A Feast of Grace (Sermon)

“A Feast of Grace”

Matthew 14:13-21

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NRSV)

         “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

         What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by Herod. When Herod had openly taken a shine to his brother’s wife, Herodias, John did what prophets do. Speaking truth to power, he confronted Herod. And it cost John his life.

         One might think John reckless for challenging a tyrant like Herod, but real prophets aren’t palm-readers making predictions. They are spiritually-grounded, visionary realists possessed by sufficient moral clarity, fearlessness, and love of neighbor to call out communities—and especially people of influence and privilege within those communities—for their selfishness and faithlessness. Prophets like St. Francis of Assisi, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King see how wrong-headedness and wrong-heartedness are hurting some people in the moment, and how, in time, they will destroy many more.

         This made me wonder: Why doesn’t Jesus do the same? Why doesn’t he call out Herod for executing John—a revenge killing which isn’t called murder only because the state did it? Instead of declaring John’s death “unlawful,” Jesus scurries off “to a deserted place by himself.”

         Maybe Jesus goes away to pray because, before he says anything, he has to grieve the death of someone he loved.

         Maybe Jesus knows that if he confronts Herod, Herod would just kill him, and Jesus’ time has not yet come.

         Maybe Jesus retreats to the wilderness to wrestle again with the temptation to do something dramatic, something to humiliate and defeat Herod. And that’s the very sort of thing old Beelzebub tried to get Jesus to do earlier—to impose his will on the world through manipulative and violent means. And Jesus knows that the kingdom of heaven does not and cannot arrive at the point of a spear. It is a gift revealed through expressions of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity.

         A great crowd follows Jesus to the “deserted place.” In that wilderness of grief and of human frailty, Jesus witnesses to the kingdom of heaven with compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. He cares for those who bring to him nothing but their need.

         The disciples show compassion and generosity for the crowd the best they know how. When it gets late, they say, Jesus, send them into the villages to buy food. They’re hungry, and we don’t have anything to give them.

         Yes, you do, says Jesus.

         Among them, the disciples have five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They look at each other as if Jesus told a joke that wasn’t funny.

         Jesus asks for their pittance of food and seats the crowd. Holding the loaves and the fish, he looks to the heavens, thanks God for what there is, and it becomes enough.

         Some call it a physical miracle. If so, that’s pretty wonderful. If that’s the miracle, though, has Jesus only given in and done what he refused to do when the devil tempted him back in that first wilderness—turn stones into bread and astonish people with magic? Besides, when the people are hungry again in a few hours, then what?

         Some call it a miracle of transformed hearts. Jesus takes a leap of faith and shares what little he has trusting that his actions will inspire others to do the same, whether they are people who have little to offer or people whose wealth makes them tight-fisted and greedy. A miracle like that may seem less “satisfying” than something supernatural; but it may be more nourishing because it can create ripple effects that continue to feed hungry people.

         Or maybe this story, which is found in all four gospels, is not so much a report as it is a theological statement, a summation of the gospel itself: Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnate expression of God’s abundant compassion, forgiveness, and generosity in and for the world. In Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, there is always enough.1

         However one chooses to read this story, Jesus challenges all of us saying, “you give them something to eat.” The compassionate first-response to hungry, lost, broken people is not to try to “save” them. It’s not to pressure them to profess a specific belief system. The compassionate response to hungry people in deserted places is, like Jesus, to care for them and to feed them. This is especially true when, like Jesus after John’s death, we feel some sinister Herod nipping at our heels.

         The story of the feeding of the five thousand illustrates that, in the face of threats and challenges, to live lovingly, compassionately, and generously is itself a kind of “cure.” Caring for and feeding others connects us to God’s presence and abundance. To reach out in generous love and compassion is to feast at God’s great banquet.

         In contrast, to live fearfully and vengefully, to live as if we matter more than those around us, only increases our distance from God, from our neighbors, and from the earth. To live selfishly is to starve in the midst of God’s abundance.

         Many years ago, my wife and I attended a funeral at a church in a different denomination. As part of that service, the officiant led in the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And he made it clear that only members of that particular tradition were allowed at the table. In that house of worship, only those who had previously agreed to understand communion in a certain way were welcome.

         Going in, we knew that would be the case if communion were celebrated, but the actual experience unsettled us. We were practicing Christians and old friends of one member of the grieving family. And yet, while the “worthy” people lined up in the aisles, we had to keep our seats and watch. We were not allowed to receive the gift which God offers to all people through Christ.

         The service wasn’t about us, so we didn’t dwell on it. Still, God’s resurrection feast was intentionally withheld from many people at time when a community had gathered to mourn the death of a loved one. Instead of feeding the crowd, the minister fenced off Christ’s table and declared it private property.

         At Jonesborough Presbyterian we practice open communion. I try to make it clear that whenever this table is set, there is always room and there is always enough for everyone. Anyone can choose not to participate. That’s fine, but I want everyone to hear that the disciples who set this table have heard Jesus say to them, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”

         Whether out there in that “deserted place” with Jesus, or here in this sanctuary thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, there is enough. There will always be enough at Christ’s table, because this, his feast of grace, is set with generous helpings of God’s eternal love.


1M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon Press, 1995. pp 325-326.

Parable Living (Sermon)

“Parable Life”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51“Have you understood all this?”

They answered, “Yes.”

52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  (NRSV)

       Jesus teaches in parables because there are signs pointing to the kingdom of heaven all around us, in the most ordinary realities. The made-for-Sunday-school image of the kingdom as a mustard seed brings to mind children walking out of church with bright smiles and paper cups filled with an over-watered slurry of dark earth. Somewhere inside that mud lies a tiny seed, drowning, dying, just like Jesus said in a different parable.

       The only problem with most such scenarios is that the perfectly well-intentioned Sunday school teachers usually bring seeds for things like zinnias, pansies, tomatoes, or something else both normal and welcome in backyard gardens. To first-century farmers, though, mustard plants were invasive shrubs. To make Jesus’ point, the Sunday school teachers should send the kids home with kudzu or crabgrass to plant outside their windows.

       Matthew does something interesting here. The story immediately preceding today’s string of pithy kingdom parables is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. By juxtaposing the wheat-and-weeds and the mustard seed parables, Matthew asks us to think very carefully about what we write off as weeds. That mustard plant, so vexing for farmers, creates a home for birds which not only aid in the propogation of crops, but whose plumage and song render in us nourishing awareness, joy, and gratitude, attributes which become a kind of yeast that leavens us for fuller living. Thanks be to God for the weeds.

