Practical Thanksgiving (Sermon)

“Practical Thanksgiving”*

Ezekiel 34:11-24 and John 10:14-16

11/20/2

Reign of Christ Sunday

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says.16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

17 As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats. 18 Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?19 But now my flock must feed on what your feet have trampled and drink water that your feet have muddied.

20 So the Lord God proclaims to them: I will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. 21 You shove with shoulder and flank, and with your horns you ram all the weak sheep until you’ve scattered them outside.22 But I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey. I will even judge between the sheep!23 I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd. 24 I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be their prince. I, the Lord, have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:11-24 – CEB)

14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (John 10:14-16— CEB)

         Because of Psalm 23, when many of us hear the word shepherd, we conjure up images of being delivered from want and laid down in green pastures. Or, because of Christmas, we imagine “keeping watch over flocks by night.” Some historians tell us that ancient shepherds were, by and large, a grimy and bawdy lot. And surely among such ruffians were the ones Jesus called “hired hands,” men who were apt to abandon a flock in the face of threat.

         Old Testament professor Wil Gafney also reminds us that shepherds were businessmen who held comprehensive interest in their flocks. Sheep, says Gafney, were “mobile currency and a primary source of nutrition [which shepherds would] regularly breed, sell, and eat.”1

         That got me thinking. The word “pastor” derives from the Latin word meaning “shepherd,” or “to feed.” And since folks like me are often referred to as shepherdsof a flock, I’m contemplating a new pastoral initiative. All this will require session approval, of course, but come January, some of you, my flock, I will pair up for breeding. Then I’ll designate others of you as having either too much or too little value to keep, and I’ll trailer you off to market to sell or trade away. Finally, some of you…well, a man’s got to eat, right?

If the session approved that “pastoral” initiative, how would it change your concept of shepherd? Ezekiel’s description of the way self-serving kings treated their subjects was pretty close to what I just described. And the prophets made it clear to everyone that Yahweh had no intention of getting fleeced like that.

         All you shepherds of Israel, you slaughter the lambs. You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with wool, but you’re not feeding the sheep. You’re feeding yourselves!

         Ezekiel hammers away at those who abuse, ignore, scatter, and otherwise “consume” God’s beloved flock.

         While biblical scholars argue whether these violent shepherds are Israelite kings or foreign kings,the point is that regardless of one’s nationality, or party, or office, or religion or lack thereof, leaders cannot lead by feeding themselves at the expense of those whom they lead. They cannot maintain credibility, respect, and authority by fouling the sheep’s pastures and waters with their own filthy feet.

         Over time, two ironies come to light. First, the sheep about whom Ezekiel speaks are never stronger than when, by a shepherd’s negligence, they find themselves lost, scattered, injured, and weak. Having nothing to lose, they’ll rise up, and they often prevail.

Second, when those sheep achieve freedom through the same violent means by which they were overcome and oppressed, they will, eventually, in spite of all good intentions, become abusive shepherds themselves.

         Through Ezekiel, God makes a new promise:

“I will feed [the sheep].”

“I will seek out the lost.”

“I will bring back the strays.”

“I will bind up the wounded.”

“I will strengthen the weak.”

“I will tend them with justice.”

         And there’s the difference: justice. In systems organized around perceived scarcity and greedy competition, true justice is the scarcest commodity. In such systems, justice gets reduced to getting even, to an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. That’s standard fare in the old realm; but Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings—creates a new way of life. And he calls us to that life which isn’t only new and transformed, but one that becomes renewing and transforming for others. That’s what makes it truly just: The well-being of others becomes as important to us as our own well-being. As I’ve said to you before, my dad called this approach to life “practical thanksgiving.”

         Practical thanksgiving means living, intentionally, with and for the sake ofothers. What makes this way of life challenging is that it asks us to be continually attentive to, responsive to, and grateful for the particular person in our presence right now, while also living with, and for the sake of all people and all Creation—all that is with us today and all that is to come.

         The Greek word for these particular and ultimate concerns is eschaton, from which we get the word eschatology. Some Christian theology limits eschatology to doomsday discussions littered with citations from the book of Revelation and shouts of catastrophic Armageddon from fire-breathing preachers. And such individualistic theology tends to exile God to some far-off heaven. It ignores God’s innate presence in the Creation. It also tends to ignore and even excuse the crises of incivility and climate degradation we, right now, are imposing on future generations through fearful anger and entitled consumption. Ezekiel’s question is painfully relevant to this generation: “Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:18)

A more holistic biblical eschatology opens the door to both the already and the not-yet Kingdom of God. Modeling a life of practical thanksgiving, Jesus shows us that the joys and sufferings of the moment are portals into that realm. So, as the Good Shepherd:

Jesus welcomes the stranger.

