Sabbath (Sermon)

“Sabbath”

Exodus 20:8-10a, 11 and Psalm 131

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/29/22

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.  (Exodus 20:8-11 – NRSV)

1LORD, my heart has not become haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither have I walked in grandeur, nor in wonderful things above and beyond that which pertains to me.

2Rather I have quieted myself and caused my soul to become silent, that I might be as a child that is weaned of his mother, as one who is weaned from my own life.

3Let Israel wait for the LORD from now on and for ever.  (Psalm 131 – The Jubilee Bible 2000)

In May of 1968, Thomas Merton wrote the following in his journal: 

       “In our monasteries we have been content to find our ways to a kind of peace, a simple, undisturbed, thoughtful life. And this is certainly good, but is it good enough?

       “I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate…a holy leisure. There is need for effort, deepening, change and transformation. Not that I must undertake a special project of self-transformation or that I must ‘work on myself.’ In that regard, it would be better to forget it. Just to go for walks, live in peace, let change come quietly and invisibly on the inside.

       “But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification, of mindfulness, or rather of no mind—a return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit.”1

       With his characteristic honesty and directness, Merton reveals his understanding of Sabbath as something more consequential than a vacation, or “spending time in nature,” or a “mental health day,” all of which are good. For Merton, though, Sabbath involves intentional silence, stillness, awareness of and love for the world in all of its beauty and all of its brokenness. Sabbath also involves confession and a disciplined openness to “the great doubt,” which I interpret as a reference to the natural limits of human beings to comprehend God. And in that incomprehensibility—in that ambiguity—we begin to inhabit the realm of true holiness.

Faith and doubt are hardly opposites. Indeed, they are mutually inclusive. And the more one learns to lay the thin comfort of certainty aside, the more one enters the frontier of trust in which, paradoxically, God takes on new and deeper reality in the midst of that rich, spacious, and sanctifying “doubt” which is not unbelief, but faith itself. When we welcome holy ambiguity, we may discover that God has always been incomprehensibly larger than we ever imagined. And through patient grace, God has been continually reaching out to us, inviting us to experience the fullness that is God—Who is Love. Incarnate, relational, and perfectly merciful Love.

       Thomas Merton’s wisdom is helping me to understand and plan for my summer Sabbath. I’ll use the first month as a time of complete disengagement, a time, as Merton said, to “break with” my own “accumulation of inertia, waste,” and so forth. So, I’ll keep my phone turned off as much as possible. I won’t check email or participate in social media. I’ll read for pure fun. I’ll ride my motorcycle as much as my less-than-perfect back will allow. Late in June, my extended family will gather down in Asheville and, finally, hold a memorial service for our dear Aunt Marcia who died two years ago. I’ll accompany Marianne to GA when she goes there to help care for her mother. All in all, June will be a time, as the psalmist says, to be “weaned from my own life.”

       Now, in September, I really want to return to you with renewed energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. So, in July, I’ll begin trying to discern what new directions and purposes God may have for me—and for all of us. Early that month, I’ll attend a week-long storytelling workshop with Donald Davis. I’d love to include more stories in my preaching. Through that workshop, I also hope to rekindle my love for writing so that I might remember and create stories that will help all of us to enter the biblical story with deeper appreciation for the relational nature of God.

       For the rest of July and the month of August, I plan to try to follow Merton’s advice and “return to genuine practice, right effort…[and] push on to the great doubt” in which the Spirit lives, and moves, and has its being (Acts 17:28) within and among us and all of Creation.

       When I met with the Langleys to talk about today’s baptisms of Burton and Charleston, Mandee asked if I might find a place in the service to include a poem by the Austrian poet, novelist, and mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. The poem appears in a collection entitled Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. The untitled piece Mandee showed me dovetails beautifully with the baptismal journey, the journey of faith, the journey of Thomas Merton’s “great doubt.” In one stanza, Rilke mentions an embodying of God. And isn’t that something that both Sabbath and sacrament teach us?

Rilke’s poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.2

       As my sabbatical begins, I offer to all of you a heartfelt THANK YOU! Your encouragement, prayers, and your very generous gifts mean more than words can express. The opportunity for an extended Sabbath is something that I do not take for granted, and I will strive to be a faithful steward of that time.

Finally, I want you to know that I have complete confidence in the session, the staff, the ministry teams, and in your sabbatical supply pastors, Kaye and Lee, to lead Jonesborough Presbyterian for the coming three months. One thing is clear to me: you are a community of faithful, dedicated, and joyful servants. You are a family, a village, a sign of God’s presence in the world. And God is always extending an inviting and invigorating hand to all of us—and to others through us. So, as St. Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I will continue my prayers for all of you. Please do the same for me and my family.

May God’s peace and joy be with all of you and all whom you love.

       And I’ll see you in September!

1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Ed. Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. p. 151.

2Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books, NY. 2005. p. 119.

To an Unknown God (Sermon)

“To an Unknown God”

Acts 17:16-31

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/22/22

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this pretentious babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)

19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we, too, are his offspring.’

29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  (NRSV)

A fine line can separate the trust that makes a disciple courageous, and the certainty that makes a zealot dangerous. Paul often appears to have one foot on either side of that line. In his letter to the Romans, he even seems to confess as much: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15, 18b) And so Paul is alternately a bull in a china shop stampeding over breakable treasures, and a humble mystic walking alongside fellow travelers with compassion and patience.

Paul’s watershed moment began on the Damascus Road. Prior to that experience, Paul—as Saul—was a militant fundamentalist. Steeped in furious certainty, he terrorized Jesus-followers. After his experiences of grace on the road to Damascus, and then in Damascus with Ananias, Paul himself becomes a follower of Jesus.

Now, he’s still Paul. He still has the capacity for decisive speech and action. And during his transformation, Paul’s actions, once fueled by certainty, become fueled by the lingering burden of guilt, as well. Eventually, Paul claims forgiveness in Christ, and, yet, because forgiveness never includes forgetfulness, he cannot shake those memories. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” he tells Timothy. And he calls himself the “foremost” among sinners. (1Timothy 1:13, 15) In all things, Paul struggles to balance his fervor as a zealot, and his desire to love as Christ loves.

         Entering Athens, Paul sees idols everywhere, and his zealot’s blood begins to boil. He heads to the synagogues and marketplaces to argue with whoever “happened to be there.”

In first-century Athens, rhetorical debate is a kind of spectator sport, sort of a cross between Sunday morning talk shows and minor-league hockey. And Paul begins to argue zealously against idolatry. And he gets attention.

