All-In on Live (Good Friday Sermon)

“All-In on Love”

John 13:36-38, 18:15-18, 25-27

Allen Huff

Jonesborough United Methodist Church

Community Good Friday Service

5/19/19

 

36Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”

37Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

15Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

He said, “I am not.”

18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

25Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”

He denied it and said, “I am not.”

26One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”

27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

 

John may do the most deliberate job of building the tension leading up to Passover and, what has become for us, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And while John’s foreshadowing may resonate with us, it confuses Jesus’ disciples.

“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.” (5:25)

“Leave her alone, she bought it…for the day of my burial.” (12:7)

“Now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” (12:31-32)

“Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” (13:36)

With each such phrase, Jesus takes another step toward a demonstration of grace that will prove more than the disciples can process. Always the intrepid one, though, Peter declares undying fidelity to Jesus. “I will lay down my life for you,” he says.

         Really, Peter? says Jesus. Well, bless your heart; but listen, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.

The implication in this story is that while Jesus may believe that Peter would die for him, he’s also aware of a nullifying caveat. Jesus knows that Peter will die for him onlyif Peter’s death occurs in the context of the all-out military struggle that he and virtually every other disciple expects from their Messiah. That is to say, Peter will die for Jesus ifthey’re both trying to kill Romans in the process.

We still live in that kind of world, don’t we? Faithfulness to Jesus is frequently couched in fearful, violent, us-against-them terms. And the deeper we sink into those emotions and tactics, the more callous and less Christ-like we become. We begin to use martial and even hostile language to talk about discipleship. We speak of spiritual warfare, demonic siege, and striving for conquest and victory. And it seems to me that, for many western Christians, the first image conjured up by the phrase laying down one’s life for a friend is usually of someone mortally wounded in some kind of armed struggle. It’s little wonder that we sing of soldiering onward to serve a God whose truth depends on “the fateful lightning of [a] terrible swift sword.” We are people of faith, not fate, but that’s the messiah Peter and others expected and wanted to follow. They wanted not only to die for Jesus. They wanted to killfor him – indeed, to kill with him.

Jesus proves to be a much different messiah. And when that becomes clear, Peter does a 180-degreeturn. Instead of dying for Jesus, instead of even standing by him on Friday, he tells three bald-faced lies. No. No. No. I am not a follower of Jesus. And while Peter’s denial is hard enough for Jesus to suffer, it seems to me that of all our betrayals and denials, none do more damage to Jesus, to our own spirits, to our faith communities, and to the entire Creation than giving into the temptation to bully, browbeat, and kill in God’s name. Good Friday is about dying to all our violent, vengeful, worldly appetites, and committing ourselves to something utterly new and different.

Immediately before Jesus predicts Peter’s impending denials, he says to all of his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot come. [So,] I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this [love] everyone will know that you are my disciples…” (13:34-35)

Come what may, says Jesus, love as I have loved you.

That commandment will make sense to the disciples only in light of upcoming events. The next day, Friday, is a tidal wave of terror. On Friday, the disciples’ hopes and dreams are dashed against the rocks of amazing grace. Friday is amazingly gracious because it unequivocally demonstrates that human violence is, ultimately, useless in the face of God’s purposes. And since the days of Constantine, the Church has chosen to deny the implication of that witness, namely, the truth that the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth does not require brutal and bloody sacrifice in order to be made able to love again. Any god who, in order to love, must watch someone endure barbaric torture and a slow, agonizing death, is nothing but a projection of all the fears that keep us addicted to power over and cruelty against each other.

Now yes, Jesus does die “for us.” And his death reveals that God’s love is fiercer and stronger than the hottest anger, and that God is moved by that love, not by outrage. So, it is to that self-emptying, non-violent love that God call us. On Friday, for us, Jesus goes all-in on the passionate, compassionate, justice-seeking agape love of God, the only kind of love that can truly redeem and transform the Creation.

At the end of John’s gospel, a resurrected Jesus sits on the lakeshore with his remaining disciples. After a fish breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and asks three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” And three times Peter affirms his love for Jesus. “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep,” says Jesus.

