22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.30The Father and I are one.”(NRSV)
“On Christ the solid rock I stand.” So goes the old hymn.
If only it were that easy.
Has trying to affirm not just the love, power, and justice of God, but the very existence of any kind of Creator ever felt like standing on thin ice? For those of us who have felt that way, maybe it’s because we want from faith in God things that neither faith nor God offer. Then again, maybe the deeper troubles come if we never struggle with faith.
The men who approach Jesus in the temple during the Feast of Dedication are devoted Jewish leaders. They know the Torah backward and forward. They practice and teach their faith. They do look for the Messiah, but do they really hope that Jesus is the Messiah? Or do they want to silence another messianic wannabe? Posers were a dime-a-dozen in that oppressed culture. Whatever the case, the one for whom they wait stands in their midst, and they fail to recognize him. Maybe it’s because they expect only what they want and want only what they expect.
Demanding certainty, these institutional leaders approach Jesus and say, in effect, If you want us to believe that you’re the Messiah, make us believe.
And Jesus says, To this point, I’ve done all I can to show you. But you still don’t believe because you don’t really know what you’re looking or listening for.
Regardless of faith tradition, religious leaders who connect more with institutions and narrowly-focused doctrine than the wonder of the Spirit tend to suffer from a blinding and deafening lack of awareness and imagination. They want faith to be a science, but faith is an art.
Faith sees beauty in the midst of the world’s brutality and decay.
Faith hears the still small voice of God in the midst of life’s uproar and chaos.
Faith hopes in the midst of despair.
Faith trusts what doesn’t even appear to be believable because faith interprets particular human experiences as dynamic relationship with something that defies proof.
As an art, faith is always open and creative, always in motion, always becoming. Faith makes us artists-in-residence in our communities, participants in God’s ongoing creation and re-creation of the world.
When asked about her faith and her work, Mother Teresa once said, “I am a just a pencil in the hand of God.” And when reading the poetry of her life, we hear the Shepherd’s voice. We see his presence – and all this in a woman who struggled constantly with moments when her faith faltered on thin ice.
One of the compelling things about art is that the more we practice a craft, the more we begin to see new things in our own work. And through faith, we can recognize a greater hand at work in our own hands, a bigger heart beating in our own hearts. Had Mother Teresa not poured herself into her work day after day, she might have completely lost connection with God. Perhaps it’s fair to say that her work savedher, and not by earning God’s favor. By remaining in relationship with those in need at her doorstep, she remained in relationship, even if tentatively so, with the one who often seemed so far away.
Jesus understood and taught that same artful awareness. Embracing his oneness with the Father, he recognized and declared that his work was the Father’s work. Being of one creative mind, they fashioned new possibility and new direction in the Creation. Openness to Jesus’ art allowed Zacchaeus to discover gratitude and generosity, and Saul to discover wholeness and vocation, like Michelangelo discovering David in a chunk of marble. But when the critics asked the artist to explain his work, Jesus said, Well, step back and look at it for yourselves. What do you see? What does my work say to you?
Even now, Jesus invites us to decide for ourselves what we see, because naming what we see in him is part of discovering and practicing our own holy art and enjoying the blessings of our practice.
The Monday night book group just finished reading A New Harmonyby John Philip Newell. At the very end of the last chapter Newell talks about the transforming power of finding the object or objects of our love. To discover those people, places, circumstances, or visions for which we are willing to pour ourselves out in love is to experience salvation.1Using Nelson Mandela as an example, Newell says that “many will say that Nelson Mandela saved South Africa. But…Mandela would be the first to say that South Africa saved him. In the people of South Africa he found the object of his love, and in giving himself for them he found his true stature of soul.”2
Though a lifelong member of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Mandela’s faith was never as conspicuous as that of, say, his colleague Desmond Tutu. Nonetheless, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal a nation torn apart by decades of racially-motivated abuse under apartheid rule.3As such, that commission was a thoroughly Spirit-inspired, faith-based, creative effort to bring peace and wholeness to individuals, communities, and an entire nation. And as its leaders, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others placed themselves in positions of deep humility under the guidance of God’s infinitely resilient love.
As always, love is the key. Love is the multi-tool of grace. Love is like a brush to the painter, a pen to the writer, clay to the potter, an instrument to the musician, empathy to the actor, and an oven to the cook. Being one with the Father, Jesus shared God’s absolute love for all Creation. And he poured himself out, unstoppably, “even [unto] death,” (Phil. 2:8) to declare his love for all people and all things.
When we find and name the object of our love, and offer our love for the well-being of the Creation, through means consistent with the example of Jesus, we creatively engage our oneness with Christ. And Jesus’ voice speaks through us, just as we have heard and seen it through the self-giving love of others.
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
My life is as plain as it gets, says Jesus. Watch and listen.
If you experience faith as thin ice, seek the object of your love. Seek someone or something to which to give yourself, some reason to pour yourself out in compassionate, non-violent love, and watch what happens. Thatis your art. Draw it. Write it. Build it. Plant it. Grow it. Sculpt it. Knead it. Bake it. Knit it. Dance it. Sew it. Sing it. Organize it.
Philip Newell uses the phrase “abandon ourselves to love.”4To “abandon ourselves to love” is to discover our true and deepest voice, the voice which is an echo of the voice of God. To love is to know oneness with God – and thus to know salvation.
When we share ourselves in agape love, everyone and everything wins.
1A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, John Philip Newell. Jossey-Bass, 2011. Pp. 168
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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