“Storied into the Christ Mystery”

Mark 4:26-34

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

6/13/21

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)

         It seems to me that Christians often use the term kingdom of God as synonymous with heaven. And while we take both of these mysteries on faith alone, and while we speak of both of them metaphorically, the similarities pretty much end there.

         Jesus speaks far more often of the kingdom of God than he does of heaven. And God’s realm isn’t some ultimate Eden or Shangri-la. The kingdom of God is Jesus’ metaphor for a way of holy living in the here-and-now. To inhabit the kingdom of God, we deliberately, and with significant effort, sacrifice, and shortcoming live the life of Christ—the life of radical grace in which we celebrate all life as holy. That means working for justice for all peoples, loving one another as God loves us, and caring for the earth as stewards who recognize the eternal and immutable interdependence of all things.

         While that may sound like pie-in-the-sky, it calls us to the hard work of nurturing the creative, relational, human community which the Holy Spirit is always forming and re-forming. Our experience of this beloved community happens as we participate in it, as we release pride, fear, and greed, and approach everything we say and do with Christ-like gratitude and generosity. These interactions become the turning of soil. They’re the scattering of seeds of justice, kindness, and humility, after which we “sleep and rise night and day.” That is, we let go of the need to control outcomes. We simply trust that God gives growth to whatever God plants.

I was talking with Cari Gregg last week, and she seemed a little overwhelmed. That happens to virtually everyone at the beginning of something new. Like a farmer standing over a brand-new field, Cari doesn’t yet understand the potentials or the needs of the soil. Nor has she experienced the rhythms of the climate. While I didn’t think to use Jesus’ agrarian metaphors, my advice to her was, essentially, to go out into the field. Let her shadow fall across it. Get to know it. Visit the kids and their parents. That’s how we scatter the seeds from which God creates things like mustard plants, oak trees, and youth groups.

When farmers plant their crops, they usually have some purpose or vision in mind. Ultimately, though, planting is an act of faith. The weather does what it does. Farmers come and go. To plant is to trust that, come what may, God is the life-force, the heartbeat, the eternal yes within all living things, and God will grow what a given field has been gifted to grow. And sometimes, by grace, God reveals purposes that we don’t anticipate.

The house two doors down from us was sold over a month ago, and the new residents haven’t moved in. The yard, which the previous owners had seeded, and re-seeded, and tended with care used to grow only grass. As the earth reclaimed the yard, though, several kinds of wildflowers flourished, daisies in particular. I’d never seen any indication of such gifts beneath the surface of that manicured yard. But there they came, bright, healthy, and even edible! (Pro-tip for eating daisies: They taste much better when bathed in ranch dressing.)

“With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them.” Apparently, there were plenty of parables Jesus told that never got recorded. He walked about, constantly telling these short, simple, earthy stories and implying that crucial insights on the meaning of life had been planted in each one. The problem was that Jesus didn’t reveal those secrets to anyone except the twelve disciples. Mark says that Jesus spoke to the people only in parables, and let each person understand as they were able.

The telling of parables is itself the sowing of seed. And each day, hearing hearts could be good soil; or they could be hardened paths, or rocky ground, or thorn-choked jungles. So, Jesus kept telling the stories and allowing the Spirit to give the growth. His teaching was an act of vulnerability, as well, because, from day one, many hearers’ hearts grew only the weeds of fear and resentment.

The Greek word from which we get our word gospel means “good news,” but not everyone hears goodness in Jesus’ words. Any time a prophetic voice speaks to God’s radical grace and field-leveling love for the entire Creation, those who have become dependent upon the privileges of status and wealth become defensive. That was certainly the case among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. In Jesus’ teachings, their hearts heard a threat to their hold on political and religious power. We can imagine them feeling especially threatened when Jesus spoke in parables that many of them couldn’t understand, but which many of those who were poor, marginalized, and exploited did understand. And it would have surely rankled these wealthy, powerful men to see people they had manipulated for personal gain being affirmed by Jesus’ defiant kindness and energized by his selfless love.

This is where the difference between the Kingdom of God and whatever heaven may or may not be comes into play.

Now, while I’m not denying or dismissing heaven, no one knows for certain what happens when our human bodies die. Yes, we have the witness of scripture. Yes, there are the claims made in books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven. Nonetheless, the post-mortem mystery is entirely a matter of faith, and the best we can do is trust the boundless grace of God. To dangle people between heaven and hell and call it proclaiming God’s good news is to exploit both the gospel and the people with whom we share it.

Jesus’ primary concern for his followers transcends their deaths. He wants them to realize a vision of God’s kingdom as an earthly reality, something in which they—in which we—participate daily and on both personal and communal levels. Jesus calls us into fields of service in which we help sow the seeds of faith, hope, love, and justice.

It’s been said that Jesus told so many parables that he became one. And maybe that’s what he wants us to become—human parables. Since our bodies do, quite literally, rise from the earth and return to the earth, we are truly earthen vessels. We are soil in which God has planted seeds of wholeness and holiness. So, we have an intimate and immediate stake in living according to the ways of God’s justice and peace. Our bodies and those of our neighbors, the bodies of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,” all depend on the ability of humankind to see ourselves as inseparable from and responsible to all that God has created.

Again, that’s the point of Jesus’ parables.

He stories us into the Christ mystery.

He calls us, as parables, to live as signs of God’s realm of grace.

He invites us to inhabit and to welcome others into the kingdom of God which is already here-and-now. Today.

“Unforgivable?” (Sermon)

Mark 3:20-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

6/6/21

20 [And] the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (NRSV)

In Mark 1, immediately after calling his first disciples, Jesus dives into, what feels like, a ministry of deconstruction. He encourages abstinence from fasting. He picks grain and heals on the sabbath. He touches lepers. By chapter 3, the Pharisees and the Herodians have crawled into bed together to discuss ways to destroy Jesus.

         Mark sets up the story up so that we feel the stress when Jesus can’t even find a quiet moment to eat lunch. As things escalate, word gets to Jesus’ family that he’s “out of his mind.” That’s the same word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ action of casting out demons. “He has Beelzebul,” cry the scribes, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” The religious leaders see Jesus as possessed and in need of exorcism.

         Now let’s remember, the four gospels are not objective histories. They’re highly subjective, interpretive remembrances of a remarkable person. So, in remembering Jesus, Mark paints a picture of a man whose words and deeds cause friend and foe, angel and demon alike to wrestle like Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok River.

From his opening verse, Mark has been preparing us for this foundation-shaking clash between God’s revelation and the people’s dismay. Mark wants us to enter the story and feel overwhelmed with questions about Jesus, and what his sonship and lordship mean.