Feeding and tending Jesus’ beloved sheep, that is our shared call. That’s the point of Jesus resisting his three temptations. That’s the point of the Beatitudes and of the great sermon that follows them. That’s the point of the parables, and of the oft-quoted line, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It does, indeed, require an all-in commitment to the fierce and fearless love of God to remain faithful to our call as disciples of Jesus. And that love comes to us through the gift of the risen and ever-present Christ.

All our faithfulness is his doing.

He forgives all of our denials and betrayals.

He transforms all days, be they Fridays or Sundays, into holy days.

And all true love in this world bears witness to his presence.

 

The Light of Humility (Sermon)

“The Light of Humility”

John 13:1-11, 31b-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday

 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”(NRSV)

 

The central images of the Tenebrae service are light and darkness. We hold these opposites in tension as we light, then darken each candle one-by-one. At the end of the service, all interior light will be extinguished, and we will be surrounded by darkness. (As much darkness as daylight savings time allows, that is.)

In John 13, Jesus snuffs out the central candle of the disciples’ hopes. They still expect Jesus to reveal himself as the great and glorious military messiah. And then Jesus empties himself. Stooping like a servant in front of them, he takes their filthy feet into his hands, and he washes them. The disciples are dismayed and embarrassed. Jesus’ act of humility throws a dark pall over all their bright hopes.

Completely missing the blessing of humility, Peter feels humiliated. So, he tries to forbid Jesus from such foolishness.

         No way you’re washing my feet, he says.

         If I don’t wash you,says Jesus, you don’t belong with me.

         Then let me have it, says Peter. Bathe me from head to toe!

         Bless your heart,says Jesus.

Humility and humiliation are as far apart as the disciples’ expectations and Jesus’ purposes. To be humbled may entail stepping down a notch or two, but it empties us of the selfish and bitter bile that always leads to Friday. Humiliation is to be cast into cold darkness, because it is to have our humanity stripped from us. By contrast, humility only makes us more human.

When Jesus sets an example of fierce humility, Peter experiences it as humiliation – and maybe it’s because he sees what’s coming. Maybe he suspects that Jesus will tell his disciples that they are to do for others what he has just done for them. This runs counter to everything the disciples anticipate. Peter himself seems to be expecting Jesus to name him as a top commander in a messianic army when the swords start swinging and the arrows start flying. So, Peter just can’t imagine himself kneeling before other people, washing their dirty feet with his bare hands. He may have been a fisherman and a laborer, but given the glorious struggle and the victory ahead, he refuses to endure such humiliation. And that’s as real a denial as those he will utter on Friday.

The story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet also juxtaposes light and darkness by setting Jesus’ self-understanding over against the cluelessness of his followers.

Right now, says Jesus,you’re in the dark about who I am and what I’m doing.

For John, this ignorance and misunderstanding lie at the heart of human sin. And redemption means coming to a new and fuller understanding of Jesus. And so that we might understand him, and be in relationship with him, Jesus washes us. He washes us with his life, with his love and humility. He saves us with his indomitable living, because it hislife we are called to live. And through the gift of Resurrection, we’re empowered to live that life. The love he has for all his disciples is the love we are to show to each other. And, to live in love isto bear witness to the power of Resurrection at work in and for the world.

The brutal actions of Pilate and Caiaphas toward Jesus reveal how humankind so often responds to those we think are humiliating us. But Jesus wants simply to humble us toward eternal life. And he will not stop humbling himself, stooping to scrub us with his love, not even to save his own life.

Things are about to get dark for you,says Jesus. But the day is coming when the lights will come on. In the fullness of time, a new day will break, and you will begin to see and understand.

         For now, just do as I do. Serve each another. Wash each other’s feet. Most importantly, love one another as I have loved you. And by that love everyone will know that I am your Teacher and Lord, and that you are my followers. By that love, everyone will know that I do live.

There is relentless tension in this story. But then there’s also great strength in humility, great wealth in giving, boundless forgiveness in confession, and there’s light even in the darkest corners of the world and of our lives, because through Jesus, the Christ, death always gives way to new life.

Come now to this table and be emptied of darkness and filled with light, so that we may brighten this world by loving as we are loved.

Dead Man Walking (Sermon)

“Dead Man Walking”

John 12:12-16

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/7/19

 

12The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”

14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.