       Yeast is another odd image for the kingdom of heaven. Yeast is a fungus, a biochemical change agent. When added to flour and water, that fungus becomes part of the dough just as the bread becomes part of the body that eats it. And while too little yeast has no effect, too much yeast can cause food poisoning.

       As yeast, the kingdom of heaven is God’s subtle and mysterious presence working within us and through us. It seems to me that when those who follow any given religious tradition over-identify that tradition with temporalities like nations, partisan dogmas, or material wealth, we inevitably try to force upon others that which can only be offered. At that point, we no longer serve God, because we’re trying to be God. And that makes us a toxic presence rather a witness to grace.

       In the next two parables, Jesus compares God’s realm to material wealth. The one who finds “treasure hidden in a field” sells everything he has for the sake of a treasure that is not his, but that he works the system to acquire. While the man searching for fine pearls doesn’t do anything deceptive, the image is still one of grasping after material gain.

       Can we really compare the kingdom of heaven to something that engenders deception and reckless greed? Later in Matthew, when a rich young man says he wants eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell him to sell everything he has to buy a greater fortune. He says, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) And only then, says Jesus, will you have “treasure in heaven.”

       That begs the question of how becoming poor, becoming one whom most societies regard as nothing more than a human weed or a thin slice of unleavened bread makes us rich in things that matter? Holy treasure, says Jesus, is discovered in letting go of all that we claim to have earned and deserve for the sake of that which can only be received as a gift. And isn’t that the nature of grace?

       “The kingdom of heaven is like a net,” says Jesus. Something submerged into the depths and hauled in to see what gifts lie beneath the surface. In this parable (which is simply a recasting of the parable of the wheat and the weeds!), the good fish are kept—which means that they will be gutted, skewered on a spit, cooked over an open fire, and eaten. And the bad will be thrown back into the water. That kind of tempts a person to question the benefits of righteousness, doesn’t it?

       Hold onto the image of the net. We’ll get back to it.

       All these parables invite us to see our lives as parables, as expressions of a life much bigger than our individual lives. And to live consciously as parables inevitably puts us at odds with proud individualism, at odds with the cultures and ideologies of the nations we love, and at odds with groups that give us identity, that can include the Church.

       In reflecting on today’s passage, one commentator asks: “What if a society resembles the empire of Rome much more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in its policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence? Helping persons to adjust…[to] a sick society is not the work of the gospel.”1

       Working with the image of the yeast, another commentator says that “‘if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting [as yeast does] is the only path to wholeness.’”2 The point is that the church’s calling is to cultivate disciples who have more in common with weeds and yeast than celebrities and elected officials.

       Many of us feel deep concern over the church’s decline in contemporary culture. One can cast nets of blame into the waters and haul in all sorts of culprits, and the culprit most accountable is we, the Church, which is often more concerned with creating eye-catching gardens than places of welcome and belonging, baking bread that has more aroma than nourishment, accumulating wealth rather than sharing it, cozying up to power rather than advocating for the marginalized and oppressed, and especially with trying to decide for God who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s grace.

       On the positive side of the Church’s struggles, if we confess and conquer our addictions to entitlement and privilege, we can become the subversive weed Jesus plants in the creation, the pungent yeast the Spirit breathes with carefully-measured breaths into the nations. We can become the wide net God casts into the world not to make judgments, but simply to gather on behalf of God’s steadfast love.

       God’s realm is the new reality breaking through the earth itself, and through the actions and words of human parables living lives of compassion and non-violent justice for all. Like householders reaching into our storehouse of long-standing sacramental holiness, of ancient scriptural wisdom, and of ongoing spiritual experience, we continue to reveal God’s newness even in that which seems old, tired, and irrelevant.

       For nine years now, our Sunday school class has worked with lectionary passages. We study them in the simplest way: We read the passages three times using three translations, and each time we ask a different question. What word or phrase captures our attention or imagination? What is the Spirit calling us to be or to do individually? What is the Spirit calling our congregation to be or to do? Every single time, even when working with very familiar passages, we find something new and renewing in those ancient texts.

       Now that we’re meeting by Zoom on Wednesday nights and have an hour instead of thirty minutes, we find all the more of God’s blessed realm in the rich weediness of our lives, more yeast in the dough of our prayer, and more treasure in the fields of our communities as we get caught up in the nets of God’s unbounded grace, and sent out to live as parables, as signs of the presence of God’s holy realm.


In his book Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, Frederick Buechner offers this memorable guidance for parable living: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”3


1Gary Peluso-Verdend, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 286&288.


3From Frederick Buecher’s book, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. 1983, Harper/Collins. Quotation found at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/158523-listen-to-your-life-see-it-for-the-fathomless-mystery

A Bright Grace (Sermon)

“A Bright Grace”

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV)

         In Matthew 3, we meet John the Baptist, who is quite the paradox. First, he creeps out of the wilderness like some kind of beast. For clothing, he drapes camel’s skin around his body and cinches it with rawhide. He eats bugs right off the ground and honey he has robbed from wild bee hives. You can just see, stuck in amber crystals in his beard, bits of the gossamer wings and slender, bent legs of locusts. Then, all that feral mystique roars to life as John calls all the proper city folk from Jerusalem to prepare themselves for the kingdom of heaven by receiving a baptism of repentance. Without hesitation, the fierce prophet even scolds the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a “brood of vipers.”

         When Jesus shows up and presents himself for baptism, John recognizes Jesus’ unique holiness and authority, and says it would be more appropriate for him to be baptized by Jesus.

         Then, in Matthew 11, John’s fearless truth-telling has gotten him in trouble with Herod. While languishing in a Roman jail, John sends messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The image of an incarcerated John wondering whether Jesus is actually the one whom John had already declared him to be presents a strikingly different image of the confident, outspoken prophet we met earlier.

          After answering John with a cagey Yes, and after affirming John and his work, Jesus turns his attention to the crowds. Like John, he challenges them to do some honest self-examination.

         You all are like a bunch of bored, unimaginative mall rats, hollering at each other in the food court. We tried to get your attention, but bless your hearts, you don’t know what you want! John came offering structure and limits, and you passed him off as prude. The Son of Man himself shows up ready to dance like nobody’s watching, and you look down your noses at him as if you’d suddenly frozen up like a bunch of Presbyterians! The proof of what people genuinely believe and trust is in the pudding of their actions, and you all are finding every possible excuse to do nothing!

