The Other Side of Redemption (Congregational Letter)

Dear Friends,

         I’m sitting in my study right now. Wearing a flannel shirt. And a jacket. It’s 49 degrees outside, and I’ve got a fan in the window pulling air inside. (Brr! Georgia boys don’t cotton to sub-sixty-degree mornings in May.) If you were to walk around the first floor of the education building today, you’d see all my books scattered in random stacks in the nursery. The two “visiting chairs” in my study are also filled with books, prayer shawls, photos, diplomas, and the obligatory knick-knacks that one finds in offices. It’s a mess.

         So, what’s going on?

        Graham N. is what’s going on. Graham has built some new shelves, including a beautiful corner cabinet for the pastor’s study. For months he’s been taking exact` measurements, constructing, squaring, sanding, matching stains, planning configurations, patiently waiting on a certain someone to rise to the occasion and move all his stuff out of the way. And now he’s installing them. The stain has been on for a while, but the tang is just enough to require some fresh air, so the window is open to yet another chilly run of blackberry winter.

        The pastor’s office is in disarray right now. And when the new shelves are in, it will be time to reassemble all that stuff. The arrangement will be different. It may take a little time getting used to looking for things in different places even though I will be the one to decide where they go. But this is a splendid upgrade.  When things begin to get back to normal-ish, I hope all of you will drop by to see his work. Graham is a true craftsman, an artist. Thank you, Graham!

        By the same token, the fellowship hall is a wreck right now. Tim W. and Rick G. have been restoring the front doors and rebuilding the threshold. The doors are on saw horses above drop cloths. The tables where we have meetin’s and eatin’s are covered with tools, paint cans, and door parts. The guys have been plotting, problem-solving, sanding, painting, cleaning—and laughing. Those two don’t just work well together, they have a good time doing it. Rick and Tim are also extremely careful, artful craftsman. Thank you, Rick and Tim!

        Like the pastor’s study, the nursery, and the fellowship hall, our lives and the world around us feel out of kilter right now. What was orderly and “normal” appears disorganized and chaotic. And disruption can drive us nuts.

        When the world dissolved into chaos and uncertainty, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, asked Moses if he had led them in the wilderness to die. At least in Egypt we had plenty to eat, they cried. When fleeing from the murderous Jezebel, Elijah, God’s chosen prophet to Israel, not only feared for his life, he asked God to go ahead and take it. I guess he figured God would kill him more humanely than Jezebel—probably a fair assumption. When God showed mercy to the Ninevites, Jonah, God’s chosen mouthpiece calling for repentance, felt double-crossed. So, he went out in the desert, built himself a hut and wished himself dead.

        When the world, created and beloved by God, seems to be falling apart, our storied faith asks us to remember that the world always appears to be falling apart, at least somewhere for someone. Our faith tradition also asks us to remember that whatever is happening, God is in the midst of it, not causing suffering, but, as the ultimate opportunist, redeeming it. God redeems even our worst choices and our most painful experiences.

        On the other side of redemption, life is always different. It feels new. Some things are rearranged. And it may smell strange. Whatever the case, though, it forever remains God’s beloved creation. And our calling will continue to be to nurture a grateful, worshiping, servant-hearted community that doesn’t exist for its own self, but to reach out in grace and love to those whose lives are being turned upside down and inside out. Our calling won’t change. It’s who we are. And that’s who we are because that’s who the stories of Israel and of Jesus show us that God is: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 3:16b)

        Hang in there. Tell your story. Keep the faith.

                                             Blessings and Peace,

                                                      Allen

The Fabric of Community (Sermon)

“The Fabric of Community”

Acts 2:42-47

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/3/20

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

         Today’s text is brief, only six verses, but everything that happens through the first and second chapters of Acts culminates in this moment. Jesus ascends. The disciples choose Matthias to replace Judas. The Holy Spirit sweeps in upon the disciples who then proclaim the Gospel in every known language. Peter preaches a powerful sermon to those who think that Jesus followers are nothing but a bunch of day drinkers. Afterward, the number of followers swells from a mere handful to thousands. All this heady stuff crests in a community of transcendent wonder, gratitude, and generosity.

        Maybe it’s like hikers reaching a campsite on some high country bald along the Appalachian Trail, their boots glistening with already-fallen dew. Their legs burning from the climb. Their shoulders and hips aching beneath the weight of their packs. They’re tired and hungry, and yet, when they look on one side of the panoramic view, they watch the sun setting. On the other side they watch the moon rising. And in between, a few bright stars shimmer in the darkening sky. Below them, deep in the forest, the rhythmic call of a whippoorwill is a voice reaching from back in time. That voice, in that place, reminds the hikers that the very stuff of their own bodies is as ancient as the rocks in the mountain beneath their feet. Mesmerized by this holy moment, they stand in speechless awe of the Creation’s beauty and their fleeting place in it.

        Wherever our “mountain tops” may be, these blessed plateaus become moments of Shalom, and oases of numinous community.

         When the fabric of a community includes experiences of collective awe, and celebration of things mysterious and eternal, people often find a profound capacity for gratitude in their human lives and generosity with material things. Such was the case when the infant church began to grow by leaps and bounds. Having devoted themselves to studying the apostles’ teachings, to intentional spiritual fellowship, to the celebration of a new ritual called eucharist, and to praying with and for one another, the followers of Jesus found themselves overwhelmed with a richness that wealth could not deliver and a confidence that power could not promise or protect.

        For Luke, all these spiritual practices, shared in community, become catalysts for grateful and generous response. And all this together is the substance of discipleship.

        Now, the almost utopian scene Luke describes at the end of Acts 2 is a rare experience. It does seem to me, though, that many people within the Church want and even expect it to be the norm. And bless their hearts; those folks are neither happy nor fun to be around. It also seems to me that many people outside the Church judge the community because it is a place where everything is not always peaceful, where people are not always kind and welcoming, and where people are, and I admit my failure in this, far too possessed by their possessions to part with excess and give with joyful abandon to those who are in need.

        Our brokenness and hypocrisy are more provably real than the presence of Christ in the Sacraments we celebrate. That’s why we begin worship humbling ourselves in confession. We know that we do not live up to God’s calling.

        The early church struggled, as well. In Acts 5, we meet Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who sold a piece of land and withheld a portion of the profits for themselves. When the truth came out, Peter challenged them saying that they had not lied to anyone but God. Terrified, Ananias immediately dropped dead.

