Words, Wisdom, and Worry (Sermon)

“Words, Wisdom, and Worry”

Luke 21:5-19

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/17/19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (NRSV)

       The date of Luke’s gospel is generally set between 71CE and 80CE. Scholars assign that date to Luke in part because of the reference in Luke 21 to Rome’s demolition of the magnificent Jerusalem temple in 70CE. Temple construction began in 19BCE, and by 70CE, the building had been completed for only a decade.1 The destruction of this essentially brand-new temple was meant to bring the Jewish community to its knees. To those who stood in grateful awe of the temple, its demolition would have felt like a persecution, an apocalyptic event. It was Jerusalem’s blitzkrieg, Hiroshima, and 9/11. It would have brought prophets of doom out of the woodwork declaring God’s judgment and the end of the world.

       Next Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. Lectionary readings at the end of the cycle—readings such as Luke 21:5-19—tend to focus on prophecies of days to come, usually days that include some measure of chaos and suffering. Religious demagogues frequently use these texts to make already anxious and insecure people feel all the more guilty and fearful. And when given reason to believe that God is fundamentally vindictive and that salvation must be earned, people will do almost anything. People with power will accept and propagate dogmas that terrify and divide instead of inspire and unite. Lonely people will give money to flashy evangelists who consider it personal gain and God’s blessing. Fearful people will exclude or even persecute their neighbors, especially if told that a neighbor is “lost” and destined for some bloodthirsty deity’s eternal wrath, anyway.

       Now, Jesus’ ominous teachings seem like pretty safe prophecies to me. To “predict” such things is like the old priest Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that their beautiful baby boy, in addition to doing great things, is going to break his mama’s heart. Any parent will tell you that that prophecy takes no foresight or imagination. The reality in which we live always includes the horrors of war, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, cancer, poverty, school shootings, the idolatry of the very means of violence, and the false prophets who use all these painful things to draw attention and influence to themselves by sowing division and manipulating fear.

       Here’s the thing about worrisome times and the worrisome biblical texts that get lots of attention in the midst of them: For people who are seeking to know and follow Jesus, difficult texts must be read in the broader context of the two essential affirmations of Jesus’ life and of our faith—Incarnation and Resurrection.

        Jesus is born into the physical world, and when we proclaim his presence as the unique incarnation of God, we affirm that God loves all that exists because all that has life and being is not only created by God, it reveals God in some way. And while we affirm the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, we also know that as the Incarnate Christ, Jesus is no magic wand. He’s God’s Incarnate Sign, the Living Word, the one through whom God sets loose the holy and steadfast energy of resurrection in the Creation for the sake of the Creation. Incarnation and resurrection proclaim God’s eternal presence with and redeeming love for all that lives and moves and has being—and that suffers, and longs for wholeness.

       And yet, says Jesus, in this magnificent and beloved Creation, like the temple, some people will just tear you down. “They will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by [people you love]…they will put some of you to death…[and] you will be hated…because of my name.”

        In the next breath Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” How can he say that immediately after telling his followers that they’ll be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, and killed? My hair hurts just thinking about it.

        The easy way to process Jesus’ teaching is to run straight for the default proclamation: We’re going to heaven when we die! I understand the comfort of that promise. I also think that focusing on a future we can’t comprehend disconnects us from the holiness and the suffering within us and around us right now. As hopeful as it may feel to plan to be present In the Sweet By and By When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, that is not the Christian hope into which Jesus calls us. In one of his many memorable quotations, St. Augustine describes the Christian hope this way: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

        I like to imagine Augustine writing this after reading Luke 21. When Jesus promises “words and a wisdom” that will defy opposition, just think about the ways that Jesus incarnated God’s own word and wisdom. Jesus got angry at more than moneychangers. His entire ministry expressed the heartbroken anger of one who saw the injustices and sufferings of a world out of kilter, and the loving wisdom of one encouraging people to choose to live differently. Only when we choose to live gratefully, generously, compassionately, and peaceably do we participate in God’s healing work. And we do that by choosing to follow Jesus in lives of gratitude, generosity, compassion, and peacemaking—even when those who choose greed, violence, and power over others oppose and persecute us. For us, the Christian hope comes not from simply choosing to claim to believe creeds, but choosing to live according to the transforming words and humble wisdom of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Church’s current irrelevance in the world stems from its general unwillingness to do much more than believe religious stuff.

        We do live in a worrisome world. And that’s been true forever. All we can do is engage our own context with words of hopeful anger and the hopeful courage of wisdom. Along that path, we have the example of God’s incarnation in Jesus to follow, and the eternal promise of resurrection to energize us.