         Aggravated at this “pretentious babbler,” the Athenians drag Paul to the Areopagus, and place him before the people who help to shape the mindset of the empire. And Paul, always a work in progress, speaks as both disciple and zealot. He walks with the hoof of a china-shop bull on one foot and the sandal of a holy mystic on the other.

         Speaking with compassion first, he says, in effect, You Athenians take your religion seriously, and that’s great. You even have a statue set aside to honor what you call ‘an unknown god.’

         Then Paul gently paws the ground with his hoof saying that he knows who that unknown God is, namely, “God who made the world and everything in it…[the] Lord…[who] does not live in shrines made by human hands.”

         It’s interesting: In the midst of the pantheon of named and storied Greek gods, someone in Athens had the honesty to acknowledge spiritual mystery, to acknowledge that not all can be named and explained. Not all can be known.

         Now, this isn’t Paul’s first debate. And as the Apostle, he musters the humility and the wisdom to focus on the unknown god as common ground. Such a concept resonates with a devout Jew who hears God saying things like, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8)

         Paul will remember, too, that to proclaim and preserve the inscrutable holiness of God, Israel refuses even to pronounce the name of God­­­—thus Jehovah, Adonai, and Elohim instead of Yahweh.

         If Paul has learned anything, and if he knows anything, he has learned that he knows only that God is not a created being. God is not some perfect version of us. In his teaching, Paul beautifully presents the paradox of God. God is real and near enough to be the one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” the way fish live and move and have their being in water. And at the same time, this mysterious Presence transcends all the rhetoric, all the “art and imagination of mortals.” That means God transcends any given religion. The Creator simply cannot be fully defined or known by the creatures.

         If the paradox of God as deeply intimate and yet unknowable is accurate, then building altars to God can represent our grasping for the kind of knowledge and control that we, as creatures, cannot have. Even our most well-intended altars are still human creations. And because they require attention and protection, they often do more to keep us distant from God rather than to bring us closer to God.

         Altars abound in our world, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, political, economic, academic, or any other “religion.” And it seems to me that they all risk assuming a degree of certainty that claims to have solved mystery and overcome transcendence. And when that’s the case, they become idols, things that can be known, predicted, controlled, and even wielded like weapons.

         As Christians, then, we need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.

         To what extent do we turn our churches, our committees, our doctrines into “altars”?

         What “other gods” do we allow into our holy spaces? Do we make the God revealed in Jesus actually dependent on those idols?

         What do we write into our theologies and polities that opens the door to the kinds of selfishness and faithlessness that Jesus neither encourages nor excuses?

         I have neither the authority nor the wisdom to declare final answers to questions like that. I do think, though, that we are all very much like Paul. We are part china-shop bull with the capacity to do things we cringe even to imagine. And yet we’re also part mystic with the capacity to demonstrate transforming faithfulness and compassion. So, we are both capable of and culpable for worshiping idols whose apparent strengths only reveal our fears and weaknesses. And we’re also capable of speaking the truth in love, of doing justice, and bearing witness to the inexpressible mystery of God who lies both beyond our grasp and at the very core of our being.

         In the 1300’s, an anonymous author wrote a book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This guidebook for Christian contemplative prayer states that there is only one way for human beings to “know” God, and that is to lay aside all of our assumptions and all of our codified beliefs about God. In courageous surrender, we turn ourselves over to what he calls “unknowingness,” and there we begin to encounter—to feel, to taste, and to see—God’s true nature. According to the author, God cannot be “thought.” God can only be loved.1

         It seems to me that the point of this thing called the Christian “religion” is not, somehow, to know God. For we cannot know that which cannot be known. The point for us is not even “to get to heaven when we die.”

I think that the point of entering and practicing our faith is to love the One who is love. (1John 4:7-21) And don’t we do that most faithfully and effectively when we courageously, joyfully, and yet very simply love one another and care for the Creation?

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cloud_of_Unknowing

Storied Faith (Sermon)

“Storied Faith”

Acts 11:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/15/22

         Before reading the text from Acts 11, let’s look back one chapter. In Acts 10, Peter climbs up on a rooftop to pray and has an unforgettable vision. A sheet drops from the heavens, and it’s full of animals that the Hebrew scriptures declare unclean. A voice tells Peter to eat the animals. Interpreting the vision as a temptation rather than an invitation, Peter refuses. This happens two more times, and each time Peter hears the same pronouncement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

         Peter soon learns that he received this vision as preparation to receive Cornelius, a Gentile, as a full member of the church. And during Peter’s first meeting with Cornelius, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentile and his family, and they begin praising God.

Peter and the small group of circumcised brothers who are with him are thunderstruck. Having been taught—as a matter of identity and purity—to separate themselves from Gentiles, they never expect to welcome such outsiders into the family of faith. But they can’t deny what they’re seeing and hearing.

         In what is, for that context, an unthinkably radical move, Peter says to his colleagues, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

         With that story in mind, let’s read our text from Acts 11.

Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  (NRSV)

         Did any of that sound familiar? In back-to-back chapters, Luke tells the same story. In chapter 10, Luke narrates the story. In chapter 11, Peter shares his story with the “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem. In all of this, Luke makes clear that Peter’s vision of an open and inclusive community is both a prerequisite to and a sign of a faithful understanding of God.

         There are at least a couple of things in play here. For one, biblical literature often uses repetition to emphasize the significance of a teaching or an event.1

Now, the ancient kosher laws had important purpose. They helped to set the Hebrews apart as a kind of anomaly—a monotheistic culture in a polytheistic world. And Israel perceived Yahweh as deeply involved in all aspects of Hebrew life, telling the people what to eat, what to wear, what animals to sacrifice, and, of course, what kind of people to associate with.

While the ancient Hebrews lived as an anomaly in the world, there’s also a foreshadowing anomaly in the midst of all those restrictive laws. In Leviticus 19, God gives specific instructions on dealing with “aliens,” that is non-Israelites. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in…Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

With telling repetition, scripture bears witness to God’s expectation that faith communities show hospitality to people from other lands and cultures.

         Peter and his fellow “circumcised believers” live in the midst of a growing tension between the laws that set them apart as Chosen, and Christ’s command to love as we are loved by him. That tension continues because the life and teachings of Jesus make clear that whatever can be gained through hospitality takes precedent over whatever might be merely preserved through protectionism.

One aspect of true faithfulness is the will to demonstrate compassion to those who get labeled other and treated with suspicion and contempt. Faithlessness tries only to keep itself safe. This lesson had to be learned through repetition—thus the recurring stories of the Pharisees learning it, the disciples learning it, Saul, Ananias, the Galatians, and the temple leaders learning it. And now, their stories are teaching us.

