You Call that GOOD News? (Sermon)

“You Call that Good News?”

Luke 6:17-26

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/17/19

         In Luke 4:18-21, Jesus proclaims the arrival of God’s Day of Jubilee. Jubilee is more than aday. It’s a new reality. Jubilee is like doing a system restore on a computer. It returns everything to original condition. Slaves are freed. Land returns to original, God-designated owners. Debts are forgiven. It’s God’s great Do Overof grace.

         After that bold teaching, Jesus crosses numerous sacred boundaries. He personally forgives sin. He eats and drinks without fasting and praying. He harvests grain on the sabbath. He heals on the sabbath. To the legalistic Pharisees, it appears that Jesus is intentionally flouting the law. To them, this rabbi’s actions declare that nothing is sacred, nothing matters. And when the fundamentals of faith are ignored, there’s nothing left to believe or trust.

         Jesus’ truth is exactly the opposite. To him, allpeople matter, allthingsmatter – allthe time. The whole of creation has sacred worth in the eyes and the heart of God. Still, when Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s stark and jagged-edged version of Matthew’s more palatable Sermon on the Mount, he makes some distinctions that disturb people like the Pharisees, and perhaps like us, people of comfort, privilege, and pride.

         17[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

         20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

                  “Blessed are you who are poor,

                           for yours is the kingdom of God.

                  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now

                           for you will be filled.

                 “Blessed are you who weep now,

                         for you will laugh.

                  22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

                  24“But woe to you who are rich

                       for you have received your consolation.

                  25“Woe to you who are full now,

                       for you will be hungry.

                “Woe to you who are laughing now,

                      for you will mourn and weep.

                  26“Woe to you when all speak well of you,

                      for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

                                                                                                          (NRSV)

         In this teaching, Jesus clearly distinguishes between poor and rich, empty and full, those who weep and those who laugh, and those who are hated and excluded and those who seek public affirmation and praise. According to Jesus, those for whom life is the most bitter struggle now, are those who live closest to the kingdom of God. Because their emptiness allows them to know the fullness of God, they’re far less susceptible to feeling numbed underneath the fear-wrought calluses of individualism and material excess because, as Peter Eaton says, The God revealed in Jesus “is the God of those who have nothing butGod.”1

         Biblical theologians call it The Great Reversal.Jesus comes to upset the artificial stability of life in a world that has given itself to the idolatries of power, wealth, and indulgence in distractions that blind human eyes to suffering and need in the world. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 says, unequivocally, that one cannot know and love God while ignoring the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated and excluded. And when he says these things, Jesus looks intentionally at the disciples. Luke’s point is that Jesus is speaking to the Church, to those who claim to know him and follow him.

         You, he says, youwho call me ‘Lord,’ you are the ones on whom the mantle of responsibility falls. Your ministry is to declare audibly, visibly, and tangibly to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those whom the world hates and excludes that God is on their side.

         An unsettling message creeps through: Not to respond in welcoming grace to those who are poor, hungry, broken, and walled out by whatever means is to deny Jesus and crucify him all over again. Indeed, he says, Woeto those who sit back in comfort and ease, for they are far from the kingdom of God.

         How is this GoodNews for us?

         The call of this passage is not to bepoor, hungry, grief-stricken, hated, and excluded. The call of this passage is for the Church to recognize that God calls us into the lives of those for whom suffering is the daily reality. Reach out in fearless, healing, embracing love to those who are broken and desperate, and in the reaching, in the touching, in the relationships of compassionate response, we experience the living Jesus. Thatis where he is followed, known, and loved.

         In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes about his experiences living as a fearless and unfettered disciple of Jesus in the inner city of Philadelphia and beyond. In a section of the book called “City of Brotherly Shove,” he tells of feeding the city’s homeless.2After a number of groups began feeding the homeless in city parks, Philadelphia passed an ordinance that made public distribution of food a crime. Struggling with how to respond to a number of such laws, Claiborne and his brothers and sisters from their intentional Christian community called The Simple Way, decided that the call of Jesus was stronger than any civil statute against caring for the least of these. So, they flouted the law. They held a party in a city park called Love Park, a known gathering place for the homeless.

         In Love Park, they “worshiped, sang, and prayed. Then [they] served communion, which was illegal.” They slept overnight in the park with the homeless. After a number of nights of this, the police surrounded the group, arrested and handcuffed them, and took them to jail. When the group got out of jail, they went straight back to the park and slept out in the open with the homeless again. And they got arrested again.

         Eventually, the group had to appear in court. Some sympathetic and high-profile attorneys offered their help, but Claiborne and company decided that they would rely on the help that the homeless could expect. So, a homeless man named Fonzwould speak for them.

         Standing before the judge, Shane Claiborne wore a T-shirt that read, Jesus Was Homeless. The judge looked at the shirt and asked if it were really true. “‘Yes sir,’ said Claiborne, ‘in the Scriptures, Jesus says that “foxes have holes, and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”’”

         Impressed, the judge said, “‘You guys might stand a chance.’”