        Who among us would sell a possession of some sort and feel obligated to share more than ten percent of the profits, if anything at all? And if, as Paul says, God loves cheerful givers who give “not reluctantly or under compulsion,” (2Cor. 9:7) would God even want us to give under duress, or out of pride, or fear?

        One point of the idyllic scene described in today’s text, is that living more gratefully and giving more generously than we imagine are community-creating gifts of the Holy Spirit.

        Sure, what we do matters. The extent to which we show grace to each other, welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the forgotten, the extent to which we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8), all this matters a great deal. In it we witness to our faith that real life and true humanity are found in loving as Jesus loves. In all this, we witness to our counter-cultural conviction that the world’s selfish ways and violent means may build nations for a time, but ultimately, those ways and means destroy the very things they build. What lasts is beyond human capacity to create. As disciples, we simply participate—for a brief time—in that which is eternally creative, holy, and true, but we do not own it. Indeed, the only way to experience spiritual gifts is to give them away. Like a candle flame, the joy of God’s grace and love is made brighter and warmer only by sharing it.

        One reason that these days of isolation are so difficult is that we’re being forced—and, let’s be honest, we’re being forced not by leaders or laws, but by love of neighbor and the gift of human reason—to withhold from sharing expressions of grace that we so enjoy when we’re together. Our community, though, is not being destroyed. If we approach this season of separation as a kind of spiritual retreat, we will find ourselves and our community strengthened. When we return, there will be differences in our gatherings that we can’t anticipate. And if we don’t expect the unexpected, we will have learned nothing through this difficult but potentially transforming experience. And that would be a terrible loss.

        So, even now, “day by day,” with “glad and generous hearts,” we continue engaging scripture (through Facebook worship and Zoom meetings). We continue to enjoy fellowship (by telephone, cards, and brief visits from safe distances). We continue to break bread around this table and at our homes (alone or with only the people closest to us). And, without restraint, we continue to pray for one another and for all Creation.

        When we return, there may be an Acts 2 moment, a period of peace and joy to match that of the disciples in Jerusalem and the hikers on that Appalachian bald. There will also be a new beginning, a new calling for us. I don’t know what it might ask of and offer to us. I simply trust that whatever it is, just as the Holy Spirit has held the Church together for two millennia, that same Spirit is holding us together now, and will be in our midst, creating in us and for us new joy, gratitude, and generosity.

A Holy Alchemy (Congregational Letter)

Dear Friends,

         It’s that time during spring when days can’t make up their minds. Will the temperatures confine us beneath the insulation of heavy coats, or release us into the freedom of thin cotton tees? Will the rains fall as if from buckets or thimbles? Will trees and flowers enliven the air with their fragrant gifts, or will they persecute us with clouds of eye-watering, nose-running, sneeze-inducing spores? Will tender breezes make the dogwood and cherry blossoms sway like couples dancing the last slow dance of the evening? Or will high winds stampede in from the west, toppling shallow-rooted trees, ripping siding off of houses, and howling with all the fury of an adolescent tantrum? Each day asks just a little something different from us. We have to be ready to ponder, adjust, respond.

         As we continue our stay-at-home protocols, some of us may be feeling like debris caught in an eddy during dry times on the Nolichucky River—deadwood stuck in a lifeless, brown-foamed swirl. But these spring days are no less vibrant than any other. Our pondering, adjustments, and responses still ask us to pay attention to the changes around us, to watch the skies, to celebrate singing birds and flowering plants, to keep antihistamines on hand, to be ready to batten down lawn chairs and wind chimes, and to give thanks for the rains, the fertility of warm earth, and the approach of summer’s growth and autumn’s harvest. All of that continues with or without the coronavirus.

         While I understand the urge to connect faith to being delivered from, or even protected from the proverbial “storms of life,” I also understand that people of mature faith move beyond those expectations. In last Sunday’s sermon I spoke of faith as the “great Nonetheless.” Faith empowers us not to deny the trials and challenges of human existence. Faith empowers us to enter suffering, ours and that of others, trusting that, come what may, God is in the midst of it. God does not cause human suffering; through the power of Resurrection, God redeems it by creating purpose in and through it, Nonetheless.

        Faith gave the psalmist the wherewithal to write, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

        Faith gave Paul (an object of Roman oppression, a prisoner of its jails, and, at times, a prisoner of his own memories of having terrorized Christians in the name of God) the wherewithal to write, “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

        We all need a little more faith these days. We all need a little more Nonetheless as we navigate the uncertainties of living through the loneliness and isolation, the fears of contagion for ourselves and those we love, and through the anxieties of having enough flour, sugar, soap, and toilet paper. And we all need to help each other through these concerns. We especially need to help those who have been most immediately affected by the losses of loved ones and livelihoods. You all have been part of a magnificent outpouring of money and food to JAMA. I also know of one small group of people actively seeking ways to donate their stimulus checks to help people in need rather than just squirreling away more money they don’t need.

        In the midst of all the reasons we may have to feel anxious, what fantastic ways to live the Nonetheless of grateful faith! Thank you all!

        While there is an “other side” to our Covid-19 experience, it’s further out than any of us want it to be. Nonetheless, God is in the midst of our trouble. Nonetheless, the holy alchemy of suffering being transformed into hope (i.e. Resurrection) is at work.

        May that promise give you hope, and may that hope give you peace.

        God’s blessings on all of you.

                           Pastor Allen

I Love, Therefore I Am (Sermon)

“I Love, Therefore I Am”

Psalm 116

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/26/20

 

1I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice

and my supplications.

2Because he inclined his ear to me,

therefore I will call on him as long as I live.

3The snares of death encompassed me;

the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;

I suffered distress and anguish.

4Then I called on the name of the Lord:

“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

5Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;

our God is merciful.

6The Lord protects the simple;

when I was brought low, he saved me.

7Return, O my soul, to your rest,

for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

8For you have delivered my soul from death,

my eyes from tears,

my feet from stumbling.

9I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

10I kept my faith, even when I said,

“I am greatly afflicted”;

11I said in my consternation,

“Everyone is a liar.”

12What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

13I will lift up the cup of salvation

and call on the name of the Lord,

14I will pay my vows to the Lord

in the presence of all his people.

15Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.

16O Lord, I am your servant;

I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.

You have loosed my bonds.

17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice

and call on the name of the Lord.

