Compassionate Repentance (Sermon)

“Compassionate Repentance”

Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/22/23

Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations. 

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor. 
(Isaiah 9:1-4 – CEB)

12 Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
        alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
        and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. 

17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:12-23 — CEB)

         One reason I wear this robe is that science and math humbled me. Mercilessly. I do, however, remember one thing my high school physics teacher said. She said that there’s no such thing as cold, only a lack of heat.

Driven by physical interactions on a molecular level, heat moves toward places that lack warmth. And that motion from warm toward not-as-warm is constant.

         In a similar way, under the influence of gravity, a liquid of any kind always flows toward its lowest point—thus the saying that water always seeks its level.

         These things remind me of another adage: Nature abhors a vacuum.

         The reason that someone who prefers Scrabble over Sudoku is pondering such things from a pulpit is that today’s passage opens with the announcement of a vacuum and an immediate response to it.

John the Baptist has been arrested. His prophetic voice has been removed from the public square, so, the story of God’s presence and intention in the world encounters a kind of vacuum—a silence. When Jesus hears about John’s arrest, he springs into action. Like heat toward lack of heat, he radiates himself into the void for the sake of love, that is to say, for the sake of justice, compassion, dignity, and peace.

         In quoting Isaiah 9, Matthew suggests that Jesus’ arrival on the scene fills a vacuum in a manner that is completely natural and purposed. “The people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.” Like heat, light is always trying to seep into places of darkness.

And it makes sense. Jesus spends most of his time and energy seeking relationship with people who are out of relationship—lepers, disabled people, strangers, tax collectors, and all manner of people the gospels label as “sinners.”

Even those whom Jesus pulls in as disciples are prone to exclusion and violence. Remember, Judas Iscariot is a kind of right-wing extremist who betrays Jesus when it’s clear that he’s not going to muster an army and try to overthrow the Roman government. A few hours later, Peter tries to start that messianic war in the Garden of Gethsemane by attacking the high priest’s servant.

Jesus confounds so many people because, instead of avoiding the places where people wander in sin, illness, and hopelessness, he inhabits them. He brings healing, wholeness, and strength where it has been lacking. So, wherever peace is offered into unrest, wherever reconciliation is taken into brokenness, wherever joy spills into grief and despair—there God’s realm of grace is filling a vacuum.

Isn’t that Jesus’ point when he announces the coming of the “kingdom of God”? In the Christ, the fire of the Spirit is moving toward iced-over hearts. In him, living water is seeking its level among us. In Jesus, The Light of the World is shining into the darkness.

It seems to me that Matthew wants us to recognize all of this vacuum-filling grace in the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. And seems is the best we’ve got. Matthew doesn’t explain Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything and following Jesus. We can only assume things like the pull of Jesus’ charisma, or maybe the young men’s boredom with the family business and their thirst for adventure. We can also imagine, but cannot know, that the fishermen had heard and been baptized by John. And if so, maybe John had created a vacuum in the fishermen, a vacuum in the form of a hunger for God’s radical grace.

Could that be it? Could preparation for receiving and sharing the Christ involve, as much as anything else, a gracious exposure of emptiness within us? Could it be that when we feel an acute, spiritual vacuum, we are being prepared to receive a deeper awareness of God’s presence and love?

Over the millennia, the church has dealt with that place of disorientation by focusing almost exclusively on individual sin. We’ve been taught that the emptiness we feel results from our being “bad.” And if we understand repentance as nothing more than naming and regretting all that bad stuff, then, when John the Baptist and Jesus urge us toward repentance, we’ll likely see ourselves as Jonathan Edwards described humankind: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

But is shame, guilt, and fearful regret all there is to repentance?

Well, we all participate in unfaithfulness. And our unfaithfulness can do all sorts of damage to ourselves, to others, and to the planet. I also think that repentance involves more than just confession, more, even, than setting ourselves on paths of greater faithfulness. I think repentance involves taking a long and deeply compassionate look at ourselves. As we consider the things we do and don’t do that distance us from God, neighbor, and the earth, we begin to see within us places of spiritual receptivity that our unfaithfulness has clogged up.

Where we judge or persecute people different from us, we have congested that part of us through which we encounter the creative wholeness of God. And that’s scary because in it we recognize that God is bigger than our own nationality, race, or religious tradition.

Where we are susceptible to lust, we are avoiding a deep desire for intimacy with God. And that’s scary because in that place we realize that God already knows us through and through, warts and all.

Where we abide violence and crave domination, we have cluttered with weapons and greed that holy place where we depend on God alone. And that’s scary because in that place we have to learn to trust what we cannot see.

So yes, one way to understand the first disciples’ drop-everything willingness to follow Jesus is to imagine that they had heard and understood John the Baptist calling them to what I will call compassionate repentance.

Compassionate repentance is not about heaping guilt on ourselves or others. It’s not about appeasing an “angry God.” It’s about making room. It’s about clearing the dock so that we can continue becoming God-imaged, grace-driven human beings.

Compassionate repentance has the potential to prepare in us the way of the Lord because it’s about exposing in ourselves a built-in spiritual vacuum that God alone can fill. And God fills it with a holy call, and with holy belonging. And maybe that holiness is, as it seemed to be for Simon, Andrew, James, and John, something our hearts and minds embrace the moment it appears.

As a way of life, compassionate repentance prepares the way for holy warmth, living water, and guiding light by prompting us to ask ourselves, continually:

Does this new possibility deepen my awareness of love and my capacity to love?

Will this opportunity further the cause of justice on behalf of those suffering beneath prejudice, poverty, or grief?

Will it ask everything of me while also creating new space for the Beloved within me?

When we learn to ask questions like this, we are being prepared to respond to Christ’s presence, and to follow him.

And even now, in this moment, he is calling us.