         Prior to that day, says Claiborne, “we read all the Scriptures where Jesus warns the disciples that they will be dragged before courts and into jails, and they had new meaning for us. [Jesus told] them not to worry about what to say, so we didn’t. When the time came…to testify, Fonz stood up…and said, ‘Your Honor, we think these laws are wrong.’” He got a loud Amenfrom the rest of the group.

         The DA had prepared carefully to see that these “criminals” felt the full weight of the law – jail time, steep fines, and, ironically enough, many hours of community service.

         Then the judge said, “‘What is in question here is not whether these people broke the law; that is quite clear. What is in question is the constitutionality of the law.’”

         When the DA objected to that premise, the judge said, “‘The constitutionality of the law is before every court. Let me remind [you] that if it weren’t for people who broke unjust laws, we wouldn’t have the freedom that we have. We’d still have slavery. That’s the story of this country from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement. These people are not criminals, they are freedom fighters. I find them not guilty on every charge.’”

         After that, the judge asked for a Jesus Was Homelesst-shirt.

         That was hardly the end of the struggle. Caesars and Herods passed more laws that added insult to injury to the homeless. And The Simple Wayfolks, along with many others, picked up where they left off.

         The struggle never ends for those who love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love their neighbors as themselves. And not every confrontation with the powers goes the way of justice and righteousness. Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to engage those powers on behalf of those who are poor, hungry, grieving, hated, and excluded. And at times, our only reward in the here and now is to know that we are following Jesus in that work. But what Jesus promises is that in that struggle we will see him. We will feel his presence, share his love, and, most importantly, we will proclaim, and we will inhabit the kingdom of God.

1Peter Eaton, “Homiletical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4, David. L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. P. 361.

2All references to Shaine Claiborne, The Simple Way, and their work in Philadelphia come from The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shaine Claiborne. Zondervan, 2006 & 2016. Pp. 222-228.

Discipled by Relationship (Sermon)

“Discipled by Relationship”

Luke 5:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/10/19

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.(NRSV)

         Luke’s version of the call of Simon, Andrew, James, and John strikes me as particularly authentic. And by “authentic,” I mean that in this story, I see four fishermen enter a relationship with Jesus the same way you or I might enter a relationship with someone we found trustworthy. In Luke, as in Matthew and Mark, Jesus shows up out of the blue, but he does not, as he does in Matthew and Mark, begin with a stark, “Follow me.” Luke’s Jesus seems to have a better understanding of human nature than that. He calls the men to discipleship by engaging them in his work.

         Let’s enter the moment with the fishermen. They’re washing their nets after an unsuccessful night on the water. Whether they’ve caught fish or not, whether tomorrow will be any different or not – the tools of their trade must be examined and repaired. They must be kept clean and tangle-free. Now, nets are purely material objects. They have only so much usefulness, after which they’re discarded. But as long as they’re in use, they are crucial parts of the team. The fishermen know that there’s a certain relationship, a kind of mutuality, between themselves and even inanimate things like nets and boats.

         That’s a universal sensibility for fishermen. They live in dynamic relationship and partnership with the various ebbs and flows of weather, water, and fish. So, the two sets of brothers know – in that way of knowing familiar to mystics, shamans, mothers, and fishermen – that there are reliable forces and purposes at work beneath the obvious and the tangible. And when they see those purposes and feel those forces, the men know that in some way, at some level, they’re already in relationship with these timeless realities.

         Into that spiritually fertile environment, Jesus arrives.

         Simon, will you take me just off shore in your boat? I want to talk to this crowd, and you know how well sound travels over water.

Sure, Rabbi, says Simon.

         Simon rows out a little way and anchors the boat. And there, in the glorious synagogue of water, earth, and sky, Jesus sits and teaches the people.

         Simon listens to Jesus. As he does, he also hears waves lapping against the sides of the boat. He feels the currents rock the small craft. He smells the wind. He watches the reactions of the crowd. It’s all of a piece to him. That’s how fisherman and disciples live – in perpetual, holistic, and loving awareness. Simon senses in Jesus something a bit less common and bit more compelling than your every-day, itinerate preacher.

         When Jesus finishes, he turns to Simon and says, Let’s go out further so you can throw your nets in the deep.

         Having been in relationship with this lake since he was a small boy, Simon knows the odds of success of daytime fishing after a fruitless night. Besides, he’s tired, and he’s got to go rest in order to be ready to fish all night, again. But Simon listened to Jesus. He watched the rabbi read the crowd like a fisherman reads the lake. He watched the crowd listen to and receive Jesus’ words of compassion, grace, and call. And he feels a deep heaviness within himself. And maybe it’s more of a fullness – a spiritual mirror to the physical heaviness of a net full of fish.

