Suffering into Hope (Sermon)

“Suffering into Hope”

Genesis 50:15-21 and Romans 5:1-5

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Trinity Sunday

15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21 – CEB)

Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.(Romans 5:1-5 – CEB)

         All that business about confidently turning problems, or suffering, into endurance, character, and hope, how does that really set with you? One might understand how that’s true for someone experiencing vocational turmoil, or how we suffered through the pandemic. But how might that preach today in Ukraine, Syria, or Sudan? How would it preach to teenagers being trafficked for sex? How would it preach to sweat-shop workers in Bangladesh? How would it preach to parents who have lost children in school shootings and who must continue living in a culture that protects the weapons used killed their children more passionately than it protects the children themselves?

         Not all suffering is equal, and in Paul’s case, he’s writing to Christians in Rome who are suffering because, in a society that worships Caesar, they worship the God revealed in Jesus. So, that which gives them life could kill them.

Following Jesus can be dangerous because it means more than thinking right thoughts and acting nice. It means learning compassion, which translates, literally, to suffer with others—that is to practice solidarity with those who suffer. So, following Jesus means harnessing both grace and grit and challenging the powerful, speaking out for the voiceless, finding true value in something other than material wealth, and, then, suffering the consequences of embodying that kind of self-emptying, Christlike love for all things. Isn’t that how followers of Jesus witness to “the love of God…poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit”?

         To complicate things, in Paul’s day, to find oneself beset with illness, loss, or misfortune means that God—or the gods—are angry with you and are getting even. So, logically, if people are only getting what they deserve, then aren’t we meddling in God’s affairs to try to mitigate their pain? Aren’t we even judging God’s judgment?

         Through word and deed, Jesus declares that eye-for-an-eye retribution is not God’s response to anything. Jesus teaches that to share suffering—to show compassion—is to follow him and to love God. For Jesus-followers, then, to offer thoughts and prayers rings hollow. Mere thoughts and prayers almost always avoid the suffering of others because they fail to ask of us anything that will lead to endurance, character, or hope for anyone.

         Only through compassion, by entering the suffering of others, do we embody our prayers and participate in the incarnational ministry of Christ—his ministry of presence and empathy.

         Presence and empathy are what the work of the Missions and the Congregational Life and Membership ministry teams are about. That’s what much of the Shalom Circle is about. And given the unique struggles that children, youth, and families face in today’s environment of relentless busyness and detachment from relevant faith communities, that’s what much of the work of the Christian Education ministry team is about. 

         If a congregation is genuinely interested in preparing for a future, if it wants its material assets to provide more than an endowment and a venue, it will enter the suffering of the world around it. It will trust that, come what may, God has called them into suffering, that God is in the midst of it, and that, through the power of Resurrection, God is creating something new out of it. And through that trust, the people will discover something new, revealing, and empowering about the depth of their individual and corporate character. And through their surrender to grace, they will—they can, anyway—become a source of hope to people they don’t know, and to generations they can only imagine.

         Over the last 12-15 years, Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA watched its numbers decline, and they felt their congregational story easing toward the same slow death facing many churches these days. So, the church leaders began a season of very honest and courageous discernment.

         Over a period of about ten years, they stepped back, looked at their beautiful stone church located in a municipality where higher and higher property values were making it impossible for people who weren’t doctors, lawyers, and Pentagon chiefs to live in that community. So, Arlington Presbyterian decided something unthinkable to most congregations—they decided that they didn’t need the beautiful stone landmark known as Arlington Presbyterian Church. What the community needed was affordable housing. So, the church sold its property to Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, and the old church was torn down. Pastor Ashley Goff says, As Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, APC broke its church building and gave it to the community.

         In place of the old building, there now stands Gilliam Place, a 173-unit affordable-housing complex. And in it reside teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, people with disabilities—none of whom could afford decent housing in that suburb of Washington, DC. Still an active congregation, Arlington Presbyterian gathers and worships in a specially-designed space on the ground floor of Gilliam Place.

         While it is getting more and more expensive to live in Washington County, TN, I’m not at all recommending that Jonesborough Presbyterian do what Arlington Presbyterian did. My point is simply to illustrate what kind of Gospel-grounded ministry can happen when followers of Jesus really follow him into the suffering around them. Welcoming and trusting the Spirit’s guidance, they practice a visible, palpable hope that thoughts and prayers cannot deliver. They participate in God’s revelation of God’s household of grace on earth.

         No one knows what the future holds for this congregation. And in the very limited time that this 60-year-old pastor has left in the ministry, he’d like to see this congregation poised for a future of ever-deepening, Gospel-grounded faithfulness. And to him, that involves expanding ministries of welcome and empowerment in a society that is contracting in its understanding of what it means to be human, and a religious culture contracting in what it means to be a Child of God.

It involves creating space where seekers can ask mind-broadening and faith-deepening questions that many church leaders have found threatening and shut down.

It involves continuing to follow Jesus into the suffering around us by addressing issues like poverty, hunger, racial injustice, gun violence, and ecological emergency.

Preacher, those are political issues!

Are they? Jesus wasn’t stoned for religious sins. He was hanged on a Roman cross as a threat to the empire because he blurred the lines between theology and politics. In a vin diagram of theological issues and socio-political issues, there would be a huge overlap because they all deal with the health and well-being of individuals and communities. In my opinion, those allegedly unrelated issues are one just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer are all one in the Trinity.

And in Christ, we are one. When one of us suffers, all of us suffer. And while we can’t suffer in another person’s place, to whatever extent we are gifted for compassion and allowed to show it, we can walk alongside each other in our struggles, and through shared suffering build endurance, discover new character, and experience, as never before, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

*All information about Arlington Presbyterian Church can be found at:

Pentecostal Prophecy (Sermon)

“Pentecostal Prophecy”

Genesis 1:1-5 and Acts 2:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (CEB)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.” (CEB)

         Pentecost. The spring harvest festival fifty days after Passover. What appears to be “individual flames of fire.” The litany of toungue-twisting names. The scoffing cynics saying, Who let Drunk Uncle in?

         No one’s drunk, says Peter. It’s only 9am. Then he quotes the prophet Joel who speaks of “the last days,” days when the gift of prophecy will enjoy a new beginning.

         And now, says Peter, God is revealing those last days.

The thing about those last days, though, is that they aren’t really last at all. They are, as with all “last things,” brand-new first days, a fresh start marked by a revitalizing re-emergence of God’s Spirit. And as that Spirit permeates the Creation—the same Creation over which it once merely hovered (Genesis 1:2)—prophecy breaks free from old confines. It’s no longer a rare gift. It’s a new way of life for “all flesh,” a new reality for sons and daughters, young and old, male and female.

Pentecost, then, marks not so much the arrival of something brand new, but of humankind’s re-awakening to the eternal mystery called the Holy Spirit. And we discover, sometimes to our chagrin, that the Spirit is slave to no one—not to any nation, or language, or even theology.

         “I will pour out my Spirit,” says God, “and they shall [all] prophesy.”

