Cliffhanger (Sermon)

“Cliffhanger”

Luke 4:14-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/23/22

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.  (NRSV)

         Spiders, snakes, needles. Honestly, those things don’t scare me as much as they seem to scare some folks. Having said that, I really do not like getting surprised by a snake.

I can get a little claustrophobic, though. If I just think long enough about crawling on my belly in some dark cave, I have to run outside and stand beneath the wide, blue sky.

Heights can bother me, too. The closer you get to the edge of a cliff, the more you feel the invisible hand of gravity reaching up and tugging at you. When I think of free-climbers clinging to rock faces like ants on a brick wall, they seem more like another species than just other people.

The things that scare us do so because they threaten us, or we don’t understand them, or they lie beyond our control. And to face them is to stand at the edge of a precipice and to feel the gravity of some great unknown. Injury or death could be that unknown. It could also be the challenge to claim spiritual or physical capacities in ourselves that we’ve never recognized, capacities that call us to be and to do more than we’ve ever imagined.

Years after the Israelites had been defeated and exiled, the prophet Isaiah appeared and said to Israel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to” you, Israel.

While Isaiah’s prophecy was good news, even good news can put us at the edge of a cliff. Let’s remember, Isaiah was preparing Israel for deliverance and return to Jerusalem. Since Israel had been exile for many generations, the Israelites knew only captivity in Babylon. So, for Israel, freedom from Babylon meant more than autonomy. It meant a return to a reliance on God, which requires a kind of cliff-hanger spirituality that is both feral and disciplined. 

Animals born into captivity almost always remain captive. They depend on being fed, sheltered, and protected—and protected from themselves as much as anything else. They may still have some instincts, but instinct without experience can be a dangerous thing.

We have an old border collie named Todd. Todd struggles just to stand these days, but years ago, by pure instinct, he’d chase a stick all day long. He could not not do it. If we had ever unleashed him on a herd of sheep, though, he would have gone nuts—running, barking, nipping. While Todd had never been a wild animal, as a border collie he had genetically-determined instincts, but he had no training, no vocational continence. And without the necessary discipline, old Todd would have run a herd of sheep right into traffic or over a cliff. 

In his very first sermon, in his hometown, Jesus reads Isaiah’s announcement of deliverance and hope. Then he sits down and says that in that moment, Isaiah’s words are being fulfilled. In him, in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s feral yet disciplined Spirit is alive, present, and bringing good news to those who are poor, captive, blind, and oppressed.

The worshipers in that small town synagogue seem to feel excited and proud that a local boy could preach such a courageous sermon. Then Jesus ruins the mood. He reminds them that God’s grace is not limited to those whose skin, speech, religious expression, or national loyalties line up with their own selfish prejudices and fears.

Jesus reminds the people that, when Israel was struggling just to survive, two of the greatest Jewish prophets, Elijah and Elisha, took time to tend to Gentiles first. They tended to people who did not belong, people who threatened the community’s self-perceived purity. Fearful of Gentiles, Israel abused and exploited them because of the undisciplined, idol-serving leadership of kings who—since the days of Samuel—had ruled a people who demanded to be governed “like other nations.” Israel wanted to be a people of military, economic, and cultural dominance. And when nations who claim to trust God pursue such idols, they almost inevitably forsake God.

Jesus makes his bold and disorienting declaration about God’s grace to people who raised him and love him, and when he does, they immediately try to kill him. Luke’s description of the attempted murder is striking and revealing. The angry crowd chases Jesus up to a cliff, intending to throw him off. And just when they think they have him where they want him, where he can do no more damage with his open-hearted theology and radical ideas about grace, Jesus slips through their fingers and disappears.

It’s not the disappearance that interests me. It’s the fact that the people find themselves at the edge of a cliff. They find themselves at a liminal place, a place of reckoning. Doesn’t it seem that Jesus led the crowd to the cliff rather than the other way around?

In her insightful little book entitled When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about coming to the limits of what human language can say and comprehend about God. She says that when “we come to the end of speech…[we] gaze slack-jawed at what still lies beyond. If you have ever stood on a high cliff over the sea and felt that strange, frightening pull toward the brink, then you know what I mean. There is a human fascination with limits that is both holy and chastening at the same time.

“Without limits, we would have no feel for the infinite. Without limits we would be freed from our longing for what lies beyond…When we run out of words, we are very near the God whose name is unsayable.”1

         We can grow comfortable with thinking that God is comprehensible. But isn’t that comfort just complacency? Isn’t it a self-serving lack of reverence and awe? Many Christians, says Barbara Brown Taylor, “would rather be bored than scared.”2That could be true—if we’d rather avoid the possibilities of developing the spiritual potential of people who trust and follow an incarnate Mystery?

Todd was happy enough chasing sticks, but what if he’d been taught to use his God-given gifts to participate in a wider purpose? What joy would he have known if he’d been given the chance to help tend a flock?

When Jesus led those folks—who thought they knew him—up that cliff, he left them there to stare slack-jawed into a mysterious and transforming moment of prophetic revelation. They did not, in fact, know Jesus as they thought they did, because they did not know God as they thought they did. God was deeper, broader, and scarier than they had imagined—probably because God was deeper, broader, and scarier than they had been taught.

God is always calling us to participate in God’s deep, broad, and rather scary purposes of doing holy justice, welcoming strangers, showing compassion to the oppressed, lending our voices to those who have been silenced, forgiving and loving enemies. And that call almost always starts with us standing at the edge of some cliff, staring awestruck into the eternal mystery that is God and wondering, “What would happen if we gathered our fears in one hand, our courage in the other, and followed the Christ who calls and equips us to love as he loves—and then disappears?”

1Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent. Cowley Publications, Cambridge/Boston, 1998. p. 91.

2Ibid. p. 66.

It Is Time (Sermon)

“It Is Time”

John 2:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/16/22

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.

8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”

So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (NRSV)

         When biblical writers want to grab our attention, they usually say things like, In the beginning, or, They went up a mountain, or, An angel of the Lord appeared. In the story of the Wedding at Cana, John escalates things to a whole new level when he says, And Jesus’ mama was there, too.

In first-century patriarchy, where women have to be careful about how they dress, where they travel, and with whom they speak, Mary transforms the significance of women from water into wine.

Let’s re-enter the story.

         A wedding is underway in Cana. The servers, who have been told to keep the wine flowing and the matzo balls rolling, are facing a dire situation. The night is still young, and the wine is gone. It’s like they’ve been pouring it into colanders.

