The Currency of Grace (Sermon)

“The Currency of Grace”

Matthew 22:15-22

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/18/20

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

21They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.  (NRSV)

         The Pharisees have set a trap for Jesus, and they send underlings to do their dirty work. Maybe they think that Jesus is more likely to fall into the trap that way. Maybe he’ll wag his tongue a little more loosely with servants than he would with the guys wearing long robes decorated with tassels and fringes. So, the hapless minions approach Jesus and ask, Should we, the people of Israel, the chosen ones of God, who is King of the Universe, pay taxes to Caesar?

Dealing with messengers rather than the senders of the message, Jesus turns the encounter into a teachable moment. Speaking sharply yet with love for God and neighbor—even these neighbors—he makes a subtle but crucial distinction between those things which claim to bind us by worldly obligation and those things to which we bind ourselves in gratitude and love.

You frauds, says Jesus, show me a coin that Rome will accept as tax payment. They bring him a denarius, and Jesus says,“Whose head is this, and whose title?” The answer to both questions is the same: Caesar’s.

When citizens of Rome see the face and utter the name of Caesar, they know that they’re expected to regard the emperor as a god. Even the Jewish people are obliged to speak the name of Caesar with the kind of reverence reserved for the name so holy and unique in the universe that to speak it is to diminish it. Thus, did God’s people speak around Yahweh’s name, saying things like Jehovah, Adonai, or simply the LORD.

I imagine Jesus holding up that tiny coin and twisting it so that it catches and reflects the light of the sun. Then he says, in effect, Sure. Give this thing to Caesar. It’s his, and it has a lot in common with his deity. It’s nothing but an idol—a thin piece of metal, in and of itself devoid of value, and a source of more problems than solutions because to want and to own such things inevitably makes people treat each other like objects, like adversaries to overcome rather than neighbors to love.

With that, Jesus clears himself. If he yields to Caesar’s tax laws, he can’t be arrested for treason. Then, raising the stakes, Jesus says, Give Caesar his due, and “give…to God the things that are God’s.”

All those empty praises the messengers heaped on Jesus bear witness to reality. Jesus is truly sincere, truthful, and unmoved by flattery because he doesn’t get his worth from human affirmation or from some other outside source—like money. Money has value only when it’s backed up by something external to itself like gold, silver, or a nation’s economy. Jesus, and all who trust and follow him, know that human worth comes from the indwelling of God’s eternal presence. The image of God shines through them, through you and me, as a light from within. By grace alone, the beauty, creativity, and holiness of God are inherent in all that God has made. And because these gifts both permeate and transcend the whole Creation, we are free to value the earth and all that lives in it as sacred and ablaze with the presence of the Creator.

Whether they agree with Jesus or not, the messengers know that Jesus has spoken the truth. So, they leave him alone.

Caesar does have the political power to make taxation a matter of legal obligation. He can enforce that law with punishment for those who forget to pay or who try to evade the law. However, he has the authority to do so only as long as the coins with his name and face engraved upon them have value within and beyond the empire. Jesus juxtaposes that obligatory relationship with an alternative. Reaching into the realm of gift, gratitude, and response, Jesus’ authority challenges us to trade in the currency of God’s eternal grace. In the economy of Jesus, we exchange the God-faced coins of faith, hope, and love rather than the legal tender of selfishness and greed.

  The Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team has been working to change the way we manage congregational investments. Last Monday the ministry team met with the second of two representatives whom the committee is interviewing as prospective financial advisors. This particular person asked an extremely important question. He asked what kind of ministry goals we have in mind for our investments. I’m embarrassed to say that we had no good answer for that question, and much of that is on me. If a church’s leadership has no clear plan for the financial resources that people have given so freely and generously, then we’re just hoarding them. And to justify that, we call it a “safety net.”

When our Sunday school class worked with this passage last week, someone asked another good question: How big does a congregation’s safety net have to be before it becomes a buried talent? That person was referring to the parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25 and Luke 19. In that parable, one servant buries his talent rather than using it for some purpose that furthers the interests of the man who entrusted his wealth to servants while he goes on a journey.

As a church, the obligation of taxation doesn’t apply to our income. However, if all we do with our investments is accumulate them—by taking advantage of laws that allow us not “to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”—then are we really giving to God “the things that are God’s”? In the coming months, discerning how to unearth and offer our talents will become a principal focus for the session.

The struggles of a community almost always mirror the struggles of the individuals within it, especially those in leadership. And we’re a congregation of primarily retired persons, people who were raised in a very different era and culture than we live in now, people who live on investments, and who recognize that their time is dwindling. And while investments are important, the God-created resource of time holds indescribable value because it is, for everyone, a gift that is both non-renewable and non-transferable.

Giving to God that which is God’s is about living gratefully, joyfully, and generously in the moment but with an eye always trained toward the future on behalf of generations yet to come. Because the present moment is saturated with the fearful and insatiable appetites of all manner of Caesars, it swarms with overwhelming human need, need created by relentless injustice and profound grief. When we as individuals and as a Christian community face that omnipresent need, our charge is to see Jesus’ own need—Jesus own face—manifested in the needs and the faces of “the least of these.” Responding to that need through loving word and servant-hearted deed is giving “to God the things that are God’s.” And while we do give from storehouses of dwindling time, unique talents and interests, and limited financial resources, God receives these God-given gifts, blesses them, and transforms our collective, mustard-seed offerings into a great hedgerow of abundance.

Three weeks from today we will consecrate the pledges we make to God through this congregation. As we think about what we will give—without obligation or entrapment—may each of us remember two things:

First, what we give and what we keep is God’s already.

And second, as followers of Jesus, we are dealing in the currency of grace, which, through the power of Resurrection, is non-taxable because it is inexhaustibly transferable and eternally renewable.

A Common Purpose (Sermon)

“A Common Purpose”

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/11/20

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

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

      So, for some reason!*, I’ve had babies on my mind. Because of that, I feel some cognitive dissonance when Paul uses “infants” as an image of derision. Still, I have to understand his deep frustration with the Corinthians who are caught up in a cycle of petty “jealousy and quarreling.”

After planting a church, you see, Paul turns much of a new congregation’s nurture over to someone else while he moves on. During a visit to Ephesus, Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew whom Luke describes as a teacher of great eloquence, keen understanding of scripture, and “burning enthusiasm” had learned about Jesus through Priscilla and Aquilla. (Acts 18:24-28) Paul entrusts this gifted new disciple with leadership of the Corinthian church. And now, divided loyalties are causing a rift in the congregation. Some have so closely identified with Paul and others with Apollos that they no longer identify with God who had created all of them, and whom Jesus had revealed in a unique wholeness.

Calling the Corinthians to the carpet for their childishness, Paul says, You all still need to be nursed and bottle fed. You’re not ready for real food. You’re not ready for a meal you have to chew on carefully, savor gratefully, and share intentionally. You just want your bellies tighter than a tick on a bloodhound!

The Corinthian Christians’ hunger is a desire for power. One side thinks Paul offers the best chance to gain and hold authority, while the other side puts all its eggs in Apollos’ basket. Maybe one reason Paul is so frustrated is that he knows how that will play out. He knows that when the winds of change blow, human loyalties tend to shift, because people motivated by greed and fear will go wherever they think the milk will flow the easiest, and where they will get the most for themselves.

