Defying the Lines (Sermon)

“Defying the Lines”

Mark 9:38-50

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/26/21

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (NRSV)

         One of the painful realities about living in human community is that at some point, each of us is going to feel left out. Some feel it first at home—thus terms like “black sheep” and “red-headed stepchild.” Virtually everyone feels it during school—especially middle or high school. Some never suffer that loneliness as acutely as others, but feeling pushed to the edge is a universal experience. And no matter where one feels it, the message is pretty much the same: “Go away. You’re not one of us.” And oh, how that hurts! 

         Among the sins of the church, and perhaps chief among them, is its blatant, and often willful, marginalizing of certain human beings. There’s no use denying it, especially in a culture still suffering the effects of human slavery. We say that all are welcome. And perhaps all are welcome—to visit. But are all people truly welcome in the church? In this church?

         Even Jesus’ own disciples draw lines. They boast to Jesus that they muzzled someone who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name because, they said, He wasn’t one of us.

         Jesus is not impressed. What? You stopped someone from healing people in my name—because he wasn’t one of you?

         Don’t do that again, says Jesus. If folks are helping others in my name, even if they don’t really know me or care much about me, leave them be. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Anyone who truly cares for others is one of us.

         The presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ is not limited to professing Christians. If we think we can lay that kind of claim to God, then we’re declaring that God is small enough to fit into our minds, our doctrines, our imaginations. In John, when Nicodemus struggles with the same need for control, Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8) God is Creative Love and Redemptive Justice on the deepest, broadest, and most incomprehensibly gracious scale. And it’s a sad irony that Jesus’ disciples—ancient and modern—often have the most trouble understanding and accepting that. 

         Apparently feeling the need to get his disciples’ attention, Jesus launches into a stomach-turning tirade. If you become a stumbling block to others, he says, tie that block around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, rip it off. If your eye causes you to sin, yank it out.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?

         In three months, we’re going to get all sentimental and glassy-eyed about the birth of gentle Jesus meek and mild. And here he’s telling us to mutilate ourselves when we’re unfaithful!

         A group of us are reading Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ. And last Monday night we discussed the chapter on the Lord’s Supper. In that chapter Rohr makes a distinction between ceremonies and rituals. “Ceremonies,” says Rohr, “normally confirm and celebrate the status quo and deny the shadow side of things.”1 That is to say, they artificially comfort and validate us. They make us feel right enough in and of ourselves to draw lines that define who’s in and who’s out. In contrast, says Rohr, a “true ritual offers an alternative universe.”2 And that is to say, it transforms us. It gives us new hands, feet, and eyes with which to experience and engage the world.

Rituals have to jolt us, though. They have to shake us up so that we canimagine God differently, and so that we can understand that the possibilities for us far exceed our comfortable but rather inert symbols. Think about it: We’ve not only ceremonialized the images of cross, body, and blood, we have domesticated them into jewelry and tableware engraved with the names of donors. But those same images shocked and offended first-century Jews. Implying uncleanness, they defied the well-defined lines of the Law.

The sacramental images of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ should unsettle us and make us think. And we tame them when we think only about Jesus “dying for my sins.” When we lift that cup to our lips, though, we are defying lines. We are, says Rohr, acknowledging that all blood that is spilled unjustly is Jesus’ blood.3 The disrupting image of the Eucharist calls us to see Christ’s body and blood in all suffering. We, then, commit to the cause of Creative Love and Redemptive Justice, those gracious new hands, feet, and eyes that have replaced the selfish ones Jesus dares us to get rid of.

         Maybe it helps to read Mark 9 in light of Jesus saying things like let whoever is without sin throw the first stone, and take the log out of your own eye so you can see the speck in your neighbor’s eye. (John 8:7 and Mt. 7:8) In that context, we hear Jesus challenging our rampant theological, social, and political polarization. And honestly, when I’m talking with someone, especially these days, I often catch myself trying to sniff out the things that not only distinguish me from them, but the things which I think grant me a right to judge. If I were to take Jesus’ teaching literally, I should be nothing but a torso tied to a millstone lying at the bottom of the sea.

Following Jesus gives no one authority to judge. Indeed, it calls us to demonstrate the grace and forgiveness that we can access only by the grace and forgiveness of God.

That grace, that forgiveness is the salt of which Jesus speaks. What is saltyabout true disciples is their willingness to live as signs of God’s kingdom on earth. And Christ-like saltiness is costly seasoning. Discipleship is not about engaging the world as ones who enjoy heroic certainty and authority. It’s about loving freely and serving vulnerably as Christ loves and serves.

         This week I came across a quotation by tennis great Arthur Ashe, who was known for his bold advocacy on behalf of those in need. “True heroism,” said Ashe, “is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but to serve others at whatever cost.”4

         The heroism of discipleship doesn’t conquer the world. It transforms the world. It heals the world. It salts the world with grace. Autocrats and despots will always wage their wars. They will always draw lines and divide people with fear and hate. Nonetheless, God’s eternal and universal Christ is always padding around the edges, sowing seeds in good soil, kneading in yeast, sprinkling salt, and evoking acts of radical hospitality and non-violent justice by true disciples—whoever they may be.

The job description of the Christ includes defying the lines established by kings, nations, and even religions. And inasmuch as we follow Jesus in defying those lines—in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—we will experience “peace with one another.” For we discover the peace of which Jesus speaks when we recognize the deep interdependence within the Creation, and when we embrace one another as fellow laborers in the fields of God’s kingdom.

Indeed, how can we labor effectively (much less enjoyably!) without the peace created by welcoming ALL people—family, friend, enemy, and stranger?

1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 133.

2Ibid.

3Ibid. p. 134

4https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/arthur_ashe_124531

Humility – A Holy Undoing (Sermon)

“Humility – A Holy Undoing”

Mark 9:30-37

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/19/21

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (NRSV)

Jesus is leading his disciples on a kind of lonely journey through Galilee. He knows that in lonely places, people can either come to fresh new understandings and energies, or they can come undone. The irony is that those fresh, understandings and energies usually require a certain degree of undoing. Tribal elders, therapists, the Holy Spirit, and other teachers often guide individuals or groups into lonely places for coming-undone experiences that lead to transformation or healing.

Jesus seems to know that when his disciples face their rabbi’s death, they will, in some way, come undone. So, as the embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus keeps their lonely-place journey through Galilee a secret. He knows that coming-undone experiences are more effectively and healthfully accomplished beside still waters, and when attended by a patient, compassionate shepherd.

Jesus learns this for himself at his temptation. He enters the wilderness alone and faces all the selfish possibilities lying right at his fingertips. With the Spirit’s help, he pushes through the allure of greed and pride, and his experience becomes a gracious undoing that benefits all of us. And it benefits us because the totality of Jesus’ human experience belongs to more than himself. Jesus is God’s Son because his life represents the archetype of all human experience. So, when the disciples begin to imagine that Jesus may actually die, and when they try to imagine their life after his death, they face temptations similar to those that Jesus overcomes.

