My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (NRSV)
When I was in fifth or sixth grade and my sister, Laura, was in Jr. High, our parents let us take a Trailways bus, by ourselves, from Augusta, GA to Montgomery, AL to visit grandparents. Before we left, Mom and Dad lectured us – briefly – on safety. “Be careful,” they said. “And watch out for shady characters.” That was it. Nothing specific. However, for a couple of sheltered kids who lived in a “nice,” all-white neighborhood outside a small city in the deep south, we knew which visible characteristics immediately qualified someone as potentially shady. Now, our parents didn’t push prejudice on us, but our southern culture certainly did. So, diving into shady-character-watch mode, we started a list. Before the bus even left Augusta, it was as long as my forearm.
During the trip, a flat tire stranded us in the Middle-of-Nowhere, AL. While we waited for Trailways to resolve the problem, Laura and I went on high alert. The old flat tire trick, we thought. Now that’s as shady as it gets. And the list grew until we arrived safely in Montgomery.
Parting words are often warnings: Be careful. Have a safe trip. Anything can happen, you know.
Do you remember this child’s bedtime prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!
How does a four-year-old process those words after Mommy and Daddy turn out the light and shut the door? That prayer is borderline religious extortion. Sadly, it’s a reflection of the Church’s principal tool of evangelism over the last two millennia – fear. Why do people enter the fold more readily and remain longer when they’re more afraid of God than in love with God?
Now, I’m not talking about healthy fear – the fear that keeps us from standing too close to the rim of the Grand Canyon or swimming with alligators. That’s what “fear of the Lord” refers to – respecting the limits of our creatureliness before God.
I’m talking about fear as the natural consequence idolatry of oneself or unresolved guilt. That kind of fear is antithetical to faith. It eviscerates faith, exterminates hope, and asphyxiates love. Because it cultivates the incarnate hell which so many seek to escape, fear doesn’t draw us closer to God; it exiles us from God. We cannot be afraid of God and love neighbor.
Now, I understand that Be careful really is a way to say, I love you. Still, it seems to me that we have chosen to live in a state of relentless fear – which necessarily means treating our neighbors as shady characters, especially those who appear different from us. And when our communities are armed like the militaries of small nations, and when our hearts and minds are being warped more and more toward an at-any-cost self-preservation, preparedness means readiness not only to imagine the worst that someone can do, but to be able to respond in kind.
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” In a culture of fear, Jesus’ words are pie-in-the-sky nursery rhymes. So, we approach them from a standpoint of “Yes, but…”
Yes, I love God; but first I have to take care of number one – me.
Yes, I love my neighbor; but first I have to prepare to defend myself from him.
Yes, God is love; but it’s a cruel world out there, and only the strong survive. (Is it not a paradox when people of faith, in good faith, argue vigorously against evolution, and yet choose to live by its foundational principle of survival of the fittest?!)
When our treasure lies with only ourselves and our tribes, that’s where our hearts are: Fearfully seeking one thing: Survival. And survival is not the same as living.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” says Jesus. “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return.”
Many Christians hear those words as a call to live in constant anxiety of a vindictive god who is “coming soon,” brandishing a sword of judgment. That god’s vengeful passion is to punish – eternally no less – those who haven’t earned grace through right belief and right action. And isn’t it another paradox to think that one must, or even can, earn grace?
Jesus’ life and teaching reveal a much different God.
Jesus was formed by and preached from Hebrew scriptures laden with retributive theology. And yet, in his sermon on the mount, “An eye-for-an-eye” becomes, “do not resist an evildoer…[and] turn the other cheek.” (Mt. 5:38-39) “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” becomes, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-45) And the Messiah isn’t a triumphant military leader, but an itinerant rabbi who rewrites scripture and dies a traitor’s death.
What does such a life prepare us for? How does it take care of us and those we love? The hard truth is that following Jesus sets us at odds with cultures that regard resentment and fear as the “realistic” approach to life.
“Be like those,” says Jesus, who wait on their master, a bridegroom, to return from his honeymoon. When he gets home in the middle of the night, what does he do? He straps on an apron and serves them a feast.
One can imagine the disciples cutting their eyes at each other thinking, The master serving the servants?
That’s right, says Jesus. So, be ready. Grace happens when you least expect it.
If we surrender to fear, “when you least expect it” warns us of the worst possible contingencies. When animated by faith in the loving and gracious God revealed in Jesus, “when you least expect it” invites us to live differently in the world – to live expectantly, graciously – and not just for ourselves, but for others, for neighbors next door and across the globe, and for the earth on which all of us depend for life, health, and joy.