         Well, Rabbi, says Simon, I’m not hopeful, but if you want me to, I’ll do it. Four men and two boats are barely enough to land the catch.

         For all his spiritual depth and understanding, Simon is at a loss when he faces such extravagant abundance. And he reverts to the mindset of the world around him, a world driven by graceless merit and cruel retribution. In that world, blessedness is not something given, but something earned; and if something bad happens, one has only oneself to blame. Feeling overwhelmed and frightened in the presence of the embodiment of holiness and of the power of the very earth itself, Simon seems to feel that he has only two options: Escape or engage. So, he tries to send Jesus away.

         Jesus has involved Simon, though. He included the fisherman in his ministry. Afterward, Jesus said, Now, let me help you.The two men have shared the kind of thing that they can’t easily dismiss or quickly forget. And when Simon tries to separate himself from Jesus on the grounds of his own lack of holiness, Jesus says, in effect, Not so fast, my brother. You’re a fisherman. I like that. I need that. And if you stay with me, the only difference is that you’ll be fishing for people.

         Jesus never gives the order, “Follow me.” He involves Simon, Andrew, James, and John in his work. He values them, and treats them with the kind of respect given to close associates and partners. The decision the fishermen face, then, is not simply Do we follow him?but Do we keep on following him?

         It seems to me that there’s no better invitation to the life of faith than to include others in what we’re doing. Rather than trying to begin with some “sinner’s prayer” or indoctrination, let’s include people in the work at hand. Answering questions just so and passive ascent to theological precepts are externals that are as easy to fake as they are to enforce – and, ultimately, to escape. True and lasting discipleship happens in relationship. It’s about engaging the Spirit’s ongoing work of creation and re-creation in the world. Maybe one can fake personal involvement, too, and that’s okay, because the work itself transforms those who take it on.

         Again, the fishermen follow Jesus not because he tells them to, but because they can’tnotfollow him once Jesus has made them partners in ministry.

         As we do ministry in Jesus’ name, the challenge for us is to lay aside fears and preconceptions, and to engage ourselves in Jesus’ work of compassion and justice in the world – then to invite others to join us in this work that we trust God has given us to do.

         It’s the work, and God’s presence within it, that renovates the world and redeems all who labor.

It Is Time (Sermon)

“It Is Time”

 John 2:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/20/19

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.

8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”

So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

         When biblical writers want to grab our attention, they usually say something like, In the beginning, or, They went up a mountain, or, An angel of the Lord appeared. When John says, in the story of the Wedding at Cana, And Jesus’ mama was there, too,he escalates things to a whole new level.

         In first century patriarchy, women have to be careful about how they dress. They have to be careful to whom they speak, and who’s around when they do. And while, in the solar system of Jewish motherhood, more grown men that will admit it find themselves locked in a maternal orbit, in the alchemy of John’s gospel, Mary transforms the significance of all women from water into wine.

         (Let’s enter this story a little more closely – and have a little fun with it.)

—–

         Reuben and Nathan have been hired as servers for the Mordecai-Isaacson wedding. They’ve been told to keep the wine flowing and the matzo balls rolling, and they’ve managed that. But now they face a situation. Every one of Michael Isaacson’s fraternity brothers have come to the wedding. And they’ve all brought dates. Reuben and Nathan feel like they’re pouring wine into colanders. The night’s still young, and the wine is gone.

         Insufficient wine at a wedding means several things, and none of them are good. It means shame for Mr. Mordecai, the father of the bride. It means vocational catastrophe for the chief steward, a good friend of Reuben and Nathan. It will also bring entirely too much delight to Mrs. Isaacson, the mother of the groom. Mrs. Isaacson runs the debutante program down in Jerusalem, and she is quite sure that this Mordecai girl, from the boondocks of Cana, is notgood enough for herson. So, like a dog on the hunt, she has her nose in the air, winding the party for flaws.

         Nathan realizes the problem first. He spots Reuben across the room and begins to weave his way through the crowd, smiling at the guests, politely ignoring those who raise empty goblets asking for more wine.

         Trying to sound calm, Nathan says, “Reuben, could I trouble you to join me the kitchen, please?”

         Reuben is flirting with one of the wedding dancers and doesn’t want to be bothered.

         “In a minute,” he snaps.

         “Reuben!” hisses Nathan, “Kitchen. Now.”

         Nathan glares at Ruben and mouths the words, No more wine.

         Stunned, Reuben glances back at the dancer, holds up an “I’ll be back” finger, winks at her, and follows Nathan to the kitchen. With their jobs hanging in the balance, they mull over the wine. They have no idea what to do. Nor do they have any idea that someone overheard them.

         For the last half hour, Mary, from Nazareth, has been graciously nodding her head as another woman brags on her children.

         “And my son,” says the woman, “has broken all company records for the sale of linen and purple cloth to government buyers. And I suspect that in three years, Herod will have hired him as a consultant.”

         “Is that right?” says Mary. Then, without weariness or spite, she says, “Well, bless his heart.”