18I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,

19in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

         Psalms 113-118 constitute the Hallel, a grouping of psalms that, for countless generations has been recited verbatim on high and holy days during the Jewish year. The Hallel is a liturgical remembrance of Israel’s story from exile, through the Exodus, and into their new life of faith.

        Psalm 116 is interesting in that it presents a personal testimony to the faithfulness of God in the midst of a communal celebration. It illustrates how one person’s life experience and the experience of the faith community as a whole mirror each other. It declares that the sufferings and the joys of all of us cannot be separated from the sufferings and the joys of each of us.

        The psalm is written in what scholars call a chiastic structure, which means that the first half of the psalm contains specific elements that move stanza-by-stanza to a middle, then those same elements pivot and are repeated in reverse order.1 So, the psalm ends where it begins, and vice-versa. It moves from praise and thanksgiving, through the encompassing snares of death and the tearful bitterness of affliction, back to praise and thanksgiving.

        Lying at the very heart of the psalm is gratitude for God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and mercy through all seasons of life. And there’s nothing in the psalm to indicate the worthiness of the one cared for and redeemed. There’s only the fact of God’s proactive presence. In light of this grace, the psalmist stands in receptive awe of all that God has done and is capable of doing. Guided by gratitude, the psalmist can face anything, gladness or suffering, because he trusts God.

        Psalm 116 defies superficiality regarding gratitude. When the psalmist says that he will “pay his vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,” he intends much more than marking a box on some religious to-do list. For the psalmist in particular, and spiritually speaking in general, gratitude is more than uttering the words Thank you. Gratitude that never ventures beyond speech atrophies into entitlement. The spiritual discipline of gratitude reveals an abiding posture of heart and mind. Gratitude is the source of the creature’s capacity and desire to live generously in the Creation as a humble response of love for and in praise of the Creator.

        Now, while the challenges the psalmist faces are not specified, they’re not theoretical, either:

        He has experienced the grip of distress and affliction.

        When he lost faith in his fellow human beings, he called “everyone…a liar.”

        He has not only feared for his life, he has witnessed the deaths of ones that both he and God loved. His lament, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones,” oozes with the poignancy of one who has seen death first hand and has felt helpless in the face of it.

        The psalm declares the confident hope of one who has learned to live in the great Nonetheless that is faith. And his testimony becomes our call to join him in that great Nonetheless. We, too, live in a distressing, afflicted world in which goodness often gets choked to death by selfishness, and brutality, and, just as often, by trite religiosity that baits us by confusing material excess and destructive power with God’s blessing.

        Familiar translations of Psalm 116 may even permit such confusion. Biblical scholar Alice Hunt notes that while many translations of this text begin with “I love the Lord, because he has heard by voice,” that translation requires making “the Lord” a direct object for “I love.” Dr. Hunt says that a more literal translation of the Hebrew would be I love because the Lord has heard my voice.2 Without limiting the object of the psalmist’s love to “the Lord,” the psalm opens up, doesn’t it? I love. And I love because I serve a God of not only responsive but proactive engagement in my life and in the life of the Creation—a God of grace. If I am made in the image of God, and if God is love, then loving makes me who I am.

        Loving doesn’t make us deserving of God’s grace. Merit and grace are mutually exclusive. To love does signify our holy humanity, though. And for us, as Christians, to love as Jesus loves us, declares our faith. To love as Jesus loves is to be fully human and fully alive. Even when surrounded by “the snares of death,” when enduring “distress and anguish,” when “stumbling” and weeping, when “afflicted” and distrustful—to love, Nonetheless, is to live in the confidence that God hears our voice, and continues to incline God’s ear to us.

        We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Covid-19 now shapes virtually everything we say, do, and think. As of this morning, I know of no member of Jonesborough Presbyterian who has the virus. I do know that family members of members have had it and are, I am grateful to say, recovering. I also know that a woman in my wife’s home church in GA did die from it. We all feel distress, anguish, and the snares of death surrounding us. And how we love in this moment defines us. How we love today will determine our living in the future.

        Last week, David Brooks wrote an opinion piece entitled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too,” and subtitled, “You May Not Like Who You’re About to Become.”2 In that article he gives a brief synopsis of a number of pandemics throughout history. The ominous trend during these experiences was a general disintegration of the bonds holding societies together. When the world reminded us of how little we control, even in our own lives, many human beings responded in the most un-loving ways. There were mad scrambles to scapegoat and even persecute those who suffered.

        Things are no different now. Yesterday morning, I was heartbroken to see a picture of someone at a rally in Nashville—someone hiding his face behind a mask and a pair of those huge, aviator sunglasses—holding a cardboard sign that said, “Sacrifice the Weak.”4

        There will always be people who choose selfishness and fear, people who propagate attitudes that are fundamentally antithetical to what Jesus taught, indeed, antithetical to what people of grateful faith proclaim, regardless of their spiritual tradition. We do not have to live that way. We do not have to give up on love and capitulate to despair.

        Now more than ever is God calling us to live as signs of gratitude and hope in and for God’s beloved Creation. And through the promise of Resurrection, we can sing with the psalmist:

        I love because the Lord heard my cries.

        Because God has delivered me from the bonds of selfishness and fear, I will love gratefully by living compassionately.

        I will love by reaching out in generous response.

        Because Jesus loves, I love.

        Because he is, I am.

 

1Alice W. Hunt, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. Pp. 407-411.

2Ibid.

3https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/pandemic-coronavirus-compassion.html

4https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/sacrifice-the-weak-sign-real/

 

The Road to Emmaus and Back (Sermon)

“The Road to Emmaus and Back”

Luke 24:13-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/19/20

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

19He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”

So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (NRSV)

         The more I wrestle and dance with varieties of biblical texts, the more deeply I hear a single voice speaking at the heart of them all. Just as the language of the Trinity affirms the presence of one God, the languages of birth, rebirth, and resurrection affirm the same whirling mystery and animating love called grace.

         The image of new birth suggests an entry (occasionally a painful one) into uncharted territory. The birth of Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, reveals that creatures are born with an innate union with the Creator. We can deny or mask our oneness with God, but we cannot destroy it. That truth can—and perhaps should—directly affect “Christmas shopping.” Gifts that reflect God’s incarnate gift reveal in both giver and receiver the holy and eternally beloved person God sees. True Christmas gifts delight us and open us up to capacities to give, receive, and create we didn’t conceive on our own.