         That brings us to the second thing in play. When Peter shares his vision with the council, he invites them into a transforming experience—an experience that called him to defy legalism and to recognize God’s presence in and love for all people. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he asks. By implication, he’s asking all of us, Who are WE that WE can hinder God? In defiantly grateful love, Peter opens the doors of the church as wide as the arms of Jesus are opened on the cross.

         While those who oppose Peter have plenty of scripture to support arguments against his reformist preaching, Peter doesn’t argue some new doctrine. Like Jesus, he tells them a story. He shares his purely subjective experience the way one might open curtains in a dark room. He sheds light on something hopeful and renewing in the world.

One commentator on this passage says, “Stories, not arguments, change lives…Generally,” he says, “arguments…tend only to crystalize differences…to keep two sides apart…[creating] winners and losers.”2 And isn’t that the way so much of our own culture is dealing with differences now—one side trying to defeat the other side with arguments and insults?

Stories work differently. They’re invitations into another person’s life and perspective. When we listen to stories, with compassion for the teller, they have the power to move us toward rather than away from each other.

For several months now, our missions ministry team has been working with three other Presbyterian churches in Holston Presbytery to welcome an Afghan refugee family. We’re getting our ducks in neater and neater rows, and when everything is in place, we’ll get connected with a specific family.

One of the great joys of this process is that we’ve also reached out to the local Muslim community. For many years, many of us have struggled with how to interact with a population that has been associated with some very painful memories. And in working with the Muslim community in Johnson City, we have met people who are themselves reminded every day that their heritage is one that makes them vulnerable to suspicion and to the potentially dangerous consequences of that suspicion. Nonetheless, they are warm, receptive, generous, and good-humored. They’re faithfulness to the mandates of hospitality within their spiritual tradition also makes them eager to offer their gifts to help welcome people that helped to support our nation’s interests in a predominately Muslim nation over the last 20 years.

In addition to a lot of work, we have much to learn and to gain through this process, and I hope we will all help to embrace and encourage the family that gets assigned here. I hope we’ll listen to their stories, and get to know them as fellow human beings who not only want but desperately need a new place to belong and to call home.

I pray just as fervently, that we share our stories with each other, within our own families, neighborhoods, and congregations. And as we share our stories, may God heal us of the fears that drive us apart and lead to suspicion, hatred, and violence.

May we commit ourselves to living in, and to living as a sign of, God’s realm of love, justice, and peace—right here and right now.

May we truly become one in God’s eternal Christ.

1Robert W. Wall, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. p. 451.

2Ibid. From Stephen D. Jones’ article Homiletical Perspective. p. 453.

Faith as Art (Sermon)

“Faith as Art”

John 10:22-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/8/22

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”  (NRSV)

“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

         That would be helpful, wouldn’t it? All too often, faith and faith language can feel like throwing unicorns and rainbows at a blitzkrieg of ogres and trolls. How does one trust what one cannot fully comprehend?

         The men who approach Jesus in the temple are devout Jews. They love God, study scripture, and practice their faith as they have been taught. And while, as Jews, they do anticipate the Messiah, John leaves it to us to decide whether the men want Jesus to be the Messiah or whether they just want to find cause to persecute him. Whatever their case, as Christians, we trust that the One for whom the men wait stands before them. If they don’t recognize him, we must have compassion for them, because we’re not that different. Faith is hard enough, and when we demand certainty, faith doesn’t just get harder, it drifts toward impossibility, because certainty is the opposite of faith—not doubt, or even unbelief.

Back in the Middle Ages, theology was called the “Queen of Sciences.” However, faith precedes and shapes theology, and it seems to me that faith is better understood as art.

Faith seeks stillness in the throes of life’s chaos. (Psalm 46)

Faith discerns beauty in spite of the world’s brutality and decay. (Romans 8:18-27)

Faith hopes in the midst of what appears to be hopelessness. (Genesis 50:15-21)

Faith trusts that which cannot be proven. (Hebrews 11:1)

         The Jewish leaders in John 10 seem to want faith to be paint-by-numbers, but faith paints outside the lines. Like artists exploring the world through colors, textures, words, sounds, and rhythms, people of faith explore the Creation as the ongoing revelation of God’s feral presence and gracious purposes. We encounter God through experiences of love, justice, mercy, and also suffering. And one way to discover the beauty and wonder of God in the world is through intentional communities that share creativity as well as worship, service, study, and suffering. In the community of faith, we are all, potentially, artists-in-residence.

         One of the compelling things about art is that the more we practice a craft, whatever it might be, the more we begin to see new things in our own work and in that of others’. We recognize a greater hand at work in our own hands, a bigger heart beating in our own hearts.

Jesus models artful spirituality when he speaks of his oneness with “the Father.” Jesus creates and reveals in a manner than mirrors the way God creates and reveals. So: From water to wine; sinner to saint; refugee to neighbor; burdened to free; law to grace; and even dead to alive. And when asked to explain what his work “means,” Jesus says, Look at it for yourself. What do you see? What do you hear? How does my work inspire you and call you to faith, to your own spiritual art?

         Over the last twenty-seven years, I’ve enjoyed the many layers of creativity involved in Christian ministry. My primary art has been reading and re-reading scripture to hear something new and to share that in sermons. Newsletters and other communications have offered opportunities for shorter pieces and, at times, a more creative voice. Visiting in homes and hospitals has allowed me to experience joys, wonders, and sorrows which transcend the ability of words to describe. In my teaching role, I’ve never lectured, preferring instead to engage as a fellow traveler as I prepared for and facilitated Sunday school classes and book discussions. Even working with committees has had its moments. When an idea hit the table, I’ve enjoyed helping to create space for it to evolve into something bigger as folks riffed on the idea with their own perspectives.

         Participating in all of those things has deepened my faith in the ways God is present and active in the world. And while I am grateful for that, right now I have to be honest. Over the last three or four years, a deepening spiritual weariness has crept its way into my being. More and more, I have struggled to find the joy I once knew. I’ve sought counsel and support from several sources, and those efforts have been helpful. Still, when I sit down to read, write, pray, or plan, I find myself feeling emptier and more distant.

         Over the last year-and-a-half in particular, that mysterious but heady blend of stillness and energy necessary for a healthy and creative spirituality has all but escaped me. Because of that, more sermons than I want to admit have been re-worked old sermons. They were significant re-works, creative in their own way, and almost always better than the original. Still, I started with old sermons because I lacked both the inspiration and the desire to begin new ones. I haven’t written songs or poetry to share with you, either. And visiting has occasionally felt more like a chore than a holy privilege.

Recently, Covid has had something to do with all that. The suspicion and meanness of our culture has something to do with it. Family concerns played into it. Maybe the fact that I’m not getting any younger has contributed to it. (I mean, I am a grandfather now. If I haven’t mentioned that, I do have pictures!)