         As she listens to the woman boast, she manages to hear key words and to see the facial expressions in the exchange between Reuben and Nathan. When they disappear into the kitchen, Mary looks at the woman with the rich son and says, “Would you please excuse me? I need to speak to someone. Enjoy the feast. I hear the wine is excellent.”

         Mary catches her son’s eye from across the room and with a quick tilt of her head tells Jesus to follow her. Jesus has been chatting with some new friends, relaxing, sharing stories, blissfully anonymous in the crowd. But he knows the look his mama gives him, so he slips away from his company and follows her.

         In the kitchen, Jesus sees his mother standing with the two servers, their faces sagging like a couple of empty flour sacks on a doorknob.

         “They have no wine,” says Mary.

         “Mom,” says Jesus, “that’s not my problem. Not right now.”

         Mary has imagined a day like this, a day when she lends the authority of her voice as well as the sanctuary of her womb to the creative Mystery at work within her and beyond her – the Mystery who is revealing a holiness that is as universal as the stars and as intimately hers as the children to whom her body and her love have given birth.

         In the awkward silence, she thinks of Moses’ unnamed mother setting her son among the reeds in the shallows of the Nile. Who would find him? Another Hebrew? An Egyptian? A crocodile? What would become of her fine son?

         She thinks of Rebekah scheming Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob. To arrange a deception will mean that Jacob must flee from her as far as he must flee from Esau. And Rebekah knows that she may never see her favorite son again.

         She thinks of Hannah. For the privilege of bringing just one life into the world, she will give her only child, Samuel, to God.

         When Mary speaks, she’s more than a wedding guest. She’s a mother surrendering her son. Turning toward Reuben and Nathan, she says in a flat voice, into the warm, moist air of the kitchen, “Do whatever he tells you.” And that’s all she says.

         Jesus has envisioned a day like this, too. But in his vision,hedecides when to make himself known. He decides when to step into the river. He decides when to accept the fullness of his blessing. He decides when to make the wild and reckless promise of himself to God. And he’s tempted to put off the arrival of his hour. But his mother’s eyes burn in his. Her words linger in his ears, and burrow into his heart.

         If Jesus tells the servers nothing, they will do nothing – and the celebration will collapse. People will fall away and look for joy elsewhere.

         If he tells them to do something, they’ll do that – and heaven knows what will happen next. And whether Jesus tells Ruben and Nathan to do anything or not, his mama has opened a door he cannot shut. He finds himself facing his identity and the uncertain future to which it calls him.

         “Do whatever he tells you,” Mary said.

         Jesus looks around the kitchen. He sees six stone jars, big ones, the kind used to hold water for the rituals that restore the people to righteousness and unity before God. He turns to the servers and says, “Fill [those] jars with water.”

—–

         The sign Jesus performs at Cana is not about coercing belief through some sort of magic. It’s about revealing tothe creation a presence inthe creation that transforms water jars into vessels of holy and spirited wine. For Jesus, personally, it’s about beingthat presence.

         Miracle isn’t something that happens outside of reason. Miracle is the very realm of human existence. Miracle is God’s here-and-now Kingdom. Miracle saturates what appears to be the emptiness between you and me, between any two creatures. We live in the midst of miracle like fish live in water. And it’s no small miracle in itself to become aware of miracle. We become aware of it though faith – faith being the gift of holding wine where once we held only water.

         We are stewards of a trying time, a time when the spaces between us are not simply watery, but muddy – thick and dark. And I hear God saying to all who claim the mothering, miracle-rendering gifts of faith, hope, and love: The wine is gone. The celebration is faltering. A future we never imagined is unfolding. And while that future will be different, God will be in its midst no less than God was in the past.

         As it was for Jesus, so it is for his followers now: It is time.

         It is time for us embrace miracle.

         It is time to embrace one another.

         It is time for us to receive, to hold, and to share the new wine of God’s ever-expanding, all-transforming grace.*

 

*My thoughts on the relationship between Jesus and his mother were influenced by Dr. Jap Keith, a former professor of pastoral care at Columbia Seminary who once said, “God and mothers call a lot of oldest children and first sons to the ministry.”

Then He Consented (Sermon)

“Then He Consented”

Matthew 3:13-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Baptism of the Lord Sunday – 1/13/19

 

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Then he consented.

16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”(NRSV)

 

In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ baptism, verse 15 concludes abruptly: “Then he consented.”

What sounds like a simple reference to timing, points to the rolling away of a great stone. Getting to Then he consented requires the same movement of the Spirit involved in, “Let it be with me according to your word,” “They left their nets and followed him,” and “He is risen.”

I also feel some ambiguity in those words, because one thing is unclear: Who exactly does the consenting? At first glance, it seems that Matthew refers to John’s consent to baptize Jesus after John says, “I need to be baptized by you.” But when Jesus says, “Let it be so now,” doesn’t he consent to the same baptism to which so many others consent? And doesn’t this kind of consentimply much more than passive acquiescence to an outside action? Baptismal consent implies trust of and faithfulness to a transforming spiritual reality. And it signals commitment to a specific calling.

