Shining Light into Darkness (Newsletter)

Dear Friends,

         These continue to be challenging anxious days. From pandemic to political unrest, we’re a people ill-at-ease with our neighbors and within our own skins. All around us, even within the body of Christ, cracks are turning into fissures. It seems that almost every conversation we have has the chance to devolve, if not into a full-blown argument, then into another moment when we feel compelled to take a side and be against someone or something else.

         As a pastor, I feel constantly tense and knotted up, and at the same time frayed and dis-integrated. What I most want is to bear witness to and to participate in God’s power to heal and make whole, at the same time I feel an urgency to claim the prophetic Christ-voice within me and speak truth to power—or maybe more specifically, into our culture’s addiction to violent power.

         In Luke 12, Jesus seems to have the same struggle going on. Early in the chapter, he tells his disciples not to worry about anything because if God takes care of “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field,” God will certainly take care of them. (Lk. 12:22-34) Then, a few verses later, he says that he has come not to bring peace but “division.” On his account, households will be divided against themselves. (Lk. 12:49-53)

         How do we make sense of such conflicting passages? Indeed, how do we make sense of such conflict? And how do we get through it intact? I wish I had an answer that would suit everyone, but not even Jesus had an answer like that. One path forward may be to look at our individual selves and our corporate self like we look at the gospel itself, as living stories, as metaphors, as works of art in which both shadow and light must be present for the beauty to be real and for it to fill us, move us, and transform us. That means we must acknowledge and engage both the shadow and the light.

A qualification becomes necessary: You have heard me say repeatedly that the Church, as the body of Christ, is a place in which all people are, and must be, welcome. And I do believe that. As I said to someone earlier this week, though, there is no room in the body of Christ for hate or for hate groups. To me, that is an absolute truth. As followers of Jesus, as people who claim to inhabit and reveal the kingdom of God, we are called to shine his light into the darkness of hate and fear, and to do so with confidence because, in the end, the darkness cannot overcome light of Christ. (John 1:5)

To begin shining light into darkness, we begin with ourselves. Through confession, we bathe our own souls and spirits with Christ’s light. We purge our own darkness before we can faithfully and effectively exercise a prophetic voice that calls others to the light of holiness, wholeness, and hope.

To that end, I offer a challenge to us all. In the coming week (or months if it helps), let’s begin and end our days with two psalms. Let’s awaken with the confession of Psalm 51, and close the day with the unsentimental affirmation of Psalm 27. In praying these two psalms, we recognize that there is darkness lurking within us, and we remember that God is our “light and [our] salvation.”

Where the darknesses of hate and fear threaten to consume us, let us remember that it cannot overcome God’s light. So, let us pray for one another. Let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And of Washington. And of Jonesborough. And of your community, wherever you are.

                                             Shalom,

                                                      Pastor Allen

1Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you alone,

have I sinned,

and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence

and blameless when you pass judgment.

5Indeed, I was born guilty,

a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

9Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,

O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

16For you have no delight in sacrifice;

if I were to give a burnt offering,

you would not be pleased.

17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God,

you will not despise.

18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,

19then you will delight in right sacrifices,

in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar.

(Psalm 51 – NRSV)

1The Lord is my light and my salvation;

whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—

my adversaries and foes—

they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me,

my heart shall not fear;

though war rise up against me,

yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the Lord,

that will I seek after:

to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

and to inquire in his temple.

5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;

he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;

he will set me high on a rock.

6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me,

and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;

I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

8“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,

you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me,

the Lord will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O Lord,

and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,

for false witnesses have risen against me,

and they are breathing out violence.

13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14Wait for the Lord; be strong,

and let your heart take courage;

wait for the Lord!

(Psalm 27 – NRSV)

A Demanding Redemption (Sermon)

“A Demanding Redemption”

Isaiah 43:1-7  Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

1/13/13

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (NRSV)

Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (NRSV)

         When Yahweh says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,” let’s remember that this news comes to a people who are still in Babylon. Their outward reality doesn’t match the pronouncement of the prophet who says that God has already redeemed the people.

         On top of that, not all Hebrews consider themselves captives. While some are ready to return to the land of their ancestors, plenty of Hebrews are ambivalent at best. At least three generations have been born in Babylon, and since Babylon has been a relatively tolerant captor, going to Jerusalem will be, for some Hebrews, leaving home, not returning home.

          I have to imagine that Isaiah’s announcement, instead of drawing the people into hopeful celebration, throws them into turmoil because redemption can be a frightening thing. Indeed, when Yahweh says Don’t fear, many Israelites are terrified because deliverance from captivity means deliverance to a much more spacious and open-ended life.

         It reminds me of a character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” An elderly inmate named Brooks learns that he has made parole, but after having spent his entire adult life in prison, prison life is the only life he knows. It’s the only life he can handle. So, when Brooks learns that he’s about to be released, he grabs a friend and threatens to murder him. Others talk him down, but for the old man, freedom looms as the ultimate prison. So, after his parole, Brooks, released but not really redeemed, checks into a halfway house and immediately hangs himself.

         I sometimes think that “traditional Christianity” is hanging itself. The customary affirmations proclaim that by God’s amazing grace, we’re being “freed from our sins.” But the church’s response to this good news, and very often its manner of sharing it, conveys more incarcerating fear than redeeming grace. Fearing rather than loving God, the church often mistakes doctrinal correctness for faith. And honestly, since Constantine, the church has been defined more by its association with political and military power than by Christlike generosity and justice. Desiring more in the way of comfort and security, many followers choose the life-diminishing safety of rigid dogma over the true freedom of servant-hearted discipleship.

         Now, doctrine is good insofar as it helps us to talk faithfully about God; but statements about God are not God. Making theological arguments about the Holy Spirit isn’t the same as the awareness of God’s breath stirring in our own breath. Writing a dissertation on the Incarnation isn’t the same as recognizing God’s face in the face of a stranger. We experience God’s life and liveliness most fully in the realm of silence, awe, and service.

         “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,” says God. Babylon cannot hold you. Water cannot drown you. Fire cannot consume you. These statements ring hollow when we try to reduce them to dogmatic certainties. But Isaiah invites us into that spacious, feral, demanding homeland called redemption.