         Jesus is not advocating a shallow, self-serving works righteousness because salvation isn’t about who we are and what we do. It’s about who God is and what God does. That’s the whole point of grace.

         Having said that, following Jesus is, quite frankly, a lot of work. We follow him not to earn what has already been given, but to inhabit and proclaim God’s kingdom, which is the new way of life that the gift creates. And a kingdom life takes discipline; that’s why it’s called discipleship.

         Jesus acknowledges that discipleship is a formidable task, but he also says that it’s simple enough. It’s a life entrusted to compassion, justice, and joy. Children get it because they still have a broad sense of fairness, and they know what it’s like to entrust themselves to others. Jesus says that those who consider themselves “wise and intelligent” struggle because trust is something they’ve learned to give only to verified trustees. And in many, many cases, people who have been hurt by those they were supposed to be able to trust, simply cannot trust, anymore. That’s a tragic reality of the human condition, and those are not the “wise and intelligent” to whom Jesus refers. The “wise and intelligent” are those who have decided to trust themselves, their material advantage, and whatever they can quantify.

         I’m eternally grateful that I had trustworthy adults and authority figures in my youth. I also like to imagine that I have at least some semblance of wisdom and intelligence, so I can sympathize with feelings of suspicion and reticence. If God is real, and to be trusted, why do things that seem so ungodly happen? Why do people, “good” or “bad,” get cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Covid? Why are some children born with challenges they’ll never overcome? Why do some people with less pigment in their skin regard and treat people who have more pigment in their skin with less respect and generosity? Why do nations keep gorging themselves on valuable resources that they convert into means to destroy fellow human beings and the earth, and then claim that those means and that violence are signs of God’sfavor and blessing?

         It’s not hard to understand how people can decide that the idea of God is fiction, especially when considering the way religious people often use God to justify their own affluence and hostility.

And there’s the problem: Selfishness and brutality are the easy way. The life of faith takes hard work. It takes determination and conviction, imagination and creativity, patience and forgiveness. It takes all those gifts and characteristics Jesus names in the Beatitudes. (Mt. 5:1-12)

         Now, here’s another paradox: The same Jesus who says, Take up your cross and follow me;

         The same Jesus who says he comes not to bring peace but a sword;

         The same Jesus who says that to save our lives we must lose them;

         The same Jesus who says blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account;

         The same Jesus whose own burdensome yoke makes him pray for God to let this cup pass;

         This same Jesus calls the work of discipleship an easy yoke and a light burden.

         While this dissonance can confuse us, reconciling the hard work of discipleship and the gift of grace doesn’t take fancy theological gymnastics. It’s a matter of perspective. The hard work of discipleship is our grateful response to God’s gracious initiative. We are called to love as Jesus loves us. And the life of love is something we practice imperfectly, but the longer and more intentionally we follow Jesus’ ways of compassion, forgiveness, and justice, his yoke fits more naturally and his burden causes less strain.

         “What Jesus offers is not freedom from work,” says homiletics professor Lance Pace, “but freedom from onerous labor.”1 Pace describes the yoke of Jesus as work with purpose, “purpose that demands [our] all and summons forth [our] best. …work that is motivated by a passionate desire to see God’s kingdom realized.”2

         When John the Baptist asks if Jesus is “the one,” maybe he’s saying that if that’s the case, then he can trust that his incarceration will expose more than Herod’s transgressions. It will help to reveal the corrupt and systemically unjust ways of power when the powerful use it selfishly. And that yoke fits. That burden he can bear.

         Yesterday I re-read Martin Luther King, Jr’s. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In this profoundly eloquent, prophetic, and love-wrought epistle, Dr. King calls religious leaders of all faith traditions to task for their reluctance to take on the yoke and the burden of solidarity with God’s love for all humankind, and especially for those who suffer discrimination and oppression. Toward the end of the letter, in the only light-hearted moment, King says that the nearly 7000-word missive may be a bit long. But, he says, “what else can one do when…alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

         From his prison cell, Dr. King doesn’t have to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” He declares it with his life, his voice, and his hope. His work is not without suffering, but neither is it without transforming purpose. In his words, I hear Dr. King’s willful acceptance of the yoke and the burden of his kingdom-realizing vocation to speak the truth of the gospel, to act for justice, and to celebrate his faith that he does it all in the bright grace of God’s love.

1Lance Pace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 217.


Midwives of Hope (Sermon)

“Midwives of Hope”

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”

11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?”

19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said.

7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?

8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.”

So the girl went and called the child’s mother.

9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.”

So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (NRSV)

         There’s a new Pharaoh in town, and he has amnesia. Or maybe he’s been poorly schooled in history. Or maybe he was cast upon the throne at an age too young for the responsibility. Or maybe he’s just willfully ignorant. Whatever the case, the new Pharaoh neither remembers nor appreciates Joseph, the Hebrew servant and former prisoner whose spiritual insight and practical wisdom delivered Egypt during economic catastrophe. To such a forgetful leader as Pharaoh, the future is a realm to be feared, conquered, and controlled—by any means—because it’s all about himself.

         I understand that fear. I also understand that it almost always breeds devastation. When caught up in selfishness and anxiety, individuals, groups and nations project their personal fears onto groups and cultures that represent the weaknesses or the failures we most despise in ourselves. So rich and poor, black and white, male and female, this religion and that religion, old generations and young ones all battle and blame each other. And when we do, we lose the obvious gifts, the gifts of the other and the wholeness they represent.

         Pharaoh chooses the Hebrews as the source of everything personally abhorrent and politically threatening. Having focused his fear on the Hebrews, he tries to solve his problem by forcing them into slavery.

         There are two very different kinds of fear in this story, and they continue to work side-by-side in our memory. They inform our present and shape our future.

         The first fear is Pharaoh’s fear. He’s afraid that the future really isn’t about him. In trying to maintain a future he’s terrified to lose—that is, a status quo beneficial to himself—the king tries to end something God started. When the Hebrews only grow stronger under duress, Pharaoh increases their workload and the brutality with which he drives them. Given permission to dehumanize the slaves, the Egyptians beat them like beasts, and kill them with labor and the whip.

         It’s crucial to note that when one group gives another group a story like that to remember, a story of oppression and deliverance from which to draw identity and purpose, the oppressed group will have an eternal well from which to draw strength. And they will, in time, overcome and thrive. The memory of being owned, enslaved, exploited, abused, and liberated lays the theological and existential groundwork for Hebrew poetry, prophecy, and hope. The memory of those shared experiences gives durable authority to the psalms, the lamentations, and the words of people like Samuel, David, and Isaiah.