Playing authority figures against each other is a ploy as old as humankind itself. So, when Dad says No, the child pouts and walks away. Then he puts on a smile and says, Mom? Dad said I should ask you if we could get a puppy.

While that’s nothing more than childish manipulation, it’s also calculated espionage! Ben and Mercedes have done a good bit of rafting through the technical waters of the Nolichucky Gorge. Maybe some of the lessons they learned there will equip them for navigating the even trickier waters of Porter’s wily charms as he grows and encounters personal desires that pit his will against that of his parents. And there’s the rub: Their will. A shared will. Paul calls it the “common purpose.”

As Porter’s parents plant the field and water the crops of their offspring, they, like all parents, will need to find ways to commit themselves—lovingly, firmly, and, when necessary, sacrificially—to the “common purpose” of their son’s well-being. In parenting that may be a set of things more than any single thing. For Paul, however, when he writes to the Corinthians, he refers to a very specific common purpose: Faithfulness to “God who gives the growth.” Faithfulness is the purpose of the new faith community.

         Matthew’s gospel is known for drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses. It seems to me, though, that Paul has more in common with Moses than Jesus does. Paul is trying to help establish the new community, and he doesn’t have four gospels to study and to teach. He doesn’t have a narrative record of all that the first apostles said, did, and experienced. He doesn’t have an anthology of pastoral letters that have been accepted as inspired and authoritative, letters reflecting theologically on the life and ministry of Jesus, letters written to guide intentional communities based on faithfulness to God by following Jesus.

What Paul does have is an oral tradition. He has random and subjectively-remembered stories recalling Jesus’ remarkable presence. Paul also has his own transformative experience, including a kind of burning-bush encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He has the memory of receiving care he didn’t deserve from a stranger named Ananias. Paul’s whole journey from sight-to-blindness-to-new vision has filled him with the conviction that Jesus is alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those experiences have kindled in Paul a new passion; he wants to live in faithfulness to God by helping to create a new, Christ-centered community, and to help lead that community into its own identity and place in the world. And it’s just inevitable that such a job will often feel like raising fussy, greedy children.

I think Moses could easily relate to Paul’s frustrations of trying to lead people in faithfulness to God while the people’s appetite for comfort and control sends them chasing after whatever seems to offer the best deal and the easiest meal. When a “common purpose” is reduced to everyone seeking their own best interests, “jealousy and quarreling” are only the beginning. Bitterness and chaos will soon follow because the people will be driven by an economics of scarcity rather than faith in God’s abundance. There will also be entire groups who will not simply be left behind in the pursuit of self-interest; they will be forbidden to seek their own well-being. Think of serfs in medieval Europe, African slaves in America’s antebellum south, and women around the world and throughout history.

Faithful commitment to a “common purpose” is always complicated. A common purpose requires the whole community to focus itself on a particular goal, both in the moment and for the future. That purpose also requires that each individual in the community claim and develop his or her or their own particular gifts. It requires that they be given room to process their own journeys of discovery, joy, and pain, and then to offer their unique perspectives to help broaden the community’s identity and deepen its mission. That’s why Paul will, more than once, compare the church to a body with many parts, all of which are integral to the common purpose of faithfulness to God through love of neighbor and earth.

         The common purpose to which Paul refers challenges us to celebrate both individuality and community. And there will always be tension between those two. The trick is to avoid entering that tension as competitors looking to defeat opponents, or selfish children looking to play a zero-sum game. One sign of authentic maturity is the ability, indeed the commitment, to understand tension as integral to any creative process. Tension is a central element of the Christian life, says Richard Rohr who defines “hope…[as] an ability to hold creative tensions.”1

         So, to live the Christian hope means learning to trust that all our human efforts, as vitally important as they are, are simply acts of planting, watering, and nurturing. “God [gives] the growth,” says Paul. Growth, life, existence itself, these are mysteries God does. And as people of faith, we celebrate them, call attention to them, wonder at them, give thanks for them, and steward them. In things like music, poetry, medicine, engineering, and parenting, we even participate in them as co-creators through Christ; but we are not God. We witness to God and serve God when we speak and act gratefully, lovingly, humbly, and with a commitment toward justice and wholeness for all people and for this one and only one planet on which we all depend.

Indeed, we are merely the field. God is the infinite array of purposeful relationships and mysteries within the earth that make the field fertile.

May your life be as rich as a God-cultivated field. And may your most precious gift to the Creation be your love for the Creator.

*Very early on the morning of this sermon, October 11, 2020, my wife and I became grandparents for the first time.

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. 2011. P. 158. The complete paragraph is worth quoting: “In short, good leaders must have a certain capacity for non-polarity thinking and full-access knowing (prayer), a tolerance for ambiguity (faith), an ability to hold creative tensions (hope), and an ability to care (love) beyond their own personal advantage.”

And He Was Speechless (Sermon)

“And He Was Speechless”

Matthew 22:1-14

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/4/20

On first reading, I don’t much like Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the wedding banquet. I much prefer Luke’s kinder, gentler version. So, before reading the story, let’s back up and get a feel for the context.

         In Matthew 21 Jesus drives moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. We often call it the cleansing of the temple, and that’s a loaded phrase. Holding the Jewish leaders responsible for desecrating the temple, and Israel herself, opens the door to pride among Jesus’ disciples, and to the specter of anti-Semitism. While Jesus is clearly furious, he’s motivated by neither pride nor hate. So, in Jesus’ fury, I hear his heart breaking. He’s not saying, All you bad people get out! He’s saying, This is not who we are! We’re better than this, and YOU know it!

The people are struggling, but they’re not fundamentally evil. They’ve traded God for an institution which has developed a life of its own. Like a tree that takes up soil but doesn’t produce fruit, it just consumes resources. Existing for its own sake, the institution no longer carries out the purpose of blessing that dates back to the call of Abraham.

         The morning after Jesus clears the temple, he curses a fig tree that has no fruit. It seems harsh, perhaps, but a figless fig tree is good for little more than kindling and compost. Similarly, a spiritless spiritual community is nothing but a consumer of resources. Having abandoned its spiritual center and its prophetic voice, that community is no different than some civic club that collects dues and engages in a little conspicuous altruism. A spiritless spiritual community has given up on mystery, holiness, and its for-the-sake-of-others blessedness.

         After cursing the fig tree, Jesus returns to the temple. Still offended, the leaders confront Jesus and question his authority. He ends up telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes have higher and holier standing than they do. He follows with a parable in which a landowner sends his servants first and then his son to collect a harvest. After the workers kill the servants and the son, the landowner executes all the workers.

“Therefore,” says Jesus to the chief priests and elders of Israel, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Mt. 21:43)

The leaders want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowds who love him. Enslaved to their institutional power and privilege, they are speechless. Into that angst-ridden silence, Jesus tells his next parable:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 

4“Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

7“The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (NRSV)

This parable and the stories preceding it unsettle me. The Pharisee within me cringes because the stories expose my own pettiness and self-righteousness. The 21st century Christian in me rankles at the image of a violent and vengeful God. The only side of me that likes these stories is my smug, intolerant, first-world “religionist” who uses a powerful, state-sponsored, institutional religion to justify fear and judgement of people I don’t understand and don’t want to understand.

