Water-Logged Rocks (Sermon)

“Water-Logged Rocks”

Exodus 17:1-7

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/27/20

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  (NRSV)

         This summer, like most summers, had a few long dry spells. During each one, my gardener wife would stand over her rows of tomatoes, beans, okra, and squash and say, “We really need some rain.” Then she’d go turn the handle on the spigot, pick up the hose, and start watering her garden.

I suppose that getting water from the faux brick-on-concrete block foundation of a house isn’t any easier than Moses whacking a rock with a stick; it’s just a lot less dramatic. Then again, when you think about the whole process of drawing dirty water from the Nolichucky River, pumping it all the way to Jonesborough, purifying it, and delivering it into our homes day and night at the mere twist of a handle—well, if that’s not exactly a miracle, it’s certainly a wonder. And as long as a person pays her utility bills, she can trust that process to receive a God-given resource that every living thing requires for its existence.

It seems to me that trust is the fundamental issue facing the parched and anxious Israelites as they languish in the wilderness. And as much as we can sympathize with the Hebrews, their accusation that Moses is trying to kill them reveals their faithlessness. And since faithlessness is really nothing more than forgetfulness, let’s remember the context of this story.

The incident at Rephidim occurs right after God has parted the seas, turned bitter water into sweet water, and provided both manna and quail for the people. Though they have experienced God’s faithfulness in multiple situations, they still haven’t reached a place of trust. Because of their limited experience, God remains, primarily, a liturgical utterance—The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people know of God, but they have yet to know God. They have yet to love and trust God.

          When our Sunday school discussed this passage, one person observed that the Israelites seem to be following Moses rather than God. So, they’re defined by their ongoing dependence on a fellow creature rather than their relationship with the Creator. So, while sweet water, manna, and quail are great, it takes a while for a few strokes of good luck to become a faith-building trend. It takes even longer to recognize the divine presence behind Moses’ leadership. And it takes longer still to trust that, whether Moses is present or not, God is, was, and will always be present in the life of the people.

That’s part of our faith struggle—learning to hear professions of faith not as wishful thinking but as the expressions of hearts at peace, hearts who trust that come what may, great joy or deep anxiety, God is present in the moment redeeming suffering, creating purpose, and calling us to lives of humble service and confident witness. This kind of trust-wrought wisdom is inherent in every authentic spirituality.

In discussing leadership in his book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr says that “wisdom is ‘the art of the possible.’ The key question is no longer ‘How can I problem-solve now, and get this off of my plate?’ It is ‘How can this situation achieve good for the largest number and for the next generations?’”1

The Exodus is one long problematic situation for the Israelites. And as the leader, Moses often wants simply to get problems off of his plate so he can move on to the promised land God has told him about and about which he has told the Hebrews. And they will eventually find that land—more or less. As with all temporal nations, it will be a territory they never truly own because they take it by force and hold it only until a stronger people take it from them by force. And on it goes. And so, Israel’s faith will wax and wane depending on the number and magnitude of the problems on their plate at any given time.

As God’s Nation-Within-The-Nations, Israel often wearies of and abandons the call to help lead God’s good creation in the ways of justice, righteousness, compassion, and trust. And perhaps TRUST, more than any particular geographical location, is itself the Promised Land.

         Out there in the wilderness, bereft of trust and water, the Israelites lose sight of what has happened and what can happen. They’ve forgotten the Red Sea, the sweet water, the manna, and the quail. They’ve forgotten that God is with them in their thirst, and that God, whose providence can be trusted, is already on the other side of their need.

         For 21st century Christians, who are accustomed to tap water, relating to this story means placing ourselves in it, and not just as Israelites. There’s room for us inside every element of the story.

         Like Moses, we are leaders charged with the burden of wisdom, with the work of discovering what is possible in our own wilderness and acting in faith to lead others simply by living the radical new vision called the household of God, a vision in which the schisms that pit us against each other become celebrations of our different gifts, and the sand castles of meritocracy give way to communities of grace built on the solid foundation of mutual human respect and love, and on bathing in God’s delight in all that God has made.

         We can see ourselves in Moses’ staff, something that Moses never uses as a magic wand for his own benefit, but which, at God’s command becomes both a symbol of and a conduit for the power of God touching the earth on behalf of people in need. That helps us understand why the staff is an essential image in Psalm 23, doesn’t it?

         As rock and water, we can bear witness to God as both an anchor of identity and the flow of life and liveliness, as both safe harbor and open-ended journey. As water-logged rocks, we encounter and embody a life-giving paradox—the concrete mystery of God’s incarnate presence in and for the world.

         Perhaps most importantly, as thirst itself, we live as ones who trust that our deepest desires are God’s own longings to be in relationship with us. “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” wrote St Augustine. “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you,” prayed Thomas Merton.

         When we, as Christ’s body, join our voices in cries for justice and peace, we participate in the world’s thirst. And while we must participate in those thirsty cries, we can’t stop there. When protest becomes an end in itself, we reduce it to quarreling and testing. The faith community has more constructive roles to play. Like Moses, we intercede and advocate. We raise our staff and strike the jagged rocks of resentment, fear, and bigotry. We allow ourselves to be broken open so that through us the living water of Christ becomes a healing flow of humble welcome, truth-telling, and re-orienting relationship. We lead in acts of reconciliation, in demonstrations of confession, repentance, reparation, and resurrection.

         Ours is a crucial, pivotal time, and as people of thirst-conscious compassion, as leadership staff in Christ’s new community of grace, as rocks saturated with living water, God calls us into a drought-weary world to speak and act with the love that casts out fear, the love that bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things, the love that never ends.

May we trust that love, whose name is Yahweh. And may we help bring water to a parched and anxious world.

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, NY, 2009. P. 158.

Scandalous Grace (Sermon)

“Scandalous Grace”

Matthew 20:1-16

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/20/20

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

         Over the last few weeks, the Old Testament passages in the lectionary come from the book of Exodus. And homiletics professor Charles Campbell notes how well they complement the New Testament passages.1 Exodus is the story of God creating Israel, a brand-new community, according to a spiritual, social, economic, and political ethic that differs wildly from the surrounding culture.

God establishes Israel not for her own sake. “I will make of you a great nation,” God tells Abram, “and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2 and 3) Unlike its neighbors, this new, blessed to be a blessing nation will linger through the ages not because of glorious cities and powerful armies. This nation-within-the-nations identifies itself by welcoming the stranger, caring for widows and orphans, doing justice, seeking righteousness. And all of these defining characteristics derive from and proclaim Israel’s monotheistic theology, their signature innovation, their belief in and faithfulness to one God who created all things and whose presence is manifest in all that God created and continues to create.

         In the experience of the Exodus, and in the giving of the Mosaic law, we see only the preliminary markings of the foundation for Israel. While under construction, the Hebrews learn to trust and follow Yahweh—no matter where they are, no matter their joys or sufferings. And when the people do suffer, God sends prophets to tell them that to be restored, return to the ethic of love. Care for those who can’t care for themselves. Work for and demand justice from kings and nations. Demonstrate that justice with lives of humility, gratitude, and generosity.

Faithfulness to God proves to be complicated business. And many generations into Israel’s existence, when she’s barely a toddler, God, through Isaiah, will say, I understand how difficult this is for you, but remember, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my” thoughts and ways higher than yours. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When Jesus shows up, he reminds us that God’s creation of the new community continues to be a work in progress. With one disruptive teaching after another, Jesus pushes the spiritual, social, economic, and political ethics of the faith to a whole new level, one that reveals that God is, quite frankly, not entirely fair. And yet it’s God’s lack of fairness that reveals God’s unfathomable grace.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, those who worked only the last hour receive the same pay as those who worked all day. And like the liberated Hebrews grumbling in the wilderness, those who worked all day grumble at the vineyard owner’s inequitable generosity. Their response reveals the limits of the human heart when confronted with pure grace: “…these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

         It seems to me that the grumbling of the workers sums up human sin. We have always been obsessed with measuring the value of fellow human beings and of God’s good Creation as a whole, over against the value we place on ourselves or our groups. And while it is harmful to under-value ourselves relative to others, our principal struggle is under-valuing people who are not like us. So, to hear someone imply, much less say outright, that I must accept those people as equal to me and my group can be as perplexing and offensive as the Hebrews’ suggestion that one God, their God, created and watches over all the earth.