He feeds the hungry.

He restores the outcast to community.

He celebrates the beauty of the lilies of the field.

He embraces the God-revealing holiness of Creation in all of its fragility and all of its resilience.

And as his flock, we participate in all of those things with him

Through his own life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates what is true for all of us: We and all things “live and move and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) We and all things are loved eternally and equally by God. The faithful response to that love is to love as we are loved. And that takes more than our own wits and wills. To live with and for one another in lives of practical thanksgiving means committing ourselves to the reign of Christ in this world.

         St. Francis of Assisi took seriously Jesus’ call to live a life of practical thanksgiving. Among St. Francis’ many words of wisdom are these bits of advice: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible…[And anyone who] will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion,” said St. Francis, “will deal likewise with their fellow [human beings].”3

         Do you hear that blending of the particular and the ultimate? We touch eternity, and we live eschatologically by tending and feeding the people beside us right now, by caring for future generations and the future earth by committing ourselves to gratitude, generosity, and conservation today.

Living in the realm of Christ the King means so much more than walking on streets of gold with people who have “been good” and “done right.” It means, as the prophet Micah says, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—today. It means, as Jesus says in his last words to Peter, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”

         God of boundless grace, help us to continue following your Good Shepherd into lives of practical thanksgiving, lives of gratitude, generosity, and responsibility, lives that reflect his trust in you, and his willingness to risk living peaceably with and for the sake of all whom you love.

Amen.

1 Wil Gafney, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 316.

2Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 319.

3http://www.quotesdaddy.com/author/St.+Francis+of+Assisi

*This sermon is a re-work of my Reign of Christ sermon on November 24, 2019.

Worry and Wisdom (Sermon)

“Worry and Wisdom”

Psalm 46 and Luke 21:5-19

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/13/22

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice; the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. 

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations;
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 (Psalm 46 – NRSV)

5-6 One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, “All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when is this going to happen? What clue will we get that it’s about to take place?”

8-9 He said, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’ Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”

10-11 He went on, “Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling.

12-15 “But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name. You’ll end up on the witness stand, called to testify. Make up your mind right now not to worry about it. I’ll give you the words and wisdom that will reduce all your accusers to stammers and stutters.

16-19 “You’ll even be turned in by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. Some of you will be killed. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved. (Luke 21:5-19 — The Message)

         The date of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels is generally set between 70CE and 80CE, with Matthew most likely being published first. Scholars assign those dates in part because of the apocalyptic references to Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70CE. That’s probably why Matthew and Luke contain more passages like the one we read today than other gospels do. Both evangelists carry fresh remembrances of an event that would have been, effectively, Jerusalem’s Blitzkrieg, Hiroshima, and 9/11. It would have brought prophets of doom out of the woodwork declaring God’s judgment and the end of the world.

         Having said that, Jesus’ ominous words seem like pretty safe prophecies. To “predict” such things is like the old priest Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that their beautiful baby boy, in addition to doing wonderful things, is going to break his mama’s heart. What child doesn’t do that at one point or another? Likewise, the broader reality in which we live always includes every scourge Jesus mentions—and more.

         Here’s the thing about worrisome times and the worrisome biblical texts that get lots of attention in the midst of them: When we read scripture faithfully, we read all of it in the context of our two essential affirmations—Incarnation and Resurrection.

          Jesus is born into this world, the mortal world with all of its wonders and beauties, and all of its woes and boils. And when we proclaim Jesus as the unique incarnation of God, we affirm God’s hands-on love for the entire Creation, because in creating all things, God reveals something of God’s own Self in and through everything that lives, moves, and has being. We can call that the general Incarnation—God’s self-revelation in and through the cosmos. And while, as Christians, we affirm Jesus as the unique and personal Incarnation of God, we also know that Jesus is no Santa Claus. He’s not a magic wand that can make all painful and destructive things go away. If he did, people and groups who cause pain and destruction wouldn’t so often use him to justify their actions.