19The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (NRSV)

A man straddles a borrowed donkey. His dusty toes dangle inches from the cloaks and leafy branches the crowd has laid out before him on the manure-choked road. The ecstatic throng sings the man’s praises in chants laden with messianic hope.

They’re particularly excited because the man on the donkey has recently raised a man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been dead for several days when Jesus resuscitated him. Lazarus, they say, has barely spoken or smiled since that day. Some speculate that he feels like a hostage now, like a pawn used to make someone else’s point. No one asked him if he wanted to return to the world with all its messiness and pain. No one asked him if he wanted to face death all over again. He was made to; and so he does.

Dead man walking.

Now the heat is on Jesus. Ever since the Lazarus incident, the Sanhedrin has bristled. They’ve never embraced this radical rabbi who teaches the faith so differently from the ways that they’d been taught for generations. Jesus challenges the very core of ancient traditions and identities. He keeps company with people considered infectious in body, mind, and spirit – people with whom the Law forbids contact. Everyone is beginning to say that Jesus isthe one, and if he continues to lead the people down this path, all the time-honored arrangements will dissolve into chaos. To do nothing is to forfeit control. Refusing to surrender to the likes of Jesus, the Sanhedrin know the one sure way to stop him.

Dead man walking.

The irony of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is that so many folks in Jerusalem are, themselves, walking around half-alive at best. Even those who celebrate are unaware of the glorious new dawn breaking in their midst. Jesus, you see, has been offering something far more difficult to comprehend than military victory over Rome. He offers fullness of life, here and now.

God’s creation needs the kind of new life Jesus brings, because in one way or another, at one time or another, all of us have had the experience of walking around dead. And, by walking around dead, I’m nottalking about a bunch of undead zombies stumbling about, hangry for gray matter sushi.

Imagine this: A man walks alone through the forest in the early morning. Bright, buttery rays of early May sunshine angle down through the trees as if poured from a great pitcher of light. The woods are alive with birdsong, with the flutter of wings, and the chatter of squirrels. Above, boughs of hickory, sycamore, and oak sway in the breeze. They look like ripples and eddies on a bright green river.

But this man, as he walks, completely misses the magnificent celebration at work and at play around him. A well-nursed darkness, or maybe simple greed, blinds him and numbs him. Life holds no meaning or hope beyond what he aims to get for himself or avoid for himself, and that lively forest is simply the route he must travel between one obligation and the next. So, he keeps his head bent forward and his eyes glued to the trail.

It’s not entirely his fault, perhaps. Still, where the earth offers beauty and grace, the man sees nothing but resources to exploit or competitors to defeat – and all for his own gain.

Dead man walking.

Sometimes the death in which we live is most evident in our celebrations of the holiest days and seasons of the year. I’d bet the farm that everyone in this room has uttered at least one lament about how, in our greedy materialism, we’ve reduced Christmas from a season of joy and wonder to a high-stress, commercial frenzy. But when we groan the loudest, we’re often in some store going broke on things without which we can’t “have Christmas.”

Years ago, I went shopping for supplies for a mission trip. It happened to be Holy Week, and as I walked into a big-box store, I had to walk around a display of some 150-200 Easter baskets. Now, these Easter baskets stood three feet high. They were wrapped in brightly-colored cellophane, and they came pre-stuffed with everything from gum drops and marshmallow eggs, to tennis racquets and baseball bats.

“Praise the Lord! Christ is risen!” Play ball! Rot your teeth!

Materialism is an all-too-easy target. Maybe we’re doing the best we can. Maybe our traditions of exchanging gifts, of Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts are an understandable attempt to keep our spiritual celebrations vibrant. I mean, we’ve been proclaiming the same urgent message for two thousand years, haven’t we? After two millennia, how do we maintain excitement and expectation? How do we feel the terror and joy of the first Easter morning? How do we celebrate this good news in such a way that our celebrations remain interesting and compelling? How are we transformed from dead men and women trudging about into living and lively human beings who celebrate and serve?