The awareness to which Jesus calls us is not the kind of hypervigilance of police officers patrolling Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras, but the openness of the painter before a blank canvass, or a committee before a new idea – or problem. Such awareness takes time to learn and nurture.1 Gene Lowry, a well-known preacher and teacher of preaching, says that we must learn to “position ourselves to be surprised.”2 Fear prepares us to avoid surprise. Faith prepares us to welcome it the way the servants prepare to welcome the gift of their master’s hospitality in the middle of the night.
Right now, it feels like few of us expect the coming – much less the presence – of the Son of Man. Our sick culture is too busy not just preparing for, but empowering the next angry person armed with hate and fear. We can prepare for shady characters, and expect the worst from them – and only deepen the sickness in which we live.
Or we can follow Jesus, looking for and evoking the holiness around us, expecting to be surprised by signs of God’s presence and grace in the world even in the midst of its admittedly, and all-too-often invasively, fearsome brokenness.
Neither approach to preparedness guarantees safety or survival, but only the latter engages us with the power of Resurrection at work in the Creation. It allows us to live as witness to the ongoing advent of the gracious, creative, surprising God revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the grace of Agape Love alone lies our treasure and our hope.
1David J. Schlafer in his article, Homiletical Perspectivein Feastin on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010. P. 339.
In the mid-700’s B.C.E., the middle east was rife with fertility religions. That allowed temple prostitutes to make a decent living “leading worship.” At God’s command, Hosea marries a temple prostitute named Gomer, who, to Hosea’s chagrin, proves to be something of a workaholic. The strained relationship between Hosea and Gomer is a metaphor for the strained relationship between God and Israel. God and Hosea keep forgiving and taking back their wayward spouses.
In 1957, a biblical scholar named Bernhard Anderson, published an Old Testament survey text whose fifth edition is still widely used in colleges and seminaries. Anderson describes Hosea’s historical context as particularly chaotic and violent. Assyria, under its brutal king, Tiglath-pileser III, was out to conquer the known world, including Israel.1 For some Israelites, capitulating to Assyrian rule and exile was a matter of life or death. Other Israelites, mostly leaders, men of privilege and influence, worked the angles of political and economic upheaval in order to profit from their own nation’s defeat. Hosea aimed his sharpest arrows at that latter group.
“Just as Gomer played the harlot,” writes Anderson, “so Israel had broken the covenant…this was the real historical tragedy, and all the contemporary troubles of Israel were only symptoms of it.”2
“The consequences of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant were seen in the regicides…the feverish foreign policy aimed at courting Egypt or Assyria, and the foolish reliance upon arms and fortifications…Stubborn and determined, Israel had insisted on being ‘like the nations,’ and as a result it was ‘swallowed up’ among the nations.”3
Anderson then makes this sobering observation: “Like other great prophets, Hosea knew that religion…could be a way of betraying God.”4 Captured by Assyria, and captivated by selfish desires, even Israelites “thronged to the temples, not to acknowledge gratefully their utter dependence on God who had brought them out of Egypt, but rather to ‘get something out of religion’”5 And almost everyone cashed in on the debauchery. Seeing both the fear and wanton lust, “Priests were ‘feeding on the sin’ of Yahweh’s people.”6 By accommodating to the pandemic idolatries, many priests began to distort their spiritual authority into political power. This infuriated the prophet.
“Let no one contend, and let none accuse,” says Hosea, “for with you is my contention, O priest…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:4-6)
Most of Hosea reads like that. That’s why he is included among the “prophets of doom.”
Through it all, there are two oases of grace in Hosea’s chaos. One is a single verse buried in the sixth chapter: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) Twice in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees (the priestly harlots of Jesus’ day) challenge Jesus for breaking with Jewish orthodoxy, and Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 both times. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Mt. 9:13 – also in 12:7)
God’s desires, while hardly easy, are simple enough: We are to love and trust God by committing ourselves to mercy, justice, and integrity in all of our relationships.
The second gospel moment comes in chapter 11.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.(NRSV)
Chapter 11 stands in stark contrast to the rest of Hosea’s prophecy. When reading it, though, one realizes that herein lies the heart, soul, and substance of the prophet’s message.