I deal with that guy almost daily. He always hears Jesus agreeing with him. He assumes that God is as small, vindictive, and merciless as I can be. Like those who have been invited to the wedding banquet, he makes light of the invitation. He’s more interested in looking busy in an office than he is in following Jesus in the world. Like a hyena smelling blood, he enters the feeding frenzy of acrimony and insult where neighbors attack each other with guns, clubs, cars, and words—fearful, aggressive, polarizing words.

In the presence of that spiritless religionist in me, I often lose my voice. I become a speechless wedding-crasher. Even when I see the brokenness around me, I tell myself that I’m just trying, in trying times, to hold together a congregation of diverse theological and political opinions. That’s not a bad goal—unless all I’m really trying to do is hold onto my job and my benefits. So, I try to justify speechlessness as pastoral sensitivity. But whom does a speechless disciple really serve? Whom do I really love, worship, and trust?

The only time Jesus is speechless in the face of opposition is when Pilate asks him if he’s the King of the Jews. Jesus says nothing because he’s already spoken with his living. Jesus’ life is his Creation-transforming speech.

         When the king in the parable confronts the man who has no robe, the man is “speechless.” He says nothing of gratitude to the king or of congratulations for the bride and groom. He says nothing about the selfishness of those who ignored the invitation. He says nothing about the injustices of all that murder and revenge, no words of solidarity with the other guests. Couldn’t it be that words of redeeming grace, words that both honestly and lovingly call out institutional unfaithfulness and silence, couldn’t it be that those words weave our wedding robes?

         I’m not advocating works righteousness. We do not have to earn our invitation to the banquet. The parable is about responding to the call to live as “chosen” ones, bearers of visible and audible fruits of prophetic faith. It’s about living as embodied speech.

         Thomas Merton took a vow of silence, but his spirited life was all about speaking, all about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Out of his silence he rendered such fruitful speech, both lived and written, that his words continue to challenge and nurture people of faith today.

Whatever our situation, speechlessness is not an option for disciples. Our words and actions are our figs, the fruit of our faithfulness. Speaking truth and justice to institutional power may get us into trouble, because power doesn’t want to be challenged. Power always claims that prophetic challenges are political. And power doesn’t want to hear “politics” in the church or from it. Fearful and self-serving power forgets how actively and consistently political Jesus is. Patient, humble, honest, challenging speech is both our robe of righteousness to wear and our cross to bear. It’s that “good trouble” the late John Lewis talked about. Faithful disciples cry out to humankind, “We are better than this, let’s live our better selves!”

         If all we want is a personal Savior to forgive our individual sins, we’ll be satisfied with speechlessness, even in the face of injustice. And we’ll do far more to protect our comfortable religious institutions than to love a holy God. If Jesus is truly our Lord, though, if he is Lord of our lives and of our living, then we are more than an institution. We are the CHURCH—the living body of the living Christ.

While the dual challenges of Covid and social unrest are wearing us down, they’re also blessing us with an opportunity to remember that our true calling is out there among a humanity who has forgotten that we are part of a good and beloved Creation. As followers of Jesus, our call is to go “into the main streets,” the highways and byways, and invite everyone to God’s banquet where we find our true voice—a voice of gratitude, generosity, and justice-seeking love.

When we find, claim, and exercise our voices, when we bear the fruits of faithfulness, we become both guests and stewards at God’s banquet.

Today is World Communion Sunday. The banquet is set with Christ’s redeeming, voice-giving meal.

Come to the table.

Find your voice.

Then go, and invite others to the feast.

Water-Logged Rocks (Sermon)

“Water-Logged Rocks”

Exodus 17:1-7

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/27/20

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  (NRSV)

         This summer, like most summers, had a few long dry spells. During each one, my gardener wife would stand over her rows of tomatoes, beans, okra, and squash and say, “We really need some rain.” Then she’d go turn the handle on the spigot, pick up the hose, and start watering her garden.

I suppose that getting water from the faux brick-on-concrete block foundation of a house isn’t any easier than Moses whacking a rock with a stick; it’s just a lot less dramatic. Then again, when you think about the whole process of drawing dirty water from the Nolichucky River, pumping it all the way to Jonesborough, purifying it, and delivering it into our homes day and night at the mere twist of a handle—well, if that’s not exactly a miracle, it’s certainly a wonder. And as long as a person pays her utility bills, she can trust that process to receive a God-given resource that every living thing requires for its existence.

It seems to me that trust is the fundamental issue facing the parched and anxious Israelites as they languish in the wilderness. And as much as we can sympathize with the Hebrews, their accusation that Moses is trying to kill them reveals their faithlessness. And since faithlessness is really nothing more than forgetfulness, let’s remember the context of this story.

The incident at Rephidim occurs right after God has parted the seas, turned bitter water into sweet water, and provided both manna and quail for the people. Though they have experienced God’s faithfulness in multiple situations, they still haven’t reached a place of trust. Because of their limited experience, God remains, primarily, a liturgical utterance—The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people know of God, but they have yet to know God. They have yet to love and trust God.

          When our Sunday school discussed this passage, one person observed that the Israelites seem to be following Moses rather than God. So, they’re defined by their ongoing dependence on a fellow creature rather than their relationship with the Creator. So, while sweet water, manna, and quail are great, it takes a while for a few strokes of good luck to become a faith-building trend. It takes even longer to recognize the divine presence behind Moses’ leadership. And it takes longer still to trust that, whether Moses is present or not, God is, was, and will always be present in the life of the people.

That’s part of our faith struggle—learning to hear professions of faith not as wishful thinking but as the expressions of hearts at peace, hearts who trust that come what may, great joy or deep anxiety, God is present in the moment redeeming suffering, creating purpose, and calling us to lives of humble service and confident witness. This kind of trust-wrought wisdom is inherent in every authentic spirituality.

In discussing leadership in his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that “wisdom is ‘the art of the possible.’ The key question is no longer ‘How can I problem-solve now, and get this off of my plate?’ It is ‘How can this situation achieve good for the largest number and for the next generations?’”1

The Exodus is one long problematic situation for the Israelites. And as the leader, Moses often wants simply to get problems off of his plate so he can move on to the promised land God has told him about and about which he has told the Hebrews. And they will eventually find that land—more or less. As with all temporal nations, it will be a territory they never truly own because they take it by force and hold it only until a stronger people take it from them by force. And on it goes. And so, Israel’s faith will wax and wane depending on the number and magnitude of the problems on their plate at any given time.

As God’s Nation-Within-The-Nations, Israel often wearies of and abandons the call to help lead God’s good creation in the ways of justice, righteousness, compassion, and trust. And perhaps TRUST, more than any particular geographical location, is itself the Promised Land.

         Out there in the wilderness, bereft of trust and water, the Israelites lose sight of what has happened and what can happen. They’ve forgotten the Red Sea, the sweet water, the manna, and the quail. They’ve forgotten that God is with them in their thirst, and that God, whose providence can be trusted, is already on the other side of their need.

         For 21st century Christians, who are accustomed to tap water, relating to this story means placing ourselves in it, and not just as Israelites. There’s room for us inside every element of the story.

         Like Moses, we are leaders charged with the burden of wisdom, with the work of discovering what is possible in our own wilderness and acting in faith to lead others simply by living the radical new vision called the household of God, a vision in which the schisms that pit us against each other become celebrations of our different gifts, and the sand castles of meritocracy give way to communities of grace built on the solid foundation of mutual human respect and love, and on bathing in God’s delight in all that God has made.

