Come and See (Sermon)

“Come and See”

John 11:1-44

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”

The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”

Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. (John 9:1-41 — CEB)

         The story of the resuscitation of Lazarus offers a kind of summary of John’s Gospel. It either recapitulates or foreshadows the basic affirmations and the overall proclamation of the fourth gospel. As an illustration: John 1:14 declares that “the Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.” And in Chapter 11, Jesus says, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s son can be glorified through it.” Do you hear the echoes?

         In the story of Lazarus, John invites us to witness the Word-Made-Flesh striding toward two different tombs. The first tomb belongs to Lazarus, but John is connecting Lazarus’ and Jesus’ tombs to each other, and to the Creator’s primordial intent of love.

         Let’s walk back and forth with this story a little more. John opens by proclaiming: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

         When Jesus says to a grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he makes this claim because he is the “light” and the “life” who is coming into the world, for the world. Soon after this, Jesus will say to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” John’s point is that the light of the Christ shines through love.

         It is the entombed love within each of us and within all humankind that Jesus comes to resuscitate. So, Martha’s observation about Lazarus being four-days dead is layered with meaning. When our will and capacity to love dies, we turn foul. We begin to stench with selfishness, resentment, and fear. We confuse angry retribution with healing justice. So, Jesus invites us back into the liveliness of love when he says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, [and in John that means: if you loved me,] you would see the glory of God?”

         In John, seeing begins the process of believing, and for John believing and loving are synonymous. No one understands that at first. When John the Baptist initially encounters Jesus, he surprises everyone by saying, “Look! The Lamb of God!” Expecting a political messiah who will recruit, train, and lead soldiers in a violent rebellion against Rome, John’s followers ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” What they’re asking is: Where’s the base camp? Where do we rally for war?

         Jesus says to them, “Come and see.”

In John, come and see is like the tolling of a bell. When Nathanael asks Philip if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Philip says, “Come and see.”

         When Jesus treats a Samaritan woman with kindness and respect, she hurries back to town saying to her neighbors, “Come and see.”

         And when Jesus asks the whereabouts of Lazarus’ body, Mary and Martha turn to him and say, “Come and see.”

         Hearing those loaded words directed at himself, Jesus knows that the bell is tolling for him. Standing next to a tomb, a place that has represented clock-stopping finality to every rational person, Jesus now faces a turning point. Mary’s and Martha’s “Come and see” is God’s word to Jesus. It’s a call to act in complete, self-emptying love. And even for Jesus it demands a leap of faith. The synoptic counterpart to this moment is when Jesus prays, in the Garden of Gethsemane, God, please, take away this cup of suffering.

Now, to me, the most dramatic and transforming thing about Jesus’ resuscitation of Lazarus’ is the revelation that just as Word and Flesh are one in Jesus, spirit and matter are one in the Creation.

         Jesus knows that to raise Lazarus will open his own tomb because the Caesars, Pilates, and Caiaphases of the world don’t understand the holy union between spirit and matter. When Jesus shines the eternal light of life into the grave, he will be revealing a wound that has separated spirit and matter. And when word gets out that spirit and matter are being reunited, there will be no differentiation between political and spiritual issues. Every human crisis—poverty, disease, war, racism, sexism, exploitation of the earth, even how to make and spend money—falls into the realm of spirituality, because when any damage is done, it’s not done simply to material things, but to the very being of God.

         Worldly power always reacts violently to such suggestions because it cannot bear the demands of love. Worldly power will always choose the tomb, because power mistakes the tomb for a victory over or a loss to an enemy. And the world’s only language is that of “winners and losers.” That’s why Thomas says to the other disciples, Let’s go die with him. That’s why Jesus weeps when he arrives at Lazarus’ tomb. When Jesus does what Love is calling him to do, he will seal his fate. Worldly power will come for him because it cannot compete with, and, thus, cannot tolerate life-renewing grace.

At Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus permanently alters the world. And he does it not through violence, but through love.

         Come-and-see moments are often like that. They can be grief-stricken moments of surrender and commitment, moments of dying to self and being raised to a new life in which God overwhelms us with our capacity for receiving and sharing love.

         So, when Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” he’s also speaking to us. He’s inviting us to recognize that there’s nothing in life or death that can separate our impermanent and imperfect human existence from the eternal holiness and wholeness of God.

There are all kinds of tombs in which we can find ourselves, and within each there lies not merely a soul, but a body ready to rise.

         On the other side of every failure there stands a person who is newly empowered to offer and to ask for forgiveness.

         With every experience of grief we endure, we have the chance to embrace anew the treasures of all relationships, and all community

         First steps on renewed feet are hard, though. Our legs remain bound and our faces covered. We need help to shed the clinging and confining clothes of death. Part of the church’s work is to help one another to molt out of our death wraps. And as John reminds us, we do that not by casting condemnation, but by loving and being loved.

To love as we are loved is to seek and to recognize the holiness in ourselves and others.

To love as we are loved is to trust that in all things, God is present and at work revealing God’s realm of grace.

To love as we are loved is to celebrate the promise of Easter, even at the grave and on every entombing Friday we face.

To love as we are loved is to say, with our lives, Come and see.

Brothers and sisters, Come and see. You are loved, and you are capable of loving in ways you have to experience to believe.


In the sermon, I said that the light of the Christ shines through love. And as we’ve said before, light is not something we see, but that by which we see.

When we see the world in the light of love, we see it not as “the world,” but as God’s good Creation. We see its inherent holiness. We see its potential for wholeness and liveliness. And we see those same possibilities in ourselves and the people around us.

Let us, then, come out of our tombs of fear, resentment, and competition. Let us shed our death wraps. Mummies no more, let us see all things in the light of love so that we may experience and bear witness to the grace of God, which is making all things new.

The New-Sightedness of Grace (Sermon)

“The New-Sightedness of Grace”

John 9:1-41

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


         John tells three chapter-long stories—each a defining moment in his account of Jesus’ ministry. Last week, Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman. This week he heals a man born blind. And next week, he’ll resuscitate Lazarus.

With each act Jesus performs, the religious leaders dig out more of the tomb in which they will bury Jesus. And while he seems aware of the implications of his actions, as the Christ, Jesus cannot not continue his prophetic work. With each action, he exposes more of the futility of self-serving religion, and its suicidal inclination to align itself with violent political power in order to “save” itself. Salvation happens, but only through the most paradoxical and unexpected turnabout.

More about in three weeks. For now, let’s recall this revealing moment of grace.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”

But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”

10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”

11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12 They asked, “Where is this man?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. 15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided.

17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”

He replied, “He’s a prophet.”

18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”

20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”

24 Therefore, they called a second time for the man who had been born blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”

25 The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.”

26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”

27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”

30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind.33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”

34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.

35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”

36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.

39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (John 9:1-41 — CEB)

Born blind, the man has felt the heat of the sun on his skin, but he’s never seen by its light. He’s tasted the earthy goodness of bread, but he’s never watched a field of grain dancing in the wind. He has smelled the flowers of spring, but he’s never even imagined the variety of color.

In Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples call his attention to the man by asking a question they believe to be both rational and justified: Whose sin caused this man’s blindness?

That’s not how God works, says Jesus. Then he says something that I find just as troubling as the idea of a retributive disability. Jesus suggests that the man’s blindness occurred “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Most translations render this text in a similar way. And it’s the kind of thing that invites the fatalistic declaration that “everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I consider that a theological forgery. The “everything happens for a reason” mentality allows one to claim not only excess and ease but domination over others and over the earth as rewards from God and, thus, to create exclusive communities of privilege. It also allows people to distance themselves from suffering. I’m sorry, one can say, but everything happens for a reason. So, you must deserve it. You just have to pray, and God will show you why you’re blind or sick, or why you live in poverty, or oppression, or grief.