        When we entrust our lives to the invigorating Mysteries of incarnation and resurrection, God makes us aware of God’s words and wisdom at work around us. In our trust, God empowers us to speak and embody the same words and wisdom spoken and embodied in Jesus.

        God, help us to follow your incarnate Christ “deep and in,”2 where he reveals to us the true holiness of our created being. Then help us to follow Jesus’ words and wisdom “far and wide,”3 into the realm of Resurrection where, by grace, you make us newly real and relevant to a Creation in need of faith, hope, and love. Amen.

 

1Vernon K. Robbins in his article Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 309-313.

2&3Richard Rohr: https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/16AFF7277BECDE622540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

 

Resurrection: It’s Not Just for Dead People Anymore (Sermon)

“Resurrection: It’s Not Just for Dead People Anymore”

Luke 20:27-38

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/10/19

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (NRSV)

       According to Harper’s Bible Dictionary, the Sadducees appeared in Judaism sometime in the second century BCE. The Jewish historian Josephus describes them as a particularly wealthy sect, men obsessed with power and privilege, and who tried to cultivate close relationships with Rome.1 Whether intentional or not, they also developed adversarial relationships with the Pharisees, who—as religious leaders went—were more popular with regular folks. Josephus says that in spite of all their groveling and grasping, the Sadducees “were influential with only a few wealthy families…boorish in their social interaction…encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers, [and] were more stern than the Pharisees in recommending punishments for crimes.” They also deliberately sought to create social and political division in Judea by siding with the Hasmoneans against Herod.2 The Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, tended toward the outwardly rational but thoroughly idolatrous fusion of faith with political ambition and military dominance. Holding to very literal interpretations of the law, the Sadducees also denied the resurrection because they didn’t see it spelled out specifically in scripture.

       For untold eons, the seductive cocktail of material wealth, violent power, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism has created illusions of certainty, of being right and pure. And aren’t those the very things Jesus calls fragile foundations? (Mt. 7:26-27) It’s little wonder that after the fall of the temple in 70CE, the Sadducees basically disappeared from history.3 They had built on the sandy soil of selfish interest instead of the spiritual bedrock of compassion, mercy, and love for neighbor.

       Luke presents the Sadducees in this same less-than-favorable light. When they approach Jesus with a question about levirate marriage—the practice of handing wives down from brother to brother like last year’s sweatshirt—these men not only try to trap Jesus in a theological quandary, they’re making fun of everyone who disagrees with them on the issue of resurrection. Because the scenario they present is absurd, they demonstrate particular contempt for women, the poor, and the homeless. Jesus doesn’t take the bait; but, in his characteristic with-compassion-for-all way, he does bite.

       Jesus begins by distinguishing between “this age” and “that age”—this agebeing the temporal world in which we live, the age in which people “marry and are given in marriage,” and that age being whatever existence lies beyond the life we experience between birth and death. And in that age, he says, there is holiness and wholeness that transcends anything our this-age minds can fully comprehend.

        Then, Jesus affirms marriage, calling it one of the key human relationships in which we actually touch the realm of resurrection. He describes marriage as a microcosm of eternal life itself. The NRSV uses the image of family by calling us “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way: In the resurrection we’ll “have better things [than marriage] to think about…All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”

       “All ecstasies and intimacies…will be with God.” I hear in that somewhat suggestive wording of today’s text the deeper suggestion that the relationships we enjoy in this age do, in truth, hold a measure of the holiness and wholeness that we proclaim awaits us in that age—and probably a greater measure than most of us imagine. So, our relationship with God always and necessarily includes all of our relationships, from marriage and family, to churches and communities, to our wider associations.

       When Jesus brings up Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he brings up their stories. He intentionally recalls Abraham’s and Sarah’s fervent desire for the intimacies of parenthood, Isaac’s passionate desire for the ecstasies of bestowing his blessing and birthright on his elder son, Esau, and the ecstasies, intimacies, and agonies of Jacob’s long-suffering love for Rachel. And God mentions all three of these ancestors in the faith while Moses, who is tending Jethro’s flocks in the wilderness-beyond-the-wilderness, stands in ecstatic, barefoot awe before a bush burning with the very presence of God.

        Jesus says that God’s declaration to Moses means that God continues to enjoy relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even while in relationship with whoever is currently alive on the earth. The Church calls this “the communion of saints.” By living in communion with God, we live in communion with all who are, with all who have been, and with all who will be. Because resurrection describes the eternal love that precedes us, the eternal love that awaits us, and the eternal love that permeates our death-obsessed present, it’s more than our proclamation. Resurrection is our deepest and truest reality, even here, even now.

