What Is Your Apple Tree? (Sermon)

“What Is Your Apple Tree?”

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and 2Cor. 4:7-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/25/22

The word that came to Jeremiah from theLord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah,where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him…

Jeremiah said, “The word of theLordcame to me:Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’”

Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of theLord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”

Then I knew that this was the word of theLord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out the silver to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the silver on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase containing the terms and conditions and the open copy, 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 NRSV)

But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2Corinthians 4:7-12 CEB)

         As the Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzar, surrounds Jerusalem for an imminent attack, the prophet Jeremiah languishes in jail. His crime: Declaring that Babylon’s presence is God’s doing. (Jeremiah 32:3b-5) And Zedekiah, the king of Israel, condemns the prophet as a heretic and a traitor.

         With all the chaos around him, and even while stuck in his prison-within-a-prison, Jeremiah carpes the diem and does something that most people would consider only during times of confidence and security.

We learn that Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, is in danger of losing a field at Anathoth, just north of Jerusalem. He asks his prophet cousin to exercise his right of redemption and purchase the property in order to keep it in the family. Because Jerusalem and the surrounding territory, will soon belong to King Nebuchadrezzar, the purchase appears to be a pointless waste of money. More often than not, though, faith reveals itself that way—with a deep breath and a long-suffering nonetheless. For Jeremiah, that means purchasing a piece of land in a doomed country while he’s incarcerated. At the end of the reading, Jeremiah reveals his motives. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah’s questionable action becomes a public declaration that God has not abandoned Israel. Whatever may happen in the near future, the long view always belongs to God. And God can be trusted, even when all evidence points toward broken promises and a bleak future.

         Biblical scholar Stephen Reid says that land transactions in scripture are never “neutral.” They’re always freighted with spiritual baggage.1 I hear in that an affirmation of the sacredness of the land itself. More than some commodity, the land represented the promises of God, the presence of God, even the body of God. So, real estate deals always included some sense that the people were dealing with deep holiness, not just dirt and deeds. They were trafficking in the substance of God. Because the earth creates us, births us, sustains us, and buries us, it’s not gossamer piety to say that land never really belongs to any of us. Rather, we belong to the land; and in belonging to the land, we belong to God.

Another thing Dr. Reid says about Jeremiah’s purchase is that it was a very public and collaborative effort. It involved the initiative of Hanamel, the help of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, and “all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard” to serve as witnesses.2 The effort really did “take a village.”

This story becomes a theological gumbo. First, the context is one of disorder and anxiety. God’s Holy City is about to experience another defeat. Second, the land itself is a holy gift, something to be stewarded rather than conquered and exploited. Finally, the community, like the land, is both a context for and an agent of God’s revelation. And Jeremiah, seasoning his public act in prophetic speech, makes the purchase a visible, tangible, and memorable symbolic act that reveals the nature of true faith.

For Jeremiah to buy his cousin’s land under the worst possible circumstances declares that even when all appears lost, acting on God’s nonetheless moves mountains and creates futures.

         There’s a quotation that is variously attributed to the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, to the 19th-century French financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard, and to the 20th-century Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless of the statement’s origin, it’s a prophetic utterance worthy of Jeremiah. If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, goes the saying, I would still plant my apple tree.

         Maybe this is too much honesty, but I’m trying to figure out exactly what my “apple tree” is. What’s my field at Anathoth? What can I do in the midst of a 21st-century humankind that seems determined to destroy itself and the land?

I feel like I attend meetings more than I do anything else, and does that really matter? And for all those meetings, is this congregation better off than it was when I came here twelve years ago?

I spend 15 to 20 hours on sermons each week and offer them to the same 80-90 people. In a world of 7.8 billion human beings, does my preaching really matter, or am I just addicted to your attention and the sound of my own voice?

         And what’s the future of the church? I recently learned that Columbia Seminary, my alma mater, is now telling its shrinking classes of students that fewer and fewer graduates will actually serve churches. Most will have to do ministry in very different ways in contexts that are very different from the local church because the Church is losing both members and relevance. And it seems to me that if congregations and denominations continue to hold onto an institutional mentality, a mentality of existing for their own sake, a mentality which requires deference to wealth, national identities, and military power, their buildings will become museums, concert halls, and restaurants.

         The institutional church has been fond of saying that Jesus “paid the price” for our sins, that he “bought” our redemption. And when we flesh out that theology, we meet a human-imaged god who gets so deeply offended that he cannot lovehumankind again except by getting even, by seeing us suffer, or by seeing someone suffer in our place. In that scenario, redemption is “bought” by blood to “satisfy” an angry god. That fearsome message has animated the Church for generations, and our fear of hell made us willing to sanction and participate in the injustices and the violence of nations that strive to own and control both land and people. That blood-soaked theology is losing ground; and I have to consider the loss a gift of God’s grace—even if it sounds like heresy or treason to say so.

         If we’re going to keep using economic metaphors, I think Jeremiah’s redemption of Hanamel’s field provides a much better image. The prophet’s purchase declares that something as holy and beloved as “the family farm” is an irrevocable heirloom, even when it will, inevitably, even if temporarily, become the property of a foreign king.

         Through God’s Incarnation in a particular human being, God declares that all humankind is a field of inestimable worth. Humankind is the land worth keeping in the family, even when people of “faith” effectively place God in service to Babylon’s wealth and war machines.

         That is our message: We, all of us—not just Jewish or Christian individuals, but all humankind—are God’s beloved field. And if we have been “purchased,” it’s not because we were so evil that God couldn’t love us again until someone paid a ransom or spilled blood. It’s because we are loved by God who is love. (1John 4:8) We are Jeremiah’s earthenware jar, and as he said in the previous chapter, God has written the deed “on our hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God claims the right of redemption on all that God has created. That’s why we baptize infants who have no say in the matter. Our public, collaborative, prophetic declaration of God’s grace upon this particular child mirrors God’s proactive grace upon all humankind and upon all Creation in the particular person of Jesus. There is not one person or plot of ground that lies beyond the realm of God’s belovedness.

         If that gracious message is the ultimate and unambiguous purpose behind every meeting, every sermon, every hymn and anthem, every visit, then at the end of the day, maybe I can say, Yes, this is my apple tree.

1Stephen Breck Reid, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p. 100.

2Ibid.

Forgiveness: The Currency of the Kingdom (Sermon)

“Forgiveness: The Currency of Grace”

Genesis 50:15-21 and Luke 16:1-13

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/18/22

15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?”16 So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today.21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.”

So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them.  (Genesis 50:15-21 CEB)

Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’

“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.

“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.

10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  (Luke 16:1-13  CEB)

         “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

         Presbyterians are one of the few denominations to use the economic metaphor of debts when confessing forgiveness. And while “trespasses” and “sins” may be more widely used, “debts” associates with biblical references like “You cannot serve God and wealth,” (Luke 16:13b) and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

         Whatever word one uses in the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is a demanding and complicating spiritual discipline. Even to consider releasing someone from our indignation or from our desire for retribution can throw us into confusion. Resentment can be as seductive as it is destructive, and all too often, we decide who we are by whom we oppose. 