I’m hardly against prayer, but I have no patience with callous indifference, and even less with outright abuse. Physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering are real and constant burdens which all of us experience in one way or another. And the experience of suffering has an element of chaos in it. It’s an experience of formlessness and void. Maybe that’s why human beings often try to understand suffering by trying to blame the one who suffers, or their parents, or God.

For this part of the story, I find The Message helpful. In that paraphrase, Jesus answers the disciples saying: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines…For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”

I hear Jesus saying, No one purposed this man’s blindness. But the Creator is the ultimate opportunist who will use any manner of emptiness and anguish to demonstrate grace and to create new life.

For the sake of wider context, let’s back all the way up to Genesis 1. “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea…” (Genesis 1:1-3 – CEB) And in Genesis 2, after organizing the chaos, God uses soil and God’s own breath to form a human being, a living thing. And when the Creator creates life, all the elements—light, water, earth, and air—share a purpose. They sustain what God has created through love and called “good.”

Love is our tradition’s word for God and for what we trust is the Creator’s defining characteristic—an eternal yearning and pursuit at the heart of the universe for the union and wholeness of all things.

So, when faced with the chaos of the blind man’s anguish, and the cold curiosity of the disciples who want to cast blame for the man’s suffering, Jesus follows the Creator’s creative lead and reaches down and gathers some earth. He adds his own spittle and breath to make a paste with it. And after smearing the paste on the deep sea of the man’s blindness, he tells him to go wash it off. These details recall the darkness covering the deep in the creation story, the passing through the waters of the Red Sea, the blind wandering of exile, and then deliverance into the light of the Promised Land.

In the light of this act of transforming grace, the law-bound Pharisees see only that Jesus healed on the sabbath. And the darkly comical banter that follows reminds us of Nicodemus asking Jesus, “How are these things possible?”

To the Pharisees Jesus says, You can’t see what’s going on because your legalism keeps you in a state of dis-unity with God’s grace. My work may help the blind to see, but it also reveals that you, who are sure that you see and know everything, well, you’re as blind as those born into blindness.

Now, miracle stories are always about more than the miracles themselves. So, what else is there for us to see in this story?

In John 9, we meet a man who, from birth, was burdened with a blindness that excluded him from wholeness, that is to say, from relationship and community. Neither he nor his parents did anything “wrong.” So, while punishment was not part of the recipe for his suffering, grace was the recipe for his restoration to community. And when even one person experiences restoration, the whole community is invited to experience healing. And isn’t that a kind of microcosm of Jesus’ own story?

From birth, Jesus is burdened with unassailable grace, with creation-embracing compassion and an unquenchable thirst for justice. And yet, as Love Incarnate, he discovers that, through no fault of his own, he will face relentless opposition, exclusion, and persecution.

There’s no satisfactory answer to the question of why a good life invites such suffering. But, maybe a blind world needs the consistency of the suffering of so-called sinners, and the categories of Us and Them for life to make sense.

Out of the dark chaos we create, God is creating something as new to the world as life was to the formless void when God began creating billions of years ago. God is still creating, and the new thing is always unfolding. As with sight to the man born blind, it’s often something that just happens to us. It comes as a gift of grace. It also comes to us when we, like Jesus, embody compassion, justice, and joy, especially when and where it doesn’t seem to be deserved. And isn’t that what makes it grace? Isn’t that what makes it gospel?

We cannot forge “salvation” through fearful and violent “everything-happens-for-a-reason” manipulation. Nor do we need to wait until we’re dead. Lent invites us to name our blindnesses, to surrender them to God, and to welcome the new-sightedness of grace today.

“The Christ, The Woman, and the Well” (Sermon)

“The Christ, the Woman, and the Well”

John 4:5-42

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph.Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

17 The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. 18 “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

19 The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”[a]

27 Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”28 The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

31 In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

33 The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

34 Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. 36 Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. 37 This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. 38 I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

39 Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (John 4:4-42 — CEB)

         Last week, we listened in on the nocturnal conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This week, in the very next chapter, we watch and listen as Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

         This second story begins with Jesus making his way through Samaria as he travels from Jerusalem north to Galilee. As the narrative unfolds, we encounter a series of juxtapositions that are both stark and completely deliberate.

         Nicodemus is named. The woman is not.

Nicodemus is male. The woman is…well…not.

         Nicodemus is an influential leader among the Jews in Jerusalem. The woman is an outcast among the outcasts in Samaria.

         Nicodemus sneaks in under the cover of darkness to initiate a conversation with Jesus. Jesus initiates the encounter with the Samaritan woman in a public place under the noonday sun.

         Nicodemus is either afraid or unable to free his mind from the restraints of a religious system that is, for him, as absolute as it is familiar. The Samaritan woman opens her mind and her life to possibilities that would appear to be unimaginable for her.

         Nicodemus is a clueless conversation partner who fades out with his incredulous question: “How can these things be?” The Samaritan woman demonstrates theological understanding and spiritual boldness in her conversation with Jesus. Then, she becomes an active witness whose testimony unleashes faith and joy within herself and within her whole community.1

         One purpose of this story—and of every story in the fourth gospel—is to illustrate John’s most memorable declaration: “For God so loved the world, that [God] gave [God’s] only son…not to condemn the world,” but to redeem it.

         Let’s also remember that while Jews and Samaritans share a Hebrew heritage, they hold each other in contempt. Jerusalem Jews in particular consider Samaritan Jews deserving of no better treatment than Gentiles and lepers. It’s a sad relationship, and one that has ancient and contemporary parallels in all manner of human prejudice and fear. Into that disaffection, John declares that God’s gift to the world is the Son, the Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh.

         I don’t know about you, but the message I’ve heard over the years, and the message I used to preach, declares that Father gives up the Son, sacrifices the Son, as the only way to restore God’s desire and ability to love the Creation and to deal graciously with it. Over time, though, I have begun to see God, Jesus and his ministry, and the cross in new light—the light of what we reformed Presbyterians call irresistible grace. And the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman helps to reveal the way that light illumines all things.

         Many have noticed and highlighted Jesus’ redeeming love for the woman. The assumption behind much of that teaching is that she’s a “sinner,” but neither Jesus nor John clearly identifies the woman’s sin. Jesus simply states the facts: The woman has had five husbands and is now living with someone who isn’t her husband. John doesn’t elaborate on that, and Jesus doesn’t condemn her of anything.

At Jacob’s well, the two begin to talk, to share their stories, and to share thestory—the ancient story of the Hebrews which includes the drama of Jacob and Esau, fraternal twins who experience a deep and painful alienation from each other. Their alienation lasts many years and is healed only when the brothers have grown old enough and wise enough to understand that the world is big enough for both of them—and then some.

That same family is now two first-century nations so deeply wounded and so profoundly alienated from the other, that the two factions barely recognize each other as human. At Jacob’s well, the family now begins to reunite in the persons of Jesus and this very articulate and intrepid woman—who also represent the entire world, all that is beloved yet broken, all that is hurting yet holy.

The encounter shows us that God’s sharing of the Son transcends Friday’s atrocity. The cross doesn’t mollify some angry, human-imaged deity. The cross exposes the bloodlust of a humanity that has given itself over to the selfishness, violence, and the fury of broken systems that exist for their own sakes. In contrast: The gift announced in John 3:16 is the Word who comes to all the world and lives among us, as one of us (John 1:14), for our sake.

“Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done!” says the woman to her neighbors. And “when the Samaritans came to [Jesus], they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.”