Regardless of one’s vocation, when the passion ebbs, and assuming we still care at all, we’ll try to figure out how to rediscover that passion. We’ll try to reconnect with our truest selves—our God-imaged selves. We’ll seek to reacquaint ourselves with the Christ within us and within the Creation around us. And if we don’t do that, we will flame out—and we’ll likely do damage on the way. As Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it [to others].”1

The recent communications I’ve shared about my upcoming sabbatical have offered some nuts-and-bolts information about the what and the how of sabbaticals. And today I’m addressing the why.

Now, I have no grand plan—no book to write, no pilgrimage to take. I just need and want to rediscover my passion, my art, my joy. And I have to learn to quit crying out to God, “If you’re really there, if you’re really good and true, if there really is holy justice in this world of persistent violence, inequity, environmental exploitation, and denial of truth, then tell me plainly. Convince me!

While that may sound stark, it’s honest and real. I’m taking a sabbatical because I need time to rest and to recover the spiritual creativity necessary to live and to help lead others in the ways Christ-following faith, hope, and love.

If I didn’t think that a renewal of faith was possible, I would just quit and go some other way. But we are Easter people; we follow a risen Christ. Because of that, we proclaim faith, not certainty. And we are called to live as creative demonstrations of trust that we and all things reside, ultimately, in the hands of a God of love, justice, peace, and faithfulness.

Even through the most trying, faith-challenging experiences, may we learn to live gratefully, generously, confidently, and artfully so that we bear a joyful and compelling witness to the redeeming and reunifying voice of God in Christ.

1https://cac.org/transforming-pain-2018-10-17/

Peace Be With You (Sermon)

“Peace Be With You”

John 20:19-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/24/22

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)

         “Peace be with you.” In John’s gospel, these are Jesus’ first post-resurrection words to his male disciples.

It seems to me that the word peace has lost much of its original scope and depth. While it can refer to a sense of personal tranquility, just as often it gets relegated to a lack of geopolitical conflict. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. In Greek, it’s eiréné. In first-century Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was something like shlama. In the ancient languages, to invoke peace on others was to wish upon them a blessing for which mere words were inadequate. The word peaceevoked the ultimate Mystery from which all things have come and to which all things will go. Jesus was offering his disciples something far more significant than a peace treaty.

Having said that, the context for this story does hold significance. Jesus lived—and even more so did John write—during an era known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. If it felt peaceful, though, it was only because Rome had subjugated so much of the known world that, for a time, the empire faced no credible threat from the outside. It also brutally silenced virtually all criticism from the inside. That meant that those who held the wealth and the power could define what was true and just depending on what benefited them. So, it was under the authority of Rome’s version of “peace” that Jesus was crucified. Presbyterian pastor and educator Marjorie Thompson calls that kind of peace “enforced peace.”1 And in no small way, peace imposed through threat of violence allowed and even inspired us to kill God Incarnate.

When the risen Christ says to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” he’s offering something entirely different from the enforced peace of Rome.

Biblically and spiritually speaking, peace is a realm of wholeness, community, and joy. It’s a presence that saturates us. It’s a purpose and a confidence that guide us—even in the midst of fear. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he declares his resurrection presence to the men who betrayed him and abandoned him—men who, at the moment, feel anything but peaceful. And yet, from the realm of Resurrection, unfettered by time, or space, or human frailty, Jesus announces his eternal presence with and his forgiving love for his disciples and for all Creation.

When we share the peace of Christ, we share the same gift Jesus shares with the disciples on Easter evening. And even now, that gift is nothing less than the eternal Christ himself.

Yes, it’s a learned discipline to hold and to be held by the peace of Christ. That makes it easy to deny Resurrection, to say, like Thomas, Seeing is believing, so prove it! And that’s understandable. Experiences of the risen Christ are always subjective. They defy objective proof. (I say that with apologies to everyone who has seen Jesus in the scorch marks on their tortillas or their toast.)

The subjectivity of Mystery also makes it easy to reduce Easter to an individualistic doctrine, something one must accept in order to feel assured of a reservation in the safety of a post-mortem heaven. That turns resurrection faith into a rigidly-controlled institution in which people are contained and homogenized, a system which may be defended by worldly means for selfish purposes. And that kind of religion may fit well into “enforced peace,” but how does it proclaim the realm of Resurrection? How does it share the peace of Christ? How can a self-serving institution embody, as Jesus does, God’s holy justice and advocate for the oppressed without oppressing the oppressor?

Easter offers a way of being in the world that is always new because that same world is always telling us that we—individually and corporately—will be lost unless we impose our will upon others. Easter tells us, and shows us, that true peace is the gift of following Jesus in demonstrating love and compassion toward ourselves, our neighbors, and toward all of Creation. It’s the gift of praying, Your will, not mine.

The Book of Joy is Douglas Abrams’ thoughtful record of a weeklong conversation between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. And these two profoundly influential spiritual leaders say over and over, in as many ways as they can, using as many stories as they can, that there is truly hope for the world when human beings and human communities discover joy by committing themselves to compassion.

In the final chapter, Abrams asks both men to sum up the week’s conversation. Tutu responds saying, “If we think we want to get joy for ourselves, we realize that it’s very short-sighted, short-lived. Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others.”2 And the Dalai Lama says that: “…true joyfulness comes from helping others…” and “…the only way to truly change our world is to teach compassion.”3

The remarkable thing about these deceptively simple words is that they are spoken by men who carry deep scars of oppression. Archbishop Tutu lived under and openly contested the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa until that violently racist system fell in 1994. And the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959 when China invaded Tibet. Tibetans have been escaping China’s authoritarian control and abuses ever since. And yet both of these men committed themselves to lives of compassion for all people, including those responsible for oppression.

Like Jesus showing up in that locked room to men who had forsaken him when he needed them most, both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama lived lives of true peace; and one continues to live that life. Such lives are holy words from God saying to the world, “Peace be with you,” all of you!

Here, we begin to understand Jesus’ cryptic words about forgiving and retaining sins. If I acknowledge that the peace of Christ is the very presence of the resurrected Jesus, and if, for whatever reason, I do not share it with you, whoever you are, then I withhold from all of us a richer experience of God’s realm.

Christ’s peace can only be offered to; it cannot be imposed upon. So, it’s not a matter of whether or not others “accept Jesus.” It’s a matter of whether we, as disciples, are humble, grateful, and generous enough to trust that, like candlelight on Christmas Eve, the more we share Christ’s peace, the more there is for everyone.

