“May Grace Abound”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
Each Sunday, we pray a corporate confession of sin. When inviting you to that prayer, I sometimes quote Paul who spoke of sin as “falling short of the glory of God.” Or I speak of sin as “unfaithfulness,” or “brokenness,” or somehow distorting the image of God within us. If it seems that I’m avoiding the word “sin” itself, that may be true.
The faith language that many of us have inherited is one of reward and punishment. And in this language, sin becomes not just the focal point but the starting point. According to original sin theology, we’re all fundamentally “bad” creatures. Hopeless and helpless, we may die at any moment, and, if we haven’t said all the right words in all the right formulas, we’ll be thrown into hell.
That fear- and shame-driven approach reduces religious observance to appeasing an offended and angry god who is waiting for our brief and beleaguered earthly lives to end. At “pearly gates,” this god welcomes those who will say, I am ten pounds of garbage in a five-pound bag, but Jesus is my lord and savior. Then, without a second thought, this vindictive deity will dump all the sinners into a fiery pit of never-ending suffering.
I wish that were hyperbole. But on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to travel far to hear that message preached as the core of the good news. And honestly, part of me gets it. In this truly brief and beleaguered life, the reality of pain is so certain and things like happiness and peace are so painfully uncertain that many of us want to assure ourselves that God punishes bad people and rewards good people. Such thinking is uncomplicated, logical, and consistent. But isn’t it a thoroughly human thing to want to get even by watching others suffer?
Original sin theology also reduces grace to something that must, ultimately, be earned or deserved, even if only by the requirement of consent. At that point, whatever gets called grace is simply not grace.
From my reading of people like Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Martin Luther King, and others, I have come to trust that at the core of every human being lies not fundamental brokenness and depravity, but the essential holiness and beauty we call the image of God. That, I believe, is what God sees with uninterrupted joy within each and every human being.
The undeniable reality is that we fail to see God’s image in ourselves, others, and in the Creation around us. God’s image is always there, but it gets hidden by the selfishness, pride, and fear that make us comfortable with the idea of sin as our fundamental reality and with the image of an eternally angry and vengeful god. But it is sin, not God, that torments us. And far more than doing “bad” things, sin is the idolatry to which humankind, as a whole, has resigned itself. So, before the Gospel of Jesus is eye-opening and healing good news, it’s disrupting news, because to be set upon the path of restoration to the original wholeness and beauty of our God-imaged selves, we undergo transformation. In many faith traditions, ours included, death is the central metaphor for that journey of renewal.
Death is an emotionally-charged image. Whether by age, illness, accident, or the enslaved and enslaving actions of others, we all die physically. And our faith challenges us to think metaphorically about death. Spiritually speaking, death is that ongoing event through which we are transformed from one way of being into another. It’s a paradox, but to die to ourselves is to become newly awake and alive, and more fully human. And here’s the good news: The incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth reveals that the transformational power of the death and resurrection process is something God wants, wills, and offers in this life. It is, by grace, a gift given before the death by which our material bodies return to the earth.
In his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that a life of new consciousness of the image of God in ourselves and others, is what Jesus means by “The Kingdom of God.”1 Much more than a post mortem location, God’s kingdom is a transformed “way of seeing…now…”2 in this world.
“Now is the day of salvation,” says Paul. (2Cor. 6:2)
“The kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” says Jesus. (Luke 17:21)
The kingdom of God happens wherever people share gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. To get a glimpse or a whiff of true compassion, to hear voices raised as one in opposition to dehumanizing selfishness, is to stand within the realm of God’s boundless grace.
The struggle for us is acknowledging that such experiences come not through Kum Bah Yah moments around a campfire or in secure echo chambers with like-minded allies. They come to us when, through confession and redeemed action, we name our own complicity in what has hurt and is hurting ourselves, others, and the earth. Like the Creation itself, Kingdom of God moments well up from the chaos, from the formless void of disruption when we can no longer abide or excuse the fact of sin and the injustice it breeds.
The upheaval around us today is an unsettling but promising instance of what Paul calls the “creation wait[ing…and groaning] with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:19 & 22) Racism, environmental abuse, uncritical nationalism, idolatry of material wealth and violent power—all this “sin” has challenged the human race for eons, and for the last two millennia, Paul has been calling Christians to do something radical in their own troubled contexts. He’s been calling us to take baptism seriously.
“Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ…we will also live with him.”