This reunion reminds us of the reunion of Jacob and Esau at the Jabbok River. It also shows us how God continually gives to the world the Son, the unquenchable “light that shines in the darkness,” (John 1:5) and who is even now transforming and re-unifying all things.

The world remains a place of brokenness and alienation. Like-minded individuals seem intent on circling their wagons and drawing the covers of darkness over themselves by finding reasons to fear, judge, despise, and even injure people who aren’t like them. And virtually everyone participates in the brokenness, even if only as passive beneficiaries of inequitable and unjust systems.

But the gospel also says that we live in a world that has been loved from the beginning and will be “so loved” forever. So, we witness to a gathering place in our midst, a well of “living water,” “full of grace and truth.” We can’t restrict the flow of this well, nor can we hinder his love, at least not for long. Our tradition calls him Jesus, the Christ, but we do not own the Well. We only witness to it, for in the Well of God’s timeless, universal Christ, there is water enough for everyone.

That’s good news in an era of drought. That’s good news in a culture which seems to thrive on division, and on fear of the other. A widening aisle between left and right has each side hurling insults and spiteful judgments at “enemies” on the other side. Sometimes that comes as personal attacks on news networks. Sometimes it poses as comedy on late-night TV. Very often we encounter it in the echo chambers of social media and closed communities. None of these are wells of Living Water; they are pits of despair. And to the extent that we wallow in the pits, we condemn rather than love our neighbors, and we tear at the body of Christ himself.

We will always have differing opinions about challenges and how to address them. As Jesus followers, though, let’s keep his words in mind: “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me.” The will of God is to gather at the well—to gather with and to welcome all people, regardless of their politics, or race, or age, or gender, or sexual orientation, or nationality, or even religion. And I know that even saying that can cause anxiety. And yet, because “God so loved [and continues to love] the world,” our call is to gather, to receive, to celebrate, and to share God’s love.

May we claim our Belovedness.

And may we live as fountains of the love with which we are loved.

1Karoline M. Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 93-97.

A Gracious Yes (Sermon)

“A Gracious Yes”

Psalm 121 and John 3:1-27

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
    Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the maker of heaven and earth.
God won’t let your foot slip.
    Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
No! Israel’s protector
    never sleeps or rests!
The Lord is your protector;
    the Lord is your shade right beside you.
The sun won’t strike you during the day;
    neither will the moon at night.
The Lord will protect you from all evil;
    God will protect your very life.[
The Lord will protect you on your journeys—
    whether going or coming—
    from now until forever from now.

(Psalm 121 – CEB)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.(John 3:1-17 – CEB)

John 3:16.

References to that passage show up everywhere, from Sunday school classrooms, to billboards, to bridge abutments, to t-shirts on rainbow-wigged sports fans.

However, when divorced from the words of the verse itself, the citation, “John 3:16,” can devolve into a secret handshake, a cipher of smugness. And when the verse appears out of context, it can be used with manipulative intent, saying, in essence, God may love you, but if you don’t say out loud that you believe in Jesus, God will still send you to hell. Have a nice day.

I find that discouraging because while, to many of us, the words of John 3:16 are as familiar as our own names, when those 27 words (or so, depending on the translation) are read in the context of the over 200 words of John 3, and the nearly 84,000 thousand words in the gospel of John, our hearing and understanding of that verse can become deeply and permanently transformed. In context, John 3:16 shifts from a tidy little soundbite about living some happy reward in the sweet by-and-by to a daring call to inhabit and embody God’s realm in the here-and-now.

So, let’s recall that context.

Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, sneaks to Jesus. It seems that Nicodemus knows that seeking out Jesus for serious conversation almost certainly means public and humiliating censure, possibly even some sort of exile. Let’s also remember, the Jewish leadership is furious at Jesus since he has so recently and so pugnaciously run the sanctioned moneychangers out of the temple.

When Nicodemus finds Jesus, he says that he privately believes that Jesus is from God because it takes uncommon holiness to do the things Jesus does. Now, that’s interesting: Nicodemus is making a statement, but he’s really asking a question. And maybe he’s afraid actually to ask because a Yes from Jesus would change everything. And Nicodemus’ question is the same fundamental question the incarcerated and doomed John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” (Lk 7:19/Mt 11:3)

Instead of offering that definitive and terrifying Yes, Jesus responds with a cryptic comment about being either “born anew” or “born from above.” Scholars may debate which translation is more accurate, but it seems to me that, in the world of symbol and metaphor, they mean pretty much the same thing. That’s what makes those yard signs that scream, “Ye must be born again!” so befuddling and sad to me. It grieves me how casually some can forsake grace—which is God’s boundless Yes to us—and reduce religious faith to a mandated regurgitation of absolutes based on narrow and literalistic interpretations of scripture.

Then again, maybe it feels safe to declare something like being “born again” as the exclusive criterium for salvation. After claiming to be born again, one can rest easy in the certainty that he or she has mollified God’s furious anger and will let them into heaven. Maybe that sounds like grace because it sounds so easy—so long as one imagines God as spiteful and violent.

I do not impugn saying a healthy Yes to God. In John, though, Jesus is God’s prevenient Yes to us, a Yes uttered not only before Nicodemus asks, but before the formation of the cosmos itself. That’s why John opens his gospel saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3) God’s Yes to us came long before there was an Us. So, maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that any god whose love is not fully available until weemancipate it by declaring ourselves “born again” is just a graceless idol.

Nicodemus is trying to live in that kind of absolute and literal world. That’s why he asks the absurd question about a grown person returning to a mother’s womb and reentering the world with a second trip through the birth canal.

Again, Jesus gets all mystical. Talking right past Nicodemus, he distinguishes being born of flesh and born of the Spirit. He speaks of the Spirit blowing wherever it will. And poor old Nicodemus can’t handle it anymore. “How are these things possible?” he says.

And there’s the rub. While Nicodemus can’t recognize it, John is using the Pharisee’s “How are these things possible?” question to goad his readers into imagining what is possible in a world created by God’s holy Yes. And that question is about more than the possibility of going to heaven. It’s about the possibility of living in this world differently. I hear Jesus talking about the possibility of living this flesh-and-blood-and-spirit human life more fully by living more deeply-connected to God, who is Spirit and who moves about wherever God chooses, without our awareness, much less our consent.

This blows-where-it-will Spirit is the energy that bears us, that births us into the new life through which we connect so deeply to God that our seeing, hearing, thinking, and doing are transformed. Jesus implies that he is born of this Spirit, too. And he says that “everyone who is born of the spirit” can experience what he experiences as the incarnate expression of grace.

Imagine that! Through the reverberating Yes of God in Christ, we have the possibility of experiencing Christlike holiness in our own lives! How wonderful is that? I’d say it’s pretty wonderful—until we remember that Jesus, God’s Beloved Son, experiences harassment, humiliation, rejection, abandonment, and a slow-death execution. That’s his earthly reward for committing himself to love, forgiveness, and justice.

“For God so loved the world [For God so Yes-ed the world] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life.”

To “believe in” Jesus doesn’t begin and end with voicing belief. For John, beliefmeans living a transformed and transforming life of justice-oriented compassion and love. It means trusting the Spirit whose identity and boundaries can’t be defined by creeds or confessions. And that life births us into the eternal life of Christ—a here-and-now life that doesn’t condemn the world, but participates in God’s transformation of this painful, chaotic, and yet magnificent and holy Creation by revealing the always-unfettered love of God.

I’ve sung this song for you before, but it seems to fit again today. It’s a story about a man who faces a reckoning that jars him out of his comfortable religiosity. That gracious reckoning reveals to him God’s Yes at work in the world; and it calls him to a brand-new, expansive Yes of his own.

Comfort of a Creed

w/m Allen Huff


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.


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.