         Insufficient wine at a wedding means several things, and none of them are good. It means humiliation for host. It means vocational catastrophe for the chief steward. And all-in-all, it’s an inauspicious start for the young couple.

         Just inside the kitchen door, the servers put their heads together in a nervous conversation.

“We’re out of wine,” says one of the servers.

“That can’t be!” says the other.

“But it is!”

         Stunned and anxious, they have no idea what to do. Nor do they have any idea that someone was privy to their fretful conversation. Jesus, his disciples, and Mary are all guests at the wedding. And Mary has overheard them.

         From across the room, Mary catches her son’s eye, and with a quick tilt of her head tells Jesus to follow her—to “come and see.” Jesus has been chatting with some new friends, relaxing, sharing stories, blissfully anonymous in the crowd. But he knows the look his mama gives him, so he slips away from his company and follows her.

         In the kitchen, Jesus sees his mother standing with the servers, their faces sagging like a couple of empty feed sacks hanging on a fencepost.

         “They have no more wine,” says Mary to Jesus.

         “Mom, that’s not my problem,” says Jesus. “Not right now.”

         Mary has imagined a day like this, a day when she lends the authority of her voice as well as the sanctuary of her womb to the creative Mystery at work within her and beyond her—the Mystery who is revealing a holiness that is as universal as the stars and as intimately hers as the children to whom her body and her love have given birth.

         In the awkward silence following Jesus’ protest, she thinks of Moses’ unnamed mother setting her son among the reeds in the shallows of the Nile. Who would find him? Another Hebrew? An Egyptian? A crocodile? What would become of her fine baby boy?

         She thinks of Rebekah scheming Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob. To arrange that deception will mean that Jacob must flee from her as far as he must flee from Esau. And Rebekah knows that she may never see her favorite son again.

         She thinks of Hannah, who, for the privilege of bringing just one life into the world, gave Samuel, her only child, to God.

         When Mary speaks, she’s more than a wedding guest. She is a mother surrendering her son.

In the warm, moist air of the kitchen, she turns toward the servers and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”

         Jesus has envisioned a day like this, too. But in his vision, he decides when it’s time to make himself known. He decides when it’s time to step into the river and accept the fullness of his calling. He decides when it’s time to make the wild and lavish promise of himself to God. And he’s tempted to put off that decision, to put off the arrival of his hour. But his mother’s words burrow into his ears, and burn in his heart.

         If Jesus tells the servers nothing, they will do nothing, and the celebration will collapse. People will fall away. They’ll scatter and look for joy elsewhere.

         If he tells them to do something, they’ll do that, and heaven knows what will happen next. And whether Jesus tells them anything or not, when his mama told the servers to “do whatever he tells you,” she opened a door he knows that he cannot shut. So, now, Jesus confronts his identity and the uncertain future to which it calls him.

         Looking around the kitchen, Jesus sees six stone jars, big ones, the kind used to hold water for the celebrations that restore God’s people to holiness and to unity with God. He turns to the servers and says, “Fill [those] jars with water.”

—–

         The sign Jesus performs at Cana is not about coercing belief through some sort of magic. It’s about revealing to the creation a presence in the creation that transforms water jars into vessels of holy and spirited wine. For Jesus, it’s about being that transforming presence in and for the Creation.

         Maybe miracle isn’t something that happens outside of reason. Maybe miracle is the very realm of our existence, something that saturates what appears to be the emptiness between you and me, or between any two creatures. If we live in the midst of miracle like fish live in water, then it’s no small miracle in itself to become aware of miracle.

In his song “Holy Now,” Peter Mayer sings:

“Wine from water is not so small,
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all.
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles,
But finding where there isn’t one.”1

We become aware of miracle through faith—faith being the gift of trusting that we are holding wine where others see only water.

We are stewards and servers in a trying time—a time when the spaces between us are not simply watery, but muddy and dark. The world has seen times like these before, though. The world has known all manner of turmoil, division, jealousy, dishonesty, injustice, violence, and fear. And in the story of the wedding at Cana, I hear God saying to all who claim the mothering, miracle-rendering gifts of faith, hope, and love: Listen, the wine you are used to may be gone. The celebration may seem to be faltering. Nevertheless, a future you have not imagined is unfolding. And while that future will be different, I, the Lord, am in its midst now no less than I was in the past. Don’t just believe me. Trust me. Follow me.

As it was for Jesus when he and his mother turned water into wine, so it is for his followers today: It is time.

It is time for us trust miracle.

It is time for us to embody hope.

It is time to embrace one another in compassion.

It is time for us to do justice.

It is time for us to receive, to hold, and to share the new wine of God’s ever-expanding, all-transforming grace so that we participate in keeping the celebration alive, joyous, and open to all whom God loves.

And that leaves out exactly no one.

1Peter Mayer, “Holy Now,” from Million Year Mind, Peppermint Records, 2001.

Becoming the Beloved (Sermon)

“Becoming the Beloved”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/9/22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (NRSV)

Luke 3 begins with John the Baptist roiling human hearts with prophecy and the Jordan River with baptisms.

From the wilderness, his lonely voice cries, “Repent!”

And the crowds ask, How?

         While tailoring specific answers for specific groups of people, John remains consistent: Deal generously, fairly, justly, humbly, and gratefully with everyone—including yourselves.

True repentance is as straightforward and simple as it is complicated and challenging. It’s about far more than admitting and “feeling sorry” for past mistakes. It’s about turning toward and living a new and different life right now. It’s about loving God and neighbor by working for justice for those who are poor, forgotten, and exploited. It’s about stewarding the earth, treating it like we’re borrowing it from future generations—because we are.

Apparently moved by John, the crowds wonder out loud, Could this be the Messiah?

         And John says, No. A different baptism awaits you at the hands of “one more powerful than I.”

         Ironically, the more powerful one of whom John speaks, shows up seeking John’s baptism of repentance—like everyone else. And like almost everyone else in Luke’s gospel, John doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Indeed, Luke suggests that not until Jesus sloshes back up on the riverbank and begins to pray does even he begin to understand that he is the Beloved. And Jesus demonstrates that it’s in living the life of repentance that one really begins to understand and to become the Beloved.