For one semester in high school, I was in the band, and our band director, though a fine musician, seemed emotionally stuck in middle school. After having engaged in some petty revenge drama with another high school band, our director, tried to teach us, and I quote, “You know you’re mature when you can hold a grudge.” In revealing his immaturity, that band director also revealed that forgiveness was not in his vocabulary.

Beyond the childishness of merely holding grudges lie much more serious issues, such as how to forgive someone who seems unrepentant, and how to forgive when a wound is too fresh or too deep.

While those struggles are real, I also think that we’ve hand-cuffed ourselves with deep misunderstandings of forgiveness. If Jesus teaches us anything, he teaches us that to forgive is not to stop holding each other accountable. To forgive is to participate in God’s order-restoring economy of grace.

The law of entropy states that all systems devolve into disorder—for political and economic systems that means the disorder of injustice, inequity, and violence. Disorder is also a hobgoblin for most religious institutions because, as our own Book of Order says, human beings have a “tendency to[ward] idolatry and tyranny.” In healthy spiritual traditions, forgiveness is the correcting, the healing of entropy’s disarray. True forgiveness restores equity, justice, and peace within the Creation.

         Many Christians find the parable of the dishonest manager Jesus’ most troubling parable. In the story, a manager forgives a portion of the debts that two debtors owed the same rich man. And through this “forgiveness,” the manager seeks to secure future favors for himself. Now, mutual back scratching is hardly uncommon. It’s just that forgiving debts in order to secure indebtedness is not forgiveness at all. It’s a graceless ploy to create a relationship of control and manipulation. As such it does nothing more than to participate in the rich man’schaos-breeding economy of scarcity.

         Genuine forgiveness, however, is the very currency of grace. It’s about recognizing, re-membering, and re-living the grace of God as revealed in Jesus. And it’s the re-living part that tests and yet truly delivers us.

         Because embodying forgiveness can be so difficult, many find it much easier simply to focus on personal sins than to pick up the heavy cross of forgiving others. That’s one reason that Christian theology, especially since the days of Constantine, has revolved around the theme of frightening people into individual repentance. Confess your sins so that you escape hell and go to heaven! Isn’t that easier than learning to forgive ourselves and our neighbors so that we live into a communal awareness of and participation in the here-and-now realm of God where our most relevant profession of faith is not reciting creeds but living in prophetic community in and for the world?

As we wrestle with this parable, let’s also consider the art of parable itself. A biblical scholar named Robert Funk said something very interesting about parables. He began by saying that myth creates the world in which we live. And by “myth” he didn’t simply mean fabricated stories of gods and goddesses. Myths are the densely symbolic and deeply true narratives of heroes, villains, tricksters, and lovers that shed light on the deepest innerworkings of the human heart, and, therefore, of human community. If myth creates world, said Funk, “parable undercuts world; parable brings not peace but a sword…Whatever we have come to expect, as a result of our myths, parable erodes, satirizes, explodes.”1

         So, when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables, he says, So that “‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Mt. 13:13) Jesus uses parables as a way of transforming the world by reversing the entropy, by redeeming our visions of and expectations within the world.

         When the “dishonest manager” disburses assets that he does not own, he does so as an act of self-preservation. And while the rich man commends the manager as a kindred spirit, he still fires the manager, because that’s what one does in disordered economies of merit, quid pro quo, and retaliation. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.

         Wrapping up the parable, Jesus says, “Make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

         I think that statement confuses us because a nuance gets lost in translation. In verse 4, when the manager plans to manipulate friends to “welcome [him] into their homes,” the Greek word for home is oikos, which refers to a household. In verse 9, when Jesus speaks of “eternal homes,” the Greek word for home is skénas, which means, paradoxically, “tents.” Scott Bader-Saye says that the parable hinges on these two words. “Jesus does not promise ‘homes’ but ‘tents,’” says Bayer-Saye. “Jesus does not promise to provide what the [dishonest manager] sought, [namely] the stable abode of those who have possessions and security. Rather, Jesus promises the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, and the pilgrim, whose mobility requires the dispossession of goods.

         “Perhaps,” says Scott Bader-Saye, “the Jesus who told this parable calls us to dissipate wealth as the [dishonest manager] did, but in order to be dispossessed of the desire [to make others indebted to us].” he calls that being “freed by…[the] holy squandering…[of] the possessions that possess [us].”2

         If we run with the notion that the currency of grace is forgiveness, then maybe, dishonest wealth becomes our own extravagant disbursement of forgiveness, even when it’s not ours to offer, even when it makes no sense to offer it.

         Jesus’ reminds us that the grace of forgiveness is a gift from God—something we cannot earn and do not own. And in the mystifying economy of God, the more of this transforming currency we spend, that is to say, the more forgiveness we give, the more we’ll have, and the more there is for everyone.

         When extending forgiveness is still too much to bear, that probably means one thing. It probably means that we must first squander a whole fortune of forgiveness on ourselves. When we forgive ourselves, when we forgive our past, the tent flaps open, and we find ourselves being restored to community.

And that means that we’re never without a place to call home.

1John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story, Polebridge Press, 1988, p. xi.

2See Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p. 94&96.

Celebrate with Me (Sermon)

“Celebrate with Me”

Isaiah 43:1-4 and Luke 15:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/11/22

Isaiah 43:1-4

But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
    the one who formed you, Israel:

Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
    and flame won’t burn you.
I am the Lord your God,
    the holy one of Israel, your savior.
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in your place.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
    you are honored, and I love you.
    I give people in your place,
        and nations in exchange for your life.
 (CEB)

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’

10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)

         The Pharisees are angry because Jesus eats with sinners. Well, if Jesus didn’t eat with sinners, wouldn’t he always eat alone?

“Sinners” are everywhere Pharisees are—even when only Pharisees are around. And within the Jewish community, they all worship the one who has welcomed back wayward Israel over and over for generations. And with Israel’s every return, God celebrates with a joy that surpasses God’s heart-pierced lament of Israel’s every departure.

         And there’s the rub: God celebrates Israel. Even when Israel has not completely reformed and renewed, God celebrates. Thus, says the psalmist, “you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you.”

God’s celebration can be seen in the continuing goodness and abundance of the Creation. Isaiah, the great prophet of return and renewal, declares this saying, “[Y]ou will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Is. 55:12 CEB) Singing hills and hand-clapping trees—this is the prophet’s memorable image of God initiating and celebrating Israel’s return.

Even with that shared history of departures and returns, the Pharisees divide the community between themselves and those with whom Jesus eats.

         Now, this is a potentially uncomfortable question, but is it easier for us to understand the Pharisees’ prejudice against “sinners” than it is for us to understand Jesus’ celebratory welcome of them?