Hosea acknowledges that Israel’s unfaithfulness has set them on a course for downfall. Having given themselves to the self-serving pleasures and fears, and to the easy demands of idols, painful days lie ahead. And a grieving God says that this is not God’s will for beloved Israel. But God is not Tiglath-pileser, and will not force God’s will onto those whom God loves.
The language in Hosea 11 is that of parental love, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand God’s and Hosea’s struggle. If you’ve ever truly loved someone – older than a toddler perhaps – then you know that loving that person often involves the heartbreaking work of allowing them to face the consequences of their own poor decisions.
So, God says, “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities…and devours because of their schemes.” (In light of three mass shootings this past week, that hits home for our cities, doesn’t it?)
And yet, your very presence with that person, in merciful love, helps them – whether they recognize it or not at the time.
So, God says, “[T]hey did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
Whether we have loved or been loved that way, such love requires a humility that is so deep and pure as to feel beyond our capacity. Loving humbly means seeing the other through God’s eyes, not our own, and that throws us into a grueling paradox. We see the undeniable externals, the poor and destructive decisions, and while we voice our concern, and perhaps encumber them with consequences – if that’s even an option – we refuse to judge or condemn the person. His or her actions cause enough suffering, and trying to heap punish on them becomes all about us, our own disappointment, anger, or even shame.
It can be painfully difficult not to insert ourselves and try to impose our will on them, but that’s the difference between authority and power, between love and pride. And Yahweh offers to Israel the authority of love, not the power of pride.
Even as he grieves his wife’s deliberate unfaithfulness, Hosea finds the grace to reveal and to speak from God’s heart: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…How can I give you up, Ephraim?…I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal…I will not come in wrath.”
God comes; and for all the prophet’s harsh words, God does not come in wrath. Wrath is our doing – or rather our undoing. To those who call themselves people of faith, God is crying out, calling us to lives that witness to a grace that defies both the all-too-real chaos around us, and the human reason on which we so religiously rely. We are called to live differently than the wrathful voices around us that would have us live as if our only concern is “getting” something – whether that something is wealth, or power, or “into heaven.” Such selfishness creates the God-betraying religion Bernhard Anderson talked about.
Hosea and Jesus call us to live in the paradox of God’s grace wherein our freedom not to judge is also freedom to speak out, fearlessly and graciously, in the face of humankind’s Creation-wrecking resentment, fear, and greed.
In that paradox, we witness to God’s redeeming love in the chaos. We enter the fray as “cords of human kindness [and] bands of love,” knowing that God brings us back, “trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria.”
By grace alone, God alone brings us home.
1Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1986. Pp. 301-316.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (NRSV)
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished…”
I understand that Luke is hustling us past what would have been the uninteresting sight of someone sitting alone in silent meditation, but I find his abrupt account of the fact somewhat misleading with regard to prayer.
The “certain place” reference doesn’t bother me, and we’ll touch on that again. It’s the “after he had finished” line that bothers me. If Jesus went off by himself, his retreat had a beginning, middle, and end. But it seems to me that if any of us “finish” praying, we never truly started.
Before Session meeting last Tuesday, the elder whose turn it was to do the opening devotion let me know that he couldn’t be there, so, I filled in. Searching for inspiration, I picked up a book of short essays by Kathleen Norris entitled Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Scanning the table of contents, a two-page chapter called “Prayer as Mystery” caught my attention. Turning to it, I read these words:
“Prayer is…not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…Attentiveness is all; I sometimes think of prayer as a certain quality of attention that comes upon me when I’m busy doing something else…
“Prayer is often stereotyped in our culture as a form of pietism, a lamentable privatization of religion. Even many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t ‘work.’ This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Prayer does not ‘want.’ It is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder.”1
I find Norris’s definition edifying. If I approach prayer as a flurry of words expecting answers, and bookended by “Let us pray” and “Amen,” I have privatized it. I’ve reduced it to a meeting between a customer service agent and a customer, a transaction in which I seek “satisfaction.” Then, depending on whether the prayer is “answered” or not, I’m tempted to judge my worthiness, the worthiness of the one for whom I prayed, or the compassion or even the very reality of God. Such outcome-oriented prayer is the norm in consumeristic religion.
The disciples seem to want prayer to be some kind of proprietary act, too. “Teach us to pray,” they say. Show us how to do it right. Show us how to do it successfully.
In Luke, Jesus’ instruction on prayer is five short lines – an opening word of praise, followed by requests for hope, sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance. His teaching is so terse, it feels dismissive. Then we realize that it’s more like an epigraph at the beginning of a book, because Jesus breaks the notion of prayer wide open.