And yes, this holds true even for Jesus. Immediately after his baptism, he embarks on a forty-day wilderness sojourn. And during that time, he agonizes over the consequences of his baptismal consent. He faces a choice we all make in one way or another: He can use his gifts for his own personal and worldly benefit, or he can offer himself to the creation as a blessing. As a uniquely gifted man, he can live as either the Christ or just another Herod or Caesar.

For the same reason, confirmation is crucial in denominations that practice infant baptism. It gives young people the opportunity to understand that they are beloved children of God, that they have rich, God-given potential, and then to follow Jesus into consent. God’s gifts of love and potential are blessings not only to receive, but to share. Belovedness and blessedness are most fully realized when we choose to live as blessings.

Baptism, you see, is about identity. It declares that we, and all creation, belong to God, who delights in us, and who craves that we recognize the deep and indelible holiness within us, within all humanity, and within the earth itself.

Now, I know that there are some folks we just can’t stand to be around, folks who push our every button and who get on our last nerve. I’ve experienced people like that. More importantly, and I also know this from experience, all-too-frequently I am that personfor someone else. And I’m very often that personfor my own conflicted self. No one causes me more grief than me.

I remember Richard Rohr saying that we often look at the world around us and can’t help seeing more darkness than light. And when we can’t get past that, it’s easy to give up and say, ‘That’s just the way things are.’ But Rohr says that when we fixate on brokenness and hopelessness, we’re not seeing thingsas they are. We’re seeing things as we are.1Broken hearts feel nothing but emptiness, and blind eyes see nothing but darkness.

It doesn’t happen suddenly or magically, but the journey of baptismal consent does give us new hearts, new eyes, and new minds. Another metaphor for that transformation is death. Because re-creation springs from death, it’s not by accident that we speak of baptism as dying and rising with Christ. Jesus dies at his baptism. He dies during his temptation. He dies repeatedly as he shepherds his fickle disciples. And he dies during his agony in Gethsemane, and finally on Golgotha.

Baptism challenges us to take seriously our call to die to all the false selves, shallow desires, and paralyzing fears that would have us live as if atrocities in Syria, as if starvation in Yemen, as if child prostitution in southeast Asia, as if spiteful political rhetoric in our nation, as if the hunger and homelessness at our doorsteps, and as if our own secret self-loathing are all justthe way things are.

Such things do exist, and they point to the ever-present storms of nihilistic fear and greed. And to do nothing, to remain silent is to consent to let the powers of fear and greed have their way. Jesus does not consent to those powers. Nor does he let us sit back saying, “Thank God for Jesus; I’mgoing to heaven when Idie.” He does exactly the opposite. He calls us to consent to his lordship here and now. He calls us to take up our crosses, to die to all that is selfish, fearful, and falsely pious, and to enter the world in all its heart-wrenching brokenness and suffering, and there – and here– to live as ones being made new in the power of the Holy Spirit, ones who declare that God claims all human beings as beloved children. Anything that allows us to avoid the challenging call to die and rise with Jesus, is not of God.

Returning to the wisdom of Father Rohr: He speaks again to all of this in a recent mediation. When making suggestions on how to prepare for reading scripture, he says to seek “an open heart and mind…[to detach from ego-driven] desires to be correct [and] secure…Then…listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you…As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like morose delight, feelings of superiority, self-satisfaction, arrogant…certitude, desire for revenge, need for victory, or a spirit of dismissal or exclusion, you must trust that this is not Jesus…at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.”2

I appreciate Rohr’s consistency. He’s saying that when we read scripture looking for any kind of power or advantage over againstothers, we’re merely seeing things as we are, not as God sees them – and not as God sees us.

To read scripture with baptismally-transformed eyes means reading it as followers of Jesus rather than followers of worldly politics, economics, and religiosity. And as Paul says, that requires dying and rising to new life with Christ. (Romans 6:1-11)

Baptism invites us and challenges us into the mystical practice of learning to see as Jesus sees.

Baptism invites and empowers us for new sight, new strength, and new courage.

Baptism empowers us to see ourselves, our neighbors, and the earth as tangible expressions of God’s presence and purposes, and of God’s sheer creative delight.

May we all consent – each day – to following Jesus in the new life of baptismal faithfulness, so that our lives and our living may always serve as signs of God’s love and grace in and for the world.

 

1From Richard Rohr in Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Second Half of Life.