If baptism does any practical good, it reminds us that only by dying to selfishness, fear, and pride do we enter the new life of loving neighbor as if we’re loving ourselves, loving him or her regardless of skin color, political party, religion, nationality, opinion on the issues, or anything else. That’s not to say we ignore the actions of neighbors when their choices diminish or end the lives of others. Jesus didn’t do justice that way. He loved—and he loves—people into recognizing and celebrating the holiness in all people. That is God’s justice, the way of grace. And while it’s often the most difficult and frustrating course of action, it’s also the way that gives us the best chance to participate in God’s healing of the Creation.
We’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” And as we do, let’s remember, this song was written by an Englishman whose vocation was the slave trade, one of humankind’s most heinous and universal sins. As members of a primarily Euro-American denomination, most PC(USA) Presbyterians have experienced the lingering effects of human slavery from the perspective of beneficiaries. Few of us can imagine, much less understand the burden of living every day as reminders of a heritage of exploitation and suffering.
While the imagery of “Amazing Grace” speaks of a life after physical death, the kingdom of God always includes the here-and-now, where human beings “walk in newness of life,” where we live as one diverse and beleaguered Creation, fashioned and beloved by God, abounding in grace, and which, even now, is being redeemed through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009. Pp. 100-101.
“The Call of Compassion”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
35Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” (NRSV)
When I picked up my preaching commentary last Monday morning, I quickly discovered that the articles on today’s text had almost nothing to do with how the text and I were already reading each other. My heart and mind were—and are—swirling with images of and prayers for our nation and world in light of an ongoing pandemic and its social, political, and economic fallout, and a fresh, inevitable, and once-again-unsettling raising of awareness of racial inequality. And those things are layered on top of all the normal concerns we all have for people we love and for ourselves.
Everyone feels something in the midst of these days of uncertainty and unrest. On the positive side, some may feel new clarity of purpose, new inspiration to help neighbors in need, for some even a flutter of new hope. On the negative side, some may feel anger, fear, exasperation (which often manifest as denial of circumstances or impatience with people who interpret and respond to our situations differently than we do). And all this stress creates storms of anxiety in our communities, our families, and in our own hearts.
While reading that commentary, which was published in 2011, I was reminded how contextual biblical interpretation is. Ancient scripture has an uncanny ability to shed light on contemporary realities. And since, as Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand, scripture never fails to call us into the world at hand to proclaim and embody the kingdom’s prophetic challenge and renewal. I had to lay aside that commentary because nine-year-old interpretations just didn’t speak to our changed and changing context. To the commentators’ credit, I’m sure that they would say very different things if they were writing for a commentary to be published in 2021.
The point of belaboring that point is to say that scripture truly is a living Word. It not only continues to speak from a place of eternal holiness and liveliness, it continues to speak into the lives we live right now and to draw out the holiness within us. It calls us into the world as bearers of Jesus’ love and as agents of his justice. We can hold all the worship services we want. We can play and sing inspiring music. We can perform sacraments, fill coffee pots and buffet tables. We can hold committee meetings and Sunday school classes. We can maintain hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old buildings. And yet, if our focus on those in-house activities leaves only crumbs to commit to acts of compassion on behalf of those who are “harassed and helpless,” then we have to ask ourselves if we’ve forgotten who we are and whom we follow.
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching…proclaiming the good news…curing every disease and…sickness [all the ‘churchy’ things!]. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Harassed. Helpless. In Greek, those words also mean oppressed and thrown down. Matthew paints a picture of people who are not just bemused and unhappy, but people who are being intentionally dominated and tormented by powers beyond their control. And because they suffer, Jesus suffers—but with a different kind of suffering. Compassion, which literally means to suffer with, is an invigorating form of suffering. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t paralyze him; it mobilizes him. The plight of those whom the political and religious authorities ignore, and even revile, moves Jesus to bring their suffering into the consciousness of those who are gifted to tend to and befriend people who suffer, and those who are gifted to speak the courageous, transforming truth that people in power must hear.
Looking out at all that suffering humanity, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” and he sets in motion the first major, all-volunteer mission effort of Jesus-Followers.
Here’s where suffering gets layered and complicated, at least for me. When imagining Jesus moved to compassion by those who are harassed and helpless, in our contemporary context, I, personally, cannot separate that image from images of people who are oppressed and thrown down because their black or brown bodies have marked them for the kind of repulsed, fear-driven aggression often deployed against coyotes, snakes, and spiders. The compassion one feels for these brothers and sisters is the compassion—the invigorating suffering—of the resurrected Christ within us. Compassion is Jesus’ voice calling us to help bear the burdens of the physical, mental, and spiritual pain of discrimination and the difficult work of bringing about the changes necessary to ensure “indivisible” unity in our communities and nation, and true “liberty and justice for all.”