         My southern upbringing in church left with me with a rather cartoonish image of prophets—guys walking around in dark robes tied with rope, their heads hidden inside deep, drooping hoods, and each arm stuffed up the wide sleeve covering the opposite arm. These prophets knew God’s mind. They could read our minds, too. Obviously appalled at their reading material, they shouted judgment and hellfire to scare people into righteousness. All-in-all they seemed to have more in common with teachers of the dark arts at Hogwarts than anything that looked like Jesus. Since scripture describes prophecy as a gift given generally, generously, and graciously in the Creation, I have to wonder where all that fiction came from.

         Harper’s Bible Dictionary defines a prophet as “a person who serves as a channel of communication between the human and divine worlds.”1 In terms of potential, that leaves no one out.

         If we are the Church, and if Pentecost is in some way the birthday of the Church, then Pentecost must reveal something of our call to­—and new birth into­—a prophetic life. Remember Paul’s words to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains…And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted…” (Romans 8:22-23) And to the Galatians Paul wrote, “God sent his Son…so that we could be adopted. Because [we] are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4:4ff)

Now THAT is prophecy!

Selfish and idolatrous motives often corrupt our intentions and turn us toward domination and self-aggrandizement rather than service. Still, if we’re called and equipped to serve as “channel[s] of communication,” then in some way God is choosing to see, to listen, to speak, and to act through us on behalf of the created order. And THAT, too, makes us prophets.

         I think that the big difference in this new, Pentecostal prophecy lies in what we look for and what we find at the very core of ourselves and others.

         For millennia, the church has taught that sin is the core reality of each of us and of all of us together. Sin is real, of course, and we need to name it and resist it, because it not only excuses but justifies violence, racism, sexism, materialism, and schism. I do, however, take issue with manipulating people by telling them that they were born depraved, that their fundamental identity is one of guilt before God. It also seems to me that this shame-fed understanding of self and of God almost always creates more sin. It creates communities of fear and enmity rather than faith. It also strips faith communities of their trust and vision and leads them to do more to try to maintain a status quo and guard material assets than to follow Jesus in transforming ministry. And while part of me understands that, especially in our increasingly unpredictable world, it’s still sin, or as the Greeks said, hamartia, which means missing the mark.

         Listen, we are people of Incarnation, Resurrection, and Pentecost. So, we are being led by God’s transforming Holy Spirit which is always in the process of creating and re-creating the world and our places in it. And as the story in Acts reveals, that re-creation is always toward wider inclusion and more far-reaching ministry.

         Because the essence of God is holy, dynamic, and creative relationship, and because God made us in God’s image, humankinds’ own fundamental essence is holy, dynamic, and creative relationship. Being created by relationship, for relationship, community is our true home. And a Christ-following community is one of trust, openness, and self-emptying discipleship.

On top of all that is the gloriously complicating wonder of our own uniqueness, our own gifts, capabilities, incompletions, and vulnerabilities. We bring all of these things to every relationship. So, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as an inseparable whole, we need each other. We find our wholeness, our true selfhood when we enter relationships that nurture us by asking as much of us as they offer to us.

A distinction may be helpful here. I define individualism as the depleting and destructive belief that I am absolute, whole, and complete in and of myself. And that is true of no one. Even the most isolated hermits need the earth, don’t they?

Individuality is much different. True individuals express their individuality by recognizing, celebrating, and developing their unique set of gifts and experiences so that they might enjoy them and share them with others. True individuals also express their individuality by welcoming the gifts and experiences of others so that everyone might know a new depth of wholeness and joy.

Pentecost reveals that, through holy and spirited relationship, we draw closer to God even as we draw closer our neighbors and the earth. In relationship, we claim our blessedness. In relationship, we claim ourselves and one another as blessings. And in Christ-like relationship, we become prophets—“channels of communication between the human and divine worlds.”

The point of the prophecy unleashed at Pentecost transcends any personal salvation that merely makes the individual feel safe from hell.

 The point of the prophecy unleashed at Pentecost is a life of Holy-Spiritedfullness, mystery, and love. And this life is for everyone, of every language, everywhere, and all the time.

1Robert. R. Wilson, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor. Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1985, p. 826.

Don’t Worry?! (Sermon)

“Don’t Worry?!”

Psalm 104 (Selected Verses) and Matthew 6:25-34

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Let my whole being bless the Lord!
    Lord my God, how fantastic you are!
    You are clothed in glory and grandeur!
You wear light like a robe;
    you open the skies like a curtain.
You build your lofty house on the waters;
    you make the clouds your chariot,
    going around on the wings of the wind.

10 You put gushing springs into dry riverbeds.
    They flow between the mountains,
11         providing water for every wild animal—
        the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 Overhead, the birds in the sky make their home,
    chirping loudly in the trees.
13 From your lofty house, you water the mountains.
    The earth is filled full by the fruit of what you’ve done.
14 You make grass grow for cattle;
    you make plants for human farming
        in order to get food from the ground,
15         and wine, which cheers people’s hearts,
        along with oil, which makes the face shine,
        and bread, which sustains the human heart.
16 The Lord’s trees are well watered—
    the cedars of Lebanon, which God planted,
17     where the birds make their nests,
    where the stork has a home in the cypresses.

31 Let the Lord’s glory last forever!
    Let the Lord rejoice in all he has made!

(Psalm 104 [selected verses] – CEB)

25 “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? 

27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?

31 Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’32 Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34 – CEB)

Last week, we heard John’s Jesus telling the disciples not to let the world rattle them. This week, we’re listening to Matthew’s Jesus say a similar thing, but to a very different audience in a very different context.

Back in John, Jesus tries to assure his disciples at the very end of his ministry. In Matthew, Jesus is giving his sermon on the mount to the crowds right at the beginning of that ministry.

In John, Jesus has just told his disciples a lot of disturbing stuff about what’s going to happen in the next few days. In Matthew, Jesus has just told the crowds what makes for true blessedness. Then, he basically re-writes key points in the law by saying, for instance, You’ve been taught to love your friends and hate your enemies. And I say, love and pray for even those enemies. Only that will bless you both.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t preparing his listeners for his absence. He’s preparing them for living a life that doesn’t look like the grasping and fearful lives of those who are privileged and powerful. Those who have more than their share almost inevitably end up, like the hideous Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, worshiping and guarding their possessions because they’re terrified of losing any part of them. Instead, Jesus is preparing the people for a simple life of gratitude, generosity, and joy. And while that’s wonderful, the simple life requires trust—and lots of it. And the kind of trust that leads to and nurtures faith in the goodness and grace of God, begins with a basic awareness of God at work in the Creation.

Look at the birds, says Jesus. Look at the lilies of the field and the grassThey don’t worry!

One can imagine that Jesus read or heard Psalm 104 just before saying these things. That ancient hymn praises God for the gift of the Creation and for God’s faithfulness in sustaining and delighting in all that God has made.

 While most of us can appreciate these earthy images, we’ve also seen how, during drought, flowers pale, bow toward the dry earth, and die. We’ve seen how quickly lack of water can turn grass into fuel for devastating wildfires. We’re also seeing now how much more frequent all of that becomes as our climate deteriorates from humanity’s lack of faithful stewardship.