Think about the people whom you distrust, dislike, or otherwise just don’t want to be bothered with. Our lists may be longer than any of us want to admit. And given the depth of the divisions in our culture, many of us have probably granted ourselves immunity from feeling remorse for our prejudices. If you’re above all this, you can take a nap for the next few minutes. Others of us, though, have created hard categories of THEM to fear and to spurn. And when we find people with similar THEMs, we only talk ourselves further into corners of pharisaic self-righteousness. And there we attempt to usurp God’s prerogative of defining holiness and worthiness.

But we’re not God. We just cast blame and deny our own connection to and even responsibility for any sad state of affairs around us. In our corners of self-righteousness, we assume roles of judge, jury, and executioner. And isn’t that what the Pharisees are doing when they complain about Jesus eating with sinners?

While some scripture passages do assign human-like emotions to God, it’s not the nature of God to grumble or whine. God engages in holy lament, which leads to redeeming action. And that is a mark of God’s true nature. The psalmist and Isaiah both know it. And Jesus clearly lives it.

Wendell Berry wrote, and I trust this to be deeply and universally true, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

Places don’t desecrate themselves. The desecration of place happens by human action and inaction. We exhaust the soil, decimate the forests, foul the water, poison the air. And if we don’t do it for economic or political gain, then we allow it through lack of gratitude, generosity, and responsibility.

Humankind’s poor record as creation’s stewards also stems from self-serving theology. When Christianity got drafted by empire, it became beholden to violent power. It quit teaching that the creation itself is an expression of the Creator. And that led to generation after generation of mistreatment of the earth. And when human beings desecrate the planet upon which we depend, we desecrate our human neighbors, our animal neighbors, and ourselves. It seems to me that when we try to divorce ourselves from the Creation, we end up, like the Pharisees, obsessed with “sins.” Caught in shallow individualism, we blame each other for the woes that affect us all. That reveals a corollary to Wendell Berry’s statement: There are no unsacred people; only sacred and desecrated people.

Dealing with sinfulness is easier than dealing with sacredness, though. When focusing on sin, everything becomes not only individualistic, but dualistic, as well—us and them, right and wrong, black and white. That’s why we’ve all been fed the easier and more palatable doctrine of “original sin.” The more empowering and demanding burden, though, is to accept and celebrate the innate holiness in Creation—what Matthew Fox calls the “original blessing” of our God-imaged selves.

When we assume fundamental sinfulness, it’s easy to find excuses for mistreating our bodies, minds, and spirits, and those of the people around us. When we recognize the Creation as fundamentally—as originally—sacred, everything changes. For then, all things are, truly, unified in God’s deep and eternal holiness. And to whatever extent we judge, malign, or damage other beloved elements of the Creation, we do that to ourselves and to God, as well. By the same token, when we celebrate and embrace others, we celebrate and proclaim the presence and goodness of God. And according to Jesus’ parables, that is true repentance.

In his commentary on today’s passage, Charles Cousar wrote, “Neither a sheep nor a coin can repent. The issue of the two parables, therefore, is not to call sinners to repentance, but to invite the righteous to join the celebration.”1 Cousar then quotes another commentator who said, “‘Whether one will join the celebration is all-important, because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or on mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents.’”2

         In all this, I hear that celebration is an act of repentance that breeds more repentance. To recognize and celebrate the sacred in others, especially in those whom pharisaic judgment labels “sinners,” is to follow Jesus in doing restorative justice. Holy celebration honors the sacred. It also has power to help restore what is sacred in that which has been desecrated by neglect, abuse, or imperial theology.

         When we lived in Decatur, GA, we took our then-young children to a Halloween festival at the Methodist church where they attended preschool. The gym was decorated with orange and black streamers. Delighted screams and laughs bounced off the concrete block walls. There were all sorts of games and stations where kids could win candy or little toys. In one corner of all that chaos, a woman sat on the floor playing interactive games with whoever would join her. The woman’s wavy hair was fading from red to gray. She wore a homemade, understated clown suit. And by the grace of God, she didn’t wear clown makeup. She had neither candy nor toys, and when Ben joined the group, the woman did the same thing she did with every other child. She wrapped him in a big hug and told him how beautiful he was and how much she loved him.

         A blonde-haired boy in a store-bought superhero costume headed toward the group—until his father turned him away, saying, “Let’s keep going. You can’t win anything there.”

         Perhaps no one in that room that night needed a celebratory welcome more than that father. And isn’t that our calling—to take God’s celebration where it’s most needed?

         Brothers and sisters, we are beautiful and beloved. And beneath all the chaos, we are saturated with holiness.

May the celebrating love of God be renewed in us. And may it shine through us.

1Charles Cousar, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 73.

2Ibid.

Looking Through the Curve (Sermon)

“Looking Through the Curve”

Exodus 20:9-11

Matthew 16:24-26

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/4/22

Exodus 20:9-11

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy.Six days you may work and do all your tasks,10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.  (CEB)

Matthew 16:24-26

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?  (CEB)

         Moses is leading the Hebrews through the wilderness. For somewhere between 200 and 400 years, the only existence the people had known was as slaves in Egypt. And now they’re wandering through unfamiliar territory toward a land they they’re being told is “home.” Imagine how otherworldly the concept of “home” can be to people born into slavery or oppression.

         The drawn-out journey means learning how to survive in a barren environment. It means birthing and burying loved ones haphazardly along the way. It means, as Jesus will teach, saying no to themselves and a radical yes to God. And the Hebrews’ journey eclipses the experience of any one group of people. Theirs is the human experience of becoming who God invites and empowers us to be. And that experience involves learning to live in community, and learning to trust God, who is not always as evident as parting seas, a pillar of cloud, or morning manna.

I am the Lord your God, says Yahweh. Trust me and only me. And approach this journey, difficult as it may be, as one of creativity and discovery. And to do that, you must rest. One day a week, you, your kids, your servants, even your animals must drop everything, and rest.

The rest to which God refers is more than sleeping in or sitting in air-conditioned comfort with a ball game on. Holy sabbath involves ceasing to strive for wealth, power, and status. Sabbath is about saying no to ourselves, and releasing everything that the ego regards as productive and worthy so that we learn to trust God alone.

The so-called Puritan work ethic created a culture of run-away meritocracy which, for the most part, sidelines grace and in which people who claim to follow Jesus equate material surplus with evidence of God’s favor. And in that furious push for certainty, sabbath becomes a day for more work—for adorning sanctuaries, delivering sermons, performing anthems, and for being present and presentable so as to avoid being the subject of gossip.

Sunday also becomes a day in which children, being seen and not heard, are told “Don’t run in here! This is God’s house,” the implication being that God is in here and not out there. So out there, the neighbors, the neighborhoods, the earth itself all become fair game for exploitation. So, anyone can use anything out there to acquire more “proof” of divine partiality.

Now, if all that sounds foreign to your experience, I am genuinely grateful. There’s truth to it, though. And I think those attitudes are symptoms of reducing sabbath from life-giving rest to Sunday production. They also contribute to the church’s diminishing relevance.

I think Jesus includes sabbath concerns when he says that all who would follow him must “say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow [him]…Why,” he asks, “would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?” As I’ve said before, Jesus doesn’t come to prepare us to be dead, but to be alive! This life is about living in holy communion with God, and sabbath is crucial for experiencing that union.

