Solidarity in Suffering (Sermon)

“Solidarity in Suffering”

Luke 24:44-53

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/22/20

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV)

       This morning, instead of wading just one more step through the river of Lent, we’re going to rock hop to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, then leap to the ascension. We’re going there because the ascension, like the crucifixion, begins a period of waiting. Each time Jesus leaves, his departure prepares the way for a completely new form of presence, with new dimensions and new mystery.

       During Holy Week each year, I try to imagine the feelings of abandonment and loss that the disciples must have felt on Friday and Saturday. And I imagine them bearing both a heavy shame for having deserted Jesus, and a smoldering anger at having felt deserted by him and by God. If Jesus were really the promised and long-awaited Messiah, how could this have happened?

       The disciples were hardly the first or the last to find themselves dismayed by a perfect storm of furious grief. And like all of us, their grief was uniquely theirs. They had to figure out how to live in the midst of and then to live through an acute disruption of life. And while Easter did change things for them, it was probably more disrupting than Jesus’ death itself. What does life mean when we find our lives reconfigured by something as unnerving as the proclamation of resurrection? Then, after walking in and out of the disciples’ lives in some form after the resurrection, Jesus leaves again.

    One way to look at Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to see them as five movements of one opus, The Incarnation: God’s all-in presence with and commitment to the Creation. Jesus’ ministry and death reveal that where any part of the Creation suffers, God is in the midst of it, transforming that suffering into something new and renewing beyond our imagining. Our desires and our culture—even our “religious” culture—try to tell us that happiness, health, and wealth are how we know God loves us. But the gospel shows us that God’s love becomes most real and powerful when we follow Jesus into the suffering around us and participate in God’s transforming work of resurrection.

       It seems counterintuitive, but shared suffering leads to the holiest of places. Eons ago, Isaiah spoke of the transformative nature of suffering: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…and by his bruises we are healed.” (Is. 53:3a, 5c)

       Last week, Richard Rohr wrote: “For God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the [true] meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.”1

       Our current global crisis calls us to remember that in God’s Creation, we are one—one people, one humanity, one world. One whole. The suffering of one is the suffering of all, and to share suffering is to begin to heal it. To share suffering is to participate in God’s solidarity with all things through Jesus.

       When Jesus leaves the disciples that second time, it is for good—and I hope you hear the double entendre in for good. His departure means that while his physical presence is gone for good, he unleashes a new presence for the good of the Creation. The risen and ascended Jesus is our energy, our hope, our joy, our purpose, our love. He is the eternal Spirit that empowers us to live in our own here-and-now realities sharing, as Paul says, “the mind of Christ.” (1Cor. 2:16)

       Through the opus of the Incarnation, God declares love for and solidarity with the entire world. The ascension, then, represents the gateway to Pentecost—the revelation of the mind of the Christ which is eternally present in, with, and for all things. Jesus calls his followers into the world not to end suffering, but to enter it, to stand with those who suffer and to offer a cup of cold water, a loaf of bread, ears for listening, arms for embracing, eyes for weeping, and hearts for holding all that brokenness.

       In a commentary last week, David Brooks talked about the importance of establishing that kind of solidarity with one another during our uniquely trying time. This experience has made him distinguish “between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection,” he says, is about empathy and kindness, which is always important, but “Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good.”

       “[Solidarity] starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation—to one another and to all creation.

       “Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that…a soldier “risk[s] his life dragging the body of his…comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.

        “It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.”2

       Each gospel records different last words of Jesus, and in Luke, those last words are, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

       The disciples don’t yet understand that Jesus’ absence is making way for Pentecost’s new kind of presence. But they will understand. And they will continue not only to follow Jesus, but to walk with him in ministries of solidarity all the days of their lives.

       Most of us are physically absent from one another right now, and that absence is an act of holy solidarity. As we name the suffering within us and enter the suffering around us (from appropriate distances!) the ascended and still-incarnate Christ resides faithfully in our midst, deepening our love for each other, and strengthening us to endure days of anxiety and alienation.

       In that same article, David Brooks raises a hopeful question. “I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.”3 So, we endure for our sake, for the sake of people next-door, and for the sake of all whom God loves, from Jonesborough, to Washington County, to Washington state, to Italy, to China.

       It’s become the mantra, the cliché, the hashtag, and it is the Truth: We’re all in this together. And God’s Christ is right here with us.

       May his presence be real to you.