As for the birds of the air, I’ll say this: We don’t have a cat anymore, but when we did, during nesting season, we had to keep our sweet kitty in the basement so he didn’t kill every fledgling in the neighborhood and leave the carnage scattered in our driveway. All of that is to say, unless you’re drought-resistant, or occupy a higher link on the food chain, Jesus’ advice not to worry may ring hollow.

         Parents who live in poverty and struggle to feed their children can’t imagine a place or a time when worry is not part of their reality. Those who suffer abuse or violence of one kind or another may never return to a place of un-worried peace. Many soldiers who survived the dehumanizing brutality of war, and even more of the innocent people who watched loved ones suffer, die, and then get dismissed as “collateral damage” often sneer at the very idea of God. And who can blame them?

         So sure, consider the lilies, the grass, and the birds. Lilies and grass may face threats to their well-being. But they don’t worry. Birds can be stressed, but do they really know fear as human beings do? Jesus’ audience are people who constantly confront the merciless manipulations of the emperors and his minions, all of whom are willing to abuse and kill to maintain their power.

For us, these are days of relentless worry and fear. Wars and rumors of warsare always with us. In recent years, an exclusive and violent hyper-nationalism has found traction in our nation, and around the world—even among many who call themselves Christian. Inflation and the threat of recession keep us on edge. Politicians, TV networks, advertisers, and anyone else who has something to gain or lose will exploit the anxiety and distrust in our culture to achieve their selfish ends.

         And let’s be honest. As an institution, the Church has always used fear to help keep itself awash in money and influence. Indeed, many within the Christian family have done as much to keep people terrified of and bound to a vengeful God and a bloodied Jesus than all the Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings have done to reveal the compassionate, liberating, and fearless Christ.

Under the influence of fear, evangelism gets reduced to, basically, Believe as you are told, or go to hell. Now, vote this way, put your paycheck in the basket, and don’t worry about anything. God will provide.

         Because of this kind of abusive theology, more and more people who used to be involved in the church are leaving it. They’re tired of being associated with such worrisome speech and behavior.

         Worry does not have to define us, though. Anxiety and fear are not the last words. Jesus’ assurance that God can be trusted to respond to the needs of the Creation means that, in the end, love wins, and God’s shalom will prevail.

You and I, we’re more than flora and fauna. And while, as Jesus says, every tomorrow holds worry of its own, we are, nonetheless, God-imaged creatures with creative consciousness, and a spirited unconscious, as well. Through these gifts, we can do wonderful things, deeply spiritual things—holy things. We can imagine, dream, create, and love.

Our call as the church, then, is to model an alternative way of living in a world racked with worry and enmity. Our call is to trust God, and through that trust, to seek, find, and share God’s realm of grace which permeates every here and every now in which we live.

Road, Truth, and Life (Sermon)

“Road, Truth, and Life”

Psalm 130 and John 14:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


I cry out to you from the depths, Lord—
my Lord, listen to my voice!
    Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
If you kept track of sins, Lord—
    my Lord, who would stand a chance?
But forgiveness is with you—
    that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes,
    and I wait for God’s promise.
My whole being waits for my Lord—
    more than the night watch waits for morning;
    yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord!
    Because faithful love is with the Lord;
    because great redemption is with our God!
He is the one who will redeem Israel
    from all its sin.

(Psalm 130 – CEB)

1-4 “Don’t let this rattle you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”

6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”

Philip said, “Master, show us the Father; then we’ll be content.”

9-10 “You’ve been with me all this time, Philip, and you still don’t understand? To see me is to see the Father. So how can you ask, ‘Where is the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you aren’t mere words. I don’t just make them up on my own. The Father who resides in me crafts each word into a divine act.

11 “Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see—these works. (John 14:1-11 – The Message)

         On Wednesday afternoon I looked at my phone and saw that I’d missed a call from someone in my church. So, I tapped the missed-call notice and rang him back. Instead of hearing some customary greeting, I heard, “Nothing’s wrong! Don’t worry. Everything’s alright.” So, I immediately thought, “Oh no. What happened?” As it turned out, everything was okay. We just had some food pantry details to tend to.

Still, when someone says, Don’t worry, or Don’t let this rattle you, or Don’t let your hearts be troubled, isn’t it human nature to start worrying, because isn’t what we hear, Don’t worry, but…?

         When Jesus says, “Don’t let this rattle you,” but I mean, “You trust God, don’t you?” he does nothing to ease the disciples’ already-significant apprehension. Let’s remember, Jesus says this right on the heels of having washed the disciples’ feet, of having announced his betrayal, of having told the disciples that he’s about to leave, of having told them to keep loving each other no matter what, and, finally, of predicting Peter’s denial. So, when Jesus says, “Don’t let this rattle you,” it’s kind of like telling a child whose dog just died, Don’t be sad. That ship has sailed.

         John 14 is a staple of Christian funerals—times when many people are, indeed, rattled and hungry for words of comfort. And even though we, as Christians, speak of a life to come, there’s an undeniable finality to death. As much gratitude and joy as memories can evoke, the person who has died has left this life forever. They’ve left our lives forever.

         Most of us have heard stories of near death experiences. Some of us may have read books like Heaven Is for Real or Proof of Heaven. Let’s be honest, though. None of that is concrete proof of anything except our very real and understandable desire for there to be something more. Now, I’m not denying that there is more. I’m merely saying that no one really knows what lies beyond death. Faith, not knowledge, is the basis for our claim to a life to come. So, to reiterate at funerals what Jesus says in John 14 becomes part of our faithful lament in the face of death. And what Jesus says to his disciples throughout the pastoral discourse of John 13-17 is about far more than life after death.

         Jesus is saying that beyond the life represented by Caesar and empire, beyond the life of material wealth and military domination to which many Jewish leaders have accommodated themselves, especially the Sadducees, there lies a place of spacious love, a place of deep unity with Jesus and with the Father. And when Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way, he’s trying to tell them something profoundly hopeful and life-transforming.

Speaking for the group, Thomas says, Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going. So how can we know how to get there?

         “I am the Road,” says Jesus, “also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me.”

         This is one of those passages that gets distorted into a warning. If you want to go to heaven, you must believe that Jesus is the only way to get there. And any theology which proclaims that kind of static certainty tends to get wielded like a weapon rather than offered as an invitation into grace. The thing about gospel grace, though, is that it requires much more of us than doctrinal purity, because it’s about more than getting to heaven when we die. It’s about living in holy union with God here and now as well as in the life to come.

         “If you really knew me,” says Jesus, “you would know my Father as well…[and] you do know him.” Jesus pleads with his disciples to recognize that following him and participating in his ministry means, ultimately, loving each other as God loves us. For me, if there’s a bottom line, that’s it. Through self-emptying love for others, anyone can experience the Road that doesn’t just lead to life, but which is, in TruthLife itself, because to love as Jesus loves is to be with him. And because the Son and the Father are so intimately one, to be with one is to be with the other. If that’s the case, how can one experience union with God apart from Christ? Jesus comes to reveal that pre-existent truth, not to make it happen. God’s spacious realm is already something in which humankind lives, moves, and has its being.