         Perhaps the gift of a journal delivers a shy and withdrawn teenager into an exciting new world of self-understanding, creative expression, and unfettered adventure. Maybe a musical instrument reminds an older person of the well-spring that never runs dry, because creativity comes from what is holy and eternal within us.

        A similar thing happens with the gift of re-birth. And to me, re-birth is synonymous with forgiveness. To forgive and to be forgiven is to shed a burden that diminishes our lives, a burden that suffocates us under either the pain of regret or the self-consuming fires of vengeance. The first breath of freedom from remorse or revenge begins a brand-new existence.

        Now, it is easier to forgive when others admit their offense. The scandal of the gospel, though, is that the preemptive forgiveness of God in Christ doesn’t require repentance. And while such grace is entirely loving to the one forgiven, it’s also entirely liberating to the one who forgives. Preemptive forgiveness says, Regardless of anything you do or don’t do, I will not allow anything to encumber my joy. So that I may live fully, I release both of us from the mire. The peace of Christ be with you.

        Having said that, repentance does deepen our experience of grace, because to ask for and to receive forgiveness is to humble ourselves. It’s to acknowledge our willful and hurtful selfishness and our elemental need as human beings to be in loving relationship, even with those whom we might not like all that much.

        Forgiving and being forgiven both involve the same painful death—the death of pride. Proud hearts can neither let go of grudges nor admit error. Proud hearts beat with a living death. Nonetheless, I trust that the God of grace always sees those hearts not as lost causes, but as places of potential re-birth. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” says Isaiah, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly.” (Isaiah 35:1-2a)

         Resurrection ups the ante on birth and rebirth. Resurrection completely rearranges our human being. It restores our inborn union with God and releases us into the unbounded mercy and love of Jesus.

         There’s a catch with resurrection. We discover its empowering gift not inside an empty tomb, but on the road to Emmaus, and to reach that highway we climb the steep and rocky path of Friday. On Friday we die to those things that hide the image of God within us.

         As Cleopas and his companion travel the road toward Emmaus, their destination is simply geographical. They have yet to pass through their own transforming Friday. Enter: The resurrected Jesus, who shows up as a random stranger.

         “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” says Cleopas.

         Bless your heart, says Jesus. You sure are slow to die to that which blinds you to truth.

         Now, let’s cut Cleopas some slack. It’s no small thing to die to the expectation that God’s plan includes violent conquest of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, just two verses after speaking of the desert blooming, Isaiah says that God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” (Isaiah 35:4) Cleopas represents everyone who expects shock-and-awe from God. And it’s no small thing to die to that hope and to follow one who (to the chagrin of rulers and realms) teaches non-violence on top of humility, forgiveness, and compassion for all.

         As the three men walk, Jesus reinterprets the story of God’s involvement in, with, and for the Creation. In doing so, he gives these disciples—who still don’t recognize him—another run at Friday, another chance to die to all that their well-intentioned doctrines, and all that their years of frustration and suffering have led them to believe about God’s activity in the world.

         Then, Jesus breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened. They recognize him.

         When Emmaus itself is our destination, geography defines our journey. And maybe it begins that way, but Cleopas and his companion don’t stay in Emmaus. After their burning-heart experience, and after the revelation of the elusive, here-and-there risen Christ, they hurry back to Jerusalem, giddy with wonder and excitement. The road they travel is The Road to Emmaus and Back, a seven-mile hike that ends at dusk, only to turn them around and send them stumbling those same seven miles the other way, through the glorious dark.

         As a Friday-to-Sunday experience, the Emmaus journey is the perennial passage of death and resurrection. The alien newness that begins in Emmaus returns us to the every-day world to share the news of resurrection by sharing our own transformed selves.

         During these days of stay-at-home orders, it’s harder to experience bread-breaking, eye-opening community. That’s why our mission as the Church doesn’t take a hiatus. It’s merely re-focused by our changed context. Our constant calling is to open ourselves to God’s presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we might follow Jesus wherever he leads. Today that means feeding the hungry all the more generously. It means taking the initiative to call people who live alone and to remind them that they’re loved and valued. It means taking all necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others from the virus.

        It also means recognizing that people we know and love may yet fall ill, perhaps beyond recovery, and nonetheless, in that frightening knowledge, holding fast to faith, hope, and love.

         Richard Rohr writes, “I believe that the Christian faith is saying that the pattern of transformation is always death transformed, not death avoided. The universal spiritual pattern is death and resurrection…That is always a disappointment to humans, because we want…transformation without cost or surrender.”1

         Emmaus, the place of death transformed, can be anywhere. In Emmaus we share stories and meals, and in the sharing, we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the presence of God in one another. In that sharing, God strips us of our comfortable but selfish assumptions, then turns us, and sends us back out to do what we could not do before—live according the radical grace of Christ into which we were born and by which we are being re-born.

        This grace is itself the province of Resurrection.

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/E159479F503F99402540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

 

Easter Happens Where Life Happens (Sermon)

Easter Happens Where Life Happens

Matthew 28:1-10

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter 2020

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (NRSV)

         Because of Covid-19, most of you are hunkered down in your homes this Easter morning. Next to seeing you all in person, the thing I miss the most today is the outdoor sunrise service. In my opinion, there is no more appropriate place to worship, especially on Easter, than outside on a vibrant, spring morning, beneath the natural light of the heavens, whether they’re shimmering with that pale, silky blue that heralds a clear day, or hanging low and gray, heavy with the promise of rain.

         I love the sound of a multitude of human voices singing Alleluias, but if there exists purer joy than a chorus of mockingbirds, robins, cardinals, wrens, and finches, I have yet to hear it.

         Outside, there are no doors to be locked, no pews to claim as one’s own. Our feet rest on the earth herself. Our faces feel the chilly bite of unfiltered air. When that air carries pollen from flowers and fruit trees, it may irritate eyes and noses, but it also bears a sweet perfume that cannot be bought. Such is grace.

         Inside church buildings, we tiptoe carefully back and forth across fixed aisles. We walk with stiff reverence through hallways and doorways, because it’s “God’s house.” (How can cathedrals of forest, hill, and coastline be anything other than God’s house? And how did we ever imagine God being too holy for our gladness and humor?)

         Outside, we travel far more open pathways. We wind our way from city to town, from field to hearth, from mountain top to seashore at the beckoning of beauty, at the demands of danger, by the necessities of appetite and season, and by the inspiration of our dreams.