In nations around the globe today, we’re seeing, hearing, and feeling the storms created when the anguish of people crying out to be recognized as fully human meets the grumblings of those who don’t understand, and who feel threatened by cries for equality and justice.

I feel the anger and grief of those whose humanity has been ignored and attacked for centuries. And I stand with them because they are children of God whose very lives bear the imprint of the Creator. I am no more valuable than a black man or woman languishing in poverty in a housing project in Baltimore or Detroit, or locked up in prison. Their lives matters as much as mine, and when I act as if they don’t, I’m a worker grumbling at the end of the day because I don’t want to imagine them deserving equality with me. But when I’m honest, I have to admit that because of the skin, family, and culture into which I was born, I received more than a day’s wage before I even showed up! So, when I grumble, my own condemnation lies in my grumbling. When I grumble, I reject the grace of God who chooses freely and without my permission to love and live in all that God has created. At that point God says to me, Allen, “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Having said all that, I also feel anger and grief when cries for equality and justice turn violent. Violence redeems nothing. That’s the very point of the cross in the Christian faith. Much Christian theology claims that God was so angry and grieved at human sin that if there were to be a heaven at all, there had to be hell to pay. Someone had to die. So, God kills Jesus to satisfy God’s fury and to restore God’s ability to love.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Any god who requires violent human suffering to be restored to wholeness is a golden calf, and idol made in our image. The cross does not reveal God’s wrath in the face of human sin. The cross reveals human frailty when it meets the height, and depth, and breadth of God’s grace. God did not demand Jesus’ death. We did. We killed Jesus because he was just too good to be true, because he loved beyond the strict boundaries set by the Mosaic law, because he offered a full day’s wage to last-hour hires. And because God’s grace has no end, even our brutal, reactionary violence against God Incarnate, does not condemn us forever. Friday is not the last word. Sunday is. Sunday is also the first word of new beginnings. It’s the laying of new foundations.

  “If I were to name the Christian religion,” says Richard Rohr, “I would probably call it ‘The Way of the Wound.’ Jesus agrees to be the Wounded One, and we Christians…come to God not through our strength but through our weakness.”2

The parable of the workers in the vineyard proclaims God’s incomprehensible grace. And in doing so, it exposes human weakness. It exposes our selfishness, greed, and self-consuming appetite to see ourselves as superior to others. And even that is grace because before grace saves us, it scandalizes us into wakefulness. Before grace can make a difference in the lives we live, we have to admit our aversion to grace. We must confess our materialistic religion of individualism and merit, and the various supremacies to which that religion leads. Only when we surrender to the scandal of grace do we begin to recognize and celebrate God’s eternal love for all people and all things.

I love all of you the same, says Jesus. It grieves me if that makes you jealous, but there’s no first or last. There’s no black or white, rich or poor, male or female. So, receive what I give you, what belongs to you by grace alone. Receive my love, receive it for others as well as for yourselves.

Then go; share it. Only by giving it away–especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it­–will you ever understand that there is enough for all.

1Charles Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 93-97.

2https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/49CA59C9E571AF9C2540EF23F30FEDED/A2AE94689C106E613D3F7F9A22A6E02E

A New Point of View (Sermon)

“A New Point of View”

2 Corinthians 5:14-21 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

9/6/20

14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NRSV)

         In Christ, says Paul, God is reconciling the world to God’s Self. And in so doing, God charges and empowers us to become agents of reconciliation. And heaven knows there’s a lot of reconciling to do, isn’t there?

         We live in a perpetually broken world, but the Incarnation reveals God’s initiative to restore humankind to the grateful and generous living that makes us truly human. Paul defines truly human as having “the mind of Christ,” that is, living in full awareness of the presence of the divine within us and around us. When we reconnect with our true humanity, with our true selves, the Spirit restores our sight. And, as Paul says, we no longer regard anyone from a falsely or selfishly “human point of view.” So, as new creations, we become expressions of God’s reconciling grace.

         As cozy as that sounds, transformation is difficult business. Holiness and reconciling grace flash and rumble in our lives when the warm front of God’s unrelenting love meets the cold air of our brokenness. And in this perfect storm, the imperfect world tends to nail to crosses anyone who chooses reconciliation over pride, compassion over power, and love over fear.

         Reconciliation, even between two individuals, attempts to restore balance to all of creation. Over the centuries, however, the Church has usually tried to restore balance by imposing absolutes. Just make everyone look alike and think alike, and we’ll all just get along. And in Jesus’ name, the Church has committed and endorsed unspeakableinhumanity against human beings and the environment in order to make persons, nations, and even geographies fit into the dogmas of those who hold dominance.

         Brian McLaren says that one of Christianity’s greatest failures has been to reduce faith to systematic theologies. What began as a holy path, a way to live God’s new point of view,has been locked inside the gated communities of rigid human tradition. And why is that? Why do we respond so much more readily to wall-building fear than to bridge-building grace? 

         It seems to me that virtually every human being harbors both obvious and hidden wounds. When those wounds are not acknowledged honestly and dealt with graciously, they manifest as bitter judgment directed at other people, at scapegoats. Grounded in the old points of view of suspicion and competition, these defensive reactions tell us to Look out for Number Onebecause it’s everyone for themselves! And God helps those who help themselves. How can reconciliation happen under that point of view?

         Paradoxically, only when we face our own sinfulness and woundedness can we begin to find the strength and the will to follow paths of holiness and reconciliation. So, to make peace with others begins by making peace with ourselves, and peacemaking requires the hard and often painful spiritual work of self-examination. In serious reflection, we rummage around in those deep, dark corners where we hide all the experiences that frighten and embarrass us. We face them, name them, confess them and offer them to God. Such work paves the way for self-forgiveness. And to forgive ourselves is to receive God’s grace.

We “accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!” says Richard Rohr. “This is the key that unlocks everything in me, for others, and toward God. So much so that we call it ‘salvation’!”1 This transformation becomes the starting point of discipleship. And the deeper we go within ourselves, the more we encounter God’s grace calling us out of ourselves and into the world. This is what Jesus means when he calls us to take up the cross and follow him.

         Archetypal stories illustrating this kind of transformation are common throughout human experience. They lie at the heart of almost every collection of myths and spiritual narratives. The Old Testament is full of such stories. One example is that of the conniving and self-obsessed Jacob who finally confronts his dark truth as he wrestles all night with a stranger on a riverbank. When the sun rises, Jacob has a brand new name—Israel, a brand new limp, and a brand new point of view, a point of view which makes his reunion with his estranged brother, Esau, one of grateful, tearful, and liberating reconciliation.

Over the last few years in America and other places, there’s been a well-documented rise in hate groups. New assemblies, new members, and new visibility and all for very old and very malignant points of view. In the midst of those rising numbers, however, new stories are leaking out around the edges, stories of people who are leaving those groups, their violent ways, and the purity codes of the misguided Christianity and the zealous nationalism of the far right. There’s a consistent feature in the accounts of the people leaving communities which are committed to white supremacy. Even as those people thrived on their hate, they encountered other people—usually the very people at whom they aimed their fear and their fists—people who, rising above their own fear and above their desire for vengeance, chose, intentionally, to show compassion to someone whose life was consumed by hatred and ignorance.

That is grace. And it embodies the new point of view. Gracious love is fierce enough to see through the scars of broken homes and abuse, to see through the bald heads, swastika tattoos, and Confederate battle flags. For many who leave the hate groups, there would be no healing without such grace because grace was exactly what was missing in their lives from the start.