         Old Testament professor Kathleen O’Connor says that Isaiah’s words, “I have redeemed you,” hearken back to Leviticus 25: “If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien…anyone of their family who is of their own flesh may redeem them.” (From Lev. 25:47-49)

         Redemption is the responsibility of family. Isaiah is making an extraordinary connection here. He says that in redeeming Israel, Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, claims them as family, as next-of-kin. To hear God lay claim to Israel as family prepares us for a similar scandal when God makes it even more specific, when God says to one person, Jesus of Nazareth, ‘YOU are my son.’

Jesus teaches us that the faithful response to God’s grace, is simply to live in the radical and redeeming freedom of God’s love, to live as ones not only blessed, but blessed to be blessings, and that means learning to let God’s love flow through us for the sake of others.

“Most of us,” says Richard Rohr, “were taught that God would love us if and when we change. [When in] fact, God loves [us] so that [we] can change. What empowers change, what makes [us] desirous of change, is the experience of love and acceptance itself.”

Not all acceptance is created equal. Herod welcomes the Magi, but his hospitality is self-serving. In fear, he opens his door to these aliens, but only to use them. He says he wants to worship the new king, when his desire is to destroy him. At great risk to themselves, the Magi defy Herod, who, being so terrified of losing power, sends his followers out to kill every male child two years old and under. Rich and powerful, Herod may have looked free, but his actions were those of someone enslaved to the lords of wealth and dominance.

         Right now, much of humankind, and certainly we in our nation, languish in what feels like Isaiah’s deep waters, storm-swollen rivers, and raging fires. And present anxieties have unsettled most of us. Doctrine and experience, however, tell me that God, as the Alpha and Omega, sees into a future of God’s own making. So, I do believe, more importantly I trust, that God sees that, come what may, Love wins. Love overcomes. Because love, and only love redeems.

So, wherever voices encourage resentment, division, and violence, followers of Jesus are to live as bold and defiant reminders of God’s redeeming grace. We are to speak a new language. And while Jesus calls us to challenge selfishness, greed, racism, sexism, indifference to suffering, our speech is not only the words we say but the ways we live. Jesus-followers live differently intentionally. Knowing that our hearts and lives belong to the one who has redeemed us, we hear but do not heed the voices that ignore justice, grasp for power, and demand violence.

Instead, we hear God say, “Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.” That is our call: To follow Jesus into the waters of baptism where everyone is redeemed and claimed as members of God’s family.

         It can be dangerous to defy the Herods of the world. So threatened are they by God’s grace and justice that, for their own benefit, they will act as if they are humble servants. They will deceive people of faith. And to preserve their power, they will commit unspeakable brutality against their own people. Isaiah reminds us, though, that come what may, we need not fear. The outcome of the struggle has been decided: By the grace of God, we have already been redeemed.

         Isaiah and Jesus challenge us to embrace and celebrate our God-given redemption. So, let us do so. Let us live joyfully and hopefully in the only true and lasting freedom—the freedom to love as we are loved, the freedom to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the freedom of the family of God.

Prayer (Newsletter Article)

         Dear Friends,

I remember where I was when President Regan was shot. I remember where I was when the Challenger exploded. I remember where I was when planes ripped into the towers, the Pentagon, and a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania. And I will always remember where I was, just yesterday, when our nation was attacked not by a foreign government but by itself, by our own neighbors. I am still numb, shocked, saddened, and deeply anxious. When I really try to comprehend what those who stormed the capitol yesterday want or thought they would accomplish, I come up empty. I try to tell myself, as I have been told, that we all want the same thing. But to me, that rings hollow in light of the violent actions and rhetoric. So, I end up feeling more vengeful and resentful than understanding and compassionate. And that makes me more hurtful than helpful—to myself and to others. It makes me part of the problem.

How will all of this play out? How will we move forward? How will we heal? Will we even be able to? I don’t know, and right now no one does. That means that we’re in this together. All the way.

         As people of faith, we begin such discernment with confession and with prayer. And prayer is more than words uttered. Prayer is a way of life deliberately engaged in constant transformation toward peace and wholeness—toward God’s Shalom. And right now, that new life is critically needed in our nation and our world.

So, let us pray, and let us live as examples of embodied prayer.

Most Holy and Merciful God,

         How do we even begin to pray right now? We can pray for our nation. We can pray for the families of those who died on Epiphany in Washington. We can pray for our presidents and vice presidents. We can pray for lawmakers. We can pray for our law enforcement, military, and first responders. We can pray for our children, and their future. We can pray for enemies across the globe and across the aisle.

         Yes, we can pray these things; and indeed, we do.

         But Lord, if our prayers are words alone, they will do little more than clutter the air and numb our minds with lament, anxiety, fury, and sanctimony. And they will never be enough.

         So, give human ears to our prayers, O God. Help us to listen to those with whom we so passionately disagree. Help us to do more than to “agree to disagree,” for that is simply to quit listening, to write off others as not worth our time, our effort, our honesty and love. And we have so thoroughly written off ‘the other’ these days that contempt has become a norm. And contempt is a fatal deafness.

         Give human eyes to our prayers, O God. Help us to see beyond appearances. Help us to search our hearts and the hearts of others the way the Magi searched the skies and trusted what they saw. Help us to see the signs of your presence in a hurting and hurtful world and in all the lives around us—black lives, brown lives, white lives, poor lives, sick lives, comfortable lives, gay lives, straight lives, young lives, old lives, grateful and gracious lives, terrified and angry lives. If we cannot see the holiness of the lives around us, we cannot see it in ourselves. And not to see You in ourselves and in others is a fatal blindness.

Give human hands and feet to our prayers, O God. Help us to unclench our fists and to reach out in humble service to those most wounded by our communal pride, and greed, and fear. And help us to serve. Help us to follow Jesus, to trust Jesus, to love him, and to share him, to walk where he walks. This is hard, and for some of us almost impossible, for our culture, even our Christmas culture, tells us that we are entitled to material excess and to violence. But these are the enticements of the world’s selfish Caesars and brutal Herods who tempt us with shiny things, with mawkish platitudes, and promises of greatness and glory—things that must be held, carried, and protected with the hands and feet you have given us for lives of embodied prayer. To give into those temptations is to lose the reach of arm and hand, and the carriage of leg and foot. And such inaction is a fatal paralysis.