When we do find the strength for that kind of generous compassion, we discover the deep blessedness of joy, and this blessedness is not associated with seeing, hearing, or touching Jesus in any conventional sense, but from loving and following the one whom we call the Prince of Peace.

Brothers and Sisters, from the ever-deepening depths of my self to the ever-deepening depths of your selves: The peace of Christ be with you all.

1Marjorie Thompson, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. (From the Companions in Christ series) p. 86.

2The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 293.

3Ibid. pp. 295-296.

A New Beginning to a Strange Ending (Sermon)

“A New Beginning to a Strange Ending”

Mark 16:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday – 11:00am Service

4/17/22

16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)

         Jesus’ death was no great surprise. Indeed, it was predictable. Things would have been different for Jesus had he lived according to the ways and means of Caesar—the ways and means of weapons, wealth, and world domination. Had Jesus given into the temptations after his baptism and gained recognition for creating fear and enmity, or for belittling and persecuting opposition, or for flaunting wealth, Caesar would have seen in him an ally. For Caesar, there can never be too much fear and violence.

         Jesus held firm in the face of temptation, though. He refused to live by the sword or by an angry tongue. He refused to shun the weak, the sick, the outcast, the refugee. His life was defined by justice, by steadfast love and mercy. And those who allowed their lives to be shaped and re-shaped by his life became hard to threaten. Jesus had given them everything that mattered—belonging, dignity, purpose, and not for themselves alone. Jesus had given them his peace, his eternal Shalom—he had given them himself as a vision for all Creation.

         Caesar had no good answer for Jesus’ revolution of Shalom. To survive the threat of agape love, Caesar had to resort to the shock and awe of crucifixion. And that was natural enough for him. He’s been doing it for millennia.

         Biblically speaking, Caesar is more than a Roman emperor. Caesar, like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Herod is a metaphor for human hearts turned toward greed and brutal power. All of these things make Caesar as predictable as he is destructive and timeless. And because Caesar’s means are effective—at least temporarily—by Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers have been reduced to three courageous women.

         As those women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they assume that Caesar’s realm still reigns. Following the narrative of the ordinary, they expect simply to cover Jesus’ dead body with fragrant spices because everyone knows what happens to moldering organic matter. So, on their way, the women have one primary concern: Who will move the stone for them? When they reach the tomb, however, they have an encounter that is as extraordinary as it is brief. They discover that the stone has been moved, and “a young man” in white says that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells them that they’ll find Jesus in Galilee.

Then the women run away, too terrified to speak.

Most scholars recognize the women’s speechless retreat from the tomb as the original ending of Mark. In all likelihood, verses 9-20 were added much later, but isn’t “For they were afraid” a rather unsatisfying ending?

It seems to me that Mark’s abrupt ending makes more sense if we tie it back to the opening verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” To me, those words feel laden with mystery, with breathless surprise, like someone asking himself or herself, Wait. What just happened?

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are words inspired by the events of Easter. And they return us exactly where the young man dressed in white says to go, because eight verses later, after introducing us to John the Baptist, Mark says, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Mark’s ending deliberately returns us to the beginning of the story. And isn’t that what Resurrection is all about—new beginnings and new life? Let’s be honest: An empty tomb proves nothing. And we’re not called to prove the resurrection, anyway. Indeed, we can’t do that. It takes a fully human life committed to God’s justice and mercy to bear witness to the risen Christ. Following him is all about returning to his extraordinary story, and telling it by living it, living in the realm of Resurrection, the realm of paradox, mystery, and promise—the very place that Caesar does not want us to live, because he has no control there.

Easter people don’t obsess over pearly gates and fiery pits. Even Caesar welcomes that kind of religion, because it’s based on rewards and punishments rather than grace. And fear-based religion makes for vassals who, in the name of Jesus, tolerate the same winner-take-all violence and injustice that crucified Jesus.

Resurrection faith transforms us into Easter people, people who follow Jesus in losing our lives, over and over, as we become more fully Christlike. And by that I mean we become more alive, more fully human, truer to the image of God within us.

While Easter people choose to live fearlessly and lovingly, we also confess that when Jesus’ radical ways become too demanding, or when they feel absurd, we may run away, terrified and speechless. But Jesus always welcomes us back, and not because we’ve groveled in guilt and promised to do better. He welcomes us back because forgiveness is who God is. Forgiveness is the opposite of weakness and resignation. Forgiveness is the very power of Resurrection transforming the world into the realm of God.

         I want to close with words written by Wendell Berry. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I hope that you will hear in it a description of, and a call to the paradoxical yet well-voiced joy and hope of resurrection life.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Practice resurrection.1

1Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. Pp 151-152.

Easter: Discovering Life in Christ (Sermon)

“Easter: Discovering Life In Christ”

John 20:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunrise 2022

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)

         On Sunday, Mary Magdalene rises before the sun. Maybe there is some starlight, but for the most part, her day begins with darkness swaddling her like a shroud.

         On Maundy Thursday, we talked about darkness as a negative thing. And yet, darkness is also a kind of equalizer. In the dark, we may know up from down, and we may still know our own left from our own right. But spin around a few times, and we might have to wait for daybreak to know east from west. And in the dark, we share our humanity entirely differently. It may be that we actually share our humanity more deeply.

         In his journal, Thomas Merton describes darkness as a kind of baptismal font. He writes of attending the night office during Holy Week when the choir sang without a single ray of light in the sanctuary. “I thought of the darkness as a luxury,” he said, “simplifying and unifying everything, hiding all the accidents that make one monk different from another monk, and submerging all distinctions in plain obscurity. Thus,” he says, “we are all one in the death of Christ.”

Merton then tells of singing the Benedictus, “the canticle of thanksgiving for the Light who is to be sent. Now He is sent,” says Merton. “He has come. He has descended into the far of night…” and gathered all things to himself.

         Merton imagines that in this gathering, “We will see one another with white garments, with palm branches in our hands. [And the] darkness,” he says, “is like a font from which we shall ascend washed and illumined, to see one another, no longer separate, but one in the Risen Christ.”1

         “In Christ” is a kind of mantra in the New Testament epistles. A quick search reveals that from Romans through Revelation, in the NRSV, the phrase “in Christ” appears 90 times. And for Paul, in Christ refers to an inviting and inclusive mystery. He’s bearing witness to God bringing “all things” together—the whole of Creation—and uniting them in Christ.

According to John, as Mary arrives at the tomb, she sees three figures—two “angels” and a man she assumes is a gardener. After reading Merton’s journal, I imagine Mary still submerged in the darkness of grief, and yet hers is a cleansing and enlightening grief. And when she hears her name, all things come together in Christ, including the three figures she has seen. They gather into the wholeness that was, and is, and will always be the presence of God’s Christ. It is very much like the experience Cleopas and his friend have on the road to Emmaus later that day, when they recognize the Christ in a complete stranger.