         In the gospels, some are trying to process the extraordinary notion that Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ. Others throw all their energy into trying to prove the fantasy of such a claim. The naysayers are always those who hold political, economic, or religious power—or they’re people who fear and revere those who do. So, when this unorthodox rabbi challenges the power arrangements, his anxious critics are quick to accuse him of evil.

         The odd and spiritually convicting thing about Jesus, is that his transforming love often burns brightest for these very folks. That’s why he engages them, asking, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” His point is that while the division which brings down homes and kingdoms is the work of greed, resentment, and fear, reconciliation and wholeness are gifts of God’s Spirit. When human beings reach that depth of selfishness and despair at which the source of wholeness and reconciliation seems to be the very source of brokenness and division, then we have forsaken God’s Spirit.

         The new life to which Jesus calls us begins with an inward death to all that is idolatrous within us. And it does take a kind of death to recognize that all human beings bear the image of God simply by virtue of their humanity. And this death enlivens us for experiencing and proclaiming the gospel in such a way that we, as “believers,” don’t simply “believe” something wonderful. With the Spirit’s help, we make it believable—by incarnating it. Instead of trying to insist that others believe what we believe, what if we imitated Jesus in demonstrating God’s grace, love, and justice in and for the world? And before we can effectively speak of resurrection, mustn’t we live as signs of resurrection?

One of the first steps toward participating in gospel incarnation is confession. We admit that we and our tradition have—in the name of Jesus!—done deep and lasting damage to other people and to the earth. That confession is crucial because when a community denies its sin, opting instead to proclaim only what it thinks makes itself exceptional, it forsakes the virtue of honesty. And when self-exalting communities fail to name and confess their corporate need for forgiveness, they almost inevitably fall into division. Then they simply fall.

         Let’s remember that forgiveness is not forgetting. A wrong that can be forgotten is just a prank, like giving a kind of milky orange sweatshirt with a big white “T” on it to someone who would prefer, oh, I don’t know, a bright red sweatshirt with a big black and white “G” on it, instead.

         To forgive as God forgives us is to look a neighbor in the eye and say, ‘What you did and cannot undo hurt me deeply. It will forever shape our relationship. Nonetheless, in order for that shape to be love, I release all desire for revenge. I surrender our future to God. And I trust that the scar between us will bear witness to our shared experience of a reconciling grace that lies beyond our ability to create.’

         Forgiveness is really hard work. But it’s the lifeblood of incarnational ministry.

         The notion of an unforgivable sin is a dodgy thing. It gets misused. Untold numbers of people have been more-or-less blackmailed into professions of faith because they’ve been convinced that God is a god of retribution. People with religious authority have told them that to avoid hell, regurgitate these formulae, give this much money, dress and behave this way. It seems to me that such an approach may add names to church rolls, but does it really create people and communities of faith?

         Grace is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, but all-too-often we put more trust in the fences we build and the fears we nurture than we do in the grace of the one who creates us in love and for love. When that happens, we distort the gospel and turn it into a source of brokenness and division. 

They, whoever they may be, don’t belong in our church. They’re not our kind of people. Isn’t such prejudice a symptom of the ever-crumbling hell of a house divided? And isn’t that what happens on Friday?

On Friday, we choose swords instead of confession.

On Friday we choose money over the presence of God.

On Friday we deny having ever known the Christ or having been moved by his love.

On Friday we cry out, “We have no king but Caesar!”

On Friday we choose disaffection from all that heals and makes whole, and, in blasphemous despair, we scream that the very Gift of God is a demon to be crucified.

It seems to me that on Friday, the Beloved Community, including all of Jesus’ beloved disciples, participated in the “unforgivable sin.”

         That’s the point of Thursday night. Around the table, Jesus said to the disciples, Listen, things are about to get rough, and you’re going to need something to get you through, something to sustain you when truth seems unbelievable, when life seems unlivable, something to remind you that no matter how far you may feel from grace, you cannot go far enough to escape it.

         So here—here is bread and wine. This will not only remind you of me. This IS me.

         Now, let this remain a mystery. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fight about it. Just receive it. Receive me. Share me.

And in this way, you will know that even when you feel “unforgivable,” you are already forgiven.

How Can These Things Be? (Sermon)

“How Can These Things Be?”

John 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/30/21 — Trinity Sunday

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (NRSV)

Nicodemus, a Jewish leader of some standing and influence, comes to talk with Jesus. Because this encounter doesn’t happen in a vacuum, let’s remember that Jesus has just done something unthinkable. Immediately prior to today’s text, Jesus runs the moneychangers out of the temple.

The moneychangers were there to facilitate Passover rituals. They were there to help pilgrims who had traveled from far and wide to exchange their local currencies for the currency they needed to pay taxes and to purchase animals for the sacrifice of atonement. This long-standing tradition was considered, for the most part, both necessary and helpful for the temple and the worshipers.

We can imagine how, in the minds of the Jewish leadership, Jesus’ actions attack the legitimacy of temple authority, the sanctity of Passover, and, therefore, the integrity of the Jewish faith itself. With this grave offense still a raw wound for religious leaders, Nicodemus’ desire to meet Jesus as something of an equal constitutes a significant risk. So, while concealing himself under the cloak of night may seem cowardly, it only says that Nicodemus understands the potential consequences of his actions.

Having said that, Nicodemus’ questions also suggest that his faith lacks depth and heart. Sure, he’s curious enough to go see Jesus, but self-preservation appears to be his first concern. And even when he hears directly from Jesus, he’s unwilling to commit himself to Jesus.

It seems to me that such is often the case when what we desire in matters of faith is a level of certainty that faith, by definition, does not offer. Thus does Nicodemus ask his frustrated question, “How can these things be?” Thinking literally and selfishly, he can’t imagine what Jesus means when he speaks of being “born from above” and “born of water and Spirit.” He can’t see the connection to his own life when Jesus says that “the wind blows where it chooses” without needing any kind of permission or explanation from human beings.

To Nicodemus’ question, Jesus says something that may sound insulting, but which I consider revealing and empowering. “Are you a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and yet you do not understand these things?”

The implication is that, as “a teacher of Israel,” Nicodemus has all the spiritual, theological, and priestly tools he needs to make sense of what Jesus is saying. If Nicodemus will listen with his heart to the stories he tells, and if he will feel, with his whole body, the rituals he practices, then what Jesus says and does should make sense. At their core, all those stories and rituals are sacred portals between this world and the eternal kingdom of God which Jesus has come to announce and reveal.

The same is true for us. Our stories and our communal rituals of prayer, worship, communion, service, and care for one another, and our work for justice in the world are not ends in themselves. We listen and look through these things to experience and to share the dynamic mystery we call God.