“What were you arguing about on the way,” Jesus asks. Their embarrassed silence says it all. Out in that lonely place, confronting the reality of life without Jesus and his shepherding grace, the disciples fall into temptation. They try to intimidate their way into dominance over each other. As Jesus leads his followers through the shadows of a lonely, death-ridden valley, they turn their terrifyingly gracious experience into a childish political primary.

One can almost see Jesus shaking his head as he says, Listen. True greatness requires a willingness to come undone. It’s called humility. And if you really want to lead well, learn to serve well.

Then Jesus, shrewd teacher that he is, picks up a child and says, in effect, Here I am. How you welcome a child reflects how you welcome me—and, thus, how you welcome God.

Because children represent women’s work, this is a scandal. No self-respecting, first-century male gets significantly involved in the lives of children. Jesus is leading his followers into yet another lonely place where accepted arrangements begin to break down. He gives them the chance to realize that the difference between being humiliated and being humbled is the difference between living as hostile competitors who seek power over others and living intentionally and gratefully as cooperating equals—with all people.

“For by the grace given to me,” Paul says to the Romans, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) Paul goes on to say that we are all members of one body. Only in humility can we truly appreciate and love one another as necessary members of the same body. To live humbly requires an often-painful transformation. Biblical literature uses the stark metaphor of death to describe that transformation. And spiritual deaths always involve some kind of lonely-place experience. Primitive cultures often created that experience.

One day, during my grandfather’s struggle with cancer, he told his daughter, my mother, “Now I understand why the Indians used to take their old people out into the wilderness and leave them.”

Those heart-wrenching words reveal the weight of one man’s physical suffering. They also reveal how burdensome good intentions can be on the one who suffers.

When someone we care about is suffering, it’s who we are not only to bring food, small talk, flowers, and Hallmark cards, but also expectations of a valiant fight against disease or despair. And while we intend such things as expressions of love and offerings of grace, just as often they become attempts to control a situation. They become ways to argue with mortality about who is the greatest. Sometimes the most comforting presence in the face of suffering is that friend who sits silently and patiently with us, that friend who resists the temptation to cloak suffering with platitudes and trinkets, that gifted friend who, like the angels and wild beasts of Jesus’ temptation, simply sits with us while we, as the old spiritual declares, walk that lonesome valley.

Any argument with mortality, like any argument about relative greatness, is the stomachache that follows a feast on the poisonous fruit of pride. Pride may well be the seminal offense from which all other sins arise. Think about it: Is there anytransgression that doesn’t germinate in one person’s assumption of superiority over other human beings, over the earth, and thus over God? The opposing virtue to pride is humility. So, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to take a child and tell a bunch of prideful men that to be truly great, one must learn true humility first?

In ravenously competitive cultures like ours, humility is often considered a weakness. So, it requires a spiritual death, and nothing can make pride come undone like loneliness—like the experience of desperate need for others. This is exactly what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In foretelling his death, Jesus prepares his disciples for experiences of acute spiritual poverty. They will need each other. And they will not be able to carry on Jesus’ work without humbly depending on fellow servants.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in the very next story in Mark’s gospel, we hear the disciples boast to Jesus that they saw a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they silenced him.

He wasn’t one of us, they say.

And Jesus stuns them with a rebuke: Why in God’s name did you do that? Why are you still trying to argue about greatness? Whoever is not against us is for us! Welcome their help!

When confronting our limits as human beings, when realizing that we’re not so great as we’d like to think, the Spirit leads us into a lonely place—into spiritual poverty. And there we die one healing death after another. For as often as we find ourselves striving for superiority and victorious “rightness” over one another, we need to die those deaths.

Our lonely journeys through these transforming spiritual deaths and into humility lead us ever-deeper into experiences of Resurrection. And Resurrection empowers us for living lives of self-emptying service, lives in which we participate in God’s here-and-now kingdom of grace, justice, and peace.

And isn’t that the deeply undoing yet liberating truth of what it means to be saved?

Divine Things/Human Things (Sermon)

“Divine Things, Human Things”

Mark 8:27-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/12/21

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (NRSV)

         Simon Peter. The Rock. Bold and brash to a fault. And faithful, too—even though when Peter denies Jesus on that dark Thursday night, he denies everything Christ-like in himself.

In Mark 8, Peter steps out in prophetic faith to declare out loud what others have surely begun to hope: Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Messiah. Jesus affirms Peter’s confession, and it seems to embolden the disciple all the more. When Jesus speaks of his suffering, rejection, and death, Peter grants himself authority to scold God’s Anointed One.

         With a blistering rebuke of his own, Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan”—The Adversary—and basically tells him to get lost. Then he says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

         My heart goes out to old Saint Pete. His mouth is not getting all that far ahead of his brain. He has seen Jesus do some pretty crazy things, and by and large, they’ve been human things. Peter has watched as Jesus touched, healed, and fed people. He has listened to Jesus teach through those grounded, earthy stories called parables. If Peter sets his mind on human things, who can blame him?

         Maybe the problem is that, at the moment, human things are all Peter sees. And Jesus is saying that it’s time to understand human things differently, because woven into the DNA of those tangible, earthy realities are strands of eternal holiness. And Jesus is holding his disciples accountable for recognizing divine things within human things. When he speaks of his imminent suffering, Jesus wants his followers to hear more than bad news. He wants them to smell the air, taste the water, and feel the sand beneath their feet in that new realm where Resurrection is reuniting and reconciling divine things and human things. If they fail to experience the eternal wrapped up in the temporal, then Friday may never become Good Friday for them.

         Ironically enough, setting our minds on divine things means looking ever more closely at the Creation around us and opening ourselves to those places where heaven and earth intersect. That place of intersection is what Incarnation is all about. And that means that revelation occurs when we realize that material and spiritual realities have transcended the limits we impose upon them. We watch them meld into one another like lovers. Such holiness is everywhere. There’s very little in God’s Creation which cannot, in some way, convey something of the divine things that Jesus invites us to see.

In her poetry, Mary Oliver captured the magnificent coexistence of Creator and Creation. And she found that beauty in the simplest gifts and experiences. Listen for the holiness in her poem entitled, “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?1

         When the poet looks at that grasshopper, and when that grasshopper looks back, when it eats from that human hand, the world’s beauty and wonder become more beautiful and wonderful. The concrete fact of that grasshopper’s existence reveals itself as sacred. Mary Oliver helps us to understand that to separate divine things and human things means denying the Incarnation.