Yes, God’s grace attends to both those who suffer and to those who cause suffering. And for those who call themselves Christian, and who know that evil isn’t overcome by exempting it as personal choice, but by direct engagement, our work of reconciliation means claiming our prophetic voice and boldly calling out the evils behind the suffering. And thatbegins with confessing our own racism, sexism, partisan pettiness, and nationalistic prejudice. Only when we see brokenness clearly in ourselves can we call it out compassionately in others. And if we’re the Church, we must follow Jesus in doing both, lest we—like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Caesar—become ones so obsessed with ourselves that we become ones who do and tolerate evil.

We are stewards of Christ’s new point of view, a point of view of invitation, vulnerability, trust, and reconciliation. No, we’re not always faithful to that point of view, and because of that, we confess our individual and systemic sinfulness each Sunday morning. Nonetheless, if we are the body of Christ, we are the “new creation” of which Paul speaks. The old is passing away because the new has begun. And “the love of Christ urges us on” our journey.

         The table before us is set with Christ’s reconciling feast. As you participate in this meal, look within yourself at the new person and the new point of view God is creating. And look at those around you with the new eyes of that new creation. Taste and see that God is good, and present in all people, races, and lands.

         And may this bread and this cup nourish the living Christ within all of us, so that we may “become the righteousness of God.”

1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, NY, 2009. p. 141.

Here I Am! Who Am I? (Sermon)

“Here I Am! Who Am I?”

Exodus 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/30/20

         In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh is more than one particular Egyptian ruler. Like Herod and Caesar in the gospels, he’s a metaphor for every proud and self-obsessed autocrat. In an effort to maintain his power, which such people constantly fear losing, Pharaoh orders the killing of as many young, Hebrew males as inhumanly possible.

         During this holocaust, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the river to bathe. She finds a Hebrew baby in a basket floating in the reeds. She picks him up and claims him as her own. Then she finds a Hebrew nursemaid, who “just happens” to be the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t know this, but we do. And, so, the bond between the child and his true identity is set—for good.

         One can imagine that growing up in Pharaoh’s home, Moses feels increasing tension between who he appears to be and who he feels like. In time, he chooses and commits to a particular identity. He picks up a brick and kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew.

         After that, the Egyptians want Moses dead, and the Hebrews want nothing to do with him. So, Moses flees to the Midianite wilderness, where he rescues Jethro’s daughters from some thugs who are trying to run the women away from a watering hole. This good deed lands Moses in Jethro’s good graces and in his family.

         Then, years later:

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

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

And [Moses] said, “Here I am.”

5Then [God] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

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

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

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

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

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

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (NRSV)

         In the conversation, God says, Moses, I have seen my people in misery…Ihave heard their cries…I feel their sufferings…I am here to deliver them.

         Then God says, Moses, you will go Egypt. You will face Pharaoh. You will deliver the Israelites.

         (Do you hear the foreshadowing? A shepherd sees an odd light, hears a strange voice that announces deliverance, and tells him to go do something about it? In December we’ll return to that story.)

         At first, Moses says, “Here I am.” Then, becoming overwhelmed, he asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”

         Who am I? Maybe that’s modesty. Maybe it’s fear or a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s all of those things, but I have to imagine Moses asking that question as one who has struggled all of his life with who he is, where he belongs. He was born a Hebrew slave, raised as a privileged Egyptian, escaped as a murderer. And now he’s living as an ordinary husband, father, son-in-law, and shepherd.

         “Here I am.” Then, Wait, who am I?

         It’s revealing that when Moses asks what he should say when asked about who sent him to Egypt, God says to tell them, “I AM WHO I AM” sent you. While that may seem a deeply unsatisfying answer, as people of God, who we are and what we do declare our understanding of the essential being of God, the is-ness of God.

         If we believe God is legalistic and vengeful, we will be legalistic and vengeful.

         If we believe God is creative and loving, we will be creative and loving.

         If we believe God is greedy and exclusive, we will be greedy and exclusive.

         If we believe God advocates for the poor and the oppressed, we will advocate for the poor and the oppressed.

         If we believe God requires violence and human suffering to be “satisfied,” we will inflict violence and suffering on others as an attempt to satisfy and please God.

         If we believe God redeems human suffering by entering it, we will enter the lives of those who suffer and help to bear their burdens.

         As people of faith, our understanding of who God is has everything to do with our understanding of who we are. And God knows who Moses is. God knows that Moses has no tolerance for injustice and no equivocation in confronting it. God knows Moses will act on behalf of those who are exploited because of their race or gender. Without even having a term for it yet, Moses already knows, sees, and lives toward God’s “promised land.” And isn’t that the very nature of faith? Living into a future we can’t see, while trusting that God is already holding us within it.

         “And this shall be the sign…that it is I who sent you,” says God, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

         That’s a dangerous declaration by God. It can easily be misinterpreted as the horrific, Machiavellian fallacy of the ends justify the means. What we learn from the wider witness of scripture is that the means and the ends are intimately intertwined. The journey is the gift, and the means of the journey are essential to the outcome, even when the way ahead includes wandering the wilderness. To know God’s deliverance means to live each moment as if God’s promises were already fulfilled—even when fulfillment is so obviously incomplete.

         For us as Christians, every Sunday is a celebration of Easter. The source and foundation of our faith is that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, creates new life out of death, new hope out of despair, a new future out of a past riddled with bitterness and pain. And every journey from death to resurrection involves some kind of Exodus which begins with a call to which we often say, Here I am, then, Wait, who am I to do that? Saying Yes to God’s call means saying Yes to some kind of death on the way to resurrection. And following Jesus means dying to any image of God that makes us selfishly comfortable, any image of God that is vengeful, exclusive, or violent.

         The stories of Moses and Jesus illustrate that God calls us to act on behalf of those who are crying out for help because they’re hungry, lonely, sick, or suffering beneath the oppressive systems of the world’s many Pharaohs and Caesars. And we are all, in one way or another, called to die to ourselves so that the Spirit might raise us into new ways of life, new self-understandings, new relationships, and new actions.

         Think again about Moses: To lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, it takes someone who is familiar with the house of Israel and the house of Pharaoh, and who is sufficiently distant from both. It takes someone who has already journeyed through all manner of adversity. It takes someone who’s had a transforming experience of God. It takes someone with enough humility to say, I’ll need lots of help. It takes someone who is willing to learn to trust that I AM WHO I AM is sufficient grounds for taking up a daring journey. So, at God’s command, Moses dies a revitalizing death so that he, with the help of his brother, Aaron, might lead a protracted, two-person protest march against the systemic evils of Pharaoh’s Egypt. And as is always the case in human societies, when Pharaoh refuses to listen and to do justice, hispeople suffer.

         One of the liturgical terms for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is The Feast of Victory; and the elements of this feast are symbols associated with Friday, the day of apparent defeat. The bread and the cup remind us that God is not satisfied or reconciled by Jesus’ death. Only human-imaged idols require revenge in order to love again. Friday is what we give God to work with. And God, being I AM WHO I AM from beginning to end, redeems Friday. On Friday, God transforms Jesus into another bush that burns without being consumed.

         On Sunday, God declares that a new deliverance has begun.

         On Sunday God announces, and calls us to share, that Pharaoh-defying, fear-defeating, Creation-transforming promise called Resurrection.

An Appeal for Wholeness (Sermon)

“An Appeal for Wholeness”

Romans 12:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/23/20

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  (NRSV)

         Paul wrote his letter to the Romans about 57CE. I imagine that the church in Rome, as a brand-new community, would have felt small and insignificant inside the city that served as the seat of government for the first century’s largest and most powerful empire. And yet that community seems to have felt an excessively heavy burden of scrutiny.

         Nero, the emperor during Paul’s ministry, was known for a fearsome capacity for political tyranny and personal self-indulgence. Of the few ancient historians who left details about Nero, all but one record that the emperor himself ordered the Great Fire that destroyed two thirds of Rome in 64CE1; and some of those historians suggest that he did so in order to clear space for building projects that would glorify him. However, Nero quickly blamed the Christians for the fire, and thus began the practice of persecuting people who proclaimed the kingdom of God and professed faith in Jesus rather worshiping the empire and the emperor.