Living ‘As Though’ (Sermon)

Living ‘As Though’

Psalm 130 and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/15/23

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31 — NRSV)


Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities. 
(Psalm 130 – NRSV)

Whether persecuting Christians or being persecuted as a Christian, Paul lives with unmistakable passion for his convictions. In spite of all that he seems to get “right,” though, the apostle also lives in the grip of some mistaken convictions.

         From the Christian perspective, Paul is initially mistaken in his denial of Jesus as the Christ. Because of that mistake, he commits the more wide-ranging mistake of trying to terrorize Christians into recanting their faith.

After his Damascus Road experience, Paul focuses his energies on preaching Jesus. And one initial premise of his preaching is the mistaken notion that Jesus will return—immediately and literally—to lead God’s people into a messianic reign on earth.

A theocracy doesn’t appear to be God’s intention, though. And when Jesus doesn’t return exactly as Paul expects, one can imagine him, like Jonah, crying out at God for letting him down. Paul, however, sows the seeds of his own peace in his first letter to the church at Corinth.

         The embattled congregation faces deep disorientation. As groups in the church begin to identify with and to revolve around particular individuals and ideologies, the community fragments.

“It has been reported to me,” says Paul in Chapter 1, “that there are quarrels among you…that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos, or…to Cephas, or…to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks. His point is that if the community is to survive, it must revolve around the indivisible Jesus, not someone else. And it must revolve around divine love, reconciling love, not anything else.

         In Chapter 7, Paul assures the Corinthians that even when it looks like God’s promises are unraveling, God is faithful. No matter what happens, he says, God, in Christ, is with us.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians in the year 1 hold relevance for us in the year 2023. The gospel is always challenging us to evolve ever more deeply in our understanding of who God is and who we are as creatures made in God’s image. I hear Paul calling us to live in our here-and-now moment as though God’s kingdom has arrived in its fullness.

While Paul’s teaching may sound like an invitation to self-deception, living in the As Though of faith is not an act of make-believe or denial. Living As Thoughmeans engaging the timeless, creative, initiative-taking Purpose and Process who, billions of years ago, ignited a seething chaos into the magnificent Creation we live in and marvel at today.

Living in the As Though of the realm of God means inhabiting our present reality with an eye toward and a heart for the eternal Reality that gives every moment its meaning. Living in God’s As Though transforms marriage, mourning, rejoicing, owning, and even politics into platforms for experiencing and sharing God’s presence in and grace for the Creation. For in the As Though of God’s realm, all is being redeemed and renewed. The tricky thing about all of this is that we constantly move in and out of various As Thoughs.

Worldly As Thoughs tempt us to live as if human existence were defined by scarcity. When I give into that temptation, I treat almost everyone as a competitor to defeat—economically, politically, militarily. I treat strangers with suspicion. I fear people whose skin, language, or religion are different from mine.

In the As Though of scarcity, I don’t just resign myself to war, I make it a holy endeavor. I twist the greed, fear, and nationalism that cause war into spiritual gifts. And I teach the generations behind me that their highest calling lies in a willingness to kill and be killed.

The As Though of scarcity also regards the physical creation as fundamentally corrupt, so I treat the earth and human bodies as if they were resources to be exploited rather than sacred gifts to be treasured, cared for, and shared.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And the Civil Rights Movement he helped lead stood against the scarcity-bred and violently racist As Thoughs of people like George Wallace and Bull Connor. Today those As Thoughs have been taken up by people like David Duke, Richard Spencer, and Nick Fuentes—all of whom are, themselves, creatures made in the image of God. And I pray that they, like George Wallace, come to understand the harm they do to themselves as well as to those whom they fear and hate. I pray that they, too, become part of the solution. For the As Though of scarcity continues to motor on. And in that As Though, a person whose skin is not white might be killed, but seldom murdered—because they’re less than human. That’s why George Floyd’s death sometimes gets described as merely “unfortunate.”

Dr. King and others like him live in the As Though of Jesus, the As Though of equality, equity, and justice—the As Though of “original blessing” rather than “original sin.” Within the As Though of Jesus, his followers not only advocate for justice, peace, and loving stewardship of all Creation, they discover an almost inhuman strength to forgive those who persecute them.

I’ve said this to you before, but it bears repeating. Desmond Tutu once said to his fellow black South Africans, “Be nice to the whites; they need you to rediscover their humanity.” It’s no accident that Tutu’s words sound a lot like Jesus saying, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a)

The As Though of God’s realm is arriving in Jesus. So, says Paul, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Are we literally to stop marrying, mourning, rejoicing, purchasing what we need, and engaging the world around us? To quote another Pauline phrase: “By no means!” I do think, though, that it’s all-too-easy to mistake physical pleasure, material comfort, and worldly power as signs of God’s favor. So, Paul is challenging us to take seriously that the “present form of this world” is manifest in scarcity-driven fear and selfishness. And living in that worldview distracts us from the new form of the realm of God, which is emerging in Christ.

Laying “the present form” down takes all the spiritual discipline we can muster. As the lives of Jesus, Dr. King, and other people committed to God’s justice have demonstrated, living in the As Though of God’s realm is counter-cultural. It’s not the easiest and safest existence, but living in the As Though of love is exactly what Jesus means by “salvation.” It’s what Paul means when he says, “the appointed time has grown short;” from now on, then, we live differently. We let go of the “present form” and live according to the law of love.

Letting go is not the same as giving up. Spiritual letting go is the psalmist’s proactive “waiting on the Lord” with whom there is “steadfast love, and…great power to redeem.”

Holy letting go means, in the seething chaos of our own moment, inhabiting God’s realm of shalom, which as we just proclaimed during the Christmas season, is here. And now. Today.

Here We Go (Newsletter Article)

         Last summer, during a family vacation to the GA coast, I took a picture of my grandson, Porter. (Well, okay, I took lots of pictures of Porter.) But there’s one that always catches my eye. (Well, okay, they all catch my eye.)