       Paul says as much in his letter to the Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 2:4-6) Even when we were dead, God made us alive with Christ and seated us with him the heavenly places. Paul speaks of resurrection as a truth which is as fundamental to our current experience of the Creation as gravity and the change of seasons.

        Living a resurrection life means, come what may, following Jesus in his ways of compassion, justice, and peace. Living a resurrection life means, come what may, studying and practicing the wisdom of Jesus, the wisdom of spiritual wakefulness, the wisdom that sees through all the angry, fearful, desperate noise around us and continues to bear witness to the sacred presence of God in all things, even, and perhaps especially, in those people who seem to want to create conflict and division.

       Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees who try to ambush him illustrates what it can look like when a person seeks union with rather than triumph over. And again, that’s what a resurrection life does. It humbles us and opens us to deeper and wider relationships by revealing to us that God is somehow present, or at least eager to be present, in all people and all things.

       God, grant us the courageous vision and the humble gratitude to live resurrection lives so that in all we say and do we recognize, proclaim, and share the great love with which you love us. Amen.

 

1Harper’s Bible Commentary, Paul J. Achtemeier, Gen. Ed. Harper&Row, Publishers, San Francisco. 1985. pp. 891-892.

2Ibid., pp. 588-592.

3Patrick J. Willson in his article Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 285-289.

The Arc of Gratitude (Sermon)

“The Arc of Gratitude”

Luke 19:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/1/19

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (NRSV)

        Back in Luke 3, crowds from all over Judea flock to the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach. The prophet calls for radical repentance, and offers baptism to all who want to live new and different lives.

         What should we do? they ask.

        Share, John says to regular folks. If you have enough for two, give away half of what you have.

        How many of us have extra? How many of us give away 50% of our stuff?

        Don’t practice extortion, he tells Roman soldiers. Don’t threaten or manipulate harmless people just because you can, not even to further some mission.

        There’ve been instances of modern governments taking action against military abuse, but what are the chances that first or twenty-first century governments would universally curtail such activity?

        Collect only what the law gives you permission to collect, John tells the tax collectors.

        How will they do that and make a living! Instead of charging for their services, ask for suggested donations? John’s advice seems radical and impractical.

        Tax collectors have the authority of Rome’s wealth and power behind them, so even diminutive men like Zacchaeus can get rich swindling entire communities. It’s no wonder that people despise them. It’s no wonder that Jesus doesn’t make a lot of friends by showing kindness to them.

        In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew is called to discipleship from his job as a tax collector. That evening, Jesus eats with him and other “tax collectors and sinners.” (Mt. 9:9-13) In Luke, Levi is the only disciple identified as a tax collector. And the evening of his call, Levi hosts a banquet to celebrate his new-found life. (Luke 5:27-32) In both cases, the Pharisees bristle at Jesus’ choice of friends and acquaintances.

        I’m not here for folks who have it all together, says Jesus. I’m here for those who need help, those who need thorough-going change in their lives.

        Jesus sets a remarkable example that stands in contrast to that of John the Baptist. While John creates a stir that attracts people to the Jordan River (probably somewhere near Jericho), Jesus enters Jericho and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home.1 He doesn’t wait for the people he calls to understand him or to get their theology, or ethics, or anything else “right.” He says, “Follow me,” and enters their lives, trusting that along the path of discipleship they will be made new. They will become merciful, generous, courageously compassionate and hospitable. He trusts this because he trusts that as they continue to receive his mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness, they will discover their own capacity to show mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness.

        We never stop receiving the gifts of grace because we never stop needing them. As we receive grace upon grace from God through Christ, Jesus is present in them calling us to recognize that we do not create these gifts. And like all God-given gifts, they’re never intended to remain ours alone. As we gratefully receive these holy gifts, they fill and overflow the vessels of our lives. As disciples, we live on an arc of gratitude where Jesus calls us to share the gifts we receive in his name and for the sake of all Creation.

        “Look,” says a rapturously grateful Zacchaeus, “half of my possessions…I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

        Half of his possessions—the amount John called for!

        And four times the amount of his fraud!

        Zacchaeus’ generosity reminds us of first line of Mary’s song of gratitude: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48a) The humbled tax collector’s response to grace received is to magnify that grace—to share it in exponentially greater measure.

        Isn’t that what we try to do during stewardship season? Ride the arc of gratitude for the mercy, generosity, and transforming holiness given to us so that we share those gifts with others, in ever-increasing measure?

        When we begin contemplating stewardship with the question, What can I afford?, we begin in a place of scarcity. In that place, we view ourselves as bank vaults of meager resources. So, we see giving as merely a reduction of personal holdings.