       May his presence be real through you.

       May he bring all of us his peace.

 

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/49084C843D5E92892540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

2https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/opinion/coronavirus-isolation.html

3Ibid.

Night and Day (Sermon)

“Night and Day”

John 4:1-42

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/15/20

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

The Samaritan Woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

30They left the city and were on their way to him.

31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”

33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (NRSV)

       Last week, we listened in on the nocturnal conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This week, in the very next chapter, we watch and listen as Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

       The story begins with Jesus making his way through the unfriendly territory of Samaria as he travels from Jerusalem north to Galilee. As it unfolds, the narrative creates a contrast to the previous one that is both stark and completely deliberate.

       Nicodemus is named. The woman is not.

       Nicodemus is male. The woman is…well…not.

       Nicodemus is an influential leader among the Jews in Jerusalem. The woman is an outcast among the outcasts in Samaria.

       Nicodemus sneaks in under the cover of darkness to initiate a visit with Jesus. Jesus initiates the encounter with the Samaritan woman, in a public place, in the full light of the noonday sun.

       Nicodemus is either afraid or unable to free his mind from the restraints of a religious system that is, for him, not only familiar but absolute. The Samaritan woman opens her mind and her entire life to possibilities that would appear to be unimaginable for her.

       Nicodemus is a clueless conversation partner who fades out with his incredulous question: “How can these things be?”

       The Samaritan woman demonstrates theological understanding and spiritual boldness in her conversation with Jesus. Then, she becomes an active witness whose testimony unleashes faith and joy within her and within her whole community.1

       These stories create a study in night-and-day juxtapositions. One purpose of the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman is to illustrate one of the most memorable declarations in John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…”

       Now, let’s remember: While they share Hebrew heritage and history, Jerusalem Jews and Samaritans hold each other in contempt. Jerusalem Jews in particular consider Samaritans deserving of no better treatment than Gentiles and lepers. It’s a sad relationship, and one that has parallels in all manner of human prejudice and fear, both ancient and contemporary. Into that disaffection, John declares that the Father’s gift to the world is the presence of the Son. God gives the Christ, the Word enfleshed, to the entire Creation.

       I don’t know about you, but the message that I’ve gotten over the years, and the message I used to preached, connects the giving of the Son almost exclusively to the cross. The Father gives up the Son, sacrifices the Son, as the only way to restore God’s desire and ability to love the Creation and to deal graciously with it. As I’ve said before, I can no longer preach that point of view in good faith because I consider any god who requires a violent human death to be restored to a capacity for love is just that a god. Not God. And it seems to me that the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman reveals the true nature of the Son as God’s unique and saving gift to us.

       When Jesus enters Samaritan territory, he instigates the conversation with the woman. We call that initiative grace. Many preachers and teachers have spoken of Jesus’ redeeming love for the woman. The assumption behind much of that instruction is that she’s a “sinner,” but one is hard pressed to pinpoint where Jesus or John clearly identifies the woman’s sin. Jesus simply states the facts: The woman has had five husbands and is now living with someone who isn’t her husband. John doesn’t elaborate on that, and Jesus doesn’t condemn her of anything. At Jacob’s well, the two begin to talk, to share their stories, and to share the story.

       The ancient story of the Hebrews includes the drama of Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who experienced a deep and painful alienation from each other. That alienation lasted many years and was healed only when the brothers had grown old enough and wise enough to understand that the world was big enough for both of them, and then some, so big, in fact, that God alone can comprehend it and love it adequately.

       That same family is now two first-century nations so deeply wounded by the world, and each side so profoundly alienated from the other, that the two factions barely recognize each other as human. The family now reunites in the persons of Jesus and a very smart, articulate, intrepid woman. Meeting at Jacob’s well, they represent the entire world, all that is beloved yet broken, and all that is holy and healing.

       The encounter shows us that God’s giving of the Son transcends Friday’s atrocity. Friday doesn’t mollify an angry God. Friday exposes the bloodlust of a humanity that has given itself over to the selfish and fearful fury of broken systems that live for their own sakes rather than for the sake of neighbor and earth. In contrast: The gift announced in John 3:16 is the enfleshed Word who comes to all the world and lives among us. (John 1:14)

       “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done!” says the woman to her neighbors. And “when the Samaritans came to [Jesus], they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.” Invited and received, Jesus accepts the hospitality of the despised Samaritans with loving gratitude and generosity. This reunion reminds us of the reunion of Jacob and Esau. It shows us how God continually gives to the world the Son, the unquenchable “light that shines in the darkness,” (John 1:5) and who is even now transforming all things from night to day.

