Neither Rats Nor Roaches (Sermon)

“Neither Rats Nor Roaches”

Luke 4:1-13 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/6/22

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’

11 and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (NRSV)

         My college roommate, Charlie, grew up in Waynesville, NC. While Waynesville is hardly a metropolis, for Charlie’s father it was uptown. Raised in a holler near Barnardsville, NC, Charlie’s dad was country as a wash pot. That, combined with his experience as a district court judge, gave him some interesting stories to tell. I’ll never forget one thing he said, maybe because he said it more than once to us college boys who were sure we already knew everything.  

         “Boys,” he said, “people will do anything when they get hungry. Anything.” He neither elaborated nor needed to.

         Most of us know what it feels like to be ready for supper. And missing a meal on a busy day may give us a headache. But being truly famished can be like an evolutionary regression. It can awaken our reptilian brains and cause us to act like animals rather than human beings who are made and being continually refined in God’s image.

         Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ fasting and temptation, and the story affirms the full, God-imaged humanity of Jesus. He feels what anyone would feel when dangerously hungry, and he remains faithful.

         Weakened by hunger, and facing the uphill climb of his vocation, Jesus becomes vulnerable. Recognizing that, Old Scratch tries to lure Jesus into making the kind of selfish and faithless decisions that you and I struggle with every day, decisions to survive by our own wits rather than by God’s gracious provision.

         We struggle because faith itself is a struggle. Faith is more than believing some doctrine. Faith means trusting where we have not seen and following where we have not gone. And because of that, we can find as many reasons to abandon faith as there are rocks in a desert.

Countless temptations lure us with the tangible and fragrant loaves of worldly wealth and power—the very things that tempt Jesus. And sure, when responsibly harnessed, temporal means and influence can encourage wonderful progress: Cures for illnesses. Discoveries at the heart of atoms and the outer reaches of space. Splendid art and music. Diverse cultures. Still, in and of themselves, wealth and power are kind of like Twinkies or Twizzlers. You can eat such things, but they neither nourish nor satisfy. And I genuinely trust that God intends us to experience more than “satisfaction.” I think God’s desire for the Creation is Shalom.

         While Jesus is famished and alone, Luke describes him as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, even with an empty belly, he is brimming with Shalom. Shalom is not the same as happiness or contentment. Shalom is more like joy. It’s the peace and the strength that come as gifts of union with God, even in the midst of struggle—especially when that struggle is with one’s own self. And isn’t that the nature of temptation? Even if someone else tempts us with selfish possibilities, the struggle to give in or to resist is ultimately with our own selves. Temptation forces us to decide whether or not we will live faithfully against all the selfish indulgences and all the lazy evasions we use to avoid demonstrating the grace and love of Christ. 

         Living faithfully in Christ is more than hard work. It’s a counter-cultural existence. Modern-day prophet Wendell Berry once wrote, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”1 While it may be our privilege to live faithfully, the pestilent temptations to live like “rats and roaches” are ever before us. They’re often saluted as strength by would-be leaders. They’re romanticized by entertainers. And, with embarrassing frequency, temptations are even preached from pulpits. But such things are not our truth. The image of God within us is our truth. The realm of God among us is our truth. Faith, hope, love, justice, and mercy are our truth because they are Christ’s truth.

         “If you’re the Son of God,” says the tempter to a fast-weakened Jesus, “turn these stones into bread.”

         We might ask, Well, why not turn stones into bread? It would be a private and harmless act, wouldn’t it? Maybe, but Jesus was raised in a storied faith, and this temptation re-enacts Moses telling the Hebrews that God, who is faithful, would provide for them as they wander in the desert. Moses also reminds them that their need for bread does not override their call to trust God. It seems that for Jesus, Sonship means trusting God and not taking matters into his own hands.

         Next, the tempter takes Jesus up on a high mountain and says, If you will worship me, then all the world is yours!

         Well, again, what if Jesus had assumed control of the nations? Wouldn’t we be better off? Maybe, but Jesus knows that Israel got into trouble when they demanded that Samuel find them a king so that they could be like all the other nations. And after getting what they asked for, they soon discovered that they got nothing they really wanted. The power they craved and thought would save them only delivered them deeper into worldly ways and turmoil. As the Son, Jesus becomes the wellspring of spiritual strength, not a wielder of political and military might.

         The final temptation dares Jesus to open up a can of seduction. From the top of the temple, Jesus can jump and let the people watch in horror as he plummets toward earth only to be caught at the last moment by God’s angels. Pull a sensational stunt like that and the world just might beat a path to your door. But real leaders lead through humility and wisdom, not through bombast and manipulation. Stunts don’t generate durable faith. Only living in and through Christ can do that.

During his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus embodies his Sonship not by posturing and bewildering, but by fulfilling the Shema of Deuteronomy 6. On behalf of the entire Creation, he loves God with all his famished heart, soul, mind, and strength. And if love is God’s aim for us, then God offers love through loving means. God creates opportunities for us to receive and share love through our own willing participation. Maybe that’s why, when we pray for patience, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone tries our patience. Or when we declare ourselves to be people of compassion and justice, we only become more aware of the world’s violence and injustice. It’s like God is saying, Don’t just say it. Live it!