        When we contemplate giving along the arc of gratitude, we recognize ourselves as wellsprings of gifts that we do not create. We hear Jesus calling us to show more mercy than we think someone may deserve, to give more generously than we think we’re able, and to embody more transforming holiness than we think we’re worthy of having received in the first place. Along the arc of gratitude, we begin to inhabit a far more spacious world than ancient catechisms and current headlines would have us believe.

        The prosperity gospel says that getting and having stuff declares God’s favor. Jesus says that simply getting and having leads to nothing but accumulation. Getters and havers of possessions create nothing but envy and resentment because they never learn to receive, not in any truly spiritual sense. The story of Zacchaeus proclaims that sharing generously is the sign of having received gratefully and humbly.

        Christian singer/songwriter Alana Levandoski sings a song entitled “I Become What I Receive.” And that’s not just the title; those are the words. The song begins with her singing those five words by herself. With each repetition, she adds more voices, harmonies, and instrumentation to create a fullness that represents the magnification of God’s grace as we receive it, as we ride the arc of gratitude, and share that grace in, with, and for all that God creates and loves.

        As you listen to this song2, close your eyes or look out the window. Do whatever you need to do to be present to these simple words, and to this music which, to me, is a kind of holy visitation. Think of the unique gifts God offers to you, and how you might truly receive them and share them through this congregation in the coming year.

        This song also prepares us to receive the Sacrament this morning, and in truly receiving the bread and the cup we receive Jesus who invites himself into our lives and frees us to live the new and different lives of our own baptisms.

        God, help us to receive, and share from a place joyful and humble gratitude, so that we magnify your presence in the world. Amen.

 

1E. Elizabeth Johnson in her article Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 261-265.

2https://www.alanalevandoski.com (listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJVeg97lEvE)

The Desert Is Blooming (Newsletter)

        The French, Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote: “The desert is the place where human powers must be renounced. In the desert there can be no more trickery, no illusions as to getting out by one’s own means, no possibility of placing hope in natural sources of help.”

         I have never experienced a physical desert. However, as a member of a faith tradition for whom the metaphor of desert is anything but lifeless, I do make the audacious claim to have some knowledge of the challenges of desert life.

         In spending time with the Ellul quotation, I began to hear him suggesting that while a desert may at first appear harsh and unforgiving, it may actually be a place of limitless grace and powerful redemption. The desert is that place in life where we depend upon the grace of God because there is nothing left to trust. In our spiritual deserts, neither cleverness, nor wisdom, nor willful determination will feed and water us. Faith alone connects us with the mysterious and liberating Strength which lies both beyond and within us.

         Deserts of all kinds clutter our paths, and they all point to the same immutable reality: Change.

         Some years ago, singer/songwriter David Lamotte wrote a song called “Keep the Change.” The inspiration for it came when he heard his brother-in-law say, “Change is optional—so long as dying is a choice.” Like death and taxes, change is a given in life. It puts us in new places with new people, new surroundings, and new rules. We can no more escape change than we can escape God’s love.

         We have no choice about change, but before we can accept and celebrate the new, we slog through the desert, the place where we grieve the loss of all that felt familiar and comfortable. I don’t think God creates desert experiences, but I do think that God uses these exhausting passages to purge us of arrogance, pride, illusions of self-sufficiency, and to remind us that we are not God. Through such grace, each God-tended crossing delivers us to newer and fuller life.

         “The desert shall rejoice and blossom;

         like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

                  and rejoice with joy and singing.”

                                                      (Isaiah 35:1-2)

The Peril of Pride (Sermon)

“The Peril of Pride”

Luke 18:9-14

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/27/19

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (NRSV)

       In Luke 9:51, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem.” In 19:29, Jesus enters Jerusalem with fanfare. The intervening chapters constitute Luke’s “travel narrative,” and the contents of this section feel more like an arbitrary anthology than a true narrative. Jesus’ three predictions of his death create the only real semblance of a flow. (Luke 9:21-27, 9:44-45, 18:31-34) As the teachings follow one after another, Luke punctuates them with needling reminders that the teacher himself is going to suffer.

        Throughout these ten chapters, Luke portrays the Pharisees as Jesus’ principal adversary. Indeed, in all four gospels, the Pharisees take more furious exception to Jesus than either the Jews in general or the Romans. It’s interesting, though, for everything the Pharisees to do try to hinder Jesus’s ministry, they end up expediting it, albeit in a backhanded way. As human foils, they energize Jesus, and become object lessons for his teaching. To know how not to go about the life of faith, says Jesus, watch the Pharisees. What they do, don’t do!