What if we looked at each other that way? What if we made a deliberate effort to look at the holiness in each other? Would we be able to look past not just our differences, but past all those things that make us intolerant of differences? And would we be able to seek understanding and to create new community instead of always trying to win some kind of conquest over those with whom we disagree?

         Perhaps now more than ever, such efforts are crucial. And as disheartening as it can be even to imagine human beings coming together, the Gospel declares that healing is not only possible, it is underway.

Still, complications arise when we discover how threatening it can feel to practice Incarnational hope. The Holy Spirit, divine gadfly that she is, always leads us to live over against those institutions and attitudes we associate with security and even righteousness, but which ultimately hide the fresh workings of the divine within the Creation. And because we have so revered some of those institutions and so nurtured some of those attitudes, the journey of discipleship may feel, at first, like unfaithfulness.

Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John dropping their nets and leaving their families to fend for themselves.

Like the rich young man selling all he has, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus.

Like Ananias going to extend grace to that violent, Christian-persecutor named Saul.

Like God-imaged, white Christians who declare today that it is Jesus not politics who motivates us to affirm, in word and deed, that those specific, God-imaged human lives who live inside black and brown skin matter as much as those who live inside white skin, and that until we can live that affirmation, the phrase “all lives matter” is just a loophole against responsibility.

Jesus calls the burden of such journeys our cross, and taking up our cross necessarily includes dying to whatever separates us from the Divine Presence within us and within our neighbors. And as Richard Rohr often says, discipleship is not about “sin management.” As real and problematic as sin is, it is not our true essence. Sin obscures and distorts our awareness of the divine within us and within the world around us. So discipleship is about much more than avoiding sin—so that we can “go to heaven when we die.” It’s about living into the kingdom of heaven here and now with that person who sits next to you—the one whose perfume or cologne you smell, whose stomach you hear rumbling, and who may vote differently than you.

         A true disciple claims the holiness within herself and holds it up like a mirror so that her neighbor may see it in himself.

May we all, then, shoulder our crosses and die whatever deaths we must in order to see the holiness within ourselves.

May we die that more challenging death through which we see the holiness in others.

And through these gracious deaths, may we live as reflections of God’s eternal and here-and-now realm of Resurrection.

1I searched the internet for Mary Oliver poems and found this one on a random poetry site. This piece appeared in New and Selected Poems – Volume 1, by Mary Oliver. Beacon Press, Boston. 1992.

We Are THEY (Sermon)

“We Are THEY”

Mark 7:31-37

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/5/21

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”(NRSV)

         One of the terrible but all-too-familiar stories associated with the pandemic—especially during the early days—is of Covid patients suffering in isolation. Many people stricken with the infection, lying unconscious on ventilators, died while family and friends had only phones and face-time apps to communicate with them. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of having to hold a phone rather than the hand of a loved one when the physical presence of those you know, trust, and love is itself the presence of God.

Those stories reminded me of something I witnessed in Malawi. When a Malawian adult or child falls ill, family and friends become the EMTs, ambulance service, food service, social workers, and HMO. Even when hospitalized, patients had to have their community around them to do everything except deliver medical treatment. While a patient lay in a crowded ward, her family and friends lived on the grounds of the hospital, cooking under the tin roof of a dirt-floored lean-to, washing clothes and sheets in a common wash pot, and sleeping under the trees. Only the most destitute in that destitute country received the meager hospital rations.

Without support, few Malawians survive for long. In a place of such acute poverty, every individual needs an attentive community, a responsive They.

         As Jesus returns to Galilee from the north, a proactive They brings to him a deaf man. Later, in Bethsaida, another They brings to Jesus a blind man. I imagine each They feeling as desperately hopeful as a Malawian family. And the Theys who bring the deaf and blind men to Jesus do not come to test him. They’re driven by a desire for healing. They want wholeness restored to the particular individuals. I also think they also desire wholeness for the community. As long as one of them is deaf or blind, there is a deafness or a blindness to the entire They.

         Shared suffering tends to be a difficult concept for people in individualistic cultures to comprehend, much less to embrace. Folks like us have been taught to attach much if not most of our identity to individual achievement, accumulating personal wealth, and avoiding suffering. I have to think, however, that the cultures represented and encouraged in biblical literature have much more in common with places like Malawi than the contemporary western world. Where resources, time, and suffering are shared more freely and generously, the culture itself, even if physically impoverished, experiences a strength and richness that individualistic cultures cannot understand. Indeed, even now, a kind of militant individualism is proving itself intolerant of those who seek to act for the good of the wider community. And isn’t the whole point of the Incarnation to declare that God is with us in our suffering as well as our joy?

Having said that, we all belong to peer groups. We identify with parties and agendas. We brand ourselves with the logos of schools, sports teams, corporations, denominations, and so forth. And yet, to many “first world” dwellers, the idea of being defined by the joys and sorrows, the strengths and weaknesses of some encompassing They seems as confining and anachronistic as a rotary phone. More dangerously, such associations are often despised as threats to individual freedom. It seems to me that, in general, western cultures, obsessed with I, tend to fear, judge, and condemn any true sense of We.

The Church, as an intentional community, is a clear and definite We. As a re-presentation of Christ to the world, we are the They which brings the deafness, blindness, and brokenness of the world to Jesus. We are the They who gives the voiceless a voice. Individualistic religion scorns all of that brokenness. It will say, in disgust, If you had enough faith, or if you were righteous enough, you wouldn’t be in that mess. At its most devilishly heartless, individualistic religion dismisses the world’s brokenness by saying, “Oh, don’t worry. God never gives you more than you can handle.” Like many of you, I’ve heard that phrase in hospital rooms, funeral homes, and from pulpits. Brothers and Sisters, please think carefully before you stab someone with that platitude. Maybe, sometimes, there are “good intentions” behind those words, but the person to whom it is said usually just hears, That’s your problem. Handle it yourself.

It is by grace that God calls us to recognize when one of us has become burdened with more than he or she can handle. God calls us to regard their suffering as our own. If we are part of the great They of faith, our vocation includes bringing individual and collective deafness and blindness to the Christ, and joining our voices in both pleading for help and offering healing. 

Over the years, I’ve heard many people say that they come to worship to recharge their batteries. And I understand that—to a degree. However, if we’re part of God’s created and creative They, then worship does more than recharge our batteries for our sake. Worship is about equipping the saints for tending to our hurting and over-burdened neighbors and environment. The point of worship—the point of praise, confession, prayer, and meditation—is to draw close to God so that we see God in all people, places, and times. Worship draws us closer together in holy community, closer to God for each other’s sake, and closer to each other forGod’s sake. In this renewing communion, our witness to God in Christ can become a magnificent harmony of distinct voices. And in that, our individuality is recognized, celebrated, and offered to God.