As God’s Incarnate presence, as the Living Word, Jesus becomes the one through whom God reveals most personally the holy and steadfast energy of Resurrection. And Resurrection always arises out of suffering, out of injury to things that God creates and loves. That’s not to say that God wills suffering. It is to say that God does not leave any part of the Creation alone in our suffering. Incarnation and Resurrection proclaim God’s eternal presence in and redeeming love for all things—especially all that suffers and longs for wholeness.

         We all experience suffering. And a living faith in Christ only makes it more inevitable because Jesus, in loving hope, leads us into the places where people and the earth suffer the most. Even in God’s beloved Creation, says Jesus, some people will tear you down, like Rome did to the temple. “They’ll arrest you…and drag you to court and to jail…It will go from bad to worse…everyone at your throat because you carry my name.”

One way to deal with this is to hide behind the go to heaven when we diementality. And while I understand that, I also think that focusing on a post-mortem future disconnects us from the incarnate holiness and the resurrection-yielding suffering within and around us right now. That is the Christian hope into which Jesus calls us. St. Augustine described our here-and-now hope this way: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

I like to imagine Augustine writing those words after reading Luke 21.

When Jesus promises “words and a wisdom” that will bamboozle opposition, just think about the ways that Jesus embodies that same word and wisdom. He gets angry at more than moneychangers. His entire ministry expresses the heartbroken anger of one who confronts injustice and suffering, and the loving wisdom of one who encourages people to live differently—indeed, who frees us to live according to the loving ways of justice and the redeeming means of non-violence. And when we choose to follow Jesus in lives of compassion and peacemaking, even in the face of opposition, that’s when we not only experience God’s realm of grace, we become signs of that realm for others. 

Through his life, Jesus demonstrates that the best way to embody a healthy and healing anger is not by blaming and shaming, but by courageously rising above, by trusting in the hopeful witnesses of Incarnation and Resurrection.

Thomas Merton gifted the world with a fierce voice for non-violence and peace. And he was fearless in offering himself as a sign of grace. When Merton considered establishing a peacemaking foundation in a developing country, a friend cautioned him, saying that he’d find himself opposed by both sides of that nation’s intense struggle between rival ideologies. Merton recognized the danger, and called it “necessarily a part of anything loving and useful I may do—because,” he said, “I cannot produce anything good if I identify myself too closely with either [side]. The vocation of a very good writer and spiritual [person] today lies with neither one or the other…but beyond both.” Then, quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Merton said, “What matters is not to line up with the winning side but to be a true and revolutionary poet.”1

For our purposes, we can substitute the word disciple for poet. And Shane Claiborne can guide our understanding of “revolutionary.” In his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Claiborne shares the lament of a friend who felt “surrounded by unbelieving activists and inactive believers.”2Wondering how to follow Jesus in a world full of infection—that is, of greed, violence, racism, militarism, apathy, climate degradation, and so on—Claiborne remembered something a college professor said to him. “Don’t let the world steal your soul,” said the professor. “Being a Christian is about choosing Jesus and deciding to do something incredibly daring with your life.”3

I hear in that professor’s words the wise anger and the wise courage of Jesus who said, Follow me; and trust me. I will not leave you alone. When your back is against the wall, I will speak through you.

         That is the heart of today’s passage. When the world seems to be falling apart, the Christ gives us words and wisdom. We can trust that we are speaking the “words and wisdom” of Jesus when we speak and act in ways that build up rather tear down, when we have compassionate impatience with voices of violence and destruction.  

Today is Consecration Sunday, and yes, the session asks you to support the ministries of this church as generously as your means allow. And we’re called to commit more than finances. God calls us to commit our lives to trusting the presence, goodness, and grace of the Incarnate and Resurrected Christ who gives us wisdom, words, and courage to dare to live as signs of his redeeming love in and for the world.

May we all give and live from the Christ-heart within us.

1All references to and quotations from Thomas Merton come from: A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 329.

2The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shaine Claiborne. Zondervan, 2006 & 2016. p. 18.

Alive! (Sermon)

“Alive!”

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Luke 20:27-38

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/6/22

5“When brothers reside together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’

8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, ‘I have no desire to marry her,’ 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’

10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as ‘the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10 – NRSV)

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38 — NRSV)

         The Sadducees accepted as scripture only the five books of the Torah—Genesis through Leviticus, all the books attributed to Moses. As such, they found no scriptural basis for any doctrine of the resurrection. So, their question to Jesus is both absurd and disrespectful—one woman getting tossed around from brother to brother. Seven times. You can almost see them winking at each other when they say, Now, whose wife would she be in “the resurrection”?