        Having said that, biblically speaking, Pharisees are more than a particular class of people within ancient Judaism. Pharisees are a metaphor for anyone within the Judeo-Christian tradition, or within any faith tradition for that matter, who vandalizes religious knowledge, spiritual influence, and community status and twists it into power. In the gospels, the Pharisees represent any person or group who beats the plowshares of their giftedness and calling into swords of judgment, manipulation, and even contempt. So, when Jesus aims today’s parable at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” he uses a Pharisee as an example of the human flaw which may be responsible for more prejudice, bitterness, bloodshed, and willful blindness and deafness than any other so-called deadly sin: the flaw of pride.

        Pride is the sin of idolatry of the self, or of one’s tribe, be that based on region, religion, skin color, language, gender, gender orientation, political party, country, or anything else one might use to exalt him/herself over others.

        As idolatry, pride creates a false certainty that all things me or my kind are not just good, right, and true, but best, rightest, and truest. It’s easy to spot pride in others. It’s harder to spot it in ourselves, though. Or maybe it’s just hard to admit, because often we camouflage it behind a self-aggrandizing sense of blessing.

        Look at me! says the Pharisee. Look at everything I do right! I’m rich, comfortable, and influential because God has blessed me for being the best example of everything that pleases God the most!

        “But,” says Jesus, “the tax collector was standing far off,” humbling himself, confessing openly and honestly. He doesn’t name specific sins as if to claim (as Paul does) to be the best at being the worst of sinners. He simply acknowledges his brokenness and his need for redemption.

        It’s the tax collector rather than the Pharisee, says Jesus, who goes home at peace with God, his neighbor, and himself.

        First-century tax collectors were a wealthy but despised bunch. In addition to collecting taxes for Rome, they charged fellow citizens as much as they could get away with for their efforts. Jewish tax collectors were treated with the deepest contempt. Working for Rome was bad enough, but they were also fleecing their own people for personal gain. Jesus’ parable seems to be saying that the sin of pride—and religious pride in particular—not only rivals but surpasses the depravity of the Jewish tax collectors who pimped themselves out to Caesar. Yet in the parable, it’s not the man of faith but the tax collector who humbles himself and discovers his God-imaged capacity for healing and holiness.

        In our culture, pride is often extolled as a virtue, as proof that we deserve some advantage. But pride thrives on the smoldering fear of losing the perks of that advantage in relation to those who appear to be dis-advantaged, or whom we have been taught or have chosen to dislike, discount, and disdain. Pride, then, this allows us to justify anything from paternalism to genocide if we sense a threat our own privilege or peace of mind.

       Pride in the church is all-too-common, and it’s most dangerous when wielded by those to whom others defer. In my first congregation, a woman who had retired to the community a few years earlier and joined our church was duly nominated to serve as an elder. She was smart, thoughtful, capable—and from New Jersey. On the day of the election, when the floor was opened for other nominations, a long-time member of the church stood and nominated another long-time member. After the vote, the woman from New Jersey was not an officer-elect. The insidious intent was obvious, and the ousted woman was both humiliated and devastated. Her eventual return to worship demonstrated the depth of her humility and faith in God rather than surrender to the self-serving pride of those who had manipulated her defeat.

       That’s the only time in my 23 years of ministry that such a thing has happened, but it is not the only time I’ve seen people feel unwelcomed in a sanctuary, or get elbowed off of a session or a committee because of someone else’s prideful prejudice. My own participation in such things occurred when I saw it happening and failed to summon the leadership—the moral clarity and the spiritual courage—to speak out because I didn’t want to offend those from whom I collected a paycheck.

        So, I join the tax collector praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

        “If you should ask me what are the ways of God,” said St. Augustine, “I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.”

        Jesus invites us into a freedom that doesn’t feel all that free at first. But what more spacious life could we lead than a life of humility? A life in which Jesus frees us from judging others, and even ourselves?

        What more gracious life could we lead than a life in which we live humbly, gratefully, and joyfully in the presence of all that God has created and to see the presence of God in all things?

        It seems to me, that in the end, we’ll recognize pride as a millstone around our necks, as a fear that compelled us to jockey for the front of the line, the biggest piece of cake, or the most toys.

        Humility is the portal into grace. It’s the mystery behind the Beatitudes’ paradoxical proclamation that the poor are richer than the wealthy, and the meek are stronger than the powerful.

        God, be merciful to us. Strip us of our blinding and deafening pride in things of this world, that we might live as signs of your eternal presence and purposes today. Amen.

