Christ or Mascot? (Sermon)

“Christ or Mascot?”

1Corinthians 3:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/16/20

 

After all the introductory niceties, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gets right to the point: “11It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” he writes. “12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Cor. 1:11-13)

I’m just riffing here, but maybe the Corinthians, as ancient Greeks, were so used to having a smorgasbord of gods to choose from, that every time things got difficult, they went looking for something more satisfying on the buffet. Paul was good, and some people stuck with him. But Apollos was smart and a great orator. And Cephas; that’s Peter’s Greek name. He was intense, and to the sophisticated folks of Corinth, he may have been something of novelty, relatable in a blue-collar, beer-drinking kind of way. Even Jesus seemed to be just another choice on the menu.

Lovingly distressed, Paul calls the Corinthians out for having grown so divided that they no longer experience, much less represent the body of Christ. Then again, the apostle does understand. “26Consider your own call,” he says. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1Cor. 1:26-28)

Paul challenges the Corinthians to understand that while the gospel may sound a bit ridiculous at first, it takes a deep, mature, and long-practiced spirituality of contemplation and service to embody it. And in the thirteenth chapter of this same letter, Paul writes one of his most insightful and memorable passages, the passage that ends with these words: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor. 13:13)

In our own day, Richard Rohr echoes that truth saying that we can never truly know God. We can only love God. And that’s all God asks.1 Paul urges the Corinthians to recognize that while they may be on the way to the beginnings of an inkling of that truth, they need to mature quite a bit further into agape love before it becomes their truth.

 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)

 

You all are messed up, say Paul, because your sippy cups are empty and your diapers are full. The church is not about you, or me, or Apollos. We’re all servants, co-workers on God’s farm. I planted and Apollos watered because a crop needs people to do both of those things. But when seeds go into the earth, they’re dead. The new life they receive and the growth they experience is a miracle only God can do.

        Jealousy and quarreling, says Paul, are signs of a community made up of individuals who live in constant fear that their familiar ways of thinking and being in the world will be questioned or contradicted. That fear launches a series of wrong turns. They turn away from love. They turn their energies of cooperation and trust into suspicion, judgment, and even aggression toward those who represent emerging viewpoints. And these reactions turn communities from havens of harmony into nurseries of resentment and conflict.

Let’s remember that Paul used to persecute Christians. He turned his Pharisaic fears into suspicion, judgment, and deadly aggression toward followers of Jesus. And now he nurtures and leads them as a Christian servant. Paul himself died, was buried, and given new life by God, in Christ. So, he has unique authority to say that when followers of Jesus look for hope and redemption in anything besides God’s Christ, they are seeking comfort in mascots.

Human cultures offer mascots by the thousands. Whether it’s a celebrity, a political affiliation, a theological absolute, a sport or team or athlete, a screened-in distraction, a substance to ingest or inject, or some means by which to impose our will on others, there is a pantheon of mascots and idols just waiting to be bought, sold, and coddled. We can claim to love them, but they cannot love us back. They can only seduce us. Love for a mascot is nothing more than addiction.

As immeasurably different as the first and twenty-first centuries are, much about human relationships remains the same. The Corinthians’ competing loyalties to Paul, Apollos, Peter, and God knows what else mirror the divisions we experience in our contemporary jealousies and quarrels. Human beings have always been driven by their obsessions with power and security. And through the eons human cultures have consistently relied on brutality and intimidation to achieve those ends. Since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313CE, the Church has fully participated in devotion to worldly mascots. And since misappropriated love is just another name for fear, the history of the Church has always included not only division, but destruction of things God creates and loves. As members of that Church, we must be able to confess that we have participated in and benefited from the Church’s fear-driven jealousies, quarrels, and power-grabs.

“Power is of two kinds,” said Gandhi. “One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than [power] derived from fear of punishment.”3

Gandhi wasn’t Christian, but there’s a mystic harmony between his words and 1Corinthians 13, Paul’s “love chapter.” I hear a similar harmony expressed today, again by Father Rohr when he speaks of the Universal Christ2, which is the embodied love of God in and for the world, a love that is not so small and petty a thing that it depends on our childish jealousies and quarrels to decide for whom and even through whom God can be at work.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be boldly different from while remaining lovingly engaged in the world around us. We’re called to be servants who have a “common purpose” even when we get sideways on details. Our common purpose as laborers in “God’s field” and on “God’s building,” is to receive and share the eternal love of the one who created and redeems us. We’re called to be a community of yeast, a ferment in the world according to Jesus’ ways of mercy, justice, and peace. We experience unity not by having all the same opinions, but by holding the inevitable tensions of living in community with love, which is “patient [and] kind…[which] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…[which] does not insist on its own way…[which] is not irritable or resentful…[which] bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things.” (1Cor. 13:4-7)

God, grant us the strength and the maturity of faith to live in love, to live humbly, honestly, and compassionately with one another, so that our life together witnesses to our shared conviction that we do, in all things and at all times, belong to and serve only you. Amen.