He starts with a parable: Imagine a friend shows up at your house in the middle of the night. He’s hungry and tired. The nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality require you to welcome that friend and feed him. But you have no food. So, you go to another friend and ask him for help. Being in bed, he refuses at first. You have other friends. Go bother one of them. But you persist, and because of the nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality, your friend finally gets up and helps you to help your other friend.
Jesus is saying that prayer is about more than getting a loaf of bread. It’s about being bread for each other. When Kathleen Norris defines prayer as “ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder,” she follows Jesus’ example and implies a humble response of generosity, compassion, and mutual empathy. If our only practice of prayer is the word-cluttered darkness of bowed heads and closed eyes, we’re missing more than half of the experience.
These last couple of months have been hard for much of the Jonesborough Presbyterian family. Deaths, illnesses, and anxieties have had their way with many of us. I’ve been asked repeatedly to pray for specific individuals and their situations. And I do so willingly, gratefully, and as faithfully as I know how. When I pray with you, I’m stepping into a holy paradox. I’m trying to stand with you in the thick of your particular struggles and our shared human vulnerability, while also trying to stand back to let the Holy Spirit work. I promise no outcomes, only to seek a shared experience of the presence, peace, strength, and purpose-creating redemption of God in the midst of our sufferings and joys. That’s where we find and receive the “gratitude and wonder” that keep us going, even when our bodies, minds, and communities fail us.
Jesus’ story about the friend who wakes the friend to help the friend, and his teachings about asking/receiving, seeking/finding, and his bizarre images of parents feeding children snakes and scorpions – all these things remind us that prayer transcends our efforts to pepper God with words and wants. Prayer is how we live our faith. And since neither God nor prayer are limited to sanctuaries or pious utterances, it follows that the “certain place” where Jesus prayed is everywhere.
Now, while all things can be prayer for us, we often waste prayerful energy clambering after false gods for material things or psyche-soothing certainties. And none of that creates genuine faith. The life and teachings of Jesus reveal that prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want until – and this is the crucial thing – until we learn how to want what God wants.
I do believe that God wants well-being for all individuals. I also believe that the Lord’s Prayer, which we often pray so mechanically as not to hear it, teaches us to pray by giving us words with which to confess the futility of praying for individualistic wants and fears. Through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God to re-orient our hearts and minds so that we might learn to embody God’s kingdom-creating will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that prayer is not about bending God’s will to ours, but bending our will to God’s. And the most effective prayers for God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” are lives that actively seek God’s compassion, justice, and peace for all Creation.
I know people want their pastors to say prayers for them. And pastors sign up for that. Those prayers, those words, are vital. They can be comforting, sometimes even transforming. Pastors also sign up to make it clear that prayer encompasses every aspect of the messy business of being the Church. That’s what I told the session on Tuesday: All our committee meetings, all our conversations at family lunch and in the parking lot, all our Sunday school classes, mission efforts, film groups, book studies, and every visit you as well as I make in the name of Christ, all of this is has the potential to be prayer, because all of these things connect us more deeply to each other and, therefore, to God.
1Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 1998. Pp. 350 & 351.
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”(NRSV)
The message of hospitality oozes from the pages of Luke’s gospel like salty moisture from a sea breeze. Just think about the expansive array of boundary-defying hospitality Jesus demonstrates: He breaks bread with tax collectors and other unsavory characters. He welcomes Gentiles and lepers. He feeds a community of five thousand with food for a family of five. He tells parables about forgiving fathers and wedding banquets open to impoverished strangers. He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk. 6:27-28) And he embodies all of that by forgiving everyone who betrays and executes him.
Hospitality is more than “making nice.” Hospitality is holy water. It’s living water. It’s Sacrament. Hospitality is life itself, because it means sharing ourselves gratefully, generously, and fearlessly with others – especially, says Jesus, with the outsider and the outcast.
Immediately prior to today’s text, Jesus tells his unforgettable parable of the good Samaritan. The Church has tended to treat that story like a stuffed animal, something soft and cuddly. For Jews in 30AD, though, it’s an oxymoron and a scandal. In their minds, there is simply no such thing as a good Samaritan. Jesus crosses rivers and topples walls with this subversive parable.
After telling that story, he and his disciples enter an unnamed town where Martha welcomes them into her home. Then, like any good, first-century woman, she begins to prepare a meal for her guests.