It’s About Time (Sermon)

“It’s About Time”

John 7:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/20/19

       To understand the context of John 7, let’s remember that in John 6, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. That evening his disciples see him walk on water. The following day, well-fed crowds pursue Jesus and his still-mystified disciples. Lamenting the people’s selfishness, Jesus says, You just want more bread.

       Then Jesus speaks of himself as the bread that came down from heaven. The crowd scoffs at Jesus saying, We know this guy. We know his parents. Who does he think is? Claiming to be human manna?

       As Jesus continues, his metaphors stretch many in the crowd to the breaking point, especially when he says that to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to be made truly alive. Jesus’ graphic language is offensive to us because it sounds cannibalistic and just plain revolting. For first-century Jews, these images contradict the Law which prohibits touching dead bodies, much less consuming them. After hearing these things literally, many of Jesus’ followers abandon him.

       And you, Jesus says to his disciples. Do you want to leave, too?

       Speaking for the twelve, Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him .2Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. 3So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.)

6Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.

 9After saying this, he remained in Galilee. 10But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

11The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?” 12And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” 13Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

14About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. 15The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?”

16Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. 17Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. 18Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.” (John 7:1-18 – NRSV)

       The “after this” of chapter 7 encompasses some six months. According to John, what Jesus does in chapter 6 happens in springtime, around Passover. The Festival of Booths was traditionally associated with harvest time. So, what Jesus has planted up to and through chapter 6 begins coming to fruition in chapter 7. And the harvest proves difficult to swallow, even for Jesus’ family.

       Jesus’ brothers, faithful Jews but not Jesus-followers, tell their elder sibling to go on to Jerusalem for the festival. You’ll get noticed there way more than here in Galilee, they say. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? Attention?

       The scene reminds us of the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers after Joseph’s dream. Where Joseph seems to desire recognition and elevated status, though, Jesus says, No. It’s not my time. Not yet.

        While loved like an only son by his father, Joseph is hated by his brothers. And while loved as the only son by his father, Jesus claims to be hated by “the world.” For John, the world’s hate is not simply the indignation of individuals with wounded pride. It’s the fury of those in power who recognize a real and present threat to their hold on supremacy and privilege.

        According to John’s timeline, you see, chapter 7 marks Jesus’ third trip to Jerusalem, and on previous visits he intentionally irritates temple authorities. Jesus’ first trip to the City of David occurs at Passover, and when he enters the temple, he fashions a crude whip and drives out the moneychangers. (John 2:13-22) The second time Jesus enters Jerusalem he heals on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18), and that seems to evoke an angrier response than cleansing the temple. For some reason, Jesus changes his mind—or has it changed for him—and he prepares for a third appearance in Jerusalem. As he does, he’s aware that people will be watching for him. They’ll be ready to oppose and persecute him. This seems to put Jesus on edge. For all of Jesus’ confidence, he continually frets over the arrival of his time. In John, the word is kairos, which denotes a quality of time, the presence of holiness and wholeness. Jesus knows that when his kairos comes, it will happen in God’s fullness. In the meantime, he must continue his transformational ministry. It’s a dangerous ministry because it generates fear and resentment in those holding power.

        One crucial question for the body of Christ in the 21st century, perhaps the crucial question, is whether or not we truly incur the “hatred” of what John calls “the world.” Do we threaten or do we actually safeguard the arrangements that keep some people affluent and dominant and others impoverished and anxiously compliant? If we accommodate such things, then according to Jesus, it’s always our time. This is chronos—linear time, measurable time, limited time. Chronos belongs to those who, with proud and gluttonous force, seize and hold advantage in the world. Chronos is the time of Jesus’ brothers—that is to say, of those who call themselves his family! So, it’s always the time of chronos religion. “The world” tolerates it. Encourages it. Loves it even. But that same “world” tends to hate those who live by the gracious, creation-embracing, boundary-defying means of agape love preached and practiced by Jesus of Nazareth.

        In his commentary on John, Fred Craddock distinguishes between chronos people, who claim kinship with Jesus, and kairos people who live as true disciples of Jesus. Chronos people live as ones chained to a time-bound status quo of competition, greed, and violence. Unfettered by the limits of their own lives, kairos disciples trust the non-violent means of Jesus to transform God’s Creation.

        “Making a difference,” says Craddock, “is painful, and only the distorted enjoy pain. But the church which knows its own time will speak and do the truth and bear the consequences. But woe to the church of whom it can be said, ‘It is always your time. What you say and do does not really make a difference, because you do not witness to the truth. The world does not hate you because it has no reason to do so. You are not really a factor in the destiny of the world.’