       We live in a broken and alienated world. Like-minded groups seem intent on drawing the covers of darkness over themselves and others by finding reasons to fear, judge, despise, and even injure people who aren’t like them. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t participate in the brokenness, even if only as passive beneficiaries of systems of inequity and injustice.

       But the gospel says that we also live in a world that has been beloved from the beginning and will be so loved forever. And there is a gathering place in our midst, a well of living water who is given to us and who abides with us, full of grace and truth. We don’t restrict his movements or hinder his love. Our tradition calls him Jesus, the Christ, but we do not own the well. We only witness to it, for in the well of God’s timeless, universal Christ, there is water enough for all whom God loves.

       If the coronavirus outbreak holds even one positive thing for the world, it’s a reminder that we are, all of us—Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, rich and poor, resident and refugee—one human family on this planet. We are far more deeply connected and interdependent than many of us want to admit. Our insane scrambles to stockpile hand sanitizer and toilet paper for ourselves attests to how far we’re willing to go to separate ourselves one from another. In the midst of our reactionary fears, today’s text reminds us that our daunting task is simply to come to the Well, to drink the living water of the Christ, to receive his satisfying and renewing light, and to learn to see one another as he sees us—as ones who are eternally beloved by God.

       May you claim your Belovedness.

       And may you live as fountains of the love with which you are loved.

1Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 93-97.

 

From Provocative Feast to Proactive Fast (Sermon)

“From Provocative Feast to Proactive Fast

Isaiah 58:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/1/20

 

       Isaiah was a prophet during the first Babylonian exile which occurred between 738-701BCE. Speaking to the dispossessed Hebrews, Isaiah let them know—in rather ruthless terms­—that their unfaithfulness had much to do with their plight. Israel fell apart by ignoring justice for the poor, and by not simply tolerating but encouraging selfishness and greed in their leaders. “How the faithful city has become a whore!” cries Isaiah. “She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers…Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves…They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:21-23)

        What the people allowed in their “princes” reflected what they wanted for themselves. “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord…The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint.” (Isaiah, 1:4, 5b)

       According to Isaiah, the problem is the corporate sin of the nation, the forgetfulness of the community, the conscious pursuit by religious and political leaders for control and comfort rather than for loving God and neighbor by doing justice, practicing righteousness, and living grateful and generous lives. According to Isaiah, these problems begin with worship that placates rather than provokes, rituals that anesthetize rather than energize. The prophet, then, calls the leaders of the faith community to the daring work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s disruptive but rebuilding, repairing, and restoring love:

Shout out, do not hold back!

Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

2Yet day after day they seek me

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

they delight to draw near to God.

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today

will not make your voice heard on high.

5Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help,

and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

11The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in. (NRSV)

       When the people fasted, prayed, and humbled themselves with sackcloth and ashes, they were trying to convince God to do beneficial things specifically for them. Like the Pharisees on the street corners in Jesus’ day, Isaiah’s audience was seeking to prove themselves worthy of God’s special favor by making their religiosity as overt, pretentious, and self-referential as possible. “Look,” says Isaiah, “you serve your own interest on your fast day.”

        “During Isaiah’s time,” says homiletics professor Brett Younger, Jewish worship “was standing room only. No one missed a service…They sang psalms…said prayers and gave offerings. What they did not do,” says Younger, “was let worship trouble their consciences…They did not want to make connections between their worship and their neighbors.”1So God told Isaiah to “Shout out, do not hold back!” Call the people on their hypocrisy. They’re acting “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness,” but they “fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

       Isaiah taught that the purpose of worship and all the feasts and rituals involved is to prepare worshipers for the fast of prophetic living. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, [and] to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to…” feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and be lovingly present to everyone? Regardless of where we stand on an issue, loving presence is something all of us need to practice more intentionally these days!

        When you live faithfully, says God, you’re light on a hill; you’re a healing spring. When you live faithfully, “your ancient ruins will be rebuilt [and] you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

       According to Isaiah, true worship compels people to enter into the God-fast: a life of proactive engagement in and on behalf of the community, especially the poor and the forgotten. Theology professor Carol Dempsey says, “Fasting was a means of freeing one’s self to receive the gifts of God, which were always intended for the common good.”2 Progressing from feast to fast is synonymous with going from worship to service.