The scene unfolds this way: At least thirteen men enter Martha’s home, at her invitation. They sit on the floor of the main room, likely the only room, and await Martha’s offering. The only other woman mentioned in the story is Mary, Martha’s sister. And Mary sits on the floor with the disciples. With the men! That’s not her place. In that culture, the limited and limiting role of women is to serve the men – with food and children. Because of that, women aren’t offered the privilege of education, and ignorance keeps them “in their place.”
Jesus doesn’t just permit a situation of revolutionary hospitality; he creates it. He encourages a woman, in a houseful of hungry men, to sit with those men, to think and to learn right alongside them, leaving the only other woman present to feed all fifteen people by herself. And while it would have made his disciples uncomfortable, it infuriates Martha. She complains to Jesus, pleads with him to tell Mary to get back where she belongs.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ response to Martha this way: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
That’s not the response Martha expects, and certainly not what she wants to hear. She wants Jesus to shame Mary back into her place. And all Martha gets is a cryptic summons to seek the one and only essential thing…which is…
This is the point where the sheep in the dusty pen crowd around the trough expecting the shepherd to set the hay down right where they can get it. But do we even have to wonder what the one and only essential thing is?
The reason Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan is because a teacher of the law asks him what works he must perform to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers by asking, What does scripture say? And the man quotes the Shema: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
There you go, says Jesus.
When Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, he’s saying to look for and to see yourself in others the way God sees you. Care for your neighbor with all the energy, compassion, and grace of God. Offer to everyone the hospitality that would make you feel truly welcomed, valued, safe, and beloved.
In Martha’s home, Mary is receiving from Jesus that kind of hospitality. And it’s not just a wonder to behold; it’s a disrupting scandal. But Jesus sees Mary through his own eyes. He sees himself in her, so, to love her is to love himself, and to love God more fully. And Mary, seeing herself through Jesus’ eyes, embraces Jesus before her and the Christ within her. She remains at Jesus’ feet, sharing in his love as one whose sole purpose in life is to love and to be loved.
Isn’t that the one and only essential thing?
Isn’t that the “main course” around the table?
Our son, Ben, was born in a birthing center in the small town of Rincon, GA, just north of Savannah. The night of Ben’s birth was the night Hurricane Hugo hit the southern Atlantic coast. The brunt of the storm hit Charleston, SC, but even in Rincon, rain came down in sheets. The wind shook the limbs of the live oaks like a cheerleader shaking pompoms. The storm surge overwhelmed drainage systems and flipped manhole covers like bottle caps. While I was fully and anxiously alert through all of that, Marianne was in her own parallel universe of childbirth. When the storm ended, parenthood had begun.
The midwife let us stay the whole night because of the storm. After Ben was safely with us, I lay down on the bed and slept as soundly as I had ever slept. Marianne stayed awake the entire night, staring at the tiny human being to whom she had given birth, basking not only in his presence, but a kind of love she had, to that point, never experienced.
My dad called that holy staring back and forth between mother and child the “primary relationship,” and it is essential for a newborn’s development. Some call it “the mirroring gaze”1 and apply it to a person sitting with God in silent, contemplative prayer.
Sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary is caught up in “the mirroring gaze.” Jesus lives that kind of deep-sighted hospitality, and it’s scandalous because he leaves no one out of the intimacy he enjoys with God, whom he calls, “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of daddy. Imagine how much Jesus must want Martha to want to join them in the “gaze” of hospitality.
Nations, and other communities unbound to grace may claim exemption from showing hospitality. For Jesus-followers, though, that scandalous virtue is nothing short of sacrament. Indeed, it is the reason we practice open communion, welcoming – without prejudice – all who are present to the Lord’s table, and into “primary relationship” with him, thus deepening everyone’s practice of “the mirroring gaze.”
Being somewhat scandal-averse in an apprehensive world, I’m often tentative when faced with an opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ love. And while I lament my lack of courage, I do trust this to be our essential truth:
To share hospitality as scandalously as Jesus does is to love him, and to love God.
We experience relationship with God by loving each other as Jesus loves us.
And through this holy love, we inhabit, here and now, the kingdom of God – the gift “which will not be taken away from [us].”
Charge/Benediction:Richard Rohr writes: “Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.”2
In recent years, I have, like many others, struggled with the diminishing presence and relevance of the Church in the world. In the face of an uncertain future, I sometimes feel the discouragement so acutely as to imagine finishing out my working years doing something other than “professional ministry.”