         While Paul’s letter was written before the fire, Roman culture was still characterized by conquest and control, by entrenched violence and callous disregard for human life. To entertain both the powerful and the poor, human beings fought to the death in the Colosseum. For both sport and crime-prevention, criminals were fed to wild beasts who had been intentionally starved. Any culture which thrives on such barbarism, and on things like slavery, public execution, or lynching, oppresses the poor, the powerless, and the suspect. Those cultures treat human bodies like injured livestock.

         So, put yourself in the place of first-century Christians in Rome. How might you react when Paul appeals to you saying, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…to God,” and that doing so constitutes your true “spiritual worship”? That’s kind of like wealthy people saying to parents of starving children, Well, at least your kids aren’t overweight.

         Then Paul begins to clarify himself. “Do not be conformed to this world.” Don’t mistake the temporary securities of military dominance and the temporal pleasures of indulgent wealth for God’s blessings. In the long run, those things do more harm than good. They turn our trust and hope away from God and from God’s very different kind of power and richness. They turn us toward our own comfort and social status, things that must be gained and maintained at the expense of others.

         The Caesars of the world, and those who worship him, cannot have their excess without oppressing others or depriving them of basic human needs. And to accept that disparity is to decide that those other people—their bodies, their minds, and their very humanity—is less significant, less valuable. And if we follow Jesus, we cannot justify valuing one person, nation, or race more than others.

         So, Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Overcoming the temptation to devalue other people for one’s own sake requires a transformation of mind and spirit. And while transformation, as a gift of grace, is something we cannot make happen, we can make room for it. According to both Paul and Jesus, transformation occurs when we let go of our fearful, ego-ridden selves.

         Don’t imagine yourself as better than anyone else, says Paul. With a clear mind, hold the people around you in awe and gratitude. Discern in each other that which is holy and good, that which reflects the presence of God in whose image all human beings are made, and in whom all humankind is one.

         Paul uses the image of a single human body to illustrate the diversity necessary for wholeness in human communities. He reminds his readers that just like ears, eyes, hands, and livers all have their own crucial functions, different people have their own gifts that are necessary to the well-being of families, churches, cities, and nations. Think about it: If Nero did burn two thirds of Rome for personal gain, he illustrates what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.

         While it seems to me that none of us really argue with Paul’s teaching, it also seems to me that in the Rome-like culture of twenty-first century western society, those getting the most attention are those who are tearing the body apart, those who are saying the most spiteful, destructive things about others. Human arrogance, which might be defined as the gluttony of individualistic ears, eyes, hands, and livers, is especially evident during political campaign seasons. And I’m not claiming high ground here. When I’m in a cozy room with like-minded people, and things aren’t going my way, I give in and conform to the world. I lament and condemn just like anyone else. But when I leave that room, shackled by resentment, I can’t discern the will of God. I can’t hear wisdom in the words of scripture. I can’t see the humanity I share with those with whom I so deeply and urgently disagree. I don’t hold them in authentic prayer. I don’t let my transformed mind filter out the toxic anger in and around me so that I feel something of the universal pain and distress underneath it. And that just makes me part of the problem, doesn’t it?

         Now, in no way am I saying that we should be so tolerant that we turn deaf ears and blind eyes, or clinched fists and cold blood toward those actions and attitudes that contribute to injustice and create human suffering. To do that would be to forsake Jesus as well as those who are oppressed. I’m saying that to participate in God’s transforming work in the world, we begin by looking for the God-imaged holiness in one another and in the Creation. We, like Jesus, must recognize, name, and celebrate the gifts of those around us because we are incomplete without allthat God has created, called good, and is, even now, redeeming.

         Now, a significant difficulty surfaces when we realize that while God gives us a generous diversity of gifts as the body of Christ, we are still called to have one voice—the voice which says through word and deed, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Deut. 6:5 and Mk. 12:30)

         Discerning the will of God—something for which we pray every time we utter the Lord’s Prayer—is a life-long process of learning and relearning, of dying to self and rising to Christ. That process asks us to enter and nurture challenging relationships with people who are in dire need and with people whose understandings of the world seem at odds with our own. When, as Paul says, we “think of [ourselves] more highly that [we] ought to think,” we can’t see the humanity and holiness in others. And so, we dismiss not just the poor and the oppressed, but those who exploit them, those who advocate for them, and those who just don’t care and say, Not my fault; not my business.

         Love God with all you have and with all you are, says Jesus. Love everyone around you as you would have them love you. And so that you can do that, he says, take up your cross and follow me.

         Jesus leads us in lives of compassion and understanding, lives in which we will claim our gifts and share them, lives in which we can recognize all the ears, eyes, hands, and livers around us—neighbors without whom we cannot fully live.

         Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you whole.

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nero

Crumbs Are Enough (Sermon)

“Crumbs Are Enough”

Matthew 15:21-28

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/16/20

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

23But he did not answer her at all.

And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.  (NRSV)

         I don’t have a good answer for the obvious question. While first century Jews did regard Canaanite people with prejudice and contempt, I can neither explain why nor gloss over the fact that Jesus himself refers to a Canaanite woman and her ethnic kin as dogs.

Jesus’ comment is particularly baffling in light of the teaching that comes immediately prior to this encounter. A dispute with some Pharisees over hand-washing before meals led Jesus to rebuke them for paying only lip service to God. When cautioned by his disciples for angering people who had the power to make his life miserable, Jesus says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles. What comes out of the mouth—the words, the attitudes, the bigotry, the meanness—these things corrupt because they reveal the heart. So, what’s in Jesus’ heart when he so rudely dismisses a woman crying out for help?

Over the centuries, Christians of all stripes have sprung into damage-control mode when hearing this text. According to the most common defense, Jesus didn’t really mean what it sounds like he said. He was just testing the woman. He knew how she would respond just like he knew how he would respond. So, while Jesus may appear prejudiced, the whole scene was a carefully-planned teachable moment that Jesus choreographed with spiritually-principled compassion and just a touch of good-natured teasing.

         That line of reasoning asks us to accept that God Incarnate looked at this woman and called her a dog in order to make the point that her faith was strong. And he did it to tell us that if our faith is equally strong, our children will be healthy. Our bank accounts will be full. Our nation will prevail. And everyone will get along at Thanksgiving. Anyone who expects that to be the nature of God and of the Christian faith will likely be disappointed into atheism by suppertime. That Pollyanna god exists only on the Hallmark Channel.

Through two millennia of the Christian faith, far too many disciples have also taken Jesus’ words as tacit justification to judge and disdain those who are poor, or whose ethnicity or gender is deemed inferior, or whose sexuality is deemed dangerous, or whose religion or politics are wrong. And it’s okay to treat “those people” like some neighborhood cur.

If that sounds harsh, just remember the arguments the Church made in defense of things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, race-based segregation, the Holocaust. And think about the arguments the Church continues to make in defense of humankind’s appetite for excessive wealth and our profligate use of irreplaceable resources to develop and maintain enough weaponry to destroy this planet several times over.

         And remember this, too: It’s not just as disciples of Jesus, but as the very Body of Christ himself that the Church has been doggedly mistreating people for two thousand years. But didn’t Jesus focus his ministry on those very people? On those in the deepest need? On those who are oppressed and forgotten?

Yes, the Church does lots of wonderful things, but it sometimes feels like we allow this one brief instance when Jesus acts more like a disciple than a Savior to define us and to define our mission.

         Come on, Preacher! Show us a little mercy! We’re beat down enough as it is. Here we are in the dog days of summer, and from Covid-wrought isolation, to social unrest, to bitter rhetoric in the public square that’s turning us against each other, it’s like…well, it’s like someone we love with all our hearts—someone like our own child—is sick, like she’s tormented by a demon. Where is God in all this? Where is Jesus? Where is our hope, our peace, our purpose? Help us!