         When facing the failure of his efforts to own that which belongs to God—namely, the Hebrews and the future—Pharaoh does what madmen and despots do: He tries to create even more fear and an even deeper and more violent disconnect between those with power and those without. To control the Hebrew population, Pharaoh calls for the mass murder of their newborn boys. And to add insult to injury, he calls on Hebrew midwives to serve as his angels of death.

         “But,” says the storyteller, “the midwives feared God.”

         Here is second kind of fear. Maybe we can call it liberating fear. In refusing to obey Pharaoh, the midwives defy the tangible and brutal Powers That Be. They choose instead to trust the inscrutable power that continues to create, that continues to bring forth the new life that they help to deliver into the world every day. Their bold stance of faith declares that God’s power to create and renew always outmaneuvers and outlasts Pharaoh’s power to assault and destroy.

         The fear of the midwives isn’t the anxiety and dread we typically associate with the word fear. Precisely the opposite, the fear of the midwives proclaims their complete faith in the presence and purposes of God. Remembering the past, rich with promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these intrepid midwives risk their own lives to proclaim Israel’s hope. Think about it, they cannot hide their disobedience. Because of their subversive faith, Hebrew boys survive. And Pharaoh’s own daughter, who becomes an accidental midwife, will name one of them Moses.

         The world is rife with Pharaohs and Egypts. From east to west and north to south, anxiety and dread define much of humanity’s daily experience. And that’s especially true for those whose day-to-day experience includes poverty, abuse, and the constant threat of apathy, prejudice, and violence.

         The Pharaoh’s fear within us enslaves us to his anxiety and dread so that we become his unwitting but willing servants. Imagining that we’re being consistent with history, loyal to nations, and faithful to God, human beings build Pharaoh’s “supply cities.” We yield to and participate in all the brutal systems and means required to sustain them.

         Albert Einstein famously said that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” To me, that sounds like a first cousin to Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

         It’s all-too-easy to make faith about conspicuous morality, about regurgitating “right” theology. As people of biblical faith, though, we are called to the new-minded, liberating fear of the midwives. To follow their example is just another way to follow Jesus in lives of bold, death-defying trust that God is not only real, but faithful, loving, and just to all people.

         In our lifetimes, we may not witness the final revealing of God’s fullness, but through our deliberate and daring faith, God equips us to help deliver into the world one new promise after another, even as Pharaoh demands that we kill them—for his benefit.

         Our personal interpretations of what’s going on around us today may differ. But I hear our text calling us always to ask if our responses to circumstances convey the self-serving fear that leads to suspicion, division, and, ultimately, to violence against others. Or do our lives proclaim the great nevertheless of faith, what the ancient prophets and poets called the “fear of God”?

         Do our words and actions declare our trust that God is the source of all that is good, loving, and hopeful in the world?

         Do we actively love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

         Do we seek to love all of our neighbors as if we were seeking truly to love ourselves?

         None of us can answer those questions affirmatively all the time, but when we can, we are midwives of hope in the world. We’re delivering that which every Pharaoh fears and would have us destroy. And we’re declaring our allegiance to God, who may always be trusted, and to whom the past, present, and future of all Creation always belongs.

May Grace Abound (Sermon)

“May Grace Abound”

Romans 6:1b-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

         Each Sunday, we pray a corporate confession of sin. When inviting you to that prayer, I sometimes quote Paul who spoke of sin as “falling short of the glory of God.” Or I speak of sin as “unfaithfulness,” or “brokenness,” or somehow distorting the image of God within us. If it seems that I’m avoiding the word “sin” itself, that may be true.

         The faith language that many of us have inherited is one of reward and punishment. And in this language, sin becomes not just the focal point but the starting point. According to original sin theology, we’re all fundamentally “bad” creatures. Hopeless and helpless, we may die at any moment, and, if we haven’t said all the right words in all the right formulas, we’ll be thrown into hell.

         That fear- and shame-driven approach reduces religious observance to appeasing an offended and angry god who is waiting for our brief and beleaguered earthly lives to end. At “pearly gates,” this god welcomes those who will say, I am ten pounds of garbage in a five-pound bag, but Jesus is my lord and savior. Then, without a second thought, this vindictive deity will dump all the sinners into a fiery pit of never-ending suffering.

         I wish that were hyperbole. But on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to travel far to hear that message preached as the core of the good news. And honestly, part of me gets it. In this truly brief and beleaguered life, the reality of pain is so certain and things like happiness and peace are so painfully uncertain that many of us want to assure ourselves that God punishes bad people and rewards good people. Such thinking is uncomplicated, logical, and consistent. But isn’t it a thoroughly human thing to want to get even by watching others suffer?

         Original sin theology also reduces grace to something that must, ultimately, be earned or deserved, even if only by the requirement of consent. At that point, whatever gets called grace is simply not grace.

         From my reading of people like Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Martin Luther King, and others, I have come to trust that at the core of every human being lies not fundamental brokenness and depravity, but the essential holiness and beauty we call the image of God. That, I believe, is what God sees with uninterrupted joy within each and every human being.

         The undeniable reality is that we fail to see God’s image in ourselves, others, and in the Creation around us. God’s image is always there, but it gets hidden by the selfishness, pride, and fear that make us comfortable with the idea of sin as our fundamental reality and with the image of an eternally angry and vengeful god. But it is sin, not God, that torments us. And far more than doing “bad” things, sin is the idolatry to which humankind, as a whole, has resigned itself. So, before the Gospel of Jesus is eye-opening and healing good news, it’s disrupting news, because to be set upon the path of restoration to the original wholeness and beauty of our God-imaged selves, we undergo transformation. In many faith traditions, ours included, death is the central metaphor for that journey of renewal.

         Death is an emotionally-charged image. Whether by age, illness, accident, or the enslaved and enslaving actions of others, we all die physically. And our faith challenges us to think metaphorically about death. Spiritually speaking, death is that ongoing event through which we are transformed from one way of being into another. It’s a paradox, but to die to ourselves is to become newly awake and alive, and more fully human.  And here’s the good news: The incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth reveals that the transformational power of the death and resurrection process is something God wants, wills, and offers in this life. It is, by grace, a gift given before the death by which our material bodies return to the earth.