         So, anyway, there’s this photo I took of Porter last summer at Tybee Island. Marianne has just strapped him into one of those two-wheeled, sulky cart gizmos that attach to the rear of bicycles so big people can tow little people around behind them. The cart is high-viz yellow with dark blue straps. It is shaped kind of like the metal container that canned hams come in. It has a mesh covering to keep really big bugs and perhaps the stray bird from flying into a child’s face. The mesh is no deterrent against mosquitoes and sand gnats, though. Fair enough. Porter always wants to see, and, more importantly that day, he needs the breeze in that heavy, hundred-degree GA heat.

         Porter is sitting in the cart in a dark blue t-shirt. His thin hair, the color of wet sand, has grown long. Wisps of it droop and sag in some places, while adventuresome spikes of it fly out at random in others. “Bed head.” Also fair enough. We’re on vacation. From behind the mesh, Porter’s dark eyes, the color of which we still can’t really determine, look straight at the camera. He shows no emotion. No excitement or fear. It’s one of those looks where he could also be looking at something beyond the camera, beyond me.

It may not be the “best” picture I’ve ever taken, but the image I captured has certainly captured me—Porter’s little face staring through the mesh with that inscrutable expression.

         Maybe that photo speaks to me because I often find myself feeling like Porter’s countenance looks to me. Especially as we begin a new year. Here I am, strapped in with only the most gossamer of protections. I’m being towed in a cart behind a contraption that someone else is operating. Can I really trust the one with their feet on the pedals and their hands on the handlebars? What could happen? What should I expect? I probably need a helmet.

         God is always on the move, and so are God’s people. In the book the Monday night group is reading now, Brian McLaren describes the Christian faith as “migratory faith.” Because we follow God, we, too, are always on the move. Our lives and our journeys are always beginning and becoming. We’re always following Jesus who is probably less like that solid rock in the middle of the river than he is like the river itself, which is always flowing toward that great gathering called the ocean.

         When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he’s saying more than just come in the direction I’m going. He’s saying, Trust me. I will lead you to a life of continual becoming. Yes, that means that you will experience relentless change, but everything that exists is changing. So, trust me. Journey with me.

         Very often, that kind of trust begins with what I’ll call a here-we-go look—that same look that I think Porter has in that photograph. It’s a look that anyone who has ever helped to lead a community of people knows all too well. Abram has to have that look when he sets off toward Ur. Moses has to have that look when he confronts Pharaoh, and then, later, when he leads the Hebrews away from Egypt and sets off toward God only knows what. I even see that look on Jesus’ face when, at the wedding in Cana, his mom tells the servants at a wineless wedding, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Here-we-go. It’s how every journey begins. It’s how every new year begins. It’s even how things end, because every end is itself a new beginning. Beginnings and endings can be daunting, even fearsome things. And trust is how people of faith get started. To me, one of the most instructive passages for us is the first nine words of Genesis 12:4, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” That’s trust.

It’s a new year—a new era, even. 

Strap in. Don’t worry about your hair.

Here we go…

                  Peace,

                           Pastor Allen

Service: Our Prophetic Call (Sermon)

“Service: Our Prophetic Call”

Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 3:13-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

1/7/23  

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken
    until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.
 (Isaiah 42:1-4 – CEB)

13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. 17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” (Matthew 3:13-17 — CEB)

         Through Isaiah, God says, “Here is my servant, the one I uphold, my chosen, who brings me delight.”

         In Matthew, the voice from the heavens says, “This is my Son whom I dearly love, I find happiness in him.”

         Again, from Isaiah: “I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.”

         And again, from Matthew: “Heaven was open to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.”

         One defining feature of Matthew’s gospel is that the writer takes great care to connect the advent, birth, baptism, life, and ministry of Jesus to Israel’s prophetic tradition. Matthew wants his readers to understand—Jesus of Nazareth is the “one who is to come,” and no, they need not “wait for another.”

Those two phrases come from later in Matthew when John is stuck in prison and starting, one imagines, to feel abandoned and hopeless. So, he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask the specific question: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Instead of answering yes or no, Jesus says, “Go tell John what you hear and see.” Then he quotes Isaiah 35: The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. And the poor receive good news.

Ancient prophecy, the gift of baptism, and God’s call upon our lives are all part of one, unified movement of grace. They can’t be separated. Nor are they to be withheld from anyone—period.

God’s sending of Jesus recapitulates God’s presence in and love for all humankind and all Creation. The point of Jesus’ baptism, then, is to demonstrate God’s delight in and purposes for us as well as for Jesus.

No, we’re not Jesus. As human beings, however, we are imbued with the image of eternal and universal Christ, in whom and through whom all things exist. (John 1:3a) And learning to recognize, trust, and cooperate with the Christ in ourselves is intimately and inextricably tied to learning to recognize, trust, and cooperate with the presence of the Christ in our neighbors and in the Creation. That’s why our faith tradition is, fundamentally, a community-oriented tradition. We’re more complete, and we’re better when we, in all of our God-given diversity, worship and serve together. That’s why Jesus himself assembles twelve disciples to follow him and work with him. Now, given the way the disciples always need correcting, forgiving, and long-suffering patience, it would seem much simpler for Jesus to go it alone, wouldn’t it? Nonetheless, with prayerful intent, Jesus chooses companions with whom to serve.

One might argue that, in some ways, when Jesus gathers a community of disciples, he limits himself. But think about it: What’s harder to argue is that in gathering a community of disciples, with all their foibles and neediness, Jesus demonstrates that even the likes of us have far more capacity for embodying Christ than we would otherwise give ourselves credit for. Through Christ, we can love as we are loved.