         Does anyone feel that way? If so, how might you respond if I said that “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? How would you respond if I said that we don’t matter because Jesus came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and face it, you and I, we’re Gentiles? If I said that, would you keep coming to worship?

         The woman keeps coming. She hounds Jesus for her daughter’s sake. She knows that this Galilean Jew knows, or that he will at least remember, that she matters, her life matters, her daughter’s life matters, Canaanite lives matter.

         The woman and Jesus know that. Jesus’ disciples have to learn it. Having tried to bar the door and keep this “inferior” person away, they are now the ones on the hot seat in this story. And while Jesus’ response is inexplicably slow in coming, he nonetheless says to those who follow him that this woman and her daughter are, utterly and irrevocably, as much children of God as any Pharisee, Sadducee, priest, or ordinary Jewish person back home. Individually and systemically, Canaanites deserve to be seen, heard, welcomed, valued, respected, and protected exactly the same as anyone from Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, or Jerusalem.

         It’s cliché to say, but the Church really is in decline. Maybe one reason is that contemporary disciples are and have been experiencing a dangerous contraction of faith, a regression. It’s like the Church is becoming less and less the Body of the resurrected Christ and more and more like the disciples before the terrifying experience of Friday and the transforming revelation of Sunday. And before Easter, the disciples were a self-centered bunch, weren’t they? They argued about who was first and greatest. They tried to shield Jesus from children and blind men, because they just knew, that eventually, he was going to raise a flag in one hand, a sword in the other, and lead the house of Israel in triumph, once and for all, over every principality and power. And as long as that was the goal, the disciples were never going to get enough.

         Go away, Canaanite woman, they say. There’s not enough of Jesus for us and for you.

         Into the disciples’ fearful bigotry, an outcast, a Canaanite, and a woman at that, broke the door down to say, Brush me off like a crumb if you want to, but crumbs are enough. A crumb from Jesus can restore my daughter.

         When the Church proclaims the resurrection of Jesus and still treats certain people as less-than-worthy, when we withhold the holy gifts of welcome and advocacy from people who are lonely and oppressed, we only prove that we have given up on resurrection. When people live selfishly and fearfully, crumbs are never enough. We will always hoard what we have and grasp for more.

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has been raised from dead! In the presence of the Holy Spirit, he is alive! And his resurrection empowers us for living an entirely new life than the life that even Jesus’ disciples lived while they followed him in person throughout Judea, Galilee, and into the Canaanite neighborhoods of Tyre and Sidon. If the tiniest seed and the smallest measure of yeast are enough to reveal the kingdom of God, then crumbs are all we need, and not just for being disciples, but for living as Jesus’ Body, his hands, and feet, and heart in and for the world.

Jesus sees the agony of the Father and the Son in the agony of a Canaanite mother and her daughter. His own earthly life will end violently because of his radical love for people just like them. And yet he lives and loves, fearlessly, for them, for you, for me, for all of us—because Jesus already sees it. He sees that we are all one. And his hunger, which is satisfied one crumb at a time, is for humankind to live in unity and wholeness. His hunger is for us to see ourselves in the faces, in the sufferings, in the joys, in the potential, in the breathtaking beauty of every human being and of the earth itself.

As we begin to see and to celebrate the oneness in the Creation, crumb by crumb, God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is healing us and making us whole.

Stepping Out of the Boat (Sermon)

“Stepping Out of the Boat”

Matthew 14:22-33

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/9/20

 

 

2Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 

9He said, “Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)

 

         It’s been a demanding few days for Jesus. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. When Jesus tries to find some solitude to grieve and rejuvenate, crowds of sick and lonely people hound him for attention. And always aware of God’s call, Jesus tends to the crowd with compassion and generosity.

         Afterward, Jesus sends his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. Go on, he says. I’ll catch up with you.

         With the disciples on their way, Jesus turns and dismisses the crowd. Then, utterly spent, Jesus trudges up a mountain to pray—alone at last.

         In biblical literature, going “up a mountain” is an image of consciously placing oneself in the presence of holiness. Matthew wants us to imagine Jesus as the second Moses, climbing a mountain to commune directly with God.

         As Jesus prays, his disciples out in the boat are hanging on for dear life in one of the Sea of Galilee’s notorious storms. Also in biblical literature, when someone’s in a boat on a body of water there’s more going on than meets the eye. And a storm on the water recalls the primordial chaos of Genesis. So, while the situation is dangerous, and even dire, it’s also life-giving. When the storm subsides, the world may be brand new, but the voyage to newness is terrifying. For the disciples, the howling wind was bad enough, but when they see a figure they believe to be a ghost walking on the water, they become truly terrified.

         Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. It’s just me.

         When Peter sees Jesus walking across the watery chaos as calmly as he might sit on a mountain top, the disciple—more reckless than truly fearless—says to Jesus, “Command” me to join you on the water!

         “Come,” says Jesus. And stepping out of the boat, Peter’s okay for a moment. Then he looks around at that churning, storm-wrinkled sea. As yet, the impulsive disciple’s faith is no more buoyant than water wings on a cinder block. Peter begins to sink, and Jesus reaches out and returns him to the boat.

         Isn’t that just like Jesus? He offers comfort, peace, and capacities for courageous discipleship; and yet, when Jesus brings his prophetic fullness to bear, we’re more likely to feel as if he has ripped that comfort, peace, and courage away from us.

         I think western Christianity has, in many ways and for many generations, distorted the gospel and misled its people by perpetuating the prosperity gospel’s false claim that true blessing means material wealth and physical comfort. Doesn’t scripture reveal, consistently, that it’s when the waves are up and the chips are down that we grow the most in the ways of faithful, hopeful, loving, and bold discipleship?

         Years ago, Clifton Kirkpatrick, a former stated clerk of the PC(USA), wrote of attending an ecumenical gathering, and among the speakers was a man named Ernest Campbell, the former pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City. In his remarks, Dr. Campbell made this challenging and unforgettable statement: “The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.”1

         Those words hit me in the chest every time. The chaotic tempests upon which we sail are both external circumstances and internal struggles. Both can rock our boats and terrify us, and in the midst of them, Jesus issues his prophetic commands: Do not be afraid. Come. Get out of the boat. Do something that will require you to use your faith!

         Last month our nation lost Representative John Lewis, a man known as the “Conscience of Congress.” Mr. Lewis’ public service began with stepping out of the boat and onto the chaotic waters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. One thing that gave John Lewis’ activism such credibility was his Christian commitment. He even compared the movement to worship: “On some occasions,” he said, “it was just like being in church [or] at a prayer meeting. We would sing songs, in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, in little churches: ‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do. If the Spirit said sit in, if the Spirit said march…if the Spirit said picket—‘I’m going to do what the Spirit said do.’”2

         In particular, Lewis was influenced by Martin Luther King’s emphasis on nonviolence as the most Christlike and effective means of lasting change. In a 2004 interview, Lewis said, “At a very early stage of the movement, I accepted the teaching of Jesus, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

         Lewis was arrested often, and beaten repeatedly—usually by white men who would sit piously in church pews the next Sunday morning. In Selma, AL, Lewis was, literally, beaten nearly to death. During all of it, he kept his focus. He kept his eyes on Jesus. When asked how he managed to do that, how he managed not to drown in the depths of despair and vengeance, John Lewis said, “hate is too heavy a burden to bear. I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve seen too much hate, seen too much violence. And I know love is a better way.”

         Looking back, though, Lewis did wonder how the nonviolent marchers managed to keep their heads above water in the face of such intentionally vicious cruelty and against such odds. “How did we do what we did?” he wondered. “How did we succeed? We didn’t have a Web site. We didn’t have a cellular telephone. But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.”

         Peter would have to step out in faith and begin to sink more than once before he would consistently act in ways that required him to depend on his faith. Eventually he did, though. Eventually he was not just a rock at the bottom of the lake, but the Rock on which Jesus built his church.