Many of us grew up hearing preachers build a verbal fence around the Lord’s Table. The words were exclusive and individualistic: This table is set for “believers” only. Generations ago, many pastors even examined their parishioners before a communion Sunday, and only those who survived his scrutiny were allowed at the table. More and more of us are using our words to build a bridge rather than a fence. There are just too many reasons for a congregation to serve as a holy Theywhich welcomes everyone to the table.

So, you may come in gratitude to praise God.

You may come in penitence to experience forgiveness.

You may come to reclaim your unique gifts and recommit your individuality to loving God, neighbor, and earth.

You may come to feel the embrace of a community of faith.

You may come to identify yourself with that community, with the body of Christ.

You may come to receive a reminder of God’s faithfulness to you in some season of sorrow, illness, loneliness, or grief.

You may come to make peace with God after some painful experience when it seemed that you were, indeed, given more than you could handle.

You may come out of an unbreakable habit.

You may even come out of simple curiosity.

Whatever your reasons, come. Come and find your place in God’s gracious They in and for the world.

Who Are You? (Sermon)

“Who Are You?”

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/29/21

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (NRSV)

         Jesus has crossed the sea and gone to Gennesaret—again. To hang out with Gentiles—again. Some Pharisees and scribes show up to try to catch Jesus failing to live as a good Jew—again.

         This time the Jewish leaders take offense at Jesus’ disciples eating with “defiled hands.” Now understand, they’re not worried about those hands being “dirty” in any literal sense. The Pharisees and scribes watch as self-affirming, practicing Jews press the flesh with Gentiles, and then sit down to eat with them. This offends the purists.

Eating is more than a mere necessity. As a revelatory, community event, table fellowship is deep-fried in the oil of holiness because in it, human beings profess their grateful and absolute dependence on God’s gracious provision. Remember, we don’t control the mystery that makes the earth grow the beans. All we do is plant the seeds and bake the casserole. In ways more obvious than circumcision, kosher food laws distinguish God’s people and remind them that they are a unique reminder of God in and for the world.

         When we hear the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus why his disciples so blatantly flout Jewish custom, we can rephrase their question in three words: Who are you?

It’s a matter of identity.

         Did you ever have a parent or grandparent tell you, as you left the house, “Remember who you are!”? Now, that admonition often gets salted with guilt, especially when the one offering it fears embarrassment. When fearfully spoken, it tends to do more harm than good. Indeed, it becomes a kind of defilement. However, when it flows from a place of love and belonging, it reminds us that who we are is not a matter of laws and guilt, but of community, gratitude, and grace.

         In one respect, our state of being at any given time, with all our flaws and foibles, is “who we are.” But the Gospel declares this to be an incomplete truth. It’s incomplete because who we are cannot be separated from who we are becoming. So Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

That new creation is always in process. Who we truly are is who we arebecoming in Christ.

         Now, the Pharisees deserve some credit. They serve as recipients and stewards of a tradition that aims to help God’s people maintain a distinctive identity in worldly cultures that can be both terribly threatening and wildly seductive. If that identity fades, Israel cannot fulfill her God-given purpose of serving as a reminder of holiness and a source of blessing.

         The Pharisees’ question comes from a place of deep commitment. Who they are as Jews is tied closely to what they do. Jesus understands this, a he doesn’t disagree. And trying to love them from stuck to unstuck, he turns the question back at them. He seeks to deepen and broaden their already significant commitment.

Well, just who are you? he says. You’re like a bunch of actors who are stuck in a script of your own creation. And your script has lost its story line.

         This is God’s script! And God’s script is a story, an ongoing journey. And neither God’s story nor our participation in it can be bound by any static tradition.

         Jesus challenges the Pharisees to face the ways in which they’ve become hemmed in by Law—hemmed in so tight, in fact, that who they are is little more than the fear they feel at any given moment.

You’ve given up on Exodus, says Jesus. You’re mired at Sinai. You’ve stopped becoming the dynamic people and storied community that God calls and empowers you to become.

         Then, cutting to the chase, Jesus says, It’s not what you fence out that makes you who you are. It’s the outpouring of faithfulness or foulness from within that makes the difference.

Jesus is saying that we reveal who we are and who we are becoming through the love we express for family, neighbor, enemy, and earth. What matters, what counts is how we celebrate their joys and weep at their pain.

         As followers of Jesus, you and I are not the rules we keep or the dogma we proclaim. We are the organic faith, hope, and love we enjoy and share.

         “The world” doesn’t care for real Jesus-followers. They’re dangerous, subversive. They don’t just pray; they embody prayer. They don’t just sing songs; they inspire them. They don’t just talk about justice; they do justice.

“The world” seems to be okay with church folk, though. It’s okay with folks who abide by rules and protect hierarchies and impose such things by force of fear. “The world” is okay with folks who give to charity without asking why the inequities and poverty even exist. And “the world” seems to love it when church folk make religion and nationalism synonymous.

         It is to the church folk in each of us that Jesus refers when he quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

         When we open to the Christ within and among us, we set out on a path of becoming rather than remaining in the stagnant is-ness of who we think we are. And “the world” may try to discredit or even silence us, because Jesus threatens its comfortable status quo.

         When we open to the Christ within and among us, there arises, from our becoming hearts, the identity-declaring, kingdom-revealing grace of God. And out of that heart there arises courage to live and speak God’s eternal and transforming truth in a world in which truth is mangled into whatever idea supports one’s own prejudices and soothes one’s own fears.

         We know some of the names of people who looked the beast in the eye and spoke enduring truth: St. Francis of Assisi, Frederick Douglass, Elie Wiesel, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai.

Rather than recounting one of these familiar stories, this morning I share with you a prayer by Ted Loder, a United Methodist pastor and preacher. As you hear this prayer, examine your own life, and imagine the ways that God is calling you to become more fully who you are as a human being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.

And remember, God is not through with you.

You are still becoming.

“Go with Me in a New Exodus”

O God of fire and freedom,
deliver me from my bondage

to what can be counted
and go with me in a new exodus

toward what counts,

but can only be measured

in bread shared

and swords become plowshares;

in bodies healed

and minds liberated;

in songs sung

and justice done;

in laughter in the night

         and joy in the morning;

in love through all seasons

and great gladness of heart;
in all people coming together

and a kingdom coming in glory;

in your name being praised

and my becoming an alleluia,
through Jesus the Christ.1

1Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 1981. p. 117.

Realigning Love (Sermon)

“Realigning Love”

Ephesians 4:1-16

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/8/21

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

“When he ascended on high

he made captivity itself a captive;

he gave gifts to his people.”

(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (NRSV)

         Paul seems to have accepted a prison cell as his primary office and prayer closet. He does much of his best work while incarcerated for having affirmed the lordship of Christ in a culture ruled by Caesars who declare themselves—quite literally—divine, and who expect their subjects to treat them accordingly. A god-complex seems to be characteristic of despots and tyrants who demand absolute loyalty and uniformity.