         When John’s listeners ask what they need to do to help make crooked paths straight and rough places smooth, John gives practical instructions. And while those instructions are illuminating and helpful, many of us need more than instructions. And to the extent that rigid theologies often short-leash spiritual growth, we need farmore than abstract doctrine. We need a flesh-and-blood guide who exemplifies the life of the Beloved. We also need that guide to take the next and even more vital step—the step of freeing us to recognize the Beloved within us, within the people around us, and within the earth that sustains us. As God’s Beloved, Jesus redeems us by revealing and releasing the spiritual inheritance of our own Belovedness.

In the early 1980’s, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian and mystic, sat down with a young New York Times journalist named Fred Bratman. Bratman, a secular Jew, had been told that Dr. Nouwen might provide good material for an article. Thinking “potboiler,” but needing a story, Bratman traveled to Yale University where Nouwen served on the seminary faculty. After a tedious and uninspired interview, Nouwen said to Bratman, “Tell me, do you like your job?”

         “Not really,” said Bratman, “but it’s a job.”1

         What do you want to do? asked Nouwen.

Write a novel, said Bratman.

So do it.

I don’t have the talent.

Sure you do.

I don’t have time or money.

Excuses, said Nouwen.

Reality, said Bratman.

         Come here and write, said Nouwen. Yale loves artists-in-residence. I can make that happen.

         Eventually, Fred Bratman did go to Yale to write. He never finished a novel, but the two men became friends. After Bratman’s residence, they visited each other back and forth between New Haven and New York. Nouwen remembers feeling overwhelmed by the noise, the pace, and the angst of his friend’s harried and spiritually unattached big-city life. And Bratman apparently felt something genuine in Nouwen, something he trusted and to which he became willing to listen.

         During one of Nouwen’s visits, Bratman said, “Why don’t you write something about the spiritual life for me and my friends?”

         Like Bratman earlier, Nouwen balked. He had heard that request from friends and family who had left the church or who had never been, and didn’t want to be, associated with any religious tradition. And he had never been able to start that conversation.

“How [do I do that]?” Henri asked.

“‘Speak from that place in your heart where you are most yourself,” said Bratman. “Speak directly, simply, lovingly, gently, and without any apologies. Tell us what you see and what you want us to see; what you hear and what you want us to hear…Trust your own heart. The words will come.’”2

Nouwen eventually sat down and wrote a book for Bratman. And he recalled searching for a word that would remain as a kind of gift to those who had asked for the book. Referencing the story of Jesus’ baptism, he settled on the word Beloved. Nouwen had studied that word. He’d preached and lectured on it. And as he focused on it as a metaphor for spiritual practice, it took on new life. So, he titled his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

In the book, Nouwen tells Bratman that the phrase, “‘You are my Beloved,’ reveal[s] the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not…[and] my only desire,” says Nouwen, “is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved…’ Being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit.”3

It’s a brief but spacious book, full of grace and wisdom. And it missed the mark.

While Bratman did appreciate that his friend had written honestly and lovingly, the language presumed things alien to him. Failing to appreciate just how far apart their worlds were, Nouwen assumed that his readers would understand God language—how to hear it, how to speak it. And that’s where he lost Bratman and his friends.

Initially disappointed, Nouwen would learn that his book did have transforming effect on many who were familiar with the language of Belovedness. In fact, the book helped Nouwen become a kind of guide to many who wanted to follow Jesus more closely into the challenges and possibilities of a Beloved life.

Nouwen writes that even if Belovedness is a birthright for God’s children, truly becoming the Beloved requires practice. “Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do.”4

The life of the Beloved happens in the often-messy realities of incarnate existence. We become The Beloved by giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the refugee, clothing to those who are cold, grace to the enemy. We become The Beloved by seeking solitude and stillness in the world’s chaos, by living generously amid the world’s selfishness, and peaceably amid its violence. We become The Beloved by following Jesus—by living as he lived.

And brothers and sisters, that is the repentance of which both John and Jesus spoke.

So, may you be always aware of your own Belovedness, and the Belovedness of everyone around you.

And may you be always aware of Jesus, the universal and eternal Christ, guiding you from within and without.

1Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular Word. Crossroad Publishing, NY, NY, 1992. P. 10. (*All references to the relationship between Henri Nouwen and Fred Bratman come from this book. Only longer quotations are footnoted.)

2Ibid. p. 20.

3Ibid. pp. 26 and 37.

4Ibib. pp. 38-39.

From Darkness Toward Light (Meditation)

“From Darkness Toward Light”*

Isaiah 9:2-7

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Meditation for Blue Christmas Service

12/19/21

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
 (NRSV)

         On NC Hwy 221, south of the tiny community of Linville Falls, is an interesting natural feature called Linville Caverns. Like so many other caves in our region, it has stalagmites, stalactites, and a creek running with clear, cold water. Trout live in the waters of the creek. Having lived in that dark place for untold generations through untold eons, the trout are born blind. With their useless eyes, they swim in darkness just as surely as they swim in the water itself.

         Their “land of deep darkness” is a perpetual reality. Having never known anything else, they manage to move, feed, and procreate just fine without the aid of light. Indeed, should their eyes suddenly begin to work, they would probably become terrified and start swimming in frantically into each other, rocks, and the sandy bottom of the creek.

         To sighted human beings, darkness is often a metaphor for loss. It means the absence of joy, purpose, and hope. It conjures up images of evil, suffering, punishment, or death. For the ancient Israelites, darkness referred to the experiences of defeat and exile. It referred to the very real death associated with being separated from home, family, and familiar traditions.

         Many of the psalms of lament were written during exile. Psalm 137 is one such psalm of darkness. “By the rivers of Babylon,” sings the psalmist, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)

         When Isaiah speaks of the “people who walked in darkness,” it is of these very Israelites in exile, people whose individual lives and whose corporate life shared the same relentless grief, the same longing for hope and wholeness, the same desire for a return to the light.

         As Christmas approaches, the days get shorter and colder, and the nights longer and darker. During these days and nights, Christmas lights seem to grow on trees, houses, and fences. They are ubiquitous and bright, multi-colored and flashing. It’s as if they demand to be seen, and demand happiness. And for those of us who can’t summon happiness into our hearts or glorias into our throats, those lights create a bitter paradox: All that brightness only sends us into deeper darkness.

         I have to think that the writer of Psalm 137 had to feel something similar when he wrote his lament. I imagine him looking at his harp and remembering how much joy it had brought him and others, and how much power music has to lift spirits and open hearts. But when he looked at his instrument, once a source of vibrant light, he saw and felt only heaviness and despair.