         And Lord, give to our prayers the beating, fearless, human heart of Jesus who did not shy away from truth-telling, from challenging those who led the temple with self-serving piety, and from vexing those who led Jerusalem with resentment and intimidation. Saturate our hearts with your Christ that they may push his own life-giving breath, your Holy Spirit, through our arteries and veins that we may raise our voices for peace, for righteousness, for justice, and equality throughout the earth and throughout this Creation which is so shaken, troubled, holy, and good. For not to live courageously and not to speak prophetically is a fatal silence.

         God, help us make our prayers more than words. Help us make our prayers our living, our doing, our seeing, our hearing, and our speaking. Help us to claim our Belovedness in Christ, and to acknowledge that same Belovedness in all that you have made. Turn us that we might follow Jesus as his humble disciples, as redeemed and redeeming servants, and as loving neighbors.

         Lord in your mercy, do more than hear our prayer. Resurrect us into embodied prayers for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities, our nation, your Church, and your world. Amen.

Participants in the Kingdom (Christmas Eve Sermon)

“Participants in the Kingdom”

Isaiah 42:1-9,  Romans 8:18-25,  Luke 2:1-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2020

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. (Isaiah 42:1-9 – NRSV)

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25 – NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered.

4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20 – NRSV)

         Isaiah prophesied to Hebrew exiles in Babylon. He shared a message of deliverance with Jews who had been displaced from Jerusalem for enough generations to be well past any kind of Stockholm syndrome. For many, Babylon had become home. However, if the very presence of prophets among the Hebrews says anything about their state of mind, they knew that they were not, nor would they ever be, Babylonians. They had been called into something far bigger than comfortable captivity in a wealthy, powerful, and even somewhat accommodating empire.

         Through Isaiah, God says, Don’t acclimate to this! I am raising a servant who will be saturated with my spirit. He will work for justice. He will reestablish you, Israel, as God’s chosen sign of the covenant with the Creation. He will lead you out of captivity so that you help to bring light to the nations, to open blind eyes, and set captives free.

         And God is working on this new thing right now, says Isaiah. Today.

         And the people gaze toward Jerusalem, wondering, Who is this servant?

         About 800 years later, Paul writes to Jewish Christians in Rome saying that while the present age is fraught with oppression and suffering, those things will not prevail. Indeed, such experiences are themselves the birth pangs of something new. The people, then, can live in hope because the same God who promised deliverance to Hebrews in Babylon is still at work creating and recreating, bringing the kind of light, justice, and freedom that the nations cannot deliver because they serve only themselves.

         Isaiah and Paul penned messages of great promise and hope. They’re Christmas messages because through them God does more than utter words. God creates incarnate expressions of healing grace in and for a suffering Creation.

While this is wonderful news, there’s a fly in all this healing ointment. Neither Isaiah, nor the servant, nor Paul act alone. So, the people to whom they speak cannot sit back and merely watch what happens because God doesn’t call spectators. Seeing isn’t believing in God’s realm. God calls and equips participants who join in the faith-generating work of doing justice, showing compassion, and sharing joy.

         In Luke, the angels’ announcement to shepherds was not for a superhero who had come to save the day singlehandedly. No, they announced the arrival of a messiah, a leader, one who would walk with the people as together they overcame the challenges and obstacles of disorienting oppression and injustice. And that messiah had arrived as a child, an infant, one who would need to be held and nursed. His diapers would need to be changed. Long before he would be immersed in John’s baptism, he would need to be immersed in the scriptures and rituals of his people. And as savior, his salvation would be about far more than individual transgressions.

In his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, an adult Jesus, fresh from his baptism and temptation, reads from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And when Jesus finishes reading that prophecy, he sits down and lets Isaiah’s words marinate in silence. Then he utters his own challenging and transforming words: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

The child born this night is savior to a Creation in exile. And the salvation he brings liberates us from captivity to materialism, fear, and violence. Those foundational idolatries lead to all other transgressions. The “sins” from which we often claim deliverance through Jesus are merely symptoms of the deeper more destructive realities that enslave us. And our own culture is as materialistic, fear-driven, and violent as anything the ancients experienced. That’s precisely why faith matters, and why Christmas matters.

Jesus comes to do more than forgive our sins. As the Anointed One, he comes to lead us in the ways of faith, righteousness, justice, and peace. To me, Jesus seems far less interested in believers than he is in followers. His salvation comes not through dogma regurgitated but through love shared. And like Jesus, we inhabit God’s realm through our willing and determined participation in the kingdom of God. Here and now. Today.

We’ve all just experienced an extremely difficult year. We’ve endured a global pandemic, and even as vaccines are rolling out, some of the most difficult days still lie ahead. Like Rome, Covid is an occupying force. Like Babylon, it keeps us exiled from people and communities we love. But modern science, one of God’s shining stars, heralds good news, and it’s coming to us far more quickly than it would have just a decade ago. God is and has been at work through the minds of scientists and the hands of caregivers, as well as through the hearts of people who take precautions on behalf of their neighbors.

We’ve also experienced social and political upheaval this year. Across our country, we have recognized that the disease of racism still festers in our midst. Becoming aware of an institutional evil like racism is kind of like getting diagnosed with a life-threatening virus. And long before acceptance, parts of the body struggle with denial. And yet, throughout the generations, voices of grief have wailed, as the prophet Jeremiah says, like “Rachel…weeping for her children; [and] she refuses to be comforted…because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15) Those were prophetic tears, tears which have been flowing for 400 years as prayers for deliverance, prayers for the very sort of kingdom-of-God justice that Isaiah promised.

All around us and within us, there are sufferings which may hold nothing when compared to “the glory about to be revealed,” but they’re sufferings nonetheless. Jesus, the Christ, comes to redeem that suffering by leading us in the ways of peace, justice, and love.

Friends, it’s Christmas, and the gift given to us in the child born in Bethlehem is the gift of freedom from exile, freedom from fear, freedom from greed and hopelessness. In Christ, God gives us one whom we may follow into lives and communities that are not only redeemed by grace, but that participate in God’s work of redemption in the Creation. Thus is this “good news of great joy for all people.”

Like Mary, let us treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts so that we nurture the new and renewing Christ Presence within us.

I give thanks to God for all of you. And I give thanks for the myriad ways in which you participate in God’s transforming work wherever you are, whoever you are.

Merry Christmas to you all, and Merry Christmas to others through you.