 

1https://cac.org/know-god-love-god-2018-01-19/

2Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Books, 2019.

3https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/78373-power-is-of-two-kinds-one-is-obtained-by-the

 

Salt, Light, and Love (Sermon)

“Salt, Light, and Love”

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Matthew 5:13-20

2/9/20

 

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

       Most scholars agree that Matthew wrote his version of the gospel in the years just prior to the destruction of the temple in 70CE. And he wrote specifically for the Jewish community. To understand Matthew’s purposes and approach, a reader needs to understand at least a little about the burdens that first-century Jews had carried for centuries.

        When the exiles returned from Babylon in 516BCE, they found Jerusalem laboring under Persian rule. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Judea. That led to a couple of centuries of Greek control. After more than four hundred years of repression, Jerusalem finally enjoyed an eighty-year run of relative autonomy under the Hasmoneans. Then, in 63BCE, Jerusalem fell to Rome.

        For the Jewish community, this painful history produced a persistent existential stress that created tremendous tension among those who had been told that they were God’s chosen people. So, by Jesus’ day, the unmolested glory of which the prophets had spoken since the days of Abraham was real only in dreams and poetry.

        Reflecting on today’s passage, Edwin Van Driel says that first-century Judaism lay awash in factions of competing opinions about how to live in relationship within the faith community and in relationship with Rome. The Sadducees opted for full cooperation. Survive by being good citizens of the realm. The Zealots, a rebel group, actively sought to take up weapons and fight Rome. The Pharisees were divided. Some sympathized with the Zealots, and others chose to sequester themselves in what Dr. Van Driel calls “the ghetto,” a Jewish sect in and around Jerusalem that tried to cut itself off from all outside influences and keep its Jewish identity as pure as possible.1 These divisions and competing loyalties defined the political/religious climate throughout the Jewish world.

        Into this turmoil, Jesus shows up saying to all Jews, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…the merciful…the peacemakers…[and] those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”

        “You,” says Jesus to the descendants of Abraham and David, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”

        While salt may lose its saltiness, and light may be hidden, Jesus affirms that the people to whom he speaks, regardless of how spicy or bland, bright or dim they may feel, are salt and light. They have God-given gifts. They have a story of suffering and redemption, a sacramental community, and a love-driven hope. Israel is called to enrich all of Creation with these gifts. That is what it means to be chosen and blessed by God.

        From reading and studying Jesus’ life and teachings, it seems clear to me that chosen-ness and blessedness have nothing to do with being individuals or nations that enjoy more health, wealth, and power than anyone else. Our own culture’s sense of entitlement to excess is a symptom of the theological fallacies of the prosperity gospel which preaches that worldly advantages prove God’s favor, and that one may justify virtually any means to ensure those so-called “blessings.” The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it simply cannot be harmonized with Jesus. From his Sermon on the Mount to all that follows, Jesus declares that the faith community’s proper relationship with political, economic, and social forces is one of loving and engaged prophecy. All too often the Church trades its prophetic relationship with the powers for one of symbiosis or laissez faire. All too often the Church sells its soul to the devil and climbs into bed with greed, vengeance, and violence.

        But that’s just such a thoroughly human thing to do, isn’t it? It’s so human to want to feel secure in and of ourselves. That’s the very point of Jesus’ own temptation. Even he struggles with the seductions of acquiring and controlling. So, when he preaches his challenging gospel of grace, we can trust that he knows what he’s asking of us. He may not let up on us, but he is always understanding and forgiving because he knows how hard it is to follow him. Doesn’t he even say that it’s like taking up a Roman cross?

        So, we can understand that when the Jewish people hear Jesus say that they are spiritual seasoning and illuminating hope for the world, he is complicating their already complicated life. They live in an environment in which politics and religion are all knotted up. According to Dr. Van Driel, here’s the fundamental issue: For the Jewish community, exile is not something of the past. Because it has lasted, in one way or another, for the last six hundred years, the people expect a military/political messiah.2 Indeed, few will be satisfied with anything less. They expect God’s kingdom to be a geopolitical reality, something they will have to achieve through great effort and at great cost. They expect another Moses, a charismatic leader who is faithful to the law, but this time one who is also brave, fierce, and victorious in battle.

        The new Moses Matthew presents is an uncredentialled Galilean rabbi declaring that God’s kingdom is a completely different kind of reality. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, isn’t a state built on military might and political domination. It’s a real, here-and-now gift, something God is already doing. And as an alternative community-within-the-community, it is being, and has always been revealed through people whose love for God and neighbor shines boldly in a hurting world, people who season their surroundings with mercy for the poor, justice for the voiceless, kindness for the enemy, and forgiveness for all.

        The teachings of Jesus do heal and redeem, but before they do that, they defy and disrupt. To Jews in the first century and Christians in the twenty-first century, Jesus is saying that God is doing a brand-new thing that requires an entirely new way of imagining God and of living faithfully as the people of God. At the same time, he affirms the law in its foundational simplicity—Love God. Love neighbor. To love as we are loved by God means to lay down our selfish fears and idolatries and to weigh every decision we make against the example of God’s love for us and for the Creation as that love is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That is to fulfill every letter and every stroke of a letter of the law.