         Never one to take that kind of bait, Jesus says, in effect, Bless your hearts, fellas, but you’ve opened yourselves to such a limited part of God’s revelation that you have only the most limited understanding. As wonderful as marriage is, in the life to come, it won’t even occur to anyone. We’ll be beyond things like that. 

         Birth, death, marriage, vocation, illness, national identity, the humanexperience itself—none of these will be a part of the life to come.

Facing the great unknown of death, many people have tried to define and describe what may lie after it. Books like Proof of Heaven, Touching Heaven, and Heaven Is for Real all try to prove an afterlife. And all those “proofs” are probably more personally lucrative for the authors than generally convincing for readers. Please forgive my cynicism, but a subjective claim to know what lies beyond the comprehension of our human minds tends to lead to abuse because, when those unprovable claims become sources of certainty, wealth, and influence, the ones making the claims find themselves desperate to protect them. And all too often, that protection takes the form of fear, manipulation, or even physical violence.

         Now, before some of you tune me out, I fully understand that our human conversations about heaven are rooted in a genuine and passionate hope. Anyone who entertains the notion of heaven does so because they—because We—trust that God is real and that the end of this life is the beginning of something brand new.

And then Jesus goes and make that conversation even harder.

         Think about it: One of the things that fills this life with wonder and joy is the fact that, through our imperfect and impermanent bodies, we get to participate in God’s miracle of making new human lives. So, what kind of “life” is it when the relationships that create new life don’t exist?

One of the things that makes this life so precious is the fact that it does not last forever. So, what kind of “life” is it in which there is no death?

And it really doesn’t give us much to go on when Jesus says that in the life to come, we’ll be “like angels and…children of God.” What kind of alive-ness is that?

This brings us back to the fact that we do not and cannot know. All we can do is to have faith that something different and wonderful awaits us. And by definition, faith precludes objective knowing. As Paul says, faith is trusting in that which we cannot “already see.” (Romans 8:24-25, Hebrews 11:1) 

So, what now? When we recognize that the Sadducees are asking a question about something that they wouldn’t understand any better even if they actually believed it, what now? What do we do with this passage?

Because of the vast differences between the cultures of today and those of 2 and 3 thousand years ago, we face that same question with all biblical interpretation. What do we do with these ancient stories? What good are they to us today? And how is it that scriptures within the Jewish and Christian traditions have remained edifying and inspirational for more than 2 millennia?

The lectionary is a three-year cycle of texts for preaching. The cycle revolves around the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For each Sunday there’s also a text from the Old Testament, a psalm, and an epistle. The Sunday school class I facilitate has been looking at lectionary texts for the last eleven years. That means we’ve gone through more than three cycles of the lectionary. And thatmeans that we’ve looked at some texts repeatedly—especially those for Christmas and Easter. It never ceases to amaze me how those same passages, not just after our multiple readings, but after 2000 years of reading, continue to speak. That, I tell everyone, is why we call scripture the “living Word.” These old, old texts written to people in situations unimaginably different from our own continue to have life, and to give life to those who pay attention to them.

One key to experiencing the new and renewing life of scripture is not to expect—and certainly not to force—a text to have a single meaning. When we allow scripture to have a life of its own, it never loses that life. It keeps encouraging, enlightening, challenging, confounding—it keeps speaking based on where we are in our lives.

It seems to me that this makes reading the Bible, especially reading it in community, a full-on sacrament—an experience of the living God.

Again, think about it: Long after those who first began sharing the memories, observations, and dreams that became the oral traditions, their stories remained alive. They got written down. They became the basis for spiritual reflection, teaching, and ritual. Those spiritual practices have never stopped evolving and becoming. That is to say, they’ve never stopped living.

You know, maybe, it is better to call life-after-death the after-life, to see it as the next step in discovering the full and true holiness of life in relation to the Creator. And to me, that suggests that we’re all in this life together to a degree that we just don’t comprehend right now.

The point of all this cryptic wondering is that whatever heaven is or isn’t, all we can do today is to trust that God is real, loving, and just. We can also trust that God’s redemptive power and intent so far exceed anything we can imagine that we recognize that even those whom we think are of little to no value–like women in the first century, or like “enemies” in any century–are part of the great Us that God sees and loves when God looks at you, and me, and all humankind.