John seems to be saying that, for first century Jews, the rituals themselves had become idols because they had become the focus. Like closed windows, they kept the unpredictable but life-giving Spirit-wind at bay. So, when their faith had been reduced to religious business, the temple became a “marketplace,” a place consumed by consumerism, a place where profit and power rather than God were deified. And when Jesus called the status quo into question by clearing the temple of all of that well-intentioned but heart-darkening sin, then perhaps, somewhere deep within Nicodemus’ atrophied spirit, something began to stir. With the veil still covering his eyes, he creeps through the darkness to acknowledge that Jesus has some special connection to the holiness that the Jewish leaders were supposed to teach, but which they apparently don’t understand.

This returns us to Nicodemus’ honest but rather feeble question: “How can these things be?”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus’ response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience…There is nothing secondhand here…Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?”

In this encounter, Jesus invites Nicodemus—and all of us—to experience God in the concrete realities of human existence. That’s why the Judeo-Christian tradition tells stories and practices things like Passover and communion. Stories have characters, plot, humor, conflict, tension-and-release. And our rituals hinge on concrete elements—bread, wine, water—things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted.

The material stuff of Creation is itself a spiritual gift from God. It’s an outpouring of God. It’s only when we divorce the “flesh” from the “spirit” that the flesh becomes problematic, something to exploit, or worse, something to judge and condemn. So, while we proclaim Jesus to be the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ, the “earthly things” Jesus speaks of are the first incarnation of God. That’s why Paul can say to the Romans, “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that [God] has made.” (Romans 1:20) Being human, Nicodemus saw all those concrete realities. He just seems to have missed the holiness in them.

In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr echoes Paul, saying, “Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God.”1 And the Christ, whom John and others call “the light of the world,” is the one through whom human beings see that innate holiness in the Creation. Light, observes Rohr, is not something we see, but that by which we see.2 The Christ, then, is the light by which we see that same Christ in other people and in the created order as a whole. So, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, Until you’re willing to see God through me, no explanation I give you will help you.

In refusing to let Nicodemus off the hook, Jesus invites him to claim the gracious gift of faith, that is, the spiritual eyesight that sees the holy, eternal, and affirming presence of God in all things. For Nicodemus, and for us, that means taking the risk to trust something that cannot be proven, but which can—through faith, hope, and love—be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted in the joys and the challenges of human existence.

As human beings, and as people of faith, we have the tools to experience God’s holiness. So, may we open our eyes, ears, hands, noses, and mouths to the presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ. And may we remain humbly aware of the holiness in ourselves and gratefully aware of it in those around us, so that our hearts become sails that catch the wind of God’s Spirit as it moves us from darkness to light, from apathy to action, and from clay-footed certainty to bright-winged faith.

1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 13.

2Ibid. p 14.

Here I Am (Sermon)

“Here I Am”

Exodus 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/16/21

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

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

And he said, “Here I am.”

5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

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

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

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

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

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

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

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

      There’s a gospel connection lurking in this ancient text. Listen to the revealing harmony as we overlay portions of two biblical stories:

      “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro…”

      “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

      “There an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire…”

      “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…” (Luke 2:9)

      “[God] said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be a sign for you…when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’”

      “This will be sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God…” (Luke 2:12-13)

      “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight…’”

      “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.’” (Luke 2:15)

      “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them…’”

      “My soul magnifies the Lord, for the Mighty One has…brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…” (Luke 1:46 & 52)

      Jesus is often called the “Second Moses.” It seems fitting, then, that the stories of Moses’ call and of Jesus’ birth mirror each other so closely. What’s more, they are two of many biblical reminders that God’s call tends to surface in the midst of wilderness—whether geographical or spiritual. And that call often evokes an eager response.

      “Here I am,” says Moses.

      “Here I am,” says Samuel.

      “Here I am,” says Isaiah.

      “Here I am,” says Mary.

      “Here I am,” says Ananias.

      In most of these stories, the Here I am character experiences a kind of existential hiccup. Moses hiccups when his Here I am becomes, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?”

      Does that feel like familiar ground? To say, “Yes!” then, “Wait! Who am I to do that?” If it does feel like familiar ground, it is also, says God, “holy ground.” And a fruitful journey through the holy land of Here I am to Who am I? and back again requires openness, humility, and a fierce hope.

We see that in the conversation between God and Moses. On the holy ground of call and response, the Who am I? question marks the moment when Moses confronts the demands of new responsibility. And it’s a profoundly intimate moment. Take your shoes off, says God. Moses receives his call barefooted—that is to say, exposed, vulnerable, and dependent on grace.

      After getting Moses’ attention with a sight that defies reason, God turns and calls Moses to work that is even less plausible than a burning bush, and far more frightening—Go tell Pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves.

God then assures Moses with a sign that isn’t particularly assuring. When Moses has completed his task, he and the Hebrews will worship right where he now stands barefooted and overwhelmed. This “sign” is not some good luck charm or a compass to guide him. It’s a promise toward which Moses must both live and lead others. It’s an invitation to pure trust. And isn’t that appropriate? Forgive the cliché, but the life of faith really is a journey—a journey of risk, and discovery, and hope. And Moses isn’t buying it.

      The Hebrews won’t believe me, he says. I was raised in Pharaoh’s house! Plus, I’m wanted by Pharaoh for murdering an Egyptia!. Can you at least give me a letter of reference or something?

      Getting all existential, God says: Tell them my name is I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM sent you—the I AM of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I AM the one who was, and is, and is to come. Now go.

      Having been raised in an Egyptian household, Moses’ well of Hebrew memories isn’t even damp at the bottom. But maybe hearing God say I AM stirs something elemental within him, something that begins to remind him of the old story of Abram who leaves when God says, “Go.”

      God’s call for Moses to free the Israelites is also a call to establish a brand-new set of memories by which God’s people may live into new hope. And through the long and ragged arc of Here I am’s and Who am I’s, I AM eventually speaks another word: Emmanuel. Through Jesus of Nazareth, God says, I AM with you, in person. And so, the ongoing Exodus of Creation continues.

      Humankind is always somewhere on the Exodus continuum. We’re either slaving away in some Pharaoh-possessed kingdom. Or we’re crossing some sea trying to escape it. Or we’re chasing former slaves and trying to capture and oppress them all over again. Or we’re building golden calves because pillars and clouds don’t persuade us anymore. Or we’re simply wandering about, and complaining about the food.

Sometimes, though, we’re settling in to new ways of life, new and more edifying ways of being in relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth. Remembering the faithfulness of God, we look hopefully toward a future we can’t yet see, but which we trust because we trust that we didn’t get to wherever we are completely on our own.

      Here in the early 21st century, being the Church is no easy calling. Sometimes the best we can do in our wilderness is to throw up our hands and say, “Here we are,” then work through every “Who are we?” moment with memoried grace. So, we keep telling the stories, trusting that God is creating, through us, new and renewing memories for generations to come.