So, Paul’s preaching naturally creates social and political backlash, because, in proclaiming Resurrection, he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority in Creation, and he affirms the holy beauty of God’s diverse humanity—female and male, Gentile and Jew, poor and rich, immigrant and resident. Paul knows that speaking this truth will cause many to charge him with getting political because the grace of God always defies the ideals and arrangements that allow Caesars and Pharaohs to try to bend the world to their desires.

Undeterred, Paul speaks God’s truth in love and urges all followers of Jesus to do the same. In his letter to the Ephesians, he “begs” the congregation not only to speak the truth in love, but to demonstrate God’s truth in their living. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” he says, and “with all humility…gentleness…patience…[and] love…maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Paul is calling his readers to far more than being nice. He’s calling them to let go of prejudices, fears, and misplaced allegiances, and to receive each other in the name of God’s Incarnate Love. He’s calling them to open themselves to each other the way God opens to us in Christ. And he’s calling the church to grow in witness through a radical transformation that endangers the community even as it grows.

          Paul reminds the Ephesians that even Jesus experienced this endangering grace. “When it says, ‘He ascended,’” writes Paul, “what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” In the Apostles’ Creed, when we say, “he descended into hell,” we acknowledge that Jesus bore, in his own body, the full weight of humankind’s brokenness. He bore our selfishness, our meanness, our love of violence. And I do not believe that his death had to happen to appease a god who is just as selfish, mean, and violent as we are. Any god who can become so powerlessly offended as to need to watch a beloved son experience betrayal and crucifixion just to be able to love again, well, such a god is just that, a god, a small-g god—a projection of our own self-serving fears. All such idols, just like all the world’s Caesars and Pharaohs, dismiss as weakness the humility, gentleness, patience, love, and unity that Paul implores the Ephesians to demonstrate as they struggle with disunity.

I hear Paul calling us to trust that through Christ we can overcome the things that divide us by seeing each other as bearers of God’s holy image rather than bearers of issues. We begin by seeking the Christ in each other, and only then can divisive arguments become healing conversation.

Such unity, however, is something for which we must work. Hard. Intentionally. Every day. And we have to learn to fail with grace because, from time to time, we will, inevitably, succumb to all the things that run counter to Paul’s teaching. We’ll succumb to pride, violence, greed, fear, and tribalism.

The paradox of our unity in Christ is that it’s both eternal and tenuous. As permanent as God’s love is for us, and as sure as God’s love will, finally, prevail, humankind just can’t keep from competing with each other, making and destroying enemies, and generally finding more reasons to fear rather than to love each other. And Paul calls such behavior childishness.

While there is great virtue in child-like-ness, that is in living in wonder, trust, and hope, there’s no virtue whatsoever in selfish grasping. That’s why, when Jesus’ disciples argue with each other about who is the greatest, he says that to follow him they must become as children, and welcome each other as they welcome children. (Matthew 18:1-5)

At the core of Paul’s teaching is his own commitment to follow the welcoming ways of Jesus in a world that condemns those ways as naïve and foolish. And in Ephesians, he says unequivocally, “We must no longer be [childish], tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s…deceitful scheming.” 

         Don’t listen to those who sow seeds of hate, cries Paul. Our loyalty is to Jesus alone! And that means acknowledging God in every human being and in all of Creation. (Romans 1:20-21)

         Again, I’m under no illusions about how difficult, or even how dangerous it can be to profess faith in and loyalty to Christ above all else. All around us and among us there rages an escalating contest for control. And it seems that as the Church gets caught up in the deceitful scheming, in this devastating sibling rivalry, Jesus is being kidnapped and co-opted by competing sides. Even followers of Jesus have accepted the assumption that there must be winners and losers. In our public discourse right now, that assumption is making us treat each other like adversaries whom we must conquer rather than brothers and sisters with whom we must live, on whom we must depend, and in whom we are called to see the image of God. And as different as we may be, even more so are we gifted, called, and equipped by God. And only as we develop and share those gifts do we, as Paul says, “come to the unity of the faith…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

         Porter Taylor, a former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western NC, wrote that when Paul speaks of God’s gifts equipping the saints, he’s not talking about people “accumulating skills or knowledge.” Taylor points out that the Greek word translated “equip” derives from a word which means things like to set a bone and to reconcile.1

“To grow in one’s ministry,” says Taylor, “is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately.” That means that the standard against which we measure ourselves is Jesus’ standard of love.

So. Maybe. If we can see ourselves more like broken bones in the same body than distinct bodies in competition with each other, then there is hope for us. We become our truest selves only in loving relationship to each other.2 We become the unified body of Christ only when we align our broken selves in mature, compassionate, justice-seeking, Christ-like love for each other, for the earth, and for those who are, as Jesus says, hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, andimprisoned. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Brothers and sisters, we may argue about exactly how to demonstrate the re-aligning love of God in Christ. But we don’t have time to argue about whether or not to do so.

May we go into the rest of this day, and into all the coming days with fresh commitment to claim our gifts, to celebrate those of others, and to discover the unity, the peace, and the hope that God is offering to us in Christ.

1G. Porter Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 304.

2Ibid.

The Bread of Life (Sermon)

“The Bread of Life”

John 6:24-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/1/21

24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[a] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NRSV)

         John’s gospel begins with its unforgettable prologue: “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 him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

         From the outset, John invites his readers to engage their poetic sensibilities, because he will present Jesus far more as the resurrected Christ than some peasant rabbi from Nazareth.

         While this holds true to some extent for all four gospels, it’s particularly true for John who layers everything in his story with multiple meanings. For instance, when the crowd, whom Jesus had recently fed on a grassy hillside says, “Rabbi, when did you come here,” we can almost feel John begging us to ask, What does “here” mean? Does it mean here on this side of the lake? Here in Galilee? Here in the height of Rome’s power? Here on earth? And it’s intentional when John’s Jesus doesn’t really answer any of those questions.

         You’re not looking for me, says Jesus. You just want more breadQuit wasting your time! If you’re going to run all over the place looking for bread, be sure it’s bread that lasts.

         When the crowd continues to push Jesus for oven-baked bread, he says, I am the bread! The Bread of Life! Follow me. Trust me. And you’ll never be hungry or thirsty again.

         Never hungry or thirsty? What would that feel like? When people lose the urgency of hunger and thirst, they’re either freshly in love, clinically depressed, or actively dying. Hunger is one of those physiological realities that makes us human. We must eat. Eating reminds us of our mortality. Indeed, one reason we pray before eating is to acknowledge that our lives are dependent upon not just the food we eat, but the deaths we eat. Whether it’s a cow, a fish, a tomato, or tofu, every time we sit down to eat, something has died so that we might continue living.