And now, a stark irony: If I learned anything about sabbath while on sabbatical, it’s that sabbath takes work. On the front end, it takes preparation and commitment to set aside and guard real sabbath time. And not observing sabbath can lead us down potentially dangerous paths. In coming weeks, I’ll sprinkle in stories about my experiences. And today I’ll share one from Saturday a week ago.

As I said last May, one thing I wanted to do was ride my motorcycle as much as possible. And in June I made lots of day trips. Then, in July, out-of-town ventures, the death of Marianne’s mother, unfolding family concerns, and a flat rear tire hindered my riding plans. When I finally got a new tire and other aspects of life settled into new routines, I got to take a longer ride.

About noon on Thursday, August 25, I met my friend Mark, another Presbyterian pastor and rider. We met at the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and between Thursday and Friday, we rode about 450 of the more-than 600 miles of that trip. On Saturday morning, at Mark’s house near Hendersonville, I geared up, and we headed toward Black Mountain, NC. Mark followed me in his car since he was going on to Asheville to make a hospital visit.

To Black Mountain, we took Highway 9, and it’s great for motorcycles and sports cars. It rises and falls, winds and twists through beautiful countryside. In early July, I took an MSF “Experienced Rider” course, and was getting more confident—and having more fun. That Saturday, I was also getting really, really tired. Riding 450 miles takes a lot more out of you than driving 450 miles.

About 15 miles before Black Mountain, I approached a curve. As I got closer, I saw that the curve, obscured by some trees, was sharper than I had perceived. I also saw that the curve began where the asphalt of the highway met the concrete of a bridge. That junction often has a bump, and when that happens in a curve, a vehicle can lurch toward the outside of the curve. And that lurch can be a bit more consequential on two wheels than on four. In my fatigue and surprise, I fixated on the bridge. I didn’t think about setting myself up for the proper outside-inside-outside trajectory for negotiating a curve. I also forgot Rule #1: Look through the curve. Don’t look immediately in front of you. Throughout the curve, look completely through the curve, because a motorcycle always goes where the rider is looking.

At that moment, weary and fixated on the bridge, I ran wide in the curve, and when the car coming the opposite direction and I passed each other, we were in the same lane—his lane. He saw me in time, and I was able to correct just enough, so it wasn’t a paper-thin margin, but it was way too close. And it was my fault. I didn’t look through the curve.

I now call that experience on Highway 9 my learning curve.

When Moses led the Hebrews through the wilderness, he had to keep looking through the curves because the people he led were fixating on them. All they could see were the discomforts and dangers of the moment.

When the prophets called Israel to faithfulness, they had to keep looking through the curves because the Israelites had fixated on themselves.

Jesus had to keep looking through the curves throughout his ministry because the Pharisees and even his own disciples, fixated as they were on matching Roman violence with violence of their own, kept running headlong into oncoming traffic.

There’s a correlation between spiritual weariness and the dangers of object fixation. And those dangers manifest as preoccupation with budgets and buildings, dogmas and decorum. All-too-easily people of faith forget how life-giving—and how life-saving—it is to practice sabbath. Moses at the burning bush, Elijah in his cave, Paul in Damascus, Jesus at his Temptation are all practicing sabbath so that they can avoid object fixation during the miles and miles of curves before them.

Over the last couple of years, I quit looking through the curves and have been running wider and wider. Taking a sabbatical only began the work of re-learning sabbath and restoring well-being.

Each of us, our congregation, the wider Church, and people of all faith traditions face roads full of curves and oncoming traffic.

Remembering that God is already where we’re going, let’s look all the way through the curves, to where God is leading us. And we’ll know that place as one of reconciliation, justice, and joy. And along our winding exodus we will participate in revealing that place—a home place in which all whom God loves are welcome.

And for the record, that leaves out no one.

Sabbath (Sermon)

“Sabbath”

Exodus 20:8-10a, 11 and Psalm 131

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/29/22

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.  (Exodus 20:8-11 – NRSV)

1LORD, my heart has not become haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither have I walked in grandeur, nor in wonderful things above and beyond that which pertains to me.

2Rather I have quieted myself and caused my soul to become silent, that I might be as a child that is weaned of his mother, as one who is weaned from my own life.

3Let Israel wait for the LORD from now on and for ever.  (Psalm 131 – The Jubilee Bible 2000)

In May of 1968, Thomas Merton wrote the following in his journal: 

       “In our monasteries we have been content to find our ways to a kind of peace, a simple, undisturbed, thoughtful life. And this is certainly good, but is it good enough?

       “I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate…a holy leisure. There is need for effort, deepening, change and transformation. Not that I must undertake a special project of self-transformation or that I must ‘work on myself.’ In that regard, it would be better to forget it. Just to go for walks, live in peace, let change come quietly and invisibly on the inside.

       “But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification, of mindfulness, or rather of no mind—a return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit.”1

       With his characteristic honesty and directness, Merton reveals his understanding of Sabbath as something more consequential than a vacation, or “spending time in nature,” or a “mental health day,” all of which are good. For Merton, though, Sabbath involves intentional silence, stillness, awareness of and love for the world in all of its beauty and all of its brokenness. Sabbath also involves confession and a disciplined openness to “the great doubt,” which I interpret as a reference to the natural limits of human beings to comprehend God. And in that incomprehensibility—in that ambiguity—we begin to inhabit the realm of true holiness.

Faith and doubt are hardly opposites. Indeed, they are mutually inclusive. And the more one learns to lay the thin comfort of certainty aside, the more one enters the frontier of trust in which, paradoxically, God takes on new and deeper reality in the midst of that rich, spacious, and sanctifying “doubt” which is not unbelief, but faith itself. When we welcome holy ambiguity, we may discover that God has always been incomprehensibly larger than we ever imagined. And through patient grace, God has been continually reaching out to us, inviting us to experience the fullness that is God—Who is Love. Incarnate, relational, and perfectly merciful Love.

       Thomas Merton’s wisdom is helping me to understand and plan for my summer Sabbath. I’ll use the first month as a time of complete disengagement, a time, as Merton said, to “break with” my own “accumulation of inertia, waste,” and so forth. So, I’ll keep my phone turned off as much as possible. I won’t check email or participate in social media. I’ll read for pure fun. I’ll ride my motorcycle as much as my less-than-perfect back will allow. Late in June, my extended family will gather down in Asheville and, finally, hold a memorial service for our dear Aunt Marcia who died two years ago. I’ll accompany Marianne to GA when she goes there to help care for her mother. All in all, June will be a time, as the psalmist says, to be “weaned from my own life.”

       Now, in September, I really want to return to you with renewed energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. So, in July, I’ll begin trying to discern what new directions and purposes God may have for me—and for all of us. Early that month, I’ll attend a week-long storytelling workshop with Donald Davis. I’d love to include more stories in my preaching. Through that workshop, I also hope to rekindle my love for writing so that I might remember and create stories that will help all of us to enter the biblical story with deeper appreciation for the relational nature of God.