         To step out of the boat is to follow Jesus. It’s to entrust our lives to God Almighty who is always with us. To step out of the boat is to add our voices to God’s response to cries for welcome, justice, and true peace for all whom God loves.

         Clinging our boats may feel safer than following Jesus. Our fears may feel like more trustworthy guides than God’s Spirit. Nonetheless, Jesus continues to call us.

         What is Jesus asking us to do­—each of us and all of us together—that requiresus to use our faith?

 

1Clifton Kirkpatrick, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 334, 336.

2This and all subsequent references to John Lewis come from: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/01/16/january-16-2004-john-lewis/1791/

Bright Wonder (Essay)

Bright Wonder

         One ordinary Tuesday afternoon, as I worked in my home study, my wife, Marianne, called me. She all but sang into the phone that she’d forgotten that she’d won a coveted place in the lottery to see the synchronous firefly display at Rocky Fork, the Tennessee state park near our home in Jonesborough.

         “It’s tonight! Did you remember?” she asked.

         “Well, no,” I said, squirming at the interruption.

         “But you can still go, can’t you?”

         “Um. Well. When?”

         “We have to be in Flag Pond by 7:50pm,” she said.

         Flag Pond, TN.

         That night.

         Yay.

         I went full Eeyore on her. “Okay,” I said. “I guess I can go.”

         “I’m going to call Ben and Elizabeth, and see if they’ll join us. We can have as many as five people in the car!”

         Ben and Elizabeth, our adult children, live nearby, but scheduling us into their lives takes time, and we didn’t have enough of that to wear them down into a “yes.”

         Good luck with that, I thought.

         The upshot of all this was that I was going to have to stop writing, eating peanuts, and (when stuck on a sentence) watching old SNL skits on YouTube in order to walk the dog and throw together some kind of snack supper for us, because there was no way Marianne was going to be home in time to help. Then, since it usually happens this way, I was going to have to hustle her out the door so we wouldn’t be late and miss the shuttle that would take us out to the state park which closes at dusk each evening.

         Call me clairvoyant, but when we got into the car, by ourselves, at 7:20, to make a 45-minute trip in 30 minutes, Marianne looked at me and said, “Speed if you have to.”

         “You should call the number on the reservation form,” I said. “Tell them we’re on the way.”

         “Good idea,” she said.

         When I heard her leaving a message, I said to myself, Crap. We’re screwed. No one’s going to get that message.

         Fortunately, there was only one really slow car on the narrow, winding road to Erwin, and it turned off toward Greeneville. So I started flirting with a speeding ticket, again.

         “I’m so excited,” Marianne said. “We get to see the fireflies!”

         We can see lightning bugs from our porch any freakin’ night! I said. To myself. The things we do for love, I guess. And I did enjoy driving like a teenaged moonshiner without my wife telling me to slow down. In fact, she said, “This is fun.”

         We should be late to something you want to do more often.

         The directions told us to look for an asphalt parking lot somewhere in the 1500’s on Hwy. 352, Flag Pond, TN. When we got off of Hwy. 19W and onto 352, the numbers were in the 4200’s, and going up.

         “Why are the numbers getting bigger?” Marianne asked. “We’re supposed to find 1500. We’re going the wrong way!”

         “We can’t be going the wrong way,” I Eeyored. “352 started right back there. There has to be some kind of break. The 1500’s have to be this way.”

         “But…how?!”

         Damned if I know!

         Yanked from a calm evening at home, flying through curves at expensive-ticket speeds, certain that we’d missed the shuttle, my whole demeanor sucked oxygen from the air and light from the sky. I was a human black hole.

         If we have to turn around and go home, I’m going to enjoy making her miserable the entire evening.

         We passed the entrance to Rocky Fork State Park and still no 1500’s in sight. Less than a quarter mile beyond the turn-off to the park, Hwy. 352 turns right and heads up the mountain and into North Carolina while the Old Asheville Highway runs straight through downtown Flag Pond, TN. In the southwest corner of the intersection, in an asphalt parking lot, we saw a white passenger van next to one of those white canopy tents that vendors set up at festivals to sell homemade trinkets, melting brownies, and bars of goat’s milk soap.

         “That’s got to be it!” said Marianne.

         I pulled up to the tent as the van, packed full of firefly watchers, pulled away. We were relieved to see a number of other people standing around and waiting for the next shuttle. Marianne got out of the car to let the people sitting in folding chairs behind a folding table know that we were legitimate lottery winners.

         After parking the car, I stuffed my camera, tripod, and a bottle of water in my backpack and joined Marianne at the tent. The tent people knew each other and were laughing and talking loudly about people they knew, but the rest of us didn’t. I always find that insufferable, and that night found it especially so. I wandered toward a tall, wooden sign filled with rules about watching fireflies.

         Seriously? Rules for watching fireflies?

         No pets.

         No bug spray.

         No flashlights or cameras without red filters.

         What’s a red filter? And how does it help take pictures of lightning bugs? I moped back to the car and put my camera and tripod away. At least my pack was lighter.

         Back at the tent, a man with a girth so colossal he looked like he had swallowed a hay bale was pulling the cord on a Honda generator.

         “You trying that again?” asked the lady who had signed us in.

         “Thought I would,” said the man.

         The generator sputtered to life and another large, colorful wooden sign lit up with electric fireflies. The man stood in front of the sign with a trying-not-to-be-too-proud grin on his face, arms spreading around his belly, and his hands in his pockets. Half of his hands, anyway. That’s all that reached after his arms spread around his belly.

         I walked up to the folding table laden with Friends of Rocky Fork bumper stickers, t-shirts, and membership applications. While appraising the offerings, I asked the woman behind the table what the rules meant by a “red filter.”

         “Oh, it’s just one of these,” she said holding up a 4-inch by 4-inch piece of red cellophane.

         “How can you take a picture through that?” I asked.

         “It’s just for your viewfinder,” she said. “To keep the artificial light at a minimum. Too much light will affect the fireflies.”

         “Oh,” I said, feeling a bit foolish.

         I took the cellophane, hustled back to the car, and retrieved my camera before the shuttle returned.

         Why didn’t I just ask about that at first?

         Winners of the firefly lottery get assigned to one of several nights of viewing, and our guides for the evening were two state park rangers, Jeff, slender as a sapling, and Carl, thick as an old oak. They were armed with Glocks, radios, electric lanterns covered with red filters, and genuine excitement at the chance to take another group into the woods until 11:00pm to watch fireflies do their mating dance.

         When everyone had been shuttled into the park, Jeff called us together and told us that we’d hike about a mile into the park.

         “We’ll cross the first little footbridge,” he said, “but we’ll stop before the second, bigger bridge. That’s just so we know where everyone is. When we get there, we should still be able to see, so wander around and find a comfortable place to park yourself. About 9:45 the fireflies will start the show, and by 10:00 they should be in full display. When they start, even a quick burst from a flashlight will throw them off for a cycle or two. So please keep your lights off unless you really need them.

         “I’ll lead us, and Carl will pull up the rear. So gather up whatever you’ve brought, and let’s go!”

—–

         Rocky Fork State Park is a 2000-acre quilt of dense, Appalachian cove forest in the steep, rocky folds of the Cherokee National Forest. The main trails at the park are old logging roads. The Friends of Rocky Fork group is cutting some new, single-track trails here and there, but we stayed on the rough and rutted road next to Rocky Fork Creek, which is just big enough for fishing.

         “I really need to come up here and fish this creek,” I said to Marianne as we walked.

         It’s been years since I’ve been fly-fishing. The fish in this creek wouldn’t be very big, but regardless of size, it’s hard to look away from any brook or brown trout. All those red and yellow dots on their mossy-green backs and silver flanks create bright constellations that speak to me of the first stirrings of Creation.

         Something in me began to glimmer.

         As we walked, I asked Jeff if a firefly’s light is bioluminescence similar to what I’d seen in foxfire or, once at Folly Beach, in ocean waves.