Today, we ordain and install a new class of officers. For the next three years, and for the sake of all of us, they are committing their time, their energy, their gifts, their love, their capacity to embody the Christ. And as we do this, we remember and reaffirm baptism in general and our baptisms in particular. And in that, we reaffirm our proclamation that we, too, are chosen, gifted, and loved by God. We claim that God delights in us and calls us to follow Jesus in his prophetic ways of reconciliation, peace, and society-transforming justice.

I thank God for all who are serving, who have served, and who, in the future, will serve as elders of Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. Your commitment to God, and your love of the people of this congregation reflect God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. And your willingness to serve demonstrates your trust in Jesus, the Christ, the one who has come. The one who is here. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, you see, all of that has come and gone. Our wait is over.

Now we receive our prophetic call: As God’s beloved community, we, together, follow and serve God’s incarnate, Creation-restoring Christ.

*Very short sermon because of several other things going on during this particular worship service. To those who didn’t get their full nap, I apologize. 😉

Incarnation (Christmas Day Meditation)

“Incarnation”

John 1:1-5, 10-14

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Day – 2022

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him.11 He came to what was his own,[a]and his own people did not accept him.12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[b]full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 10-14 – NRSV)

         Over many of the last twenty-six years in ministry, I’ve often said that Christmas has no lasting meaning apart from Easter. Easter, I said, holds the more sacred space.

In recent years, though, I’ve begun to see Easter as a lens through which Christmas comes into focus. More specifically, perhaps, Resurrection is a lens through which Incarnation comes into focus. As a kind of prism, Resurrection bends the bright light of Incarnation into all of its stunning beauty, diversity, and possibility.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him…what has come into being in [the Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

         Recognizing far more than mere doctrine in the fourth gospel, ancient Celtic Christians drew heavily from the witness of John. Through his telling of the story of the Christ, they felt an invitation into the living and transforming presence of God—a presence that is continually welling up from what Richard Rohr calls “an already Christ-soaked world.”1 So, while scripture is certainly integral to Celtic spirituality, the Celts experienced organic relationship with God through interaction with self, neighbor, and the earth.

How freeing and empowering. Indeed, how resurrecting to encounter Incarnation in ways so much more concrete than in abstract theological arguments. And how artful, inspiring, and appropriate for Christians to embrace the birth of a specific child, Jesus of Nazareth, as God’s unique self-disclosure.

         Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh. It’s about the material quickening of light into life. We use so many metaphors that we forget we’re using them. In the confusion, we can become rigid when speaking of God. And when our words become inflexible and absolute, they’re no longer faithful to God’s Word.

There’s an irony to remember in all of this. While Incarnation is earthy and corporeal, like childbirth, understanding it depends on suggestion, imagination, and reflection. Incarnation is often most faithfully celebrated through story, poetry, and song. That’s why we read, again and again, Luke’s birth narrative with its shepherds and their gamey armpits and crude jokes, with its drafty stable where unimpressed farm animals chew on moldy hay next to a young woman groaning and sweating her way through labor. That’s why we, along with “heaven and nature,” sing—and listen to—so much music at this time of year. That’s also why we celebrated the mystery of Holy Communion last night.

And this is a gracious irony: All of our words fail to convey the fullness of the Word. And the Word always stands the best chance of being heard when articulated incarnationally—through our physical presence with and for one another and the Creation. Very often, even silence expresses the Word better than words.

         Still, words are gifts, too. The poet Mary Oliver had a unique gift for experiencing the Incarnate Word in the world and for sharing the holiness she saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted through lovingly chosen, carefully crafted, and sparingly used words. This morning, I share with you one of her poems. It’s entitled simply “Poem.” I take that as the artist’s nod toward the humbling reality that her words cannot adequately express the fullness, the gratitude, and the hope she feels when experiencing the Incarnate Word in the creation.

On this Christmas Day, may you hear, see, and feel the Word in Mary Oliver’s words. And may you sense that ancient and ongoing Word being incarnated in you. For all of us, like the Christ himself, bear in our lives the light, the love, the very image of God.

Poem

by Mary Oliver

The spirit
  likes to dress up like this:
    ten fingers, 
        ten toes,


shoulders, and all the rest
  at night
    in the black branches,
        in the morning

in the blue branches
  of the world.
    It could float, of course,
        but would rather

plumb rough matter.
  Airy and shapeless thing,
    it needs 
        the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite,
  the oceanic fluids;
    it needs the body’s world,
        instinct

and imagination
  and the dark hug of time,
    sweetness
        and tangibility,

to be understood,
  to be more than pure light
    that burns
        where no one is –

so it enters us –
  in the morning
    shines from brute comfort
        like a stitch of lightning;

and at night
  lights up the deep and wondrous
    drownings of the body
        like a star.

1https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-second-incarnation-flows-from-the-first-2022-12-19/

The Gift of Shepherding (Christmas Eve Meditation)

“The Gift of Shepherding”

Luke 2:1-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve – 2022

         If you haven’t guessed, shepherds figure significantly into the theme this Christmas Eve. And it’s not so much shepherds as shepherding—the act of watching and tending. On a concrete level, shepherding is an essential business practice. Without a shepherding presence, a flock of sheep is nothing but a moveable feast for predators.

When the work of shepherding becomes a metaphor for human relationships and for our relationship with God, plots thicken. Bonds deepen. Stakes rise. When we elevate shepherding to a metaphor for human and divine interactions, then mutual love, trust, and that deeply sacramental act of forgiveness are added to the basic shepherding tasks of watching and tending.