         Here’s the thing though: There’s a difference between “people walk[ing] in darkness” and those blind-born trout in Linville Caverns. The difference is that the sightless trout have no memory of light, while the Israelites maintained clear memories of light and sight, of gratitude and hope. Memories of their holy belovedness. And those memories of light, memories that came to them through the ancient stories of Moses, Hannah, Ruth, David, and others, created tiny flickers of light that empowered their laments. I think that makes lamentation a gift because, at its heart, it’s an expression of one’s faith that a present, painful situation isn’t of God’s making. It’s a refusal to accept darkness as some kind of final, permanent state. Lamentation does take suffering seriously, and at the same time it declares that new light is coming because human beings are, and all of the Creation is, now and always, beloved by God. And it seems to me that darkness can have meaning because we have known and experienced light. And light—that is to say joy, peace, and hope—are God’s will for all of us.

         John confirms this when he speaks of Jesus as the one through whom light itself came into being in the universe. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)

         The darkness is real. Too often darkness even becomes a way of life for some of us. And yet we know it is darkness because we have experienced the light. We remember the light. The message of Christmas is that no matter what darkness comes, no matter how long it lasts, it does not have the last word. Light—God’s Light—will prevail.

Friends, God has not given us useless eyes. In both our heads and our hearts, God has given us eyes made for opening to the light, welcoming the light, both the light of day and the Incarnate Light, the Christ, who is coming into the world.

*I prepared this meditation for our “Blue Christmas” service. A health issue prevented me from sharing it, but the pastor who filled in for me read it. A Blue Christmas service is designed to provide comfort for those for whom Christmas is a more difficult than joyous occasion. If that is true for you, may God’s peace be real to you, now or sometime soon. AH

Christmas: A Paradox of Love (Sermon)

“Christmas: A Paradox of Love”*

Luke 1:46b-55

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Advent 4 – 12/19/21

Before reading today’s passage, let’s remember the context in which these words are spoken.

         A teenaged Mary learns that she will soon become the mother of a remarkable child. As the scene of the Annunciation closes, we hear Mary say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

         Most of us have been taught—and not without good reason—to hear Mary’s words as her humble surrender to God. When honest, we might also hear a young woman’s terrified submission to the demands of yet another male in a thoroughly patriarchal culture. In that case, Mary’s “Here I am” may sound like the gasping breath one takes before being thrown into cold water.

         In no way do I want to diminish anyone’s appreciation of this part of the Christmas story. It’s just that our world and Mary’s world are profoundly different from each other. Maybe that lack of understanding makes it inevitable that we romanticize the story of the Annunciation and gloss over the breath-taking scandal inherent in it.

         Think about it. The way Luke tells the story, Mary is a runaway teen. She leaves home, in haste, apparently alone, and goes to see an older relative, Elizabeth. Rather than the actions of a girl who is excited and grateful, Mary’s actions seem like those of a girl who feels overwhelmed, and not simply by an unplanned pregnancy, but by a pregnancy that has been imposed on her. She needs a loving, understanding, and non-condemning, feminine presence in her life.

         In Judea, Mary falls into Elizabeth’s wise and welcoming arms. And remember, Elizabeth is experiencing her own remarkable, late-in-life pregnancy. Because of that, she represents the fertility goddesses of an era that predates Abraham. Long before the patriarchy that characterizes first-century Rome, feminine images of God were the norm. God mothered humanity into spiritual awareness and healing.

         When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home, the Old Mother in Elizabeth awakens. With body, mind, and spirit fluttering to life, Elizabeth sings a song of thanksgiving. Then she utters a blessing on Mary. Only now, at this moment of mystical approval through Elizabeth, does Mary accept Gabriel’s announcement as good news. And her heart sings:

46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

                  48for he has looked with favor

                           on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will 

call me blessed;

49for the Mighty One has done

great things for me,

                           and holy is his name.

50His mercy is for those who fear him

         from generation to generation.

51He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

52He has brought down the powerful

from their thrones,

                  and lifted up the lowly;

53he has filled the hungry with good things,

         and sent the rich away empty.

54He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55according to the promise

he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 146b-55)

          One can almost see Elizabeth as she listens to Mary. Folding her old, thin-skinned hands in her lap, she wrinkles her brow and casts an embarrassed gaze to the floor. When Mary finishes, Elizabeth looks at the young woman with a tight-lipped, bless-your-heart smile.

         Mary’s song, you see, dives into territory reserved for men like Elijah and Elisha, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Mary’s song is full-blown prophecy. And such prophecy sounds out of place on the lips of a teenaged girl. But Mary has experienced transforming visitations, first from the angel, the in Elizabeth’s words. Everywhere Mary goes, God meets her there. From morning to evening, shore to shore, Heaven to Sheol, God is there for her and for the one being knitted together in her womb. Making peace with all of this, Mary embraces Gabriel’s announcement and Elizabeth’s blessing.

         As she accepts the gift, Mary speaks with clarity and authority. And like the child within her, that authority comes as a gift of grace. It comes through Mary’s willful struggle with and her willing acceptance of her call. Mary’s prophetic authority arrives in the midst of paradox.

         So it is with virtually all things spiritual. Scripture is full of paradoxical proclamations: The last shall be first and the first shall be last…Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise [and] what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Mary’s prophecy is all about the paradox of faith. It’s all about God’s ongoing work to displace violent power with transforming meekness. It’s all about God’s work to reveal the dingy gloom of shiny things that we think we own, but which almost always end up owning us.

         Paradox is about God’s aggravating truth that only when human beings learn to die do we begin to live.

         Paradox lies at the heart of all prophecy, because virtually all prophecy says, in one way or another, that things are not what they seem. Prophetic truth declares that eternal reality is being revealed in the transient, material stuff of the Creation. Fundamentalist theism and fundamentalist a-theism cannot tolerate all the gray space of paradox. They demand that all things be exactly as they seem. Maybe that’s what allows these fraternal twins—fundamentalist theism and fundamentalist a-theism—to traffic so freely in fear and hate. When one is certain that others are wrong, one will justify almost anything to protect the very things Mary sings about: pride, power, and wealth.

         Christmas, which cannot be divorced from Easter, declares the paradox of love. Christmas and Easter declare, with earth-shaking gentleness, the enduring mystery of grace. There is no such thing as earning or escaping the love of God. At Christmas, the true wealth and wisdom of the ages is born to a poor, uneducated, teenaged girl.