         In his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that a life of new consciousness of the image of God in ourselves and others, is what Jesus means by “The Kingdom of God.”1 Much more than a post mortem location, God’s kingdom is a transformed “way of seeing…now…”2 in this world.

         “Now is the day of salvation,” says Paul. (2Cor. 6:2)

         “The kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” says Jesus. (Luke 17:21)

         The kingdom of God happens wherever people share gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. To get a glimpse or a whiff of true compassion, to hear voices raised as one in opposition to dehumanizing selfishness, is to stand within the realm of God’s boundless grace.

         The struggle for us is acknowledging that such experiences come not through Kum Bah Yah moments around a campfire or in secure echo chambers with like-minded allies. They come to us when, through confession and redeemed action, we name our own complicity in what has hurt and is hurting ourselves, others, and the earth. Like the Creation itself, Kingdom of God moments well up from the chaos, from the formless void of disruption when we can no longer abide or excuse the fact of sin and the injustice it breeds.

         The upheaval around us today is an unsettling but promising instance of what Paul calls the “creation wait[ing…and groaning] with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:19 & 22) Racism, environmental abuse, uncritical nationalism, idolatry of material wealth and violent power—all this “sin” has challenged the human race for eons, and for the last two millennia, Paul has been calling Christians to do something radical in their own troubled contexts. He’s been calling us to take baptism seriously.

         “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ…we will also live with him.”

         If baptism does any practical good, it reminds us that only by dying to selfishness, fear, and pride do we enter the new life of loving neighbor as if we’re loving ourselves, loving him or her regardless of skin color, political party, religion, nationality, opinion on the issues, or anything else. That’s not to say we ignore the actions of neighbors when their choices diminish or end the lives of others. Jesus didn’t do justice that way. He loved—and he loves—people into recognizing and celebrating the holiness in all people. That is God’s justice, the way of grace. And while it’s often the most difficult and frustrating course of action, it’s also the way that gives us the best chance to participate in God’s healing of the Creation.

         We’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” And as we do, let’s remember, this song was written by an Englishman whose vocation was the slave trade, one of humankind’s most heinous and universal sins. As members of a primarily Euro-American denomination, most PC(USA) Presbyterians have experienced the lingering effects of human slavery from the perspective of beneficiaries. Few of us can imagine, much less understand the burden of living every day as reminders of a heritage of exploitation and suffering.

         While the imagery of “Amazing Grace” speaks of a life after physical death, the kingdom of God always includes the here-and-now, where human beings “walk in newness of life,” where we live as one diverse and beleaguered Creation, fashioned and beloved by God, abounding in grace, and which, even now, is being redeemed through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009. Pp. 100-101.


The Call of Compassion (Sermon)

“The Call of Compassion”

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”  (NRSV)

         When I picked up my preaching commentary last Monday morning, I quickly discovered that the articles on today’s text had almost nothing to do with how the text and I were already reading each other. My heart and mind were—and are—swirling with images of and prayers for our nation and world in light of an ongoing pandemic and its social, political, and economic fallout, and a fresh, inevitable, and once-again-unsettling raising of awareness of racial inequality. And those things are layered on top of all the normal concerns we all have for people we love and for ourselves.

Everyone feels something in the midst of these days of uncertainty and unrest. On the positive side, some may feel new clarity of purpose, new inspiration to help neighbors in need, for some even a flutter of new hope. On the negative side, some may feel anger, fear, exasperation (which often manifest as denial of circumstances or impatience with people who interpret and respond to our situations differently than we do). And all this stress creates storms of anxiety in our communities, our families, and in our own hearts.

         While reading that commentary, which was published in 2011, I was reminded how contextual biblical interpretation is. Ancient scripture has an uncanny ability to shed light on contemporary realities. And since, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand, scripture never fails to call us into the world at hand to proclaim and embody the kingdom’s prophetic challenge and renewal. I had to lay aside that commentary because nine-year-old interpretations just didn’t speak to our changed and changing context. To the commentators’ credit, I’m sure that they would say very different things if they were writing for a commentary to be published in 2021.

         The point of belaboring that point is to say that scripture truly is a living Word. It not only continues to speak from a place of eternal holiness and liveliness, it continues to speak into the lives we live right now and to draw out the holiness within us. It calls us into the world as bearers of Jesus’ love and as agents of his justice. We can hold all the worship services we want. We can play and sing inspiring music. We can perform sacraments, fill coffee pots and buffet tables. We can hold committee meetings and Sunday school classes. We can maintain hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old buildings. And yet, if our focus on those in-house activities leaves only crumbs to commit to acts of compassion on behalf of those who are “harassed and helpless,” then we have to ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten who we are and whom we follow.

“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching…proclaiming the good news…curing every disease and…sickness [all the ‘churchy’ things!]. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

         Harassed. Helpless. In Greek, those words also mean oppressed and thrown down. Matthew paints a picture of people who are not just bemused and unhappy, but people who are being intentionally dominated and tormented by powers beyond their control. And because they suffer, Jesus suffers—but with a different kind of suffering. Compassion, which literally means to suffer with, is an invigorating form of suffering. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t paralyze him; it mobilizes him. The plight of those whom the political and religious authorities ignore, and even revile, moves Jesus to bring their suffering into the consciousness of those who are gifted to tend to and befriend people who suffer, and those who are gifted to speak the courageous, transforming truth that people in power must hear.

         Looking out at all that suffering humanity, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” and he sets in motion the first major, all-volunteer mission effort of Jesus-Followers.

         Here’s where suffering gets layered and complicated, at least for me. When imagining Jesus moved to compassion by those who are harassed and helpless, in our contemporary context, I, personally, cannot separate that image from images of people who are oppressed and thrown down because their black or brown bodies have marked them for the kind of repulsed, fear-driven aggression often deployed against coyotes, snakes, and spiders. The compassion one feels for these brothers and sisters is the compassion—the invigorating suffering—of the resurrected Christ within us. Compassion is Jesus’ voice calling us to help bear the burdens of the physical, mental, and spiritual pain of discrimination and the difficult work of bringing about the changes necessary to ensure “indivisible” unity in our communities and nation, and true “liberty and justice for all.”

Clearly, such work has socio-political implications, but at the heart of it all, for us as Christians, such work is fundamentally and thoroughly theological. It arises from our acknowledgment of the eternal holiness within the imperfect humanity of every individual. It arises from our commitment to love as we are loved by God.