         We can see ourselves in Moses’ staff, something that Moses never uses as a magic wand for his own benefit, but which, at God’s command becomes both a symbol of and a conduit for the power of God touching the earth on behalf of people in need. That helps us understand why the staff is an essential image in Psalm 23, doesn’t it?

         As rock and water, we can bear witness to God as both an anchor of identity and the flow of life and liveliness, as both safe harbor and open-ended journey. As water-logged rocks, we encounter and embody a life-giving paradox—the concrete mystery of God’s incarnate presence in and for the world.

         Perhaps most importantly, as thirst itself, we live as ones who trust that our deepest desires are God’s own longings to be in relationship with us. “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” wrote St Augustine. “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you,” prayed Thomas Merton.

         When we, as Christ’s body, join our voices in cries for justice and peace, we participate in the world’s thirst. And while we must participate in those thirsty cries, we can’t stop there. When protest becomes an end in itself, we reduce it to quarreling and testing. The faith community has more constructive roles to play. Like Moses, we intercede and advocate. We raise our staff and strike the jagged rocks of resentment, fear, and bigotry. We allow ourselves to be broken open so that through us the living water of Christ becomes a healing flow of humble welcome, truth-telling, and re-orienting relationship. We lead in acts of reconciliation, in demonstrations of confession, repentance, reparation, and resurrection.

         Ours is a crucial, pivotal time, and as people of thirst-conscious compassion, as leadership staff in Christ’s new community of grace, as rocks saturated with living water, God calls us into a drought-weary world to speak and act with the love that casts out fear, the love that bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things, the love that never ends.

May we trust that love, whose name is Yahweh. And may we help bring water to a parched and anxious world.

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, NY, 2009. P. 158.

Scandalous Grace (Sermon)

“Scandalous Grace”

Matthew 20:1-16

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/20/20

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

         Over the last few weeks, the Old Testament passages in the lectionary come from the book of Exodus. And homiletics professor Charles Campbell notes how well they complement the New Testament passages.1 Exodus is the story of God creating Israel, a brand-new community, according to a spiritual, social, economic, and political ethic that differs wildly from the surrounding culture.

God establishes Israel not for her own sake. “I will make of you a great nation,” God tells Abram, “and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2 and 3) Unlike its neighbors, this new, blessed to be a blessing nation will linger through the ages not because of glorious cities and powerful armies. This nation-within-the-nations identifies itself by welcoming the stranger, caring for widows and orphans, doing justice, seeking righteousness. And all of these defining characteristics derive from and proclaim Israel’s monotheistic theology, their signature innovation, their belief in and faithfulness to one God who created all things and whose presence is manifest in all that God created and continues to create.

         In the experience of the Exodus, and in the giving of the Mosaic law, we see only the preliminary markings of the foundation for Israel. While under construction, the Hebrews learn to trust and follow Yahweh—no matter where they are, no matter their joys or sufferings. And when the people do suffer, God sends prophets to tell them that to be restored, return to the ethic of love. Care for those who can’t care for themselves. Work for and demand justice from kings and nations. Demonstrate that justice with lives of humility, gratitude, and generosity.

Faithfulness to God proves to be complicated business. And many generations into Israel’s existence, when she’s barely a toddler, God, through Isaiah, will say, I understand how difficult this is for you, but remember, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my” thoughts and ways higher than yours. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When Jesus shows up, he reminds us that God’s creation of the new community continues to be a work in progress. With one disruptive teaching after another, Jesus pushes the spiritual, social, economic, and political ethics of the faith to a whole new level, one that reveals that God is, quite frankly, not entirely fair. And yet it’s God’s lack of fairness that reveals God’s unfathomable grace.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, those who worked only the last hour receive the same pay as those who worked all day. And like the liberated Hebrews grumbling in the wilderness, those who worked all day grumble at the vineyard owner’s inequitable generosity. Their response reveals the limits of the human heart when confronted with pure grace: “…these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

         It seems to me that the grumbling of the workers sums up human sin. We have always been obsessed with measuring the value of fellow human beings and of God’s good Creation as a whole, over against the value we place on ourselves or our groups. And while it is harmful to under-value ourselves relative to others, our principal struggle is under-valuing people who are not like us. So, to hear someone imply, much less say outright, that I must accept those people as equal to me and my group can be as perplexing and offensive as the Hebrews’ suggestion that one God, their God, created and watches over all the earth.

In nations around the globe today, we’re seeing, hearing, and feeling the storms created when the anguish of people crying out to be recognized as fully human meets the grumblings of those who don’t understand, and who feel threatened by cries for equality and justice.

I feel the anger and grief of those whose humanity has been ignored and attacked for centuries. And I stand with them because they are children of God whose very lives bear the imprint of the Creator. I am no more valuable than a black man or woman languishing in poverty in a housing project in Baltimore or Detroit, or locked up in prison. Their lives matters as much as mine, and when I act as if they don’t, I’m a worker grumbling at the end of the day because I don’t want to imagine them deserving equality with me. But when I’m honest, I have to admit that because of the skin, family, and culture into which I was born, I received more than a day’s wage before I even showed up! So, when I grumble, my own condemnation lies in my grumbling. When I grumble, I reject the grace of God who chooses freely and without my permission to love and live in all that God has created. At that point God says to me, Allen, “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Having said all that, I also feel anger and grief when cries for equality and justice turn violent. Violence redeems nothing. That’s the very point of the cross in the Christian faith. Much Christian theology claims that God was so angry and grieved at human sin that if there were to be a heaven at all, there had to be hell to pay. Someone had to die. So, God kills Jesus to satisfy God’s fury and to restore God’s ability to love.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Any god who requires violent human suffering to be restored to wholeness is a golden calf, and idol made in our image. The cross does not reveal God’s wrath in the face of human sin. The cross reveals human frailty when it meets the height, and depth, and breadth of God’s grace. God did not demand Jesus’ death. We did. We killed Jesus because he was just too good to be true, because he loved beyond the strict boundaries set by the Mosaic law, because he offered a full day’s wage to last-hour hires. And because God’s grace has no end, even our brutal, reactionary violence against God Incarnate, does not condemn us forever. Friday is not the last word. Sunday is. Sunday is also the first word of new beginnings. It’s the laying of new foundations.

  “If I were to name the Christian religion,” says Richard Rohr, “I would probably call it ‘The Way of the Wound.’ Jesus agrees to be the Wounded One, and we Christians…come to God not through our strength but through our weakness.”2

The parable of the workers in the vineyard proclaims God’s incomprehensible grace. And in doing so, it exposes human weakness. It exposes our selfishness, greed, and self-consuming appetite to see ourselves as superior to others. And even that is grace because before grace saves us, it scandalizes us into wakefulness. Before grace can make a difference in the lives we live, we have to admit our aversion to grace. We must confess our materialistic religion of individualism and merit, and the various supremacies to which that religion leads. Only when we surrender to the scandal of grace do we begin to recognize and celebrate God’s eternal love for all people and all things.

I love all of you the same, says Jesus. It grieves me if that makes you jealous, but there’s no first or last. There’s no black or white, rich or poor, male or female. So, receive what I give you, what belongs to you by grace alone. Receive my love, receive it for others as well as for yourselves.