       For the rest of July and the month of August, I plan to try to follow Merton’s advice and “return to genuine practice, right effort…[and] push on to the great doubt” in which the Spirit lives, and moves, and has its being (Acts 17:28) within and among us and all of Creation.

       When I met with the Langleys to talk about today’s baptisms of Burton and Charleston, Mandee asked if I might find a place in the service to include a poem by the Austrian poet, novelist, and mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. The poem appears in a collection entitled Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. The untitled piece Mandee showed me dovetails beautifully with the baptismal journey, the journey of faith, the journey of Thomas Merton’s “great doubt.” In one stanza, Rilke mentions an embodying of God. And isn’t that something that both Sabbath and sacrament teach us?

Rilke’s poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.2

       As my sabbatical begins, I offer to all of you a heartfelt THANK YOU! Your encouragement, prayers, and your very generous gifts mean more than words can express. The opportunity for an extended Sabbath is something that I do not take for granted, and I will strive to be a faithful steward of that time.

Finally, I want you to know that I have complete confidence in the session, the staff, the ministry teams, and in your sabbatical supply pastors, Kaye and Lee, to lead Jonesborough Presbyterian for the coming three months. One thing is clear to me: you are a community of faithful, dedicated, and joyful servants. You are a family, a village, a sign of God’s presence in the world. And God is always extending an inviting and invigorating hand to all of us—and to others through us. So, as St. Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I will continue my prayers for all of you. Please do the same for me and my family.

May God’s peace and joy be with all of you and all whom you love.

       And I’ll see you in September!

1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Ed. Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. p. 151.

2Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books, NY. 2005. p. 119.

To an Unknown God (Sermon)

“To an Unknown God”

Acts 17:16-31

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/22/22

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this pretentious babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)

19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we, too, are his offspring.’

29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  (NRSV)

A fine line can separate the trust that makes a disciple courageous, and the certainty that makes a zealot dangerous. Paul often appears to have one foot on either side of that line. In his letter to the Romans, he even seems to confess as much: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15, 18b) And so Paul is alternately a bull in a china shop stampeding over breakable treasures, and a humble mystic walking alongside fellow travelers with compassion and patience.

Paul’s watershed moment began on the Damascus Road. Prior to that experience, Paul—as Saul—was a militant fundamentalist. Steeped in furious certainty, he terrorized Jesus-followers. After his experiences of grace on the road to Damascus, and then in Damascus with Ananias, Paul himself becomes a follower of Jesus.

Now, he’s still Paul. He still has the capacity for decisive speech and action. And during his transformation, Paul’s actions, once fueled by certainty, become fueled by the lingering burden of guilt, as well. Eventually, Paul claims forgiveness in Christ, and, yet, because forgiveness never includes forgetfulness, he cannot shake those memories. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” he tells Timothy. And he calls himself the “foremost” among sinners. (1Timothy 1:13, 15) In all things, Paul struggles to balance his fervor as a zealot, and his desire to love as Christ loves.

         Entering Athens, Paul sees idols everywhere, and his zealot’s blood begins to boil. He heads to the synagogues and marketplaces to argue with whoever “happened to be there.”

In first-century Athens, rhetorical debate is a kind of spectator sport, sort of a cross between Sunday morning talk shows and minor-league hockey. And Paul begins to argue zealously against idolatry. And he gets attention.

         Aggravated at this “pretentious babbler,” the Athenians drag Paul to the Areopagus, and place him before the people who help to shape the mindset of the empire. And Paul, always a work in progress, speaks as both disciple and zealot. He walks with the hoof of a china-shop bull on one foot and the sandal of a holy mystic on the other.

         Speaking with compassion first, he says, in effect, You Athenians take your religion seriously, and that’s great. You even have a statue set aside to honor what you call ‘an unknown god.’

         Then Paul gently paws the ground with his hoof saying that he knows who that unknown God is, namely, “God who made the world and everything in it…[the] Lord…[who] does not live in shrines made by human hands.”

         It’s interesting: In the midst of the pantheon of named and storied Greek gods, someone in Athens had the honesty to acknowledge spiritual mystery, to acknowledge that not all can be named and explained. Not all can be known.

         Now, this isn’t Paul’s first debate. And as the Apostle, he musters the humility and the wisdom to focus on the unknown god as common ground. Such a concept resonates with a devout Jew who hears God saying things like, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8)

         Paul will remember, too, that to proclaim and preserve the inscrutable holiness of God, Israel refuses even to pronounce the name of God­­­—thus Jehovah, Adonai, and Elohim instead of Yahweh.

         If Paul has learned anything, and if he knows anything, he has learned that he knows only that God is not a created being. God is not some perfect version of us. In his teaching, Paul beautifully presents the paradox of God. God is real and near enough to be the one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” the way fish live and move and have their being in water. And at the same time, this mysterious Presence transcends all the rhetoric, all the “art and imagination of mortals.” That means God transcends any given religion. The Creator simply cannot be fully defined or known by the creatures.

         If the paradox of God as deeply intimate and yet unknowable is accurate, then building altars to God can represent our grasping for the kind of knowledge and control that we, as creatures, cannot have. Even our most well-intended altars are still human creations. And because they require attention and protection, they often do more to keep us distant from God rather than to bring us closer to God.

         Altars abound in our world, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, political, economic, academic, or any other “religion.” And it seems to me that they all risk assuming a degree of certainty that claims to have solved mystery and overcome transcendence. And when that’s the case, they become idols, things that can be known, predicted, controlled, and even wielded like weapons.

         As Christians, then, we need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.

         To what extent do we turn our churches, our committees, our doctrines into “altars”?

         What “other gods” do we allow into our holy spaces? Do we make the God revealed in Jesus actually dependent on those idols?

         What do we write into our theologies and polities that opens the door to the kinds of selfishness and faithlessness that Jesus neither encourages nor excuses?

         I have neither the authority nor the wisdom to declare final answers to questions like that. I do think, though, that we are all very much like Paul. We are part china-shop bull with the capacity to do things we cringe even to imagine. And yet we’re also part mystic with the capacity to demonstrate transforming faithfulness and compassion. So, we are both capable of and culpable for worshiping idols whose apparent strengths only reveal our fears and weaknesses. And we’re also capable of speaking the truth in love, of doing justice, and bearing witness to the inexpressible mystery of God who lies both beyond our grasp and at the very core of our being.

         In the 1300’s, an anonymous author wrote a book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This guidebook for Christian contemplative prayer states that there is only one way for human beings to “know” God, and that is to lay aside all of our assumptions and all of our codified beliefs about God. In courageous surrender, we turn ourselves over to what he calls “unknowingness,” and there we begin to encounter—to feel, to taste, and to see—God’s true nature. According to the author, God cannot be “thought.” God can only be loved.1

         It seems to me that the point of this thing called the Christian “religion” is not, somehow, to know God. For we cannot know that which cannot be known. The point for us is not even “to get to heaven when we die.”