        That is to live the life of blessedness,

        …the life of salt and light.

        …the life of ones whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.”

        …the life of grateful and generous inhabitants of God’s kingdom.

 

1Edwin Chr. Van Driel, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 333-337.

2Ibid.

 

 

Comfort of a Creed

w/m Allen Huff

©2020

 

Adam went to church most every Sunday

To thank his lucky stars for God above,

God helps those who help themselves, he heard the preacher say.

Now let’s sing a song of happiness and love.

 

In the parking lot a ragged man approached him.

Can you spare a buck for a piece of bread?

Adam stared right past the man disgusted.

I’ve got no change, so I’ll pray for you instead.

 

Chorus:

Oh, but all of us are hungry until all of us are fed.

Love is more than thoughts and prayers; it’s everything we share.

And compassion is the greatest gift to neighbor and to self.

We’re all in this together; if we share heaven, we share hell.

 

That night within a dream a thin hand beckoned,

Hollow eyes searched only to be seen.

To the sound of his own groaning Adam wakened.

In ceaseless tears he poured out all his grief.

 

He killed the fatted calf for familiar faces,

He gave to those deserving of a gift.

But when came the beggar dirty or the wino wasted,

He closed his heart and mind and clinched his fist. (Chorus)

 

Bridge:

In the morning at the mirror, Adam looked into his face.

He saw hunger in his own eyes and loneliness in his gaze.

He knew he’d starved himself when he denied his neighbor’s need,

And traded true religion for the comfort of a creed. (Chorus)

A Pattern for Living (Sermon)

“A Pattern for Living”

Matthew 5:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/2/20

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NRSV)

 

As statements of identity and purpose, the Ten Commandments get lots of attention. They’re simple and decisive. Do this. Don’t do that. They set clear standards for the Hebrew community, and several commandments apply universally. Honoring elders and categorically denouncing murder, theft, adultery, envy, and self-serving deceit are healthy for any culture.

That simplicity also becomes a weakness. Absolutes create a sense of certainty that always gets distorted into permission to make judgments God alone can make. When that happens, the Creator becomes small enough to fit inside the understanding of a creature. That reduces God to a god, thus breaking the first two commandments.

To me, public postings of the Ten Commandments can reflect a smug self-righteousness. When anchored in stone on courthouse walls, they declare a kind of divine right for judges and jurors. And judicial proceedings, whether civil or ecclesiastical, wander into dangerous territory when human participants feel entitled to such authority.

To be honest, I even wince when the Ten Commandments appear on church lawns. They can suggest to passers-by and would-be visitors, If you come here, expect grace to have limits.

Sure, we all make evaluations, judgments even. So, given the virtual impossibility of pure objectivity when faced with the reality not simply of evil and suffering, but of diversity in the world, how can we move toward something higher and more gracious?

In Matthew 5, Jesus utters one of the most memorable teachings found in any religion or philosophy. Strikingly different from the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes lay out a geography, a path along which spiritual travelers may learn to experience, trust, and follow God. And instead of imagining God as some enormous guy conducting surveillance from the clouds to see “who’s naughty and nice,” these eight statements reveal an indwelling God whom we know through our love for the Creation, not in our thoughts about God. As the Eternal Initiative for being itself, God desires for the Creation have always been blessing and holiness. Love and creativity, justice and righteousness—these and other gifts continually pour forth from God.

In their book The Way of Blessedness, Marjorie Thompson and Stephen Bryant say that the Beatitudes offer us “a way of life [and] a pattern of commitments”1 by which we deliberately enter and experience human existence as participation in God’s eternal outpouring of blessing and holiness.

A couple of general observations about the Beatitudes:

First, it’s illuminating that Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are those who keep the Ten Commandments. When viewing the world as ultimately governed by legalism and retributive justice, a person may still claim to be blessed, but that person almost always ties blessing to worldly possessions, advantages, and victories. Such things do have appeal, but the Beatitudes ask and offer something far deeper.

The Beatitudes, say Thompson and Bryant, “direct us to attitudes of mind and habits of heart that [shape] our actual way of being in the world.”2 So, the second observation: When read as Thompson and Bryant suggest, the Beatitudes are not individual proverbs. They describe an ongoing trajectory of spiritual development through increasingly challenging and transforming stages of experience, practice, and understanding. (Open a Bible to Mt. 5:1-12)

The journey of blessedness begins with poverty of spirit—with the acknowledgement that we are incomplete creatures who need the Creator. While this does involve confession of our human sinfulness, it also involves claiming the eternal image of God within us. In the tension between our confession and the assurance of God’s redeeming grace, we feel our alienation from something innate and fundamental to us.