         Now, that’s one way experience Easter—as a mysterious and unpredictable revelation of God’s irrepressible, whole-making grace in the world. Recognizing this oneness, this gathering of all things in Christ, is the redeeming gift of Resurrection. It’s also a challenging gift because the world isn’t always open to wholeness and union. Indeed, more often than not, much of the world resists the in Christness of the Creation because, among other reasons, living in Christ involves so much give and take, and in an anxious, divided, and competitive world, we often become consumed with taking rather than giving.

To discover and experience the in Christ life, we are invited to give up all the selfish habits of being that divide us, habits that obscure the image of God within us and that prevent us from seeing the image of God in others. Habits like pride, greed, fear, and vengeance. Habits that humankind manifests in attitudes like racism, consumerism, nationalism, and other violence-breeding distortions of our God-imaged humanity.

         We call it Holy Saturday—the day between Good Friday and Easter. For people of faith, Saturday is, spiritually and liturgically, a day of darkness. In the grief of that day, past and future dissolve into a kind of timeless present when we are washed of all selfish expectations, and when, by the illuminating darkness, God grants us the opportunity to recognize that God is gathering together all things in Christ.

Caryll Houselander was a British writer, artist, and Christian mystic in the first half of the 20th century. Her most memorable mystical experience occurred on a subway in London when, in her heart and mind, she clearly saw “Christ in all people.”

“Quite suddenly,” she recalled, “I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because he was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here in this underground train, not only the world as it was at that moment, not only [all] the people…of the world, but all those yet to come. I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here…in every passerby—Christ.”

         I imagine Houselander and her fellow travelers on that underground train buried in a kind of darkness. Sure, there were lights on the cars, but can’t you imagine heads bowed in dark silence, eyes open but seeing little and acknowledging less? All of them crowded beneath a shared pall of busyness, of anxiety about living in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s as the dark clouds of war gathered? So deeply did she see and experience her vision, that, through some uncommon grace, Caryll Houselander, like Mary on Easter morning, saw the Christ in each person and in all people together—all one in Christ.

Her vision lasted several days and shaped the rest of her life in relationship to all human beings.

Like Mary Magdalene, Caryll Houselander could not have held onto the Christ she saw in the people around her. He was not corporeal in the same way they were, but he was—and he is, even now—no less real, loving, and faithful.

My prayer for all of us is that we allow God’s Spirit to Easter us toward union with God in Christ every day. And one way to do that is to open ourselves to the font of simplifying and unifying darkness with the same expectation and hope with which we open ourselves to the Light. For in the darkness of our own difficult and disturbing days, we have the opportunity to do exactly as Jesus calls us to do, to lose our lives so that we might find them anew.

Please trust this, my friends: In the new light of Resurrection, we are being made one and whole through the shared embrace of God who is bringing together all things in Christ.

1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 99.

2https://catholicwomensforum.org/who-was-caryll-houselander-and-why-was-she-called-a-divine-eccentric/

The Fragrance of Christ (Sermon)

“The Fragrance of Christ”

John 12:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/3/22

         In John 11, Jesus resuscitates Lazarus and confirms the unique power of the one who called himself “the resurrection and the life.” In that same chapter, John describes the treacherous fallout of raising Lazarus—namely how it caused a small group of Jewish leaders to plot the deaths of both Jesus and Lazarus.

That’s an uncomfortable paradox: Jesus’ restoration of life provokes a scheme to cause death.1 For some reason, life-giving holiness often generates an equally powerful and determined will to end the lives of those who demonstrate the radical love of life-affirming acceptance and life-giving grace. It’s discouraging how often genuine holiness provokes violent reactions from worldly powers-that-be. In John 11, those powers are represented by Caiaphas and his small circle of co-conspirators.

         It’s necessary to acknowledge that John’s gospel is often considered a source of anti-Semitism in Christianity. And indeed, John frequently refers to “the Jews” as Jesus’ principal opponents. It seems to me, though, that John is speaking primarily of those Jewish leaders who hold ecclesiastical and social influence, and who can whip the masses into a frenzy when they—the so-called leaders—feel their privilege being challenged. These leaders also know that when Jesus adds raising the dead to his already popular works of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming outcasts, people will flock to him and throw their support and loyalty his way instead of toward folks like the high priests. For the most part, it’s this little clutch of Jewish leaders who feel threatened by Jesus, not the Jewish people in general.

Whether in first-century Judaism or in twenty-first-century Christianity, those who are most likely to feel threatened by Jesus and his followers are those who approach life most pragmatically. Dealing in absolutes and certainties rather than in the mysteries and possibilities of faith, they’re often the ones who, like Caiaphas and, for a time, Judas, keep their fingers on purse strings rather than heart strings, who remain more concerned about weapons than wisdom, and who spread more loathing than love.

And then there’s Mary.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (NRSV)

The sister of both Lazarus and Martha, Mary is more interested in affection than etiquette. She is hungrier for growth than for groceries. And filled with such deep gratitude for Jesus, she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on his feet, and overwhelms the house with fragrance.

The pragmatists in the room act appalled.

What a waste! they say.

And I guess they have a point. Once all that perfume is poured out, it cannot be re-bottled. This extravagant act convinces me that Mary, with her keen spiritual awareness, comprehends what Jesus did for Lazarus. She knows that Jesus endangered his own life by restoring the life of her brother. So, her gesture becomes an act of lavish thanksgiving and blessing, not wastefulness. It declares Mary’s defiant love for and solidarity with Jesus. It’s an offering made completely and irreversibly to him. So, whatever Jesus’ lot will be, Mary is prepared to share it.

Mary’s actions challenge us to ask ourselves just how much power over us we grant to money and to the things it buys, whether that be expensive perfume or influence with people of influence. And if we’re completely honest, we’re likely to be a little embarrassed by our answers.

In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian pastor Bill Carter tells the story of attending a clergy stewardship conference and listening to a presenter talk about generosity. Carter says that when “the presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God…the [roomful of preachers] began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.’

“The reaction was electric,” says Carter. The pastors “began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume.” They whispered nervously about the legality of destroying money. They laughed uncomfortably about how wealthy the presenter must be if he could so casually waste a hundred dollars.

“‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. I am offering it to God, and that means that it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’”1

         Mary’s all-in offering of perfume is often considered a foreshadowing of Jesus’ burial. And that is, indeed, something John wants us to understand. I also wonder if Mary’s offering creates a kind of fragrant link between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.