Then go; share it. Only by giving it away–especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it­–will you ever understand that there is enough for all.

1Charles Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 93-97.

2https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/49CA59C9E571AF9C2540EF23F30FEDED/A2AE94689C106E613D3F7F9A22A6E02E

A New Point of View (Sermon)

“A New Point of View”

2 Corinthians 5:14-21 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/6/20

14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NRSV)

         In Christ, says Paul, God is reconciling the world to God’s Self. And in so doing, God charges and empowers us to become agents of reconciliation. And heaven knows there’s a lot of reconciling to do, isn’t there?

         We live in a perpetually broken world, but the Incarnation reveals God’s initiative to restore humankind to the grateful and generous living that makes us truly human. Paul defines truly human as having “the mind of Christ,” that is, living in full awareness of the presence of the divine within us and around us. When we reconnect with our true humanity, with our true selves, the Spirit restores our sight. And, as Paul says, we no longer regard anyone from a falsely or selfishly “human point of view.” So, as new creations, we become expressions of God’s reconciling grace.

         As cozy as that sounds, transformation is difficult business. Holiness and reconciling grace flash and rumble in our lives when the warm front of God’s unrelenting love meets the cold air of our brokenness. And in this perfect storm, the imperfect world tends to nail to crosses anyone who chooses reconciliation over pride, compassion over power, and love over fear.

         Reconciliation, even between two individuals, attempts to restore balance to all of creation. Over the centuries, however, the Church has usually tried to restore balance by imposing absolutes. Just make everyone look alike and think alike, and we’ll all just get along. And in Jesus’ name, the Church has committed and endorsed unspeakableinhumanity against human beings and the environment in order to make persons, nations, and even geographies fit into the dogmas of those who hold dominance.

         Brian McLaren says that one of Christianity’s greatest failures has been to reduce faith to systematic theologies. What began as a holy path, a way to live God’s new point of view,has been locked inside the gated communities of rigid human tradition. And why is that? Why do we respond so much more readily to wall-building fear than to bridge-building grace? 

         It seems to me that virtually every human being harbors both obvious and hidden wounds. When those wounds are not acknowledged honestly and dealt with graciously, they manifest as bitter judgment directed at other people, at scapegoats. Grounded in the old points of view of suspicion and competition, these defensive reactions tell us to Look out for Number Onebecause it’s everyone for themselves! And God helps those who help themselves. How can reconciliation happen under that point of view?

         Paradoxically, only when we face our own sinfulness and woundedness can we begin to find the strength and the will to follow paths of holiness and reconciliation. So, to make peace with others begins by making peace with ourselves, and peacemaking requires the hard and often painful spiritual work of self-examination. In serious reflection, we rummage around in those deep, dark corners where we hide all the experiences that frighten and embarrass us. We face them, name them, confess them and offer them to God. Such work paves the way for self-forgiveness. And to forgive ourselves is to receive God’s grace.

We “accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!” says Richard Rohr. “This is the key that unlocks everything in me, for others, and toward God. So much so that we call it ‘salvation’!”1 This transformation becomes the starting point of discipleship. And the deeper we go within ourselves, the more we encounter God’s grace calling us out of ourselves and into the world. This is what Jesus means when he calls us to take up the cross and follow him.

         Archetypal stories illustrating this kind of transformation are common throughout human experience. They lie at the heart of almost every collection of myths and spiritual narratives. The Old Testament is full of such stories. One example is that of the conniving and self-obsessed Jacob who finally confronts his dark truth as he wrestles all night with a stranger on a riverbank. When the sun rises, Jacob has a brand new name—Israel, a brand new limp, and a brand new point of view, a point of view which makes his reunion with his estranged brother, Esau, one of grateful, tearful, and liberating reconciliation.

Over the last few years in America and other places, there’s been a well-documented rise in hate groups. New assemblies, new members, and new visibility and all for very old and very malignant points of view. In the midst of those rising numbers, however, new stories are leaking out around the edges, stories of people who are leaving those groups, their violent ways, and the purity codes of the misguided Christianity and the zealous nationalism of the far right. There’s a consistent feature in the accounts of the people leaving communities which are committed to white supremacy. Even as those people thrived on their hate, they encountered other people—usually the very people at whom they aimed their fear and their fists—people who, rising above their own fear and above their desire for vengeance, chose, intentionally, to show compassion to someone whose life was consumed by hatred and ignorance.

That is grace. And it embodies the new point of view. Gracious love is fierce enough to see through the scars of broken homes and abuse, to see through the bald heads, swastika tattoos, and Confederate battle flags. For many who leave the hate groups, there would be no healing without such grace because grace was exactly what was missing in their lives from the start.

Yes, God’s grace attends to both those who suffer and to those who cause suffering. And for those who call themselves Christian, and who know that evil isn’t overcome by exempting it as personal choice, but by direct engagement, our work of reconciliation means claiming our prophetic voice and boldly calling out the evils behind the suffering. And thatbegins with confessing our own racism, sexism, partisan pettiness, and nationalistic prejudice. Only when we see brokenness clearly in ourselves can we call it out compassionately in others. And if we’re the Church, we must follow Jesus in doing both, lest we—like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Caesar—become ones so obsessed with ourselves that we become ones who do and tolerate evil.

We are stewards of Christ’s new point of view, a point of view of invitation, vulnerability, trust, and reconciliation. No, we’re not always faithful to that point of view, and because of that, we confess our individual and systemic sinfulness each Sunday morning. Nonetheless, if we are the body of Christ, we are the “new creation” of which Paul speaks. The old is passing away because the new has begun. And “the love of Christ urges us on” our journey.

         The table before us is set with Christ’s reconciling feast. As you participate in this meal, look within yourself at the new person and the new point of view God is creating. And look at those around you with the new eyes of that new creation. Taste and see that God is good, and present in all people, races, and lands.

         And may this bread and this cup nourish the living Christ within all of us, so that we may “become the righteousness of God.”

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, NY, 2009. p. 141.

Here I Am! Who Am I? (Sermon)

“Here I Am! Who Am I?”

Exodus 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/30/20

         In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh is more than one particular Egyptian ruler. Like Herod and Caesar in the gospels, he’s a metaphor for every proud and self-obsessed autocrat. In an effort to maintain his power, which such people constantly fear losing, Pharaoh orders the killing of as many young, Hebrew males as inhumanly possible.

         During this holocaust, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the river to bathe. She finds a Hebrew baby in a basket floating in the reeds. She picks him up and claims him as her own. Then she finds a Hebrew nursemaid, who “just happens” to be the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t know this, but we do. And, so, the bond between the child and his true identity is set—for good.

         One can imagine that growing up in Pharaoh’s home, Moses feels increasing tension between who he appears to be and who he feels like. In time, he chooses and commits to a particular identity. He picks up a brick and kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew.

         After that, the Egyptians want Moses dead, and the Hebrews want nothing to do with him. So, Moses flees to the Midianite wilderness, where he rescues Jethro’s daughters from some thugs who are trying to run the women away from a watering hole. This good deed lands Moses in Jethro’s good graces and in his family.

         Then, years later:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

And [Moses] said, “Here I am.”