We then lament that separation. Spiritual mourning can reduce us to despair that cries out, What’s the point? The point of our grief, though, is to open us to the rest of the Creation, which shares our alienation. In Psalm 8, the poet looks at the entire universe and asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God.” Then he joyfully declares humankind’s ordination as steward of all that God has created. Grateful reunion with all that has God-given being empowers us to live that courageous and generous blessing called meekness.

Hardly wilting violets, the meek claim and proclaim the unfailing strength of God’s love. When Martin Luther King, now an archetype of meekness, declared freedom for “all God’s children,” one could hear in his voice the hunger and thirst to share earth-inheriting righteousness with all things.

Righteousness blesses us with the understanding that vengeance, greed, fear, and violence empty us of our God-purposed existence. The reminder that God loves and desires fullness for all things turns us outward. When we recognize that we’re all in this together, only mercy can lead us further down the path of blessedness.

Mercy sears our minds and purifies our hearts. It cleanses us of self-righteousness. Mercy asks us to seek the well-being of others with the same passion with which we seek our own well-being. And we see God only when the Christ in us sees and embraces the Christ in others and in the earth.

Through God’s eyes, we see that all things are created to live in relationship to rather than in competition with each other. The Beatitudes, then, challenge us to think long and hard about our choices, and this stretches our first-world mindsets. For example, if my pension fund includes corporations that profit from war, human exploitation, and environmental abuse, am I really living a life of blessedness? Honestly, I avoid the question, so what does that say about my willingness even to experience poverty of spirit? How, then, am I following Jesus in working toward peace? And isn’t that the fundamental call of every disciple, every church?

At the pinnacle of blessedness, God’s saints speak truth to power and find themselves blessed with the strength to endure the subsequent intimidations and attacks. And those reactions are a sure and certain burden for disciples, because nothing threatens the holders of power and privilege like those who choose to live according to Jesus’ Beatitudes.

Here comes a turn: When disciples, having been faithful to God, find themselves under duress, they discover spiritual poverty all over again. While the process repeats, each passage through strengthens them for ever-deepening lives of blessedness.

Earlier, I expressed ambivalence about public postings of the Ten Commandments. Well, what could it mean if a church posted the Beatitudes on its lawn? It could be just another empty act of conspicuous piety. Then again, it could mean that the people of that congregation truly understand what it costs them, how it blesses them, and how it blesses the Creation for people of faith to participate in God’s continuous outpouring of grace.

Sign or no sign, may we commit ourselves to living as ones who are, like Abraham and Sarah, blessed to be a blessing to themselves and to all the world.

 

1Marjorie J. Thompson and Stephen D. Bryant, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. p. 19. This book is one in the spiritual transformation series, Companions in Christ.

2Ibid. p. 19.

Taking Up a New Life (Sermon)

Taking Up a New Life

Matthew 4:12-23

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/26/20

 

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (NRSV)

 

I’ve always struggled with the story of the call of the first disciples. It’s just feels too neat and tidy. Think about it: Simon, Andrew, James, and John aren’t sport fishermen. They’re not old men on a boat dock with more beer than bait. They’re meat fishermen. They’re businessmen on whom their families depend.

Like farmers, fishermen have developed a particularly close relationship with the natural world, with the forces of nature. They read the wind, the skies, the movement of the water, the changes of the seasons. In their bones, they feel the rise and fall of barometric pressure. They know how it affects the fish, where in the lake they’ll go, how deep they’ll be. Fishermen have to be able to build, or at least repair their boats and their nets. Their lives and livelihoods depend on attention to detail and fierce determination in the face of drought, flood, and those potentially life-altering storms that can sweep in from out of the blue on the Sea of Galilee.

The notion of such pragmatic, willful, independent-minded fishermen “immediately” dropping everything to follow a stranger who appears out of nowhere seems far-fetched to me.

Then again, as the unique embodiment of God, Jesus is himself a force of nature. So, maybe it makes sense to imagine Jesus’ presence as something the fishermen feel, something they respond to the way they respond to the unseen changes of pressure. As part of the Creative Mystery that is God, Jesus sweeps in like an unexpected storm, and the fishermen can’t ignore him.

When Jesus says Follow me, his words seem to hit the two sets of brothers like a header—a gust that comes at a sailboat from the opposite direction of the wind that’s currently pushing the boat forward. The fishermen, then, have to adjust course, or else drop sail and row back home. What they can’t do is to try to fight Jesus. He’s more than a storm, more than ripples on the surface above a school of fish. He can’t be read that easily. The fishermen will also learn that Jesus is more than a boat. They will never steer him in a direction they want to go.

To follow Jesus, Peter and his fellow fishermen have to give themselves over to this brand-new, life-altering presence, this unexpected phenomenon that lies beyond their control. To move in a new direction, they’ll have to take up a whole new way of life.

While considering that, let’s remember that Jesus himself has already done a similar thing. In the previous chapter of Matthew, John baptizes Jesus, and after the baptism, a voice declares to all with ears to hear that Jesus is God’s beloved and most pleasing son. As soon as Jesus begins sailing forward on this magnificent wind of holy purpose, a header sweeps in and throws Jesus into turmoil.