The first chapter of Luke and the first seven verses of Luke 2 are all about setting the stage for Jesus’ birth and his ministry of radical justice in a culture of violence where women, children, the poor, the stranger, and the sick are exploited for the benefit of those who hold wealth and power. That’s the point of Mary’s Magnificatin Luke 1: “[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones…lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:52-53 CEB)

Following all that remarkable prophecy, Luke presents the birth of Jesus as a rather unremarkable event. Jesus, the Christ, is born in a barn in the afterthought town of Bethlehem. He’s born there because Caesar has ordered a census, and because of that census, people are traveling to their hometowns. And maybe it’s more like they’re being scattered to their hometowns, like their ancestors were scattered by Babylonian conquerors. Joseph, Mary, and everyone else are like sheep being herded from place to place for the benefit of the person who, effectively, owns them. And Caesar’s shepherds are heavily armed soldiers who brandish their swords and spears not to protect the sheep, but to coerce them to comply with the emperor’s demands.

The context of Jesus’ birth creates a stark contrast between the shepherds of imperial domination and the ordinary shepherds who tend flocks of sheep. These shepherds are not warriors. They’re not men of wealth and influence. As ones who live close to the earth, they know how to read the skies—the clouds and colors of the day and the stars of night. They know how to read the behavior of flocks who often sense a predator before the shepherds can see it.

As shepherds, they’re probably a grimy and bawdy lot, but as people who pay close attention to the Creation, they have a capacity to recognize and to embrace signs and wonders—gifts to which Caesar’s soldiers and political puppets are blind or indifferent; or else they’re threatened by them, so they kill them.

The birth of Jesus illustrates God’s grassroots tactics in the world. God’s most table-turning signs and wonders happen through the most unlikely people. And through them—the lowly and vulnerable—true blessedness enters the world. As Jesus himself says, It is through the poor, the hungry, the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, even the persecuted that God most often reveals God’s transforming love, justice, and peace.

It is to the shepherds among us and the shepherds within us that we turn to experience God’s announcement of the ongoing birth of the Christ, the one through whom God makes all things, and in whom all things are united and made whole.

What about you watches most carefully the Creation around you?

What loving energy within you tends to the neighbors, the children, the homeless, the sick, the forests, the rivers and oceans, the skies?

It is through the simplest and most organic things of this world that God embeds the humble wonders that reveal the nativity of the Christ. And it’s with gracious purpose that God shepherds humankind toward the realm of peace.

I close with a song that I wrote four years ago. It celebrates the shepherds as ones who, through their willing connection with the earth are the first to encounter the good news of Jesus’ arrival.

Go Now to Bethlehem

Allen Huff

©2018

Six of us got hired that night and sent into the field

To guard the rich man’s sheep from predators and thieves.

Our lives belonged to other men, just like the sheep we kept.

Day to day and hand to mouth, we grazed from debt to debt.

So we took turns standing watch, then warmed up by the fire.

And grumbling through those heavy hours, we made a bitter choir.

Chorus:

But that would be the night when everything did change.

The darkness opened up and sang a bright refrain.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Go now to Bethlehem, and behold.

Go to Bethlehem, and be made whole.

We pondered for a long, long while, deciding, “Do we go,

And leave the rich man’s sheep right here, or take them all in tow?”

At last we rounded up the flock, and led them through the night,

They needed still a shepherd to keep them in his sight.

Looking for a manger meant looking for a barn.

Behind an inn we found him, warm and safe – for now – from harm.

Repeat Chorus:

Bridge:

We were men who knew the land, who knew how deep the frost.

We read the skies, the wind, the flocks. We knew how to find the lost.

And in that child we recognized the holiness at hand.

We saw, we heard, we felt, we knew God’s heart beating in a man.

Final Chorus:

Yes, that would be the night when everything did change.

The darkness opened up and sang a bright refrain.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Glory in the highest.

Go now to Bethlehem, and behold.

Go to Bethlehem, and be made whole.

It’s About Time (Sermon)

“It’s About Time”

Psalm 146:5-10 and Romans 13:8-14

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Third Sunday of Advent

12/11/22

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 146:5-10 — NRSV)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is already the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone; the day is near. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us walk decently as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in illicit sex and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:8-14 — NRSV)

         In my limited travels around the globe, one thing I’ve learned is that when First-Worlders pack our bags, we tend to stuff our neuroses in with our underwear, toiletries, and anything else we try to keep hidden, but without which we feel lost. When traveling to less-developed nations, one neurosis that creates lots of headache is our addiction to the clock. And I’m not judging. I’ve never met anyone as enslaved to punctuality as me. If I’m supposed to be at someone’s house at 2:00pm, and I’m running late, I’ll risk a speeding ticket to get there on time. If I’m early, I’ll ride two or three miles down the road and back so I don’t knock on the door at, God forbid, 1:57!

         Time is much more fluid in cultures that thrive on relationships rather than business deals. In Mexico, I learned that telling folks that something begins at 7pm is like us telling a friend, “We should get together next spring.” The target is wide. And when everyone arrives, whenever that may be, that’s when the game, or the meeting, or the celebration begins.

         The ancient Greeks held two understandings of time. First, they recognized chronos­, time as determined by the position of the shadow on the sun dial, or the earth in its seasons.

There’s another kind of time, though. In Romans 13, Paul writes, “You know what time it is; how it is already the moment for you to wake from sleep.” The word Paul uses is not chronos but kairos. And kairos refers to a quality of time—a fullness of time, a readiness. That’s what makes Paul’s image of awakening appropriate. As with the threshold between night and day, there’s a continual confluence of past, present, and future. One familiar theological reference to that mystic realm is “the communion of saints.” And as we awaken to kairos, we begin to encounter that communion. The sacraments of the church, and in particular, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, are designed as tangible expressions and experiences of kairoscommunion.

Advent calls us to live in a state of kairos, a state of perpetual awakening to God and God’s realm. Advent prepares us for the timeliness of God taking on flesh and blood, a particular face and personality. And according to Paul, to love is how we prepare. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” he says, “therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

         Perhaps knowing that many of his readers will need something more concrete than “love your neighbor,” Paul says to “live honorably as in the day.” He clarifies that by contrasting day-time honor to night-time dishonor—the common thread among dishonorable things being a short-sighted and selfish disregard for ourselves, our neighbors, and for the wider Creation. And that’s something we do “in the dark,” that is, some injustice we try either to hide, deny, or attempt to justify as good.