      The issues that plague our wilderness may seem irresolvable, but they will, in time, find resolution, because just as God called Moses to address the issue of Hebrew slavery and oppression, God is calling us to address the issues of our generation—issues which do, in part, define our era. And because Jesus himself did, as Mary said, bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly, the Body of Christ must, in my opinion, exercise a voice in addressing things like poverty, violence, racial injustice, and environmental justice.

Having said that, the issues themselves do not define us. We are defined by how we deal with one another in the midst of them. And until we, as followers of Jesus, answer God’s call to deal with each other as God deals with us in Jesus, we may never truly experience the peace that passes understanding.

      To use Mary’s words again: “In remembrance of [God’s] mercy, according to the promise [God] made to our ancestors,” (Luke 1:54b-55a) let us say to God, Here we are. Then let us be resolved to be defined by our Here I am of openness to God, and by our Christlike love for each another and for all Creation.

Future Tense (Sermon)

“Future Tense”

Isaiah 40:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/9/21

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (NRSV)

         The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and scattered the Israelites to every corner of the empire. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to re-program the Hebrews, to breed the Jewishness right out of them. That is to say, he wanted to erase their memory. The formative people, places, and events of the past would no longer be part of their identity. From that point on, the Hebrews would have one endless Babylonian present.

It didn’t work. The people kept telling their stories.

The Israelites passed the stories of their faith from generation to generation not to mire themselves in the past, not to hold onto some impossible wish that things would return to “the way they used to be.” Sharing their spiritual history was an act of subversive faith. It prepared and empowered the community for embracing God’s ever-changing and always-becoming Creation.

The Hebrews’ God-memories followed them like a dust cloud and led them like a pillar of fire. Their spiritual memory transformed despair into hope and defeat into new beginnings. It said that while today may be burdened with suffering, nonetheless, we trust that the future is rich with possibility because we have experienced God’s faithfulness over and over.

Memory is crucial. It’s the soil in which faith grows. And the future is the harvest, so, the future tense is the mother tongue of faith.

         Isaiah 40 begins what most scholars call Second Isaiah, and this new voice speaks directly to Hebrews languishing in exile. It starts with encouragement, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Then Second Isaiah shows his prophetic empathy saying that things are so painful as to be unjust. In what can sound like an indictment of God, he says, Israel has “received…double for all her sins.” Nonetheless, despair does not define Israel’s future.

         It’s interesting, faithlessness often comes disguised as pragmatism. That’s just the way the world works. It is what it is. Learn to live with it. Because the future can’t be known or guaranteed, pragmatism won’t trust it. From time to time, most of us wallow in that empty place of seeing only what seems to be. In a place of faithlessness, one can justify all manner of fearful speech, violent behavior, self-righteous prejudice and certainty. Life often seems safer and more reasonable when we avoid the future tense of faith. And yet, to people in exile, Isaiah offers a word to counter the apparent reasonableness of hope-choking faithlessness.

         “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level…Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

         Such hope can sound foolish. And it certainly isn’t the experience of the Hebrews’ day-to-day existence in exile. As Isaiah speaks, though, his words flood their hearts like light flooding into a house that has been shuttered for years. By invoking the future tense, the prophet invites the people to return not just to Jerusalem, but to a posture of expectant faith. Empowered by memory, gratitude, and hope, faith declares the future to be a realm in which all that is broken will be healed, all that is unjust will be made just, and all that is violent and destructive will be redeemed by God’s promised Shalom.

         Today’s text from Isaiah is a staple of Advent, and during Advent we focus on waiting and preparing. Advent is about more than preparing for Christmas, though. Advent is a liturgical metaphor for the life of faith itself. It’s about committing ourselves to the long, difficult work of living today in the light of God’s promise that exile is not forever. So, when Isaiah says, “Get you up to a high mountain…lift up your voice with strength…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”, he’s saying that God’s future has begun. And he’s calling Israel to live in God’s future—today.

         No, things are not perfect, not for the Hebrews, and not for us. And while we’re made in the image God, we’re only an image. We wither and fade like flowers and grass. Yet even now—inasmuch as we live with humility, love with compassion, and work for justice—we do proclaim to the world, “Here is your God!”

         The past year has burdened us with a kind of captivity. We’ve had to mask, distance, quarantine, Zoom, and wait throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. And the experience isn’t over, but we’re finally hearing words of comfort. We’re finally hearing intimations of a new future opening up. Just like the stories of exile would remain with the Hebrews, stories of the pandemic will remain with us. Indeed, all indications are that the virus itself will remain with us. But thanks be to God for modern medical science, we and our descendants will be able to receive vaccinations against and, perhaps, increasingly effective treatments for Covid-19.

         The few individuals present in this sanctuary today represent this congregation’s first steps toward a return of the whole to public worship, fellowship, and service. Jonesborough Presbyterian hardly has the same significance to the Christian faith that Jerusalem did to Hebrew exiles in Babylon; nonetheless, today is a future-tense utterance of our collective faith that God is always with us.

Two things about that: First, there’s a very real sense in which today is less a return than a continuation. I’ve been delighted by, encouraged by, and at times in awe of the way this congregation has not stopped doing ministry. You haven’t stopped having ministry team meetings. You haven’t stopped loving and caring for each other. You haven’t stopped supporting the food pantry, Family Promise, Loaves and Fishes, the Day Reporting Center, and other outreach ministries. You haven’t stopped tithing. You haven’t stopped caring for this building. Those of you who can, haven’t stopped worshiping online or in the parking lot. In short, you have not stopped being Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. And I thank God for all of you!

Second, while today marks a return, it’s not a return to the way things were. It’s a new beginning. Too much has happened over the last year. Our faith stories and our human story have experienced too much since March of 2020. As we return, then, let’s expect to find some new life to live and to share. Let’s expect some new work to do. God doesn’t see us through painful times just to return us to some comfortable status quo. When God redeems the past, God also prepares us for some new and deeper calling. And whatever that calling may be, it has to do with lifting up valleys and leveling rough places.

It has to do, as Amos said, with doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

It has to do with participating in God’s ongoing redemption of the Creation.

It has to do with welcoming all human beings into God’s fold of holiness and wholeness.

I’m different than I was a year ago, and I bet most of you are, too. As we, one step at a time, move beyond pandemic exile, let’s discover our new selves. And let’s embrace our call to bear a bold new witness to the already-and-not-yet realm of God’s justice and peace.

A Model of Goodness (Sermon)

“A Model of Goodness”

John 10:11-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/2/21

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  (NRSV)

It’s an affirmation all of us have heard in one context or another: “She’s a good woman.” “He’s a good man.” “They’re good kids.” I really like it when someone says to a specific individual, “You’re good people.” When spoken to one person, that folksy phrase affirms not only that person; it affirms that person’s community. It also embraces and welcomes that person and his/her people into the community of the one pronouncing goodness.