       In her book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans told the story of Sara Miles, a journalist who had been raised in an atheistic household, and who, one day, without forethought, “wandered into [a church in San Francisco] and ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine.”3 Sara had never been baptized, never read the Bible, never prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and, being gay, never felt welcomed in any faith tradition, especially merit-based Christianity. But that day she walked through an open door, found an open communion table, and received the invitation: Take and eat.

        “‘And then something outrageous and terrifying happened,’ [said Sara]. ‘Jesus happened to me.’ [I] felt dizzy, overwhelmed, charged with life [and] filled…‘I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told…But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table.”4

       What I find provocative about Sara’s story is not simply that she found Jesus at the table, but what Jesus then demanded of her.

       “‘Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God…Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people…I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers”—which tends to be code for “a like-minded club,”—but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.’”5

       Experiencing welcome at Christ’s table of grace, Sara Miles discovered what filled her, because she discovered, at last, her true hunger for justice and her true thirst for righteousness. She then connected those cravings to the emptiness all around her. She founded and now directs “The Food Pantry” at the Episcopal church that welcomed her.

        Rather than comfortable and passive satisfaction, the point of worship and ritual is to be provoked and sent out into the proactive fast of daily discipleship. Worship led Sara Miles to her God-chosen fast: Feeding the hungry, challenging the systems that allow and create disparity, and sharing her new faith as a writer and speaker.

       Salvation is a word we associated with the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And that’s entirely appropriate, especially when we understand that salvation means more than some individualistic, post-mortem reward for having said the sinner’s prayer. Because God intends our worship to benefit the common good, salvation means, above all else, being delivered from the sins of fear and selfishness so that we may love and serve God by loving neighbor and caring for all Creation.

       As you come to the table today, this first Sunday of Lent, I challenge you to offer the bread and the cup to each other saying, out loud, not holding back: The bread of life. The cup of salvation. As you give and receive these gifts, participate actively in declaring the provocative good news that shackles are being broken, yokes are being removed, fear is being transformed into love.

        May this ritual release all of us and send us into a broken and often perilous world as ones through whom the light of God shines and springs of faithful water flow. For in and through Christ, our Host, that is who we are.

 

1Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 315-319.

2Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 315-319.

3Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, 2015. Pp. 146-149. (RHE is quoting from Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread.)

4Ibid.

5Ibid.

A Difficult Ideal (March Newsletter)

         A century ago, English writer G.K. Chesterton famously observed that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

        While Chesterton’s words may sound slightly tongue in cheek, they are, to quote Simeon’s warning to a starry-eyed Mary, a sword to pierce the soul. (Luke 2:35) Chesterton spoke a truth that continues to challenge Christians to reflect on the ways in which we are less faithful to Jesus than we are to our own comfort and convenience. And we all struggle to live as faithful disciples. Who wouldn’t? Jesus is on record saying revolutionary things like: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” And “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

         As daunting as those words are, they’re some of the most vital and life-giving things Jesus says. They define discipleship as a life of gratitude, generosity, service, and trust. How do we even begin such a journey?

         The season of Lent is a yearly call to practice some new ritual of discipleship. The intent of these forty days preceding Easter is to recognize that, indeed, we have found the “Christian ideal difficult,” and we have “left [it] untried.” More than all the petty faults and failings we can name and count, that is the sin we confess during Lent.

         If you are considering a Lenten discipline, I encourage you to think beyond the simplistic avoidance of some trifling luxury you’re better off without, anyway. Pray about the difficult ideal of Christian discipleship, and instead of giving something up, take on some new layer of awareness and service. Whatever time, energy, inconvenience, or discomfort it requires of you will be what you “give up.” That will be your Good Friday surrender. It will reveal to you something new of God in the world and of the God-given gifts within you, and it will create in you to an expanded capacity to experience and share Resurrection joy.

        May your Lenten disciplines be guided by a deep and prayerful desire to discover and engage the holiness in your body, mind, and spirit, and the holiness in the Creation around you, just as Jesus fully gave himself to his holiness and his potential when he overcame his own temptations in the wilderness, and not only tried but faithfully walked the difficult path shown to him by God.