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

Lead Us (Not) into Temptation (Sermon)

“Lead Us Not into Temptation”

Psalm 32 and Matthew 4:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silent, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

(Psalm 32 – NRSV)

The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, so that the devil could test him. After Jesus had gone without eating for 40 days and nights, he was very hungry. Then the devil came to him and said, “If you are God’s Son, tell these stones to turn into bread.”

Jesus answered, “The Scriptures say:

‘No one can live only on food.
People need every word
    that God has spoken.’”

Next, the devil took Jesus into the holy city to the highest part of the temple. The devil said, “If you are God’s Son, jump off. The Scriptures say:

‘God will give his angels
    orders about you.
They will catch you
    in their arms,
and you won’t hurt
    your feet on the stones.’”

Jesus answered, “The Scriptures also say, ‘Don’t try to test the Lord your God!’”

Finally, the devil took Jesus up on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms on earth and their power. The devil said to him, “I will give all this to you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus answered, “Go away Satan! The Scriptures say:

‘Worship the Lord your God

and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him. (Matthew 4:1-11 – CEB)

         The gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent is always the story of Jesus’ temptation. The narratives of Jesus’ birth and baptism lead to this moment of testing, clarity, and commitment. It’s a watershed moment in which Jesus faces possibilities which must be, in some way, real for him if his life has the meaning and the agency of grace we proclaim. I mean, if Jesus is fully human, even if he’s fully whatever else, doesn’t he have to wrestle with the possibility of exploiting his gifts for personal gain?

I say have to because temptation exists as an inescapable reality for everyone walking spiritual paths. Indeed, the first line of the story declares that “the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert” to be tempted. While that may sound more mean-spirited than Holy Spirited, our Christian journey is fraught with decisions of whether to remain true to a Christlike ethic of love or to abandon it for paths that might appear, on the surface, to be safer, surer, and more rewarding. But those seductive and thoroughly selfish ways depend on the vices of greed, manipulation, and violent power—the very things Jesus wrestles with in the wilderness.

If you’re hungry, says the Tempter, turn rocks into bread.

And Jesus says, in effect: Look, Old Scratch, you’re not even human. You don’t understand that there’s more to our lives than eating. More than getting and owning. God understands that, though. And God has given us this earth which can bless all life with the abundance of enough.

It seems to me that when humans get greedy and confuse excess with blessing, we create the problem of scarcity. That makes scarcity more than an economic precept. It’s a creation of selfishness, fear, and idolatry.

In Exodus 16, the Israelites learn that lesson in their own wilderness. When God tells them not to hoard manna, they give into the temptation to try anyway. And they discover, overnight, that stockpiled manna becomes foul, worm-infested, inedible. It’s God whom we trust, not the “bread from heaven” itself.

Then jump from the top of the temple, says the Father of Lies. If people see you do something like that, forget feeding them bread. You’ll have them eating out of your hand! They’ll believe and do anything you say!

And Jesus says. I’m the one being tested, not God.

Ok, says the Adversary, and he whisks Jesus up to a high mountain peak from which they can see the whole world. Then he says, Look out there. Everything and everyone you see—all of it can be yours, if you just follow me. If you just commit your life to me. Put your faith and your trust in me, Jesus, and you can rule the world!

Go away Satan!” says Jesus. When God takes people up mountains, it’s not to inflate them into domination but to humble them into service. That goes for me, too. I didn’t come to rule the world. I came to heal it, to restore it. I came to love the entire Creation and to teach it how to be alive and loving. God is alive and loving in the created order, and I will not exploit or undermine the God-revealing holiness within me or anyone else.

With that, the Tempter leaves, and God’s angels, in whatever form, come and tend to Jesus.

You know, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “lead us not into temptation.” And none of us want to be tempted, at least not by things about which we feel ashamed and against which we feel defenseless. Temptation is part of being human, though; and, as we’ve acknowledged, it’s integral to our spiritual formation. We never know what we’re capable of, what our true spiritual gifts are, until we learn to face and overcome temptation.

Let’s go back to the benediction I used last week. To close the service, I read from the Brian McLaren book our group just finished discussing. The excerpt was a list of virtues of love, and with each virtue, McLaren includes challenges we face in learning to love as we are loved. Those challenges are, basically, temptations—temptations to avoid, deny, or withhold love. And each temptation is as real as the breath in our lungs right now. I won’t rehash the whole list, but it included the realities that:

“[We] can’t learn to love people without being around actual people—including people who infuriate, exasperate, annoy… reject, and hurt [us], thus tempting [us] not to love them.

“[We] can’t learn the patience that love requires without experiencing delay and disappointment.

“[We] can’t learn the generosity that love requires outside the presence of heartbreaking and unquenchable need.

“[We] can’t learn the endurance that love requires without experiencing unrelenting seduction to give up.”*

         Giving into temptation can do all kinds of damage to ourselves, others, and the earth. If we don’t acknowledge temptation, though, and if we don’t allow ourselves to face it, as Jesus does, what will we learn about ourselves and about faithfulness? How will we grow as Jesus followers?

I’m not going to assume to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer, but when I pray it, and when I get to the line about not leading us into temptation, I think I’ll start adding, God, thank you for my temptations. Lead me through them into deeper faithfulness.

         Temptations can be our allies in faith. The things that tempt us the most can reveal hungers and thirsts within us that only God can satisfy. So, where we’re tempted to abide violence as a justifiable means to ends, maybe God is telling us that we’re capable of trusting the more demanding ways of forgiveness and grace.

Where we’re tempted to succumb to prejudices based on race, ethnicity, political or religious affiliations, God may be inviting us to face the ways we judge ourselves, and then to begin forgiving and loving ourselves more fully and gratefully so that we can extend that love to others.

Where we face temptations of lust, perhaps God is revealing in us a capacity for the deeper and more passionate intimacies of prayer and unity with God and with the Creation.

When temptations get the best of us, God doesn’t stand back, shaking an angry finger and saying, You miserable sinner! God holds us ever more closely saying, Hey, listen! I know it’s tempting to chase after easy and feel-good fixes. But I’m right here, struggling with you. This is how you discover your best self. And I’m with you to help you learn to use all that energy, courage, creativity, reason, and passion to discover the fullness of my image within you.

You are my Beloved, says God. And you haven’t even scratched the surface of your potential for loving yourself, others, and me.

Believe it or not, says God, when you let me help you die to yourself and rise to Christ, temptation can become a door to resurrection.

*Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016. pp. 184-185.

A Transfiguring Conversation (Sermon)

“A Transfiguring Conversation”

A Readers’ Theater

Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


13 So Moses and his assistant Joshua got up, and Moses went up God’s mountain. 14 Moses had said to the elders, “Wait for us here until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur will be here with you. Whoever has a legal dispute may go to them.”

15 Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The Lord’s glorious presence settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from the cloud. 17 To the Israelites, the Lord’s glorious presence looked like a blazing fire on top of the mountain. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:13-18 – NRSV)

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved: with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 – NRSV)

         When our Sunday school class worked with the story of the Transfiguration, we wondered what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might have been talking about when Peter, James, and John saw them standing together. While we can’t know what they were discussing, I did think, “Well, it could be fun to imagine that conversation.” The following skit was the result.


Jesus: So, we meet again.

Moses: Again? Weren’t we just together a moment ago?

Jesus: Sort of. But time gets weird when you’re alive in God’s fullness.

Elijah: Man! First you all yank me out of living without dying, and now you yank me out of really living without being born. No disrespect, but can you make up your mind?

Jesus: Your human experience was kind of unique, Elijah.

Elijah: Yeah. It was a whirlwind. No pun intended. Hey, Jesus, those guys cowering over there. Are they with you?