5Then [God] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12[God] said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (NRSV)

         In the conversation, God says, Moses, I have seen my people in misery…Ihave heard their cries…I feel their sufferings…I am here to deliver them.

         Then God says, Moses, you will go Egypt. You will face Pharaoh. You will deliver the Israelites.

         (Do you hear the foreshadowing? A shepherd sees an odd light, hears a strange voice that announces deliverance, and tells him to go do something about it? In December we’ll return to that story.)

         At first, Moses says, “Here I am.” Then, becoming overwhelmed, he asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”

         Who am I? Maybe that’s modesty. Maybe it’s fear or a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s all of those things, but I have to imagine Moses asking that question as one who has struggled all of his life with who he is, where he belongs. He was born a Hebrew slave, raised as a privileged Egyptian, escaped as a murderer. And now he’s living as an ordinary husband, father, son-in-law, and shepherd.

         “Here I am.” Then, Wait, who am I?

         It’s revealing that when Moses asks what he should say when asked about who sent him to Egypt, God says to tell them, “I AM WHO I AM” sent you. While that may seem a deeply unsatisfying answer, as people of God, who we are and what we do declare our understanding of the essential being of God, the is-ness of God.

         If we believe God is legalistic and vengeful, we will be legalistic and vengeful.

         If we believe God is creative and loving, we will be creative and loving.

         If we believe God is greedy and exclusive, we will be greedy and exclusive.

         If we believe God advocates for the poor and the oppressed, we will advocate for the poor and the oppressed.

         If we believe God requires violence and human suffering to be “satisfied,” we will inflict violence and suffering on others as an attempt to satisfy and please God.

         If we believe God redeems human suffering by entering it, we will enter the lives of those who suffer and help to bear their burdens.

         As people of faith, our understanding of who God is has everything to do with our understanding of who we are. And God knows who Moses is. God knows that Moses has no tolerance for injustice and no equivocation in confronting it. God knows Moses will act on behalf of those who are exploited because of their race or gender. Without even having a term for it yet, Moses already knows, sees, and lives toward God’s “promised land.” And isn’t that the very nature of faith? Living into a future we can’t see, while trusting that God is already holding us within it.

         “And this shall be the sign…that it is I who sent you,” says God, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

         That’s a dangerous declaration by God. It can easily be misinterpreted as the horrific, Machiavellian fallacy of the ends justify the means. What we learn from the wider witness of scripture is that the means and the ends are intimately intertwined. The journey is the gift, and the means of the journey are essential to the outcome, even when the way ahead includes wandering the wilderness. To know God’s deliverance means to live each moment as if God’s promises were already fulfilled—even when fulfillment is so obviously incomplete.

         For us as Christians, every Sunday is a celebration of Easter. The source and foundation of our faith is that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, creates new life out of death, new hope out of despair, a new future out of a past riddled with bitterness and pain. And every journey from death to resurrection involves some kind of Exodus which begins with a call to which we often say, Here I am, then, Wait, who am I to do that? Saying Yes to God’s call means saying Yes to some kind of death on the way to resurrection. And following Jesus means dying to any image of God that makes us selfishly comfortable, any image of God that is vengeful, exclusive, or violent.

         The stories of Moses and Jesus illustrate that God calls us to act on behalf of those who are crying out for help because they’re hungry, lonely, sick, or suffering beneath the oppressive systems of the world’s many Pharaohs and Caesars. And we are all, in one way or another, called to die to ourselves so that the Spirit might raise us into new ways of life, new self-understandings, new relationships, and new actions.

         Think again about Moses: To lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, it takes someone who is familiar with the house of Israel and the house of Pharaoh, and who is sufficiently distant from both. It takes someone who has already journeyed through all manner of adversity. It takes someone who’s had a transforming experience of God. It takes someone with enough humility to say, I’ll need lots of help. It takes someone who is willing to learn to trust that I AM WHO I AM is sufficient grounds for taking up a daring journey. So, at God’s command, Moses dies a revitalizing death so that he, with the help of his brother, Aaron, might lead a protracted, two-person protest march against the systemic evils of Pharaoh’s Egypt. And as is always the case in human societies, when Pharaoh refuses to listen and to do justice, hispeople suffer.

         One of the liturgical terms for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is The Feast of Victory; and the elements of this feast are symbols associated with Friday, the day of apparent defeat. The bread and the cup remind us that God is not satisfied or reconciled by Jesus’ death. Only human-imaged idols require revenge in order to love again. Friday is what we give God to work with. And God, being I AM WHO I AM from beginning to end, redeems Friday. On Friday, God transforms Jesus into another bush that burns without being consumed.

         On Sunday, God declares that a new deliverance has begun.

         On Sunday God announces, and calls us to share, that Pharaoh-defying, fear-defeating, Creation-transforming promise called Resurrection.

An Appeal for Wholeness (Sermon)

“An Appeal for Wholeness”

Romans 12:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/23/20

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  (NRSV)

         Paul wrote his letter to the Romans about 57CE. I imagine that the church in Rome, as a brand-new community, would have felt small and insignificant inside the city that served as the seat of government for the first century’s largest and most powerful empire. And yet that community seems to have felt an excessively heavy burden of scrutiny.

         Nero, the emperor during Paul’s ministry, was known for a fearsome capacity for political tyranny and personal self-indulgence. Of the few ancient historians who left details about Nero, all but one record that the emperor himself ordered the Great Fire that destroyed two thirds of Rome in 64CE1; and some of those historians suggest that he did so in order to clear space for building projects that would glorify him. However, Nero quickly blamed the Christians for the fire, and thus began the practice of persecuting people who proclaimed the kingdom of God and professed faith in Jesus rather worshiping the empire and the emperor.

         While Paul’s letter was written before the fire, Roman culture was still characterized by conquest and control, by entrenched violence and callous disregard for human life. To entertain both the powerful and the poor, human beings fought to the death in the Colosseum. For both sport and crime-prevention, criminals were fed to wild beasts who had been intentionally starved. Any culture which thrives on such barbarism, and on things like slavery, public execution, or lynching, oppresses the poor, the powerless, and the suspect. Those cultures treat human bodies like injured livestock.

         So, put yourself in the place of first-century Christians in Rome. How might you react when Paul appeals to you saying, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…to God,” and that doing so constitutes your true “spiritual worship”? That’s kind of like wealthy people saying to parents of starving children, Well, at least your kids aren’t overweight.

         Then Paul begins to clarify himself. “Do not be conformed to this world.” Don’t mistake the temporary securities of military dominance and the temporal pleasures of indulgent wealth for God’s blessings. In the long run, those things do more harm than good. They turn our trust and hope away from God and from God’s very different kind of power and richness. They turn us toward our own comfort and social status, things that must be gained and maintained at the expense of others.

         The Caesars of the world, and those who worship him, cannot have their excess without oppressing others or depriving them of basic human needs. And to accept that disparity is to decide that those other people—their bodies, their minds, and their very humanity—is less significant, less valuable. And if we follow Jesus, we cannot justify valuing one person, nation, or race more than others.

         So, Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Overcoming the temptation to devalue other people for one’s own sake requires a transformation of mind and spirit. And while transformation, as a gift of grace, is something we cannot make happen, we can make room for it. According to both Paul and Jesus, transformation occurs when we let go of our fearful, ego-ridden selves.