         Peace,

                  Allen

Too Big for a Tiny House (Sermon)

“Too Big for a Tiny House”

Mark 9:2-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/23/20

 

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (NRSV)

        Up on a mountain, standing before a transfigured Jesus, Peter is thrown into a kind of spiritual confusion. Overwhelmed by the brilliance and holiness of Jesus, together with Moses and Elijah, the disciple offers to do something which, knowing Peter, is not surprising. Knowing Jesus, though, it’s absurd.

        “Rabbi,” he says, I like being here. Let’s just stay, and I’ll build each of us a tiny house.

        The story of the Transfiguration illustrates one of the fundamental tensions in the Church—the tension between the call to be Jesus’ body in and for the world and the temptation to stuff him inside comprehensible structures and constraints.

        When we read the stories of Jesus, we’re introduced to a man who constantly goes out of his way to call people to follow him in witnessing to love and creating purpose in a world rocked by isolation, sorrow, and fear. He relentlessly challenges his disciples to follow him in contemplative living—that is, a life in which the lines between prayer and service are all but erased.

        Contemplative living was the guiding ethos of the early church, but within a few centuries, the Church lost sight of that. In the fourth century, Theodosius I made Christianity the imperial religion and, therefore, virtually synonymous with the state. And while Christians were no longer persecuted as they once were, church leaders began to teach that loyal citizenship of the realm, intellectual consent to prescribed dogma, and feeding the church coffers were more important in following Jesus than loving God, loving neighbor, and caring for the earth. The purpose of documents like the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds was to create a strict uniformity in the Church, and it wasn’t even for the Church’s sake. The creeds were written to create a monolithic population not to serve God so much as to stabilize the empire by making everyone as homogenous as possible. Discipleship of someone as humble, love-driven, and neighbor-focused as Jesus of Nazareth became a creed that could be recited in a single, deep breath.

        From the collusion of Jewish leadership with Rome in the first century, to the corrupt papacy of medieval Europe, to the restrictive and violent fundamentalism not just of Christianity but of all religions in today’s highly combustible world, tiny house theology has sought status and security by bedding down with the ways and means of empires.

        How humble, how awe-struck, how compassionate, how prophetic does one need to be if one’s god fits neatly inside these individualistic, square-cornered, reap-what-you-sow value systems? Tiny house theology became orthodoxy in Christianity because it’s comfortable, but it sparks more impassioned conversation around carpet care than missions. It shapes a passive, go-to-heaven-when-I-die ethos rather than a grateful, servant-hearted involvement with the kingdom of God on earth. It allows congregations to look monochromatic in a Kodachrome Creation. Tiny house theology is, in part, why many people, especially younger generations, are fleeing what they see as a contentious, exclusive, self-serving, and irrelevant institution.

        One of my own weekly struggles with tiny house theology is choosing hymns. So much of the doctrine in our hymnody proclaims a god who actually became powerless to love the Creation, and had to be made able to love us again through the brutal and bloody death of an innocent scapegoat. And when that’s the god we worship, it’s no wonder we treat each other the ways we often do. Many hymns also have us fluttering our eyes at a diaphanous Jesus who waits to welcome us into the “Sweet By and By.” While logical, rational, and kind of cozy, these gods engulf us in the smallnesses of retributive justice and superficial piety.

        Now, I am aware that we live in a chaotic and frightening world. And we call this place a “sanctuary.”

        We come here seeking peace and reassurance.

        We come here to be reminded that we’re not alone in the universe.

        We come here to celebrate that timeless Spirit we call God who loves us, redeems our suffering, and gives meaning to life.

        We gather to hear the music, the words, and the silence that grounds us in God’s good Creation and releases us from the crushing gravity of life in a broken world.

        We come here to share each other’s awe, and wonder, and love of God, and to be sent forth renewed and empowered for grateful and joyful service.

        Here, in this sanctuary, in the company of Jesus and a “great cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1) God’s voice affirms our faith, saying, Yes! “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

        That’s why we’re here: To listen to Jesus. And Jesus says, Follow me. Not: Follow protocols.

        He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Not: Sit here in pious compliance for an hour, then go joke about beating the Baptists to the buffet.

        Jesus says, When you care for those who are naked, hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned, you are caring for me. (Matthew 25:40) Not: When you look right, act right, and don’t rock the boat, you make me proud.

        He also says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2) Not: Build yourself a tiny house.