Jesus: Yeah. Those are three of my twelve disciples.

Elijah: Well, they look a little weak-kneed. Can’t you find better followers than that?

Jesus: Oh, they’re not so bad. They can get a little excitable, and a little thick-headed, but they’re good people. And they’ll get better.

Moses: Tell me about it. And Jesus has only twelve half-wits to worry about. I had a whole nation of them! There were times I wanted to grab that bunch whiners and ring…

Jesus: Bless their hearts?

Moses: Yeah. Sure. Bless their hearts.

Elijah: So, Jesus, why’d you bring us here anyway?

Jesus: Honestly, things are about to get rough, and I decided I could use a little company from folks who might understand. It’s going to be bad in ways even you guys didn’t have to experience.

Moses: Why? What’s going on?

Jesus: Well, do you guys remember what happened when you went up on mountain tops?

Moses: Like when God gave me the ten suggestions?

Jesus: We still call them commandments, you know.

Moses: Oh, don’t give me that, Jesus! Just a little while ago you went through a lot of the laws God gave me and said, “You have heard it said” in the law, “but I say to you,” and in one sermon you rewrote what took me a lifetime of hard work to get across to people who just wanted to eat and be comfortable!

Elijah: Yeah! And what’s with this whole love your enemies business? On Mt. Carmel, I thought y’all wanted me to shame those prophets of Baal. That’s why I took a sword to the whole lot of them.

Jesus: Wow. Maybe I should have invited other folks today. Maybe Jonah, or Micah, or Daniel. Folks for whom lessons on humility might have stuck.

Elijah: Sorry, Jesus. Maybe there’s just something about being on the earth, again. Everywhere I look, there’s so much potential in the midst of all this chaos, and I want to do something about it.

Moses: I hear you, Elijah. We’ve seen, felt, and tasted God’s wholeness, and when we’re in that state, we view the world with God’s eyes. We see beneath the trouble to the original goodness and holiness underneath. But as soon as I set foot on this mountain, I, too, felt an urge to try to control things—like I did when I made water come out of that rock. God really didn’t like that.

Elijah: Yeah, I guess I was kind of out of control while seeking to control all those prophets of Baal. Out of that bunch, God could have had a lot of new followers and leaders, but pride consumed me like that fire consumed all that wet wood. What a waste. Again, Jesus, I’m sorry.

Jesus: It really is true for both of you: Once a prophet, always a prophet. And that’s why you’re here. You see what others fail to see. You’ll say what others fear to say. You remember beyond what was to what’s now possible in God’s grace. And you both know that nothing in this life is easy. Nothing at all.


Moses: So, back to you, Jesus. You say life’s about to get hard?

Elijah: Moses, it sounds like death is about to get hard for him.

Jesus: It’s going to be the worst, you know. Really the worst.


Elijah: And how can I help? What do I even know about death?

Moses: Yeah, Elijah, you missed out on one of the most humbling and holy of human experiences. No one wants to die, but a life on earth without death is hardly a life at all.

Jesus: True enough, Moses. And the same is just as true, maybe even more so, for a life without suffering.

Elijah: Why is that true, Jesus?

Jesus: That’s everyone’s question, isn’t it? If there is a God, and if God is good, why do people suffer?

Elijah: Well look, pretend I’m one of those three guys over there. What would you say to them?

Jesus: Ok. Let’s try something. In about two thousand years, someone is going to write this: “The capacity to endure and suffer­—generously, without bitterness, without revenge, without fail—[is] absolutely essential.”1 He’ll say that “The way of love, then, is the way of annoyance, frustration…need, conflict…and exhaustion.”2 Finally, he’ll say, “This difficult way, this way of love and suffering, this way of Christ is unavoidably the way of the cross.”3

Elijah: The way of the what?!

Moses: You mean…you’re going to…THEY’RE going to…What?!

Jesus: Now you sound like my disciple Peter. Listen, very soon, the people are going to have, from now on, an image in their minds—an image for their minds—of God’s own heart, broken open in love for them and for all things.

Moses: How can something as unfair as that be “absolutely essential”?!

Jesus: Think about it, Moses. Who would you have been without Pharaoh? Elijah, who would you have been without Jezebel? Think of all you accomplished in the face of opposition, and through your own suffering. People still remember the stories of your faithfulness. And they keep finding strength and hope in them. Look, there will always be people who cause suffering, because there will always be people who think they shouldn’t haveto suffer, so they try to avoid it. And that’s not possible. In fact, the only way that makes it feel like someone can avoid suffering is by causing suffering for others. Still, there will always be people like you. People who endure and overcome. People who trust that, even in suffering, God is present, and that on the other side of suffering lie unity, wholeness, and hope.

Elijah: Jesus, those guys over there—who, by the way, are beginning to look at us—how are they going to understand all this?

Jesus: They’re not. At least not yet. I’m going to tell them to keep quiet about all this. They’re not going to understand until—and here’s the kicker—until God plucks me from death like God plucked you, Elijah, from your own life. And that can’t happen until the people think that they ended my life on their terms. Believe me, I wish it could happen another way. And I’m not through asking about that. But it looks like the world will have to have some kind of example of true suffering. Not suffering endured while creating suffering—like when people go to war. The point of war is to make as much suffering for everyone as possible until one side suffers so much it can’t cause suffering for the other side anymore. And that’s not a matter of winners and losers. Everyone loses. And I can’t stand that. The point of holy suffering is to expose the futility of violence, of vengeance, of hate. And the point my suffering is to reaffirm the holiness of life…all life.


Moses: But Jesus? A cross? Really?

Jesus: Yeah. A cross.

Moses: And I thought I had it rough. Forty years in the desert leading a bunch of whiners.

Elijah: You sure you can’t just get God to whisk you up in blazing chariot? Stage that in Jerusalem in front of the temple and people will talk about it forever, won’t they?

Jesus: I was sorely tempted to try that. But that avoids the whole suffering thing, doesn’t it? Everyone is always thinking that God is angry and wants revenge against human sin. But this will not be about changing God’s mind or God’s heart about the people. It’ll be about changing the people’s minds and hearts about God.4

Moses: Well, Jesus, I think maybe you’re making peace with this. You’re positively glowing right now. Kind of like I did when I was with God on Mt. Sinai.

Elijah: Yeah. I’m seeing that, too. And I think your guys over there see it, as well. They look a little scared, though.

Moses: Jesus, were we supposed to do this kind of thing, too? Did we let you down by not dying on a cross or something?

Jesus: No, no. Not at all. You were still under the old system of sacrifice. That was all the people could handle at the time. But after what the Creator, the Sustainer and I do, people will see that altars and sacrifices are things of the past—at least I hope and pray they do. Micah saw this coming when he said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” That’s what I’m trying to do. And that’s what I want my followers to do—forever.

Elijah: Is that even realistic? Will anyone get it? Will anyone do it?

Jesus: Some will. And over time, some will become many. And many will become even more.

Moses: You seem to feel pretty confident about this, Jesus.

Jesus: Well, it’s all about love, isn’t it? And love is like candlelight. Share the flame, and there’s more for everyone. More light, more warmth, more hope.

Elijah: I guess this means we’ll see you again soon enough.

Jesus: You will, yes. And if people really become my disciples, loving as I love them, there will be even more of me than there is now.

Moses: May it be so.

Elijah: May it be so.

Jesus: Amen.

1Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016. p 183.

2Ibid., p 185.

3Ibid., p 185

4Ibid., p 187 (Here McLaren is paraphrasing Fr. Richard Rohr.)