When pondering why the Church is losing ground, I can’t get away from how far that we, the ecclesia, the “called out ones,” have simply turned inward. We do need to define ourselves clearly. It just seems to me that we’ve traded the certainty of finite definitions (doctrines, policies, and procedures) for the demands of the much more open-ended path of Jesus-following faith. As important and helpful as creeds, policies, and procedures can be for the Church, they all-too-easily become the focus of our labors to the exclusion of Jesus’ call to live lives of humility, compassion, mercy, justice, and peace, all of which are components of Love.
My moments of discouragement disturb me, but I have, so far, managed to return to my conviction that the Church, for all its petty shortcomings and perilous idolatries, is still the Body of Christ. Who we fundamentally areis not determined by how we explain atonement or perform baptism, but how we embody Resurrection, how we express gratitude, joy, and indignation, how we embrace people (within and beyond our congregations) who suffer from hunger, poverty, grief, trauma, and neglect, and how we care for a planet straining ever more feverishly to sustain all the lives that depend on it.
We are The Church when we trust our whole selves to God, whose Creation teems with such gratuitous beauty and diversity and such heartbreaking anguish as to shout to all with ears to hear that Agape Love transcends every distinction of ethnicity, race, and religion. When we fail to reflect the transforming Love of Jesus, we become his antithesis, not his body. Christians operating such a “church” not only disconnect from the world, they endanger it with loveless judgments and fearful condemnations.
In First John we read these eternally defining words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:16b-20 – NRSV)
The word “love” has been bandied about so glibly that we often fail to feel its holy gravity pulling us toward all that God calls Beloved. And for the life of me, even when I get bewildered into despair, I can’t think of anyone or anything that gets excluded from God’s Belovedness.
As long as even a few prayer-actioned disciples continue to embody their Belovedness and to seek it in others, the Church will remain. In some form.
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?
39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Back in the mid 1970’s, I was, for about a year, a Boy Scout. I never amounted to much of a scout. I never even made Tenderfoot. I joined for the camping trips. I’ll never forget the weekend we went canoeing on the French Broad River in western North Carolina.
We traveled on a Friday night after school and set up camp by flashlight in some farmer’s field. The next morning, we ate breakfast, cleaned up, and headed for the river where we unloaded our borrowed and beat-up aluminum canoes. We put on those old cumbersome, orange, yoke-style life-vests with the mildew smell manufactured into them.
Our scoutmaster, Uncle Jack, gathered us around and said, “Listen up! Each canoe must have at least one person with the canoeing merit badge.”
I teamed up with Uncle Jack’s son, David, and a blonde-haired boy whose name and face I don’t remember. When we got into our canoe, David sat up front. The other boy sat in the middle, and I took the stern. We were next to last in line. Behind us, Uncle Jim, the assistant scoutmaster, and Alan Monfalcon, an older scout, brought up the rear of our flotilla.
Now, we were 13-year-old boys, so we were well on our way before we actually brought up the subject of the canoeing merit badge.
“I thought you had it,” I said to David.
“I thought you did,” he said. “You took canoeing at summer camp.”
“Yeah, but I failed it.”
The blonde-haired kid was just as clueless as David and me.
We were an un-merited team, and our sudden loss of confidence made us a disaster waiting to happen.
The section of the French Broad we were floating was smooth and lazy. So, there was no reason to have a proble…until a malevolent tree limb reached down and grabbed David by the collar of his life vest. The stern of the canoe swung around so that we were facing upstream. All three of us squirmed at once, in varying directions. And all I remember was the canoe pitching port side and greenish brown river water pouring in.
When I hit the water, I went into a full Poseidon Adventure panic. I completely forgot my canoe-mates, but I did remember, from my failed canoeing merit badge course, to stay with the canoe. It had flotation in either end. So, I lunged for the capsized canoe. And the moment my weight hit, that old hunk of aluminum sank – without even a gurgle.
To me, the river’s gentle current became a homicidal torrent sweeping me downstream. “Help!” I yelled “Help!”
“Grab something!” someone yelled.
I grabbed for a branch hanging over the water, and it broke off in my hand. A few feet later, I caught hold of a root near the riverbank. David, who’d already managed to get out of the water, scrambled toward me. He picked up a stick and held it out to me, but it was water-logged and rotten. And as soon as we both pulled, it broke.
“It’s no use!” I cried. “Save yourself!”
This was not my finest hour.
The next thing I knew, I was standing on the bank next to David. He had pulled me out. Uncle Jim and Alan had seen to the blonde-haired kid.
David put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,”
“You sure?” he said.