         Don’t imagine yourself as better than anyone else, says Paul. With a clear mind, hold the people around you in awe and gratitude. Discern in each other that which is holy and good, that which reflects the presence of God in whose image all human beings are made, and in whom all humankind is one.

         Paul uses the image of a single human body to illustrate the diversity necessary for wholeness in human communities. He reminds his readers that just like ears, eyes, hands, and livers all have their own crucial functions, different people have their own gifts that are necessary to the well-being of families, churches, cities, and nations. Think about it: If Nero did burn two thirds of Rome for personal gain, he illustrates what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.

         While it seems to me that none of us really argue with Paul’s teaching, it also seems to me that in the Rome-like culture of twenty-first century western society, those getting the most attention are those who are tearing the body apart, those who are saying the most spiteful, destructive things about others. Human arrogance, which might be defined as the gluttony of individualistic ears, eyes, hands, and livers, is especially evident during political campaign seasons. And I’m not claiming high ground here. When I’m in a cozy room with like-minded people, and things aren’t going my way, I give in and conform to the world. I lament and condemn just like anyone else. But when I leave that room, shackled by resentment, I can’t discern the will of God. I can’t hear wisdom in the words of scripture. I can’t see the humanity I share with those with whom I so deeply and urgently disagree. I don’t hold them in authentic prayer. I don’t let my transformed mind filter out the toxic anger in and around me so that I feel something of the universal pain and distress underneath it. And that just makes me part of the problem, doesn’t it?

         Now, in no way am I saying that we should be so tolerant that we turn deaf ears and blind eyes, or clinched fists and cold blood toward those actions and attitudes that contribute to injustice and create human suffering. To do that would be to forsake Jesus as well as those who are oppressed. I’m saying that to participate in God’s transforming work in the world, we begin by looking for the God-imaged holiness in one another and in the Creation. We, like Jesus, must recognize, name, and celebrate the gifts of those around us because we are incomplete without allthat God has created, called good, and is, even now, redeeming.

         Now, a significant difficulty surfaces when we realize that while God gives us a generous diversity of gifts as the body of Christ, we are still called to have one voice—the voice which says through word and deed, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Deut. 6:5 and Mk. 12:30)

         Discerning the will of God—something for which we pray every time we utter the Lord’s Prayer—is a life-long process of learning and relearning, of dying to self and rising to Christ. That process asks us to enter and nurture challenging relationships with people who are in dire need and with people whose understandings of the world seem at odds with our own. When, as Paul says, we “think of [ourselves] more highly that [we] ought to think,” we can’t see the humanity and holiness in others. And so, we dismiss not just the poor and the oppressed, but those who exploit them, those who advocate for them, and those who just don’t care and say, Not my fault; not my business.

         Love God with all you have and with all you are, says Jesus. Love everyone around you as you would have them love you. And so that you can do that, he says, take up your cross and follow me.

         Jesus leads us in lives of compassion and understanding, lives in which we will claim our gifts and share them, lives in which we can recognize all the ears, eyes, hands, and livers around us—neighbors without whom we cannot fully live.

         Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you whole.

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

Crumbs Are Enough (Sermon)

“Crumbs Are Enough”

Matthew 15:21-28

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/16/20

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

23But he did not answer her at all.

And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.  (NRSV)

         I don’t have a good answer for the obvious question. While first century Jews did regard Canaanite people with prejudice and contempt, I can neither explain why nor gloss over the fact that Jesus himself refers to a Canaanite woman and her ethnic kin as dogs.

Jesus’ comment is particularly baffling in light of the teaching that comes immediately prior to this encounter. A dispute with some Pharisees over hand-washing before meals led Jesus to rebuke them for paying only lip service to God. When cautioned by his disciples for angering people who had the power to make his life miserable, Jesus says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles. What comes out of the mouth—the words, the attitudes, the bigotry, the meanness—these things corrupt because they reveal the heart. So, what’s in Jesus’ heart when he so rudely dismisses a woman crying out for help?

Over the centuries, Christians of all stripes have sprung into damage-control mode when hearing this text. According to the most common defense, Jesus didn’t really mean what it sounds like he said. He was just testing the woman. He knew how she would respond just like he knew how he would respond. So, while Jesus may appear prejudiced, the whole scene was a carefully-planned teachable moment that Jesus choreographed with spiritually-principled compassion and just a touch of good-natured teasing.

         That line of reasoning asks us to accept that God Incarnate looked at this woman and called her a dog in order to make the point that her faith was strong. And he did it to tell us that if our faith is equally strong, our children will be healthy. Our bank accounts will be full. Our nation will prevail. And everyone will get along at Thanksgiving. Anyone who expects that to be the nature of God and of the Christian faith will likely be disappointed into atheism by suppertime. That Pollyanna god exists only on the Hallmark Channel.

Through two millennia of the Christian faith, far too many disciples have also taken Jesus’ words as tacit justification to judge and disdain those who are poor, or whose ethnicity or gender is deemed inferior, or whose sexuality is deemed dangerous, or whose religion or politics are wrong. And it’s okay to treat “those people” like some neighborhood cur.

If that sounds harsh, just remember the arguments the Church made in defense of things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, race-based segregation, the Holocaust. And think about the arguments the Church continues to make in defense of humankind’s appetite for excessive wealth and our profligate use of irreplaceable resources to develop and maintain enough weaponry to destroy this planet several times over.

         And remember this, too: It’s not just as disciples of Jesus, but as the very Body of Christ himself that the Church has been doggedly mistreating people for two thousand years. But didn’t Jesus focus his ministry on those very people? On those in the deepest need? On those who are oppressed and forgotten?

Yes, the Church does lots of wonderful things, but it sometimes feels like we allow this one brief instance when Jesus acts more like a disciple than a Savior to define us and to define our mission.

         Come on, Preacher! Show us a little mercy! We’re beat down enough as it is. Here we are in the dog days of summer, and from Covid-wrought isolation, to social unrest, to bitter rhetoric in the public square that’s turning us against each other, it’s like…well, it’s like someone we love with all our hearts—someone like our own child—is sick, like she’s tormented by a demon. Where is God in all this? Where is Jesus? Where is our hope, our peace, our purpose? Help us!

         Does anyone feel that way? If so, how might you respond if I said that “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? How would you respond if I said that we don’t matter because Jesus came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and face it, you and I, we’re Gentiles? If I said that, would you keep coming to worship?

         The woman keeps coming. She hounds Jesus for her daughter’s sake. She knows that this Galilean Jew knows, or that he will at least remember, that she matters, her life matters, her daughter’s life matters, Canaanite lives matter.

         The woman and Jesus know that. Jesus’ disciples have to learn it. Having tried to bar the door and keep this “inferior” person away, they are now the ones on the hot seat in this story. And while Jesus’ response is inexplicably slow in coming, he nonetheless says to those who follow him that this woman and her daughter are, utterly and irrevocably, as much children of God as any Pharisee, Sadducee, priest, or ordinary Jewish person back home. Individually and systemically, Canaanites deserve to be seen, heard, welcomed, valued, respected, and protected exactly the same as anyone from Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, or Jerusalem.