Well-to-do, First-World Christians have tried to undo the scandalous paradox of Christmas by connecting it to Black Friday instead of Good Friday. In doing so, we have managed to flip the paradox in our favor. We have allowed Christmas celebrations to ignore, or even to include the material wealth and the violent power that God comes not to safeguard, but to judge. Still, even when we corrupt our observations of Christmas, Christmas itself remains, well, immaculate. As Mary’s prophecy reminds us, Christmas still delivers God’s commitment to justice for all Creation.

         Here is the paradox of Love: Just as something in Mary must die before she lives into the new life stirring within her, we, too, are called to embrace, over and over, Christ’s life-renewing death. And we embrace that death by receiving with grace all that giving has to offer.

         Christmas is not under the trees in our homes. It’s under those trees out there, and in those wide-open spaces. It’s in classrooms and cubicles. It’s in alleys, and hollers, and barns.

I do wish a Merry Christmas to you. And even more so, I wish to all the world a Merry Christmas through you.

*This is the sermon I had prepared for Advent 4, 2021. Because of a health issue, I didn’t get to preach it. I’m sharing it anyway. AH

Desire of Nations (Newsletter article)

Dear Friends,

          To most people reading this, December means Advent and Christmas. Some also have birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or graduations in December. And for some, December holds sad memories, as well. Even with everything else that does or can happen in December, the last month of the year is still a time to prepare for (Advent) and celebrate (Christmas) the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

         Over the centuries, the Church has pounded away at one message above all others: Jesus “saves us from our sins.” While I don’t argue that, I do think that over-emphasis on an individualistic, reward-and-punishment interpretation of the Gospel can obscure—and even deny—its fundamental and profoundly transforming (i.e. saving) message: Salvation and wholeness for each of us means salvation and wholeness for ALL of us.

         If and when the message of the Gospel is used to close doors, hearts, and futures, we have learned nothing. More to the point, we have been unfaithful to all that God comes to say and do for the Creation through Jesus.

         In the third verse of the beloved Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”we sing these words:

O come, Desire of nations, bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife, and discord cease;

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

         “Envy, strife, and discord” tear at human community and at the earth herself. And as the “Desire of Nations,” Jesus draws us together. He creates the order of community out of the fear-splintered chaos of individualism and tribalism.

         We do experience and share “Heaven’s peace” of being “one [in] heart and mind,” and that does not happen by trying to make all people think just alike. It happens through all people learning to see, appreciate and to love the Christ in ourselves and in one another. 

         In 1985, the PC(USA) adopted a document written in 1977 and entitled A Declaration of Faith. The document was not added to our Book of Confessions, but was accepted as a “reliable aid” for the church’s preaching and teaching. That document includes this powerful passage:

         The diversity in the early church caused tension and conflict.  Yet the Spirit bound them into one body, enriched by their differences.  We know that the same Spirit gives us a unity we cannot create or destroy.

         The Spirit moves among us not to end diversity or compel uniformity, but to overcome divisiveness and bitterness.

         The Spirit leads us to struggle against the lines of race and class, the ambitions of competing parties, the loyalties to individuals and traditions that divide us.

         The Spirit impels us to make the unity of Christians visible to a divided world, and assures us that we shall be one. (A Declaration of Faith, Chapter 5, lines 70-87)

         There has never been a time when human beings did not experience dislocating division and fear. And our time is no different. It’s just our time. So, it is our responsibility.

         As Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, we are but one very small part of the Church Universal. We are, effectively, about 160 people strong. And we are as diverse as the culture around us. While that often challenges and strains us, it’s also one of the most important strengths of our congregation. The differences among us may cause us to disagree at times, and to disagree passionately, but we are still called and equipped to do amazing things. Realm of Christ things. Christmasthings. We continue to seek know, love and serve God, to make music, tell our stories, and to laugh—even if from safe distances or on Zoom. And we do these things both in spite of our diversity and in the midst of it.

         When we come together in fearless honesty about whom we trust and whom we follow, we come together as one body, bound by the Holy Spirit, revealing to the world what it looks like to be a place of Advent and Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

         It is never easy, but it is always holy.

                                    A Blessed Christmas to You All,

                                                      Allen

New Clothes for Christmas (Sermon)

“New Clothes for Christmas”

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/5/21 – Advent 2

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

 to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

8For I the Lord love justice,

I hate robbery and wrongdoing; 
I will faithfully give them their recompense,

and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge

that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to spring up before all the nations.  (NRSV)

         According to Luke, when Jesus is asked to preach for the first time at the synagogue in Nazareth, he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads the first verse-and-a-half of Isaiah 61, God’s magnificent promise of deliverance and renewal. Jesus follows the reading with a sermon that Luke sums up in one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-30)

         At first, the people stand in awe of Jesus. The hometown boy seems to have made good for sure. Things change quickly, though, when Jesus interprets Isaiah’s words. He recalls that two of God’s most memorable prophets, Elijah and Elisha, tended to a Gentile widow and a Gentile leper before tending to Jews. In this memory, Jesus exposes that which is most utterly true about God: When the Spirit of the Lord moves, the initial beneficiaries are not necessarily those who consider themselves blessed and favored, but rather those who are most vulnerable. God acts first on behalf of the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or even religion, these are the ones whose “descendants shall be known among the nations.” These are the ones whom the world will acknowledge as “a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

I hear Jesus saying that to the extent that Israel continues to remember that she was called out of bondage, not privilege, and to the extent that Israel continues to embody God’s concern for the powerless and the marginalized of the world, she maintains her role as God’s chosen witness. However, when Israel falls into bed with power, wealth, and violence, she allies herself with injustice and abandons her identity and her calling.

Now, let’s remember, while Israel does refer to a specific people and place, even more does Israel refer to those who intentionally “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

         The same is true for the church. When we commit ourselves to the way of the Christ, by following Jesus as Lord as passionately as we proclaim him Savior, we are his body. When we fall short of that calling, we compromise and weaken our body-of-Christ identity. We become tribal and shallow. We quit looking for the image of God in ourselves and each other, and we become obsessed with demanding “proof” of salvation by uttering prescribed religious phrases.