In the wilderness, he realizes that:

He could use his unique identity and gifts for his own benefit.

He could live a life of self-serving privilege.

He could manipulate people with celebrity status.

He could rule the world through violent power.

Jesus resists the temptations to do as most people—and as every nation—would do in that situation. Then, right after the abstract visions of his temptation, things get concrete and personal. Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned for doing what prophets and prophetic communities do: He has spoken truth to power. In challenging Herod, John publicly interjected the ethics of his spirituality into the political life of Jerusalem.

John’s imprisonment is another header in Jesus’ sail. And when it hits, Jesus rows back home to Galilee. To me, this return feels like a spiritual retreat, a time during which Jesus steps back to contemplate how the fundamental force of God’s nature—the wind, the breath, the Spirit—is shaping the direction of his own journey. According to Matthew, Jesus begins to live the life of one who has taken his baptism seriously. He lives the life of what Donald Messer called a political mystic, someone who, grounded in faith, hope, and love, engages everything about the Creation. As a practicing and faithful Jew in the prophetic tradition, Jesus’ life is one of mishpat and tzedakah, the foundational Hebrew concepts of justice and righteousness. And wherever mishpat and tzedakah are compromised, whether in the faith community or beyond, Jesus gets involved, and he calls his followers to join him. The disciples have to learn that lesson, and they don’t learn it willingly, or quickly, or completely.

Peter seems to be everyone’s favorite disciple, and probably because he’s the disciple about whom we know the most. We watch his journey begin with his seaside call. And it becomes a very human journey, a journey of eagerness and evasion, a journey of loyalty and betrayal. We’re all in the same storm-rocked boat with Peter, trying to live into a new way of life, a Jesus way-of-life, a life that is both humble and bold, fiercely honest and fearlessly compassionate, constantly prayerful and continually engaged with God’s beloved world on behalf of all that is vulnerable, taken for granted, and exploited.

Our call as Christians and as a Christian community is to take up that new life, the life of disciples who are neither ashamed, nor afraid, nor perfect. As disciples of Jesus, we are always in the presence of the one who calls us, teaches us, empowers us, guides us, and redeems us.

And the goal of the life of discipleship isn’t “going to heaven when we die.” The other side of death is the realm of the one who is more gracious than our minds even want to imagine.

The goal of the life of discipleship is the kingdom-revealing, world-altering witness of love, gratitude, and generosity, the witness of mishpat and tzedakah, we leave behind.

Come and See (Sermon)

Come and See

John 1:43-51

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/19/20

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?”

Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (NRSV)

        Tony was a member of my first congregation in Mebane, NC. He was a gentle and soft-spoken fellow—a great outdoorsman who especially loved fishing. When the stripers were running in Jordan Lake near Chapel Hill, Tony would go to work with his boat in tow. At quitting time he’d drive down to the lake and catch fifteen or twenty big fish.

       The next Sunday Tony would tell me about it and invite me to come with him. If possible, I’d meet him at the plant where he worked and throw my stuff in his truck. We’d drive down to the lake and launch his boat. Tony would set two lines to troll way off the back of the boat and two downriggers to run deep beneath it. Then he’d turn on the fish-finder, and we’d chug slowly around the lake, watching, waiting, talking, and eating junk food while the sun shattered into glitter on the surface and ripples lapped lazily on the bottom of the boat.

        In all the times I went fishing with Tony, I caught one fish. Every other time that a downrigger popped up—which was exactly two times—I hauled in a three-pound hunk of waterlogged wood! To make things worse, when Tony took me along, even he caught nothing. Then, three days later, he’d go back by himself and catch more fish.

       I don’t know why my fishing luck has been mostly bad luck, but I do know this: When Tony invited me to go to the lake with him, he went out of his way to share with me an activity in which he found joy. By including me in his bliss, he bore witness to the excitement and the peace of fishing. There’s the rub. Fishing was the only guarantee; catching was merely a possibility.

        I don’t know, maybe God just wants me to enjoy the Creation with nothing more than a camera in hand. And that’s fine…when I’m not fishing.

       We’re currently in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a word which means “revelation.” Fred Craddock said that “Revelation is never open and obvious to everyone, regardless of their current state of interest or belief. There is always about [revelation] a kind of radiant obscurity, a concealing that requires faith to grasp the revealing.”

       “There is always a kind of radiant obscurity” to the revealing of holiness. Maybe it’s sort of like dropping a hook into a lake, or a river, or the ocean and knowing that whether or not a fish strikes, there are fish in that water. The radiance is in the simple gratitude of being where fish are.

        It seems appropriate that the first disciples Jesus calls are fishermen. Who better to have a sense of the holiness of the possibility of encountering holiness than fishermen who have been caught by the excitement of the possibility of the excitement of catching? (How’s that for radiant obscurity?)