Clearly, such work has socio-political implications, but at the heart of it all, for us as Christians, such work is fundamentally and thoroughly theological. It arises from our acknowledgment of the eternal holiness within the imperfect humanity of every individual. It arises from our commitment to love as we are loved by God.
It’s hardly an irresistible call because it can be terrifying to follow where Jesus leads. I’m still resisting his call. All I’ve actually done is to write some words and post them on a blog (with exactly 29 subscribers), and speak a few words in few sermons that a few more people hear, but which, like some infomercial ointment, may or may not treat the rash. I’ve not made myself personally available for the anxiety-inducing but transforming experiences of responding to what I recognize as compassion’s call to action.
I mentioned layers of suffering. As a pastor to people isolated by pandemic, I also hear the harassed and helpless cries of church members who feel that they’re losing touch with the people they love, the sacraments that strengthen them, the music that makes their spirits sing. It’s for very good reason we’re not meeting in person, but it’s still traumatic.
When Jesus says to go first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he acknowledges that it’s crucial for members of the faith community to care for one other in the midst of suffering. We must continue to talk to and encourage each other, to laugh and cry with each other, even if only by phone. We all need to give and receive that transforming compassion.
At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ commandment to the post-resurrection community—which includes us—is to reach beyond the house of Israel and “make disciples of all nations.” And disciples are not made by imposing doctrines and ecclesiastical structures, but by the compassionate labors of those who, having heeded Jesus’ example, trust that what is necessary for the most harassed and helpless among us is necessary for all of us. Such disciples will love their neighbors as they love themselves. They’ll pray for friend and enemy alike, and care for “the least of these.” And they will, courageously and compassionately, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with…God.”
As disciples of Jesus, may we, together, labor within and beyond the bounds of the church directory.
And may we, together, plant love and compassion, so that we may participate in the Holy Spirit’s harvest of peace, justice, and hope for ourselves and for ALLwhom God has created and loves.
God saw everything that he had made,
and indeed, it was very good.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
(Matthew 5:3, 5, 7-9—NRSV)
The Hebrew scriptures open with a sweeping affirmation of the Creation as a God-imaged gift—to God’s own self no less. All that is exists because at the heart of the universe there beats a creative heart defined by relationship, a loving heart that is always seeking to know and to be known. A human being’s own desire to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, is one of our most fundamentally holy (God-like) attributes. Those essential desires constitute what is most truly “good” about us because they draw us toward each other and, therefore, toward God. To seek and celebrate the goodness within us and within others is to seek and celebrate the presence of God in all that God has created and loves. For people of faith, to honor the holiness in other human beings and in the wider Creation is worship, sacrament, and service because through these practices we begin to know and love God.
Sin is more than doing bad things or leaving good things undone. As the refusal to honor the holiness in all that God has created and has called “good,” sin weakens our humility and our willingness to follow the ways of poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, and mercy. Sin intensifies human willfulness to impose arrangements beneficial to those considered privileged onto numerous others (even, it seems, if the “minority” is in the majority). Sin also tends to project the selfish fears of a dominant group onto a scapegoated population. This always creates acute suffering for the group(s) considered “minor” because they are treated as if their humanity lacks legitimacy. This becomes most devastating when the oppressed group’s suffering is regarded as having no consequence.
It seems to me that sin destroys all people and all communities because in denying the holiness and the humanity of anyone, individuals and groups grant themselves the authority to decide that something God-made lies beyond the full love and affirmation of the Maker. The fear-driven violence that inevitably ensues prevents any of us from being whole. This is what happened to George Floyd on May 25, 2020 to Amaud Arbery on February 23, 2020, to Matthew Shepard on October 6, 1998, to nearly 300 Lakota men, women, and children on December 29, 1890, and to countless others for countless reasons throughout the decades in the United States of America and throughout the eons of human life on this planet.
These events illustrate that one form of sin that has plagued our culture for over two centuries is the sin of systemic racism: The deliberate denial of the holiness and humanity of groups of people whose skin color, ethnicity, or language has been judged as inferior by a group or by groups who hold the greater share of wealth and power in a society.
Systemic racism dehumanizes individuals and groups by:
-judging others according to stereotypes.
-limiting oppressed groups’ access to opportunity.
-treating minorities with demeaning paternalism.
-participating in and/or overlooking violence toward minorities.
-diminishing the weight of suffering forced upon people whose God-given, God-imaged physical attributes differ from those in power.
No, not all who are counted among races and genders of power and privilege participate in acts of overt racism. By the same token, not all who are counted among races and genders of power and privilege participate in acts of overt peacemaking by which the systemic sin of racism is named and resisted.