Seasoned and Enlightened (Sermon)

Seasoned and Enlightened

Isaiah 58:1-9a and Matthew 5:13-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Shout out; do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they want God on their side. 
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day
    and oppress all your workers.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

(Isaiah 58:1-9 – NRSV)

         Prompted by Brian McLaren’s book The Great Spiritual Migration, our Monday night group is having energetic, challenging, and often cathartic conversations. We’re talking about what it has meant, and what it’s now beginning to mean to follow Jesus in this world generally, and, particularly, in a society experiencing the turmoil of cultural ferment.1

McLaren starts by addressing the Church’s centuries-long slide into an institution built more on rigid doctrine about Jesus than on an empowering invitation to follow Jesus. McLaren asks his readers to consider a theological and spiritual “migration” from a religion that has become tolerant of certainty, safety, and even injustice toward a “movement” of following Jesus in his ways of radical and open-ended grace.

Now, I am deeply grateful for and committed to our religious tradition. I see great work and potential in this congregation—in you. I see great work and potential in our denomination and in our ecumenical and interfaith efforts. I also feel like I am mostly realistic about the church’s limitations and failures. Still, I think McLaren asks compelling questions: Did Jesus come to found a religion, or to begin a movement? Didn’t he come to set the Creation on a trajectory of proactive love through which all things draw closer together, and, thus, closer to God? Isn’t union with God, here and now as well as in the life to come, our ultimate goal? And doesn’t that goal require movement—movement that involves constant openness to God and to what God is doing in the world, through love, to draw all things closer to God’s Self?

Last Sunday, we read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes—the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today we’ll read the next eight verses of that famous sermon. Here, Jesus calls us to a movement of love, compassion, and justice—a movement toward Jesus’ actions which are all-too-easily anesthetized into talking points when the faith community replaces kinship with creeds, prayer with programs, and mission with maintenance.

I’m going to read from The Message because, to me, this version seems to capture the spirit of Jesus’ call to his expansive and enduring movement of grace.

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

17-18 “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.

19-20 “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom. (Matthew 5:13-20 — The Message)

A literal translation from the Greek won’t render the text as we just heard it. Eugene Peterson, though, a now-deceased Presbyterian pastor and scholar, worked for years, seeking input from his peers, to paraphrase scripture in a way that sought faithfulness to the spirit of the ancient texts.

Consider the opening line of today’s reading: “Let me tell you why you are here.” While that statement is not in the Greek text, it’s not just Peterson trying to be hip. It’s holistically faithful to the story. In it, Jesus is saying, Look, you’ve been taught many things about God, about your neighbors, and yourselves. And while I don’t want you to forget any of that, in following me, you’ll discover that what you’ve learned has barely scratched the surface. It helped to prepare you for this moment; and I’m going to take you much further than the Law can. We’re going start an adventure where only grace dares to go.

Then Jesus calls his followers salt and light. Salt enhances the flavor of food. That is to say, salt is used not for its own sake but for the sake of the vegetables, or the meat, or the bread dough to which it is added. So, what Jesus wants to avoid isn’t salt simply losing its taste, but the problem of salt losing its capacity to bring out “the God-flavors of this earth.”

As salt, followers of Jesus look for and enhance the “flavors” of holiness that God has infused into all people and all things. To lose one’s saltiness, then, is to lose not only awareness of all that God has created, but to lose reverence for and relationship with the holiness within God’s Creation.

         Jesus uses the metaphor of light in a similar way. “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”

While we can look at a star or a light bulb and see its brightness, looking atlight can do more harm than good. Light is not meant to be seen but to be that by which we see ourselves, our neighbors, mountains, bluebirds, starfish. In the NRSV, Jesus calls his followers “the light of the world.” As light, we are ones by whose bright love the image of God is seen and known within us and around us.

The last verse of today’s reading suggests that the Pharisees have lost their saltiness and their brightness. No longer looking for relationship, and no longer expecting holiness, they focus on rules and doctrine, on sin and sacrificial atonement, on who’s in and who’s out. And while those tactics can keep people afraid and compliant, they create and depend on an image of God that is angry, vengeful, and violent. So, thank God Jesus announces a fresh and ongoingmigration.

When Jesus says, “God is not a secret…We’re going public with this,” he’s calling us to live our individual and corporate lives from the new point of view of grace. While we may still struggle with all of the same anxieties and fears, Jesus empowers us to live in those struggles as salt in a casserole or as light in basement. He calls us, as salt and light, to recognize and evoke the holiness, the possibility, and the joy in the world—even in the realities of blandness, darkness, and chaos, because even there, God is actively present. And God’s presence is, far more often than not, manifest through limited, imperfect human beings just like us.

         When I was 24 years old, two years married, a seminary drop-out, and green as a January daffodil, I backed into teaching middle school. The first months almost did me in. I didn’t know the material, but the kids knew me. They saw, and some of them exploited, my rattled nerves and my desperate need to be liked.

         Two of my faculty colleagues, Mr. Buie and Ms. Benton, saw those same things, I’m sure. And, yet, they saw something more. In addition to being a teacher, Mr. Buie was a pastor and a farmer. He knew people, seasons, and patience. Ms. Benton, having been recently widowed, had a newly-unvarnished and yet good-humored understanding of what was important and what was fluff. Those two veteran teachers never tried to tell me who I was. They never tried to meddle or make decisions for me. They befriended me, encouraged me, challenged me, supported me, celebrated with me.

Whether they knew it or not, Mr. Buie and Ms. Benton were salt and light to me. Seasoned and enlightened, they taught me to recognize my own worth and to claim it as a gift from God. And that allowed me to start becoming, slowly, salt and light for my students.

Now, all of that was something I realized in hindsight more than in the moment. And isn’t that how God seasons and enlightens us? Isn’t that how God uses us to bring out “the God-flavors…[and] the God-colors in the world”? Through relationship, struggle, and blessed surprise?

1All references to Brian McLaren come from his book: The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016.

The Beatitudes and the Ethos of Christ (Sermon)

“The Beatitudes and the Ethos of Christ”

Micah 6:1-3, 6-8 and Matthew 5:1-12

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Hear what the Lord is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!

With what should I approach the Lord                          
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love,

and walk humbly with your God.

(Micah 6:1-3, 6-8 – CEB)

         This morning, our New Testament text is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes—the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s version seems more spiritually nuanced than Luke’s version which, in very stark, exclusive terms, blesses poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution, then pronounces “woe” on wealth, satisfaction, and contentment. While Matthew’s Beatitudes sound a little more palatable, these nine statements present a radically new way of understanding God and engaging the world. And in Matthew, the Beatitudes are inclusive blessings. One may opt out, but no one is left out of Christ’s invitation to his new way of imagining God, and, therefore, his new way of living.

It’s also worth noting that Jesus sequesters his disciples for the Sermon on the Mount. So, the Beatitudes, and all of chapters 5, 6, and 7, are presented as instruction to people who are just beginning to follow Jesus in his new, Creation-embracing movement.

With that background, we’ll read the Beatitudes. And to get a broader perspective, we’ll layer the NRSV and The Message versions.

Matthew 5:1-12 — NRSV and The Message

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

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

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

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

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

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

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

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

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

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

7 You are blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

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

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

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

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

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

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

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.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

         In their book, The Way of Blessedness, Marjorie Thompson and Stephen Bryant suggest that the Beatitudes are not a list of disconnected blessings, or as someone in our Sunday school class said, the Beatitude platitudes. The Beatitudes, say Thompson and Bryant, can be read as stages of the spiritual life. Beginning with poverty of spirit, each statement includes and builds on the one before it.1

         When you see people who are poor in spirit, says Jesus, you see ones who are foundationally reliant on God. They experience blessedness because they so deeply root themselves in the mystery of God’s realm that they live each moment in its presence. Freed from the illusion of self-sufficiency, their spiritual poverty is not a lack of well-being. Reliance on God is a blessed release from all that is shallow, confining, and lacking substance.