        Jonesborough Presbyterian has about a hundred and eighty people on its roll. Anywhere from ninety to a hundred and ten people are here on a normal Sunday. While we are not, thank God, a megachurch, and while there’s always room for more, we don’t do God or ourselves any favors by dismissing Jonesborough Presbyterian as some quaint, “little church.” We’ are a mission outpost in the worldwide Body of Christ! We don’t exist for our own sake. And as Presbyterians, we’re not a tiny house denomination. We’re part of a diverse, connectional, relational community. What any one Presbyterian church does is done on behalf of the wider church. That’s why the PC(USA) doesn’t send out “missionaries.” We send out “mission co-workers,” men, women, and families whose work around the globe is our work, too. God hasn’t called you and me to labor in Haiti, Brazil, Malawi, Iraq, or Bangladesh, but we are co-workers with those whom God has spoken to, called, and sent down those other sides of the mountain. We’re stationed here, but we’re part of a vibrant, planetary body reaching out anywhere and everywhere that God’s beautiful and beloved Creation cries out for help.

        By the same token, those of us who don’t personally participate in Family Promise, or the shawl ministry, or the food pantry, or Loaves and Fishes, or the DRC are still present through other members of this congregation who do.

        At the Transfiguration, God, for whom a tiny house is a subatomic particle, calls us to “Listen to [Jesus].”

        Listen to him! And he will open you to the suffering around you and move you to speak and act so that you become an instrument of God’s redemption and peace.

        Listen to him! And you will find him in the midst of your own suffering and struggle.

        Listen to him! And your very life will reveal your ministry to you.

        Listen to him! says God.

        And Jesus says, “Follow me.”

Christ or Mascot? (Sermon)

“Christ or Mascot?”

1Corinthians 3:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/16/20

 

After all the introductory niceties, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gets right to the point: “11It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” he writes. “12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Cor. 1:11-13)

I’m just riffing here, but maybe the Corinthians, as ancient Greeks, were so used to having a smorgasbord of gods to choose from, that every time things got difficult, they went looking for something more satisfying on the buffet. Paul was good, and some people stuck with him. But Apollos was smart and a great orator. And Cephas; that’s Peter’s Greek name. He was intense, and to the sophisticated folks of Corinth, he may have been something of novelty, relatable in a blue-collar, beer-drinking kind of way. Even Jesus seemed to be just another choice on the menu.

Lovingly distressed, Paul calls the Corinthians out for having grown so divided that they no longer experience, much less represent the body of Christ. Then again, the apostle does understand. “26Consider your own call,” he says. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1Cor. 1:26-28)

Paul challenges the Corinthians to understand that while the gospel may sound a bit ridiculous at first, it takes a deep, mature, and long-practiced spirituality of contemplation and service to embody it. And in the thirteenth chapter of this same letter, Paul writes one of his most insightful and memorable passages, the passage that ends with these words: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor. 13:13)

In our own day, Richard Rohr echoes that truth saying that we can never truly know God. We can only love God. And that’s all God asks.1 Paul urges the Corinthians to recognize that while they may be on the way to the beginnings of an inkling of that truth, they need to mature quite a bit further into agape love before it becomes their truth.

 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)

 

You all are messed up, say Paul, because your sippy cups are empty and your diapers are full. The church is not about you, or me, or Apollos. We’re all servants, co-workers on God’s farm. I planted and Apollos watered because a crop needs people to do both of those things. But when seeds go into the earth, they’re dead. The new life they receive and the growth they experience is a miracle only God can do.

        Jealousy and quarreling, says Paul, are signs of a community made up of individuals who live in constant fear that their familiar ways of thinking and being in the world will be questioned or contradicted. That fear launches a series of wrong turns. They turn away from love. They turn their energies of cooperation and trust into suspicion, judgment, and even aggression toward those who represent emerging viewpoints. And these reactions turn communities from havens of harmony into nurseries of resentment and conflict.

Let’s remember that Paul used to persecute Christians. He turned his Pharisaic fears into suspicion, judgment, and deadly aggression toward followers of Jesus. And now he nurtures and leads them as a Christian servant. Paul himself died, was buried, and given new life by God, in Christ. So, he has unique authority to say that when followers of Jesus look for hope and redemption in anything besides God’s Christ, they are seeking comfort in mascots.

Human cultures offer mascots by the thousands. Whether it’s a celebrity, a political affiliation, a theological absolute, a sport or team or athlete, a screened-in distraction, a substance to ingest or inject, or some means by which to impose our will on others, there is a pantheon of mascots and idols just waiting to be bought, sold, and coddled. We can claim to love them, but they cannot love us back. They can only seduce us. Love for a mascot is nothing more than addiction.