Now, I am truly grateful for church buildings. Still, when they become more sacred that the God we worship, when they separate us from neighbor and earth, they become idols. Inside them we tend to control our experiences of and our intimacy with God like we control a thermostat. Outside, though, Mystery, in all its feral liberty, slips up on us, and surprises us.

         On the first Easter morning, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” creep to the tomb at daybreak to hold each other in their grief. As they stand there, feet wet with dew, the sky splashed with orange and purple, the usually-solid, trustworthy earth begins to tremble. If their own knees get weak, if their own stomachs turn, if they drop whatever they’re carrying, they at least remain conscious, unlike the Roman guards who collapse to the ground in lifeless heaps. The women then see something that has come from God, something with a presence and a voice. It tells them that Jesus is alive and they will see him in Galilee. Gathering their baggage and their wits, the women head north.

        “Suddenly,” says Matthew, “Jesus met them.”

        He stands in their path. He invades their bewilderment. He interrupts their early morning walk along a dusty road redolent with manure and crammed with Passover travelers chattering on about the ungodly profits of the moneychangers and the uncertain outlook on sheep futures.

        The women see Jesus’s face, his body, his wounds. They hear his voice. They touch his feet. They smell, well, God only knows what they smell.

         The risen Christ invades our paths much more organically and memorably when we’re in our natural habitats for one simple reason—out there is where we live. So, for all the benefits and joys of church buildings, if what we do within their walls fails to connect with who we are and what we do beyond them, we may never recognize the risen Jesus as anything more than some theological precept about which to argue, or worse, some convenient tool for controlling others. That’s what Emperor Constantine saw in Jesus. And the seismic upheaval the Church now feels is one symptom of the necessary process of death and resurrection as we sober up from our 1700-year bender as the world’s most powerful, state-sponsored religion.

         Because Easter is a major movement in God’s opus of Incarnation, we have to make peace with the fact that dis-orientation always precedes re-orientation. Friday always precedes Sunday. We have to learn to remain awake and alert to God’s presence and voice in the midst of the earth-quaking disruptions that inevitably occur in our bodies, in our minds, in our relationships, and in the ever-fluid world around us.

         If who we are and what we do in church buildings fails to connect with who we are and what we do beyond them, then our sanctuaries are empty tombs, and we’re just armed guards lying on the ground, anesthetized by fear when the earth shifts and God speaks.

         Easter can be a stumbling block for the Church because our proclamation is not only unprovable, it’s indescribable.

        But it is livable! Easter happens where life happens.

        According to Matthew, Sunday’s empty tomb is not the place of Easter witness. Galilee is. Both the angel and Jesus say that resurrection experiences will happen where Jesus’ work began, along the rocky shores of the lake, where crowds gather, where fishermen sit in their wooden boats, beneath bright blue skies and a hot Palestinian sun, mending, with calloused hands, nets made of flax and linen.

        As much a verb as a noun, Easter is more effectively demonstrated than declared. It breaks through in those moments and in those seasons when the earth quakes, and our knees buckle, and nothing makes sense anymore—at least not until we return fully to our bodies and see, feel, taste, smell, and hear the world in all its glorious beauty and imperfection.

         It seems to me that Easter is not about believing the unbelievable. It’s about living a fullness and a wholeness that we can’t create for ourselves. It’s about trusting that for all the brokenness handed down to us and all the brokenness we so willfully cause and permit, God’s love and forgiveness have the power to renew and restore all things. Easter meets us, sometimes suddenly and vividly, as when we hold a newborn or hear a loved one say, “I forgive you.” (How could anyone deserve such gifts?)

        Sometimes it’s more subtle, an awareness that dawns on us, reveals itself over time, as when we age into a gratitude that borders on tearful for something as ordinary as birdsong, or when we realize that, finally, we not only can, or even want to, but we have forgiven that old adversary. (What spiritual tectonic plates shifted and awakened in us these new perceptions of and propensities for grace?)

        Easter experiences don’t “prove” what the Bible and our theologies proclaim. Easter experiences confront us, “suddenly,” in routine, day-to-day moments when our fear and pride dissolve and our lives are drenched with a newness we did not create and cannot earn. So, to the extent that our decent, orderly, and carefully-scripted worship services prepare us to go outside, to go to Galilee (wherever that might be for each of us), and be surprised by Jesus, our time spent in sanctuaries is time well-spent.

         Even though we’re locked down at home because of some pandemic looming at our doorsteps like the tenth plague on Egypt, we live miraculous lives. God is always Eastering us toward new understandings of human existence, new capacities for compassion, and new horizons of grace.

         May you live today and all days with grateful and generous abandon. And know that even now God is revealing the life-transforming gift of Resurrection to you and through you.

A New Passover (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

“A New Passover”

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Maundy Thursday 2020

 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (NRSV)

 

After leading the escape from Egypt, Moses reflected on the harrowing, but transforming, experience he and the Hebrews had just survived. Most of Exodus 15 is Moses’ song of triumph, and it begins this way: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation…3The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:1-2a, 3)

The memory of the Exodus shaped the working image of God for the ancient Hebrews. They looked at God as a divine warrior who would reach down from “above” to protect God’s chosen people. The mystifying defeat of Pharaoh and his army created Israel’s defining narrative and its foundational expectations of how God’s steadfast love and faithfulness work in the world on behalf of those whom God loves.

For thousands of generations the Jewish community has observed Passover, the ritual remembrance and reenactment of the tenth and decisive plague that finally compelled Pharaoh to release the Hebrews. And when first-century Jews prepared for Passover, they had a new Pharaoh to deal with. His name was Caesar, and Caesar was about to have the opportunity to learn a lesson that he, like Pharaoh, Jezebel, and Nebuchadnezzar before him, would, ultimately, fail to learn.

Leaders of nations—and not infrequently, leaders of religions—tend to fail to learn what God’s prophets have to teach, because God’s language is one of humility and love. God’s ethic is one of peacemaking, justice, and compassionate service. As Paul says, the Christian faith itself is foolishness to the wise and weakness to the strong. It’s little wonder, then, that Jesus’s messianic ministry met an end that the world would consider as humiliating as Pharaoh’s defeat by a bunch of slaves. Who were led by a stuttering murderer no less!