2https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/43960629A8B44BD52540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

The Hand Beyond Our Grasp (Sermon)

“The Hand Beyond Our Grasp”

Matthew 2:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Epiphany – 1/6/19

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)

         “Faith,” says Frederick Buechner, “is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”1

         By that definition, the visitors in Matthew 2 are men of deep and dynamic faith. The disciples who leave fish nets, families, and lucrative government contract jobs at least have someone looking them in the eye when they hear the words, “Follow me.” As Matthew describes the visitors from the east, they step “out into the unknown” following nothing more than a hunch that wormed its way into their imaginations when they observed some sort of celestial anomaly. With that vague hunch drawing them toward God knows what, they have much in common with Moses and Abraham – men who journey on a hunch, and who upset established orders.

         These visitors are a mystery. Magi seems more accurate than wise men orkings, since they are, most likely, astrologers. But are they Arabs, Persians, Babylonians? We’ll never know, and it matters about as much as whether there were three or thirty of them. Three is just a convenient inference from the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

         What matters in Matthew’s story is that the first witnesses to the arrival of the Messiah are Gentiles – and not just any Gentiles, but foreigners. People who look different and speak a different language. People who know a different history, culture, and geography. People who engage the world according to different categories and standards. People who are quite thoroughly otherwhen compared to the political and religious institutions of Jerusalem – institutions symbolized by Herod and the Temple.

         This is important because the Temple has lost its way. In the name of privilege and self-preservation, its leaders are capitulating to Herod the Great, a leader remembered by both ancient and contemporary historians as a greedy autocrat for whom no measure was too ruthless when it came to protecting his power and advantage. Matthew alludes to this uneasy syncretism when he says “King Herod…was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” When Herod realizes that he’s been hoodwinked by foreigners looking for a new king of the Jews, he attempts to purge the threat by ordering a wholesale slaughter: Kill every childtwo years old and younger. Herod’s atrocity remembers and eclipses Pharaoh’s instruction to kill all malechildren in Moses’ day. (Ex. 1:15-22)

         Trusting the manipulations of fear and violence is a signature of failing institutions. It’s how they opt for the devil they know over the devil they don’t – even if the latter is God. That’s been true before and since the first century. When opting for familiar devils, religious institutions are trying to stay alive without living by faith. They prefer to follow a hand they can hold rather than one just beyond their grasp. That hand may be a controlling and merciless theology of retribution. Or it may be a political or human hand, even one with blood on it. Either way, that hand seems a more certain thing. Since the days of Constantine, the Christian Church has reached for Herod’s hand saying, He’s protecting us.But every such reach denies, deserts, and crucifies Jesus.

         One truth conveyed in all this is that it often takes outsiders to help those who have been institutionalized into clay-footed inertia to reawaken to the possibility and hope they proclaim. People who have nothing to lose and everything to gain will cross distances and clamber over obstacles that those hiding behind ramparts of contrived superiority and self-righteousness will not. The magi take that risky journey as they follow the star to Jesus, who also proves to be a disruptive outsider.

         Consider that star. Human beings had been navigating by the stars long before the magi’s journey. A star is a wonderful metaphor for something beyond anyone’s grasp. And starlight, like all light, can’t be held. Even when holding something like a flashlight, we’re not holdinglight itself. We’re holding a source of light. And it’s only helpful to us when we follow it.

         As the Light of the World, Jesus is the hand that is always just beyond our grasp. We follow him in faith; and the moment we claim to hold him as closely and tightly we hold a flashlight, or a wallet, or car keys, we are no longer people of faith. To quote Buechner again, this “is the only way it [can] be. If [all that we believe] could be somehow proved, then…we would lose our freedom not to believe. And in the very moment that we lost that freedom, we would cease to be human beings.”2

         The gospel affirms that Jesus is a real and particular human being living in the midst of real and particular people, places, and events. Paradoxically, the all this particularity declares that the Incarnation happens for the sake of allhumankind – individuals and communities who are free to believe and trust the mystery of the gospel – or not. So, as Paul says, we’re called to “walk by faith, not by sight,” (2Cor. 5:7) We’re called to trust a hand that is, like the magi’s star, just beyond our grasp. And like both the magi and John the Baptist, we are not the light. Through faith, we simply “testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, [has already come] into the world.” (John 1:8-9)

         When we follow that teasing light gratefully, generously, humbly, and compassionately, the Holy Spirit creates in us a kind of glimmer. A light not of our own making, but a light that shines through us and bears witness to a reality we may name, talk about, worship, and even love, but which remains a gracious mystery just beyond us. And in that truth lies our hope, because it reminds us that right now we “see in a mirror dimly” (1Cor. 13:12) and trust a wholeness that shimmers just past our fingertips.

         To live by faith is to engage the all-too-tangible ordeals of Herod’s realm with realistic, unsentimental, and courageous love – that is to say, as followers of Jesus.

         Who is, for us, the true and lasting star.

         The Light of the World.

1Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, HarperSan Francisco, 1966. p. 99.

2Ibid. p. 88.