Another challenging reality is that it’s terribly easy, like the Sadducees, to settle for a world where a rattled and fearful existence seems not only rational and responsible, but the only real possibility. In that world, though, people just give up and fall asleep behind contrived certainties that provide fertile ground for holding prejudices, casting judgments, building walls, amassing weapons, and reducing a storied and deeply transforming spiritual tradition into an inert doctrine that both religious and political leaders can use to control the masses and ensure their loyalty. That’s exactly what happened when, in the fourth century, Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The emperor’s goal was political stability, not faithful discipleship.

Some within the first-century Jewish community expected and desperately wanted Jesus to be that kind of Messiah. And one can imagine their weariness of Rome. One can also imagine that, as Jews, many of them were tired of their story being one endless string of exiles. From Pharaoh, to all the various Nebuchadnezzars and Caesars, God’s people had known continual defeat and outside control. Why wouldn’t they want someone who could and would play hardball with tyrants?

Well, when we truly, as Jesus says, trust God, when we truly, as Jesus says, believe him, or at least believe that his works reveal the presence and will of God, then we can begin to understand that all the violent means of empire, and all the repressive certainties of imperial religion are roads that lead not to life, but to one dead end after another.

In claiming to be “the Road…the Truth…[and] the Life,” Jesus invites everyone who hears his story to immerse themselves in it, to live it. For in that immersion, we begin to recognize that Jesus truly is one with the Father—the Creator and Source of all that is genuinely loving and lasting. Jesus’ own trust and belief are evident in the ways he lives in the here-and-now, in the ways he loves those who seem unlovable, in the ways he cares for those who seem beyond help, in the ways he embraces all of life, and in the ways he includes all things—joys and sufferings—and transforms them into signs of God’s ever-present realm of grace.

Wherever Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer unity is evident, wherever death is giving way to life, wherever reconciling grace and love are at work, wherever people choose peace, inclusion, and forgiveness over whatever easy but violent alternatives are available, there Christ is present and forever will be.

May that be our reality, and the reality of this congregation today, tomorrow, and always.

God’s Beckoning Grace (Sermon)

“God’s Beckoning Grace”

Ezekiel 34:11-17 and Acts 2:42-47

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says. (Ezekiel 34:11-17 – CEB)

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 – CEB)

         Last week we heard Second Isaiah’s promise of deliverance to Israelite exiles in Babylon. This week, we’re listening to Ezekiel offer similar words of comfort to Israelite exiles in Babylon several generations later. The prophet speaks of God as a shepherd gathering those who have been scattered and returning them home.

The image of God as shepherd isn’t new for Israel. Since the days of David, the people had been reciting a psalm that began, “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” Both Psalm 23 and Ezekiel’s prophecy employ and rely on concrete and earthy images. Ezekiel adds emphasis by moving from the nebulous language of “clouds and thick darkness” to describe exile, to the language of “fertile highlands…riverbeds…[and] green pastures” to describe home.

A couple of things stand out here. For one, we hear in Ezekiel’s message an intentional connection between the One who delivers and the land itself to which the people will be delivered. Restoration and the well-being of the people are intimately tied to the earth. So, how the people relate to and care for the earth mirrors the way they understand, relate to, and love both God and each other.

Secondly, when the prophet refers to God leading the people to fertile highlands, riverbeds, and pastures, he’s saying that God will act directly on them as a shepherd acts on a flock.

Once Ezekiel reminds Israel that God acts on them, and on their behalf, they can begin to expand their understanding of the various ways God acts. It’s a positive theological evolution to begin to imagine the physical Creation as a part of the incarnation of God. As the people mature into this, they begin to see all things as truly holy. And the deeper the people progress in their relationship with God, the less God has to act on them, the less God has to herd them. Instead, within the mutuality of relationship, God invites them, and walks with them.

As the God of grace, God doesn’t force us in a given direction; God beckons us. And if we use the language of beckoning as much as the language of guiding, how might that re-shape the way we understand, relate to, love, and even “believe in” God?

The language of beckoning implies an awakening within the those being beckoned. We recognize within ourselves what is good, and holy, and true. We find ourselves noticing and even seeking places of abundance, places where cooperation between the people and the earth yield not only ample food, clothing, and shelter, but spiritual abundance as well.

Some indigenous spiritualities include references to “thin places.” The people described the veil between the physical and spiritual realms as thin, when they experienced the deep holiness of the world and of their place in it. And isn’t that the message of Resurrection? Easter is God’s decisive action on Jesus. And through Jesus, the Creation itself becomes a continuously thin place through which God works and may be experienced.

In the Acts passage, Luke says, “God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.” Through the power of Resurrection, God is deepening God’s presence in the world by acting through the beloved community. 

The apostles in Jerusalem live in a posture of radical openness to God. And they do that by living not just ‘in community,’ but communally. The share meals, pray together, pool their resources, and even sell personal property for the benefit of those in need. Being held, they hold nothing back. So, in giving all, they only deepen their trust in and love for God. And through the apostles’ faithfulness, God transforms the community into a thin place in which people recognize that they’re not only ones on whom and through whom God acts. They can also become ones who, through their own self-emptying love, act in concert with God’s grace.

They set a high bar. It’s full-on mi casa es su casa—my house is your house. But that’s precisely how we embody the unity that Jesus speaks of when he says, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one.” (John 17:21 and 23a)

The point of our faith tradition is to live in such a way that we demonstrate the love with which we are loved. And we can’t create that love. We simply open ourselves to love and make room for it to act through us. 

When you think back on your life and recognize those times when you have been loved without judgment or expectation, those are thin moments when you can say, I was in the presence of God. And when you think back on your life and recognize those equally thin times when you loved without judgment or expectation, you can say, God was present through me.

It’s usually in the simplest acts that we are loved by God and through which God loves others. To share prayer, food, work, and care is to live in Christ-centered community. It is to know and to love Jesus. And it’s the kind of thing that transforms the inevitable challenges we face into experiences of God’s veil-thinning power of Resurrection.

The Christian Education ministry team recently drafted a vision statement for its own work. The statement reads:

In a congregation committed to loving all people as God loves us, the Christian Education Ministry Team helps to create and nurture safe, Christ-centered spaces where, individually and collectively: 

·  We explore our longing for and experience of God through study, spiritual formation, fellowship, play, and service. 

·  We remind one another that the beauty of God is reflected in the world and in each other.

To me, this statement expresses a prophetic and Holy-Spirited response to the beckoning grace of God in Christ. It declares a desire for and commitment to the kind of intentional community Luke describes in Acts. And I would say that the goal is to help this congregation to continue becoming a thin place, a place where God’s presence is real and opens us to the holiness and beauty that is inherent in all that God creates and loves.

I trust that God is beckoning us to be that kind of community in a culture that is growing increasingly bitter, exclusive, and not only tolerant of but worshipful toward violence and the means of violence.

Now, a congregation that humbly opens itself and joyfully commits itself to being a community through which God acts will never be the biggest or wealthiest church around. A community like that has a very different definition of abundance than prosperity gospel churches. Nonetheless, that community will be a place through which people genuinely experience God beckoning them into the boundless expanse of grace.

That place will be one of “fertile land [and] green pastures.”

A place of “gladness and simplicity.”

A place that “demonstrate[s] God’s goodness to everyone.”

A place where exile has ended and Resurrection has begun.