Part of the message of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is that our ecstatic Palm Sunday expectations must die. For them to die, though, something within us must die, and it’s not a welcome death at first. To experience this death may feel like the triumph of evil, not good. But remember, Friday reveals the wrath of resentful Caesars and of fearful religions who do more to create enemies than to love them. Friday isn’t about the wrath of some vindictive god, it’s about the ultimate impotence of violence, and the eternity of God’s love.

Still, the path of Resurrection necessarily passes through the confusion of Thursday, the agony of Friday, and the speechless grief of Saturday. If we try to avoid dying to our happy, Palm Sunday expectations, our celebrations will be empty. We’ll have to put them on life-support. We will intubate them with eggnog and credit card debt, with plastic grass, chocolate bunnies, and squishy yellow peeps.

Our call is not to be dead humans walking, killing time until we “get to heaven” after our families and friends tuck us away in memories and graves. Our call is to be a dynamic, God-bearing humanity at work and at play right here and now, engaging, with determined love, the world and all its hunger, anger, despair, and selfish fear. That is how we first experience the rich and eternal grace of the kingdom of Heaven – as a gift of this creation – something that blesses us that we might live as blessings to others.

We all have our have our traditions for Easter Sunday, and I genuinely hope you enjoy yours. Over the next two weeks, may you die to all that would reduce those celebrations to nothing more than fancy grave clothes. And may we as a church die to whatever selfish fears keep us from living as a community in which and through which God shares the gift of Resurrection with all whom God loves.

Silence as Wonder/Silence as Woe (Sermon)

“Silence as Wonder/Silence as Woe”

Psalm 32

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/31/19

 

1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

         whose sin is covered.

2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

         and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3While I kept silence, my body wasted away

         through my groaning all day long.

4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me

          my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

         and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,

         and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;

         at a time of distress,

         the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

7You are a hiding place for me;

         you preserve me from trouble;

         you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;

         I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

         whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,

         else it will not stay near you.

10Many are the torments of the wicked,

         but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice,

         O righteous, and shout for joy,

              all you upright in heart. (NRSV)

 

While we all need community, we all need solitude and silence, as well. That’s especially true for us introverts. I can handle crowds and noise for a while, but sometimes for only as long as a tuna can ride a bike. For me, silence is a spiritually thin place, a mysterious but ever-so real depth I need in order to thrive. Our Lenten prayer services are all about the silence of wonder and peace.

Psalm 32 speaks of a very different kind of silence. “While I kept silence,” he writes, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Psalms were many things to the ancient Hebrews. They were forums for memory and hope. They were a hymnal of praise and the Book of Common Worship. They were a means of expressing the people’s deepest frustrations with and even anger at Yahweh. As the collective voice of Israel, they now demonstrate to us that silence before God and each other can be destructive. That’s especially true when we fall silent in the face of human misery and the injustices that lead to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for having refused to remain silent in the face of the horrors of hyper-nationalism in his beloved Germany. During the 1930’s, fear, racism, and hate speech spread like cancer. Parties other than the Nazi Party were vilified, then outlawed. The free press was taken over by the state. Jewish citizens (who knew and loved the psalms) were rounded up and herded into extermination camps. Proud and patriotic Germans, including a Christian majority, extended their hands in the Nazi salute, and watched it all happen – in silence. A captivating leader had risen to power to protect a pure, white, “Christian” population. Surely, they said, God sent this man.

Into the fervor, Bonhoeffer spoke these prophetic words: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”1

Psalm 32 begins with two Beatitudes: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven…Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” The psalmist then ties the woes of sin, iniquity, and deceit to suffering.

Whatever a psalmist may have had in mind on an individual level, the Psalms give voice to thecommunity’s shared joy and sorrow. So, “While I kept silence my body wasted away” refers not just to the experience of a particular person but to the experience of all Israel. That now applies to Christians who read the psalms in community, claiming to be “happy and blessed,” and an embodiment of God’s all-encompassing love and mercy as revealed in Jesus, and then go silent in the face of evil. We suffer because we have helped to create an environment in which our hubris cannot perceive of God’s Shalom as something for anyone but ourselves, our own clan, or our own nation. We might define hubris as the sin of pride elevated to the stature of spiritual gift. Hubris, then, delivers its own judgment. It’s the heavy hand upon us that dries up our strength and renders us fearful, insatiable, and, ultimately, defenseless. Ancient wisdom knew this well: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18) The so-called power of pride almost always leads to injustice, ruin, and suffering.