         It’s cliché to say, but the Church really is in decline. Maybe one reason is that contemporary disciples are and have been experiencing a dangerous contraction of faith, a regression. It’s like the Church is becoming less and less the Body of the resurrected Christ and more and more like the disciples before the terrifying experience of Friday and the transforming revelation of Sunday. And before Easter, the disciples were a self-centered bunch, weren’t they? They argued about who was first and greatest. They tried to shield Jesus from children and blind men, because they just knew, that eventually, he was going to raise a flag in one hand, a sword in the other, and lead the house of Israel in triumph, once and for all, over every principality and power. And as long as that was the goal, the disciples were never going to get enough.

         Go away, Canaanite woman, they say. There’s not enough of Jesus for us and for you.

         Into the disciples’ fearful bigotry, an outcast, a Canaanite, and a woman at that, broke the door down to say, Brush me off like a crumb if you want to, but crumbs are enough. A crumb from Jesus can restore my daughter.

         When the Church proclaims the resurrection of Jesus and still treats certain people as less-than-worthy, when we withhold the holy gifts of welcome and advocacy from people who are lonely and oppressed, we only prove that we have given up on resurrection. When people live selfishly and fearfully, crumbs are never enough. We will always hoard what we have and grasp for more.

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has been raised from dead! In the presence of the Holy Spirit, he is alive! And his resurrection empowers us for living an entirely new life than the life that even Jesus’ disciples lived while they followed him in person throughout Judea, Galilee, and into the Canaanite neighborhoods of Tyre and Sidon. If the tiniest seed and the smallest measure of yeast are enough to reveal the kingdom of God, then crumbs are all we need, and not just for being disciples, but for living as Jesus’ Body, his hands, and feet, and heart in and for the world.

Jesus sees the agony of the Father and the Son in the agony of a Canaanite mother and her daughter. His own earthly life will end violently because of his radical love for people just like them. And yet he lives and loves, fearlessly, for them, for you, for me, for all of us—because Jesus already sees it. He sees that we are all one. And his hunger, which is satisfied one crumb at a time, is for humankind to live in unity and wholeness. His hunger is for us to see ourselves in the faces, in the sufferings, in the joys, in the potential, in the breathtaking beauty of every human being and of the earth itself.

As we begin to see and to celebrate the oneness in the Creation, crumb by crumb, God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is healing us and making us whole.

Stepping Out of the Boat (Sermon)

“Stepping Out of the Boat”

Matthew 14:22-33

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/9/20

 

 

2Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 

9He said, “Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)

 

         It’s been a demanding few days for Jesus. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. When Jesus tries to find some solitude to grieve and rejuvenate, crowds of sick and lonely people hound him for attention. And always aware of God’s call, Jesus tends to the crowd with compassion and generosity.

         Afterward, Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. Go on, he says. I’ll catch up with you.

         With the disciples on their way, Jesus turns and dismisses the crowd. Then, utterly spent, Jesus trudges up a mountain to pray—alone at last.

         In biblical literature, going “up a mountain” is an image of consciously placing oneself in the presence of holiness. Matthew wants us to imagine Jesus as the second Moses, climbing a mountain to commune directly with God.

         As Jesus prays, his disciples out in the boat are hanging on for dear life in one of the Sea of Galilee’s notorious storms. Also in biblical literature, when someone’s in a boat on a body of water there’s more going on than meets the eye. And a storm on the water recalls the primordial chaos of Genesis. So, while the situation is dangerous, and even dire, it’s also life-giving. When the storm subsides, the world may be brand new, but the voyage to newness is terrifying. For the disciples, the howling wind was bad enough, but when they see a figure they believe to be a ghost walking on the water, they become truly terrified.

         Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. It’s just me.

         When Peter sees Jesus walking across the watery chaos as calmly as he might sit on a mountain top, the disciple—more reckless than truly fearless—says to Jesus, “Command” me to join you on the water!

         “Come,” says Jesus. And stepping out of the boat, Peter’s okay for a moment. Then he looks around at that churning, storm-wrinkled sea. As yet, the impulsive disciple’s faith is no more buoyant than water wings on a cinder block. Peter begins to sink, and Jesus reaches out and returns him to the boat.

         Isn’t that just like Jesus? He offers comfort, peace, and capacities for courageous discipleship; and yet, when Jesus brings his prophetic fullness to bear, we’re more likely to feel as if he has ripped that comfort, peace, and courage away from us.

         I think western Christianity has, in many ways and for many generations, distorted the gospel and misled its people by perpetuating the prosperity gospel’s false claim that true blessing means material wealth and physical comfort. Doesn’t scripture reveal, consistently, that it’s when the waves are up and the chips are down that we grow the most in the ways of faithful, hopeful, loving, and bold discipleship?

         Years ago, Clifton Kirkpatrick, a former stated clerk of the PC(USA), wrote of attending an ecumenical gathering, and among the speakers was a man named Ernest Campbell, the former pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City. In his remarks, Dr. Campbell made this challenging and unforgettable statement: “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”1

         Those words hit me in the chest every time. The chaotic tempests upon which we sail are both external circumstances and internal struggles. Both can rock our boats and terrify us, and in the midst of them, Jesus issues his prophetic commands: Do not be afraid. Come. Get out of the boat. Do something that will require you to use your faith!

         Last month our nation lost Representative John Lewis, a man known as the “Conscience of Congress.” Mr. Lewis’ public service began with stepping out of the boat and onto the chaotic waters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. One thing that gave John Lewis’ activism such credibility was his Christian commitment. He even compared the movement to worship: “On some occasions,” he said, “it was just like being in church [or] at a prayer meeting. We would sing songs, in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, in little churches: ‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do. If the Spirit said sit in, if the Spirit said march…if the Spirit said picket—‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do.’”2

         In particular, Lewis was influenced by Martin Luther King’s emphasis on nonviolence as the most Christlike and effective means of lasting change. In a 2004 interview, Lewis said, “At a very early stage of the movement, I accepted the teaching of Jesus, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

         Lewis was arrested often, and beaten repeatedly—usually by white men who would sit piously in church pews the next Sunday morning. In Selma, AL, Lewis was, literally, beaten nearly to death. During all of it, he kept his focus. He kept his eyes on Jesus. When asked how he managed to do that, how he managed not to drown in the depths of despair and vengeance, John Lewis said, “hate is too heavy a burden to bear. I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve seen too much hate, seen too much violence. And I know love is a better way.”

         Looking back, though, Lewis did wonder how the nonviolent marchers managed to keep their heads above water in the face of such intentionally vicious cruelty and against such odds. “How did we do what we did?” he wondered. “How did we succeed? We didn’t have a Web site. We didn’t have a cellular telephone. But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.”

         Peter would have to step out in faith and begin to sink more than once before he would consistently act in ways that required him to depend on his faith. Eventually he did, though. Eventually he was not just a rock at the bottom of the lake, but the Rock on which Jesus built his church.

         To step out of the boat is to follow Jesus. It’s to entrust our lives to God Almighty who is always with us. To step out of the boat is to add our voices to God’s response to cries for welcome, justice, and true peace for all whom God loves.

         Clinging our boats may feel safer than following Jesus. Our fears may feel like more trustworthy guides than God’s Spirit. Nonetheless, Jesus continues to call us.

         What is Jesus asking us to do­—each of us and all of us together—that requiresus to use our faith?

 

1Clifton Kirkpatrick, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 334, 336.

2This and all subsequent references to John Lewis come from: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/01/16/january-16-2004-john-lewis/1791/