         “It’s bioluminescence,” he said, “but the reaction happens because of chemical called luciferin. Fireflies’ light is the only cold light.” Jeff raised his hand toward the darkening canopy of poplar, oak, and hickory. “On the planet.”

         I marveled at the thought of cold light.

—–

         When we reached a small clearing, the logging road bore to the right and began to climb. A narrower trail to the left stayed close to the creek, which was getting smaller the further we followed it.

         “The bridge is just up there to the left,” said Jeff pointing toward the narrow trail. “Make yourselves comfortable.”

         Marianne and I walked toward the bridge. Several of us, including Ranger Jeff, crossed the bridge. A few fireflies were beginning to light up down close to the ground, so I prepped my tripod and locked my camera in place on top of it. Not having done this kind of photography before, I struggled with the mechanics of taking pictures of moving objects in in little to no light.

         “How’s it going,” Jeff asked when he walked past me.

         “Not so good,” I said. “I’m kind of a novice, and I’m not sure how to go about this.”

         “What kind of camera do you have?” he asked.

         “Canon 70D.”

         “I have the same camera,” said Jeff. “Do you have it on auto or manual focus?”

         “Auto.”

         “You’ll need it on manual.” As I switched the lens to manual focus, Jeff took off his pack. “I’m going to throw a bright light out there for you a-ways to give you something to focus on.”

         He shined an unfiltered flashlight beam onto a tree limb thirty or forty feet in front of me. I focused on the limb, and he turned off the light.

         “Now, just adjust your shutter speed as the light dwindles.”

         “Cool. Thank you.”

         I set the timer to a two-second delay, the shutter speed for long exposures, and began to play with what little firefly action was already happening.

         My glimmer got a little brighter.

         Marianne had walked past the bridge a hundred yards or so. When she came back, real darkness was settling in, and she was giddy.

         “There’s a clearing up there, and they are really starting to flash!”

         A man named Dave, a Friends of Rocky Fork volunteer who comes all the way from Knoxville twice a week to work on trails, was there to help Jeff and Carl wrangle firefly watchers. He came to us from below the bridge and said, “Come down here! Around the corner it’s amazing!”

         I gathered my gear, turned on my red-filtered flashlight and eased back across the narrow footbridge. When I looked down the trail, I was looking into deep darkness, and for a moment, I didn’t breathe.

         The term “synchronous fireflies” had always made me imagine lightning bugs going on and off like Christmas tree lights in regular, monotonous intervals. I learned that in the mating ritual of this species of firefly, the males hover ten to twenty feet above the ground creating frenzies of brilliant yellow lights. At some point, responding to God-knows-what stimulus, they go dark. All of them. All at once. Poof. This gives the ladies down nearer the ground a chance to respond with their more subtle, coquettish glow. Then the guys get all excited again and – all at once – start flashing, Me! Me! Look at me!

         Around the edges of all that, a few smaller, pale blue lights came on, and stayed on for as much as ten seconds. These were blue ghost fireflies, and their light is ghostly, indeed. On photographs, their creeping blue lights create long, eerie streaks beneath the dazzling yellows above them. As we were walking out, a single blue ghost hovered toward me and landed on my shoulder. It stopped me in my tracks. A firefly’s adult lifespan is about two weeks, but I felt like I’d been touched by something ancient and sacred. How do the smallest of physical things evoke such deep and timeless wonder?

         As for the total firefly display: Imagine lying on your back in a field where neither light nor clouds dim the splendor of the night sky above you. Above you, the stars shimmer through the last of the day’s heat as it rises through the earth’s atmosphere. Now imagine that every so often those stars cease to shine. They go dark for a few seconds, and when they appear again, you see entirely new constellations flickering above you. Now imagine this happening over and over, and if you have never seen a synchronous firefly display, you’ll have some idea of the experience we were having that evening at Rocky Fork State Park.

         Having found my vantage point, I leveled my tripod, wrapped a red filter around my camera’s viewfinder, secured it with a rubber band, and draped my bandana over the little orange light that shines on the front of the camera during the two-second delay. I set the shutter speed at thirty seconds, aimed my camera blindly toward the hypnotizing flurry of lights.

         When there was nothing to see but fireflies, I noticed the depth of the darkness in that remote mountain hollow. With all other visual distractions dissolved, I smelled the rich aromas of leaves rotting beneath the trees and hard earth cooling underfoot. I heard the rhythmic pulse of crickets, and the gurgle of cold, clear water washing over smooth gray stones. In that numinous, purifying moment, all things converged into a single, otherworldly celebration. And the numbing darkness I had brought with me sloughed off, giving way to bright wonder.

*I wrote this piece about a year ago, and am just now posting it. If you enjoyed it, please share it! Thank you for reading, Allen.

A Feast of Grace (Sermon)

“A Feast of Grace”

Matthew 14:13-21

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

8/2/20

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NRSV)

         “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

         What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by Herod. When Herod had openly taken a shine to his brother’s wife, Herodias, John did what prophets do. Speaking truth to power, he confronted Herod. And it cost John his life.

         One might think John reckless for challenging a tyrant like Herod, but real prophets aren’t palm-readers making predictions. They are spiritually-grounded, visionary realists possessed by sufficient moral clarity, fearlessness, and love of neighbor to call out communities—and especially people of influence and privilege within those communities—for their selfishness and faithlessness. Prophets like St. Francis of Assisi, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King see how wrong-headedness and wrong-heartedness are hurting some people in the moment, and how, in time, they will destroy many more.

         This made me wonder: Why doesn’t Jesus do the same? Why doesn’t he call out Herod for executing John—a revenge killing which isn’t called murder only because the state did it? Instead of declaring John’s death “unlawful,” Jesus scurries off “to a deserted place by himself.”

         Maybe Jesus goes away to pray because, before he says anything, he has to grieve the death of someone he loved.

         Maybe Jesus knows that if he confronts Herod, Herod would just kill him, and Jesus’ time has not yet come.

         Maybe Jesus retreats to the wilderness to wrestle again with the temptation to do something dramatic, something to humiliate and defeat Herod. And that’s the very sort of thing old Beelzebub tried to get Jesus to do earlier—to impose his will on the world through manipulative and violent means. And Jesus knows that the kingdom of heaven does not and cannot arrive at the point of a spear. It is a gift revealed through expressions of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity.

         A great crowd follows Jesus to the “deserted place.” In that wilderness of grief and of human frailty, Jesus witnesses to the kingdom of heaven with compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. He cares for those who bring to him nothing but their need.

         The disciples show compassion and generosity for the crowd the best they know how. When it gets late, they say, Jesus, send them into the villages to buy food. They’re hungry, and we don’t have anything to give them.

         Yes, you do, says Jesus.

         Among them, the disciples have five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They look at each other as if Jesus told a joke that wasn’t funny.

         Jesus asks for their pittance of food and seats the crowd. Holding the loaves and the fish, he looks to the heavens, thanks God for what there is, and it becomes enough.

         Some call it a physical miracle. If so, that’s pretty wonderful. If that’s the miracle, though, has Jesus only given in and done what he refused to do when the devil tempted him back in that first wilderness—turn stones into bread and astonish people with magic? Besides, when the people are hungry again in a few hours, then what?

         Some call it a miracle of transformed hearts. Jesus takes a leap of faith and shares what little he has trusting that his actions will inspire others to do the same, whether they are people who have little to offer or people whose wealth makes them tight-fisted and greedy. A miracle like that may seem less “satisfying” than something supernatural; but it may be more nourishing because it can create ripple effects that continue to feed hungry people.

         Or maybe this story, which is found in all four gospels, is not so much a report as it is a theological statement, a summation of the gospel itself: Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnate expression of God’s abundant compassion, forgiveness, and generosity in and for the world. In Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, there is always enough.1

         However one chooses to read this story, Jesus challenges all of us saying, “you give them something to eat.” The compassionate first-response to hungry, lost, broken people is not to try to “save” them. It’s not to pressure them to profess a specific belief system. The compassionate response to hungry people in deserted places is, like Jesus, to care for them and to feed them. This is especially true when, like Jesus after John’s death, we feel some sinister Herod nipping at our heels.