         Again, though, that’s not the kind of hunger Jesus wants the people to feel. He’s talking about a deeper hunger. I am the bread of life, he says. I am the loaf that has been mixed, kneaded, and risen.

         The crowd seems unable to digest all these metaphors. And here John frustrates me a little. He treats the people of Jesus’ day like metaphorically-challenged oafs. But let’s remember that the community to whom John writes lives a century out from the experience of Jesus. So, the people about whom John writes haven’t heard, much less made sense of the whole “In the beginning was the Word” theology. They don’t get it—not yet. And that’s okay.

         In a few moments, we will celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We’ll give thanks for the life, death, and new life that gives new life to our own lives and deaths. We’ll talk about Jesus being our host. We’ll use flesh and blood language. If not all of this makes sense, if we don’t get it, that’s okay. In the Church, we try to talk about holy and eternal things by using something as limited and limiting as human language and physical symbols, and our language and symbols point beyond themselves to deeper layers of meaning.

         Years ago, on one of my mission trips to Malawi, I noticed an elderly, Malawian woman sitting on the ground, alone, in the sun, just outside the hospital where we were working. The woman was clothed entirely in black. The skin of her face and hands was a dark, leathery maze of deep lines and creases. She gazed into the distance with a vacant stare that could have been deep sadness or deep prayer–or both.

         She held a single piece of bread that had obviously been part of a larger loaf. It wasn’t even a handful, but she held the little chunk of bread in one hand and pulled pieces off of it with the other. She raised each bite slowly to her mouth and chewed just as slowly. The aching humility of the sight caught my attention and my imagination.

         Now, I may have burdened that memory with a weight that the moment did not have; but, for me, it was like a rose petal, one thin layer of something that was more than it seemed because it was part of a larger and more beautiful whole. On the one hand, that moment reminded me that we’re all more deeply connected than we might seem on the surface. So, in the real-time, concrete details of that moment, I sensed something holy, something sacramental, at work.

         On the other hand, that one small piece of bread may well have represented the woman’s rations for the day. It may have stood between her and a hunger from which she might not recover. And because Malawians are generous, community-oriented people, she may have had such a small piece because she had shared the rest of the loaf with others. You and I often live to eat, so, we can’t really imagine what a small piece of bread represents to people who are so hungry that Jesus calls them “blessed.” (Luke 6:21)

         When we take communion, we’ll eat a wafer so thin we may barely feel it in our mouths; but it is the Bread of Life for us. As the body of Christ, it stands between us and a hunger that no other bread can satisfy. We’ll also take a sip of grape juice from a cup no larger than a thimble; but it is the life-blood of God’s covenant of grace.

         As we saw a few Sundays back, the bread Jesus offers is given not just to satisfy, but also to make us hungry.1 And when we feel that satisfying, spiritual hunger, a new world opens up—the world of God’s Household. And God’s realm is often a wafer-thin place, but transformation happens there. Even the simplest, most ordinary moments become moments of extraordinary holiness and possibility. And the simplest and most ordinary human life—our lives—can become revelations of the love and grace of God.

         I can’t make you believe or understand any of that. I can’t make you experience the grace of this table. I can only invite you to come to a simple meal where Christians have—at least at times—experienced a taste of God’s holy realm.

So come. And even if you don’t feel that you had some new experience of grace, keep coming. And I pray that as you continue to visit this table, bringing with you the joys and sorrows of your day-to-day lives, you will taste something more filling than a crumb of bread, something more satisfying than a thimbleful of grape juice, something that calls you to trust and empowers you to follow God’s Christ in his gracious ways of forgiveness, justice, and peace.

1https://jabbokinthefoothills.blog/2021/07/11/the-hungering-of-the-5000-sermon/

No Longer a Slave (Sermon)

“No Longer a Slave”

Philemon

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/25/21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you. 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (NRSV)

         Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the most personal texts in Christian scripture. And Paul addresses his letter not only to Philemon, but also to Philemon’s wife and their entire church community. After the traditional I love you greeting, Paul launches into a brief but compelling plea on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.

         Having lived for a while in the anxious, quasi-freedom of escape, Onesimus has been, for whatever reason, arrested and jailed. And by whatever divine purpose or chance, he has found himself chained next to Paul, himself a prisoner. And Paul’s influence brings Onesimus into the Christian household as a full-fledged brother.

         As a slave who has run away from his “owner,” Onesimus (whose name means Useful) has essentially shoplifted himself from Philemon. So, in the eyes of Roman law, he is simply an item of stolen merchandise—albeit one who lives, breathes, thinks, feels, loves, suffers, remembers, and hopes.

         After meeting Paul, though, Onesimus now belongs to Jesus, the Galilean rabbi who, fairly recently, stirred up quite a fuss. For some, it was a hopeful fuss because Jesus talked about things like liberating captives and bringing justice to the oppressed. But that same message created a nervous fuss among Romans, temple leadership, slave owners, and anyone else who held tightly to oppressive power and wealth, because if Jesus’ teaching caught on, their comfortable privilege and control could end. So, the powerful did what came naturally to them: They vilified and killed the threat. They executed Jesus. End of story.

         Only the story didn’t end. What happened two days after the execution has become the source of equal parts hope and fear—just like Jesus’ teachings themselves. Resurrection has drawn together those who trust Jesus and follow his ways of compassion, justice, and peace. But even some of these folks, like Philemon, still own and oppress other human beings. So, what good is all the excitement about Jesus if so many of his followers don’t really follow him?

         As a self-described “prisoner for the gospel,” Paul discovered first-hand what it means to long for liberation and justice. After having persecuted Christians, his initial discovery, which began when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, probably felt less than liberating. In time, though, his temporary blindness cured him of his spiritual blindness. And Paul’s ministry became all about helping others regain their Christ-eyes.

         In his letter, Paul claims the moral authority to tell Philemon what to do. But Paul knows that, in this very personal, one-to-one relationship, if he makesPhilemon do something, he only creates a destructive, power-based relationship—not unlike master and slave.

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave in 19th century America, said many things that were applicable to Philemon’s situation. They’re also applicable to our own nation’s continuing struggle with the devastating effects of the sins of slavery and racism. Two things Douglass said with which Paul would almost certainly agree are: “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery;” and “No man can put a chain around the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened around his own neck.”1

With that in mind, I would paraphrase Paul’s letter this way: Philemon, my beloved brother, I have good news for you. Onesimus is one of us now. And he’s not one of us because of anything that he or I have done. He’s one of us because of what God has done and is doing in Christ. And that means he’s always been one of us. Even if you’ve treated him well, he’s never truly been yours. And he’s never been truly useful to you, only bound to you. So, I challenge you, of your own free will: Do the faithful and just thing. Do the Christ-like thing. Repent of your participation in oppression. Free Onesimus. Receive him as you would receive me. Receive him as a beloved brother, and discover what it means to be truly free yourself.