       In today’s story, Philip utters the Johannine invitation to Nathanael: “Come and see.” Jesus spoke those words earlier to John and his disciples. Appearing in several places throughout the fourth Gospel, “Come and see” are words of witness. They’re a call to the possibility of encountering the radiant obscurity of God’s presence. And while witness to God is tied intimately to God’s revelation, the two are distinct. Witness, the casting of lines and nets, is our work. Revelation, the opening of the heart, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through our witness of faithfully doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, we can create situations and conditions in which we and others become open to recognizing the ongoing revelatory work of God.

       There are times, however, when, consumed by challenges, fears, and the inevitable uncertainties of faith, we experience God as something more obscure than radiant.

       A uniquely sophisticated gospel-writer, John introduces us to individuals that the synoptics do not. And he uses these folks with creative intention. In John, just as the Son is always deflecting attention toward the Father, these characters represent entities beyond themselves. Nathanael is a good example.

       In John’s imaginative hands, Nathanael represents all of Israel, past and present. Crouched beneath a fig tree, Nathanael reminds us of Adam and Eve trying to hide their nakedness after having eaten the forbidden fruit, or Peter hiding behind his certainty that his messianic expectations and God’s Messiah will match perfectly. Our human selfishness makes continual Come and Seeinvitations necessary.

       Beneath that fig tree, Nathanael is no more hidden from Jesus than Adam and Eve are hidden from God. And Jesus not only sees Nathanael, he sees in him “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” That is a moment of revelation that witnesses like you and me can’t create on our own. Seeing Nathanael through the eyes of love, through the depth-finder of grace, Jesus isn’t dissuaded by Nathanael’s sarcastic question, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus sees straight into the holiness of the image of God within Nathanael. Affirmed and loved, Nathanael dives into an overt profession of faith. His confession happens much quicker than Peter’s confession. Even Jesus seems surprised.

       You’re on board already? Hang onto your hat, says Jesus, you haven’t seen anything yet.

       In verse 51, John switches the pronoun “you” from the singular to the plural. At this point, John’s Jesus is addressing not just Nathanael, but all of us, and the image Jesus uses recalls Jacob’s dream at Bethel.

       In that story in Genesis, Jacob—the scoundrel who will, after wrestling with God at the River Jabbok, be named Israel—sleeps with a rock for a pillow. During a dream, he sees that God has chosen him for holy things. Through Jacob and his family, all the earth will be blessed. Jacob’s life, imperfect as it is, becomes a Come and See life, a life of witness to the revelation of God.

        Jesus calls Nathanael, and us, to the same witness—a witness to God’s vision which sees more than the future. God’s vision sees the glorious possibilities of today by seeing through the selfishness of the Adam, Eve, Jacob, and Nathanael within us. The Christ, however, who is also within us, is the fish beneath the surface of the lake. The Christ within us and within the Creation around us is our glimpse of the Kingdom’s radiant obscurity.

       We are called, then, to live a new life, a life of witness and vision. A Come and See life. We live that life at the lively and tension-wrought threshold where the Creation and the Kingdom meet. We’re like fishermen living on the shore where the heights of the firmament and the depths of the waters meet. It’s a place of joyful witness because it’s a place of relentless possibility, profound risk, and eternal hope.

       It’s not for me to make promises, but does anyone want to go fishing?

Humility: The Source of True Justice (Sermon)

“Humility: The Source of True Justice”

Isaiah 42:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/12/20

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

     my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

     he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2He will not cry or lift up his voice,

     or make it heard in the street;

3a bruised reed he will not break,

     and a dimly burning wick

          he will not quench;

     he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4He will not grow faint or be crushed

     until he has established justice in the earth;

     and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord,

     who created the heavens and stretched them out,

     who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

     who gives breath to the people upon it

          and spirit to those who walk in it:

6I am the Lord,

     I have called you in righteousness,

     I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

     I have given you as a covenant to the people,

         a light to the nations,

7to open the eyes that are blind,

     to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

     from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8I am the Lord, that is my name;

     my glory I give to no other,

          nor my praise to idols.

9See, the former things have come to pass,

     and new things I now declare;

          before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (NRSV)

       Isaiah 40 begins what is almost universally recognized as “Second Isaiah.” And it opens with words that are commonly read and, thanks to George Frederic Handel, sung during Advent: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The prophet proclaims these words to a community that has been defeated, humiliated, and scattered by Babylon.

        A homiletics professor named Richard Ward says that Second Isaiah enters the scene “to stand with the people in the space where a center used to be.”1 He comes to refocus Israel, to lead them toward a God-drenched memory so that they may envision a future of renewed hope and renewing purpose. According to Second Isaiah, the center is Yahweh, and only in Yahweh can Israel rediscover her identity as the people through whom God has chosen to reveal righteousness and to do justice in the Creation.