When we settle for a spirituality of rewards-and-punishments, our definition of beloved and called gets reduced to selfish concerns about who has earned what after death. We become impatient with the mysteries of grace. And we completely miss out on the joyful holiness of living as ones who, as God says to Abram, are blessed so that we might be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2)

         If the four gospels are accurate, it would seem that the leadership of first-century Judaism had abandoned Israel’s unique identity and calling. But let’s be gracious with them. Let’s acknowledge that living as Jews in first-century Rome was no picnic. As a whole, Israel was an oppressed people, and they desperately craved deliverance. They looked for God’s long-awaited messiah, and because of their situation, they looked for a military leader to deliver them from Rome. This was particularly true among the Pharisees who were also desperate to keep Jewish identity pure—free from all Gentile influence.

Returning to Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth: The theology of those who hear Jesus would have been shaped by the Pharisees’ teachings, so they’re offended when he reminds them of times when blessedness extended beyond the confines of Israel. Turning from friendly to fiendish, they herd the Good Shepherd toward a nearby cliff intending to throw him off it.

After slipping through their fingers, Jesus, instead of wilting and fading away, commits his life to fulfilling the gloriously disruptive prophecy of Isaiah 61. And he will not wear the fancy, gold-fringed robe of a Pharisee. As one who loves the Lord who loves justice, Jesus wears a very different wardrobe. He wraps himself in “the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” because God has clothed him with “the garments of salvation…[and] the robe of righteousness.”

         Given these images from Isaiah, whose prophecy Christians connect to Jesus and his Christ-revealing life, there’s little wonder that new clothes tend to be popular Christmas gifts. And if the clothing we give and receive actually reminds us of being clothed in Christ—a teacher of love and doer of justice—new clothes are entirely appropriate.

         Clothing has a long history as a metaphor for the spiritual life. The psalmist speaks even of God being “clothed with honor and wrapped in light as with a garment.” (Psalm 104:1b-2a) One of my favorite passages to read at weddings comes from Colossians 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive each other…And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:12-15)

         Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, peace, gratitude—these are the bridegroom’s garlands and the bride’s jewels. They are Isaiah’s garments of salvation. And such garments assume relationship with the Creation as well as the Creator. Our Christmas clothing is outerwear, not underwear, because salvation is our visible life, life in relationship with and for others. This does not mean that we try to encumber ourselves and others with some kind of homogenous, mind-numbing uniform. It means that we wear our Christmas hearts on our sleeve.

         Jesus declares the same thing when he says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this [love] everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35)

         Agape love is the fabric of the garments of salvation. To mix in the rest of Isaiah’s metaphors, love is the eternal and irresistible energy God uses to grow the fragrant and healing gardens of faith. When our lives embody the agape love and the redeeming justice of the Christ, we do more than talk about and wait for salvation. We experience it. We share it. To engage our faith actively and boldly is precisely what it means to wait upon the Lord. And isn’t that what Advent is all about?

         The promise of Christmas is this: When we gratefully offer ourselves to others, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon us. And even through the likes of you and me, the very heart of God may be revealed and fulfilled.

         Advent is the season of getting dressed for the arrival of the bridegroom. The table before us is our dressing room, our place of deliverance, renewal, and transformation.

And everyone is welcome here.

The Reign of Christ and the Missional Church (Sermon)

“The Reign of the Christ and the Missional Church”

John 18:33-38a

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Reign of Christ Sunday

11/21/21

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (NRSV)

         Pontius Pilate. Some see him as a kind of tragic/comic figure, hustling anxiously back and forth, wavering between the rabid crowd outside and the calm, inscrutable Jesus inside. This Pilate might actually prefer to let Jesus go.

         Others see him as just another scheming, egomaniacal autocrat who manipulates people and their fears in order to get what he wants while making the masses think that they are getting what they want.

         Because of John’s consistent view of what he calls “the world” and how it operates, the latter possibility seems more likely in the fourth gospel. Whatever the case, John makes it clear that the Roman governor is outmatched. It reminds me of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus advises his disciples to enter the world with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. (Matthew 10:16) And that seems to be the Jesus that John presents before Pilate.

         Why do your people want you dead? Pilate asks. Are you some kind of king?

         If you say so, says Jesus.  

         That’s like Moses standing at the burning bush and asking for some name to drop when he confronts Pharaoh. And Yahweh just says, Tell them that I AM WHO I AM sent you.

         I can imagine Moses saying, Gee, thanks. That’s really gonna spook the old boy, isn’t it?

         When Pilate asks a direct question, the Johannine Jesus—who, throughout his ministry, echoes God’s words to Moses saying: I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, I am the way, the truth, and the life—gets all cagey and mysterious. How does that help him further the work of his “kingdom”?

         The very idea of kingdom creates problems. When hearing the word king, iconic images come to mind—over-the-top displays of power and wealth. Castles, feasts, and garish robes. And these things were defended not just by armies but by the principle of the divine right of kings. And if a king held office by God’s decree and with God’s blessing, he could do no wrong. When funded by fear—especially religious fear—power can turn large groups of people into flocks of violent sheep, sheep who seem to think they’re independent-minded guard dogs or something. That’s one reason many Christians today avoid the term “kingdom of God,” preferring instead terms like the Realm of God, or the Household of God, or the Kindom of God (because we’re all kinfolk in the family of God).

         The words king and kingdom would have threatened Pilate. And he would know what to do with any challengers to the Roman government. He just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Jesus who leads his followers according to a very different drumbeat—the drumbeat of God’s eternal truth, a truth that does not bow to fear, or power, or money. And while the Pilates and the Caesars of the world canwreak havoc, they cannot, finally, control or defeat God’s truth, which is Alpha and Omega truth, original and ultimate truth—the truth of love over selfishness, grace over competition, compassion over apathy, justice over exploitation, forgiveness over vengeance.

         That’s probably why Pilate says, “What is truth,” then leaves before Jesus can answer. Pilate seems to know that if he tries to argue with Jesus on the nature of truth, he has no answer for love. Any leader who is guided by love, any leader who has the strength to lead with a heart for the people whom he or she governs will have far greater influence than one who leads by threat of violence.

Overcoming humankind’s addiction to violence is one of the great projects of any community committed to God’s truth. I think that’s why Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” because if it were, he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…”

         The realm of the Christ cannot be established and maintained through the means of worldly kingdoms—through sword and shield, rifle and bomb, pride and fear, dollars and ownership. And trying to force Jesus’ realm on anyone almost always destroys their desire to enter it. One enters the here-and-now realm of God by intentionally living for the well-being of neighbor and earth.

         Reign-of-Christ living is a day-to-day thing. We can live in love for God’s Creation one minute and cast stones the next. That’s the challenge and the beauty of the Christ’s realm: It’s not subject to our whims or even our acknowledgment. And we constantly slip in and out of it. Even when we have been out of it for some time, it’s always as close as our next act of compassion or justice toward another, or someone’s similar kindness toward us.