Advent: The Art of Letting Go (Sermon)

“Advent: The Art of Letting Go”

Mark 1:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/20/20

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  (NRSV)

         For people who watch sports, it’s a familiar scene: Ball-carriers, or base-runners, or shot-takers score and immediately assume postures of self-satisfied bravado. They hold their arms out and tense every muscle to absorb the world’s fawning adoration. In these displays, the athletes seem convinced, or seem to need to be convinced that their touchdown, or homerun, or basket, or goal, or knock-out punch was the first of its kind and the most significant individual achievement in the history of sport.

         Such egotism is hardly limited to the realm of athletics. People love stories of individuals picking themselves up by the bootstraps, overcoming the odds to become rich and “successful” through nothing but their own determination and hard work.

Our culture has become so possessed and burdened by the principles of individualism and meritocracy—principles that idolize wealth, power, and fame—that we’re losing much of the fundamental human connection necessary for societies to thrive. We’re losing appreciation for those around us, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.

In such cultures, public service becomes self-service.

The debates necessary for communities to govern themselves devolve into pathetic outbursts of insults and judgment against “adversaries.”

Excess becomes a sign of God’s favor.

Poverty becomes a sign of personal weakness.

The poor and the earth become commodities to exploit.

Christmas becomes a commercial event.

The cross becomes jewelry.

And during a viral pandemic—a global crisis—the simple act of wearing a mask (or even acknowledging that the problem exists!) becomes not a way to love God and neighbor, but a touchstone for one’s loyalties.

On top of all this, in a culture in which everyone is responsible only for himself or herself, sin is a matter of individual failures to think pure thoughts or believe right dogma. Biblical justice, then, which is a matter of communal righteousness, becomes irrelevant; and to some it becomes a four-letter word. Even in the Church!

It’s into just such a twisted, self-obsessed culture that John the Baptist appears. He comes preaching and living a prophetic vision of faithfulness to God rather than to Caesar.

Mark doesn’t get specific about John’s preaching, but Luke does. And it’s evident that, for John, faithfulness means loving one’s neighbors, and repentance means helping to meet the needs of those who are poor or in crisis.

It’s also evident that to the gospel writers, the good news of Jesus didn’t begin with John’s proclamation or Jesus’ birth. God’s kingdom, and a kingdom way of life, began long ago through the proclamations of prophets, through the actions of faithful leaders of Israel, and through the humble and willing trust of people like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Ruth, and Hannah. John’s gospel reaches back even further to say that the beginning of Jesus’ story began in the same beginning referred to in Genesis.

The point in all this is that humankind lives in ongoing successions of both faithfulness and selfishness. None of us pick ourselves up by the bootstraps. None of us are islands. Not John the Baptist; not even Jesus, whose coming is an event for which God has always been preparing because the Christ presence is always unfolding, and it has been since before God said, Let there be light. (Genesis 1:3, John 1:1-5) So, for John, preparing the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3) means unburdening, letting go. It means committing oneself to a self-emptying and simple way of life shaped by the prophet’s call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

For us, then, Advent means realigning ourselves with the ways and means of Jesus. As repentance, Advent means recommitting ourselves to the work of God’s loving justice which creates that new equilibrium for all Creation which we call the kingdom of God. That’s what Mary declares when she says that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)

         It seems to me that Mark wants us to understand that John the Baptist embodies this kind of prophetic teaching. As an Essene, John’s wardrobe and his diet create a striking persona. In many ways, he’s even more countercultural than Jesus. Think about it, John isn’t the edgy but fashionable teacher who gets invited to Pharisees’ homes for dinner. No, John’s just edgy. He looks and smells like a walking compost pile. As one member of our Sunday school class said, while John’s message may be properly faithful and prophetic, he is “Emily Post’s worst nightmare.” In his feral faithfulness to God, John is as disquieting a biblical character as one can find.

         And maybe that’s the rub: Advent preparation is about sloughing off all seductive but self-serving pretense. It’s about emptying ourselves so that we make room for a holy presence that is as ancient as the beginning of time, and yet as fresh as this morning’s dew. God has spoken of such holiness since the very beginning. Creation bears witness to it. The prophets declared it. Saints of every age have lived in such a way as always to be ready to experience that presence and to allow it to be made manifest through them for others.

         While we deck the halls with holly and mistletoe, while we load fir trees with branch-sagging ornaments, and while we burden credit cards with debts Jesus will never pay, true Advent preparation means emptying ourselves of all the burdensome, first-world desires we have been assured are needs, but which are just the entitlements of privilege.

Through his passionate teaching, earthy appearance, and prophetic actions, John calls us to confess that those things that feel like gifts and affirmations are really self-inflicted wounds, symptoms of the diseases of selfishness, greed, and fear. He challenges us to renounce and let go of everything in our lives that would claim lordship ahead of Jesus.

“The art of letting go is really the art of survival,” says Richard Rohr. “We have to let go so that as we age, we can [say,] Yes, we’ve been hurt. Yes, we’ve been talked about and betrayed by friends. Yes, our lives didn’t work out the way we thought they would.”1

Our deliberate yes transforms our pain, says Rohr, and if it’s not transformed, we will inevitably transfer the burden. We’ll “hand it off to our family, to our children, to our neighborhood, to our nation.”2

Advent repentance, then, is the art of letting go of our hurts, our fears, our hopelessness. That art includes forgiveness. And forgiveness, says Rohr, “is simply the religious word for letting go.”3

         While we all want to be together, right now letting go includes staying in our Covid bubbles a bit longer.

         While we all have to care for ourselves and those we love, letting go means sharing more generously in a time when more of our neighbors are suffering.

         While we are constantly being provoked into hostility toward people with whom we disagree, letting go means seeking the God-imaged humanity in all people.

And while worldly anxieties plague our hearts and minds, for us, letting go means reaffirming the lordship of Jesus. It means turning from all bitterness and resentment, and following Jesus’ path of holy love and justice for all Creation.

Letting go is more easily said than done, but we don’t do it alone. We do it in community, with and for each other. And we find strength in the fact that communities of faith have succeeded in Advent living for countless generations, even as the world seemed to be falling apart around them.

Friends, Christ is not only coming; Christ is here. He always has been and always will be.

May we trust his lordship and embody his love.

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/3E98C73D589A25A72540EF23F30FEDED/A2AE94689C106E613D3F7F9A22A6E02E

2-3Ibid.

An Incarnate Hope (Sermon)

“An Incarnate Hope”

Service of Healing and Wholeness

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Second Sunday of Advent — 12/6/20

Genesis 1:1-10

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (NRSV)

John 1:1-5

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. (NRSV)

         In Genesis 1, when God began to create, the first rendering of God’s holiness is light. And according to the ancient storytellers, “God saw that the light was good.”