In the early 1960’s, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (both of Jewish descent) explored the effects of silence on community in their song, “The Sound of Silence.” The duo sang of a vision in which “ten thousand people maybe more” wander in a “neon” wasteland. The people “[talk] without speaking…[hear] without listening…and [write] songs that voices never share…[because] no one ever dare/Disturb the sound of silence.”No one dare challenge the status quo.

Then, in a prophetic outburst, the visionary cries, “‘Fools…you do not know/silence like a cancer grows/Hear my words that I might teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you/But my words like silent raindrops fell/and echoed in the wells of silence,” where the people became detached, and wasted away following their beloved “neon god.”

Listen again to verses 8 through 10 of Psalm 32, and hear how closely they give voice to the same plea: “I will instruct and teach you the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. Many are the torments of the wicked…”

         Many are the torments of the silent.

The psalmist urges us to understand that there is no real happiness in silence. Confession, then, is more than telling God our petty little sins. God knows them and loves us still. Confession includes naming and forsaking our neon gods. Confession includes receiving forgiveness and reaffirming our faith in God. For Christians, confession means, above all, following Jesus by lending our collective voice to advocate for and to deliver justice to: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are hated and excluded.

In the book we’re reading on Monday nights, Philip Newell introduced us to a Dutch Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum. Etty kept a diary of her experiences helping fellow Jews in the community of Westerbork, a transit facility where Jews from the Netherlands were housed before being shipped to Auschwitz. Through all the indescribable horrors, the intensely spiritual Etty Hillesum discovered what she called a place of “repose” in her body and mind. Psalm 32 calls it “a hiding place.” In that place of silent wonder, Etty felt “the deepest and most essential in [her] harkening to the deepest and most essential in others. God to God.”That is the relationship to which God calls us.

We dare not sentimentalize Etty and her “place of repose.” She, too, died in Auschwitz. But as a mystic in the tradition of the psalms, she lent her voice to those being persecuted. And to all with ears to hear and eyes to see, she revealed the “happiness” of living in the redeeming presence of the One who weeps at injustice and loves the Creation into redemption.

That same “happiness” and hope are available to us in our own struggles to live lives of wholeness, justice, and discipleship. The German writers and signers of TheTheological Declaration of Barmen actively and vocally declared their discipleship when they said “Jesus is Lord.” Not Hitler. “Jesus is Lord.” Not my religion over another. Not my skin color over another. Not my nation over another. “Jesus is Lord.” Not my life over yours.

Psalm 24:1 declares that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” That means everyone, regardless of where they live in relation to some ocean, river, or national border. All people and all things are equally beloved by God. When we refuse to be silent and declare that good news in word and deed, we experience and share the abundant life given to us through Sunday’s gift of Resurrection.

 

1https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/601807-silence-in-the-face-of-evil-is-itself-evil-god

2“The Sound of Silence,” w/m by Paul Simon, on the album: The Sounds of Silence, 1966, Columbia Records.

3Ibid.

4Philip Newell, “A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul.” Jossey-Bass, 2011. Pp. 76-77.

Easter Monday (Newsletter)

The Gospel of Luke ends on a note of jubilant and ongoing celebration: “They worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Lk. 24:52-53) The disciples and other followers of Jesus sing, shout, and praise their way to the end of that first Easter and beyond.

The last two verses of Luke sound a bit like Easter morning worship, don’t they? I do love our Easter celebrations. I especially love the outdoor sunrise service when you all creep out of the half-light of early morning. It’s like watching woodland creatures slipping into a clearing to feed. I love watching the sun come up through the trees, listening to the magical chorus of songbirds, smelling dew and spring flowers. I also love the splendid exhale of Easter afternoon when the rush is over, and the world – the world around and within me, anyway – relaxes into the holy restfulness of both completion and new beginning.

Then comes Monday.