It’s hardly an irresistible call because it can be terrifying to follow where Jesus leads. I’m still resisting his call. All I’ve actually done is to write some words and post them on a blog (with exactly 29 subscribers), and speak a few words in few sermons that a few more people hear, but which, like some infomercial ointment, may or may not treat the rash. I’ve not made myself personally available for the anxiety-inducing but transforming experiences of responding to what I recognize as compassion’s call to action.

I mentioned layers of suffering. As a pastor to people isolated by pandemic, I also hear the harassed and helpless cries of church members who feel that they’re losing touch with the people they love, the sacraments that strengthen them, the music that makes their spirits sing. It’s for very good reason we’re not meeting in person, but it’s still traumatic.

When Jesus says to go first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he acknowledges that it’s crucial for members of the faith community to care for one other in the midst of suffering. We must continue to talk to and encourage each other, to laugh and cry with each other, even if only by phone. We all need to give and receive that transforming compassion.

At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ commandment to the post-resurrection community—which includes us—is to reach beyond the house of Israel and “make disciples of all nations.” And disciples are not made by imposing doctrines and ecclesiastical structures, but by the compassionate labors of those who, having heeded Jesus’ example, trust that what is necessary for the most harassed and helpless among us is necessary for all of us. Such disciples will love their neighbors as they love themselves. They’ll pray for friend and enemy alike, and care for “the least of these.” And they will, courageously and compassionately, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with…God.”

As disciples of Jesus, may we, together, labor within and beyond the bounds of the church directory.

And may we, together, plant love and compassion, so that we may participate in the Holy Spirit’s harvest of peace, justice, and hope for ourselves and for ALLwhom God has created and loves.

Holiness, Humanity, and Hope (Essay)

God saw everything that he had made,

and indeed, it was very good.

(Genesis 1:31a—NRSV)

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

(Matthew 5:3, 5, 7-9—NRSV)

         The Hebrew scriptures open with a sweeping affirmation of the Creation as a God-imaged gift—to God’s own self no less. All that is exists because at the heart of the universe there beats a creative heart defined by relationship, a loving heart that is always seeking to know and to be known. A human being’s own desire to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, is one of our most fundamentally holy (God-like) attributes. Those essential desires constitute what is most truly “good” about us because they draw us toward each other and, therefore, toward God. To seek and celebrate the goodness within us and within others is to seek and celebrate the presence of God in all that God has created and loves. For people of faith, to honor the holiness in other human beings and in the wider Creation is worship, sacrament, and service because through these practices we begin to know and love God.

         Sin is more than doing bad things or leaving good things undone. As the refusal to honor the holiness in all that God has created and has called “good,” sin weakens our humility and our willingness to follow the ways of poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, and mercy. Sin intensifies human willfulness to impose arrangements beneficial to those considered privileged onto numerous others (even, it seems, if the “minority” is in the majority). Sin also tends to project the selfish fears of a dominant group onto a scapegoated population. This always creates acute suffering for the group(s) considered “minor” because they are treated as if their humanity lacks legitimacy. This becomes most devastating when the oppressed group’s suffering is regarded as having no consequence.

It seems to me that sin destroys all people and all communities because in denying the holiness and the humanity of anyone, individuals and groups grant themselves the authority to decide that something God-made lies beyond the full love and affirmation of the Maker. The fear-driven violence that inevitably ensues prevents any of us from being whole. This is what happened to George Floyd on May 25, 2020 to Amaud Arbery on February 23, 2020, to Matthew Shepard on October 6, 1998, to nearly 300 Lakota men, women, and children on December 29, 1890, and to countless others for countless reasons throughout the decades in the United States of America and throughout the eons of human life on this planet.

         These events illustrate that one form of sin that has plagued our culture for over two centuries is the sin of systemic racism: The deliberate denial of the holiness and humanity of groups of people whose skin color, ethnicity, or language has been judged as inferior by a group or by groups who hold the greater share of wealth and power in a society.

Systemic racism dehumanizes individuals and groups by:

-judging others according to stereotypes.

-limiting oppressed groups’ access to opportunity.

-treating minorities with demeaning paternalism.

-participating in and/or overlooking violence toward minorities.

-diminishing the weight of suffering forced upon people whose God-given, God-imaged physical attributes differ from those in power.

         No, not all who are counted among races and genders of power and privilege participate in acts of overt racism. By the same token, not all who are counted among races and genders of power and privilege participate in acts of overt peacemaking by which the systemic sin of racism is named and resisted.

         As a member of and leader in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ, and as a child of God and, therefore, a peacemaker, I affirm that racism in all of its forms is sin and an affront to God who is being revealed in the Creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. I also believe that it is the calling of all who follow Christ to acknowledge, honor, and celebrate the full holiness and humanity of every human being regardless of any category that may be attached to that person. Love for God necessarily includes love and respect for every human being and the desire to nurture that love and respect in one another.

To that end, at this crucial time in our shared life and history, I join with those in my own faith tradition, those in other faith traditions, and those who claim no faith tradition but cannot escape the call of love who are committing and recommitting themselves to standing in open and visible solidarity with all people of African, Latin American, Middle-Eastern, Asian, or any other heritage that has endowed them with the black, brown, or olive skin that makes them vulnerable to patronizing deference, vilifying bigotry, and life-threatening oppression in our community, our nation, and our world.

We are one human race, one humanity created and beloved by God, and only in unity do we find our hope.

May God’s peace be with all of us.

The Rev. Allen Huff

June 5, 2020

Claim the Voice, Share Your Gift (Sermon)

“Claim the Voice, Share Your Gift”

Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-13

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them. (Numbers 11:24-29 – NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13 – NRSV)

        The stories we just read from Numbers and Acts are stories of God’s people in crisis. They show us the Hebrews wandering in the Sinai wilderness and the very first Christians in Jerusalem hiding from Roman guards who take delight in unrestricted brutality. Both groups find themselves at critical cross roads. They’re displaced and struggling to discern their identity and purpose. The particular leaders involved—Moses in the wilderness and the Apostles in Jerusalem—come to God confessing their emptiness and vulnerability. As faithful, diligent, and creative as they may be, they know that, on their own, they cannot overcome their predicaments. They need help.

       Leadership in any human community can be an intensely demanding responsibility. It requires gifts of discernment, courage, and decisiveness. And because leadership is fundamentally an act of service, it also requires mature sensibilities of empathy, humility, and justice. Perhaps most challenging for individualistic and competitive cultures like ours, effective leadership requires a commitment to the well-being of others before one’s own well-being.