As for darkness, it seems neither good nor bad—at least not in the minds of those who first played with the notion that we are not alone in the universe. Those primordial mystics were most concerned with declaring their faith that, the lack of hard evidence notwithstanding, the mysterious presence they called God was as real as the difference between day and night.

John holds a slightly different view. While he refers to the same “beginning” to which Genesis refers, there’s not simply a contrast between light and darkness. The two stand in opposition to each other. The light, being good, becomes synonymous with life; and the darkness is, if not specifically evil, then certainly a realm in which evil and death hold sway.

It seems to me that, for us, the metaphors of light and darkness have fallen in line with John’s view more than with that of Genesis. Regardless of how theologically we may think, we tend to associate light with goodness, and darkness with things that frighten or anger us.

For people in the northern hemisphere, the Advent and Christmas seasons come at the darkest and coldest time of the year. So, when life seems most difficult—when light is scarce and darkness abounds—the primary religious tradition of our culture leaves many people struggling against, and resentful of a kind of soul-crushing demand to feel happiness, gratitude, generosity, and hope.

That tension is inevitable perhaps. At Christmas, Christians celebrate our foundational faith claim: The one whom we call God, is incarnate among us, and is constantly revealing God’s own Self to us. The mysterious Presence who is transcendent and unknowable is also fully present and available to us not only through scripture and prayer, but also through engaging the physical world through our five senses. The creation itself is not just a gift from God, but an intentional and grace-filled self-rendering of God. And light, being not something we see but that by which we see, is the seminal gift that illuminates God’s gift of the Creation, God’s presence in the Creation, and thus God’s desire that we experience and share the holiness of the created world.

At Christmas we proclaim the Incarnation of God which begins “in the beginning.” And while many of us do feel the joy and hope of the season, at least as many of us feel burdened by our creatureliness, especially when there are more hours of darkness than light each day, especially when our culture is experiencing the turmoil of rapid change, especially when a deadly pandemic keeps us breathing through masks and distanced from people we love, from communities that we need and that need us, and from many of the familiar activities, routines, and rituals that define us, comfort us, and renew us. And all of those things are on top of the normal beginnings and endings, sorrows and joys that human beings face regardless of the season or cultural context.

“In the beginning,” says John, God and the Word were intimately and equally involved in the act of creating. And he says that “the [true] light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s the promise of Incarnation: That even in the darkest corners, God is present because the light and life of Creation do not and cannot exist apart from the Creator.

I wish this meant that we’d all be healthy and whole all the time, but we all know that such a fantasy only makes reality harder to face. Nonetheless, we proclaim that God is good because light is good, the firmament is good, the earth is good, the creatures are good, and, at our deep, light-drenched, incarnational essence, humankind is also good because, bearing God’s image, we can love and be loved regardless of the pain within us and around us.

      I have a suspicion, a thoroughly subjective suspicion, that the relentlessness and the depth of the anxiety and outright pain around us are making us newly aware of the presence of God’s good and unconquerable light—or maybe our shared suffering is at least making some of us more determined to seek it. Whatever the case, it seems to me that this year more people have decorated their homes for Christmas with curiously early and vivid displays. Unless my memory is just getting short, even the town of Jonesborough has decorated the trees along Main Street not only with brighter and more colorful lights, but with more lights altogether. Illuminating the darkness with a kind of defiant hope, they widen our faces into smiles. They dance and flicker in our tears. They reveal something more radiant within us than “holiday cheer,” something more gracious than piles of wadded-up wrapping paper on Christmas morning. The lights speak to us of the Creation’s deepest, truest beginning from which, as Paul says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us.” (Romans 8:38-39)

      I know what specific darknesses a few of you are experiencing. And I know that none of us are exempt from loss, illness, anxiety, or fear. I also trust, with every fiber of my being, that we are not alone in the universe. When we open our eyes, the light by which we see proclaims that the Creation is not the handiwork of some freak accident of chemistry and physics, but a joyous, gracious, generous out-pouring of a loving and purposeful Creator—the One revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus reveals to us that God comes to us not only as one of us, but also:

in the dependable turning of the seasons,

in the delicious fertility of the earth,

in the renewing warmth of fire,

in the refreshment of water,

in the loveliness of the lilies of the field,

in the scent of lilacs in the spring and the aroma of rich decay of fallen leaves in autumn,

in the near euphoria of the caress of a breeze on our cheeks,

in the frenzy-stopping sound of music, of human voices singing songs crafted to share beauty and truth that words alone seldom convey,

in the divine comfort of a human hand in a time of sorrow,

in the twin ecstasies of laughter and weeping,

and in the sacred beginnings and endings, in the hallowing joys and sufferings without which life would be so barren as to make it not worth living.

Whatever these days hold for you right now, may you experience God’s healing presence in them. May you know God’s wholeness. And may you be, in ways great and small, incarnate vessels of healing and wholeness for those familiar to you, for the stranger, and for this entire, glorious, suffering, God-soaked Creation in which we all live, upon which we all depend.

Jesus Is Lord (Sermon)

“Jesus Is Lord”

Matthew 25:31-46

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/22/20

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  (NRSV)

         On Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christians around the world affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ. We conclude each year this way because whether our lord-of-choice is holy or unholy, we all commit our lives and our allegiance to something. And for Christians, if that lord is something other than Jesus, it shows.

         Adolph Hitler’s lord was absolute power—politically, militarily, economically, socially, and personally. And it showed. He cared not what human suffering he caused in his quest for power. Committed to German nationalism and white supremacy, Hitler evangelized with fear and violence. He even convinced many Christians to profess faith in his graceless gospel, and to accept not only the lordship of his own brutality and hate, but also the impossible union of Christian discipleship with nationalism and militarism.

         Those who accepted Christianity on Hitler’s terms did what one must do when unable to accept that faith in Jesus is much more an ethos embodied than a dogma uttered: They chose to understand Jesus as strictly a personal savior. In do so, they reduced faith to a purely private matter. Such individualistic religion fit nicely into Hitler’s scheme. It allowed the significant Christian community to equate patriotic zeal with Christian truth. So, loyalty to the protector state and its murderous focus on racial purity and world domination became the same as faith in God. National symbols then invaded Christian sanctuaries, and allegiance to the nation became a matter of holiness. The Church’s mission was quickly purged of Christlike expressions of justice and righteousness. Those whom Jesus describes in Matthew 25—not to mention Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, people of African, Polish, or Russian decent—all these were considered “inferior” and a threat to the purity of Hitler’s Aryan society. Exterminating these human beings became a purge as mindlessly ordinary as confessing the “sin” of eating too much chocolate.