“Well yeah. I’m sure.”
“But Allen, you were hollering, ‘I’m going to die! I’m going to die!’”
“You don’t remember?”
I still don’t remember.
Everyone survived, and we eventually recovered the canoe, but in that terrifying moment, I was convinced, apparently, that I was going to die. Had Jesus been there, I might have screamed at him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
Mark wants us to feel the overwhelming fear of that night on the lake. Remember, he’s writing for Christians suffering persecution. They’re watching Roman soldiers storm Jerusalem and dismantle the Temple. For first-century Christians, following Jesus is like being in a boat, at night, in a deadly tempest. If Jesus is there at all, he’s asleep, and those who are awake and trying to pilot the boat don’t have the merit badge.
For centuries, the Church has found its salvation not in Jesus nearly so much as in its reliance on kings and nations who have claimed to protect it in exchange for the kind of outward loyalty feudal lords demanded from serfs. The world has seen through the duplicity of such self-serving fealty. And now, instead of working together to proclaim and inhabit the new reality of Resurrection, many Christians are circling their wagons into disparate camps of uniformity and conformity, arguing with and insulting each other. And as we lose members and relevance, as our own boat struggles to stay afloat, many of us cry, Jesus! Don’t you care that we’re dying?
Oh, my, Jesus says to us. What has happened to your faith?
Jesus says these words after having calmed the storm. Let’s play with that detail.
We’ve just been bailing water and hanging on for dear life in a threatening storm. When Jesus finally wakes up, he does whatever he does, and everything settles down. Then he sees that we’re no less scared now than when the winds and waters were raging.
“Why are you afraid?” he asks. “Do you [now float on peaceful waters and] still have no faith?”
Fear doesn’t always subside quickly. When a friend of mine back in Mebane, NC overcame years of alcoholism, he, his wife, and daughter were all delivered from a demon. And it nearly cost them their family. Early in his sobriety, my friend was irritable and angry. More than once, his wife asked if she could just go and buy him a case of beer.
Why was she afraid?
It’s not uncommon for people who have sought, prayed for, and found deliverance from an abusive relationship to stay in or return to the nightmare.
Why are they afraid of?
When the women get to the tomb on that first Easter morning, a young man greets them with wonderful news: Jesus is not here. He’s alive! The women turn and run, says Mark, “for they were afraid.”
Why? What happened to their faith?
The story of Jesus calming the storm is not about supernatural power. It’s about the dreadful wonder of redemption. When we expect God’s deliverance to return us to some sort of happy Eden, the story of Jesus calming the storm suggests that we really don’t understand what deliverance offers – and costs. His deliverance doesn’t make things like they used to be. He delivers us from old arrangements based on merit and power. He saves us from old fears and prejudices. And letting go of all that can be as traumatic as a near-death experience. That’s why the metaphor of death and resurrection, dying to the old self and rising, by unmerited grace, to a new reality is the central metaphor in Christianity – as it is, in one way or another, in most enduring religious traditions.
For Christians, though, faith, hope, and love are familiar words, and they call us to an entirely new, and still mostly-distrusted way of living in a panicked, cynical world grappling for dominance.
Remember, though, the boat ride was Jesus’idea. Come on, he says, “Let’s go across to the other side.”
“The other side” has nothing to do with geography. It’s about the ongoing journey of discipleship. And when the journey proves dangerous, the disciples cry out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
And through word and deed, Jesus says, in effect, Perish away, my friends. We’re crossing over to a new life, a Sunday life.
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
55But he turned and rebuked them.56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
59To another he said, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(NRSV)
Some call it The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” When a congregation or denomination gets so ensconced in familiarity, when it commits itself to policies, procedures, and dogmas rather than to following Jesus in grateful, prayer-actioned love for God, neighbor, and earth, it creates static idols who are just projections of its own desires for control and comfort. And when focusing most of its energies on itself, that community is just digging a deep hole in soft sand. Eventually the sides will cave in and bury them alive. But hey, they tell themselves, at least it’s easy digging!
Jerusalem Jews and Samaritan Jews don’t get along. Each group is used to doing things their own habitual ways. And as far as Jesus’ disciples are concerned, it’s always open season on Samaritans. So, when a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, the disciples say, “Just give us the word, Jesus, and we’ll give ‘em hell!”
Luke says that Jesus “turned and rebuked” his disciples. He doesn’t record specific words, but I like to imagine Jesus saying something about giving people hell being rather inconsistent with the Gospel.