         Imagine yourself in Philemon’s shoes. You’ve just read out loud, to the entire congregation, a letter from Paul. You look up from the page and into the wide-eyed expectation of everyone gathered in your own living room, a room that Onesimus probably helped to prepare for your worship services and to tidy up afterward. In this moment, his absence is a palpable presence that is far more Useful to you than ever before.

         Paul has blindsided you with gospel truth. Through him, you have just heard Jesus ask, Philemon, why do you persecute me?

Paul’s challenge doesn’t stop there. By addressing his letter to the whole community, Paul isn’t just asking Philemon to free a slave. He uses both Philemon and Onesimus to call the whole congregation to the same liberating repentance.

         The letter, then, challenges every reader to face the world’s rampant injustice and oppression—injustice and oppression that we can all too easily mistake for personal security or for God’s particular blessing on us. Paul opens a creation-sized can of worms when he challenges this one small house-church to act in love for one person. By challenging them to act for the sake of Onesimus, Paul invites every Christian and every church to enter more deeply, more boldly, and more compassionately into God’s household on earth.

         To value our neighbors’ humanity as our own, to love others as we are loved by God, is to discover the fullness of our own true selves—the selves we are and are becoming in Christ, selves who do not shy away from liberating the oppressed, speaking up for the voiceless, and blessing those who are poorhungryweeping, and who are hatedexcludedreviled, and defamed because they have committed themselves to Jesus’ way of love and justice. (Luke 6:20-22)

         To be emancipated, by God’s amazing grace, into Beatitude living, IS what it means to be saved.

         Another compelling aspect of Paul’s letter to Philemon is that we have no idea what Philemon does or what happens to Onesimus. We can’t know. And maybe that’s why this very personal letter is now scripture for us. We and every new generation of Christians gets to receive and answer Paul’s letter as if it were written specifically to us.

         Today, in 2021, the Church looks up from this letter and into the eyes of an oppressed and oppressing world. How will we respond?

What are we going to do, not just to proclaim the liberation and justice of Jesus, but to demonstrate it in our time?

         How are we going to help break down the walls that divide us from each another?

         What will you do, today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your beloved life to seek and to welcome the Christ in everyone you meet?

1https://www.goalcast.com/2018/01/01/frederick-douglass-quotes/

Seeing With the Eyes of Christ (Sermon)

“Seeing With the Eyes of Christ”

Mark 6:14-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/18/21

         The disturbing story of John the Baptist’s death makes one reference to Jesus, and no reference at all to God or the Holy Spirit. It’s all about John and his ultimately-fatal relationship with power. So, it’s helpful to understand some context before we read the story itself.

         Mark 6 opens with the account of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. Certain that they know him, Jesus’ family and friends dismiss his teachings as the puffed-up sermonizing of someone who has gotten above his raising. Stung by the contempt of familiarity, Jesus not only laments his neighbors’ disregard, “he [can] do no deed of power,” says Mark. All he can do is lay hands on a few people and heal them.

         How telling is that, though? To Mark, a significant “deed of power” transcends physical healing. Jesus’ truly prophetic gift is in revealing the presence of the kingdom of God, and inviting people into new relationship with everything around them.

         In the next story, Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to minister in his name. He tells them to travel light. Wear clothes, but just go. Then he tells them that if a community rejects them, move on.

         Both of these stories reveal that prophetic living often puts us at odds with family and friends, with our communities, and, most significantly, with those who control wealth and power. The Herods of this world—including the Caesars, Pharaohs, and führers—never hesitate to use, or to encourage others to use, violence as the only reliable means to their ends. Presenting themselves as protectors of religious life, they’ll even usurp religious symbols and language to do so. Simply put, Herod and his kindred do not tolerate prophets who are faithful to God before they are loyal to power.

So, when Herod hears of a rabbi named Jesus gaining popularity and influence by teaching love of God and neighbor rather than loyalty to his throne, he gets a lump in his throat.

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.

29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (NRSV)

The story of John’s death seems as straightforward as it is disturbing. When Herod and Herodias, in a selfish and lust-driven act of entitlement, dissolve their marriages to marry each other, John calls them out. The fact that Herodias was married to Herod’s half-brother, Philip, was only part of the problem. Herodias was also Herod’s niece. So, John would have taken issue with an incestuous marriage.1

As a faithful Jew, John would also have been disturbed by the couple’s cavalier attitude toward marriage itself. For people of faith, both ancient and modern, marriage is a covenant bond to be honored because the commitment between two human beings mirrors God’s covenant with the Creation. While Herod’s marriages were, arguably, none of John’s business, as a prophet he felt compelled to speak to this high-profile, political leader and challenge his decision to slough off one wife in order to marry the other woman…who just happened to be married to his brother at the time…and who also just happened to be his own niece.

         According to Wikipedia, you can read all this in one of the early issues of Soap Opera Digest as well as the Gospel of Mark.

To be honest, I’m a little suspect of Mark’s portrayal of Herod. Like most autocrats, Herod Antipas was notoriously impatient and violent with anyone who didn’t toe his line. So, for the historical Herod to temper his indignation for someone like John the Baptist feels a little out of character.

The iconic southern writer Flannery O’Connor coined a useful phrase when talking about southerners and their connection with Christianity, a connection which is often as ambivalent as it is deep. She said that the south isn’t really as Christ-centered as it often makes out to be, but it is certainly “Christ-haunted.” She said that many southerners, religious and otherwise, harbor silent anxiety that Jesus is lurking about, hiding behind trees and billboards, watching their every move. Maybe that’s the kind of fascination Mark wants us to imagine Herod having for John. Still, given Herod’s well-documented penchant for tyranny, Mark’s depiction of Herod sounds almost sympathetic—until he becomes smitten with his great-niece/step-daughter, promises her the moon, and faces peer pressure to deliver.

         This story is not only disturbing, it’s a terribly difficult text on which to preach. There’s some predictable but rather shallow moralizing a preacher can do, but trying to tease out the gospel here is a little like trying to turn water into wine. We need Jesus’ help to render Good News from this vessel.

         Let’s recall, then, why Herod feels anxiety when he hears about Jesus. According to Mark, when Herod learns of another Jewish holy man living with prophetic boldness, he thinks John “has been raised.” And the idea of John’s return seems to do more than prick Herod with guilt. It seems to strike some measure of fear into him.

         This begs the question: When is the Good News not so good?

Through the centuries, much Christian preaching and teaching has used fear as a motivator. Accept Jesus, or go to hell. Jesus is coming soon, and you don’t want him to find THAT in your refrigerator, do you? He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice!