Goodness, though, is a relative concept. Different people and groups can have diametrically opposed understandings of goodness. What I consider good, someone else may consider foolish or even bad. Such variances are all-too-evident in today’s world. And while it is truly good to span the gulfs of disagreement, the true goodness of reconciliation and redemption never happens quickly or easily. Such goodness requires that those in conflict surrender to principles and practices that will lead them in ways of reconciliation and redemption. And that takes the leadership of people who have committed themselves to doing good work, to living as agents of goodness, even when they, in their imperfect selves, aren’t always as good as the work they do.

In today’s text, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” And it’s interesting: While the Church has, for millennia, taught that Jesus was “perfect,” according to Mark and Luke, Jesus rejected the goodness label.

Mark and Luke record an encounter Jesus has with a man (traditionally called “the rich young ruler”) who asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus. “God alone is good.” And look, you know what to do, anyway—follow God’s commandments.

Oh, I do that, says the man.

Then Jesus broadsides the man’s self-assured ego saying, Okay. So, now you lack only one thing. Go, sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.

The man walks away in distress. He’s too comfortable in his wealth, too secure in his public influence to embrace the kind of deep goodness into which Jesus calls him and desires to lead him. (Mark 10:17ff and Luke 18:18ff)

In John 10, Jesus appears to embrace the label of goodness. Twice he calls himself the “good shepherd.” According to most commentators, though, the word usually translated “good” is better translated as “model.”1 Jesus is the model shepherd. To model something means to enact behaviors consistent with an ideal. Goodness is itself an ideal, a deep and abiding essence.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus wasn’t good. I’m saying that, according to the text, when Jesus claims to be the “good shepherd,” he declares something very specific. He declares himself trustworthy. He promises to lead by example—by demonstrating justice, righteousness, and love. Like a “good shepherd,” Jesus will lead his followers to green pastures and still waters. He will reconcile them with their enemies. And he will accompany them through every painful, death-shadowed valley.

Returning to the rich young man: As he walks away, we can almost hear him saying to himself, Give up all my comfort, power, and privilege, and actually, physically follow Jesus and live like him? No thank you! I’m no sheep!

We can understand his reluctance, can’t we? As citizens of a nation that consumes far more than its share of the world’s resources, and that has the capacity to exert planet-altering influence, we don’t like to think of ourselves as sheep, either. The steep down-side to privilege and self-determination is the sense of entitlement that comes with those luxuries, and which usually presents as the sin of pride.

In the list of the seven deadly sins, pride is almost universally considered “the original and most serious” sin. It’s regarded as the source of and inspiration for all other sins.2

Those who claim to be leaders but who lead people from a posture of pride, are, according to Jesus, “hired hands.” And hired hands are concerned only for themselves.

Hired hands committed to wealth and power seldom lead. They manipulate and coerce.

Hired hands don’t make contributions to causes or communities. They make investments. They do favors for which they expect favors in return.

Hired hands don’t really make friends. They just make allies for future endeavors.

Averse to real responsibility, hired hands will take credit, but will almost never admit fault.

Because hired hands must win at any cost, reconciliation and redemption are signs of weakness.

And when the chips are down, hired hands abandon the flock. They never learn what it means to save one’s life by losing it.

Prior to the resurrection, Simon Peter was a hired hand. He claimed to follow Jesus, but he refused to accept that Jesus would die. He refused to accept that Jesus should wash the disciples’ feet. And on Friday, in undeniable hired-hand fashion, he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Peter, still brash and flawed, begins to live into a new way of being, a new way of leading the people whom Jesus led. Eventually, Peter himself becomes a model of the “model shepherd.” And according to tradition, he also lays down his life on behalf of the good shepherd and his flock.

One thing that makes the good shepherd truly good is that he recognizes the universality of his flock. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” says Jesus. No single sheep and no one fold can claim exclusive right to the “one shepherd.” The voice known by all sheep, whoever they are, is the good shepherd’s voice—the voice of compassion, justice, community, and peace. And by peace, I mean that wholeness and holiness that come from recognizing the sacredness in all Creation and working to reveal it and preserve it. When we share the peace of Christ with each other, it is that reconciling, redeeming peace we share.

When Jesus says that his sheep hear and know his voice, he affirms our essential nature as creatures made in the image of God. So, he’s saying to each of us, “You’re good people.” He lays claim to and welcomes every one of us.

While Jesus’ voice does comfort us, even more so does it challenge us. It calls us to lay aside our selfish pride and to follow him—completely—in humble and grateful service on behalf of those whose lives are tortured by poverty or oppression, who are tormented with mental and emotional despair, who are burdened with physical pain, and even those who are blinded by hired-hand pride.

Friends, the “good shepherd” knows you and claims you. He claims all of us, because he knows that deep down, beneath all of the suffering and all of the bluster, beats the heart of the Beloved.

May you listen for and hear the shepherd’s voice.

May you model your life after his life and his ways of seeking, evoking, and embracing the goodness in yourself and in those around you.

And in following the good shepherd, may we all be reconciled and redeemed.

1Sarah Heinrich, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 451.

2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins#Pride

Pruned in Love/Pruned for Love (Sermon)

“Pruned in Love/Pruned for Love”

John 15:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/25/21

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.

4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.(NRSV)

         Most of us can relate to the image of pruning. Maybe not all of us have pruned grape vines, but many of us have some familiarity with pruning things like rose bushes, azaleas, or crepe myrtles. Or we’ve suckered tomato plants. Or we’ve at least weeded a garden.

It seems to me, too, that when reading and interpreting the image of the vine-grower pruning the vines, the tendency in the church has been to head straight for judgment. The idea that “sinners” are branches to be pruned and burned fans that smoldering ember of resentment within that part of us that wants to see bad people suffer.

Related to that, pruning can also be low-hanging fruit for lazy preachers who would rather scare worshipers into compliant behavior than take the risk of preaching and modeling real faith, hope, and love—that is to say practicing genuine discipleship, which, says Jesus, is what truly delights and glorifies God.

The detail that got my attention this week is Jesus saying that the vine-grower prunes even fruitful branches. He does that, says Jesus, “to make [them] bear more fruit.”

When I look back at sermons I wrote and preached 15-25 years ago, I’m amazed that people didn’t get up and leave. My early sermons so terribly, terribly long. And while much of what I wrote may have been poorly written, it wasn’t bad in principle. It just wasn’t helpful. It did precious little to help proclaim the gospel or glorify God.

Over the last ten years, I’ve adopted a less is more approach to sermon writing. Still, the first draft of every sermon always has way more words than necessary. After finishing a draft, I break out the pruning shears and lop and burn my way through the sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I grieve the loss of certain things. Every word and turn of phrase meant something to me when I wrote it. But on the whole, those extra leaves and branches did little more than call attention to themselves.