*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com

Incarnation and the Sixth Sense (Sermon)

“Incarnation and the Sixth Sense”

Luke 2:1-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve Service

12/24/18

 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.(NRSV)

 

Only Luke writes an infancy narrative. And he sets the scene with a poet’s craft: An unusually crowed inn in the backwater, everyone-knows-your-business town of Bethlehem. A manger with wood rubbed dark and smooth by the moist, leathery snouts of livestock. Sweet-scented hay, and the pungent warmth of manure. A rag-swaddled newborn. A mother trembling from exhaustion. Curious shepherds creeping in from the dark, as if they, too, are some kind of livestock. And Joseph.

Luke places the hearts, minds, and bodies of his readers in a particular place, and in a very specific, yet eternal, moment. In this transforming moment, what could beis stronger and more compelling than what is, or at lease what seems to be. In this moment, one is enlivened by wonder and possibility.

Life is full of such moments. Imagine standing on a beach with the sun slipping behind sand dunes, sea oats, and a stand of gnarly-branched maritime oak trees. At the same time, in front of you, a full moon rises over the darkening waters of the ocean. Everything you can see, the moon, its long, tinseled reflection glittering on the waves, the light rising softly from the sand and off the face of the person you love next to you, everything, every bit of it, is the gift of that one star disappearing below the horizon. You don’t just see your surroundings in the light of the sun. You are alive to see them, and they are alive and present to you because of that one sustained, thermonuclear explosion 93 million miles away. Without thatsun, you would not exist, nor would the sea oats, or the sandpipers, or the nightmarish dragonfish prowling the cold and lightless depths 4000 feet below the ocean’s surface.

Let the mind-bending possibility of non-existence draw you into the reality of yourself in that moment. Feel the sand. Taste the salt spray. Smell the fertile rot of seaweed. Hear the waves breaking. Look out at the ancient ocean teeming with billions of years of life and death. Add to that ocean a million bodies your size, and the tide wouldn’t rise any higher than it does right now. And in every direction from which you might look from anywhere on earth, the infinite universe surrounds you. In the midst of that incomprehensible expanse, there you are. And as tiny as you may feel, you do exist. So, call it what you will, but some Reality has given you form and consciousness. And since you and all you can see exists, what else is possible?

In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv quotes a rabbi named Martin Levin, who says that “to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.” Levin says that the renowned 20th-century Jewish teacher Abraham “Heschel would encourage his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.”1

Part of living in a state of amazement is a personal and un-mediated awareness of our whole selves and the world around us, and an intentional receptiveness to possibilities that lie beyond the mundane – and even more importantly, within it. To those who are willing to be amazed, willing to live in states of wonder and delight, even something as common as a sunset, or as simple as the graceful dance of sea oats in the evening breeze hold marvels by which to be inspired and renewed.

The Spirit dangles Luke’s infancy narrative in front of us like the proverbial carrot. It’s a teaser that appeals to the fundamental reality of our physical existence, because the story Luke is telling is the story of the Incarnation – the enfleshing – of God. In Jesus of Nazareth, God – who is the Love, the Energy, the Substance, the Breath out of which existence arises – declares that God not only creates all that we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, God personally participates in the Creation.

Paradoxically, the Incarnation is a transcendent reality. It’s more than any single event, and it’s more than any human language can describe or define. And yet our faith claim declares that God is as real as a child—in a manger—in Bethlehem—in a harried, crowded, Caesar-smothered world.

It’s fitting, then, that in Luke the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes not to wealthy and powerful people, but to shepherds. Shepherds may have been an uneducated, coarse, and crude lot, but because they were also people who lived close to the earth, they represented those whom the world often avoids and forgets – the poor, the sick, the grieving, the abused – all who live inseparably connected to and aware of physical reality and all its challenges and injustices—and beauty.

Maybe the shepherds also represent not just certain individuals, but some essential, God-imaged part of each of us, that self who will stand beneath a night sky, watching and listening, and embracing the possibility that there is more to experience than reason acknowledges.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus “stories” us into to us a kind of sixth sense – a spiritual perception, the knowing of that which cannot be known except through speechless wonder and awe.

Herein lies our wholeness, our holiness, and our hope: Declaring God’s immediate presence in the created order, the Incarnation reaffirms the fundamental goodness and Belovedness of all things. So, Jesus redeems not because he mollifies an angry God, but because he restores our physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and perceptual wholeness.

To celebrate Christmas is to stand on this earth, as it spins around the sun, at some random place the midst of the universe, and hear God saying, in thoroughly incarnate language: I created you. I love you. I love all of you. And I love all of each of you.

Merry Christmas.

 

1Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006. pp. 285-286.

*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com

 

Favored? (Sermon)

“Favored?”

Luke 1:26-38

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/23/18 – 4th Sunday of Advent

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.(NRSV)

         The more I read the biblical story, the more it loses some things. And one thing it loses, something that needs to go, is its me-and-Jesus soppiness – all that unnatural sweetness responsible for things like shiny candy canes at Christmas and squishy yellow peeps at Easter.