The Sadducees wanted Jesus to sweat over one hypothetical woman. And she, even in her non-reality, has become uniquely alive. Through scripture, she still lives and changes lives because Jesus loves her no less than he loves the very real Sadducees who create her in their mocking foolishness. Indeed, because she represents all women who have no voice or identity apart from some husband or male relative, she is painfully real today in cultures where women have no rights, where men presume to control women’s thoughts, actions, and bodies.

It’s a beautiful and breathtaking irony, but the Sadducees gave unwitting birth to a powerful woman who will never die. And if she continues to live and to change lives, how much more alive and transforming is the human life that is you?

Through faith in God, may we never give up on wonder, on change, on possibility.

May we never give up on life.

May we never give up on resurrection.

Saints and the Golden Rule (All Saints’ Day Sermon)

“Saints and the Golden Rule”

Isaiah 40:6-11 and Luke 6:20-31

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/23/11

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass;
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers; the flower fades,
    [[when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers; the flower fades,]] 
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news; 
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news; 
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
    and his recompense before him.
11 He 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.

(Isaiah 40:6-11 NRSV)

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

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

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

27 “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you;28 bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back again.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:20-31 NRSV)

         When we hear of the Beatitudes, many of us probably think first of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon. High and lifted up, Jesus begins with spiritualized blessings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful…” and so on. As the three-chapter sermon continues, Jesus does get very earthy and practical, but he begins with those inner conditions and postures of blessedness that make everything that follows possible. 

By contrast, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes happens on “a level place,” with everyone on equal footing. And Luke’s conditions of blessedness are stark and discomforting. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weepBlessed are you when people hate…exclude…and revile you. The implication is that things are going to get better for those folks.

Then, stirring the pot even further, Jesus turns the tables and pronounces Woes on everyone who is, right now, “rich…full…[and] laughing.” You’ve had your fun. Prepare to suffer.

         In Luke, the Good News doesn’t sound all that good, does it? At least not for everyone. And wasn’t even Jesus accused of indulgent eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners? It seems to me that when Jesus showed a lack of patience, it was with consumption that was so mindless and selfish that those who enjoyed some version of the good life did so without regard for the harm it caused to others and to the earth.

The trouble is that it’s embarrassingly easy to get so caught up in enjoying ourselves that we begin to exploit whoever and whatever isn’t me or us. And when that reaches the point of causing us to mistake selfish enjoyment for divine blessing, we ignore God’s call to become blessings to others, especially to those in need. That, it seems to me, is what Jesus and Luke are talking about.

Now, while there’s an awful lot more to unpack between verses 20 and 30, verse 31 sums it all up in the very simple and memorable statement we call the golden rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. All of the world’s major religions teach some version of this proverb. And if there’s a reason that these spiritual traditions continue to survive, one reason may be that, along the way, enough adherents to those traditions have taken the golden rule seriously. Even when many other followers and leaders within a golden-rule tradition wander into unfaithfulness, when they capitulate to the violence-embracing woes of fundamentalism, nationalism, militarism, and so on, the spirit and vigor of true blessedness continue to hold things together. Humility, mutuality, compassion, and love-driven justice can be trusted when bullets and bank accounts fail us.

If that sounds like foolishness, it probably is. “But,” as Paul tells the Corinthians, 27God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. 28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.” (1Cor. 1:27-28 CEB)

Through the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and others, God holds us to an entirely different standard of wisdom, strength, and worth. And during those times when we, too, hold ourselves to that higher standard, we discover how God’s grace keeps outlasting everything that human selfishness and fear keep trying to revere and protect. Indeed, nations, empires, and celebrities come and go, “but,” as Isaiah says, “the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NRSV)

In the long run, it’s the little things that last. It’s the daily gestures of love, kindness, respect, faithfulness, and good humor that make the world better. It’s not armies and affluence that make nations great and livable. It’s the people’s blessedness. It’s their commitment to the pathway of holiness Jesus teaches and which he demonstrates in his living.

When I prepare for a memorial service, I like to sit down with the family of the person who has died and just listen. I want to hear the stories that are most important to them because that’s how they will remember their loved one. And those stories always include cherished memories of laughter, kindnesses, and gratitude.

Having said that, I’m always aware that reality also includes more than enough heartache. Sometimes I even know of specific ways that the person we remember caused pain for the people that loved them. It always seems to me, though, that while all of us hurt the people we love, the things we do to build up and encourage, the things we do to “bless” tend to redeem the things we do to cause “woe.”

