.

Like God-imaged, white Christians who declare today that it is Jesus not politics who motivates us to affirm, in word and deed, that those specific, God-imaged human lives who live inside black and brown skin matter as much as those who live inside white skin, and that until we can live that affirmation, the phrase “all lives matter” is just a loophole against responsibility.

Jesus calls the burden of such journeys our cross, and taking up our cross necessarily includes dying to whatever separates us from the Divine Presence within us and within our neighbors. And as Richard Rohr often says, discipleship is not about “sin management.” As real and problematic as sin is, it is not our true essence. Sin obscures and distorts our awareness of the divine within us and within the world around us. So discipleship is about much more than avoiding sin—so that we can “go to heaven when we die.” It’s about living into the kingdom of heaven here and now with that person who sits next to you—the one whose perfume or cologne you smell, whose stomach you hear rumbling, and who may vote differently than you.

         A true disciple claims the holiness within herself and holds it up like a mirror so that her neighbor may see it in himself.

May we all, then, shoulder our crosses and die whatever deaths we must in order to see the holiness within ourselves.

May we die that more challenging death through which we see the holiness in others.

And through these gracious deaths, may we live as reflections of God’s eternal and here-and-now realm of Resurrection.

1I searched the internet for Mary Oliver poems and found this one on a random poetry site. This piece appeared in New and Selected Poems – Volume 1, by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press, Boston. 1992.