         Without these attributes, leaders may become like Pharaoh, for whom neither slavery nor genocide is too high a price to guard power and wealth; or like the sons of Eli who are spoiled, selfish, and deaf to wisdom and holiness; or like King Saul who, lacking any gift for leadership, goes insane before everyone’s eyes.

         All of these so-called leaders face crises, and all of them, ignoring higher virtues, seek the guidance of flatterers and the illusion of security-through-violence. Their stories live on in scripture, and we read them and heed them as cautionary tales.

         Moses and the Apostles face their crises differently.

         In Numbers, the Israelites are newly-freed slaves. They’re on their own, on the run, and complaining about how tired and hungry they are. Their escape from Egypt has become a desert pilgrimage that seems crueler and more terrifying than Pharaoh’s slave drivers. Israel’s story illustrates that when something gets the best of us, only the worst remains. And when it all becomes too much, the Hebrews project all their fear and anxiety onto Moses. Did you bring us out here to kill us?! We were better off in Egypt! That same despair and craving for control would lead them to try to replace Yahweh with a golden calf.

       In Acts, the disciples feel all alone in the world. They had expected Jesus to do to Rome what Rome had been doing to Israel, and the rest of the known world. After the crucifixion, though, the disciples had to have wondered if Jesus had been the kind of person Hosea warned about: “They shall be like the morning mist, or the dew that goes away early.” (Hosea 13:3a) Was Jesus just that? Humidity? Even after the resurrection, the disciples find themselves mired in a kind of static wandering. What do we do now? they ask.

       While Moses and the Apostles often prove flawed and fumbling, they’re still servants of God. During their crises, for all their frustration and helplessness, they begin to find themselves opened by and opening to something mysterious and moving—a pulsating Holiness, a Spirit who comes not to resolve every crisis, but to help shoulder the burden of leading God’s people through the uncertainties and complexities of crisis. Having said that, the Spirit reveals itself as a gift being offered not simply to people like Moses and the Apostles. The Spirit proves to be a gift made available to all people through the likes of Moses, Joshua, Peter, and Paul. True leaders, in the household of faith and elsewhere, are those who embrace their own giftedness and who seek to recognize, nurture, and give voice to the giftedness of others.

       Remember Moses’ story: Some of Moses’ spirit leaks out beyond the designated seventy to a couple of nobodies named Eldad and Medad. When they prophesy, Joshua says, Moses, stop them!

       And Moses, who is learning more by the moment, scolds his reactionary assistant, saying, “Are you jealous for my sake?” I wish God’s Spirit would fall on every one of you! The Spirit makes prophets of all of us!

       Remember what happens in Jerusalem, too. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” Luke goes on to name sixteen different nationalities and ethnicities who hear the gospel being proclaimed in their own languages.

         Those who watch all of this happen are bewildered. And who wouldn’t be? To see it demonstrated that God’s dwells inherently and intentionally in all people (Genesis 1:26a), that God’s Word really is written on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), and that no one and no thing lies beyond the loving desire and redeeming reach of God (Acts 9:1-19a)—such revelations challenge the comfortable but mistaken notions of redemptive violence and any kind of cultural supremacy.

         In both Sinai and Jerusalem, God’s Spirit is present through the outpouring of prophetic speech, through gracious words uttered by folks who are ordinary, fallible, hesitant human beings.

         Many voices in our world claim holy authority. And many of those voices are diametrically opposed to each other. And some seem diametrically opposed to Jesus. While we’re not called to judge, we are called, as individuals and as communities, to discern.

         When I hear a voice claiming prophetic status, I listen for accents of love, peacemaking, forgiveness, compassion, and grateful openness to all of God’s Creation. To me, such things declare the presence of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, when a voice claiming prophetic authority provokes fear, division, and vengeance, when it creates barriers to relationship and healing, I don’t trust that voice.

         It seems to me that many of the voices screaming at the extremes right now are, effectively, one voice. At the poles, the voices of groups like white supremacists, who are on record as wanting to incite a race war1, and Antifa, who is on record advocating eye-for-an-eye violence against the increasingly visible far right2, tear equally at the wounded, fragile body of Creation. And here’s the hard part: When we hear voices spread ignorance and fear, when we hear them confuse insults and judgment with analysis and critique, when we hear the Church declare that the God of Abraham and Jesus can be bought and satisfied with blood, within and around all of that, the Holy Spirit is calling us into the fray to bear prophetic witness to something entirely new and different, yet entirely ancient and archetypal. We’re being called to proclaim the God of Spirit and Truth, the God of deliverance and restorative justice.

       Brothers and sisters, today many people feel like wanderers in deserts of pandemic, racism, unleashed fury, and burning cities. Let’s remember, though, we are disciples. We follow a resurrected Christ whose Spirit is with us and calling us to claim our prophetic voice. As the Church, we are gathered in the power of the Holy Spirit who fills us and sends out to speak so confidently of God’s redeeming love and reunifying Shalom that we sound drunk to those who live in fear and loathing of their neighbors and the future.

         This is our Pentecostal gift—to live as ones who lead the way through death-shadowed valleys and storm-tossed seas toward the wholeness and hope of God’s resurrecting grace.




A Transforming Oneness (Sermon)

“Transforming Oneness”

John 17:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (NRSV)

         Today’s reading begins with a transitional clause: “After Jesus had spoken these words…” The words to which John refers fill four chapters. They include: Jesus’ teaching as he washed the disciples’ feet, his foretelling of betrayal, his command to love as he has loved, his promise of an Advocate, his warning about the world’s hatred, and his promise of lasting spiritual peace.

         When reading these words, knowing that they are the words of a man whose mysterious and solemn “hour” is arriving, we feel the pathos building like an incoming tide. Jesus’ hour has to do with his own and God’s glorification. It also has to do with Jesus sending the disciples out to continue his work. As Jesus prays for his disciples, he reaffirms their call: God, they were yours, he says. You entrusted them to me. I’ve taught them, and they know the truth. They’re ready to follow me, to love each other, and to glorify you. I give them back to you.

         To love, to follow, to glorify God—in John’s gospel, this is the very substance of believing in Jesus. That’s great Sunday school material, but between Thursday and Sunday, and even beyond, the disciples seem anything but ready for an apostolic commission.