As immeasurably different as the first and twenty-first centuries are, much about human relationships remains the same. The Corinthians’ competing loyalties to Paul, Apollos, Peter, and God knows what else mirror the divisions we experience in our contemporary jealousies and quarrels. Human beings have always been driven by their obsessions with power and security. And through the eons human cultures have consistently relied on brutality and intimidation to achieve those ends. Since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313CE, the Church has fully participated in devotion to worldly mascots. And since misappropriated love is just another name for fear, the history of the Church has always included not only division, but destruction of things God creates and loves. As members of that Church, we must be able to confess that we have participated in and benefited from the Church’s fear-driven jealousies, quarrels, and power-grabs.

“Power is of two kinds,” said Gandhi. “One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than [power] derived from fear of punishment.”3

Gandhi wasn’t Christian, but there’s a mystic harmony between his words and 1Corinthians 13, Paul’s “love chapter.” I hear a similar harmony expressed today, again by Father Rohr when he speaks of the Universal Christ2, which is the embodied love of God in and for the world, a love that is not so small and petty a thing that it depends on our childish jealousies and quarrels to decide for whom and even through whom God can be at work.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be boldly different from while remaining lovingly engaged in the world around us. We’re called to be servants who have a “common purpose” even when we get sideways on details. Our common purpose as laborers in “God’s field” and on “God’s building,” is to receive and share the eternal love of the one who created and redeems us. We’re called to be a community of yeast, a ferment in the world according to Jesus’ ways of mercy, justice, and peace. We experience unity not by having all the same opinions, but by holding the inevitable tensions of living in community with love, which is “patient [and] kind…[which] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…[which] does not insist on its own way…[which] is not irritable or resentful…[which] bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things.” (1Cor. 13:4-7)

God, grant us the strength and the maturity of faith to live in love, to live humbly, honestly, and compassionately with one another, so that our life together witnesses to our shared conviction that we do, in all things and at all times, belong to and serve only you. Amen.

 

1https://cac.org/know-god-love-god-2018-01-19/

2Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Books, 2019.

3https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/78373-power-is-of-two-kinds-one-is-obtained-by-the

 

Salt, Light, and Love (Sermon)

“Salt, Light, and Love”

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Matthew 5:13-20

2/9/20

 

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

       Most scholars agree that Matthew wrote his version of the gospel in the years just prior to the destruction of the temple in 70CE. And he wrote specifically for the Jewish community. To understand Matthew’s purposes and approach, a reader needs to understand at least a little about the burdens that first-century Jews had carried for centuries.

        When the exiles returned from Babylon in 516BCE, they found Jerusalem laboring under Persian rule. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Judea. That led to a couple of centuries of Greek control. After more than four hundred years of repression, Jerusalem finally enjoyed an eighty-year run of relative autonomy under the Hasmoneans. Then, in 63BCE, Jerusalem fell to Rome.

        For the Jewish community, this painful history produced a persistent existential stress that created tremendous tension among those who had been told that they were God’s chosen people. So, by Jesus’ day, the unmolested glory of which the prophets had spoken since the days of Abraham was real only in dreams and poetry.

        Reflecting on today’s passage, Edwin Van Driel says that first-century Judaism lay awash in factions of competing opinions about how to live in relationship within the faith community and in relationship with Rome. The Sadducees opted for full cooperation. Survive by being good citizens of the realm. The Zealots, a rebel group, actively sought to take up weapons and fight Rome. The Pharisees were divided. Some sympathized with the Zealots, and others chose to sequester themselves in what Dr. Van Driel calls “the ghetto,” a Jewish sect in and around Jerusalem that tried to cut itself off from all outside influences and keep its Jewish identity as pure as possible.1 These divisions and competing loyalties defined the political/religious climate throughout the Jewish world.

        Into this turmoil, Jesus shows up saying to all Jews, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…the merciful…the peacemakers…[and] those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”

        “You,” says Jesus to the descendants of Abraham and David, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”

        While salt may lose its saltiness, and light may be hidden, Jesus affirms that the people to whom he speaks, regardless of how spicy or bland, bright or dim they may feel, are salt and light. They have God-given gifts. They have a story of suffering and redemption, a sacramental community, and a love-driven hope. Israel is called to enrich all of Creation with these gifts. That is what it means to be chosen and blessed by God.