Even Easter Monday is usually just another Monday slamming us back into ordinary patterns and problems. On Monday, we stretch out the aches and pains, hustle the kids off to school, feed the dog, clean the cat’s litterbox, take blood pressure meds, wash the breakfast dishes, head to the office to face the boss. (Bless his heart.) I go into work a bit later than normal on Easter Monday because Holy Week has been draining, and because I get up even earlier than usual on Easter Sunday. And even then, I start my normal routine of cobbling together bulletin information for the next Sunday, scheduling visits, and preparing for whatever meetings I have that week.

         He is risen.

         He is risen, indeed.

Yay…

An old Avery and Marsh song declares that “Every morning is Easter morning from now on. Every day is resurrection day; the past is over and gone.” And while that is our truth, the Church often worships and works as if it occupies an endangered, Monday-morning outpost instead of living in a Creation gloriously renewed by grace. The joy, the celebration, the lively hope of Easter quickly gets lost in all that is broken, hurting, and hurtful in the “real world.”

Then again, discipleship is all about entering everyday realities as ones who trust that even the most mundane demands and decisions we face are charged with holiness and the presence of God’s New Reality. Discipleship, then, is not a Sunday morning obligation. It’s the discipline of following the risen Jesus, and that means the discipline of living a kingdom life here and now. How that is manifest in our particular lives is determined by (to paraphrase Frederick Buechner) the deepest joy we carry and the deepest need we encounter each day.

Easter Sunday happens on the first full moon after the spring equinox, but our Easter calling transcends one hour of worship. It isn’t easy, it is quite simple: As followers of Jesus, we are called and empowered to live as an Eastered and Eastering community in, with, and for the world by remembering the Beatitudes and tending to those whom Jesus calls “blessed.”

A Joyous Easter to You All,

Allen

What’s Hiding Behind Your Fig Leaf? (Sermon)

“What’s Hiding Behind Your Fig Leaf?”

Luke 13:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/24/19

 

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. When God confronted them, they were scratching like yard dogs. For one thing, those brand-new fig leaves were itchy. For another, they knew they’d been busted. Adam tried to blame it not just on Eve but on God, too. Well look, he said “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree.”

         Yeah, said Eve, but the devil made me do it. (Gen. 3:13)

Don’t you love it? As soon as human beings had both language and community, they started to spin their failures and blame others.

It’s significant that the couple didn’t return to the garden after they ate the fruit. They couldn’t return. Once their eyes were opened, they couldn’t un-see what they’d seen. They couldn’t un-taste what they’d tasted. What we say or do, for good or ill, can’t be unsaid or undone. But here’s the good news in the story of Adam and Eve: The first gift is life itself. The second gift is the gracious gift of repentance. It doesn’t matter what mistakes we try to hide behind our fig leaves; they don’t have to define us. That’s what makes repentance a gift. That’s what makes Lent a season of hope. Having to do with confession and forgiveness, the gift of repentance is, fundamentally, the gift of new life.

In today’s gospel text, some people are talking to Jesus about a particularly graphic atrocity committed by Pilate. The incident, Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans he executed with that of Jewish animal sacrifice, has no historical confirmation outside of Luke’s gospel. But to get bogged down in the historicity of the details is not simply to miss the point; it’s to avoid it.

By now, we all know, don’t we, that George Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree? A man named Parson Weems created that story to teach children an object lesson on the importance of telling the truth. According to Weems, however, the story was consistent with the honesty and integrity of our first president. And it became a valued myth, something that’s true even if it’s not fact.

From what historians tell us about Pilate, it would not be unlike him to terrorize the Jews for political advantage by mingling human and animal blood. So, whether fact or fiction, the story’s truth demands our attention. After hearing the conversation, Jesus turns the people’s attention away from the sins of others and toward the issue of repentance. He even brings up a tragedy at the tower of Siloam, an event which also lacks corroborating evidence. His response to each event is the same: No, those who died weren’t worse than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

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 if we want to go to heaven. If one does, one has to say and do all the right things to please God enough to “let me in.” Some Christian teaching even endorses that barbaric doctrine of God making horrible people die horrible deaths. But any god of blistering anger and eye-for-an-eye vengeance is a projection of our own prejudices and fears. Such made-in-our-image gods allow us not only to persecute enemies, but to treat family members, neighbors, and fellow church members with rigid self-righteousness and even contempt. And while such gods still hide behind the theological fig leaves of shame and guilt, and behind our bloodlust for power, that is not the God revealed in Jesus. That’s the point of Jesus’ decisive “No” to his followers.