Witness in the Wilderness (Sermon)

“Witness in the Wilderness”

Isaiah 51:1-6 and Revelation 21:1-4

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Listen to me,
    you who look for righteousness,
    you who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry where you were dug.
Look to Abraham your ancestor,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
They were alone when I called them,
    but I blessed them and made them many.
The Lord will comfort Zion;
    he will comfort all her ruins.
He will make her desert like Eden
    and her wilderness like the Lord’s garden.
Happiness and joy will be found in her—
    thanks and the sound of singing.

Pay attention to me, my people;
    listen to me, my nation,
        for teaching will go out from me,
        my justice, as a light to the nations.
    I will quickly bring my victory.
My salvation is on its way,
    and my arm will judge the peoples.
    The coastlands hope for me;
    they wait for my judgment. 
Look up to the heavens,
        and gaze at the earth beneath.
    The heavens will disappear like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like clothing,
    and its inhabitants will die like gnats.
But my salvation will endure forever,
    and my righteousness will be unbroken.

(Isaiah 51:1-6 — CEB)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 — CEB)

         Isaiah’s audience are the Israelites exiled in Babylon. After thirty-nine chapters mostly dedicated to itemizing Israel’s sins, Isaiah 40-55, or Second Isaiah, contains the prophecy of Israel’s release. And this section begins with those memorable words: “Comfort, comfort my people.”

Through the prophet, God says, Your current situation is going to change. You’re going home! To those stuck in Babylon, Isaiah’s words probably sound like wishful thinking, or maybe some religious zealot seeking attention. And, since almost all the Israelites in Babylon had, by the time of their release, been born into exile, one can also imagine the prospect of deliverance feeling unsettling to many people. They would be leaving the only home they knew. And isn’t it a human thing often to prefer the wilderness we know rather than the wilderness we don’t?

         Like a gardener preparing depleted soil, the prophet has to prepare the people’s weary hearts. He has to remind them who they are, whose they are, and what home really is.

In today’s text, Isaiah says, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug.” Like stars and planets hewn from one colossal and purposed explosion of spirited matter, so, too, were the Israelites chipped from the same ancestral quarry.

Isaiah’s image of being quarried and cut isn’t random. Between the first verse of chapter 40 and today’s text in chapter 51, the prophet spends a good deal of time disparaging the idols of Babylon.

Idols are sculpted images created by craftsmen, says Isaiah. And what good are they to people who have been created in the image of God?

You are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, he says. You are among those counted when Abraham looked up at the heavens and God told him, Count the stars if you can, and trust that your descendants will be as plentiful as the stars in a clear night sky.

God’s promise to Abraham occurs while he and Sarah are in the midst of their own wilderness. They’re homeless, childless, and aging. Yet they trust that God is leading them to a place rich with new beginnings, family, and belonging. They trust that God is leading them home.

Experiences of exile and exodus—the dis-orientation of wilderness—are endemic to the life of faith, because they’re endemic to human existence. There’s just no such thing as a human life without wilderness. And when we’re wandering in some wilderness, the prophets challenge us also to imagine ourselves in a place where God is about to reveal something new.

“Pay attention to me,” God says to Israel. There will be comfort in your ruins.“[I] will make your desert like Eden and [your] wilderness like the Lord’s garden.” Everything you see will, eventually, disappear, says God, but my love for you, my presence with you, and my making-things-right for all Creation will never end.

John declares a similar promise in Revelation 21 when he speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Just as God promised a family and a home to Abraham and to Sarah, and just as God promised deliverance to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, so does God promise “a new heaven and a new earth” to early Christians who are trying to follow Jesus while living in the wilderness of Caesar’s relentless brutality. 

We dare not gloss over that reality. Too many people die in the wilderness. And maybe that’s why Isaiah brings up Abraham and Sarah. Sometimes wilderness is as far as even the great ones get. Neither Abraham nor Moses really crosses the finish line. Abraham, The Father of Many, has only one child with Sarah, his co-recipient of God’s promise. And Moses dies before reaching the land to which he is leading the Hebrews.

Christa Tippett hosts a podcast entitled On Being, and recently, she interviewed Christian preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor. During the conversation, the topic of wilderness came up, and Tippett asked Taylor about the role of wilderness in the human condition. Taylor responded saying that one benefit of a wilderness experience is that “your ego will get a major thump. I think of wilderness,” she said, “as where you get a feel for your true size.”*

In the whole that conversation, I heard Taylor saying that wilderness is where we remember, through shared suffering, that we are created by a Creator who is best understood as relationship. And we are most authentically God’s people when we recognize our need for one another, our need for fellow travelers in the wilderness. In that recognition, each of us confronts our incompleteness apart from the community. And while that can thump an individual’s ego, it also reminds us that we’re always part of a larger community and a larger story.

I think Isaiah wants the people in Babylon to remember that God has created flourishing gardens out of wilderness wastelands before. The prophet wants the people to dig deep into the quarry of their collective memory and recall that while God seldom prevents suffering, God never abandons the people in their sufferings. Isaiah seems to want the people to say, Hey, we’ve been here before. All will be well because God is faithful.

The “true size” of an individual and of a faith community is never determined by any status or privilege, but by the extent to which we embrace our blessedness, even in the wilderness, and offer ourselves as a blessing. Thus does God say, “They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many…Happiness and joy will be found in her—thanks and the sound of singing.”

         Suffering in community with others, and living as a source of “happiness and joy”—isn’t this the call of a community that follows Jesus? Isn’t this John’s “new heaven and…new earth”?

To be a faithful and biblically-grounded community does not mean that we bind ourselves to a static set of beliefs and insist that others do the same. To be a faithful and biblically-grounded community means that we live as a people of humility and joy, people possessed by a passion for God’s justice, that is for mercy, kindness, peace, equity, and welcome for all whom God loves.

So, whatever wilderness may look and feel like right now for each of us, and for all of us together, isn’t it faithful to both Isaiah and Jesus to open ourselves to our wilderness experience as people who need each other, and who are fellow travelers in a much deeper and wider narrative?

And isn’t it radically faithful to God, and faithfully subversive to all the Babylons and Romes of the world to say, We’ve been here before? Wilderness never gets the last word. Even now, God, who is faithful, is birthing a new Creation. And even if we don’t get to see it ourselves, we will not give in to hopelessness.

By loving as we are loved, by living gratefully, generously, and justly, we will inhabit, here and now, God’s new heaven and new earth.

*All references to the On Being conversation between Tippett and Taylor can be found here:

The Road to Emmaus – And Back (Sermon)

“The Road to Emmaus – And Back”

Luke 24:13-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. 29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.  (Luke 24:13-35 — CEB)

         Preachers often speak of “wrestling” with biblical texts as they prepare sermons throughout the seasons of the church year. It’s really more of a liturgical dance, though. And the three primary dance partners are the festivals of Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, and Pentecost. And the longer I participate in that dance, the more I think they all invite us into the same, ongoing celebration. Each season reveals the same fundamental life and liveliness working at the heart of Creation. So, just as Trinitarian language affirms the presence of one God, the languages of birth, death, and resurrection all affirm the same mystery of God’s continually creating and redeeming love.