        While prophecy can be hard enough to proclaim, it’s almost always harder to receive. And when that prophecy offers hope to a people broken and demoralized by the injustices of others, a prophet struggles to find willing listeners, especially when that prophet, like Second Isaiah, is trying to declare God’s justice. The exiles may have considered this prophecy suspect because it proclaimed that holy justice would come through the work of one who “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; [one who will not break] a bruised reed [or quench] a dimly burning wick.”

        It seems to me, and unfortunately so in my opinion, that fewer and fewer people expect or want humility in their leaders. Exiles who have been vanquished and disgraced are not looking for a meek and mild deliverer. And when people who are used to privilege and authority feel their dominance threatened, they’re not eager for leaders who appear accepting and generous. When people are either in chains or in charge, they often want a justice that looks more like hostile revenge or self-righteous supremacy than anything associated with humility.

        Into a world addicted to hostility and self-righteousness, God sends a prophet to say, “Here is my servant…I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And the nations will know this servant by his humility—by his quiet voice and gentle ways.

        Who is the servant? Biblical scholars have wrangled over this question for millennia. Is it King Cyrus of Persia who eventually vanquished Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem? Is it Israel herself? Is it Jesus of Nazareth, as Matthew 12 claims by quoting Isaiah 42? A contemporary scholar named Paul Hanson suggests another angle on the question. Instead of associating the servant with a particular person or community, Hanson says that Second Isaiah is challenging his audience to reflect “on the nature of the response demanded of those who have received a call from God.”2 We’re all The Servant, he says.

        In the opening verses of today’s reading, Second Isaiah says, “Here is my servant.” Then, the prophet changes the pronoun: Here are you.4 “I have called you…I have taken you by the hand…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon…” God calls all of us to live as servants who “faithfully bring forth justice,” and who do so humbly, non-violently, and without calling undue attention to ourselves.

        The justice to which Second Isaiah refers is not retributive justice because God’s justice cannot be imposed through punishment or payback. Having to do with invitation rather than obligation, it can’t be forced in any way. God’s justice is grace, so it’s a gift. Over the generations, some have connected the embodied grace described in Second Isaiah to the humble and Creation-altering ministry of Jesus so closely as to call the book of Isaiah “The Fifth Gospel.”3 (Calling it the first might seem more appropriate, though.)

        As Christians, we do see Jesus’ ministry following the spiritual ethic laid out by Second Isaiah. And now Jesus calls and empowers us to continue the work of humble, servant-hearted prophecy in and for the Creation. The trouble is that we live in very loud, scream-on-the-street-corner times when bruised reeds are exploited and cast aside, when dimly burning wicks are snuffed out and forgotten. In these times, loudness and brutality are not only tolerated, they’re encouraged, even praised. In all times, however, the call of a true servant is to speak kind and edifying words, to help and to heal those who have been damaged by this world and its relentless selfishness and violence.

        How do we do that? Especially as privileged people, how do we re-center ourselves so that we can hear and then desire to speak truth and grace into the midst of cruelty, arrogance, fear, and most difficult of all, into self-serving religion that regards the temporal privileges of power as divine blessing?

        The first four verses of today’s reading constitute the first of a series of four passages known as the “Servant Songs.”5 They’re intended as liturgical resources for a community in exile. They’re songs to be sung as centering prayer, as ways to remember an identity and to equip worshipers for prophetic action. “Songs,” says Richard Ward, “express the hopes and aspirations of social movements for renewal and liberation. It is difficult to think of a movement that does not sing itself into transformation. The pulse and rhythms of a song in performance arise out of the spirit of the movement, but they also give it stability and inspiration.”6

       It’s easy to understand why songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land” have become anthems of awareness. Groups rallying against all odds have used them to proclaim that true justice and lasting peace come not through preparedness to injure and dominate others but through a humble yet fierce willingness to engage, share, and to heal and be healed.

       To affirm our faith this morning, we’re going to use a simple, fourteen-word verse from the epistle of James (4:10): Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. Youth groups and churches have been singing these words for decades as a centering prayer. Now, remember, while our voices do the singing, the words are scripture. So, they are God’s word to us. Each of us individually and all of us together are the thyself of whom we sing.

        Let’s also remember that the lifting up by God is not a promotion to worldly glory and privilege. It is God calling us to a new and renewing life, the humble and humbling life of servants in, with, and for all that God has created and all that God loves.

 

1Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 219.

2Stephen A. Paulsell, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 220.

3Jennifer Powell McNutt, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 220.

4Ibid.

5Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-7, and 52:13-53:12

6Ward, p. 221.

 

The Kingdom as Neighborhood (Sermon)

“The Kingdom as Neighborhood”

John 1:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/5/20

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (NRSV)

      The message of Genesis 1 and 2 is that God is the generative force behind the universe. Everything, animate and inanimate alike, derives from the willful act of the one whose essence is creativity, love, and relationship. The metaphor the ancient storyteller uses for God’s creative process is speech. The eternal energy that precedes imagination and thought hums, vibrates, and eventually explodes into an incarnate reality, aq unified voice, a uni-verse. God speaks and water, earth, wind, and fire tumble forth: “Let there be light…let the dry land appear…let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…let us make humankind in our image…”

        As people of faith, we look within and without and make the conscious decision to trust that the Creation, fraught as it is with violence glorified and suffering ignored, is still a magnificent wonder. As the Psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” (Ps. 19:1-2) To affirm God’s presence is to proclaim that the Creation has purpose, and if it has purpose, then all that has being must be connected. God is the invisible connective energy at work in the Creation. To bring all things together, God creates community, possibility, and love-actioned hope.