Then he tells them a parable.

In the parable, a man gets impatient with a fruitless fig tree. Get rid of it, he tells the gardener. It’s just wasting space.

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

I’m no gardener. My way of helping my wife, Marianne, with either flowers or vegetables is to keep my distance. I can kill a plastic plant, and she can make one grow. I’ve seen her restore plants that almost anyone else would throw away. She knows that very often, beneath the brownest, driest twig, lies just enough life stirring in just enough cells of just enough roots to send a new shoot reaching for sunlight.

Here’s the thing: Good gardeners like Marianne know that caring for a plant means, first and foremost, caring for the soil around it. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. The seeds and the plants are not at fault for their failure to thrive in hard, rocky, or thorn-infested 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 prepared to receive water. It has to be renewed with manure.

Hiding behind the fig leaves of the tree in Jesus’ parable is, well, a living fig tree! Hiding behind those fig leaves is both the capacity and, given the tree’s DNA, the desireto 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, hiding behind our fear, selfishness, and guilt is exactly what God has created and loves – human beings crying out for belonging, purpose, and joy. And from the Christian perspective, we are most fully and fruitfully human when we’re in community. To me, that says that we really have more in common with soil than we do with individual plants. Our shared calling is to create a fertile environment for holiness, which is something we don’t create. Holiness is God’s doing. Repentance, then, is not an act of personal contrition for individual gain but an act of public solidarity in, with, and for the community.

The Greek word for repent is metanoia,and it means “to turn.” And while there is, indeed, an individual element to that, what we’re turning is not just our own selves but the very circumstances in which we 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, then, we involve ourselves, as Jesus did, in the social, political, and economic realities around us for the sake of the Creation.

To reduce discipleship to church-going, doctrine, and conspicuous personal morality is to live for ourselves. And that makes us lifeless, sandy soil. And if, even as the Church, we’re unfit for sustaining life, much less helping people bear fruit, we’re just wasting space.

The Lenten discipline of repentance restores us tocommunity. It also restores asa community, a community called to the work of ground-tilling, fertilizing discipleship. As Jesus’ disciples, we bring hope to the poor, food to the hungry, laughter to the weeping, and welcoming peace to those who are hated and excluded.

Disciples live as a community of good soil in which mysteries beyond our control and comprehension produce the healthy and healing fruits of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. These fruits nourish us with desire, strengthen us with courage, inspire us with gratitude. And they reveal the entire Creation as something saturated with the ever-fertile love and holiness of God.

The Fox and the Hounds (Sermon)

“The Fox and the Hounds”

Luke 13:31-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/17/19

 

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”(NRSV)

 

“Go and tell that fox for me,” says Jesus, that I’m busy, and I don’t have time to worry about you.

The murderous fox is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Antipas governed the northern tetrarchy of Galilee, and he lived in his capital city of Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.1Now, maybe Herod does want to kill Jesus. It seems to me, though, that either Luke gets confused, or he’s throwing shade at the Pharisees. I say that because during Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, whom Luke places in Jerusalem at the time. (This whole scene is unique to Luke’s gospel.) And Luke says that Herod is “glad” to see Jesus. In fact, he’s been eager to meet the rabbi because he wants to see him perform one of his famous signs.

How is it, then, that before Good Friday – the day when Herod finally gets to meet Jesus – the Pharisees tell Jesus that Herod is looking to kill him? There are some disconnects in this story, aren’t there?

Assumptions are sandy soil. Having said that, one way to account for the Pharisees’ warning is to assume that they intentionally misrepresent things. They use Herod to express their own disdain for Jesus, and their own desire to get rid of him.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus violates ancient and sacred traditions of the faith. He angers those who believe that to defy the law is to defy God. Because their anger is building, and because they know that Jesus also represents a potential threat to Herod, it’s easy to imagine the Pharisees lying to Jesus, telling him that Herod is out to get him. Besides, everyone knows that Herod ain’t no saint. Like all tyrants, he’s quick to ridicule, vilify, or even execute opposition. Remember, it’s Herod Antipas who executes John the Baptist for meddling in his personal life. So (And mixing metaphors feels natural in all this confusion!) if Herod is a fox, the Pharisees are like hounds on Jesus’ trail. And I think Jesus knows it.