         The image of birth delivers us into relationships and possibilities that we could not have conceived on our own. So, a gift given in the true spirit of Christmas will come as a double surprise. It delights us, and it opens us up to undreamed of potential to give, receive, and even to ask. So, perhaps, the gift of a musical instrument opens an otherwise shy child to a world of self-appreciation, self-expression, and adventure.

         I’m willing to bet that some of you have received a gift that surprised you with some God-given talent or passion of your own. And regardless of the circumstances in which you received it, that gift was a true Christmas gift, a gift of new beginnings for your flesh-and-blood self. It presented you with ways to participate in God’s creative energy and joy.

         A similar thing happens with the gift of resurrection. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. With that simple but radical act, the Protestant Reformation began, and the church embarked on a tumultuous period of painful deaths and exciting new beginnings. The old ways, determined and controlled by the deeply corrupt medieval papacy, began to die. Unimagined new ways of being and doing church wriggled to the surface. The Bible was translated into languages that regular people could understand. Printing presses put the Bible into their hands so they could read it for themselves. Reformed theology established ecclesiastical structures that made church life more democratic and less authoritarian. Full communion was shared with everyone. What sounds so normal to us now, was a profound paradigm shift for the people of 16th-century Europe. It was a resurrection era for the Church. And in all of that, Christ was newly enfleshed and alive in the world.

         After opening us to spectacular, new territory, resurrection sends us out on behalf of all that God creates. Resurrection rearranges our hearts and minds. It transforms us from mere believers into the ecclesia, “the called-out ones.” That’s why Emmaus is always a part of our resurrection experience.

         Cleopas and his companion travel the road toward Emmaus. For the moment, though, their destination is purely geographical. Emmaus is where they’re going instead of Galilee, where Jesus said to go. The two disciples, it seems, aren’t through with Friday. They need to keep surrendering the things that have defined their understandings and shaped their expectations. And they need some help. Enter the resurrected Christ—who shows up as a random stranger on the road.

         “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” Cleopas says.

         Well, bless your heart, says Jesus. You guys sure are slow to die to the things that blind you to truth.

         Let’s acknowledge that it’s no small thing to die to the belief, and especially the hope, that God chooses to take loving initiative on behalf of the Creation through the violent means of empire. Cleopas and his companion represent everyone—past, present, and future—who wants and fully expects God’s Messiah, if he comes at all, to be a great warrior and political leader, someone who will establish Israel as God’s agent and the dominant worldly power.

         In retelling and interpreting the story of God’s involvement in Israel and on behalf of the whole Creation, Jesus gives the disciples another chance to walk Friday’s path. He gives them another chance to die to all their well-intentioned religious doctrines and practices, and to die to all that their years of suffering and frustration have led them to believe about the identity of the Messiah, about the character of God, and about the hope of humankind.

         Then, at the disciples’ invitation, Jesus breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. THIS is the great and revealing gift—the gift of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost all in one loaf.

         When the world overwhelms us, some of us leave our faith behind as a disappointing fantasy. Others of us, like Cleopas and his companion, impound our faith behind money, weapons, flags and other means of supremacy or symbols of pride. Both of those responses to the world’s crucifying brutality can send us toward Emmaus. And remember, the disciples don’t stay in Emmaus. After their burning-heart experience with the elusive, here-and-there risen Christ, they turn and run back to Jerusalem, giddy with wonder and excitement. The road they travel is the Road to Emmaus and back.

For post-Easter disciples, Emmaus is where, in the welcoming of the stranger, in the hearing of the story, and in the breaking of bread, the risen Christ appears, and he helps us, as Paul says, to die to self and to rise to Christ. (Romans 6:1-11) The new life that begins in Emmaus returns us to the world to share not just the news of resurrection, but the gift of our own transformed lives.

         Now, we can find ourselves in Emmaus virtually anywhere. Emmaus is simply wherever we end up when faith becomes a self-serving habit we can’t break rather than our participation in God’s holy dance of ongoing birth, death, and resurrection. And through the power of resurrection, Emmaus becomes a hopeful place, because whatever happens there does not allow us to stay put. In Emmaus, we experience Christ’s presence. And that experience transforms us. It turns us around. It renews us. It calls us to seek and listen more intently for Christ in the world. And that’s the very nature of a spirituality of discipleship.

Discipleship involves doing the hard and healing work of paying attention to people on the margins, of listening to voices that have been ignored or silenced, of caring for the Creation because to care for it is to love our future neighbors as well as those around us now. It also involves living gratefully and generously in intentional communities that seek to follow Jesus and his ways of justice, compassion, and non-violence.

         Are you seeing what resurrection can do? Resurrection has the power to transform every Emmaus into Galilee, into the place where we encounter the risen Christ.

Through resurrection, God sends us into every Emmaus to be Galileans, to be Christ-revealing strangers for everyone and everything with whom we share this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, and always becoming dance called life.

A New Creation (Easter Sermon)

“A New Creation”

Matthew 28:1-15a

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday 2023

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men.

But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”

With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”

11 Now as the women were on their way, some of the guards came into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 They met with the elders and decided to give a large sum of money to the soldiers. 13 They told them, “Say that Jesus’ disciples came at night and stole his body while you were sleeping. 14 And if the governor hears about this, we will take care of it with him so you will have nothing to worry about.”

15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were told. (Matthew 28:1-15a – CEB)

         Twice in Matthew’s telling of the Easter story we hear this instruction: Don’t be afraid. Go to Galilee. You’ll see Jesus there.

Matthew continues the story of the disciples’ encounters with the resurrected Jesus. For today, though, let’s linger in this moment of wonder.

         Both the angel and Jesus say, Don’t be afraid. What might they expect the women to fear? Maybe they realize that new experiences often involve, for human beings, a certain degree of anxiety and sometimes outright fear. Even things of which we are fully aware can frighten us—especially when we know they can harm us or people we love.

It seems to me that another thing making fear so, well, fearful, is that the things we fear usually lie beyond our control—even when they claim to represent something helpful, healing, or hopeful. And Resurrection is one of those terrifying wonders.

Resurrection is intimately and eternally tied to Incarnation. As such, it’s more than merely a do-over. Resurrection is a beginning that recapitulates the Creation—the event through which that creative, relationship-seeking energy and purpose we call God uttered the universe into being. That means that Resurrection starts with more than a momentary interruption of some progression or status quo. Resurrection follows a death, a termination. What was is no more, and will never be, again. Nonetheless, that death sparks a re-creation, something completely new and different, yet intimately and eternally tied to the thing that precedes it.

Attempts to describe Resurrection always fall flat. That’s one reason that images and metaphors are so important to Easter. And laying aside that irrelevant bunny, we’ll use the monarch butterfly as an example. In its first existence, the larva stage, a monarch is a fat, yellow, black, and white-striped caterpillar crawling about on slow, sticky feet. It inches its way along milkweed stalks and eats its way through as many leaves as it can stomach. As a caterpillar, it probably travels no more than a total of a few yards before it attaches itself to something stable, curls up, and within a few hours, sloughs off its skin and finds itself cocooned inside an emerald green chrysalis flecked with iridescent yellow spots. This is the pupa stage.