         Jesus concludes his earthly ministry in the same place he begins it—with a proclamation of and an invitation to the kingdom of God. Remember, after his baptism and trials in the wilderness, Jesus reappears preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

         Turn, says God’s Christ. Turn and see your neighbor and the earth through my eyes, the eyes of fear-shattering love, and you will live a new life, because you will inhabit this world from an altogether different realm.

Learning to live in the Realm of Christ is our mission.

         In the early chapters of his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren offers a critique of every mode of Christianity that accommodates itself to Caesar. The first chapter is entitled “Why I Am Missional.” And in this chapter, McLaren builds his understanding of “missional” around a bit of wisdom shared with him by a mentor he doesn’t name. That person told McLaren that “in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefit it brings to its nonadherents.”1

         Think of Abram. God calls him to a missional life saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…” (Gen 12:1-3)

         Inasmuch as God’s creatures, wherever and whoever we are, strive to live as blessings upon the rest of Creation, we inhabit and reveal the Household of God. This is what it means for us to live under the Reign of Christ.

         There’s an irony here: While we do not find our true home in any worldlykingdom, finding our home in God’s kingdom does indeed happen in this world. It happens in everyday relationships when we choose to live as blessings.

         This Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving. Giving thanks is only half of recognizing and receiving God’s blessings. The other half of full-fledged gratitude is sharing the benefits of God’s goodness with the rest of God’s good Creation.

         As a missional church, we are called live for the sake of others and the earth. And when we live this way, we do, in truth, live under the gracious, trustworthy, eternal Reign of Christ.

1A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004, p. 121.

Endings and Beginnings (Sermon)

“Endings and Beginnings”

Mark 13:1-8

Alen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/14/21

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (NRSV)

         Mark and Luke both preface Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple with the story of the widow’s two-cent offering to the temple. That juxtaposition creates a disconnect. In one breath Jesus commends a widow for her financial sacrifice, and in the next he says that the temple’s days are numbered. So, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for Jesus to have told the woman, Ma’am, keep your money; you need it more than the temple does?

         Shortly after Jesus reveals the news about the fall of the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew come to Jesus in private and ask when all of this will happen. And Jesus opens up about would-be messiahs, about wars, about tensions and military posturing between nations, and about earthquakes and famines.

         Such predictions don’t seem all that insightful, do they? When has the world ever been turmoil-free? And doomsayers thrive on predictions of utter and final destruction. This seems especially true for Christian doomsayers—and shouldn’t Christian doomsayer be an oxymoron for Resurrection people? If I were to preach doomsday theology, I would be projecting onto God my own faithless fears and judgments. For some twisted reason, though, doomsday preaching is extremely profitable.

         But I digress; besides Jesus has a surprise in store. After all of his dire warnings, he turns to his disciples and says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

         While that phrase sits in a grim shadow, it sits there as a kind of glowing coal, and Jesus represents the ruach, the pneuma. His words and actions become the very Breath of God on that smoldering, two-cent ember of hope.

         What gives a poor widow and God’s despised Messiah the faith to give their all to an institution and a Creation that appear on the verge of collapse? To embrace and embody the trust that God can craft beginnings out of endings takes a fresh awakening to God’s redeeming presence which is already at work in the world. Through its own fear, greed, and love of violence, humankind brings countless endings on itself, and it takes a Resurrection mindset to grasp that the God of nevertheless-grace can transform those endings into raw materials for new hope and unimagined peace.

         It can be a fearsome task to face these endings. And while fear usually feels like a sure thing, it’s only the sterile delivery room of religious certainty, of “reasonable” despair, and of every self-serving idolatry. As the opposite of fear, faith is the stable of trust, that compost-rich barn in which God is birthing the New Creation.

         Jesus demonstrates unyielding trust in God. And it seems to me that he trusts God to be a verb, not some static, bearded, white-robed noun. I think we get the truest sense of God when we behold God as the very energy behind, before, and within all things. I get that from First John who writes, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 4:16) God is the very activity of abiding love, the activity of creation and re-creation at work in the universe. God is the flow of the river, the rush of the wind, the hot gurgling of the volcano, the heave of the laugh, the fall of the tear, and the joyous interplay and fertile cooperation among religions.

         In his essay, “Another Turn of the Crank,” Wendell Berry writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe,” says Berry, “that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation…with God.”

         As Love, God allows even the most revered institutions to crumble like sand castles at high tide. And they fall because their familiar and comfortable ways, as constructive as they may have been, now do more to conceal than to reveal God’s new and emerging work.

         And there’s the rub: Revelation. Bringing to light. The story of Jesus’ foretelling the destruction of the temple appears in a section of Mark which scholars call The Little Apocalypse. And while apocalyptic literature may have been hijacked by doomsayers and other fear-mongers, it was never intended to announce God’s retribution or some furious Armageddon. Apocalyptic literature is all about revealing the wholeness of God which comes, necessarily and usually primarily, through justice. Mishpat, the principle Hebrew word for justice, refers to bringing fairness, equity, and wholeness to those who have been ignored and exploited by those who hold privilege and power. Because every human being bears the image of God, mishpat means recognizing the full humanity of those who have been marginalized and abused. It also means caring for the entire Creation the way we care for our church buildings because the earth itself is the first incarnation of the Creator and the original holy text. (Romans 1:20)

         Recently, I watched some old interviews with (the now former) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Along with Nelson Mandela and others, Tutu helped to bring mishpat to South Africa. And the first step of bringing God’s holy justice was bringing an end to the openly and violently racist system of Apartheid. The process of ending something as horrific as institutional racism requires apocalyptic speech and action, speech and action that reveals prejudice, resentment, and hate as destructive because it is antithetical to God—who is love. And when the Apartheid stones had fallen, things got even more deeply apocalyptic for both black and white South Africans.

         Instead of taking advantage of the situation, Tutu led all of South Africa in a process of restoration. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, black victims and white perpetrators of Apartheid injustice were given the chance to tell their stories—to reveal the afflictions suffered and the suffering inflicted. While the process was painful, and, perhaps, not altogether perfect, it gave that nation its best chance to discover new beginnings after old arrangements had come to an end.