        From reading and studying Jesus’ life and teachings, it seems clear to me that chosen-ness and blessedness have nothing to do with being individuals or nations that enjoy more health, wealth, and power than anyone else. Our own culture’s sense of entitlement to excess is a symptom of the theological fallacies of the prosperity gospel which preaches that worldly advantages prove God’s favor, and that one may justify virtually any means to ensure those so-called “blessings.” The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it simply cannot be harmonized with Jesus. From his Sermon on the Mount to all that follows, Jesus declares that the faith community’s proper relationship with political, economic, and social forces is one of loving and engaged prophecy. All too often the Church trades its prophetic relationship with the powers for one of symbiosis or laissez faire. All too often the Church sells its soul to the devil and climbs into bed with greed, vengeance, and violence.

        But that’s just such a thoroughly human thing to do, isn’t it? It’s so human to want to feel secure in and of ourselves. That’s the very point of Jesus’ own temptation. Even he struggles with the seductions of acquiring and controlling. So, when he preaches his challenging gospel of grace, we can trust that he knows what he’s asking of us. He may not let up on us, but he is always understanding and forgiving because he knows how hard it is to follow him. Doesn’t he even say that it’s like taking up a Roman cross?

        So, we can understand that when the Jewish people hear Jesus say that they are spiritual seasoning and illuminating hope for the world, he is complicating their already complicated life. They live in an environment in which politics and religion are all knotted up. According to Dr. Van Driel, here’s the fundamental issue: For the Jewish community, exile is not something of the past. Because it has lasted, in one way or another, for the last six hundred years, the people expect a military/political messiah.2 Indeed, few will be satisfied with anything less. They expect God’s kingdom to be a geopolitical reality, something they will have to achieve through great effort and at great cost. They expect another Moses, a charismatic leader who is faithful to the law, but this time one who is also brave, fierce, and victorious in battle.

        The new Moses Matthew presents is an uncredentialled Galilean rabbi declaring that God’s kingdom is a completely different kind of reality. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, isn’t a state built on military might and political domination. It’s a real, here-and-now gift, something God is already doing. And as an alternative community-within-the-community, it is being, and has always been revealed through people whose love for God and neighbor shines boldly in a hurting world, people who season their surroundings with mercy for the poor, justice for the voiceless, kindness for the enemy, and forgiveness for all.

        The teachings of Jesus do heal and redeem, but before they do that, they defy and disrupt. To Jews in the first century and Christians in the twenty-first century, Jesus is saying that God is doing a brand-new thing that requires an entirely new way of imagining God and of living faithfully as the people of God. At the same time, he affirms the law in its foundational simplicity—Love God. Love neighbor. To love as we are loved by God means to lay down our selfish fears and idolatries and to weigh every decision we make against the example of God’s love for us and for the Creation as that love is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That is to fulfill every letter and every stroke of a letter of the law.

        That is to live the life of blessedness,

        …the life of salt and light.

        …the life of ones whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.”

        …the life of grateful and generous inhabitants of God’s kingdom.

 

1Edwin Chr. Van Driel, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 333-337.

2Ibid.

 

 

Comfort of a Creed

w/m Allen Huff

©2020

 

Adam went to church most every Sunday

To thank his lucky stars for God above,

God helps those who help themselves, he heard the preacher say.

Now let’s sing a song of happiness and love.

 

In the parking lot a ragged man approached him.

Can you spare a buck for a piece of bread?

Adam stared right past the man disgusted.

I’ve got no change, so I’ll pray for you instead.

 

Chorus:

Oh, but all of us are hungry until all of us are fed.

Love is more than thoughts and prayers; it’s everything we share.

And compassion is the greatest gift to neighbor and to self.

We’re all in this together; if we share heaven, we share hell.

 

That night within a dream a thin hand beckoned,

Hollow eyes searched only to be seen.

To the sound of his own groaning Adam wakened.

In ceaseless tears he poured out all his grief.

 

He killed the fatted calf for familiar faces,

He gave to those deserving of a gift.

But when came the beggar dirty or the wino wasted,

He closed his heart and mind and clinched his fist. (Chorus)

 

Bridge:

In the morning at the mirror, Adam looked into his face.

He saw hunger in his own eyes and loneliness in his gaze.

He knew he’d starved himself when he denied his neighbor’s need,

And traded true religion for the comfort of a creed. (Chorus)