         Paul mentions, for instance, drunkenness. And while that can certainly mean just what it sounds like, I think Paul is referring to more than simply drinking too much alcohol. I think he means willfully losing self-control and defiantly labeling it “autonomy.” I do what I want, when I want, because I want, and if you don’t like it, leave.

Advent reminds us that we live in an in-between time. We have one foot in chronos and the other in kairos. When we don’t cherish and care for the unique and immediate chronos realities of who we are in our own physical bodies, how can we cherish and care for the people next to us, or for the earth? Falling short in the call to love, we tend to exploit our bodies and those of others. We’ll use some for superficial pleasures, and others we’ll annihilate for political control. That’s the true nature of “drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness.”

So, kairos may be our eternal home, but we cannot ignore the realities of chronos. And right now, people everywhere are suffering the effects of rampant “drunkenness” because, as often as not, dignity and integrity are taking back seat to whatever means will achieve a desired end. Indeed, our own culture often seems to be knee-crawling drunk on violence, on resentment, on blame, on un-forgiveness.

One year during Advent, Marianne and I were traveling on the interstate when we pulled into a rest stop. As we walked into the restrooms, Travis Tritt was on the radio belting out the final chorus of his big 1991 hit: “Call someone who’ll listen and might give a damn/Maybe one of your sordid affairs/But don’t you come ‘round here handin’ me none of your lies/Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares/Yeah, here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.”

The very next song to play on that station was another major hit. And this 1818 hit song ended with this verse: “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.”

What about the juxtaposition of those two songs?

Through God’s incarnation in Jesus, God reveals to us that the Creation is not, as the Greeks thought, some profane purgatory where souls are incarcerated in bodies and have to prove their worth before moving on to higher and holier things. For all of its chronic brokenness, the Creation does more than bear witness to God. It offers a tangible expression of God’s own generous, redeeming Self. The Creation, humankind included, is an ongoing invitation to an organic experience of the Creator. So, the Incarnation is God’s spiritual act of physically kneading kairos into chronos. And that act affirms the fundamental goodness and the eternal holiness of all that God, in love, has made.

While we walk this earth, our purpose is to wake up to “the dawn of redeeming grace,” and to become “someone who cares.” That’s our purpose because that’s how we enter the communion of saints. That’s how we experience union with God.

We need each other for kairos living. None of us can do it alone. Indeed, Paul says that we “owe” it to one another and to all Creation to gather in communities of compassion to do the hard work of living deliberately and visibly as incarnate signs of God’s love, justice, and peace.

During Advent, it is time, through repentance, to wake up from whatever “drunkenness” we’ve been wallowing in, and to renew our commitment to embodying God’s community of grace.

Remembering Advent (December Newsletter)

Dear Friends,

         Below is the third and final verse of a hymn entitled “‘Sleepers Awake!’ A Voice Astounds Us.”

Lamb of God, the heavens adore you;
let saints and angels sing before you,
as harps and cymbals swell the sound.
Twelve great pearls, the city’s portals:
through them we stream to join the immortals
as we with joy your throne surround.

No eye has known the sight,

no ear heard such delight: Alleluia!

Therefore we sing to greet our King;

for ever let our praises ring.

         “Sleepers Awake!” is #17 in the blue Presbyterian Hymnal. In the office copy of the hymnal, we track how often particular hymns are used in worship. There is no date next to #17. So, at least at JPC, it may be true that “no eye has known the sight, no ear heard such delight” as one might discover in that hymn.

There aren’t many Advent songs in our hymnal, and we use only a precious few of those available. And if we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” one Sunday, then make a bee-line for “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Joy to the World!”, we miss crucial elements of the story.

         One of the struggles during Advent is actually observing Advent. Many American Christians jump into Christmas by the time darkness falls on Thanksgiving Day and they’re loading leftover turkey onto white bread with mustard and mayo. That’s why we see all those Frazier firs wrapped in huge hairnets and strapped to the tops of cars the next day. Christmas without Advent, though, is kind of like playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a kazoo. You might recognize the melodic Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee theme, but it’s not a symphony of four movements in all its complexity, subtlety, and majesty. Performing and listening to such a masterpiece requires some understanding and practice, that is to say, preparation.

         To experience the true wonder of Christmas—not the doe-eyed Santa brought me stuff wonder, but the transforming, then we will see face-to-face wonder—we prepare ourselves, because it’s not Christmas morning we’re preparing for. We’re preparing for a life of encounter with the God who enters human existence in all its suffering, sadness, and futility as well as its holiness, joy, and hope. Advent immerses us in the wider and deeper story so that we acknowledge Christmas as more than “Jesus’ birthday.” Advent reminds us that Jesus is more than a memorable melody. He’s the theme, the thread that holds together God’s great opus of Creation. And Christmas, the celebration of the ongoing Incarnation, is a defining movement in the masterpiece.

         “No eye has known the sight, no ear heard such delight,” declares the hymn. I know the language, but not the tune. What might that new thing reveal, though? How might it help us to prepare to come face-to-face with God whose presence is both incarnate and mysterious, immediate and timeless?

How might we prepare ourselves to be moved beyond the momentary happiness of Merry Christmas! to the eternal surprise of the all-in love of God embodied in the joys and sufferings of a human being named Jesus of Nazareth?