It also seems to me that Jesus’ response speaks more directly to religious community leaders than it does to Herod. “Listen,” he says, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”

Jesus’ words make the most sense to those who understand the implications of prophecy, and specifically Jewish prophecy in and around Jerusalem.

The lament itself is directed toward Jerusalem. That means Jesus is speaking to both Herod and the Pharisees. And his words make the most sense to those familiar with the biblical image of a mother bird gathering a brood under her wings. They speak to those familiar with Psalm 118, which Jesus quotes: “‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The fox is a legitimate concern for Jesus. So are those who hound him with their fear. And Jesus faces all of them with loving defiance.

Let’s back up a bit. In Luke 9:51, Jesus “set[s] his face to go to Jerusalem.” All along the way, he’s preparing himself spiritually, emotionally, and physically for his week in Jerusalem. All along the way, he’s doing grueling, prophetic ministry. “What stress I am under!” he cries in 13:50.

It’s interesting, right after Jesus “set[s] his face” for Jerusalem, the disciples confront a Samaritan village that refuses to welcome them. “Lord,” they say, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus will have none of their pathetic vengeance. As he does with Peter, who draws his sword in Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes his disciples. Afterward, he goes on a kind of tear, repeatedly calling his followers to lives of courageous faith and action – even when that means going against the religious and political powers that be. In doing so, he draws down upon himself an all-consuming fire of religious and political judgement.

By the time the Pharisees hit him with their disingenuous warning, Jesus has strengthened himself with singularity of purpose, fearlessness of heart, and purity of faith and love. He has committed himself to overturning the prevailing arrangements of religion based on merit and government based on greed and revenge. Jesus is creating a new community to inhabit a new kingdom. And this kingdom is not insulated from social, political, and economic realities. This kingdom is defined by ethics as well as theology. In this new kingdom, the last are first and the first last. The poor are rich and the rich poor. And the high and mighty crash into humility through their own flimsy arrogance and cannibalistic violence.

This strange little story about Jesus facing the fox and the hounds calls us to follow him on a path of Christlike, prophetic ministry. It’s often a difficult and slow-moving path; and these days, it can feel less and less effective, less and less relevant, and less and less like blessing. Nonetheless, our call is to choose to follow Jesus into ministries of justice, compassion, and service with and for, as he says in the Beatitudes, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, and the excluded.

If the church is losing members and influence, it’s because we have forgotten (or even forsaken!) the truth that we don’t just follow Jesus in here but out there in the world. External realities must impact how we interpret scripture and embody Christ. If not, we’re proclaiming that the world doesn’t matter, and that we don’t care.

“You will not see me,” says Jesus, “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” That you is plural. Jesus is speaking to all of us, the whole community. When we follow our own fears and desires, we lose sight of him. And we open ourselves to choosing the woefully false blessings of self-serving wealth, consumption, amusement, and perceived popularity.

Year C of the lectionary is difficult for many preachers because Luke’s Jesus is not gentle, meek, and mild. He challenges us – sometimes it feels like he dares us – to live lives of neighbor-loving, enemy-loving, creation-restoring, cross-bearing discipleship. That sounds like a lot of work and a lot of risk – because it is.

We all get caught up in wanting our lives to be our own. We all wrestle with temptations to feel entitled to personal ease and comfort, and to that individualistic detachment where everyone and everything around us is, potentially, a competitor to be conquered or a resource to be exploited. Through it all, though, and for our sake, Jesus calls us to live differently, to live the life of Beatitude blessedness.

When we commit ourselves to God, when we commit ourselves to justice, compassion, forgiveness, and service, we will still be acutely aware of the fox and the hounds who are always nearby. Like the devil in the wilderness, they’re always looking for “an opportune time” to tempt us to act selfishly and fearfully. Jesus shepherds us right through all the predatory selfishness and fear. He leads us into purpose, joy, and hope that the fox and the hounds don’t know and can’t promise.

And in following Jesus, even to Friday, all along the way, we will see, hear, taste, and share the real presence of God’s eternal kingdom.

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Antipas