When we talk about Jesus raising Lazarus, we call it a resuscitation instead of a resurrection. And we do so because Lazarus, who returns to the same body will also return to the same grave.

Jesus’ resurrection is an entirely different thing. While we speak of the resurrection of the body, we also speak of an unimaginably new resurrection body. That distinction is consistent with Jesus’ reluctance to be touched by Mary when she sees him in the garden on Sunday morning. It’s also consistent with Paul’s affirmation that Jesus’ resurrection body is incomparably different from the body he inhabited during is earthly ministry. (1Corinthians 15:35-55)

Whatever a resurrection body may be—and no one on this side of the grave can know—it does seem safe to trust that it’s at least a body that will not return to the grave. Our previous bodies, then, like that $100 bill, will, at least eventually, cease to be of use to anyone.

         Lazarus’ resuscitated body can continue to be of use—if he gets over the jolt of having been forced to return to the world with all its suffering as well as all its beauty. Jesus’ resurrected body declares that his previous incarnation is over and done. Having poured his life out like Mary pouring out her bottle of perfume, Jesus can no longer be re-bottled. Having been poured out, he continues to be a fragrant offering turned loose in the Creation for the sake of all Creation.

         I think that’s our call—to live as the fragrance of Christ in and for the world. If so, then we ask ourselves: Do we, as Mary does, pour out our words and actions like a fragrant and extravagant offering? Do we, as Jesus does, go all-in on loving God by loving our neighbor and caring for the Creation?

Or do we, like Caiaphas and his terrified little junta, impose a graceless and self-serving pragmatism on the people and the environment around us?

         The table before us is set with a reminder of the extravagant grace of God’s outpouring in Jesus. The gift of the incarnate Christ is meant to set us free from dead-end devotion and loveless longing.

As we receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may each of us sense God’s Spirit being poured into us, strengthening us, and empowering us to experience for ourselves and to embody for others the out-poured fragrance of God’s eternal Christ, who unites all things in himself through his all-inclusive, non-violent, Creation-transforming love.

1JaeWon Lee Carter, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 141.

2William Carter, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 142.

The Bitter Pill of Grace (Sermon)

“The Bitter Pill of Grace”

Luke 15:11-32

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/27/22

         Luke 15 begins with Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with “sinners.”

         Standing face-to-face with those who know the law, and who abide by it with loveless resolve, Jesus tells a short parable: If a shepherd had a hundred sheep, and he lost one, wouldn’t he search for that one sheep until he found it? And when he did, wouldn’t he call his family and friends together to celebrate? And wouldn’t you?

         No response.

         Okay, says Jesus, suppose a woman loses one of the only ten coins she has. Won’t she sweep the entire house until she finds it? And won’t she rejoice when she does? And wouldn’t you?

         The Pharisees and scribes seem to feel nothing inside their cold, tombstone hearts. So, into the tension, Jesus tells another story.

         11 “‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’

“So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

31 “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  (NRSV)

         Jesus leaves that story hanging the same way that Luke leaves Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes hanging. And that leaves us hanging, too. What does the elder son do? What effect do the father’s actions have in the family? In the community?

         The parable of the father and his two sons illustrates, memorably, that at the heart of all matters, human and divine, lies the foundation of relationship. And the Judeo-Christian tradition uses the language of covenant to describe those relationships that reflect our understanding of God’s purpose and desire for all Creation.

         Living in covenant relationship with God, other human beings, and the earth is difficult. It demands the agonizing death of human selfishness and pride. Last week, we talked about repentance as turning. Repentance also involves a kind of death.

         When the younger son recognizes his potentially-fatal selfishness, he rehearses a humbled plea to offer to his father. Dad, he says, I’ve made a mess of things. I insulted you personally and disgraced you publicly. Having broken a sacred trust—indeed, having effectively wished that you were dead—I know that you have every right to consider me dead to you. Because of what I’ve done, I’ve lost the right to be called your son. But would you take me on as a hired hand?

         The Pharisees and the scribes know what the father should do with his son. He should hold a qetsatsah ceremony. That involves filling a large jug with burned nuts and corn and smashing it into smithereens at the young man’s feet. He then shouts his former son’s name out loud so that everyone knows that he has been cut off from the family and the community—forever.1

According to the law, that’s what the father should do. He should channel all the elder-brother disgust he can muster and disown that ungrateful son. Instead, the father embodies grace. He humbles himself—in fact, he humiliates himself. He runs out to welcome his son and orders up a celebration. You and I really can’t understand how awkward such a party would be for those who attend. The story, though, illustrates the profound difference between covenantal and contractual relationships.

         When I work with couples getting married, I make the point that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. People enter contracts to pursue their own interests. One says to the other, I’ll give this to you, but only under the condition that you give that to me. It’s a quantifiable exchange that doesn’t happen without the enforceable guarantee of getting as well as giving. And contracts have their place. We engage in contractual relationships every time we check out at a grocery store, or restaurant, or online.

         In contrast, when people enter a covenant, they do so with a willing and eager vow—for better or worse—to make the well-being of the other as an equal or greater priority than their own well-being.

         What makes covenant more challenging is that it necessarily implies forgiveness, which, paradoxically, becomes a kind of pre-condition to unconditional love. And that condition is placed on the one who loves. As Alexander Pope said: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

         You’ve come home! says the forgiving father. That’s all that matters. You’re home!

         Isn’t that what God says, over and over, to prodigal Israel?

         Covenantal grace can be a bitter pill. It seldom seems fair. But rather than using the contractual language of merit, covenant speaks to that thread of eternity called grace that binds all things together. And not everyone gets it.

         With a sneer, the elder son says to his father, “This son of yours” has turned you into a sucker, a loser. Look at all I’ve done for you all my life! And you’ve done nothing for me!

         Who among us cannot relate to the contract-minded elder brother? And if to him, then to the Pharisees and scribes?

         The father in this parable, however, does something for the elder son that is no less scandalous, no less covenantal than what he does for the prodigal. He turns his back on his guests to go outside and “plead” with his angry son. No matter how faithful and hardworking a son might be, virtually no traditional, self-respecting, first-century father would plead with a son.

         Throughout the parable, the father does everything wrong—at least culturally. Nevertheless, Jesus holds him up as an example of God-bearing grace. Through this father, Jesus illustrates that forgiveness is the foundation of covenantal relationship. Forgiveness and love are certainly mutually-inclusive, and perhaps even synonymous. They are attributes of God that we cannot undo through our own fragile-egoed judgments. To forgive is to incarnate in our own bodies, minds, and spirits the Creator of the Universe, because God relates to all things through covenant, not contract.