Twenty-six years of pastoral ministry has taught me that people are remembered most fondly and most enduringly for the gestures that brought true and lasting blessedness to others—the humility we had the wisdom to embody, the compassion we had the strength to offer, the joy we had the freedom to share, the redeeming justice we had the courage to do. All of that blessedness is the fruit of the simple, Christlike act of doing to others as we would have them do to us. And nothing we can achieve, and nothing we can own can hold a candle to that kind of faithfulness.

As we remember, give thanks to God, and light candles for the saints whom we have lost, let’s remember the ways in which they modeled Christlike love to us, the ways in which they, on their best days, treated us as we would want to be treated—and as we, on our best days, want to treat others.

The Within-Us-and-Among-Us Kingdom (Sermon)

“The Within-Us-and-Among-Us Kingdom”

Psalm 27:7-14 and Luke 18:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/23/22

Lord, listen to my voice when I cry out—
    have mercy on me and answer me!
Come, my heart says, seek God’s face. 
    Lord, I do seek your face!
Please don’t hide it from me!
    Don’t push your servant aside angrily—
        you have been my help!
    God who saves me,
        don’t neglect me!
        Don’t leave me all alone!
10 Even if my father and mother left me all alone,
    the
 Lord would take me in.
11 Lord, teach me your way;
    because of my opponents, lead me on a good path.
12 Don’t give me over to the desires of my enemies,
    because false witnesses and violent accusers
    have taken their stand against me.
13 But I have sure faith
    that I will experience the
 Lord’s goodness
    in the land of the living!

14 Hope in the Lord!
    Be strong! Let your heart take courage!
        Hope in the
 Lord!

 (Psalm 27:7-14 – CEB)   

It feels paradoxical to me, but Luke’s Jesus often says things that seem inconsistent with what Jesus says and does in the broader New Testament witness. In Luke 17, for example, Jesus talks about “fire and sulfur” raining down from the heavens. That’s a favorite passage for those who like to use scripture as a horror reel to scare people into embracing absolutes.

Then, on the heels of those unnerving words, chapter 18 begins this way:

Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, 5but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” 6The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” (Luke 8:1-8 – CEB)

         “A parable about their need to pray continually and not to be discouraged.”

Luke wrote his gospel around the time Rome conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70AD. For the young church, it probably felt like heaven was raining down fire and sulfur. Luke’s point, though, is that if fire and sulfur do rain down, it’s always from violent power and its idols. Not from God.

         Let’s remember something else. In the midst of all those upsetting words in chapter 17 lies a little gem of hope. In verse 20, the Pharisees ask Jesus when God’s kingdom was coming, and Jesus tells them that God’s realm isn’t like the kingdoms of Israel or Rome. “Don’t you see,” says Jesus. “God’s kingdom is already among you.” The word “among” may also be translated “within.” So, the realm of God is already among us because it’s always within each of us.

         To pray continuously, then, is to do more than ask God for material things, or for assurances or protection. Through prayer, we engage and inhabit the within-us-and-among-us realm of God. Jesus and Luke invite us to see that external realities cannot threaten the presence of God’s realm. Neither fire nor sulfur nor some “unjust judge” can remove God’s holiness from us. And while suffering will always be a part of this life, nothing can remove God or God’s help from us.

         There are two things for us to highlight in all of this. First, we live in our own scary context. For many of us, the world feels in danger of crumbling like ancient Jerusalem. In our own culture, the political square designed to offer leaders with differing opinions an arena for debate, understanding, and compromise has become a battlefield for adversaries in a zero-sum “war.” Increasingly, we hear and read about members of one side not simply disagreeing with members of another side, but pummeling each other with insults and referring to them as, quite literally, “the enemy.” What way forward is there when our actual neighbors cease to be objects of Christlike love and become foes to vanquish?

         Into realities that test our courage Jesus says, Keep praying. Don’t get discouraged. Pray for the world, the earth, the nations, for all whose needs are greater than their means. Pray for yourselves, your neighbors, and especially for your enemies.

Now yes, prayer includes spilling out to God shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. And, as a language to learn and a discipline to practice, prayer is also the path of intimacy with God. That means prayer includes wordless silence, waiting patiently and expectantly, opening ourselves to the presence of God so that we might know God’s voice in our own lives—especially when the world seems to be crashing down around us. That means that prayer equips us to live in a scary world encouraged by faith, hope, and love.