        In his paraphrase, The Message, Eugene Peterson rendered John 1:14 this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”The term neighborhood can be applied to far more than streets lined with houses inhabited by people, pets, and possessions. Anywhere that created things exist together in cooperation, contrast, and even conflict are neighborhoods. Our bodies are neighborhoods. Congregations are neighborhoods. Forests are neighborhoods. Rivers and lakes are neighborhoods. Oceans are the largest neighborhood subdivisions on the earth’s surface. Beneath the atmosphere, the earth itself is a neighborhood; and beyond it, our solar system is a neighborhood.

        “What has come into being in [Christ],” says John, “was life, and the life was the light of all people.” As life and light, Jesus comes to scatter all the neighborhood-crushing darkness, all the selfishness, fear, and greed that not only seem to be constantly trying to disrupt God’s creative purposes in the world, but that always seem to be gaining an upper hand.

        Increasingly, humankind does seem hellbent on denying its interconnectedness. Families, communities, and nations are choosing to close ranks and reject kinship with other families, communities, and nations. We’re choosing to define ourselves by skin color, national origin, language, religion, political opinion. We’re choosing to see those outside our subjective boundaries as other, as villains against whom we must strive, and whom we must defeat. We’re even choosing to reduce God to a tiny, vindictive, human-imaged idol who, we say, is on “our side,” as if God could actually be “against” anything that God creates and loves. Our self-inflicted chaos destroys community and condemns us to death and darkness. So, says John, God sends Jesus to reveal God’s heart, to declare that God’s desire and intent for the Creation is life and light, connection and neighborliness.

        While John wrote his gospel long before our New Testament canon was established, he also wrote it well after all the other canonical gospels and epistles were written. When he begins his version of Jesus’ story, he specifically connects the Jesus narrative to the beginnings of Creation in Genesis, and to the beginnings of the Jewish community in Exodus. To me, this says that the scriptures, laden as they are with conflict and contradictions, create a kind of neighborhood. The stories and teachings say and mean the most when we read them in the context of the whole, and specifically in the context of foundational utterances such as: Love God. Love neighbor. Do justice. Follow me. Jesus’ own life says and means the most when we understand it as a presence in and for all of Creation, from its light-drenched inception about which we are continually learning, to the future about which we can’t really know anything, to the present in which we live as momentary stewards.

        In his version of the Gospel, John acknowledges and distinguishes between the light and the darkness in Creation. And the two words he uses are Logos, the Word, and kosmos, the “world.” For John, the kosmos is eternally beloved by God, but it’s also a neighborhood in need of redemption. So, God sends the Logos, but not to condemn the kosmos. Jesus, the Logos, enters the Creation to declare the Creator’s love for all things. Jesus’ work as the bringer of light and life is the work of restorative justice. He comes to set us on paths of prayer, empathy, and loving action for the sake of neighbor and earth.

        In talking about John the Baptist, John the Evangelist says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…He himself was not the light, but he came to witness to the light.” As ones who claim to follow Jesus, our calling is to live as grateful and humble witnesses to the light. None of us do that perfectly, but to commit ourselves to living as witnesses to the Logos in the midst of the kosmos is, as John says, “to become children of God.”

        When talking about the importance of being children of God, doing justice, and demonstrating neighborliness, one person comes immediately to my mind. Few contemporary people have more publicly and gently lived and shared the Johannine vision of the kingdom of God than Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers held to and literally broadcast a vision of God’s holy intervention of the Logos into the kosmos, and he did so without condemnation and spite.

        Said Mr. Rogers: “I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”2

        To me, that statement of faith is a beautiful reiteration of John’s theology of the Logos, in particular, the great affirmation of John 3:17: “God did not send the (Logos) into the (kosmos) to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

        The work of the children of God in the kingdom of God is the work of neighboring one another in the name of Christ. Our purpose is to live by the light and love of the Logos in the midst of a kosmos that always needs to be reminded of its Belovedness.

        What are your gifts for bearing witness to the Life, for reflecting the Light of God’s creative and redeeming presence? Our particular gifts reveal God’s purposes for our lives. They teach us that as children of God we are blessed to be blessings to others. And that blessedness leads each of us into our own truest and deepest joys, and all of us toward a more grateful, generous, just, and connected world.

 

(Another Mr. Rogers quotation used as the charge prior to the Benediction.)

“The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh, sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person… as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud… the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.”3

 

1Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002. p. 1916.

2&3https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/32106.Fred_Rogers?page=1