I think that the point of entering and practicing our faith is to love the One who is love. (1John 4:7-21) And don’t we do that most faithfully and effectively when we courageously, joyfully, and yet very simply love one another and care for the Creation?

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cloud_of_Unknowing

Storied Faith (Sermon)

“Storied Faith”

Acts 11:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/15/22

         Before reading the text from Acts 11, let’s look back one chapter. In Acts 10, Peter climbs up on a rooftop to pray and has an unforgettable vision. A sheet drops from the heavens, and it’s full of animals that the Hebrew scriptures declare unclean. A voice tells Peter to eat the animals. Interpreting the vision as a temptation rather than an invitation, Peter refuses. This happens two more times, and each time Peter hears the same pronouncement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

         Peter soon learns that he received this vision as preparation to receive Cornelius, a Gentile, as a full member of the church. And during Peter’s first meeting with Cornelius, the Holy Spirit descends on the Gentile and his family, and they begin praising God.

Peter and the small group of circumcised brothers who are with him are thunderstruck. Having been taught—as a matter of identity and purity—to separate themselves from Gentiles, they never expect to welcome such outsiders into the family of faith. But they can’t deny what they’re seeing and hearing.

         In what is, for that context, an unthinkably radical move, Peter says to his colleagues, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

         With that story in mind, let’s read our text from Acts 11.

Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  (NRSV)

         Did any of that sound familiar? In back-to-back chapters, Luke tells the same story. In chapter 10, Luke narrates the story. In chapter 11, Peter shares his story with the “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem. In all of this, Luke makes clear that Peter’s vision of an open and inclusive community is both a prerequisite to and a sign of a faithful understanding of God.

         There are at least a couple of things in play here. For one, biblical literature often uses repetition to emphasize the significance of a teaching or an event.1

Now, the ancient kosher laws had important purpose. They helped to set the Hebrews apart as a kind of anomaly—a monotheistic culture in a polytheistic world. And Israel perceived Yahweh as deeply involved in all aspects of Hebrew life, telling the people what to eat, what to wear, what animals to sacrifice, and, of course, what kind of people to associate with.

While the ancient Hebrews lived as an anomaly in the world, there’s also a foreshadowing anomaly in the midst of all those restrictive laws. In Leviticus 19, God gives specific instructions on dealing with “aliens,” that is non-Israelites. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in…Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

With telling repetition, scripture bears witness to God’s expectation that faith communities show hospitality to people from other lands and cultures.

         Peter and his fellow “circumcised believers” live in the midst of a growing tension between the laws that set them apart as Chosen, and Christ’s command to love as we are loved by him. That tension continues because the life and teachings of Jesus make clear that whatever can be gained through hospitality takes precedent over whatever might be merely preserved through protectionism.

One aspect of true faithfulness is the will to demonstrate compassion to those who get labeled other and treated with suspicion and contempt. Faithlessness tries only to keep itself safe. This lesson had to be learned through repetition—thus the recurring stories of the Pharisees learning it, the disciples learning it, Saul, Ananias, the Galatians, and the temple leaders learning it. And now, their stories are teaching us.

         That brings us to the second thing in play. When Peter shares his vision with the council, he invites them into a transforming experience—an experience that called him to defy legalism and to recognize God’s presence in and love for all people. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” he asks. By implication, he’s asking all of us, Who are WE that WE can hinder God? In defiantly grateful love, Peter opens the doors of the church as wide as the arms of Jesus are opened on the cross.

         While those who oppose Peter have plenty of scripture to support arguments against his reformist preaching, Peter doesn’t argue some new doctrine. Like Jesus, he tells them a story. He shares his purely subjective experience the way one might open curtains in a dark room. He sheds light on something hopeful and renewing in the world.

One commentator on this passage says, “Stories, not arguments, change lives…Generally,” he says, “arguments…tend only to crystalize differences…to keep two sides apart…[creating] winners and losers.”2 And isn’t that the way so much of our own culture is dealing with differences now—one side trying to defeat the other side with arguments and insults?

Stories work differently. They’re invitations into another person’s life and perspective. When we listen to stories, with compassion for the teller, they have the power to move us toward rather than away from each other.

For several months now, our missions ministry team has been working with three other Presbyterian churches in Holston Presbytery to welcome an Afghan refugee family. We’re getting our ducks in neater and neater rows, and when everything is in place, we’ll get connected with a specific family.

One of the great joys of this process is that we’ve also reached out to the local Muslim community. For many years, many of us have struggled with how to interact with a population that has been associated with some very painful memories. And in working with the Muslim community in Johnson City, we have met people who are themselves reminded every day that their heritage is one that makes them vulnerable to suspicion and to the potentially dangerous consequences of that suspicion. Nonetheless, they are warm, receptive, generous, and good-humored. They’re faithfulness to the mandates of hospitality within their spiritual tradition also makes them eager to offer their gifts to help welcome people that helped to support our nation’s interests in a predominately Muslim nation over the last 20 years.

In addition to a lot of work, we have much to learn and to gain through this process, and I hope we will all help to embrace and encourage the family that gets assigned here. I hope we’ll listen to their stories, and get to know them as fellow human beings who not only want but desperately need a new place to belong and to call home.

I pray just as fervently, that we share our stories with each other, within our own families, neighborhoods, and congregations. And as we share our stories, may God heal us of the fears that drive us apart and lead to suspicion, hatred, and violence.

May we commit ourselves to living in, and to living as a sign of, God’s realm of love, justice, and peace—right here and right now.

May we truly become one in God’s eternal Christ.

1Robert W. Wall, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. p. 451.

2Ibid. From Stephen D. Jones’ article Homiletical Perspective. p. 453.

Faith as Art (Sermon)

“Faith as Art”

John 10:22-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/8/22

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So 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; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”  (NRSV)

“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

         That would be helpful, wouldn’t it? All too often, faith and faith language can feel like throwing unicorns and rainbows at a blitzkrieg of ogres and trolls. How does one trust what one cannot fully comprehend?

         The men who approach Jesus in the temple are devout Jews. They love God, study scripture, and practice their faith as they have been taught. And while, as Jews, they do anticipate the Messiah, John leaves it to us to decide whether the men want Jesus to be the Messiah or whether they just want to find cause to persecute him. Whatever their case, as Christians, we trust that the One for whom the men wait stands before them. If they don’t recognize him, we must have compassion for them, because we’re not that different. Faith is hard enough, and when we demand certainty, faith doesn’t just get harder, it drifts toward impossibility, because certainty is the opposite of faith—not doubt, or even unbelief.

Back in the Middle Ages, theology was called the “Queen of Sciences.” However, faith precedes and shapes theology, and it seems to me that faith is better understood as art.