It seems to me that that’s the kind of pruning the vine-grower does to make even the good branches produce more fruit. Even the best parts of us have extraneous stuff that can—and according to John 15, should—be pruned to allow the beauty of our God-imaged selves to shine.

If we step back and look at the broad sweep of Jesus’ ministry, we can see his words clipping away at the branches much like a vine-grower pruning his vines. One of the clearest examples appears in Matthew’s sermon on the mount when Jesus says (six times!) that his listeners have heard that the law says one thing (like exact and eye for an eye, or love your neighbor and hate your enemy), “but,” says Jesus, “I say to you” forgive as God forgives you, and love and pray for your enemies as well as your friends. (See Matthew 5) He doesn’t just turn the law upside down; he prunes it in order to allow all the branches to grow and become more vital.

While Jesus does get frustrated with and speak prophetically to those who continue to live selfishly, judgmentally, and violently, he nonetheless forgives and loves everyone whom he teaches. He claims them as branches.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” he says. That opens the door to a thought-provoking inference. It is—in part, anyway—Jesus’ own body that he prunes. When he prunes, he does so not to cut off fingers or toes, not to get rid of certain individuals, but to give the whole body, all humanity, new opportunity to grow. In John 10:10, he says, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

         To reiterate a point I’ve made before: Jesus comes not to prepare us to be dead, but to teach us how to be alive, here and now. And the abundant life to which he calls us involves letting go of, being pruned of, those attitudes and practices that limit our ability to love and to be loved by God, and to love and to be loved by one another.

         Later in John, when Jesus tries to wash Peter’s feet, the disciple refuses to accept that Jesus should stoop to the level of the lowest servant in a household. Both lovingly and firmly, Jesus prunes Peter of his short-sighted arrogance. “Unless I wash you,” says Jesus, “you have no share with me.”

Jesus seems to know that if his followers think that Jesus is above servanthood, then they will assume that they, too, deserve deferential and preferential treatment. And any attitude or ideology that allows one person or group to assume superiority over another person or group runs counter to Jesus’ teaching about the last being first and the first being last. Being antithetical to Christ, those mindsets must be pruned from all who claim to be disciples of Jesus.

         Here’s the crux: Human beings are not pruned from the vine. Human sin is. Our idolatry is. Our selfishness, our prejudice, our pride, our greed, and our affinity for violence are all fruitless shoots to which the vine-grower takes his pruning shears. Being all about restoration and renewal, being all about Resurrection, Jesus wants to prune our spirits of those things because they keep us from living abundantly and loving unconditionally. 

         The other key image in today’s passage is that of abiding in Christ. When the pre-Friday Jesus says that when he is “lifted up from the earth, [he] will draw all people to [him]self,” (John 12:32) I hear him saying that to experience the post-Sunday Jesus, we must learn to let go of everything that prevents us from abiding in him. Otherwise, the idea of the crucified God will make no sense.

To abide in Christ is to draw our energy and our identity from the vine which is, as Paul says, “rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3:17) Think of the differences in hydrangea blossoms. Hydrangeas flower in blue, white, and pink. The difference is not the same as the difference between varieties of roses, whose blooms and aromas are genetically engineered. Hydrangea blooms get their color from the relative pH of the soil in which they abide. The more acidic the soil, the bluer the blossom. The more alkaline the soil, the pinker the blossom.

         The Christ Vine abides in love. So, when we abide in Christ, we, too, abide in love. Those parts of us that abide in anything other than Christlike love for God, for neighbor, and for the earth, pollute our words and actions with envy, resentment, and self-serving fear.

When we learn to abide in unsentimental, agape love, that love prunes us of fruitless attitudes and actions. Love becomes our way of life. We embody love, because we abide in Christ, who abides in God, who IS love. (1John 4:8)

O Absalom! (Sermon)

“O Absalom!”

2 Samuel 18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/18/21

Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds.2And David divided the army into three groups: one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. The king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.”

3But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.”

4The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.”

So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. 5The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

6So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

9Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.

10A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”

11Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.”

12But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! 13On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.”

14Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. 16Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the troops. 17They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones.

Meanwhile all the Israelites fled to their homes.

18Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar by his own name. It is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.

19Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said, “Let me run, and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.”

20Joab said to him, “You are not to carry tidings today; you may carry tidings another day, but today you shall not do so, because the king’s son is dead.”

21Then Joab said to a Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran.

22Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said again to Joab, “Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.”

And Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you have no reward for the tidings?”

23“Come what may,” he said, “I will run.”

So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite.

24Now David was sitting between the two gates. The sentinel went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he looked up, he saw a man running alone. 25The sentinel shouted and told the king.

The king said, “If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.”

He kept coming, and drew near. 26Then the sentinel saw another man running; and the sentinel called to the gatekeeper and said, “See, another man running alone!”

The king said, “He also is bringing tidings.”

27The sentinel said, “I think the running of the first one is like the running of Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

The king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.”

28Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, “All is well!” He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground, and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.”

29The king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.”

30The king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” So he turned aside, and stood still.

31Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”

32The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”

33The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”  (NRSV)

Absalom’s death and David’s reaction to it pulse with real-world pathos. It can make you want to grab someone you love and hold on for dear life. It’s no isolated tragedy, though. This story represents the culmination of years of one family’s lust-charged violence, poisonous vengeance, and shameless treason. And all this dysfunction stems from the family’s basic bankruptcy: Their failure to learn the difficult but life-giving art of forgiveness.

Let’s recall some of the backstory.

Not long after David claims kingly power, power claims the king. When he sees the beautiful Bathsheba, David sends servants to find out who she is. He learns that she is the wife of Uriah, one of one of David’s military leaders.

Bring her to me, anyway, he says.

A month later, Bathsheba sends word to David that she’s pregnant. David immediately sends for Uriah, planning to get the husband to enjoy a little R&R at home with the wife, thereby covering the king’s entitlement-fueled betrayal. Faithful to his fellow soldiers and oblivious to the state of affairs, Uriah refuses to take time for things his men cannot enjoy. A desperate David arranges a front-line assignment for the cuckolded warrior. Had Uriah volunteered for that post, it would have been a suicide mission. On David’s order, it becomes murder.

Later, when David’s children are grown, his son Amnon takes a shine to his own half-sister, Tamar, who is a full sister to Absalom. With the help of his servants, Amnon orchestrates some alone time with Tamar. After forcing himself on his sister, Amnon does what spoiled and selfish men usually do when they have used women for their own pleasure. He throws Tamar out with cruel disgust.

In that misogynistic culture that faults women who suffer sexual violence, Tamar takes a profound risk. She reveals her shame to someone with enough power either to protect her, but who could kill her. She tells her brother, Absalom. He takes her in, and immediately begins to plot the assassination of their brother, Amnon.

All this is right there in the Bible. The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?!