If all goes well, in a couple of weeks a radically new creation emerges—the adult butterfly with a lean body, long, soft hair along its back, and antennae that are, essentially, two slender noses. From that body spreads a pair of delicate golden wings fringed with black and accented with white spots. After some weeks of gathering nectar, the monarch flies not a matter of feet or yards, but some two thousand miles on its crepe paper wings.

The metamorphosis takes the creature from portly, cumbersome worm to magnificent, continent-crossing butterfly. And it doesn’t happen without a kind of death, without the complete surrender of one form to another.

If a caterpillar’s brain could imagine that it would trade in its surface-gripping feet for gravity-defying wings, it might lift up a prayer saying Please, take this cup from me. This is terrifying!

And maybe God’s answer would be something like, I understand. But listen, while you can’t imagine your next life right now, trust me, it’s going to be worth it. Don’t be afraid.

Now, back to the Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

After hearing that the world has changed beyond all experience and expectation, we receive the next instruction. Go to Galilee. Some 100 miles north of Jerusalem, the region of Galilee carries deep historical and symbolic significance.

Nazareth, the place of Jesus’ birth, is in Galilee. The Sea of Galilee, along whose shore Jesus called his first disciples, is the eastern boundary of Galilee. Capernaum, where Jesus preached his first sermon, is in Galilee. So, Galilee represents a place of beginnings.

         Now, on Easter morning, when the angels and then Jesus tell the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, the instruction isn’t to return to the way things were. The instruction is simply to go back where it all started, because a whole new way of being in the world awaits them. And while that way of being will be entirely new, it awaits them in the person of the same person that all of them had loved, followed, and watched die just 36 hours earlier. And since that time, everything has changed—forever. A New Creation has begun.

         For us, post-resurrection Galilee can be pretty much anywhere. And wherever it is, to get there, something must die, metaphorically anyway. And whatever it may be, we have to let go of it. Letting go is the path toward the New Creation of Resurrection.

         Much has been said and is being said about the “decline” of the Church. And something is definitely happening. It seems to me, though, that a healthy and hopeful way to look at our changed and changing situation is to imagine the Church, as the body of Christ, experiencing, globally, a season of moving from one stage of being toward a whole new creation. Something even more beautiful. Something with wings, perhaps.

Still, it’s scary. The Church that most of us in this room grew up with, love, treasure, and continue to embrace and to nurture, could very well be entering a kind of pupa stage. That would mean sloughing off familiar skin, familiar practices and arrangements, and preparing for ways of being and doing church that we have never experienced, nor really imagined. And yet, such a transformation might just help us to follow more faithfully a resurrected Christ.

Easter invites us to imagine ourselves—individually and communally—as part of a continual and a sacred process of creation, death, and re-creation. God did not establish a static order, but an organism, something that lives, moves, has being and purpose, and that is always in the process of becoming.

Resurrection is part of that process. Resurrection gives us wings on which we transcend our slow-footed fear and selfishness. Resurrection gives us the strength and courage we need to embrace the new vision and the new possibilities that come with being a New Creation.

Resurrection empowers us to release old hurts and the thirst for vengeance, and to forgive that old nemesis.

It empowers us to forgive old institutions, their smallness, their self-absorption, and their archaic prejudices against people whom God made different but no less beautiful and holy.

Resurrection empowers us to see the world around us as God’s presence with us, and God’s provision for us—something to steward with gratitude and generosity because none of us survive without this earth. And when we see the earth through the eyes of transformed creatures, we recognize that there is, in fact, enough for everyone because we recognize our need in our neighbor’s need, and we work to make sure that all have enough.

Resurrection sends us to Galilee to open our minds, our hearts, and our hands to the new thing God is doing in us and through us.

What new thing is God doing in you?

Where is your Galilee?

Resurrection Relationship (Sermon)

“Resurrection Relationship”

John 20:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

April 9, 2023

Easter Sunrise Service

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. 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.”

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 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. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 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. (John 20:1-18 — CEB)

         Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved are overcome with emotion. They’re trying to believe something that defies comprehension. On that Sunday morning, as they stand next to that empty tomb, what appears to be the case lies beyond anything any of them can conceive. Indeed, the disciple whom Jesus loved doesn’t believe it until he actually sets foot in the tomb and sees for himself, lying on the ground, the grave coverings and the face cloth that had swaddled Jesus since the previous Friday evening.

         Now, John is known for his use of irony. And there’s a deep irony in this scene. However, most of us have heard the Easter story enough times that we get so caught up in the outcome and miss the irony. What Mary Magdelene, Peter, and the disciple whom Jesus loved are struggling to believe, what they’re trying to come to grips with in the first fifteen verses of John 20, is not that Jesus has been resurrected, but that his body has been stolen.

And what a trauma that would be! Who would do such a thing? How could they do it? Physically, spiritually, emotionally, morally, how could anyone steal a body?

In the minds of the three who discover the empty tomb, grave robbery is the only thing that makes sense, because while it may be unbelievable that someone would do such a thing, it’s not actually beyond belief that it could be done. So, when the disciple whom Jesus loved steps into the tomb and sees for himself the absence of a body, John says he “believed.” What the disciple believes, though, is only what Mary Magdalene said—someone has taken Jesus’ body.

         The first witness of that first Easter morning was one of insult to injury. Jesus had been crucified, buried, and stolen. Even when Mary looks back into the tomb and sees the angels, and hears them ask why she’s crying, she doesn’t even imagine resurrection. Why would she? Even when Jesus asks Mary the same question that the angels ask, she remains blinded by her perfectly rational belief in a morally unbelievable prospect. It’s not until Mary hears who she thinks is the “gardener” call her by name that she recognizes Jesus. And that’s when the real work of believing begins—when the relationship is inexplicably restored.

         When it comes to believing and not believing certain things, human beings often take whatever road requires less investment or risk. And generally speaking, the greater the mystery surrounding something, the greater the risk in believing it, thus making it easier not to believe. And in certain cases, not believing something is the wiser path.

I refuse to believe doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories because things like that create in their believers the kind of fear that breeds suspicion, enmity, and an ever-deepening reliance on violence, intimidation, and manipulation. And it’s generally true that destructive beliefs create destructive agents.

         There’s a different belief-disbelief dynamic at work in the fourth gospel. In John, belief refers to one’s embrace of the presence and power of the mystery that, in Christ, God is doing something so remarkable as to defy explanation. And it’s not just that God is doing something so remarkable as to be inexplicable. Like Resurrection itself, God IS Something inexplicable. And that Something is initiated by love. That Something is sustained by love. That Something is, finally, love itself. This creative and re-creative love is alive—permanently alive—in the Creation. And that love, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be entombed by human selfishness.

         As we said earlier, it’s when Jesus speaks Mary’s name that she finally recognizes Jesus and begins to imagine that something greater than foul play is afoot. When she resumes relationship with Jesus, she begins to believe something even more unbelievable than body snatching.

         Maybe that’s why Thomas figures so prominently in John. He refuses to believe until he sees and touches Jesus—that is to say, until he, himself, resumes relationship with Jesus.