That brings us to the second thing. Four times in his parable about the persistent widow, Jesus uses the word justice. And the unresponsive judge is called “unjust”—a label specifically defined as having neither fear of God nor respect for people. Jesus is clearly linking prayer and justice.

Years ago, I talked with someone who expressed deep irritation with the use of the word justice when it came up in sermons or during the liturgy. They said that “justice and all that it implies” shouldn’t be a part of the religious conversation, and especially not in worship.

I don’t remember all the details of the conversation, but I remember feeling bewildered. If the Church is the body of Christ, how can justice not hold a central place in our practice, prayer, and worship? Didn’t Jesus eat with the most despised and care for the most vulnerable? Didn’t he send his disciples to cure the sick, feed the hungry, and visit those in prison? Didn’t he teach us to pray “thy will be done on earth”? And how can we read the Beatitudes and not hear Jesus calling us to do justice so that we are signs of God’s blessedness, of God’s world-restoring grace? Is a congregation that avoids “justice and all that it implies,” really the Church?

Here’s the thing, though: Justice and prayer must inform each other. When we don’t connect the two, the only justice we’re likely to practice is retributive justice—punishing wrong-doers and getting even with enemies. And the prayers we pray are likely to focus only on selfish wants, needs, and fears. Even when Jesus sharply challenges the religious leaders, he does so with the prayerful intent of restoring them to faithfulness, because if they experience redemption—if they experience the presence of the within-us-and-among-us-kingdom—then they, as leaders, will welcome others into the blessing. That makes justice synonymous with the “faithfulness” that the Human One seeks.

Richard Rohr calls the life of that kind of dynamic prayer contemplation. “The contemplative,” says Rohr, “responds to the divine in everyone. God wills the care of the poor…; so, therefore, must the true contemplative. God wills the end of oppressors who stand with [their] heel in the neck of the weak; so, therefore, does the true contemplative…The…truly spiritual person, [the truly prayerful person]…insist[s] on justice…”1

         I think Jesus wants us to see that the widow in his parable hounds the unjustjudge because that woman knows that somewhere within the judge’s ego-encrusted heart lies the holiness of God’s image. And eventually, even if for selfish reasons only, the judge will relent and do the just and good thing for the woman. And maybe tending to her will be good for him because the suffering of one means the suffering of all; and the exaltation of one who suffers means the exaltation of all. Life on this planet is simply too interconnected for that not to be true.

         Another bit of good news Jesus makes clear in this parable is that God is in no way like that judge. Praying to God, praying with God, praying in God means engaging the very Source of proactive justice, mercy, and love. That very conviction allows the psalmist to declare that, no matter what, even if his parents abandon him, he “will experience the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living!” (Ps. 27:13)

         So, yes, our times are troubling and challenging. They remind us of Jesus saying that because of him, fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters will pit themselves against each other. (Luke 12:53)

Nonetheless, the kingdom of God is within us and among us. And through the gift of prayer, we inhabit that kingdom.

We receive its strength and guidance.

We become agents of God’s justice and shalom.

And through Christ, we become Christ to one another. That is God’s promise and our true and lasting hope—even in times like these.

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/2531B4205D362B942540EF23F30FEDED/A2AE94689C106E613D3F7F9A22A6E02E?alternativeLink=False

A New Creation (Sermon)

“A New Creation”

2Kings 5:1-19 and Galatians 6:12-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

10/9/22

Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.

She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.

Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”

So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”

When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

11 But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. 12 Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

13 Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” 14 So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.

15 He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.”

16 But Elisha said, “I swear by the life of the Lord I serve that I won’t accept anything.”

Naaman urged Elisha to accept something, but he still refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, then let me, your servant, have two mule loads of earth. Your servant will never again offer entirely burned offerings or sacrifices to any other gods except the Lord.18 But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master comes into Rimmon’s temple to bow down there and is leaning on my arm, I must also bow down in Rimmon’s temple. When I bow down in Rimmon’s temple, may the Lord forgive your servant for doing that.”

19 Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.” (CEB)

Life has been good for Naaman. In Aram, he’s a great general, respected by both his king and the men under his command. He’s got fame, fortune, influence, and all that. Then one day, he notices a spot on his skin, a spot that makes him unclean and will derail his reputation and career unless someone can heal him.

         Naaman’s wife’s servant is an Israelite girl captured on one of Aram’s military campaigns. She learns of the general’s affliction and tells Naaman’s wife, Back home in Israel there’s a prophet named Elisha. He can get rid of that spot quicker than you can say Jezebel.