Having avenged Tamar’s rape, Absalom must flee Jerusalem and his father’s wrath. It takes David three years to invite Absalom to return, but it takes him two more years to welcome his fratricidal son back into his presence and to offer forgiveness. The two meet, but it’s too little, too late. David’s forgiveness only releases Absalom into his next mischief.

Finally free to move about, the handsome and charismatic Absalom begins a subversive political campaign. He tells disaffected Israelites, You know, if I were king, I’d take better care of you than David does.

Four years later, Absalom asks David for permission to go to Hebron so that he might make good on a promise to God. But it’s a ruse. At Hebron, the site of David’s anointing, Absalom gathers a majority of Hebrews and declares himself king of Israel.

Outnumbered now, David flees Jerusalem. After two-and-a-half chapters of political espionage and prophetic intrigue, we get to the story of Absalom’s brutal execution at the hands of Joab and his lieutenants.

Staring up at the ravaged, lifeless body of the king’s son swinging from a tree by his luxurious hair, Joab, who has done what David publicly asked him not to do, sends a lowly Cushite to break the news. Messengers who bring news of a king’s personal tragedy are often killed. But hearing of his son’s death, all David can do is to heave cries of overpowering grief and devastating guilt.

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

There’s a fascinating observation in this story. It invites reflection into the often furious realities of life. The storyteller informs us that when David’s and Absalom’s armies meet: “The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.”

The primordial forest of vengeance, envy, resentment, and greedy power reduces virtually everyone to predator or prey. And combatants know for sure which one they are only at the moment when they take a life or lose their own. And if they survive that moment, everything may change the next.

Samuel understood this when he cautioned Israel about demanding a king so that they would be “like other nations.”

Think carefully about this, says Samuel. A king will only lead you deeper into the forest of vengeance, envy, resentment, and greedy power. If you become like other nations, you’ll find yourselves demoted from God’s Image Bearers to predators and prey. Worldly kings survive by manipulating people with fear and by ravaging them with the sword. They’ll regard you and your children as Cushites, as expendable resources. But suit yourself.

It seems to me that as long as individuals, communities, and nations choose to homestead in that graceless forest, we will continue to deal deviously and violently with each other. And as long as those in power benefit from the disarray caused by such arrangements, they will call them good, or even blessings. But if power, wealth, and the means of violence are blessings, they are the blessings of idols. And idol worship inevitably leads one generation to bequeath its destructive ways to the next. It’s a sad, deadly, and all-too predictable cycle.   

In his song “Absalom, Absalom,” singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis paraphrases David’s lament this way:

You were the laughing boy who danced upon my knee.
You learned to play the harp and use the shepherd’s sling.
Always watching, my impressionable son,
Oh, Absalom, what have I done?


You were watching when I took a good man’s wife,
Gave the order for his murder just to cover up the crime.
All the vanity, cruel arrogance, and greed,
Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me.1

When Absalom dies in that forest, something in all of Israel dies. And we are all, still trying to learn that God is not a mere projection of our own pride, to learn that being chosen by Yahweh has nothing to do with entitlement. God has chosen Israel, and us, to serve as a visible witness to all Creation, a witness to the eternal strength of grace, which God manifests most memorably and most transformingly in the gift of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is about more than dismissing past offenses. To give and receive forgiveness is to hitch our wagons to the open-ended future of love.

The first death and resurrection of Jesus happens at his temptation. After facing down his own internal David and Absalom, Jesus returns from the wilderness—from the primordial forest. He returns, cured of any desire to live as a greedy, fearful, and vengeful predator.

At that first resurrection, God cries, You are my son, my beloved son!

From that point on, Jesus lives as prey. To predators, his grace smells like weakness, and they come running. Yet even when the predators kill him, God remains committed to forgiveness and love.

And on Easter morning God cries, O Humanity, my child! I have died and risen that you might live! O Humanity, my child, my beloved child!

1From Pierce Pettis’ album Making Light of It. https://www.piercepettis.com/music

Terror and Amazement (Easter Sermon)

“Terror and Amazement”

Mark 16:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter 2021

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  (NRSV)

         The women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”

         I tried to think about the last time I felt genuinely seized by spiritual terror and amazement. And honestly, I couldn’t think of anything. Not even at Easter. I’ve been hearing this story for 58 years. And I’ve been preaching it for eleven days shy of 25 years. And when trying to come up with yet another Easter sermon, I identify far more with the women as they approach the tomb than when they run away from it. I wonder who will roll the stone away for me. Who will roll away the stone of my increasingly unexpectant heart—a heart that often feels like it’s trying only to freshen up a corpse, trying only to put spices on an old, old story entombed in an old, old book?

         This week I began to wonder if that weren’t exactly how the women felt. According to Mark, Joseph of Arimathea had placed Jesus’ body in a family burial cave, and sealed the entrance with a heavy stone meant to keep at least the honest people out.

Women bore the primary responsibility for swaddling the bodies of the dead with spices to fend off the stench of decomposition. And according to Mark, the three women tasked with washing and embalming Jesus’ body knew that they couldn’t get in the tomb on their own. That made me wonder: Why didn’t they ask someone to come help them? Then I thought, well, embalming a body would have been a routine practice, but given the women’s love for Jesus, and given the condition of his body when he died, they may have felt rather unmotivated to get inside. So, could these women, distraught by Friday’s horrors and wearied by grief, set out to perform the ritual without really expecting—or even wanting—to be able to get inside the tomb to do it?

I think that more pastors than will admit it approach the beloved texts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost with some of that same weariness. Trying to find something new and invigorating in these same stories year after year can be daunting. Maybe the problem, though, is that we keep trying to find something inspiring, comforting, and “uplifting.” What if we’re missing the point? What if a good Easter sermon actually causes “terror and amazement”?

Now, here in the south, there are more than enough preachers who terrorize believers and non-believers alike with condemnation. It seems to me, though, that being terrified not to believe in Jesus for fear of going to hell is as far from the terror Mark refers to as the love one claims to have for their favorite hamburger is far from God’s agape love for the Creation.

Mark helps us to understand the terror the women feel by adding amazement into the mix. The women’s terror and amazement well up from the same place. It’s not a selfish terror. It’s not a fear for their own lives or property. It’s the ecstatic terror of realizing that the Creation—in all of its monotony and magnificence, in all of its agony and euphoria, in all of its horror and hope—is, indeed, saturated with the beauty, the holiness, and the feral creativity of God.