        “Jesus says to the church, ‘Some claim to be my relatives; some claim to be my friends; some brag that I once preached in their town; but you are my disciples.’”1

        Craddock adds an important caveat to his prophetic words: “Hopefully, it is not necessary to remind ourselves that there is a difference between being hated for Christ’s sake and being hated for one’s obnoxious religiosity.”Unfortunately, that caveat has proven all-too necessary for the Church as it has identified itself so intimately with governments, militaries, stock markets, and other worldly institutions.

        Judas embodies the kinfolk-followers of Jesus. He remains part of the twelve, but he’s committed to a chronos messiah—one who would weaponize religion as a political tool and lead Christian soldiers off to war with sword, spear, and the righteous anger of nationalism. But Jesus has kairos goals—restorative, compassionate, inclusive goals. When Judas realizes that Jesus is not the messiah he wants, he sells him out.

       John 7 has a deceptively simple message of hope for us. “My teaching is not mine,” says Jesus, “but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

        Discipleship isn’t about winning theological arguments, or souls, or anything else. It’s about time. It’s about living in kairos time, Household of God time. Discipleship is about modeling our lives on Jesus’ life, and come what may, working for justice and peace, working for the well-being of the people around us and the earth beneath our feet. In following Jesus, we may evoke the wrath of those who fear holiness and wholeness, but God’s love is not limited to those who love Jesus.

        That’s the twist in all of this: Kairos is the place out of which we live, while chronos is where we live. So, chronos matters. Our bodies matter. The earth matters. “The world” matters! As disciples, we proclaim the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” as a sign of and an invitation into the eternal life of God’s here-and-now kairos. When living as true disciples, we experience kairos as joy in our suffering, and we reveal it as redemption breaking into the hate-scarred chronos around us and within us.

       Our calling overwhelms us, but success isn’t up to us. We don’t have to be perfect, just honest. When we fail to live as Jesus-followers, we confess that we’re seeking our own glory. Then we turn and renew our humble prayer: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

        Fill us with your Living Word, O God. And strengthen us to follow Jesus in this world which is so broken, and yet so eternally beloved. Amen.

 

1Fred Craddock, John: Knox Preaching Guides. Westminster John Knox Press, Atlanta, GA. 1982. p. 58.

2Ibid., p. 59.

Foundations (Sermon)

“Foundations”

1Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/13/19

10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

18Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)

       Years ago, while serving my first call in Mebane, NC, I would occasionally jump in the car and just drive. No passengers. No radio. No stops for junk food. And in those days, no cell phone. In that prayerful solitude, I paid attention to whatever caught my eye – people, homes, farms, trees, clouds.

       One day I passed a small, frame house set close to the road. The front porch was just an exposed, concrete stoop. The scalloped, dingy-white siding was probably asbestos. The random clumps of scraggly grass struggling in the neglected yard looked more like litter than lawn.

       One detail made this otherwise forgettable scene memorable. To the left of the house, but attached to the rest of the structure, lay a cinder block foundation. Inside the foundation, a mound of lifeless fill dirt smoothed over by years of exposure glared like a desert. Was it an abandoned part of the original floor plan? Was it an unfinished addition? I’ll never know.

       “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid,” says Paul. “That foundation is Jesus Christ. [And] each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”

       Like the foundation of that house out in the North Carolina countryside, the Church’s foundation is always more spacious than we structures we build on it.

       As an architect, Paul is frustrated with the Corinthian laborers. Having tried to build only on small, separate corners of the foundation, they’ve become fractured and fractious. Some build around Paul, others around Apollos, and still others around Cephas.

         “Do you not know,” says the apostle, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

         Our foundation is the eternal Christ, and our human hearts and minds struggle to comprehend his fullness. So, in order to keep things reasonable and manageable, we often find ourselves, like the Christians in Corinth, limiting the holy potential of our lives. Instead of trying to love as broadly and deeply as we are loved, we often tinker around in the comfort and safety of our own tiny corners. Nonetheless, through us, and, when necessary, in spite of us, God is constructing something life-changing, something world-transforming.

       And it is about us. The “you” in this passage is plural. A culturally appropriate translation might be: “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all-a-y’all?” Paul is proclaiming a cooperative project. The foolish, worldly wisdom Paul refers to is the futility of individualistic discipleship. God’s wise foolishness links our hearts, minds, and bodies together as we follow the blueprint of love and build a worldwide community of grace. Sure, it gets cumbersome, but none of us can build the temple by ourselves. That’s why forgiveness and reconciliation are the fundamental tools of temple building.