Leaders aren’t the only ones who struggle with the ways of God. Followers have a hard time, as well. When Jesus’s disciples decide that he is indeed the Messiah, what they don’t do is concede their expectations that the Messiah will act according to the age-old image of God established by Moses’ interpretation of the escape from Egypt. From Peter to Judas, all the disciples anticipate from Jesus something he will not deliver. In truth, Jesus does the unimaginable opposite. He, as Messiah, stoops down and washes the disciples’ feet. Aware of their bewilderment, Jesus tries to help ease the shock.

        You don’t understand what’s going on right now, and that’s okay. Just receive this blessing from me and know that one day it will all make sense.

Flummoxed to the point of anger, Peter says, “You will never wash my feet.”

The task of foot-washing was relegated to the lowest of slaves. To have said that foot-washing was beneath the dignity of God’s Messiah would have been like saying that Roman occupation of Jerusalem was an inconvenience. Jesus’ act of humble service shattered all the norms. It shifted every paradigm and archetype. And when Peter protested, Jesus said, If I don’t wash your feet, you are choosing to have no part in me.

Do you see what kind of moment Jesus creates for Peter? I mean no disrespect to our Jewish brothers and sisters, but for Christians, when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he institutes a kind of new Passover. Instead of the blood of sacrificed lambs smeared on the lintels of doors, the mark of inclusion in the community of Jesus is water, applied humbly and lovingly to his followers’ feet by the Lamb of God himself. When we put ourselves in that room with the disciples, we can feel Jesus’ new Passover still challenging us to live differently than we have been taught, even by the Church, which, on the whole, still prefers a warrior god. More than a saintly image, though, Jesus’ example of humble service is the Church’s urgent calling.

One detail in this story can get overlooked: Even Judas receives the gift of foot-washing. Jesus does not abandon the one who will betray him. This act of unmitigated grace announces and embodies the very heart of God and bears witness to the eternal oneness between Jesus of Nazareth and God.

Long before Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate, the psalmist sang of the grace that reflects the all-too-wonderful and loving knowledge God has of us:

4Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

8If I ascend to heaven,

you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol,

you are there.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you. (From Psalm 139)

The juxtaposition of darkness and light is a central theme in John’s gospel, and when laying the ancient psalm against John’s witness to Jesus, we encounter the almost unnerving depth of God’s forgiving love. This irrevocable love awaits us wherever we are. Even in our faithlessness and treachery, God’s Christ washes our feet, claiming us as beloved children of a New Passover of grace, and bestowing on us a message of oneness with God to share with all Creation. Come what may, then, be it faithfulness, denial, or outright betrayal, God is already sharing in our glad celebrations and our grief-stricken regrets, because, as the psalmist says, “even the darkness is not dark to [God],” and as John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Jesus leaves his disciples with a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” For John, this mutual love is not only the light; it is the very source and substance of the belief about which John’s Jesus speaks. To love as we are loved, to feed as we are fed, to house and clothe others as we are housed and clothed, to speak for those who have no voice, all of this is to believe. It would be so much easier if belief were simply our mouths saying Yes to precepts and doctrines, but for Jesus, belief is discipleship, and discipleship is love—expectation-shattering, neighbor-welcoming, earth-treasuring, mystery-embracing, rule-bending, death-defying, and preemptively-forgiving love.

May you experience God’s New Passover in Christ. And may you accept how deeply and perfectly you are loved, so that you may go forth and, to the very best of your ability on any given day, love with the love of Jesus—God’s eternal Word Made Flesh.

An Unwelcome Triumph (Sermon)

“An Unwelcome Triumph”

Matthew 21: 1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Palm Sunday 2020

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”NRSV)

         If we jump straight into Matthew 21, the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem feels abrupt. So let’s back up and remember the events immediately prior to the scene of Jesus riding a donkey into the City of David.

         In Matthew 20, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the journey he teaches the crowds, and his teachings often push the limits of tradition and tolerance. Case in point: the disturbing parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The story disturbs because it proclaims a depth of grace and generosity that offends both ancient and modern minds. The laborers who worked the least receive the same wages as those who worked all day.

        Who among us wouldn’t feel cheated if we’d been among those hired at daybreak? And who among us wouldn’t have said so? Jesus concludes the parable by reiterating his haunting phrase: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt. 20:16)

        After proclaiming his death and resurrection for the third time, Jesus receives a selfish request from the mother of James and John. She wants Jesus to promise that her sons will receive special treatment in the age to come. And Jesus responds with a variation of his first-will-be-last teaching: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (Mt. 20:26b-27)

        In the last story in chapter 20, Jesus and his followers pass through Jericho, the last town of any note before reaching Jerusalem. Jericho represents Israel’s brutal history, specifically, her conviction that the commandment, Do not kill, doesn’t apply when it comes to seizing and holding worldly power. When the Hebrews, led by Joshua, took Jericho, they killed everything, “both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) It seems to me that when mired in juvenile stages of virtually any religious tradition, people honestly believe that sacrificial slaughter pleases and pacifies God.

        As Jesus and the crowds leave Jericho for Jerusalem, two blind men cry out for help. Twice they address Jesus with the Messianic titles Lord and Son of David. “Moved with compassion,” Jesus heals them, and they follow him.

        We might call the moment when Jesus leaves Jericho the Triumphal Exit. Coming immediately before the Triumphal Entry, it parallels Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem in that both scenes Jesus is hailed as the promised deliverer. It’s just that in Jericho, blindness gives way to sight for a few, and in Jerusalem, sight becomes blindness for everyone.

        There’s another interesting contrast. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem was known for being particularly dangerous. Whenever possible, one traveled it in groups. And for the time being, Jesus had a crowd to help keep him safe from robbers and ruffians. The road Jesus traveled after entering Jerusalem was also dangerous. After an auspicious beginning, though, Jesus ended up traveling alone.

        In ancient Rome, the exclamation “Hosanna” was used during nationalistic celebrations. It means help, or save. When the crowds celebrating Jesus cried Hosanna, their shouts were charged with religious zeal but in service to political purposes. They expected the long-awaited Lord and Son of David to muster a mighty army and do to Rome what the ancient Hebrews did to Jericho. They were ready to follow that Messiah. But while Joshua and Jesus shared a name, Jesus had an entirely different vision. And when he didn’t deliver on the crowds’ expectations, we learn that no one, not even God Incarnate, is beyond the tip of the spear held by those who are bound to worldly desires and violent means.

        Whatever triumph Jesus accomplishes in the world, it has nothing to do with storing up wealth (as the vineyard workers wanted), nor with privilege and status (as the mother of James and John wanted), nor with swords, armies, and nations dominating neighbors (as Israel wanted—and as pretty much all nations still want and feel entitled to).