         Imagine, then, that we see a brother or sister offering mercy to someone else, and that someone else is known for doing violence to others. Think, perhaps, of a prison chaplain offering communion to thieves and murderers, and saying to them as I say to you, “This is the bread of life broken for you. This is the cup of salvation poured out for you.”

         While those offering mercy may look like they’ve compromised justice, or betrayed the prisoners’ victims and their families, to see someone offering Christ’s mercy in that context is to witness the steadfast power of meekness finding passage into a suffering world. These meek and merciful disciples know their true homeland. They inhabit a place that defies all worldly boundaries of prejudice, retribution, and fear.

         Their meekness and mercy lead them deep into the blessedness of spiritual mourning. They mourn not just for lives lost, but for the pervasive lack of human kindness. They mourn the overabundance of injustice in the Creation.

Together, meekness, mercy, and mourning compel followers of Jesus toward the blessedness of purity of heart. That is to say, they trust that in God’s kingdom there is steadfast love, without end, for all people, and they’re single-minded in their commitment to recognize and to love God—whose image is everywhere.

         True followers of Jesus may discover that their faithfulness evokes a hostile response. Many and angry are those who prefer a vengeful god, and who prefer retribution over reconciliation. Embodying and extending God’s mercy may lead those disciples into their own suffering. And yet their faithfulness, says Jesus, is a mark of true discipleship, and a holy blessing.

         That’s a lot to expect, isn’t it? Who, then, besides Jesus, can be truly faithful? Well, with the Spirit’s help, we can—occasionally, anyway. Occasionally, we do deal with others, ourselves, and God not out of fear or selfishness, but out of gratitude and generosity. And as we do, we may sense that what we’re doing doesn’t sit well with reason or reality. Still, we trust that it’s God’s will for us to incarnate love and compassion for all people because, when all is said and done, lives defined by spiritual poverty, mournful meekness, hungry righteousness, merciful purity of heart, and fearless peacemaking most faithfully demonstrate God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

         The Beatitudes in Matthew include, with each condition of blessedness, a kind of recompense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It’s telling that the recompense pronounced on those who know poverty of spirit, those at the beginning of their journey, is the same recompense pronounced on those who find the strength and the will to follow Jesus even into their own persecution. At both of these “stages,” and, really, for all stages, the blessing is ultimately the same: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

         Entering and engaging a Beatitude life empowers us to imagine both God and God’s realm in a whole new way.

In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren says that one unnecessary struggle the Church has imposed upon itself is to have tried, for 2000 years, to reconcile Jesus’ profoundly new vision of God “with the old visions of God that it challenged.”2 Those old visions include gods of violence, domination, and exclusion. So, says McLaren, “to follow Jesus is to change one’s understanding of God.”3

The God Jesus introduces through his life and teaching is incompatible with gods who bless empire, violence, and material excess. Jesus’ new vision of God as nonviolent, abundantly generous, mercifully just, and long-suffering is the God revealed in the Beatitudes. And that God is always creating, for all Creation, an ethos of love.

Most of us probably have a default image of God, a holdover from our childhood, perhaps. And that god may be something distant yet anthropomorphic like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of a white-bearded white guy in the clouds. Maybe it’s something fearsome and vengeful like Zeus, armed with storm clouds and lightning bolts, or maybe something naïve and self-serving like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. And as people of faith, we worship, pray, and live according to the images of God we hold.

So, here’s the crux: A transformed understanding of God transforms the way we worship, pray, and live. The Beatitudes remind us that God is the relentless Energy of love, compassion, and shared suffering we encounter in the midst of our experiences of life on earth.

And we experience God not simply when we need reminding that the realm of God embraces our suffering, but also when we are needed to remind others that God is real by embracing their suffering.

And doesn’t that pretty much sum up the life and ministry of Jesus?

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

2Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York, 2016. P 93.


Compassionate Repentance (Sermon)

“Compassionate Repentance”

Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations. 

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor. 
(Isaiah 9:1-4 – CEB)

12 Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
        alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
        and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. 

17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:12-23 — CEB)

         One reason I wear this robe is that science and math humbled me. Mercilessly. I do, however, remember one thing my high school physics teacher said. She said that there’s no such thing as cold, only a lack of heat.

Driven by physical interactions on a molecular level, heat moves toward places that lack warmth. And that motion from warm toward not-as-warm is constant.

         In a similar way, under the influence of gravity, a liquid of any kind always flows toward its lowest point—thus the saying that water always seeks its level.

         These things remind me of another adage: Nature abhors a vacuum.

         The reason that someone who prefers Scrabble over Sudoku is pondering such things from a pulpit is that today’s passage opens with the announcement of a vacuum and an immediate response to it.

John the Baptist has been arrested. His prophetic voice has been removed from the public square, so, the story of God’s presence and intention in the world encounters a kind of vacuum—a silence. When Jesus hears about John’s arrest, he springs into action. Like heat toward lack of heat, he radiates himself into the void for the sake of love, that is to say, for the sake of justice, compassion, dignity, and peace.

         In quoting Isaiah 9, Matthew suggests that Jesus’ arrival on the scene fills a vacuum in a manner that is completely natural and purposed. “The people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.” Like heat, light is always trying to seep into places of darkness.

And it makes sense. Jesus spends most of his time and energy seeking relationship with people who are out of relationship—lepers, disabled people, strangers, tax collectors, and all manner of people the gospels label as “sinners.”

Even those whom Jesus pulls in as disciples are prone to exclusion and violence. Remember, Judas Iscariot is a kind of right-wing extremist who betrays Jesus when it’s clear that he’s not going to muster an army and try to overthrow the Roman government. A few hours later, Peter tries to start that messianic war in the Garden of Gethsemane by attacking the high priest’s servant.

Jesus confounds so many people because, instead of avoiding the places where people wander in sin, illness, and hopelessness, he inhabits them. He brings healing, wholeness, and strength where it has been lacking. So, wherever peace is offered into unrest, wherever reconciliation is taken into brokenness, wherever joy spills into grief and despair—there God’s realm of grace is filling a vacuum.

Isn’t that Jesus’ point when he announces the coming of the “kingdom of God”? In the Christ, the fire of the Spirit is moving toward iced-over hearts. In him, living water is seeking its level among us. In Jesus, The Light of the World is shining into the darkness.

It seems to me that Matthew wants us to recognize all of this vacuum-filling grace in the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. And seems is the best we’ve got. Matthew doesn’t explain Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything and following Jesus. We can only assume things like the pull of Jesus’ charisma, or maybe the young men’s boredom with the family business and their thirst for adventure. We can also imagine, but cannot know, that the fishermen had heard and been baptized by John. And if so, maybe John had created a vacuum in the fishermen, a vacuum in the form of a hunger for God’s radical grace.

Could that be it? Could preparation for receiving and sharing the Christ involve, as much as anything else, a gracious exposure of emptiness within us? Could it be that when we feel an acute, spiritual vacuum, we are being prepared to receive a deeper awareness of God’s presence and love?

Over the millennia, the church has dealt with that place of disorientation by focusing almost exclusively on individual sin. We’ve been taught that the emptiness we feel results from our being “bad.” And if we understand repentance as nothing more than naming and regretting all that bad stuff, then, when John the Baptist and Jesus urge us toward repentance, we’ll likely see ourselves as Jonathan Edwards described humankind: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

But is shame, guilt, and fearful regret all there is to repentance?