         So Naaman heads to Israel with his king’s blessing and half the country’s treasury to boot. He plans to purchase a healing from Elisha; but a letter sent by the Aramean king on behalf of his valued general is addressed to the king of Israel. And when the Israelite king reads it, he comes unglued thinking he’s being set up. Ripping his robe, he shouts, Does this Aramean troublemaker think I’m God? I can’t anymore cure leprosy than I can the madness that made him ask! I know why he’s asking. He wants me to fail! He wants Naaman to go home with that spot still there. Then he’ll march his army down here and start something!

         When Elisha hears of the king’s tantrum, he shows up and asks why the king ruined a perfectly good outfit.

         Send Naaman to me, says Elisha. I’ll take care of this. And he does, but not to Naaman’s liking. All Elisha does is send a messenger to Naaman telling him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times. This infuriates Naaman, who considers himself a VIP, someone deserving deferential treatment. So, Naaman throws a fit of his own.

Surely, he says, the great rivers of Aram out-class this pathetic little trickle they call a river! Better for me to go home and wash in them!

         Naaman’s servants look at each other and say, Um, sir, we mean no disrespect, but had the prophet told you to do something difficult, or even dangerous, you would have done it, wouldn’t you? All he’s asking you to do is go dip yourself in a river. We’re nothing but servants, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt, just this once, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

         Because one mark of a good leader is the humility to take good advice, Naaman walks down to the Jordan River and plunges into the water seven times. When he finishes, and the spot is gone, he hurries back to Elisha and says, It worked! What do I owe you?

         The prophet looks at Naaman and says, Not even in God’s name will accept anything from you.

         This confounds Naaman. In his world you pay for or earn whatever you get. But Elisha, who has restored Naaman to society, to his career, to life itself will accept nothing in return.

To people of privilege and power, grace is often more disorienting than liberating. When we’re open, though, disorientation can become re-orientation. And we begin to see evidence of Naaman’s own re-orientation. Preparing to return to Aram, he asks for a couple of mule-loads of Israelite dirt to take home with him. In ancient polytheism, gods were territorial and could only be worshiped when the worshiper was on that god’s turf. So, Naaman tries to take Yahweh with him by taking some of Israel with him. And through that ritualistic act, Naaman professes his faith in and devotion to the God of Israel.

Naaman had come to buy help with a skin irritation. What he got was a new life. When he went home, the old Naaman was gone and a new Naaman had begun. He was a new creation.

         The point of the story really isn’t the healing. It’s Naaman realizing that there is something greater than him, something greater than king and country, something greater than military and economic power. There is Yahweh, who is present in sickness and in health and who does not withhold grace, not even from those who don’t believe in God.

On top of that, Elisha’s response reveals that there are at least some who do not wield their faith as a weapon or exploit it for personal advantage. To Elisha, neither Aramean nor Israelite matters. What matters is who a person becomes when he or she loves and follows God.

This brings us to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In the sixth chapter, Paul says:

12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. (Galatians 6:12-15 – CEB)

“What matters,” says Paul, is who we are becoming in Christ. The trick is recognizing that real and lasting change involves a turn of the heart. When we concentrate on nothing but externals, we are blind to the presence and work of God within us and among us. For Naaman, grace comes not so much through the healing of his spot, but through the clever way Elisha baptizes him and blesses him. And in his selfishness, he could have missed it, because he didn’t even know what kind of healing he really needed.

It seems to me that God most often makes us new by healing us of things for which we don’t even know we need healing, especially that pervasive gremlin of selfishness and all of its blinding offspring, like pride, fear, and violence. For Naaman, self-serving nationalism and racism had become the spot he needed to recognize, confess, and to have washed away. And as that spot faded, he began to see himself, his neighbors, and the world in a new and more gracious light.

Externals don’t matter, says Paul. What matters is becoming new creations in Christ who heals us by empowering us to love one another as he loves us.

I know that I’m fond of saying that we are to love everyone, and I do trust that to be true. Having said that, I’ve also been re-thinking how I say that. To say that we are to love everyone is abstract, and that makes is a little too easy. The hard thing to do is to love the person standing next to us in the moment. And to love that person, here and now, whoever they are, is how we love everyone. This is what Richard Rohr means when he says, “How we do anything is how we do everything.”

To love the person in front of us as Christ loves us—that’s what Elisha does for Naaman. And that’s precisely how we, too, embrace and embody the new creation we are becoming in Christ.

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.