                                             Peace,

                                                      Allen

Remove the Fuel (Sermon)

“Remove the Fuel”

Isaiah 11:1-12 and Matthew 3:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/4/22

Second Sunday of Advent

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” (Matthew 3:1-12  — CEB)

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout[
a] from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[
b] with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[
c]together,
    and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
    just as the water covers the sea.
 (Isaiah 11”1-9 — CEB)

         The last thing I want to be as a preacher is a purveyor of hellfire and brimstone. I think that brand of theology is manipulative, violent, and, ultimately, unfaithful to the gospel. So, when John the Baptist ignites the early chapters of the synoptic gospels with images of fire, I wince a little. 

Over the centuries, many preachers seem to have taken their homiletical and pastoral cues from John’s firestorm more than from Jesus’ outpouring of Living Water. But aren’t the two supposed to work together?

While Jesus calls us to wade courageously into the darkness where the poor and forgotten cry for help, John lights the fire by which we perceive the problems within ourselves. And these interior problems are usually the very source of the communal problems over which Jesus pours himself out. So, together, Jesus and John call us to be both an eternal flame that reveals God’s creative presence in and for the world, and a well-spring through which God’s life-giving and justice-doing water flows.

Having said that, the image of fire often seems to dominate. Under the influences of wealth and power since the days of Constantine, the Church has built perimeter fires of self-preservation that shed more in the way of raging heat than guiding light. Inside this self-made hell, we’ve done far more to condemn “broods of vipers” than to love our neighbor, and more to pronounce judgment on chaff than to welcome the stranger. Much of the Church’s own fruit has been preaching and practices that aim to terrify people into a scorched conformity rather than to invite one another to gather at Christ’s table of healing and community-creating gratitude.

         Let’s be grateful, then, for Advent, a preparatory season that helps to remind us that fire can do more than destroy. Fire can purify—as one might sterilze a needle before digging a splinter out of a finger. Fire can refine—as gold is refined to remove baser metals and stone. Fire can heal, too. It can take years to experience the full effect, but in some ecosystems, forest fires tend to hit a kind of reset button. And isn’t that what repentance is all about? Resetting hearts overgrown with deadfall and invasive species?

         In her book Wild Card Quilt: The Ecology of Home, Georgia environmentalist Jannise Ray writes that the entire “intricate and intriguing ecosystem [of longleaf pine forests] is…bound to fire…Periodic wildfires thwart the encroachment of hardwoods such as oak and sweetgum into the pinelands, so the trees have evolved not only to survive fire but to depend on it.”1

For three years, I was a part-time firefighter down in Statesboro, GA. Don’t be impressed. When all the other guys had nicknames like Mad Dog or Flame Throweron their helmets, mine said Hose Roller on one side and Bless His Heart on the other. (That piece of the story may have a little hair on it, but it’s descriptively accurate.) At one of our drills, someone from the local forestry commission came and talked to us about wildfire suppression. He said that the principal strategy for fighting wildfires was to remove the fuel. To stop the progression of a burn, get ahead of the fire, cut a few trees, harrow fire breaks, and then start controlled burns that burn back to the fire line where the two fires simply extinguish each other for lack of fuel. Removing the fuel ends up doing the same as the wildfires of the ancient pine forests. It clears the land of deadwood and husks and restores the ecosystem.

I think John’s and Jesus’ baptisms are acts of removing fuel. I don’t think either John or Jesus singles out particular people to be punished for being deadwood. I think they’re reminding us that we all have chaff in our lives—attitudes and habits that are unhealthy for us and for others. Running those invasive attitudes and parasitic habits through the refiner’s fire helps us to discover what lies beneath them. And something good and edifying may actually be hiding there. We’ve just misused it, or corrupted it.

For instance, if I’m continually angry at and judgmental toward someone or some group, that anger needs a refining fire to reveal its true source. During that fire, the important questions become, What about me am I judging and rejecting? What about me am I angry at or ashamed of? How have I gotten to the point that I turn my own self-loathing into justification for blaming and hurting others? Coming to grips with those realities hurts. It burns. And yet it heals.

         Even in Advent, Sunday worship celebrates the promise of Resurrection. And while John does seem to strike steel to flint with inflammatory warnings, I think he is, really, whether he even knows it or not, calling our attention to the conflagration of grace.

         Since the Exodus, flame has served as a symbol for the presence of God. Remember the burning bush. And at Pentecost, flame becomes the specific symbol for the presence and the work of God’s Holy Spirit. So, even if John holds the feet of Pharisees and Sadducees to the fire, his announcement of the coming of the Christ declares that God always intends healing and wholeness for the Creation.

Through repentance, then, we deliberately burn away the attitudes and habits that reduce us to arsonists. We singe off all our pride, greed, fear, vengeance, and despair. Such incendiary rubbish fuels all the devastating firestorms in our culture, in our churches, in our homes, and in our own minds. And because we cannot earn God’s mercy, true repentance is always our grateful response to God’s purifying grace already at work in our lives.

In the baptism we receive through the Incarnation of God in Jesus, we begin to agree with God. As individuals and as humankind, we agree that we are God’s Beloved.

We agree that we are capable of giving and receiving more love that we ever thought possible.

We agree that this is true for all of God’s good Creation.

And we agree to live the new life of grace, which is, in truth, the native landscape of all things created by God.

Jesus’ baptism by Spirit and fire removes the fuel of our brokenness. It refines us and transforms us. It resurrects us. It prepares us to receive and share with joy the good news of Christmas by igniting within us prophetic and compassionate hearts, hearts which reveal in us, and help us to see in others, the image of God’s ever-arriving Christ.

1Janisse Ray, Wildcard Quilt: The Ecology of Home. Milkweed Editions, 2003, pp. 36-37.

Practical Thanksgiving (Sermon)

“Practical Thanksgiving”*

Ezekiel 34:11-24 and John 10:14-16

11/20/2

Reign of Christ Sunday

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says.16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

17 As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats. 18 Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?19 But now my flock must feed on what your feet have trampled and drink water that your feet have muddied.