        There’s no triumphalism to Jesus’ triumphal entry. His victory is the defeat of human hearts blinded by exile, people who are almost willingly captive to all that separates us from God, and to me that means separated from the holiness in our own individual being, the holiness in human community, and the holiness of the Creation as a whole.

        “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” sings the psalmist, “the world, and those who live in it.” (Ps. 24:1) In spite of all the brokenness in the world, everyone and everything that is created by God reflects God and holds something of God’s holiness in its very existence, including fickle disciples, spiteful Pharisees, desperate blind men, adolescent crowds, the mother of James and John in her maternal conceit, Pilate in his arrogant fear, Roman soldiers in their sadistic ignorance, you and me in all our comfortable, twenty-first century distance from the kind of suffering and turmoil that first-century followers of Jesus must have known.

        Jesus rides into Jerusalem, but in the most humble and humbling of ways. And he continues to clip-clop into our lives to reveal an unwelcome triumph, namely that God’s genius is not in any decisive defeat of all enemies and suffering, but in the transformation God creates by entering our chaos, breathing new life into our deepest failings and hurts and redeeming them, renewing us through them.

        We all want to see an end to the coronavirus. And while many people, whether because of Covid-19 or something else, will not live see that end, most of us on this planet will see it. And as we speak, the eternal Christ is riding into our midst on the humble and humbling back of our neighbors’ need. He challenges our traditions and tolerance. His unwelcome triumph gives us the opportunity to experience realities to which our previous days of relative comfort blinded us. I feel him using this opportunity to reveal our interdependence as citizens of earth, not only our need for neighbors and neighborliness but our holy capacityto give and receive blessedness. And while many people suffer from an arrested economy, there are already signs that the environment is already healing from the effects of human exploitation. Perhaps the earth craves the chance to prove its will and ability to regenerate and renew.

        Like those long-ago disciples, crowds, Pharisees, and Romans, today’s Church doesn’t really want to learn Jesus’ lessons on redemption. Nonetheless, for the love of all that is holy in all things, Jesus again walks the dangerous Jericho road that leads to Jerusalem, and the dangerous Via Dolorosa, the Road of Suffering, that leads to the cross—all of which leads to Easter. We experience his triumph in the defeat of our selfishness, fear, and pride. For in that defeat, he opens our eyes to the new hope of restored relationship with God and with all that God has created and loves.

        May you celebrate Jesus’ arrival in your life and in our midst.

        And may we all discover that in our gracious defeat we receive God’s lasting deliverance.

Help: A Prayer for Difficult Times (Sermon)

“Help: A Prayer for Difficult Times”

Matthew 6:5-13

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/29/20

 

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.  (NRSV)

 

 

         If prayer is something in which we have some measure of faith, then when we tell folks that we’ve been praying for them, most of us usually mean it, because we like to know that others are praying for us, too. It can comfort and strengthen us to think about someone intentionally connecting to the positive, creative energy within themselves and offering it to God on our behalf.

        Having said that, just what do we mean when we say that we will pray for someone or something? Cutting to the chase, are we really trying to bend God’s will to ours? Do we honestly think we can do that? Do we honestly want to be able to do that? Do we want to worship and serve a creator who has a “mind” that is merely a projection of a creature’s mind? A mind that is finite, malleable, prone to fear, and when the going gets tough, quick to blame others, grab for power and certainty, and to stockpile dried beans and toilet paper?

        If I advise us to be careful about approaching prayer as nothing more than a laundry list of individual wants, virtually all of you will say that you know better than that. And you do. We all do. But prayer as a kind of shopping excursion is still something of a default for many people. It reminds me of the 1970’s comedian, Flip Wilson, who once said in a sketch, “I’m gonna pray now. Anyone want anything?”

         Jesus also faced shallow perceptions of prayer. When he cautions his hearers not to emulate the Pharisees’ prayers, he says that they use prayer as a kind of spectator sport. They dress in finery and pray loudly in public places. Just as conspicuous generosity tends to mask a sad and lonely poverty, conspicuous piety often camouflages desperate doubt, guilt, or fear.

         The prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray is simple and straightforward. It begins with praise and thanksgiving. It asks for only the most basic needs of humanity: forgiveness and the ability to forgive; humility to rely on help in times of temptation and struggle; and daily bread, which means more than merely bread, but not more than the necessary food, clothing, and shelter.

        On top of all that, the Lord’s Prayer is not individualistic grasping. “Give us this day our daily bread.” The prayer asks us to pray in community, for the community. Jesus also encourages solitude for prayer, and our solitude is for the sake of the wider good. In the spiritual realm, nothing is ever about ourselves alone. Indeed, we are all in this together.

         So, given the example of the Lord’s Prayer, and given our call to be in prayerful communion with God, other human beings, and the earth, how do we approach the discipline of prayer, which is supposed to be a life-giving gift, at time when life feels diminished and we feel isolated? Where do we even begin?

         Eight years ago, Anne Lamott wrote a book in which she says that the three most important prayers are Help, Thanks, and Wow. One can begin with any of those prayers, of course, but Lamott begins her book with Help. Help, she says, “is the first great prayer. I don’t ask God to do this or that…or for specific outcomes.” Then she adds, “Well, okay. Maybe a little…[but] There are no words for the broken hearts of people losing people, so I ask God…to respond to them with graciousness and encouragement enough for the day…Please help Joe survive Evelyn’s dementia. Please help this town bounce back. Please help those parents come through, please help those kids come through…

         “In prayer I see the suffering bathed in light…I see God’s light permeate them, soak into them, guide their feet. I want to tell God what to do…But that wouldn’t work. So I pray for people who are hurting, that they will be filled with air and light. Air and light heal…We don’t have to figure out how all this works…It’s enough to know it does.”1

         Help is a great place to start. At its core, Help is a prayer of humility. To ask for Help is to acknowledge that we need something outside ourselves, whether it’s inspiration, wisdom, money, or an extra pair of hands to pull the ox out of the ditch. And for some of us, Help is a difficult thing to say. For some, it’s even a four-letter word. A joke that has endured the advent of GPS is that men get lost more than women because so few of us will stop and ask for directions. But Help is one of the most honest and necessary prayers we can pray.