         In his journal, Thomas Merton wrote, “I think I am beginning to understand something about the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel—the lost sheep, the lost drachma, the Prodigal Son. Our dearest Lord is showing that he means everything about the fatted calf and the rejoicing to be taken literally, and that He means to pour out every kind of happiness in rivers upon those who ran away from his mercy but could not escape it.”2

         Richard Rohr echoes Merton’s words when he says, “The great thing about God’s love is that it’s not determined by the object. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. That’s difficult for us to accept, says Rohr, because “We naturally live in what I call the meritocracy of quid pro quo.” That is, the meritocracy of contract. “We must,” says Rohr, “be taught by God…how to live in an economy of grace.”3

         It seems to me, that we are most truly our God-imaged human selves, when we—through Christ and in the strength of the Holy Spirit—intentionally live in ways that confound and even threaten the Pharisees and scribes within us and among us, because we say to them, We understand your concern, but honestly we’re not worried about what you think others deserve. Just watch what happens when we love them, anyway!

1https://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_qetsatsah_ceremony

2 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and Edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 85.

3Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate…Seeing God in All Things [CD, DVD, MP3])

Good Soil (Sermon)

“Good Soil”

Luke 13:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/20/22

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (NRSV)

         Before jumping into our text, let’s recall a deep-time story. Against God’s specific instructions, Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. Soon hiding behind scratchy fig leaves, the couple knew they’d been busted. Adam tried to blame it on both God and Eve.

Well look, he said “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave [it to] me.” 

But the devil made me do it! said Eve (Gen. 3:13)

Interesting. As soon as human beings had both language and community, people started blaming their failures on others.

It’s significant that the couple could not return to the garden after they ate the fruit. Once their eyes were opened, they could neither un-see what they’d seen nor un-taste what they’d tasted. They had entered a new reality, one they had to learn to both endure and enjoy. And here’s the good news in the story of Adam and Eve: The first gift is life itself. The second gift is companionship. And the third gift is the gracious, double-gift of repentance and forgiveness.

Whatever mistakes we try to hide behind our fig leaves, they don’t have to define us. That’s what makes repentance a gift and, therefore, Lent a season of hope and new life.

In today’s gospel text, some people are talking to Jesus about a particularly graphic atrocity when Pilate mingled the blood of executed Galileans with that of a Jewish animal sacrifice. While historians agree that Pilate was a violent authoritarian who was willing to use any means to maintain power, the blood-mingling incident has no historical confirmation outside of Luke’s gospel. Maybe that’s why, when the people ask about it, Jesus immediately turns the people’s attention away from the sins of others and toward the issue of repentance. He does so by mentioning a tragedy at the tower of Siloam, an event which also lacks corroborating evidence. In doing so, Jesus turns what are likely fabrications, or at least embellishments, into object lessons.

Maybe we can see some similarities in how Parson Weems’ thoroughly un-true account of George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree became a beloved national myth about, ironically, truth-telling.1

Jesus’ point is to say, No, God is not some vengeful beast. And repentance is more than mere confession. It’s a way of life, and it’s for everyone, not just those whom you decide to call sinners.

Too much Christian teaching has declared, explicitly and implicitly, that God basically creates us for hell then sits back to let us decide for ourselves whether or not we want to go to heaven. That reduces our lives to non-stop efforts of trying to appease or, like Adam and Eve, to hide from an angry God. But any god of insatiable anger and eye-for-an-eye vengeance is a projection of our own fears and prejudices. Those small-g, made-in-our-image gods allow us not only to persecute enemies, but to treat neighbors, friends, and family with self-righteous disdain, spite, and even contempt. So, those gods are emphatically not the God revealed in Jesus. That’s the point of Jesus’ decisive “No” to those who wonder if Yahweh had used Pilate to kill sinners.

Jesus follows that No with a parable. In the story, a landowner gets impatient with a fruitless fig tree. Get rid of it, he tells his gardener. It’s just wasting space.

Well, let me work with it, says the gardener. I’ll tend it for another yearI’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Then you can decide what to do.

Now, I’m no gardener, but my wife is. And my way of helping her with either flowers or vegetables is to keep my distance. I can kill a rock garden, and she can make one grow. I’ve seen her restore plants that almost anyone else would throw away, because where some would see a lifeless twig, she’s able to feel just enough life stirring in just enough cells to send some new shoot reaching for sunlight.

Good gardeners know that caring for plants starts with caring for the soil. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. The seeds are not at fault for their failure to thrive in poor soil. If the earth is unwell, it won’t sustain life, much less produce good fruit. In order to provide a healthy environment for things to grow, the soil has to be nurtured.

Hiding behind the fig leaves of the tree in Jesus’ parable is, well, a fig tree! A tree with both the capacity and, given the tree’s DNA, the desire to produce figs. Hiding behind those fig leaves is a kind of prayer: “Help me to be a real fig tree!”

And that is a prayer of repentance.

Hiding behind our fig leaves of fear, guilt, and all that utterly useless shame is exactly what God has created and loves—human beings who crave belonging, purpose, and joy. And from the Christian perspective, we are most fully and fruitfully human when we are in community. As communities, then, we have much more in common with soil than with individual plants. Our shared calling is to create a fertile environment for holiness; and we don’t create holiness. That’s God’s doing. Repentance, then, is less a private act of regret than it is a public act of solidarity in, with, and for one’s community, and the entire Creation for that matter. Repentance is less a private act than it is a public act of communal restoration.

While there is an individual element to repentance, through repentance—which in Greek means “to turn”—we’re turning more than our own selves. We’re turning the very circumstances in which we all live. If the prayer of the fig tree is “Help me to be a real fig tree,” the prayer of good soil is “Not my will but yours.”

As good soil, we involve ourselves, as Jesus did, in the social, political, and economic realities around us for the sake of the Creation—and especially for the sake of all that suffers and cries out for love, acceptance, care, healing, or rest.

To reduce discipleship to church-going, or doctrine, or conspicuous morality is to live for ourselves. And that would make us rather lifeless soil. Aren’t we more than that? Aren’t we here to participate in God’s work of creating, nurturing, and celebrating life?

The Lenten discipline of repentance restores us to community. It also restores as community. It returns us to the soil-tilling, fertilizing work of discipleship. As Jesus’ disciples, we’re here to help God offer hope to the poor, food to the hungry, laughter to those who weep, and welcome to those who have no place to belong.

We are called to live as a community of good soil in which mysteries beyond our comprehension and control produce the healthy and healing fruits of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. These fruits nourish us with desire, strengthen us with courage, and inspire us with gratitude.

And they reveal the entire Creation as something saturated with the ever-fertile love and grace of God.

1https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/parson-weems/