Faith seeks stillness in the throes of life’s chaos. (Psalm 46)

Faith discerns beauty in spite of the world’s brutality and decay. (Romans 8:18-27)

Faith hopes in the midst of what appears to be hopelessness. (Genesis 50:15-21)

Faith trusts that which cannot be proven. (Hebrews 11:1)

         The Jewish leaders in John 10 seem to want faith to be paint-by-numbers, but faith paints outside the lines. Like artists exploring the world through colors, textures, words, sounds, and rhythms, people of faith explore the Creation as the ongoing revelation of God’s feral presence and gracious purposes. We encounter God through experiences of love, justice, mercy, and also suffering. And one way to discover the beauty and wonder of God in the world is through intentional communities that share creativity as well as worship, service, study, and suffering. In the community of faith, we are all, potentially, artists-in-residence.

         One of the compelling things about art is that the more we practice a craft, whatever it might be, the more we begin to see new things in our own work and in that of others’. We recognize a greater hand at work in our own hands, a bigger heart beating in our own hearts.

Jesus models artful spirituality when he speaks of his oneness with “the Father.” Jesus creates and reveals in a manner than mirrors the way God creates and reveals. So: From water to wine; sinner to saint; refugee to neighbor; burdened to free; law to grace; and even dead to alive. And when asked to explain what his work “means,” Jesus says, Look at it for yourself. What do you see? What do you hear? How does my work inspire you and call you to faith, to your own spiritual art?

         Over the last twenty-seven years, I’ve enjoyed the many layers of creativity involved in Christian ministry. My primary art has been reading and re-reading scripture to hear something new and to share that in sermons. Newsletters and other communications have offered opportunities for shorter pieces and, at times, a more creative voice. Visiting in homes and hospitals has allowed me to experience joys, wonders, and sorrows which transcend the ability of words to describe. In my teaching role, I’ve never lectured, preferring instead to engage as a fellow traveler as I prepared for and facilitated Sunday school classes and book discussions. Even working with committees has had its moments. When an idea hit the table, I’ve enjoyed helping to create space for it to evolve into something bigger as folks riffed on the idea with their own perspectives.

         Participating in all of those things has deepened my faith in the ways God is present and active in the world. And while I am grateful for that, right now I have to be honest. Over the last three or four years, a deepening spiritual weariness has crept its way into my being. More and more, I have struggled to find the joy I once knew. I’ve sought counsel and support from several sources, and those efforts have been helpful. Still, when I sit down to read, write, pray, or plan, I find myself feeling emptier and more distant.

         Over the last year-and-a-half in particular, that mysterious but heady blend of stillness and energy necessary for a healthy and creative spirituality has all but escaped me. Because of that, more sermons than I want to admit have been re-worked old sermons. They were significant re-works, creative in their own way, and almost always better than the original. Still, I started with old sermons because I lacked both the inspiration and the desire to begin new ones. I haven’t written songs or poetry to share with you, either. And visiting has occasionally felt more like a chore than a holy privilege.

Recently, Covid has had something to do with all that. The suspicion and meanness of our culture has something to do with it. Family concerns played into it. Maybe the fact that I’m not getting any younger has contributed to it. (I mean, I am a grandfather now. If I haven’t mentioned that, I do have pictures!)

Regardless of one’s vocation, when the passion ebbs, and assuming we still care at all, we’ll try to figure out how to rediscover that passion. We’ll try to reconnect with our truest selves—our God-imaged selves. We’ll seek to reacquaint ourselves with the Christ within us and within the Creation around us. And if we don’t do that, we will flame out—and we’ll likely do damage on the way. As Richard Rohr says, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it [to others].”1

The recent communications I’ve shared about my upcoming sabbatical have offered some nuts-and-bolts information about the what and the how of sabbaticals. And today I’m addressing the why.

Now, I have no grand plan—no book to write, no pilgrimage to take. I just need and want to rediscover my passion, my art, my joy. And I have to learn to quit crying out to God, “If you’re really there, if you’re really good and true, if there really is holy justice in this world of persistent violence, inequity, environmental exploitation, and denial of truth, then tell me plainly. Convince me!

While that may sound stark, it’s honest and real. I’m taking a sabbatical because I need time to rest and to recover the spiritual creativity necessary to live and to help lead others in the ways Christ-following faith, hope, and love.

If I didn’t think that a renewal of faith was possible, I would just quit and go some other way. But we are Easter people; we follow a risen Christ. Because of that, we proclaim faith, not certainty. And we are called to live as creative demonstrations of trust that we and all things reside, ultimately, in the hands of a God of love, justice, peace, and faithfulness.

Even through the most trying, faith-challenging experiences, may we learn to live gratefully, generously, confidently, and artfully so that we bear a joyful and compelling witness to the redeeming and reunifying voice of God in Christ.

1https://cac.org/transforming-pain-2018-10-17/

Peace Be With You (Sermon)

“Peace Be With You”

John 20:19-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/24/22

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)

         “Peace be with you.” In John’s gospel, these are Jesus’ first post-resurrection words to his male disciples.

It seems to me that the word peace has lost much of its original scope and depth. While it can refer to a sense of personal tranquility, just as often it gets relegated to a lack of geopolitical conflict. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. In Greek, it’s eiréné. In first-century Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was something like shlama. In the ancient languages, to invoke peace on others was to wish upon them a blessing for which mere words were inadequate. The word peaceevoked the ultimate Mystery from which all things have come and to which all things will go. Jesus was offering his disciples something far more significant than a peace treaty.

Having said that, the context for this story does hold significance. Jesus lived—and even more so did John write—during an era known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. If it felt peaceful, though, it was only because Rome had subjugated so much of the known world that, for a time, the empire faced no credible threat from the outside. It also brutally silenced virtually all criticism from the inside. That meant that those who held the wealth and the power could define what was true and just depending on what benefited them. So, it was under the authority of Rome’s version of “peace” that Jesus was crucified. Presbyterian pastor and educator Marjorie Thompson calls that kind of peace “enforced peace.”1 And in no small way, peace imposed through threat of violence allowed and even inspired us to kill God Incarnate.

When the risen Christ says to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” he’s offering something entirely different from the enforced peace of Rome.

Biblically and spiritually speaking, peace is a realm of wholeness, community, and joy. It’s a presence that saturates us. It’s a purpose and a confidence that guide us—even in the midst of fear. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he declares his resurrection presence to the men who betrayed him and abandoned him—men who, at the moment, feel anything but peaceful. And yet, from the realm of Resurrection, unfettered by time, or space, or human frailty, Jesus announces his eternal presence with and his forgiving love for his disciples and for all Creation.

When we share the peace of Christ, we share the same gift Jesus shares with the disciples on Easter evening. And even now, that gift is nothing less than the eternal Christ himself.

Yes, it’s a learned discipline to hold and to be held by the peace of Christ. That makes it easy to deny Resurrection, to say, like Thomas, Seeing is believing, so prove it! And that’s understandable. Experiences of the risen Christ are always subjective. They defy objective proof. (I say that with apologies to everyone who has seen Jesus in the scorch marks on their tortillas or their toast.)