          Centering prayer is a discipline that does not seek answers or make requests. It’s a practice of letting go of all thoughts that cloud mind and spirit so that we can draw close to God. Teachers of this discipline encourage pray-ers to utter a single word or a very simple phrase as a focal point. Help is a great word to say over and over as we turn loose of all our anxieties and wants and give ourselves over to the presence of the One from whom all blessings flow—holiness, daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance, and the kingdom itself.

        “When we call out for help,” says Brian McLaren, “we are bound more powerfully to God through our needs and weakness[es], our unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and our anxieties and problems than we ever could have been through our joys, successes, and strengths alone…So when we’re suffering from anxiety, we can begin by simply holding the word help before God, letting that one word bring focus to the chaos of our racing thoughts. Once we feel that our mind has dropped out of the frantic zone and into a spirit of connection with God, we can let the general word help go and in its place hold more specific words that name what we need…[words like] guidance…patience…courage…wisdom, or peace.

        “Along with our anxieties and hurts, we also bring our disappointments to God. If anxieties focus on what might happen, and hurts focus on what has happened, disappointments focus on what has not happened…This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength.”2

         As a prayer, Help opens a door that is always available to us, but the door knob is down by the threshold. To reach it, we have to get on our knees. We’re all on our knees right now. We’re all at a humbling and unfamiliar place. The threat isn’t visible. There’s no one to blame or intimidate. There is nothing to buy, borrow, or beg for that will give us what a season of sheltering-in-place can. And we all need Help to endure that season.

         As “the creation waits in eager longing,” says Paul, we also “wait…for the redemption of our bodies.” And when we can’t find the words to pray for ourselves and others, the “Spirit intercedes in sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:18-30)

         The Creation’s current suffering will not end next week, or the week after that. In this meantime, we stay home, and pray the best we can. And we remember, Help is in our midst even now.

 

1Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Riverhead Books, 2012. Pp. 15-16.

2https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/99457B1A88929E9B2540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

Solidarity in Suffering (Sermon)

“Solidarity in Suffering”

Luke 24:44-53

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/22/20

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (NRSV)

       This morning, instead of wading just one more step through the river of Lent, we’re going to rock hop to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter, then leap to the ascension. We’re going there because the ascension, like the crucifixion, begins a period of waiting. Each time Jesus leaves, his departure prepares the way for a completely new form of presence, with new dimensions and new mystery.

       During Holy Week each year, I try to imagine the feelings of abandonment and loss that the disciples must have felt on Friday and Saturday. And I imagine them bearing both a heavy shame for having deserted Jesus, and a smoldering anger at having felt deserted by him and by God. If Jesus were really the promised and long-awaited Messiah, how could this have happened?

       The disciples were hardly the first or the last to find themselves dismayed by a perfect storm of furious grief. And like all of us, their grief was uniquely theirs. They had to figure out how to live in the midst of and then to live through an acute disruption of life. And while Easter did change things for them, it was probably more disrupting than Jesus’ death itself. What does life mean when we find our lives reconfigured by something as unnerving as the proclamation of resurrection? Then, after walking in and out of the disciples’ lives in some form after the resurrection, Jesus leaves again.

    One way to look at Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to see them as five movements of one opus, The Incarnation: God’s all-in presence with and commitment to the Creation. Jesus’ ministry and death reveal that where any part of the Creation suffers, God is in the midst of it, transforming that suffering into something new and renewing beyond our imagining. Our desires and our culture—even our “religious” culture—try to tell us that happiness, health, and wealth are how we know God loves us. But the gospel shows us that God’s love becomes most real and powerful when we follow Jesus into the suffering around us and participate in God’s transforming work of resurrection.

       It seems counterintuitive, but shared suffering leads to the holiest of places. Eons ago, Isaiah spoke of the transformative nature of suffering: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…and by his bruises we are healed.” (Is. 53:3a, 5c)

       Last week, Richard Rohr wrote: “For God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the [true] meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.”1

       Our current global crisis calls us to remember that in God’s Creation, we are one—one people, one humanity, one world. One whole. The suffering of one is the suffering of all, and to share suffering is to begin to heal it. To share suffering is to participate in God’s solidarity with all things through Jesus.

       When Jesus leaves the disciples that second time, it is for good—and I hope you hear the double entendre in for good. His departure means that while his physical presence is gone for good, he unleashes a new presence for the good of the Creation. The risen and ascended Jesus is our energy, our hope, our joy, our purpose, our love. He is the eternal Spirit that empowers us to live in our own here-and-now realities sharing, as Paul says, “the mind of Christ.” (1Cor. 2:16)

       Through the opus of the Incarnation, God declares love for and solidarity with the entire world. The ascension, then, represents the gateway to Pentecost—the revelation of the mind of the Christ which is eternally present in, with, and for all things. Jesus calls his followers into the world not to end suffering, but to enter it, to stand with those who suffer and to offer a cup of cold water, a loaf of bread, ears for listening, arms for embracing, eyes for weeping, and hearts for holding all that brokenness.

       In a commentary last week, David Brooks talked about the importance of establishing that kind of solidarity with one another during our uniquely trying time. This experience has made him distinguish “between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection,” he says, is about empathy and kindness, which is always important, but “Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good.”

       “[Solidarity] starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation—to one another and to all creation.

       “Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that…a soldier “risk[s] his life dragging the body of his…comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.

        “It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.”2

       Each gospel records different last words of Jesus, and in Luke, those last words are, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

       The disciples don’t yet understand that Jesus’ absence is making way for Pentecost’s new kind of presence. But they will understand. And they will continue not only to follow Jesus, but to walk with him in ministries of solidarity all the days of their lives.

       Most of us are physically absent from one another right now, and that absence is an act of holy solidarity. As we name the suffering within us and enter the suffering around us (from appropriate distances!) the ascended and still-incarnate Christ resides faithfully in our midst, deepening our love for each other, and strengthening us to endure days of anxiety and alienation.

       In that same article, David Brooks raises a hopeful question. “I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.”3 So, we endure for our sake, for the sake of people next-door, and for the sake of all whom God loves, from Jonesborough, to Washington County, to Washington state, to Italy, to China.

       It’s become the mantra, the cliché, the hashtag, and it is the Truth: We’re all in this together. And God’s Christ is right here with us.

       May his presence be real to you.

       May his presence be real through you.

       May he bring all of us his peace.

 

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/49084C843D5E92892540EF23F30FEDED/CAEF12FB6B3D7B5544D0DD5392A9C75A

2https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/opinion/coronavirus-isolation.html

3Ibid.