As a member of and leader in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ, and as a child of God and, therefore, a peacemaker, I affirm that racism in all of its forms is sin and an affront to God who is being revealed in the Creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. I also believe that it is the calling of all who follow Christ to acknowledge, honor, and celebrate the full holiness and humanity of every human being regardless of any category that may be attached to that person. Love for God necessarily includes love and respect for every human being and the desire to nurture that love and respect in one another.
To that end, at this crucial time in our shared life and history, I join with those in my own faith tradition, those in other faith traditions, and those who claim no faith tradition but cannot escape the call of love who are committing and recommitting themselves to standing in open and visible solidarity with all people of African, Latin American, Middle-Eastern, Asian, or any other heritage that has endowed them with the black, brown, or olive skin that makes them vulnerable to patronizing deference, vilifying bigotry, and life-threatening oppression in our community, our nation, and our world.
We are one human race, one humanity created and beloved by God, and only in unity do we find our hope.
May God’s peace be with all of us.
The Rev. Allen Huff
June 5, 2020
“Claim the Voice, Share Your Gift”
Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-13
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”
29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them. (Numbers 11:24-29 – NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13 – NRSV)
The stories we just read from Numbers and Acts are stories of God’s people in crisis. They show us the Hebrews wandering in the Sinai wilderness and the very first Christians in Jerusalem hiding from Roman guards who take delight in unrestricted brutality. Both groups find themselves at critical cross roads. They’re displaced and struggling to discern their identity and purpose. The particular leaders involved—Moses in the wilderness and the Apostles in Jerusalem—come to God confessing their emptiness and vulnerability. As faithful, diligent, and creative as they may be, they know that, on their own, they cannot overcome their predicaments. They need help.
Leadership in any human community can be an intensely demanding responsibility. It requires gifts of discernment, courage, and decisiveness. And because leadership is fundamentally an act of service, it also requires mature sensibilities of empathy, humility, and justice. Perhaps most challenging for individualistic and competitive cultures like ours, effective leadership requires a commitment to the well-being of others before one’s own well-being.
Without these attributes, leaders may become like Pharaoh, for whom neither slavery nor genocide is too high a price to guard power and wealth; or like the sons of Eli who are spoiled, selfish, and deaf to wisdom and holiness; or like King Saul who, lacking any gift for leadership, goes insane before everyone’s eyes.
All of these so-called leaders face crises, and all of them, ignoring higher virtues, seek the guidance of flatterers and the illusion of security-through-violence. Their stories live on in scripture, and we read them and heed them as cautionary tales.
Moses and the Apostles face their crises differently.
In Numbers, the Israelites are newly-freed slaves. They’re on their own, on the run, and complaining about how tired and hungry they are. Their escape from Egypt has become a desert pilgrimage that seems crueler and more terrifying than Pharaoh’s slave drivers. Israel’s story illustrates that when something gets the best of us, only the worst remains. And when it all becomes too much, the Hebrews project all their fear and anxiety onto Moses. Did you bring us out here to kill us?! We were better off in Egypt! That same despair and craving for control would lead them to try to replace Yahweh with a golden calf.
In Acts, the disciples feel all alone in the world. They had expected Jesus to do to Rome what Rome had been doing to Israel, and the rest of the known world. After the crucifixion, though, the disciples had to have wondered if Jesus had been the kind of person Hosea warned about: “They shall be like the morning mist, or the dew that goes away early.” (Hosea 13:3a) Was Jesus just that? Humidity? Even after the resurrection, the disciples find themselves mired in a kind of static wandering. What do we do now? they ask.
While Moses and the Apostles often prove flawed and fumbling, they’re still servants of God. During their crises, for all their frustration and helplessness, they begin to find themselves opened by and opening to something mysterious and moving—a pulsating Holiness, a Spirit who comes not to resolve every crisis, but to help shoulder the burden of leading God’s people through the uncertainties and complexities of crisis. Having said that, the Spirit reveals itself as a gift being offered not simply to people like Moses and the Apostles. The Spirit proves to be a gift made available to all people through the likes of Moses, Joshua, Peter, and Paul. True leaders, in the household of faith and elsewhere, are those who embrace their own giftedness and who seek to recognize, nurture, and give voice to the giftedness of others.
Remember Moses’ story: Some of Moses’ spirit leaks out beyond the designated seventy to a couple of nobodies named Eldad and Medad. When they prophesy, Joshua says, Moses, stop them!
And Moses, who is learning more by the moment, scolds his reactionary assistant, saying, “Are you jealous for my sake?” I wish God’s Spirit would fall on every one of you! The Spirit makes prophets of all of us!