Perhaps the terror and amazement of the women on that first Easter morning accurately evokes and illustrates the truest and deepest sense of the word joy. Joy is so much more than mere happiness. And it’s light years beyond feelings of comfort and satisfaction. While joy can be expressed in smiles and shouts of Alleluia, it can also be expressed in tears and the keening grief of those who weep for the world because deep in their hearts they trust that violence, prejudice, hatred, apathy, poverty, and all other forms of suffering run counter to the loving justice and righteousness God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Such evils must be confronted and defied, and they can also be survived because, ultimately, they will be defeated. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed this when, with his extraordinary eloquence and grace, said, “Right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Indeed, says the Resurrection, this is true because death is no ending. Death signals the new thing God begins as evil is being defeated. That is what terrifies and amazes the women: All that stuff Jesus said, all that stuff about the time being fulfilled, about the kingdom of God having drawn near, about forgiveness and renewal, about losing one’s life to find it, about living fearlessly, about feeding the hungry, about clothing the naked, about greatness through humbly service, about loving God and neighbor…Jesus meant all that!

In Mark 3, Jesus is in the midst of a crowd of people, teaching them, healing them, loving them. Jesus’ mother and brothers show up and want to speak to him. Someone in the crowd says, Hey, Jesus! Your mom’s here. She and your brothers would like a word.

And Jesus says, Look around. You! You are my mother and my brothers and my sisters! Whoever follows me in my ways of justice, righteousness, and peace, you are my family!

The terrifying and amazing thing about Easter isn’t the resurrection itself, but the implications of resurrection. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then, as Paul says, “we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4c) If we take all this seriously, terror and amazement will seize us with joy because we are freed, here and now, to live a new and different life, a life of full kinship with Christ. A life of discipleship in which we fearlessly confront the daunting tasks of facing down all the violent Caesars who traffic in Creation-diminishing greed, waste, and racism, and in the wanton and self-serving use of brutal power. Resurrection life opens us to the holiness in ourselves, in the people around us, and in all things. It opens us to the hope of seeing the world transformed through the regenerating love of God. And resurrection alone makes that kind of life possible.

We carry around with us all manner of “spices:” Our church buildings and furniture, suits and ties, theological degrees and doctrines, vestments and investments, policies and protocols. And how much of that stuff is just burial spice? How much of our attention do those things divert from the people Jesus cares for? And when we come to church, when we enter worship, is there some stone that we secretly hope is still blocking the tomb? Still keeping a kingdom life at bay so we can remain comfortable and unamazed?

Brothers and Sisters, I hope this terrifies you: Whether you like it or not, the stone has been moved for you. Life is not what you thought it was. It’s not measured in years. It doesn’t end in death. You won’t experience satisfaction, much less wholeness, by owning, dominating, or even knowing—this is faith we’re talking about. So, your spices are useless.

And I hope this amazes you: There is nothing to fear. Come what may—tears and laughter, feast and famine, summer and winter—your life is defined by joy. It’s defined by faith, hope, and love. It’s defined by what you share, not what you have. God gives you your identity and purpose by calling you to follow the Risen Jesus. And wherever you go next, he’s already there, “just as he told you.”

Quite Suddenly (Sermon)

“Quite Suddenly”

Matthew 28:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter 2021 Sunrise Service

1-7 When the Sabbath was over, just as the first day of the week was dawning Mary from Magdala and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. At that moment there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven, went forward and rolled back the stone and took his seat upon it. His appearance was dazzling like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards shook with terror at the sight of him and collapsed like dead men. But the angel spoke to the women, “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here—he is risen, just as he said he would. Come and look at the place where he was lying. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead. And, listen, he goes before you into Galilee! You will see him there! Now I have told you my message.”

            8 Then the women went away quickly from the tomb, their hearts filled with awe and great joy, and ran to give the news to his disciples.

            9-10 But quite suddenly, Jesus stood before them in their path, and said, “Peace be with you!” And they went forward to meet him and, clasping his feet, worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go now and tell my brothers to go into Galilee and they shall see me there.” (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

         There may be no more appropriate place for Christian worship—especially on Easter—than outside in the embrace of new spring growth, beneath the natural light of the heavens, whether they shimmer with that light, silky blue that heralds a clear day, or whether they hang low and gray, heavy with the promise of rain.

         I love the sound of human voices singing Alleluias, too, but if there exists more unfettered joy than the morning chorus of birdsong, I haven’t heard it.

         Out here there are no doors that must be locked or pews to claim as one’s own. Our feet rest on the earth herself, and our faces feel the new day’s unconditioned air. Perhaps that same air, carrying tiny spores of pollen, irritates eyes and noses, but its perfume cannot be bought. It is pure grace.

         Out here we travel far more open pathways than we do in sanctuary aisles. Inside a church building we expect to be expected to feel the expectations of holiness in rooms that have been set aside as holy space. But out here, mystery slips up on us in the most unexpected ways.

         “Quite suddenly, Jesus stood before them in their path.”

         Perhaps far more memorably and more often than inside, the risen Christ invades our paths out here. And I say that not to diminish the ways in which we do encounter the risen Christ “in there.” But even for those of us who spend many of our waking hours inside those walls, we still spend more time out here, don’t we? So, if what we do in there fails to connect with who we are and what we do out here, we may never recognize that the risen Jesus is more than some theological doctrine about which to argue, or worse, some convenient tool for social and political control. That’s exactly what Constantine saw in Jesus, and Christianity is just now beginning to recover from—to be resurrected from—its one-thousand-seven-hundred-year bender as the most powerful, state-sponsored religion on the planet.

         If what we do in there fails to connect with who we are and what we do out here, then that place becomes a well-sealed tomb, and we its lifeless guards.

         Out here, along unguarded paths, Jesus stands before us. He gets in our way. This is where Christ surprises us with his presence—in the midst of all the poverty, the injustice, the grief, and the celebration of human life.

To be sure, we do claim the presence of Christ in the sacraments. And in his poem, How to Be a Poet, Wendell Berry reminds us that sacrament is also a way of life. “There are no unsacred places,” he says; “there are only sacred and desecrated places.” If this wide-open place of relentless challenge and wonder isn’t God’s house, then how can a church sanctuary be any more holy?

During Covid, we’ve all had to re-imagine sacred spaces, holiness, worship, service, and community. So, it is most appropriate that our first gathering in over a year is outside, un-tombed, on Easter. Outside is where the women heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Out here, where life is surging forth, again, is where the good news of Easter sends us to practice resurrection.

This is the perfect place to gather at the Lord’s table, too. For the earth herself gives us wine and bread. We come from the earth and return to the earth, and yet, while we’re here, in these fragile, earthly bodies, by the power of resurrection, we remain connected to the eternity from which we have come and toward which we, by grace, we are living, even now.

There has been nothing sudden about our shared Covid experience—except the way it began, perhaps. But as we go on living this life, Easter reminds us to be awake, to be awakened, to be ready, and not to fear. Quite suddenly things can change, and whether that change initially feels like it’s for the better or for the worse, Jesus is in the midst of it with us to celebrate, to comfort, to challenge, and to resurrect us into the newness and the wholeness called the kingdom of God.

He is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Let all the world say Alleluia!