         In following Hitler, many Christians may have avoided persecution, but they ceased to follow the lordship of Christ. Christians don’t profess Jesus’ lordship of by saying the Lord’s Prayer and reciting the Apostles’ Creed. We profess our faith by following Jesus—our one and only Lord.

         In response to widespread Christian capitulation to Hitler’s demands for lordship, 139 delegates from the German Evangelical Church, convened a confessional synod in the town of Barmen in May of 1934. Their urgent and prayerful discussions gave birth to a theological statement which is as concise in its language as it is courageous in its fidelity to Jesus.

         “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” which is now in our Book of Confessions, unequivocally asserts that, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death.”1

         Therefore, they said, “We reject false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

         “We reject false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

         “We reject false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords…”2

         Jesus is Lord! they cried. Not Hitler! Not the Third Reich! Nor any government, nor state, nor army! Jesus is Lord! And in the last sentence of the confession, the writers of the declaration urged the church “to return to the unity of faith, hope, and love.”3 

         The Nazis got the message, and all 139 of the delegates were branded traitors, as were all pastors and lay people who openly concurred with the Barmen declaration. Some would hide or emigrate from Hitler’s wrath; many were imprisoned. And some were executed for declaring their faithfulness to Jesus.

         On Reign of Christ Sunday, we do declare that Jesus is Lord by gathering for worship. Much more importantly, though, we enter and participate in his lordship through our day-to-day speech, actions, and attitudes.

In his last public teaching before his arrest, Jesus brings all his previous teachings home with a powerful image of the Son of Man surveying a culminated human history. When all is said and done, he shows much less concern with people being “good” and having stayed out of “trouble” than with them having gotten into “good trouble”4 Jesus is much more interested in people having followed him in the ways of God’s hospitality, compassion, and justice than his is in the words they say.

         How did you respond to “the least of these,” he asks? How did you respond to the hungry? The thirsty? The naked? The sick? The imprisoned? How did you respond to those whom the power-drunk lords of this world scorned and persecuted?

         Jesus says that when he is truly our Lord, we’ll know it. Everyone will know it, because we’ll feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty. We’ll clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. We’ll help house the homeless and show compassion to the poor. And we’ll stand in solidarity with those who, because of the color of their skin, are systemically treated more like varmints than human beings and neighbors.

         All of that is challenging enough, but it can befuddle Christians to hear Jesus imply that his lordship extends beyond those who have made verbal professions of faith in him. When Jesus is truly Lord, the name “Jesus” may not even enter the minds of those who care for others. How else would it be that his “sheep” would ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we…welcomed you…gave you clothing…visited you?”

But isn’t such unpremeditated faithfulness consistent with Jesus’ teaching earlier in Matthew when he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven”? (Mt. 7:21)

         Discipleship is premeditated faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus. And when he is Lord, we care for those in need not because we believe that doing so decides our fate. This is not about works righteousness. When Jesus is Lord, we help our neighbors for their sake. We help them because they are beloved human beings, and we see the image of God in them. We see Jesus in them.

         Many gods compete for lordship in this world. And falling under the spell of some lesser lord is as easy as walking into some big-box store, or pressing a button on a TV remote, or getting overwhelmed into fear by all the changes and challenges around us.

When we follow Jesus, though, when we demonstrate his ways loving justice and fierce righteousness, we inhabit, by grace, the realm of God in which you, and I, and all humankind are welcome, and through which you, and I, and all humankind, and, indeed, all Creation are being transformed and restored.

         What lord do you trust?

In this heartbreakingly beautiful and broken world, whom do you follow?

1The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I: Book of Confessions. Office of the General Assembly, 2016. Pp. 280-284. (Also online at: https://www.creeds.net/reformed/barmen.htm)

2&3Ibid.

4Thanks to the late Rep. John Lewis for that term.

An Apocalypse of Grace (Sermon)

“An Apocalypse of Grace”

1Thessalonians 5:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/15/20

         1st and 2nd Thessalonians are almost universally considered the earliest New Testament writings. They’re also acknowledged as authentically Pauline. Paul writes them to a very new Christian community in a town that has proven rather inhospitable to the gospel. When his missionary work infuriates some prominent Thessalonians, Paul slips away under the cover of night and begins to preach in Berea in northern Greece. Further angered by Paul’s actions and success, the same Thessalonians hunt Paul down and persecute believers in Berea.

         Throughout his earliest letters to oppressed and nervous communities, Paul tells people to expect Jesus to return at—literally—any moment. And apparently, those Thessalonians who have escaped or survived persecution begin to worry about loved ones who had died while the wait dragged on. Will they have missed on the promises of the gospel?

         In 1Thessalonians, Paul seeks to calm the people’s fears and to renew their faith that God has neither abandoned them nor destined them for wrath. (1Thess. 5:9) In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, Paul assures the people saying that when the Parousia occurs, “the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1Thess. 4:16) I’m not sure how Paul knows that, but I do share his awareness that his words alone won’t bring peace to anxious hearts. The time for experiencing a gospel life is not in some utopian future. It is now—fully and intentionally engaged in the painful struggles and realities of the moment.

Listen for God’s Word.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (NRSV)

         Scholars classify Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians as apocalyptic writing. Many people associate the word apocalyptic with images of an end-of-days Armageddon when good and evil finally settle the score in a violent, bloody showdown. Literally, however, apocalypse means a “revealing” of truth. As such, apocalyptic literature is, at its heart, a genre of hopeful proclamation and invitation.

Over the centuries, however, Christian preachers and teachers seem to have found that terrifying people into professions of “faith” is quicker and easier than the long, slow work of cooperating with an often frustratingly patient Holy Spirit who encourages and builds up disciples through more gracious means. Never captured in a conversion date written inside the front cover of a Bible, the Spirit’s work is a lifetime of life-to-death-to-resurrection-to-new life transformations.