We can’t judge the disciples too harshly, though. Going back as far as Elijah’s mass murder of the prophets of Baal after Elijah called down fire at Mt. Carmel, as far as Joshua’s genocidal order at Jericho, and God’s total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, hellish vengeance accurately describes “the way they’d always done it.” But when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” he embarks on an entirely new spiritual path, a path on which neither vengeance nor violence belong. And that makes discipleship far more difficult than digging in soft sand.
Along the way someone says to Jesus, I’ll go with you.
Will you? says Jesus. Come on, then, but be ready to rely on the providence of God the way refugees rely on the kindness of strangers.
Jesus encounters two more potential disciples. Both of them declare their intent to follow Jesus, and being faithful Jews, they both say that they’ll join him just as soon as they have fulfilled their family obligations under the Law. We can almost hear each man say to himself, Jesus will really be pleased to see how dedicated I am to the way we’ve always done it since Moses. So, imagine their shock when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead…[and] no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
When Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, he calls all disciples to do the same. So, St. Francis leaves family wealth and influence behind and lives in solidarity with the poor. Susan B. Anthony, a devout Quaker, wades into the anxiety of the post-Civil War years to lead a movement for equal voting rights for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Martin Luther King writes and delivers his prophetic and timeless I Have a Dream speech. Such followers set their own faces and join the Jesus journey, a journey from which there is no turning back.
John Rankin was born in February 1793 in Dandridge, TN.1As a young adult, he went to seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. Not known for his gifts as a public speaker, Rankin struggled as a preacher in his first church, Jefferson County Presbyterian Church in what is now Jefferson City, TN. As he matured, though, he found his authentic voice as a fervent abolitionist. After Rankin preached his views, his session told him that if he planned to preach against slavery ever again, he should go ahead and leave Tennessee. Unwilling to take his hands off the plow, Rankin decided to move his family to the free-state of Ohio.
On the way, Rankin happened upon the abolitionist congregation of Concord Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, KY, about fifty miles below the Ohio border. The congregation was looking for a pastor, so it was a match made in heaven. For four years, Rankin and the Concord Church worked to welcome, minister to, and even educate slaves. Violent mobs eventually forced Rankin to sneak his family across a frigid Ohio River, under the cover darkness, on New Year’s Eve 1821. In Ripley, Ohio, Rankin continued to preach against slavery, and became a major “conductor” along the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War, another well-known abolitionist, a New Englander named Henry Ward Beecher, was asked Who ended slavery? Beecher said, “John Rankin and his sons did.”
John Rankin hailed from Jefferson County, TN, just 70 miles south of Jonesborough. Not only that, he attended Washington College, right here in Washington County. And not only that, his teacher, mentor, and, eventually, grandfather-in-law, was the Rev. Samuel Doak, another openly-abolitionist Presbyterian minister, who also happened to be the founding pastor of Hebron Presbyterian Church – which today we call Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. Rankin and Doak, along with many others, set their faces – however imperfectly – toward a calling bigger than the way we’ve always done it.
You and I are direct descendants of Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, John Rankin, Samuel Doak, St. Francis of Assisi, Paul, Peter, and anyone else who accepted Jesus’ challenge to set their faces toward a life that runs counter to humanity’s all-too-familiar scheme of pride, greed, and vengeance. Those things define the way we’ve always done it, because they define the nature of human sin.
The world is never reformed or renewed by chronic commitment or hopeless resignation to the way things have always been. It’s reformed and renewed by individuals and communities who see what’s before them, and who imagine what’s possible when they work for the benefit of others and of the whole. As followers of Jesus, as Easter people, we have been liberated from the ways of selfishness and despair so that we might live the new and renewing life of God’s household in the midst of all that feels stagnant, hopeless, and even threatening. As disciples, we’re like Abram whom God calls to leave all that feels comfortable and familiar.
“Go from your country and your kindred,” says God, “…and I will bless you…so that in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
God’s blessedness comes upon us not as reward for good works, not as escape from illness and suffering, and not as dominance in any form. It comes upon us as God’s call to follow Jesus. So, to live our God-given blessedness means living in relationship with God by living in relationships of gratitude, care, and stewardship. It means disciplining ourselves to look for, to see, to cherish, and preserve the image of God in every person and in all Creation.
“Follow me,” says Jesus, who then leads us faithfully, lovingly, graciously toward Jerusalem, the City of Peace, where our lives may prove temporary, but our witness and our joy, like God’s kingdom, prove eternal.