20 So the Lord God proclaims to them: I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. 21 You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside.22 But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep!23 I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd. 24 I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be their prince. I, the Lord, have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:11-24 – CEB)

14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (John 10:14-16— CEB)

         Because of Psalm 23, when many of us hear the word shepherd, we conjure up images of being delivered from want and laid down in green pastures. Or, because of Christmas, we imagine “keeping watch over flocks by night.” Some historians tell us that ancient shepherds were, by and large, a grimy and bawdy lot. And surely among such ruffians were the ones Jesus called “hired hands,” men who were apt to abandon a flock in the face of threat.

         Old Testament professor Wil Gafney also reminds us that shepherds were businessmen who held comprehensive interest in their flocks. Sheep, says Gafney, were “mobile currency and a primary source of nutrition [which shepherds would] regularly breed, sell, and eat.”1

         That got me thinking. The word “pastor” derives from the Latin word meaning “shepherd,” or “to feed.” And since folks like me are often referred to as shepherdsof a flock, I’m contemplating a new pastoral initiative. All this will require session approval, of course, but come January, some of you, my flock, I will pair up for breeding. Then I’ll designate others of you as having either too much or too little value to keep, and I’ll trailer you off to market to sell or trade away. Finally, some of you…well, a man’s got to eat, right?

If the session approved that “pastoral” initiative, how would it change your concept of shepherd? Ezekiel’s description of the way self-serving kings treated their subjects was pretty close to what I just described. And the prophets made it clear to everyone that Yahweh had no intention of getting fleeced like that.

         All you shepherds of Israel, you slaughter the lambs. You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with wool, but you’re not feeding the sheep. You’re feeding yourselves!

         Ezekiel hammers away at those who abuse, ignore, scatter, and otherwise “consume” God’s beloved flock.

         While biblical scholars argue whether these violent shepherds are Israelite kings or foreign kings,the point is that regardless of one’s nationality, or party, or office, or religion or lack thereof, leaders cannot lead by feeding themselves at the expense of those whom they lead. They cannot maintain credibility, respect, and authority by fouling the sheep’s pastures and waters with their own filthy feet.

         Over time, two ironies come to light. First, the sheep about whom Ezekiel speaks are never stronger than when, by a shepherd’s negligence, they find themselves lost, scattered, injured, and weak. Having nothing to lose, they’ll rise up, and they often prevail.

Second, when those sheep achieve freedom through the same violent means by which they were overcome and oppressed, they will, eventually, in spite of all good intentions, become abusive shepherds themselves.

         Through Ezekiel, God makes a new promise:

“I will feed [the sheep].”

“I will seek out the lost.”

“I will bring back the strays.”

“I will bind up the wounded.”

“I will strengthen the weak.”

“I will tend them with justice.”

         And there’s the difference: justice. In systems organized around perceived scarcity and greedy competition, true justice is the scarcest commodity. In such systems, justice gets reduced to getting even, to an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. That’s standard fare in the old realm; but Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings—creates a new way of life. And he calls us to that life which isn’t only new and transformed, but one that becomes renewing and transforming for others. That’s what makes it truly just: The well-being of others becomes as important to us as our own well-being. As I’ve said to you before, my dad called this approach to life “practical thanksgiving.”

         Practical thanksgiving means living, intentionally, with and for the sake ofothers. What makes this way of life challenging is that it asks us to be continually attentive to, responsive to, and grateful for the particular person in our presence right now, while also living with, and for the sake of all people and all Creation—all that is with us today and all that is to come.

         The Greek word for these particular and ultimate concerns is eschaton, from which we get the word eschatology. Some Christian theology limits eschatology to doomsday discussions littered with citations from the book of Revelation and shouts of catastrophic Armageddon from fire-breathing preachers. And such individualistic theology tends to exile God to some far-off heaven. It ignores God’s innate presence in the Creation. It also tends to ignore and even excuse the crises of incivility and climate degradation we, right now, are imposing on future generations through fearful anger and entitled consumption. Ezekiel’s question is painfully relevant to this generation: “Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:18)

A more holistic biblical eschatology opens the door to both the already and the not-yet Kingdom of God. Modeling a life of practical thanksgiving, Jesus shows us that the joys and sufferings of the moment are portals into that realm. So, as the Good Shepherd:

Jesus welcomes the stranger.

He feeds the hungry.

He restores the outcast to community.

He celebrates the beauty of the lilies of the field.

He embraces the God-revealing holiness of Creation in all of its fragility and all of its resilience.

And as his flock, we participate in all of those things with him

Through his own life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates what is true for all of us: We and all things “live and move and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) We and all things are loved eternally and equally by God. The faithful response to that love is to love as we are loved. And that takes more than our own wits and wills. To live with and for one another in lives of practical thanksgiving means committing ourselves to the reign of Christ in this world.

         St. Francis of Assisi took seriously Jesus’ call to live a life of practical thanksgiving. Among St. Francis’ many words of wisdom are these bits of advice: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible…[And anyone who] will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion,” said St. Francis, “will deal likewise with their fellow [human beings].”3

         Do you hear that blending of the particular and the ultimate? We touch eternity, and we live eschatologically by tending and feeding the people beside us right now, by caring for future generations and the future earth by committing ourselves to gratitude, generosity, and conservation today.

Living in the realm of Christ the King means so much more than walking on streets of gold with people who have “been good” and “done right.” It means, as the prophet Micah says, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—today. It means, as Jesus says in his last words to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”

         God of boundless grace, help us to continue following your Good Shepherd into lives of practical thanksgiving, lives of gratitude, generosity, and responsibility, lives that reflect his trust in you, and his willingness to risk living peaceably with and for the sake of all whom you love.

Amen.

1 Wil Gafney, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 316.

2Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 319.

3http://www.quotesdaddy.com/author/St.+Francis+of+Assisi

*This sermon is a re-work of my Reign of Christ sermon on November 24, 2019.