         One of the most remarkable things Tutu said to black South Africans, especially to those who craved vengeance, was that when people dehumanize others, they inevitably, and perhaps just as thoroughly, dehumanize themselves. Be kind to the whites, said Tutu. They need you to rediscover their humanity.1

         Showing compassion to those who so recently had showed none would be a hard pill to swallow, yet such is the justice of God’s eternal Christ, the justice that seeks restoration not revenge, the justice that announces the birth pangs of something new even amid the lamentations of loss. Through such stubborn mishpat Resurrection happens, and fresh revelations of God’s holy realm begin to appear.

         May we have the gracious vision and wisdom to discern in all that seems to be ending, signs of God’s ongoing re-creation.

And may we have the faith, hope, and love to participate in that re-creation by committing ourselves, as Christ’s body, to working for the kind of apocalyptic justice Jesus makes possible through his life, death, resurrection, and ongoing return in and for the world that God so loves.

1A quick search on YouTube will connect you to many wonderful interviews with and speeches by Desmond Tutu. The particular quotation footnoted here can be heard in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV2LURTu3eQ

Prophetic Stewardship (Sermon)

“Prophetic Stewardship”

Luke 21:1-4

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/7/21

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (NRSV)

         I don’t relish preaching stewardship sermons. Like most pastors, I know that not everyone makes a formal pledge, and those who do usually prefer to pledge the same way that Jesus urges us to pray: In private. That’s not the way of Christian stewardship, though. What we do today is a defining, and sometimes a defiant act of communal and sacramental faith.

One significant role model for us is a nameless widow who makes a four-verse appearance in Luke, and the same in Mark. As a widow in first century Jerusalem, this woman’s presence in the temple stirs the air about as much as a falling leaf. But she floats into the clutter and ruckus of Passover, and whispers her two-cent blessing­—barely a trifle against the temple’s budget.

Giving out of abundance is one thing, but giving out of poverty can be a prophetic act. I say “can be” because of how often wealthy televangelists take money from lonely people who can’t afford to give it, and then use that money to fund lavish lifestyles. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about giving that expresses a purer sense of gratitude, and a humbler trust in God who says, “my word…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Isaiah 55:11)

         Faithful temple leaders would commit significant resources to caring for people just like that widow. Over time, though, the religious community had developed a predatory appetite for wealth. Its leaders colluded with violent power to protect their hold on material privilege. So instead of caring for those who were at risk, they used their considerable influence to make people feel both vulnerable and beholden. Like many Christian leaders today, they wielded an angry and vengeful god in order to protect a status quo rather than truly proclaiming and demonstrating God’s love and justice.

         Another unmistakably Lukan attribute in this story is that the one whom the community is supposed to shelter and care for becomes the one who teaches the teachers about true gratitude and generosity. Jesus makes an enduring example of a woman who gives all she has to a broken institution.

         Look at this widow, says Jesus. She gives all she has to the temple in spite of its failures. She offers all she has not because of the community’s faithfulness to God, but because of God’s faithfulness to humankind.

         I hear Jesus saying that while the widow may give out of the scarcity of her pocketbook, even more does she give out of the abundance of her faith, hope, and love. Through some uncommon grace, she sees the presence of holiness in the Creation, and in spite of human failures, she can give to the temple because she has not given up on God.

         Another compelling thing about this story is that Jesus sees his own life reflected in the widow’s actions. Her gift to the temple anticipates Jesus’ gift to the creation.1 You, and I, and the Church can all be as selfish, power-hungry, and hurtful to one another as the temple leadership was to first century Jews. Nevertheless, for them and for us—a broken and beloved humanity—Jesus drops the two cents of his life into the offering plate of time. For his gracious efforts, his people arrest and execute him. They—We—abandon him. Nevertheless, Jesus empties himself in love for us and in praise of God. His one human life, among countless billions in human history, is a two-cent act of prophetic stewardship.

         Jesus and the widow invite us to pledge our own lives to that same prophetic adventure. To follow them is to live a nevertheless faith because yes, there’s much about us and our church that’s broken; nevertheless, we live and give in such a way as to declare our trust that God is present and at work even now redeeming and renewing the Creation. And isn’t that what Jesus refers to when he says, “Blessed are the poor”?

         For years, Jonesborough Presbyterian has supported Sunset Gap through our alternative gift fair, and since that ministry is not local, it’s probably the one with which we’re least familiar. So, last Wednesday, six members of our missions team traveled to Cosby, TN to visit Sunset Gap.

         Built in 1924 as a school and community center, Sunset Gap now focuses its efforts on serving the people of Cocke County, a county in the grip of widespread and persistent poverty.

Sunset Gap’s property straddles the Cocke and Sevier County lines, and when you stand on the high front porch of the main building, and look straight ahead, you look into Sevier County, where the road climbs up from a wooded hollow and curves to the right at the Sunset Gap’s front door. From that same porch, when you look left, you look into Cocke County. And right there, at Sunset Gap, the well-maintained Sevier County road gives way to Cocke County’s unmarked, pot-holed asphalt that rumbles and crunches through a landscape that looks like it should be many miles and border-crossings away from the consumeristic carnivals of Dollywood and Gatlinburg—which are only 15 minutes away.

         Sunset Gap is no longer a school, but it remains a PC(USA)-affiliated community center where—two cents at a time—food, clothes, school supplies, diapers, showers, laughter, and tears are shared with people living on the cusp of destitution.

         The people helped by the other ministries we support through the gift fair face similar challenges. And through September and October, you all gave nearly $6000 to help these neighbors. That’s fantastic! Thank you!

Against the unyielding need of the world, or even our region, $6000 may seem like two cents, but when we give, we give to God, who blesses, stretches, and adds other two-cent offerings from other givers. And God continues to ask us to remember and help those who cannot help themselves. And because they matter, every two cents matters.

         It reminds me of what Bob Hall from Family Promise said of your ongoing support: “It’s no small thing.” He said it twice. “Really. It’s no small thing.” Whether large or small, gifts given according to one’s ability to give, gifts given in faith, hope, and love, are no small thing. They make a difference far beyond the imagining of the giver.

         During stewardship season, the Session is not asking anyone to respond to all that’s right with Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, or to react against all that’s not so right about it. We’re trying to encourage all of us to live prophetic lives, lives that proclaim and demonstrate the holy nevertheless of faith.

         Whatever you pledge for the coming year, may you pledge in bold faith, prophetic hope, and generous love, to the broken people next to you, to the broken church around you, and to the faithful God within us all.

1Pete Peery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. “Homiletical Perspective,” pp.  285-289.