       One thing we’re doing today is dedicating a refurbished steeple. The Session thanks everyone who made that project happen. The end result is everything we hoped for. During the process, we learned that the repair was overdue. Had we waited much longer, the structure of the steeple would have experienced major damage. So again, we thank Gordon Edwards and the property/safety team who worked so faithfully to organize the effort, Pat Wolfe and the finance team who made all the numbers work out, and you who gave so generously to the capital campaign. We’re also grateful to recent generations whose generosity put us in a financial position to cover unpledged costs.

         We also turn our attention even further back this morning, back to long-ago generations who stewarded Jonesborough Presbyterian Church through years of brokenness and division and into a new era of unity.

       In 1868, three years after the Civil War, Jonesborough Presbyterian, like so many congregations in communities with divided loyalties, split into two factions based on northern and southern sympathies. They formed two congregations: one affiliated with the old southern denomination—the Presbyterian Church in the US, and the other affiliated with the old northern denomination—the United Presbyterian Church. At first, the two groups shared the space we occupy today by holding services on alternating Sundays. Each congregation had its own pastor, session, missions, and budget. They shared the costs of maintaining the building.1 This arrangement lasted through the 1870’s. In 1880, when the two communities could no longer cooperate, the northern group began the process of purchasing land and building their own facility on the corner of Main and Fox Streets.

         In the early 1900’s, the two sessions (First Presbyterian—in this building, and Second Presbyterian—in the new building) tried to no avail to restore the fragmented family. Over the next three decades they made numerous failed attempts to reconcile. During the 1930’s, the southern congregation had dwindled so drastically that the building we occupy this morning was essentially closed for over a decade. It had no pastor, and was opened only for the occasional funeral.

         In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the PCUS remnant and the UPC congregation began reaching out to each other, again. It took a few years of conversation, but the two communities finally reconciled and reunited. They set to work restoring and expanding this facility which had begun to deteriorate. The work was dedicated during the week of October 15-20, 1944, 75 years ago this week. Second Presbyterian’s building was sold to the Christian Church denomination and is now Central Christian Church.

         In reading through the history of this congregation, one can become discouraged by the hurtful and petty arguments between the two factions. One can also find encouragement in how often the two bodies sought reunification. I feel encouraged because my sense is that these two congregations knew in their heart of hearts that they were one body. They were built on the same foundation, the foundation of Jesus Christ, and whatever might have been going on between them, they belonged together. Something deep within the membership knew that what God had brought together could not be torn apart—at least not forever.

         I’m reminded of a verse from the hymn by Samuel John Stone: “The Church’s One Foundation.” Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed. Yet saints their watch are keeping; Their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

         It’s interesting: Just as we are celebrating 75 years of reunion, it took 75 years of separation to reunite. During those years of exile, church leaders led the communities in loyalties to particular histories and institutions rather than in loyalty to Jesus. Over time, old wounds healed because, it seems to me, those who had wounded each other finally died off in sufficient numbers to clear the way for new beginnings. Through it all, the foundation held. And that foundation called the people back into relationship and shared ministry.

       I am truly grateful that our steeple has been refurbished. In final analysis, though, it’s just an object. What lasts, what makes a difference in the community of Jonesborough, TN is not the spire above our heads, but the foundation at the heart of our identity as Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. The men and women of this congregation 75 years ago knew that. And they found the grace to release all the painful memories that had been passed down to them, and to restore a community torn apart by the blind and bitter “craftiness” of loyalties to things of this world.

       It occurs to me in all this that it was also roughly 75 years from the founding of this congregation to its division in 1868. Perhaps every 75 years this part of Christ’s body finds itself in a season of discernment and change. Whatever future may unfold beneath the steeple overhead, our calling is to remain grounded on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the foundation of eternal love, the foundation that is always deeper and more expansive than most congregations are willing to build on. As we follow Jesus’ example and his vision of radical grace, we expand the church. That is to say we expand our ministry with and for God’s beloved creation.

       May love be our legacy. And in 75 years, may Jonesborough Presbyterian Church still be a place of welcome, worship, and service.

 

1All historical information about Jonesborough Presbyterian Church comes from Judith Haws Hash in her ETSU Master’s thesis, A History of First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro, Tennessee, August 1965.

 

 

 

 

Charge/Benediction:

“What will be the work of sixty years among us? How few of the present congregation will be able to come back here at the end of fifty years, and revive the memories of this day? Time will have wrought great changes, and Death will have gathered a nice harvest. Our children and our children’s children will be in our places, and our names will have passed away…these walls will soon cease to echo our voices and our songs of praise, and these places know us no more forever; but there will arise in the Providence of God others, greater numbers, to sing his praise and worship his name, and preach his truth in a better manner than we have done.” (The Rev. Rufus Wells on the occasion of the dedication of the Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, August, 1850. Hash, p. 117.)