The subjectivity of Mystery also makes it easy to reduce Easter to an individualistic doctrine, something one must accept in order to feel assured of a reservation in the safety of a post-mortem heaven. That turns resurrection faith into a rigidly-controlled institution in which people are contained and homogenized, a system which may be defended by worldly means for selfish purposes. And that kind of religion may fit well into “enforced peace,” but how does it proclaim the realm of Resurrection? How does it share the peace of Christ? How can a self-serving institution embody, as Jesus does, God’s holy justice and advocate for the oppressed without oppressing the oppressor?

Easter offers a way of being in the world that is always new because that same world is always telling us that we—individually and corporately—will be lost unless we impose our will upon others. Easter tells us, and shows us, that true peace is the gift of following Jesus in demonstrating love and compassion toward ourselves, our neighbors, and toward all of Creation. It’s the gift of praying, Your will, not mine.

The Book of Joy is Douglas Abrams’ thoughtful record of a weeklong conversation between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. And these two profoundly influential spiritual leaders say over and over, in as many ways as they can, using as many stories as they can, that there is truly hope for the world when human beings and human communities discover joy by committing themselves to compassion.

In the final chapter, Abrams asks both men to sum up the week’s conversation. Tutu responds saying, “If we think we want to get joy for ourselves, we realize that it’s very short-sighted, short-lived. Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others.”2 And the Dalai Lama says that: “…true joyfulness comes from helping others…” and “…the only way to truly change our world is to teach compassion.”3

The remarkable thing about these deceptively simple words is that they are spoken by men who carry deep scars of oppression. Archbishop Tutu lived under and openly contested the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa until that violently racist system fell in 1994. And the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959 when China invaded Tibet. Tibetans have been escaping China’s authoritarian control and abuses ever since. And yet both of these men committed themselves to lives of compassion for all people, including those responsible for oppression.

Like Jesus showing up in that locked room to men who had forsaken him when he needed them most, both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama lived lives of true peace; and one continues to live that life. Such lives are holy words from God saying to the world, “Peace be with you,” all of you!

Here, we begin to understand Jesus’ cryptic words about forgiving and retaining sins. If I acknowledge that the peace of Christ is the very presence of the resurrected Jesus, and if, for whatever reason, I do not share it with you, whoever you are, then I withhold from all of us a richer experience of God’s realm.

Christ’s peace can only be offered to; it cannot be imposed upon. So, it’s not a matter of whether or not others “accept Jesus.” It’s a matter of whether we, as disciples, are humble, grateful, and generous enough to trust that, like candlelight on Christmas Eve, the more we share Christ’s peace, the more there is for everyone.

When we do find the strength for that kind of generous compassion, we discover the deep blessedness of joy, and this blessedness is not associated with seeing, hearing, or touching Jesus in any conventional sense, but from loving and following the one whom we call the Prince of Peace.

Brothers and Sisters, from the ever-deepening depths of my self to the ever-deepening depths of your selves: The peace of Christ be with you all.

1Marjorie Thompson, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. (From the Companions in Christ series) p. 86.

2The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 293.

3Ibid. pp. 295-296.

A New Beginning to a Strange Ending (Sermon)

“A New Beginning to a Strange Ending”

Mark 16:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunday – 11:00am Service

4/17/22

16When 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)

         Jesus’ death was no great surprise. Indeed, it was predictable. Things would have been different for Jesus had he lived according to the ways and means of Caesar—the ways and means of weapons, wealth, and world domination. Had Jesus given into the temptations after his baptism and gained recognition for creating fear and enmity, or for belittling and persecuting opposition, or for flaunting wealth, Caesar would have seen in him an ally. For Caesar, there can never be too much fear and violence.

         Jesus held firm in the face of temptation, though. He refused to live by the sword or by an angry tongue. He refused to shun the weak, the sick, the outcast, the refugee. His life was defined by justice, by steadfast love and mercy. And those who allowed their lives to be shaped and re-shaped by his life became hard to threaten. Jesus had given them everything that mattered—belonging, dignity, purpose, and not for themselves alone. Jesus had given them his peace, his eternal Shalom—he had given them himself as a vision for all Creation.

         Caesar had no good answer for Jesus’ revolution of Shalom. To survive the threat of agape love, Caesar had to resort to the shock and awe of crucifixion. And that was natural enough for him. He’s been doing it for millennia.

         Biblically speaking, Caesar is more than a Roman emperor. Caesar, like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Herod is a metaphor for human hearts turned toward greed and brutal power. All of these things make Caesar as predictable as he is destructive and timeless. And because Caesar’s means are effective—at least temporarily—by Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers have been reduced to three courageous women.

         As those women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they assume that Caesar’s realm still reigns. Following the narrative of the ordinary, they expect simply to cover Jesus’ dead body with fragrant spices because everyone knows what happens to moldering organic matter. So, on their way, the women have one primary concern: Who will move the stone for them? When they reach the tomb, however, they have an encounter that is as extraordinary as it is brief. They discover that the stone has been moved, and “a young man” in white says that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells them that they’ll find Jesus in Galilee.

Then the women run away, too terrified to speak.

Most scholars recognize the women’s speechless retreat from the tomb as the original ending of Mark. In all likelihood, verses 9-20 were added much later, but isn’t “For they were afraid” a rather unsatisfying ending?

It seems to me that Mark’s abrupt ending makes more sense if we tie it back to the opening verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” To me, those words feel laden with mystery, with breathless surprise, like someone asking himself or herself, Wait. What just happened?

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are words inspired by the events of Easter. And they return us exactly where the young man dressed in white says to go, because eight verses later, after introducing us to John the Baptist, Mark says, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Mark’s ending deliberately returns us to the beginning of the story. And isn’t that what Resurrection is all about—new beginnings and new life? Let’s be honest: An empty tomb proves nothing. And we’re not called to prove the resurrection, anyway. Indeed, we can’t do that. It takes a fully human life committed to God’s justice and mercy to bear witness to the risen Christ. Following him is all about returning to his extraordinary story, and telling it by living it, living in the realm of Resurrection, the realm of paradox, mystery, and promise—the very place that Caesar does not want us to live, because he has no control there.

Easter people don’t obsess over pearly gates and fiery pits. Even Caesar welcomes that kind of religion, because it’s based on rewards and punishments rather than grace. And fear-based religion makes for vassals who, in the name of Jesus, tolerate the same winner-take-all violence and injustice that crucified Jesus.

Resurrection faith transforms us into Easter people, people who follow Jesus in losing our lives, over and over, as we become more fully Christlike. And by that I mean we become more alive, more fully human, truer to the image of God within us.

While Easter people choose to live fearlessly and lovingly, we also confess that when Jesus’ radical ways become too demanding, or when they feel absurd, we may run away, terrified and speechless. But Jesus always welcomes us back, and not because we’ve groveled in guilt and promised to do better. He welcomes us back because forgiveness is who God is. Forgiveness is the opposite of weakness and resignation. Forgiveness is the very power of Resurrection transforming the world into the realm of God.

         I want to close with words written by Wendell Berry. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I hope that you will hear in it a description of, and a call to the paradoxical yet well-voiced joy and hope of resurrection life.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Practice resurrection.1

1Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. Pp 151-152.