Remember what happens in Jerusalem, too. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” Luke goes on to name sixteen different nationalities and ethnicities who hear the gospel being proclaimed in their own languages.
Those who watch all of this happen are bewildered. And who wouldn’t be? To see it demonstrated that God’s dwells inherently and intentionally in all people (Genesis 1:26a), that God’s Word really is written on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), and that no one and no thing lies beyond the loving desire and redeeming reach of God (Acts 9:1-19a)—such revelations challenge the comfortable but mistaken notions of redemptive violence and any kind of cultural supremacy.
In both Sinai and Jerusalem, God’s Spirit is present through the outpouring of prophetic speech, through gracious words uttered by folks who are ordinary, fallible, hesitant human beings.
Many voices in our world claim holy authority. And many of those voices are diametrically opposed to each other. And some seem diametrically opposed to Jesus. While we’re not called to judge, we are called, as individuals and as communities, to discern.
When I hear a voice claiming prophetic status, I listen for accents of love, peacemaking, forgiveness, compassion, and grateful openness to all of God’s Creation. To me, such things declare the presence of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, when a voice claiming prophetic authority provokes fear, division, and vengeance, when it creates barriers to relationship and healing, I don’t trust that voice.
It seems to me that many of the voices screaming at the extremes right now are, effectively, one voice. At the poles, the voices of groups like white supremacists, who are on record as wanting to incite a race war1, and Antifa, who is on record advocating eye-for-an-eye violence against the increasingly visible far right2, tear equally at the wounded, fragile body of Creation. And here’s the hard part: When we hear voices spread ignorance and fear, when we hear them confuse insults and judgment with analysis and critique, when we hear the Church declare that the God of Abraham and Jesus can be bought and satisfied with blood, within and around all of that, the Holy Spirit is calling us into the fray to bear prophetic witness to something entirely new and different, yet entirely ancient and archetypal. We’re being called to proclaim the God of Spirit and Truth, the God of deliverance and restorative justice.
Brothers and sisters, today many people feel like wanderers in deserts of pandemic, racism, unleashed fury, and burning cities. Let’s remember, though, we are disciples. We follow a resurrected Christ whose Spirit is with us and calling us to claim our prophetic voice. As the Church, we are gathered in the power of the Holy Spirit who fills us and sends out to speak so confidently of God’s redeeming love and reunifying Shalom that we sound drunk to those who live in fear and loathing of their neighbors and the future.
This is our Pentecostal gift—to live as ones who lead the way through death-shadowed valleys and storm-tossed seas toward the wholeness and hope of God’s resurrecting grace.
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“6I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
“11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (NRSV)
Today’s reading begins with a transitional clause: “After Jesus had spoken these words…” The words to which John refers fill four chapters. They include: Jesus’ teaching as he washed the disciples’ feet, his foretelling of betrayal, his command to love as he has loved, his promise of an Advocate, his warning about the world’s hatred, and his promise of lasting spiritual peace.
When reading these words, knowing that they are the words of a man whose mysterious and solemn “hour” is arriving, we feel the pathos building like an incoming tide. Jesus’ hour has to do with his own and God’s glorification. It also has to do with Jesus sending the disciples out to continue his work. As Jesus prays for his disciples, he reaffirms their call: God, they were yours, he says. You entrusted them to me. I’ve taught them, and they know the truth. They’re ready to follow me, to love each other, and to glorify you. I give them back to you.
To love, to follow, to glorify God—in John’s gospel, this is the very substance of believing in Jesus. That’s great Sunday school material, but between Thursday and Sunday, and even beyond, the disciples seem anything but ready for an apostolic commission.
How does Jesus do it? How does he project confidence and hope knowing that his beloved disciples will betray and abandon him? To begin understanding that question, let’s remember this line: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus knows that, in the unfathomable depths of the Creation, his being is inextricably confluent with the eternal and universal Flow of Holiness and Purpose we call God. This is the oneness Jesus refers to when he prays, “Holy Father, protect them…so that they may be one, as we are one.” In his Thursday night prayer, Jesus is actively loving everyone, whether they oppose him, forsake him, or crucify him.
The capacity to love those who oppose and oppress is not something we can achieve on our own. That gracious strength arises from our own oneness with God. It arises from that place of confluence between our individual human being and the eternal Being-ness of God.
When Jesus loves and blesses his disciples, knowing that they will turn their backs on him, he receives their brokenness, baptizes it in his oneness with God, and transforms it into genuine discipleship. That’s how he transforms Peter’s denials into compassionate leadership.
Peter do you love me?
Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
By receiving the hatred and taunts of those who crucify him, Jesus loves his enemies as they are loved by God, and, with his life, he prays for those who persecute him. That’s the point of the resurrected Christ transforming Saul’s scorched-earth hatred of Christians into a zealous commitment to love all whom Jesus loves, especially those who don’t know that they are loved. (Acts 9:1-22)
We expect all that from Jesus, but taking up our cross and following him can feel impossible. And it is impossible when we’re not seeking oneness with God through Christ. When we lose that connection, we tend to look for and find opponents rather than companions. When connected only by externals—political loyalties, racial/ethnic identities, doctrinal precepts, economic class, and so forth—we lose sight of the humanity of both self and neighbor. At that point, we’ve reduced love to alliances between like minds, alliances that are always conditional because when one ally’s thinking changes or evolves, the deal is off. Many marriages fail because at least one partner considers the relationship an alliance rather than a holy union.
When Jesus prays for his disciples, he is praying for the well-being of men who have yet to learn that Messiah transcends the label of ally. As the Incarnate Word of God, eternally one with the Father, Jesus can do nothing less than love, even when facing blind and brutal opposition.
Last week, my wife and I watched “The Best of Enemies.” While this 2019 film received mixed reviews and underwhelmed at the box office, the real-life story is worth remembering. In Durham, NC, in 1971, the city was dealing with integration. Two people, C.P. Ellis, a white man and leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American woman and community civil rights leader, became the faces of the two sides of the debate. In time, the two not only overcame their mutual disgust, they discovered their deeply-connected, holy and human beings. Without that discovery, the two sides may have hammered out a compromise, but Atwater and Ellis would not have found the enduring friendship that transformed their lives.
I was moved by that relationship, and as much so by Bill Riddick, the man who led the series of interactive meetings through which the community explored the issues and voted on an outcome that didn’t please everyone, but which everyone agreed to accept.
Riddick, also an African-American, had a profound dilemma. On the one hand, he had to deal with Ellis’ overt racism. On the other, he began to see that Atwater’s all-too-understandable fury at and suspicion of Ellis also threatened to derail the process of integration. After the first session, Riddick went home realizing that he had the same issues as Atwater and Ellis. He told himself that “until I’m able to harness my own feelings and have greater respect for these individuals, then I’m not going to be successful.”1 Unifying Ellis and Atwater was the key to bringing the community together.
It wasn’t until years later than Riddick had the language to speak of that experience spiritually. All those “years ago,” he said, “I really thought it was me. As I have become more God-fearing…I realize that the Lord gave me a grace and helped me.”2
Riddick’s grace was the same grace Jesus demonstrated on the night of his betrayal and the abandonment by those who claimed to love and follow him. That very grace is available to us when we confess our selfishness, pride, and fear. To lay aside that brokenness is to begin opening ourselves to the deep, God-given oneness we have with all things through Christ.
As our culture becomes more deeply divided, God’s call to spiritual communities within the wider community is all the more urgent. As followers of Jesus, our specific call is clear: Jesus prayerfully summons us to seek a oneness with each other that bears witness to the Son’s oneness with the Father. What oneness we embody is never our own doing. It’s always a reflection of God’s oneness with the Creation.
What, then, can you and I do to help all of us claim our holiness, our oneness with God so that, together, we embody the oneness that, through the power of Resurrection, grants us the freedom and the will to love as Christ loves us?
Earlier this week I was making some phone visits, and everyone asked the same question: When will we hold open worship in the sanctuary again? The responsible answer remains the same: We don’t know.
This Tuesday night, Session will meet and talk about all our normal business, and among the routine things we discuss these days is the progression of the pandemic and the recommendations from our Emergency Response Team (which is keeping a very close eye on the latest reports and trends). While no one knows where that conversation will lead, indications are that we will continue online worship at least through June. Until we see a verifiable decline in the number of cases, love for neighbor will continue to require us to be patient with our circumstances and with each other. We simply can’t afford to risk gathering a high-risk population for in-person worship.
A friend of mine shared a great image to help us think about how easily the coronavirus spreads: Imagine a Sunday School room full of five-year-olds. It’s early December. Their teacher has a wonderful art project planned for them—they’re going to make Christmas cards for shut-ins. When the kids enter the classroom, the teacher opens bottles of red, green, gold, and silver glitter. By the time Sunday school is over, how many kids will look like enormous sugar cookies covered with sprinkles? What will the table look like? What will the floor look like? What will the restrooms look like?
See where this is going?