One thing to remember about Resurrection, is that it’s not the same as resuscitation. When Lazarus was raised, he was resuscitated, not resurrected. His body, being merely restored, would die again. As John suggests in more than one place, the resurrection of Jesus was the raising from one state of being to another. “Don’t hold on to me,” Jesus tells Mary. This whole resurrection thing, it’s a process. And it’s not over. And that night, when Jesus appears to the disciples, John takes care to say that he does so through closed and locked doors where the disciples are hiding from the religious leadership. So, whatever the disciples experience, it isn’t relationship with Jesus as they had known him. Nonetheless, in some way, relationship with him is restored. He’s more than a memory. They encounter him.

         Maybe the spiritual belief to which we are called is a matter of facing all the unbelievable and yet all-too-real stuff our world throws at us every day, then listening for and encountering the Christ in the midst of it. And isn’t that our calling as the church? To bear witness to the risen Christ here and now by being ones through whom Jesus restores relationship with the world? That is Resurrection life—a life of peace-making engagement, courageous hope, restorative justice, unprejudiced compassion, and enduring love. It’s a life of Christ-centered relationship with all people and all things. And in those relationships, we encounter and share Jesus himself.

In our family and friends, he is with us.

In our adversaries, he is with us.

In those who annoy us, he is with us.

In believers and non-believers, he is with us.

In creatures both beautiful and frightening, he is with us.

In the faithful passing of the seasons, he is with us.

In our beginnings and endings, he is with us.

In all things, Jesus is alive.

He is alive as the love we give and receive.

He is alive as the compassion we share.

He is alive as justice, mercy, kindness, and joy.

Jesus is alive! For he is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Risk and Revelation (Good Friday Sermon)

“Risk and Revelation”

Luke 23:1-5, 13-25

Allen Huff

Preached at Bethel Christian Church

Jonesborough, TN

Maundy Thursday, 2023

The whole assembly got up and led Jesus to Pilate and began to accuse him. They said, “We have found this man misleading our people, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming that he is the Christ, a king.”

Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.”

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no legal basis for action against this man.”

But they objected strenuously, saying, “He agitates the people with his teaching throughout Judea—starting from Galilee all the way here.”

13 Then Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people. 14 He said to them, “You brought this man before me as one who was misleading the people. I have questioned him in your presence and found nothing in this man’s conduct that provides a legal basis for the charges you have brought against him.15 Neither did Herod, because Herod returned him to us. He’s done nothing that deserves death. 16 Therefore, I’ll have him whipped, then let him go.” 

18 But with one voice they shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.” (19 Barabbas had been thrown into prison because of a riot that had occurred in the city, and for murder.)

20 Pilate addressed them again because he wanted to release Jesus.

21 They kept shouting out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

22 For the third time, Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done? I’ve found no legal basis for the death penalty in his case. Therefore, I will have him whipped, then let him go.”

23 But they were adamant, shouting their demand that Jesus be crucified. Their voices won out. 24 Pilate issued his decision to grant their request. 25 He released the one they asked for, who had been thrown into prison because of a riot and murder. But he handed Jesus over to their will. (CEB)

         In Luke’s gospel, Pilate says it three times: I find no reason to execute this man.

         Now, that’s remarkable. Not only can Pilate find no threat in Jesus, but according to all gospel accounts, he actually makes the effort to look.

         Not a great deal is known about Pontius Pilate, except that during his ten-year term as procurator of Judea, he developed a reputation for taking pathological delight in persecuting and executing as many Jews as possible, and all in Caesar’s name. In fact, one of the things we do know about Pilate is that he so flagrantly bullied and baited the Jews, that in the year 36 or 37, Caesar not only fired him but exiled him.1 Who knows? Maybe even Caesar or one of his advisors realized that trying to maintain law and order through bigoted violence would eventually destroy their society.

         Still, by the time of Jesus’ trial, Pilate has brutally executed countless would-be messiahs, and most of them without benefit of trial. So, it would be most uncharacteristic of him to argue on behalf of yet another Jew claiming to be, or accused of being, the long-awaited Messiah.

         Why, then, why do all four canonical gospels portray Pilate as somewhat vexed over what to do with Jesus? The most familiar answers to that question are summed up in Jesus’ comment to Pilate in John 19: “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (John 19:11a)

         Rome has nothing on God, says Jesus. Your empire may intimidate, torture, and kill. You may cause irreparable damage to bodies and minds. And you may flatter yourselves saying, ‘See how quickly the Jews abandon their God and put their faith in sword and spear like the rest of us.’

         But, says Jesus, the future does not belong to power and wealth. It belongs to love.

         I hear both Jesus and the gospel writers saying that on Friday, God is at work revealing to all with eyes to see and ears to hear that human violence cannot redeem, nor can it, ultimately, hinder love. God is not some human construct who can become so overwhelmed with anger and resentment as to lose the will and power to be God—that is, to be love.

         The entire life and witness of Jesus reveals that God cannot be rendered so impotent as to be forced to resort to violent revenge as a means of grace. Friday, then, is not about trying to satisfy, with innocent blood, some tender-egoed deity. It’s about the Creator fully entering humanity’s inhumanity in vulnerable, self-emptying love.

         Friday is about God breaking into our brokenness to reveal the futility of our addiction to the brutal ways and means on which principalities and powers depend.

         Friday is Good because it reveals to us that God transcends our fear.

         Friday is Good because it reveals to us that nothing at all can separate us from the love not just of God, but from the love that is God.

         Holy Week is a time to confess that we are much quicker to trust power and wealth than God. We’re also quick to credit God with our idolatry of those things. Sure, God desires our well-being, but in our sin, we choose to mistake all of our creation-diminishing and neighbor-starving excesses for holy blessing. And we’re just as quick to condemn and expel anyone who threatens our comfortable certainties with words of transforming truth.

         That’s why Jesus utters his memorable lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37a)

         For two thousand years, many who have called themselves followers of Jesus have turned the gospel accounts of Friday into sanction for persecuting the Jews. But it seems to me that these stories are reminding us that, most often, it is from within the family of faith that the deepest faithlessness arises.

         Think of the ways that Christians have been silent or even complicit in the face of sins such as human slavery, systemic racism, genocide, war, poverty, and the exploitation of the earth.

         Holy Week reminds us that there is no them to blame or condemn.         Holy Week reminds us that it is our own rabid shouts of judgment that send Jesus to the cross.

         Most importantly, Holy Week reminds us that God does not need violence or call for innocent blood. All gods who must kill in order to have their capacity to love restored are nothing more than gods—‚small-g gods, all-too-human idols.

         Remember the words of Isaiah: “Idol-makers are all as nothing, their playthings do no good.” (Isaiah 44:9a,)

         No, I don’t believe that we can pin Friday’s cruelty on an angry God. We make that demand. So, it’s in truly radical grace that Jesus embodies a life of the kind of peace-making love that humankind, which craves militant messiahs, cannot abide. Jesus goes willingly into Friday. He bears through and bears up to reveal to us, to reveal for us, that humanity’s blind craving for violence will never satisfy the Creator or redeem the Creation.

         In Jesus, the Christ, God takes the horrific risk of the cross to expose the vanity of our self-worshiping, neighbor-crushing, and creation-abusing sin.

         And then, to deliver us from all of that, God follows the slow-burn agony of Friday with the radiant, glorifying, and gracious revelation of Sunday.

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