         How does Jesus do it? How does he project confidence and hope knowing that his beloved disciples will betray and abandon him? To begin understanding that question, let’s remember this line: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

         In John’s gospel, Jesus knows that, in the unfathomable depths of the Creation, his being is inextricably confluent with the eternal and universal Flow of Holiness and Purpose we call God. This is the oneness Jesus refers to when he prays, “Holy Father, protect them…so that they may be one, as we are one.” In his Thursday night prayer, Jesus is actively loving everyone, whether they oppose him, forsake him, or crucify him.

         The capacity to love those who oppose and oppress is not something we can achieve on our own. That gracious strength arises from our own oneness with God. It arises from that place of confluence between our individual human being and the eternal Being-ness of God.

         When Jesus loves and blesses his disciples, knowing that they will turn their backs on him, he receives their brokenness, baptizes it in his oneness with God, and transforms it into genuine discipleship. That’s how he transforms Peter’s denials into compassionate leadership.

         Peter do you love me?

         Yes, Lord.

         Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)

         By receiving the hatred and taunts of those who crucify him, Jesus loves his enemies as they are loved by God, and, with his life, he prays for those who persecute him. That’s the point of the resurrected Christ transforming Saul’s scorched-earth hatred of Christians into a zealous commitment to love all whom Jesus loves, especially those who don’t know that they are loved. (Acts 9:1-22)

         We expect all that from Jesus, but taking up our cross and following him can feel impossible. And it is impossible when we’re not seeking oneness with God through Christ. When we lose that connection, we tend to look for and find opponents rather than companions. When connected only by externals—political loyalties, racial/ethnic identities, doctrinal precepts, economic class, and so forth—we lose sight of the humanity of both self and neighbor. At that point, we’ve reduced love to alliances between like minds, alliances that are always conditional because when one ally’s thinking changes or evolves, the deal is off. Many marriages fail because at least one partner considers the relationship an alliance rather than a holy union.

         When Jesus prays for his disciples, he is praying for the well-being of men who have yet to learn that Messiah transcends the label of ally. As the Incarnate Word of God, eternally one with the Father, Jesus can do nothing less than love, even when facing blind and brutal opposition.

         Last week, my wife and I watched “The Best of Enemies.” While this 2019 film received mixed reviews and underwhelmed at the box office, the real-life story is worth remembering. In Durham, NC, in 1971, the city was dealing with integration. Two people, C.P. Ellis, a white man and leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American woman and community civil rights leader, became the faces of the two sides of the debate. In time, the two not only overcame their mutual disgust, they discovered their deeply-connected, holy and human beings. Without that discovery, the two sides may have hammered out a compromise, but Atwater and Ellis would not have found the enduring friendship that transformed their lives.

         I was moved by that relationship, and as much so by Bill Riddick, the man who led the series of interactive meetings through which the community explored the issues and voted on an outcome that didn’t please everyone, but which everyone agreed to accept.

         Riddick, also an African-American, had a profound dilemma. On the one hand, he had to deal with Ellis’ overt racism. On the other, he began to see that Atwater’s all-too-understandable fury at and suspicion of Ellis also threatened to derail the process of integration. After the first session, Riddick went home realizing that he had the same issues as Atwater and Ellis. He told himself that “until I’m able to harness my own feelings and have greater respect for these individuals, then I’m not going to be successful.”1 Unifying Ellis and Atwater was the key to bringing the community together.

         It wasn’t until years later than Riddick had the language to speak of that experience spiritually. All those “years ago,” he said, “I really thought it was me. As I have become more God-fearing…I realize that the Lord gave me a grace and helped me.”2

         Riddick’s grace was the same grace Jesus demonstrated on the night of his betrayal and the abandonment by those who claimed to love and follow him. That very grace is available to us when we confess our selfishness, pride, and fear. To lay aside that brokenness is to begin opening ourselves to the deep, God-given oneness we have with all things through Christ.

         As our culture becomes more deeply divided, God’s call to spiritual communities within the wider community is all the more urgent. As followers of Jesus, our specific call is clear: Jesus prayerfully summons us to seek a oneness with each other that bears witness to the Son’s oneness with the Father. What oneness we embody is never our own doing. It’s always a reflection of God’s oneness with the Creation.

         What, then, can you and I do to help all of us claim our holiness, our oneness with God so that, together, we embody the oneness that, through the power of Resurrection, grants us the freedom and the will to love as Christ loves us?



Don’t Spread the Glitter (Congregational Letter)

         Earlier this week I was making some phone visits, and everyone asked the same question: When will we hold open worship in the sanctuary again? The responsible answer remains the same: We don’t know.

         This Tuesday night, Session will meet and talk about all our normal business, and among the routine things we discuss these days is the progression of the pandemic and the recommendations from our Emergency Response Team (which is keeping a very close eye on the latest reports and trends). While no one knows where that conversation will lead, indications are that we will continue online worship at least through June. Until we see a verifiable decline in the number of cases, love for neighbor will continue to require us to be patient with our circumstances and with each other. We simply can’t afford to risk gathering a high-risk population for in-person worship.

         A friend of mine shared a great image to help us think about how easily the coronavirus spreads: Imagine a Sunday School room full of five-year-olds. It’s early December. Their teacher has a wonderful art project planned for them—they’re going to make Christmas cards for shut-ins. When the kids enter the classroom, the teacher opens bottles of red, green, gold, and silver glitter. By the time Sunday school is over, how many kids will look like enormous sugar cookies covered with sprinkles? What will the table look like? What will the floor look like? What will the restrooms look like?

         See where this is going?

         The coronavirus is more contagious than glitter, and it’s harder to clean up. I, for one, cannot encourage us to get together when there’s just so much potential for “spreading the glitter.” It may be that if people in our area suddenly get much more serious about practicing social distancing and wearing masks, we’ll see enough of a drop in a couple of months to consider a partial re-opening. But go to a grocery store, or Lowe’s, or watch people in town on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see just how lightly people are taking the risk of infection. It seems that many people consider the virus as harmless as glitter, and that masks signal weakness rather than a strong love of neighbor and self.

         While we’re all tired of separation, we would forget that fatigue in seconds if we had to get used to losing people we love. I love all of you and want to keep on loving you. If you’d like to, mail me a greeting card. Cover it with Elmer’s Glue and glitter. I’ll open it and enjoy it. And when I quit finding glitter in my kitchen, I’ll call you and thank you for it.

         While you wait for me to call, do something constructive. Write a novel. Restore an old car. Become fluent in Urdu. I look forward to our talk!

                                                      Peace Be with You All,

                                                               Pastor Allen