         While Paul’s own conversion may have been dramatic and traumatic, he also seems to know that because his experience is the exception, it calls him to an exceptional ministry. To try to force extraordinary experiences on others inevitably results in manipulative, even abusive evangelism—and, therefore, manipulative and abusive religion. Such religion, the religion of demagogues, uses apocalyptic language to scare people into thinking that the end of the world is near and that the only way to avoid destruction is to make an immediate profession of faith and then to equip themselves for preemptive destruction of enemies. Only then will leaders—armed more with desperate rightness than holy righteousness—say to their people, Now “there is peace and security.” And yet that, says Paul, is precisely when everything falls apart.

The calamity is not something God inflicts as punishment. It’s something people bring upon themselves by “falling asleep,” by abandoning the sobriety of a more gracious apocalyptic life—that is, a Jesus way of life, the way of bringing “justice and righteousness” to the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast.

Ironically enough, and sadly enough, worldly demagogues often find more than willing support from religious demagogues who not only participate in the destruction, but do so in God’s name. Recall the cautionary tale of a “Christian” university president who whipped up his entire student body into a rapturous mass of drunken, narcoleptic fury by calling them all to arm themselves so that they could, with God’s blessing, “end those Muslims.”1

         That’s not peace and security, says Paul. That’s death.

Instead of preparing for fearful violence, “Let us keep awake,” says Paul. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

This is remarkable. To a persecuted community, Paul says, Yes, there is suffering and pain in this world; but it’s not the result of God’s wrath. Nor does God call us to inflict wrath upon others—especially in God’s name!

Paul knows this all too well. Remember what he did before his conversion: He made a living by persecuting Christians in God’s name.

To Paul, since we’re here to receive, inhabit, and share the redeeming grace of the realm of God, living the faith, hope, and love of Jesus is the wakefulness of the Christian life.

         That’s just a whole lot easier to proclaim than it is to live, isn’t it?

         To understand the dissonance between the path to which God calls us and the paths human beings tend to follow, let’s look again at Paul’s image of sobriety. Self-serving motives and emotions can overwhelm and possess our brains. Waking up, like sobering up, is difficult and often painful work, because it requires the death part of the process of life-to-death-to-resurrection-and-new life. Ask anyone in recovery. Sobering up is a way of life. It’s not the moment one quits the addiction.

         I’m going to sing a song for you. I’ve sung this song in worship before, and it’s the story of an apocalypse of grace, a sleepwalker’s death to himself and the beginnings of his resurrection where he recognizes that encouraging others and building them up is to receive, to inhabit, and to share the redeeming grace of God’s kingdom.

The song leaves the story unfinished. It leaves the new-life story for us, the hearers, to pick up and live for ourselves, and for the sake of others.

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.

Final Chorus:

1https://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/nation/trouble-jerry-falwell-jrs-words-violence/

Prophetic Stewardship (Sermon)

 “Prophetic Stewardship” 

Luke 21:1-4

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/8/20

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for 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)

         For some of us, Covid-19 may have turned stewardship season into something we’ve always wanted it to be—a discreet, minimalist affair. We’ve had to pledge as if following Jesus’ instructions on prayer: Isolate yourself in your room. Give privately, anonymously.

         On the whole, though, that’s not the way of Christian stewardship. What we do today is a prophetic aspect of our communal faith.

         The impoverished widow knew what isolation and anonymity felt like. Being poor and a widow in first century Jerusalem was like wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Her presence in the temple stirred the air about as much as the flutter of a fish’s eyelash. If we’d been there, we probably wouldn’t have noticed her, either. There would have been too much else to see, hear, and smell—merchants selling sheep and doves, Roman soldiers keeping a grim watch, Pharisees preening in their gilded robes, pilgrims from all over chattering loudly in their various languages and dialects.

Such pulsating carpe diem is a luxury beyond the woman’s imagination. Her life is far more about surviving than anything we might call “living.” Perhaps because of that, she has an angle on giving that the wealthy folk around her don’t. So, she wades into the wild cacophony of Passover preparation and whispers her two-cent blessing.

Giving out of acute need is very different from giving out of wealth and privilege, which often becomes a conspicuous exhibition. Giving out of poverty declares a person’s gratitude for their dependence on the Giver of all good gifts and an intrepid compassion for people in need. Giving out of poverty is a prophetic act. It proclaims, as Paul says, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed.” (Romans 8:18)

         In practical terms, this woman’s gift is two pennies toward a multimillion-dollar budget. It’s pretty much useless. The sad and shameful irony is that it’s toward folks like her that God calls the temple to direct most of its earthly energies and money. At the deepest heart of it all, loving God means loving and caring for widows, orphans, strangers, and others in need.

         Isn’t that something? The impoverished one, whom the community is supposed to care for, teaches the community’s well-heeled leaders about the nature of true gratitude and generosity.

         While Jesus does make an enduring example of the woman, it’s still a sad commentary that she gives everything to the community that ignores her, that she empties herself for the sake of a broken institution.1

Institutions can wield that kind of influence. And religious institutions have been notorious for manipulating people in the name of God. That’s one reason that Jesus is such a thorn in the Pharisees’ side. He challenges their understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people. Calling attention to the widow only sharpens that critique.

         Look at her, says Jesus. She gives all she has to the temple in spite of its failures. She offers all she has for the sake of the community, not because they have remained faithful to God, but because God has remained faithful to them.

         The Spirit continues to call the community to faithful worship and service. Jesus continues to lead us toward holiness. And God continues to do all this through the prophetic gratitude and generosity of people who, by some uncommon grace, have seen God’s presence in the community, and in humankind as a whole, and who refuse to give up on us.

We must still confess that, over the centuries, the church has traded Jesus’ prophetic life, and his call to go and do likewise for individualistic spiritualties of personal salvation. Such self-centeredness has paved a wide and winding road for superficial religion, for the belief that a person’s wealth and well-being conclusively declare God’s love for them.

People of religious faith who give out of material excess, or, as Jesus says, “out of their abundance,” often hold back because they fear losing material advantage. Theologically—for people like the Pharisees in Luke’s gospel, and for many much closer to home in our own day and time—to have less than more-than-enough means that God has judged or even forsaken them. When we structure our spiritual world that way, we reject any kind of lack or loss; and we can’t abide Jesus’ talk of the last being first, of experiencing blessedness in poverty, and of gaining one’s life by losing it.