         The story of the feeding of the five thousand illustrates that, in the face of threats and challenges, to live lovingly, compassionately, and generously is itself a kind of “cure.” Caring for and feeding others connects us to God’s presence and abundance. To reach out in generous love and compassion is to feast at God’s great banquet.

         In contrast, to live fearfully and vengefully, to live as if we matter more than those around us, only increases our distance from God, from our neighbors, and from the earth. To live selfishly is to starve in the midst of God’s abundance.

         Many years ago, my wife and I attended a funeral at a church in a different denomination. As part of that service, the officiant led in the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And he made it clear that only members of that particular tradition were allowed at the table. In that house of worship, only those who had previously agreed to understand communion in a certain way were welcome.

         Going in, we knew that would be the case if communion were celebrated, but the actual experience unsettled us. We were practicing Christians and old friends of one member of the grieving family. And yet, while the “worthy” people lined up in the aisles, we had to keep our seats and watch. We were not allowed to receive the gift which God offers to all people through Christ.

         The service wasn’t about us, so we didn’t dwell on it. Still, God’s resurrection feast was intentionally withheld from many people at time when a community had gathered to mourn the death of a loved one. Instead of feeding the crowd, the minister fenced off Christ’s table and declared it private property.

         At Jonesborough Presbyterian we practice open communion. I try to make it clear that whenever this table is set, there is always room and there is always enough for everyone. Anyone can choose not to participate. That’s fine, but I want everyone to hear that the disciples who set this table have heard Jesus say to them, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”

         Whether out there in that “deserted place” with Jesus, or here in this sanctuary thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, there is enough. There will always be enough at Christ’s table, because this, his feast of grace, is set with generous helpings of God’s eternal love.

 

1M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon Press, 1995. pp 325-326.

Parable Living (Sermon)

“Parable Life”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/26/20

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51“Have you understood all this?”

They answered, “Yes.”

52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  (NRSV)

       Jesus teaches in parables because there are signs pointing to the kingdom of heaven all around us, in the most ordinary realities. The made-for-Sunday-school image of the kingdom as a mustard seed brings to mind children walking out of church with bright smiles and paper cups filled with an over-watered slurry of dark earth. Somewhere inside that mud lies a tiny seed, drowning, dying, just like Jesus said in a different parable.

       The only problem with most such scenarios is that the perfectly well-intentioned Sunday school teachers usually bring seeds for things like zinnias, pansies, tomatoes, or something else both normal and welcome in backyard gardens. To first-century farmers, though, mustard plants were invasive shrubs. To make Jesus’ point, the Sunday school teachers should send the kids home with kudzu or crabgrass to plant outside their windows.

       Matthew does something interesting here. The story immediately preceding today’s string of pithy kingdom parables is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. By juxtaposing the wheat-and-weeds and the mustard seed parables, Matthew asks us to think very carefully about what we write off as weeds. That mustard plant, so vexing for farmers, creates a home for birds which not only aid in the propogation of crops, but whose plumage and song render in us nourishing awareness, joy, and gratitude, attributes which become a kind of yeast that leavens us for fuller living. Thanks be to God for the weeds.

       Yeast is another odd image for the kingdom of heaven. Yeast is a fungus, a biochemical change agent. When added to flour and water, that fungus becomes part of the dough just as the bread becomes part of the body that eats it. And while too little yeast has no effect, too much yeast can cause food poisoning.

       As yeast, the kingdom of heaven is God’s subtle and mysterious presence working within us and through us. It seems to me that when those who follow any given religious tradition over-identify that tradition with temporalities like nations, partisan dogmas, or material wealth, we inevitably try to force upon others that which can only be offered. At that point, we no longer serve God, because we’re trying to be God. And that makes us a toxic presence rather a witness to grace.

       In the next two parables, Jesus compares God’s realm to material wealth. The one who finds “treasure hidden in a field” sells everything he has for the sake of a treasure that is not his, but that he works the system to acquire. While the man searching for fine pearls doesn’t do anything deceptive, the image is still one of grasping after material gain.

       Can we really compare the kingdom of heaven to something that engenders deception and reckless greed? Later in Matthew, when a rich young man says he wants eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell him to sell everything he has to buy a greater fortune. He says, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) And only then, says Jesus, will you have “treasure in heaven.”

       That begs the question of how becoming poor, becoming one whom most societies regard as nothing more than a human weed or a thin slice of unleavened bread makes us rich in things that matter? Holy treasure, says Jesus, is discovered in letting go of all that we claim to have earned and deserve for the sake of that which can only be received as a gift. And isn’t that the nature of grace?

       “The kingdom of heaven is like a net,” says Jesus. Something submerged into the depths and hauled in to see what gifts lie beneath the surface. In this parable (which is simply a recasting of the parable of the wheat and the weeds!), the good fish are kept—which means that they will be gutted, skewered on a spit, cooked over an open fire, and eaten. And the bad will be thrown back into the water. That kind of tempts a person to question the benefits of righteousness, doesn’t it?

       Hold onto the image of the net. We’ll get back to it.

       All these parables invite us to see our lives as parables, as expressions of a life much bigger than our individual lives. And to live consciously as parables inevitably puts us at odds with proud individualism, at odds with the cultures and ideologies of the nations we love, and at odds with groups that give us identity, that can include the Church.

       In reflecting on today’s passage, one commentator asks: “What if a society resembles the empire of Rome much more closely than it does the empire of heaven, expressing in its policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence? Helping persons to adjust…[to] a sick society is not the work of the gospel.”1

       Working with the image of the yeast, another commentator says that “‘if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting [as yeast does] is the only path to wholeness.’”2 The point is that the church’s calling is to cultivate disciples who have more in common with weeds and yeast than celebrities and elected officials.

       Many of us feel deep concern over the church’s decline in contemporary culture. One can cast nets of blame into the waters and haul in all sorts of culprits, and the culprit most accountable is we, the Church, which is often more concerned with creating eye-catching gardens than places of welcome and belonging, baking bread that has more aroma than nourishment, accumulating wealth rather than sharing it, cozying up to power rather than advocating for the marginalized and oppressed, and especially with trying to decide for God who is “in” and who is “out” of God’s grace.

       On the positive side of the Church’s struggles, if we confess and conquer our addictions to entitlement and privilege, we can become the subversive weed Jesus plants in the creation, the pungent yeast the Spirit breathes with carefully-measured breaths into the nations. We can become the wide net God casts into the world not to make judgments, but simply to gather on behalf of God’s steadfast love.

       God’s realm is the new reality breaking through the earth itself, and through the actions and words of human parables living lives of compassion and non-violent justice for all. Like householders reaching into our storehouse of long-standing sacramental holiness, of ancient scriptural wisdom, and of ongoing spiritual experience, we continue to reveal God’s newness even in that which seems old, tired, and irrelevant.

       For nine years now, our Sunday school class has worked with lectionary passages. We study them in the simplest way: We read the passages three times using three translations, and each time we ask a different question. What word or phrase captures our attention or imagination? What is the Spirit calling us to be or to do individually? What is the Spirit calling our congregation to be or to do? Every single time, even when working with very familiar passages, we find something new and renewing in those ancient texts.

       Now that we’re meeting by Zoom on Wednesday nights and have an hour instead of thirty minutes, we find all the more of God’s blessed realm in the rich weediness of our lives, more yeast in the dough of our prayer, and more treasure in the fields of our communities as we get caught up in the nets of God’s unbounded grace, and sent out to live as parables, as signs of the presence of God’s holy realm.

Charge/Benediction:

In his book Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, Frederick Buechner offers this memorable guidance for parable living: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”3

 

1Gary Peluso-Verdend, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 286&288.

2Ibid.

3From Frederick Buecher’s book, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation. 1983, Harper/Collins. Quotation found at: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/158523-listen-to-your-life-see-it-for-the-fathomless-mystery