         This is no original idea. Many people complain about turning Christmas, and even Easter, into flurries of indulgence and consumption. And then there’s Mardi Gras – a Christian observance we’ve elevated to a level of commercialism and hedonism all its own. And yet, underneath the widespread grumbling, I sense a kind of twisted, lemming-like discipleship at work, because in one way or another, most of us continue to participate in the very thing to which we claim to object. That says to me that we continue to regard the means to obtain material possessions, and the freedom to engage in excess as signs of God’s favor. As much as we might say that we could be happy without our belongings around us, in our culture, even in our church culture, notto have these things tends to feel like personal failure, or even being judged by God. So, as much as anything else we say or do, leaping into the feeding frenzy surrounding our liturgical celebrations has become a creedal statement. For both individuals and institutions, owning and controlling assets has become a de facto affirmation of faith.

         Biblical favor, God’s favor looks alarmingly different from the favor one assumes in competitive, consumeristic cultures. When someone in the biblical story finds favor with God, it’s almost guaranteed that they will rue the day that God showed up and said, ‘You. I pick you to do important work for me.’

          Maybe that’s why Mary is “perplexed” when Gabriel shows up and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…You have found favor with God.” If Mary has been told the stories of the Jewish faith, she knows what being favored by God meant for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, David, Jeremiah, Hosea, Daniel, and on goes the list. At some point along the way, being favored by God means being inconvenienced, uncomfortable, and anything but favored by those around us.

         Being favored by God means being chosen to do something meaningful and memorable, and something difficult and potentially dangerous – something that may feel impossible. It’s not the same as being sent into some war zone. God does not equip us with tools of violence and purposes that are temporal and temporary. God equips us with the means of mercy and purposes of redemption for all creation – even when the creation wants something entirely different. What the world seems to want – whether in the form of Pollyanna or Rambo – is Santa Claus; and what God gives us is Jesus – a man who engages all that is sinful and sinister in the world because he sees all that is beautiful, eternal, and beloved at the heart of it all.

          In his grand announcement, Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a boy who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and [will sit on] the throne of his ancestor David.” So, for Mary, being favored by God means something immediate and specific: She will have a child. And that means she’s being called to motherhood – something permanent and open-ended. Mary will love her child as boundlessly as he will love her. He will be the earth beneath her feet and the stars in her sky. He will also, as the old priest Simeon says, be “a sword to pierce [her] soul.” (Luke 2:35) For Mary, then, favored means a lifetime of labor, love, anxiety, and heartbreak.

         Here at Christmastime, I don’t find satisfaction in feeling like a kill-joy, or what my daughter likes to call a fun-sucker. But think about Mary’s life, and Paul’s life, and Stephen’s life, and Peter’s life. The lives of ones who are favored by God have nothing in common with presents wrapped in glossy paper and tied neatly with bright red bows. That’s just not God’s way in the world. Favored status always means a summons to a journey of faith, a life of uncertainty, discovery, and trust. That’s precisely why God enters the creation in general and the human condition in particular in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – a man whose own favored life was a journey of service, struggle, and suffering.

         We inhabit an imperfect, corporeal reality. By faith, we also affirm that it is God’s beloved, manger-delivered creation. And if we’re to accept our favored-ness, we need Jesus, because we need more than an example. We need someone to follow. We need someone who doesn’t sugar-coat the life of discipleship. We need someone who fully receives his own favored-ness, and who fully shares it – even unto death. (cf. Phil. 1:8)

         Mary does all of this. Before meeting Jesus, before hearing him speak, before watching him live and love, before feeling every wound that he feels, and before experiencing grief and loss as only a mother can – before all of this, Mary fully receives her favored-ness. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” From that point onward, Mary embodies the truth that being favored by God does not include being treated with favoritism. Favored-ness is a call to commit one’s life to compassion, gratitude, generosity, and reconciliation. It’s a call to commit one’s life to humble service. And through this commitment, we can experience a truly holy and human – a truly favored life.

         I’m toying with the idea of instructing members of next year’s nominating committee, when they make phone calls to potential officers, to say, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” That should get interesting results, don’t you think? Serving as an elder is a significant honor. It can be tremendously rewarding. It’s also real service. It requires time, effort, prayer, humble honesty and humble restraint, and a great deal of patience. And faithful, servant-hearted leaders make all the difference in how well a given group of people functions as a community – especially as a Jesus-following community.

         Advent prepares us for the giving and receiving of a gift that reveals our deepest gifts, gifts we’ve been given to share. To use holy gifts for selfish ends always leads us to mistake God’s favored-nessfor privilege, and God’s blessing for whatever benefits us personally.

         You may want to duck when you feel God favoring you with a call, but if you can, receive it, anyway. Let it be with you according to God’s word.

         And remember Mary, who shows us that in the faithful receiving and sharing of our favored-ness, our hearts, minds, bodies, and our living come alive with the life of Jesus.

*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com