Well, we all participate in unfaithfulness. And our unfaithfulness can do all sorts of damage to ourselves, to others, and to the planet. I also think that repentance involves more than just confession, more, even, than setting ourselves on paths of greater faithfulness. I think repentance involves taking a long and deeply compassionate look at ourselves. As we consider the things we do and don’t do that distance us from God, neighbor, and the earth, we begin to see within us places of spiritual receptivity that our unfaithfulness has clogged up.

Where we judge or persecute people different from us, we have congested that part of us through which we encounter the creative wholeness of God. And that’s scary because in it we recognize that God is bigger than our own nationality, race, or religious tradition.

Where we are susceptible to lust, we are avoiding a deep desire for intimacy with God. And that’s scary because in that place we realize that God already knows us through and through, warts and all.

Where we abide violence and crave domination, we have cluttered with weapons and greed that holy place where we depend on God alone. And that’s scary because in that place we have to learn to trust what we cannot see.

So yes, one way to understand the first disciples’ drop-everything willingness to follow Jesus is to imagine that they had heard and understood John the Baptist calling them to what I will call compassionate repentance.

Compassionate repentance is not about heaping guilt on ourselves or others. It’s not about appeasing an “angry God.” It’s about making room. It’s about clearing the dock so that we can continue becoming God-imaged, grace-driven human beings.

Compassionate repentance has the potential to prepare in us the way of the Lord because it’s about exposing in ourselves a built-in spiritual vacuum that God alone can fill. And God fills it with a holy call, and with holy belonging. And maybe that holiness is, as it seemed to be for Simon, Andrew, James, and John, something our hearts and minds embrace the moment it appears.

As a way of life, compassionate repentance prepares the way for holy warmth, living water, and guiding light by prompting us to ask ourselves, continually:

Does this new possibility deepen my awareness of love and my capacity to love?

Will this opportunity further the cause of justice on behalf of those suffering beneath prejudice, poverty, or grief?

Will it ask everything of me while also creating new space for the Beloved within me?

When we learn to ask questions like this, we are being prepared to respond to Christ’s presence, and to follow him.

And even now, in this moment, he is calling us.

Living ‘As Though’ (Sermon)

Living ‘As Though’

Psalm 130 and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31 — NRSV)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities. 
(Psalm 130 – NRSV)

Whether persecuting Christians or being persecuted as a Christian, Paul lives with unmistakable passion for his convictions. In spite of all that he seems to get “right,” though, the apostle also lives in the grip of some mistaken convictions.

         From the Christian perspective, Paul is initially mistaken in his denial of Jesus as the Christ. Because of that mistake, he commits the more wide-ranging mistake of trying to terrorize Christians into recanting their faith.

After his Damascus Road experience, Paul focuses his energies on preaching Jesus. And one initial premise of his preaching is the mistaken notion that Jesus will return—immediately and literally—to lead God’s people into a messianic reign on earth.

A theocracy doesn’t appear to be God’s intention, though. And when Jesus doesn’t return exactly as Paul expects, one can imagine him, like Jonah, crying out at God for letting him down. Paul, however, sows the seeds of his own peace in his first letter to the church at Corinth.

         The embattled congregation faces deep disorientation. As groups in the church begin to identify with and to revolve around particular individuals and ideologies, the community fragments.

“It has been reported to me,” says Paul in Chapter 1, “that there are quarrels among you…that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos, or…to Cephas, or…to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks. His point is that if the community is to survive, it must revolve around the indivisible Jesus, not someone else. And it must revolve around divine love, reconciling love, not anything else.

         In Chapter 7, Paul assures the Corinthians that even when it looks like God’s promises are unraveling, God is faithful. No matter what happens, he says, God, in Christ, is with us.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians in the year 1 hold relevance for us in the year 2023. The gospel is always challenging us to evolve ever more deeply in our understanding of who God is and who we are as creatures made in God’s image. I hear Paul calling us to live in our here-and-now moment as though God’s kingdom has arrived in its fullness.

While Paul’s teaching may sound like an invitation to self-deception, living in the As Though of faith is not an act of make-believe or denial. Living As Thoughmeans engaging the timeless, creative, initiative-taking Purpose and Process who, billions of years ago, ignited a seething chaos into the magnificent Creation we live in and marvel at today.

Living in the As Though of the realm of God means inhabiting our present reality with an eye toward and a heart for the eternal Reality that gives every moment its meaning. Living in God’s As Though transforms marriage, mourning, rejoicing, owning, and even politics into platforms for experiencing and sharing God’s presence in and grace for the Creation. For in the As Though of God’s realm, all is being redeemed and renewed. The tricky thing about all of this is that we constantly move in and out of various As Thoughs.

Worldly As Thoughs tempt us to live as if human existence were defined by scarcity. When I give into that temptation, I treat almost everyone as a competitor to defeat—economically, politically, militarily. I treat strangers with suspicion. I fear people whose skin, language, or religion are different from mine.

In the As Though of scarcity, I don’t just resign myself to war, I make it a holy endeavor. I twist the greed, fear, and nationalism that cause war into spiritual gifts. And I teach the generations behind me that their highest calling lies in a willingness to kill and be killed.

The As Though of scarcity also regards the physical creation as fundamentally corrupt, so I treat the earth and human bodies as if they were resources to be exploited rather than sacred gifts to be treasured, cared for, and shared.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And the Civil Rights Movement he helped lead stood against the scarcity-bred and violently racist As Thoughs of people like George Wallace and Bull Connor. Today those As Thoughs have been taken up by people like David Duke, Richard Spencer, and Nick Fuentes—all of whom are, themselves, creatures made in the image of God. And I pray that they, like George Wallace, come to understand the harm they do to themselves as well as to those whom they fear and hate. I pray that they, too, become part of the solution. For the As Though of scarcity continues to motor on. And in that As Though, a person whose skin is not white might be killed, but seldom murdered—because they’re less than human. That’s why George Floyd’s death sometimes gets described as merely “unfortunate.”

Dr. King and others like him live in the As Though of Jesus, the As Though of equality, equity, and justice—the As Though of “original blessing” rather than “original sin.” Within the As Though of Jesus, his followers not only advocate for justice, peace, and loving stewardship of all Creation, they discover an almost inhuman strength to forgive those who persecute them.

I’ve said this to you before, but it bears repeating. Desmond Tutu once said to his fellow black South Africans, “Be nice to the whites; they need you to rediscover their humanity.” It’s no accident that Tutu’s words sound a lot like Jesus saying, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a)

The As Though of God’s realm is arriving in Jesus. So, says Paul, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Are we literally to stop marrying, mourning, rejoicing, purchasing what we need, and engaging the world around us? To quote another Pauline phrase: “By no means!” I do think, though, that it’s all-too-easy to mistake physical pleasure, material comfort, and worldly power as signs of God’s favor. So, Paul is challenging us to take seriously that the “present form of this world” is manifest in scarcity-driven fear and selfishness. And living in that worldview distracts us from the new form of the realm of God, which is emerging in Christ.

Laying “the present form” down takes all the spiritual discipline we can muster. As the lives of Jesus, Dr. King, and other people committed to God’s justice have demonstrated, living in the As Though of God’s realm is counter-cultural. It’s not the easiest and safest existence, but living in the As Though of love is exactly what Jesus means by “salvation.” It’s what Paul means when he says, “the appointed time has grown short;” from now on, then, we live differently. We let go of the “present form” and live according to the law of love.

Letting go is not the same as giving up. Spiritual letting go is the psalmist’s proactive “waiting on the Lord” with whom there is “steadfast love, and…great power to redeem.”

Holy letting go means, in the seething chaos of our own moment, inhabiting God’s realm of shalom, which as we just proclaimed during the Christmas season, is here. And now. Today.