Such fear-driven nagging doesn’t create joyful disciples and prophetic churches. It creates cowering and selfish lab rats who have been convinced that God’s grace is a scarce commodity that must be bought by Jesus or earned through good behavior. So, to hear that God’s love excludes only exclusion2 doesn’t sound all that good to Herods and preachers who depend on the dependence of compliant minions.

As the Christ, Jesus reveals the fathomless heart of God—who is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and, most of all, the Lover of all things. In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr defines a mature Christian as one who looks for and “sees Christ in everything and everyone else.”3

When Herod hears of Jesus, and when he immediately sees John in Jesus, he’s seeing the threat of more judgment. Apparently seeing everything from a self-referential and, thus, a fearful point of view, Herod sees others only as he sees himself. Blind to any offering of grace, he cannot see what John sees in him—a leader, an example, a child of God. And during his earthly existence, Herod will never see what Jesus sees in him. He will never see the Christ in himself.

This uncomfortable story invites us to imagine how we, too, fail to see the Christ in the people and the world around us, and how that blindness can lead us to deeply destructive fear and selfishness. It also reveals to us the source of prophetic courage: The redeeming love of God at work in the world through the eternal Christ.

That love has the capacity to open our eyes to the holiness in ourselves and in others.

That love has the will to make us both humble and bold in the face of the world’s ferocious appetite for self-consumption.

That love has the power to reveal the ever-present and ever-gracious Creator in whose image we are made.

In all things and at all times, may you see the Christ in yourselves and in others. And may that new sight give you strength to be prophetic signs and reminders of God’s grace.

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

2https://cac.org/nothing-is-excluded-2015-06-17/

3The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Press, New York, 2019. p. 33.

The Hungering of the 5000 (Sermon)

“The Hungering of the 5000”

John 6:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/11/21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so theysat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (NRSV)

Here we go again—Jesus leading his disciples back and forth across the sea. And in the gospels, this is far more than travel. Jesus, the Word who was in the beginning with God, the one through whom all things came into being, (John 1:1-5) keeps moving over the face of the waters. Jesus’ story seems to recapitulate both the Creation story and much of Israel’s history.

Jesus passing back and forth across the sea recalls the Spirit brooding over the primordial waters.

Then God says, “Let there be light.” (Genesis. 1:3)

Jesus is the Light, says John.

Today’s passage also recalls the crossing of the Red Sea because Jesus, too, leads a wandering and hungry people to a place of promise and abundance. And in a scene that recalls Moses challenging God regarding provision for weary travelers, Jesus asks his disciples where they might find enough food for the people who’ve been following him.

       A frustrated Philip says, You’re Jesus. You tell us!

       Then, smearing sarcasm thick as butter, Andrew says, Hey Jesus, here’s a kid with five loaves and two fish. That should feed everyone, shouldn’t it?

       Back in the wilderness, the Israelites cried out for the fleshpots of Egypt. We might have died slaves, but we wouldn’t have starved to death!

       “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for [God] has heard your complaining.”’”

And quail and manna pour out of heaven. (Exodus 16:1-15)

       “Tell the people to sit down,” says Jesus.

       To me, it seems like avoiding the issue to argue over a miracle of multiplication of resources or a miracle of the sharing of resources hoarded by fearful and selfish people. Both are miraculous. Then again, given that human cultures tend to define success as excess, the latter just may constitute the greater and rarer act of God. Still, the thing that begs attention is that after all have eaten, they have 12 baskets of leftovers. The story isn’t over! However, the greed, the fear, and the selfishness that breed human suffering—they’re not over, either.

       We want a king! cries Israel. We want to be like everybody else!

       You’re going to regret this, says Samuel. But here, Saul will be your king.

At his coronation, Saul, already showing signs of incompetence, hides in the baggage. And the painful reality begins to set in: Israel is going to have trouble bowing before any king other than Yahweh because all other kings, including David, will disappoint. They will cause suffering. (1Samuel 8:19-10:27)

       John writes that “When Jesus realized that [the people] were about to come and take him by force to make him king,” he ran away. Jesus doesn’t hide, he just knows that, as he will say to Pilate, his “kingdom is not from this world.”

While history often repeats itself, in Jesus, history takes a whole new turn. It makes another crossing of the sea. Re-creation is happening. Resurrection, which is not confined to Easter morning, is happening. It’s about more than leftovers. It’s about a New Creation The story is never over!

       Another remarkable thing about Jesus is that when he feeds the crowd, satisfying physical hunger seems to be a means to an end. I think his first concern is to create a new hunger. His Socratic banter with Philip and Andrew reveals that the picnic in the grass foreshadows the Great Banquet, not a soup kitchen. Sure, the people’s physical hunger is important to Jesus. He just seems equally interested in creating a hunger for the Kingdom of God.

       When Jesus says “whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he’s not calling his disciples to seek satisfaction. He’s calling us to recognize within us the gift of an enduring—if not always recognized—hunger for God and for God’s realm on earth. And he calls us to nurture that hunger through contemplative living, sacrament, and service.

       The mystery deepens, because the hungrier we become for God, the less appetite we have for worldly things, and the more satisfied we actually become.

One critical spiritual hunger is the hunger for justice and righteousness. In the midst of pronouncing God’s judgment on Israel’s self-indulgent ways, Amos utters those unforgettable words: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

       Jesus reiterates Amos’ call when he, as the second Moses, ascends his own Mt. Sinai and delivers a new and more gracious law. Among the new “commandments” are these: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled;” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6 & 9)

       With this in mind, the feeding of the five thousand becomes a kind of narrative prism that bends the light of our souls so that we recognize within us and around us the enlivening hunger for the justice, righteousness, and Shalomof God’s realm.

       Frederick Buechner wrote: “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand…we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for…The Kingdom of God is where we belong,” says Buechner, “and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”1

       Maybe this homesickness is at the heart of all human division and violence. Maybe we’re all hungering for belonging and peace, but we’ve confused certainty for faith, power for hope, and self-satisfaction for love. And when that happens, too many interactions become competitions in which there are winners, losers, and collateral damage. And in such an environment, everyone loses.

        We do have small victories, though. And those victories don’t necessarily come when we get our way. They come when we realize that what unites us, at the deepest and the most human and humanizing levels, is our shared image of God, which is itself our shared hunger for God.

       We will gather around Christ’s table today and celebrate a sacramental appetizer of the Kingdom of God. And while I do hope you feel fed, nourished, and empowered, even more do I hope that we all leave here hungering, homesick, and hand-in-hand. For through our shared and embodied hungering for the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit reveals something new of her redeeming justice and righteousness, her enlivening abundance, and her ever-faithful presence.

1Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1992. Pp. 152-153.