The coronavirus is more contagious than glitter, and it’s harder to clean up. I, for one, cannot encourage us to get together when there’s just so much potential for “spreading the glitter.” It may be that if people in our area suddenly get much more serious about practicing social distancing and wearing masks, we’ll see enough of a drop in a couple of months to consider a partial re-opening. But go to a grocery store, or Lowe’s, or watch people in town on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see just how lightly people are taking the risk of infection. It seems that many people consider the virus as harmless as glitter, and that masks signal weakness rather than a strong love of neighbor and self.
While we’re all tired of separation, we would forget that fatigue in seconds if we had to get used to losing people we love. I love all of you and want to keep on loving you. If you’d like to, mail me a greeting card. Cover it with Elmer’s Glue and glitter. I’ll open it and enjoy it. And when I quit finding glitter in my kitchen, I’ll call you and thank you for it.
While you wait for me to call, do something constructive. Write a novel. Restore an old car. Become fluent in Urdu. I look forward to our talk!
Peace Be with You All,
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
8Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard,
9who has kept us among the living,
and has not let our feet slip.
10For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised
when I was in trouble.
15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
16Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for me.
17I cried aloud to him,
and he was extolled with my tongue.
18If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
19But truly God has listened;
he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
20Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me. (NRSV)
I’m a PC(USA) Presbyterian through-and-through, and gratefully so. We’re known for decency and order in our ecclesiology and rigor in our reformed theology. The downside of our reputation is evidenced in our tongue-in-cheek label: The Frozen Chosen. And indeed, we could afford to embrace certain spiritual practices a little more warmly—testimony, for example. Presbyterians often dodge that word like we might dodge a snake, and we lose something of value when we do. Living in a storytelling atmosphere, though, Jonesborough Presbyterians may have a slight edge because at its heart, testimony is storytelling.
Like much of the storytelling heard at the International Storytelling Center next door, and at the National Storytelling Festival each October, testimony is more than entertainment. Testimony shares intimate memories of God’s active presence in the world and in our lives.
Here’s the rub, though: Testimony is a biased memory. As a library of oral and written testimonies dating back more than four millennia, Christian scriptures are the collective spiritual memory of generations of people who claim to have experienced God through all manner of heroes and villains, joys and sorrows, teachings and dreams, and through interpretations that many people dismiss, and rationally so perhaps, as wishful thinking, superstition, or even neuroses. And honestly, testimonies can no more be proved than disproved. They’re faith statements, and sharing a personal memory in which we claim to have experienced the transforming presence and love of God can leave us vulnerable to both self-doubt and ridicule. One gift of the psalms is affirmation for those who claim sacred memories. This anthology of ancient poetry encourages us to keep our hearts and minds open to God’s often-hidden but ever-faithful ways.
The poet behind Psalm 66 praises God for faithfulness and goodness to the Hebrews during slavery in Egypt and through the Exodus, and he testifies to how painfully and continually real those experiences are. As a resource for coping with trauma and exile, Psalm 66 is a gift handed down from generation to generation.
Let’s remember something important here: It was common in the psalmist’s context to connect human suffering with God’s judgment. “You…have tested us…You brought us into the net…you let people ride over our heads.” What was real to him we dare not judge. Jesus helps us to remember differently, though. As Emmanuel, God With Us, Jesus reveals God’s heart as a suffering-with-us heart. God prepares for us and accompanies us to a “spacious place,” an oasis of redemption and peace where we find faith strengthened even in hardship.
While the psalmist may have the Exodus in mind, he writes in generalities that invite all readers to remember their own tests and burdens. None of us need reminding that life includes suffering, but sacred memories remind people of faith that we stand with our feet in two realities—the here-and-now and the kingdom of God. Faith is the lens through which we perceive and proclaim God’s kingdom even when all we feel or remember feeling is the world’s arbitrary spite and turmoil. That makes lament and praise two sides of the same coin.
Richard Hendrick is a Capuchin Franciscan friar living in Ireland. About two months ago he wrote a poem entitled “Lockdown” and published it on his blog. Like Covid-19 itself, the poem has gone viral. In it, Brother Hendrick expresses with heartfelt compassion and unvarnished candor both the lament and the praise humankind is feeling in and through our shared experience of pandemic. Listen to Brother Hendrick’s testimony to his grief and to his awareness of God’s ongoing presence.
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
With concrete images, Brother Hendrick’s sacred memory illustrates what the psalmist means by “a spacious place.” The New International Version translates it: “a place of abundance.” In The Message it’s “a well-watered place.” However one translates it, God’s “spacious place” is the kingdom itself, the even-now-available realm of compassion, mercy, justice, and love. And scripture is consistent: We discover and enter that spacious place not when “God is in the heavens and all is right with the world,” but when we join hands and hearts as, together, we pass through burdens, nets, fire and water, and viruses. The redeeming Nonetheless of faith creates the stories that become our sacred memories, stories that we are called to share as testimonies celebrating God’s faithful presence in the Creation’s suffering and struggle.