         If I, as a member and a leader in a community, make my love of God contingent on personal ease and contentment, I will almost inevitably ignore God’s fundamental call to care for people like the widow who—giving from the fullness of her faith rather than the emptiness of her pocketbook—dropped her last two coins in the temple treasury knowing that the temple and its leaders will fail to be faithful stewards with her gift.

         Another compelling thing about this brief story is that the widow’s gift to the temple anticipates Jesus’ gift to us. Let’s face it: You, I, and the Church itself can all be as selfish, power-hungry, and hurtful to one another as the Pharisees and the temple were 21 centuries ago. And yet it was for them and for us—broken and beloved creatures all—that Jesus drops the two cents of his life into the great treasury of time. Knowing full well that even those closest to him will abandon him, Jesus does not withhold the fullness of his life. In an unforgettable act of prophetic stewardship, he empties himself in praise of God and in love for us, for all that, in God’s eyes, we are and can become.

Together, Jesus and the widow invite us into that same prophetic adventure. And this is more than a Consecration Sunday event; it’s a way of life, a continual emptying of our limited, imperfect selves into God’s loaves-and-fishes grace.

         As we think about what we will pledge, or have already pledged to God, some of us may think about all that we consider right or wrong with Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. I hope, though, that we all hear God’s call to live prophetic lives, lives that proclaim the holy “nevertheless” of faith. For while we’re not always faithful, God is. And what each of us dedicates today, we dedicate not simply to this church or to the people in it. We dedicate our gifts and ourselves to God so that we may be, together, a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s kingdom of justice, compassion, and grace.

Here and now, and in the days to come.

1I no longer remember where I read this interpretation of this text, but I do remember that the idea of the widow’s gift to a broken institution came from the Rev. Pete Peery when he was serving as president of Montreat Conference Center.

The Journey of Grace (Sermon)


 “The Journey of Love”

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

11/1/20

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (NRSV)

         Paul often rubs me the wrong way. I’ve said that before, but in my mind, the Apostle often comes across as if he’s trying to win an argument rather than to share a timeless mystery. Now, to be fair, in the first century, before the Church had been domesticated by empires and had become indebted to kings and armies, teachers like Paul faced hostile opposition. They had to be bold and on-purpose when sharing the gospel. Still, when I read some of Paul’s convoluted arguments, I recoil, kind of like I did in my high school physics class—something I flunked with such efficiency as to make failure look, well, effortless.

Now, I have learned that when reading Paul, it helps to step back, as when viewing a pointillist or impressionist painting in which the individual dots or brush strokes are most significant in relationship to the rest of the dots and brush strokes. Paul is using all those rhetorical twists and turns to say that God deals with humankind on the basis of the unconditional love called grace. Grace is hard for human beings, though. It’s just too gracious, especially when we stand so close to the canvass that all we can see is the flaws in ourselves and others.

When I stand back from Paul’s letters, I begin to see his fundamental awareness that to profess faith in Jesus and then to qualify grace leads us to a destructive legalism. And legalism often renders a person sanctimoniously fearful of an angry God. Legalistic religion gives power to a few people who set standards by which each dot or brush stroke must earnits place in the painting.

When one’s belonging in God must be deserved, grace no longer refers to God’s radical gift of love. It refers to God withholding vengeance. And we become responsible for suppressing divine retribution by regurgitating pious formulas. Let’s be honest, though; if we have to activate God’s redeeming love­—even if by “accepting” it—we are saved by our works, not by God’s grace.

Now, Paul knows his audience. The Romans argue and debate, and Paul speaks that language. So, he uses complicated dialectic to engage his readers, and to into invite them into a faith that has more in common with an artistic process than with constructing a winning argument. He invites them into a story—the story of Abraham.

Abraham’s story was ancient even in the first century, so Paul uses it like the ancients used it—as a spiritual portrait, a mural, a gift of grace. Paul wants his readers to enter and experience the story the same way Abraham begins his journey—by faith.

“Go,” God tells Abram, “from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (From Genesis 12:1-4)

When Paul speaks of “faith…reckoned as righteousness,” he’s not referring to a characteristic of law-abiding citizens. He’s talking about the spiritual gift of trust, a gift that cannot be earned, but does have to be learned, lived into, practiced. Paul is writing to Roman Christians, and he’s trying to motivate and empower them to share the story with other Romans. He wants them to say to their neighbors, Come, read this story. Enter it. Experience it. Trust it. There’s new life in it!

Paul shares his own story, too. Always a man of religious fervor, Paul’s passion had been as a sadistic legalist who persecuted Christians as an act of piety. On his way to Damascus to do just that, Paul gets knocked to the ground, blinded, and compelled to trust what he cannot see or prove. And in Damascus, where Paul had expected to act on religious certainty, resentment, and fear, God calls him to a new journey of faith, hope, and love.

Echoing Paul’s appeal to story, the writer of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Then, using a kind of litany, he recalls the ancient, archetypal stories.

“By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household…

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance…

“By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau.

“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God…

“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land…” (Selected verses from Hebrews 11)

These stories story us toward an identity, righteousness, and faith that formulas and arguments cannot convey.

During officer training, the most interesting discussions we have usually occur during our review of Church history. What makes us Christian is not nearly so much the doctrines we profess, but the story we share. That story goes all the way back to Abraham. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim that story. And while we each take different trajectories, we all have to name and confess the errors and brutalities that our stories have committed and continue to commit in the name of God. Sadly, most errors and brutalities occur when we try to make righteousness a matter of principle and process—that is, a matter of law rather than of love-actioned faith. 

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus says, “‘…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and…soul, and…mind…And ‘…love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt. 22:36-40)

Paul says the same thing to the Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder…steal…[or] covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love” says Paul, “is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)

Neither righteousness nor love can be proved through debate. They’re not academic courses for us to pass or fail. Because love and righteousness are about relationship, God stories us toward and into the journey of grace.

While much of the Church has acquiesced to the graceless dictates of human empire, Christian discipleship is incompatible with imperial religion. Collusion with Caesar’s calculated vengeance and violence is not an option for followers of Jesus. Living by grace, or as one person in our Sunday school class said, “becoming the grace of God,” dares us to commit ourselves to the unsentimental, action-oriented love that overcomes fear, that defies every power that sows division, and that follows God’s creative hope in and for the world.

As dots or brush strokes on God’s great canvas of Creation, we are, together, Christ’s body. Through us, even today, God continues to call humankind to the transcendent journey of grace along which righteousness is our garment. Holiness is our breath. Love is our song. And justice is our footprint.