We’re not celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper today, but the table before us is always set with the bread and the cup, with reminders of the foretaste of God’s most spacious, abundant, and well-watered place.
This table, which is not confined to this sanctuary, is a place of sacred memory, a place of lament and praise. Here we remember Resurrection so that beyond these walls we might, in Christ’s name, re-enact Resurrection.
On Sunday, April 14, 1996 my family and I were preparing to leave the mountain house in Little Switzerland, NC. After spending the weekend in that no-frills and beloved summer retreat built by my paternal grandparents in the late 1960’s, we cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms. We swept and mopped the floors, tidied books and maps on the coffee table, and secured things like paper towels, toilet paper, and soap so the evidently fastidious mice wouldn’t get at them. We packed our little blue Toyota Corolla station wagon with all our luggage and still had room for Biscuit, our golden retriever. (I don’t remember how we managed that.)
Biscuit needed a walk before we made the 4-hour drive, so did our six- and four-year-old children. Marianne took all three of them and began to walk down the mountain road while I took care of the last few details and locked up. When all that remained was to close the door behind me, I sat down for a moment—in a familiar chair in that familiar house and thought about the fact that the next day I would be in a very unfamiliar chair in a very unfamiliar situation. I had a theological degree, but two months of supervised ministry was the extent of my pastoral experience. As I sat there, reality began to overwhelm me. I wept and prayed something like God, help me, for I know not what I do.
After that tearful prayer, it was time to go home.
Home. Physically speaking, home was a place we’d lived for less than a week before those two nights in the mountains. It was the manse of Cross Roads Presbyterian Church in Mebane, NC. (Pronounced meh´-bin). The next day, Monday, April 15, would be my very first day on the job as a pastor. So, home included my brand-new vocation.
That Sunday in April, twenty-four years ago, was the last day of the life I had known for 33 years. I had always been a Christian. From April 15 on, though, I would be The Reverend, or Preacher, or Pastor Allen. (That’s my preference if someone can’t just call me ‘Allen.’) While I would still be the same person in most ways, I would never be the same. For better and for worse, I was about to enter a new way of being in the world. And it terrified me.
Facing change, transformation, and virtually any other new circumstance or reality can upset and stress us. In and of itself, that’s not a weakness or a flaw. It’s just part of being human. However, when we resist it by violently projecting our fear and anxiety onto others, or by trying to force our way back to a past that feels comfortable and familiar, we can damage ourselves and others. We may also—and we almost certainly will—miss out on new things that God is doing in our lives or empowering us to do. That is where our human weaknesses and flaws tend to take over and derail us.
Maybe that’s why Peter “wept bitterly” after hearing that blasted rooster crow. He wept not only because he denied Jesus, but because he knew that he would not deny him again, and that following a crucified Messiah would mean living a very different life than he expected. And it terrified him. For that matter, Jesus himself wept by Lazarus’ tomb knowing that if he raised a man from death, the Powers-That-Be would decide that they had no choice but to kill him. Neither the Pharisees nor Caesar could compete with that kind of authority. To raise Lazarus was, even for Jesus, to choose a new life and new future.
It’s been just over 24 years since that April Sunday at the mountain house. And in that time, I have handled many changes, both professional and personal, more like denials than invitations from God. If given the chance, I hope that I would approach them quite differently now. To the extent that I have learned from my mistakes and errors, though, those mistakes have not been in vain. That’s what redemption is all about.
Isolation, online worship, and meetings by Zoom are both new and transformational for us. Many of us are grieving, and I’m right there with you. We’re also learning and growing. We’re learning that the world is a much smaller place than the “big ol’ world” of which we often speak. The earth is truly a neighborhood, and we’re far closer and more intimately connected to people on the other side of the planet than we ever thought possible. That’s a challenging lesson. We are one humanity, one Creation, and all of us beloved by God. Individuality is necessary and good. Individualism is another story. Behind the radical selfishness of individualism lie things like “invisible hand” theories which encourage everyone to seek their own self-interest. Societies based on selfishness don’t survive things like pandemics, though. They only fuel the contagion with fear.
Followers of Jesus are called to something new, something bigger, something greater, more gracious, and more just. We are called to proclaim and inhabit the kingdom of God in which we make decisions based on love, mercy, and the well-being of all people and all things, because (and I know this sounds cliché) we really are All in This Together.
Weep, Give Thanks, Live in Prayerful Hope,