         During these forty days of Lent, I pray that we all become more aware of the temptations that needle us with selfish desires, temptations that distract us from the call to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbors and caring for the earth. The story of Jesus’ temptation reminds us that while it is a human thing to sin and fall short of God’s glory, it’s even more authentically human to live and love faithfully, because such living and loving is Christ-like. For more than any act of power, it is Jesus’ day-to-day faithful humanity that reveals his oneness with God.

         We struggle with temptation because within us, our true and false selves exist side-by-side. And in Christ, we, who are neither rats nor roaches, can be faithful sons and daughters of God.

1https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/02/28/wendell-berrys-advice-for-a-cataclysmic-age?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Magazine_Daily_022222&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_medium=email&bxid=5e9f0eaa20122e38c97f6254&cndid=29375765&hasha=64daf62b8795dc42020c184a3048b7cb&hashb=8202484a5237c41fda88296de509ef5d18f71149&hashc=1c22445b3bc551f5a7e4402011a22573398b5a6798ebdc16f1795e5b743ac2c1&esrc=Auto_Subs&utm_term=TNY_Daily

A Lenten Sacrifice (Ash Wednesday Homily)

“A Lenten Sacrifice”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Ash Wednesday

3/2/22

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 

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

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(NRSV)

          Lent. A time during which we focus on practices of personal and corporate devotion. When we reflect on our human frailties, on our brokenness. And we connect them to the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

One way to commit to a Lenten discipline is to offer it as a sacrifice that re-enacts the sacrifice of Jesus. And his sacrifice was not, as Richard Rohr likes to say, to change God’s mind about us so God could love us again. Any god who is so human as to be “unable” to love, is a god created in human image. The word for that kind of god is an idol.

The sacrifice of Jesus was about changing our minds about God, about confronting the fullness of God’s overwhelming grace and mercy. Jesus’ sacrifice began long before his arrest in Gethsemane. It began with his surrender to a life of such intimate and authentic union with God that he and God were truly one. Belonging so perfectly to God, Jesus never belonged to temple or governmental authorities. And in a world littered with so many temptations to and excuses for living wastefully, fearfully, violently, or in any other way selfishly, it is an exquisitely rare occurrence to encounter someone willing, on behalf of others, to lay all else aside in order to live as one through whom the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe is immediately present.

Jesus makes even aspiring to that kind of union difficult when he says that piety—including almsgiving, prayer, fasting, humility—is most effectively practiced under the radar. The reason that makes things difficult is that his teaching can allow some of us to hear him implying that one’s faith is a completely private matter. All one has to do, however, is read the gospels to know that Jesus’ own life and living reveals the very visible, communal, and even political nature of the Christian faith.

         And that’s the point of union, of relationship, with God. It is, at the same time, an interior discipline of and an outward witness to love. The trick is practicing one’s faith in such a way that it directs attention to God rather than calling attention to oneself. That, I think, is what Jesus is talking about.

Lent, then, is not a time of confessing all our shortcomings so much as it is a time of deliberate cooperation with the Spirit’s ongoing restoration our inner and outer selves. So, to repent doesn’t mean shamefully confessing our sins. It means gratefully turning ourselves toward God, toward neighbor, and toward all of Creation.

         In Matthew 6, Jesus is reminding his listeners that discretion is crucial to a healthy spiritual practice, because to “do religion” in a way that draws more attention to self than to God almost inevitably turns us into competitors.

Who gives more?

Who fasts more?

Who prays more?

Who loves God more?

         Wouldn’t a competitive and judgmental spirit be a proper thing to sacrifice for Lent?

Identity and Belonging (Sermon)

“Identity and Belonging”

1Corinthians 3:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/20/22

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

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

         Paul seems frustrated as he’s trying to help a young and conflicted Corinthian church. And listen to all the different images he reaches for in just nine verses: babies nursing, milk, meat, seeds, planting, watering, a field under cultivation, and a house under construction. Paul is doing more than mixing metaphors. He’s serving up a complete-meal casserole!

         In the first section of today’s reading, Paul explains, in a rather condescending way, that the Corinthians weren’t ready to be left alone to govern themselves. Spiritually, they were “infants” and needed support and guidance. Their immaturity was evidenced in the fact of ongoing “jealousy and quarreling.” A division in the house was distracting them from their common ground and shared purpose.

         What happened, was that after planting the church, Paul turned the watering,the nurture, over to Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew who, through the ministry of Priscilla and Aquilla, had become a Christian. (Acts 18:24-28) Paul entrusted this gifted new disciple with leading the Corinthian church. And now, one group in the church prefers Paul, and another prefers Apollos.

         Some things never change, do they? All-too-often we decide who we are based on whom we like and whom we don’t, whom we follow and whom we oppose, whom we love and whom we fear. Then we ferret out like-minded individuals because they make us feel right and comfortable inside our dualistic little kingdoms of us versus them.

         Paul’s message to the Corinthians boils down to a rather terse admonishment: Get over it! Neither he nor Apollos can claim the kind of authority that the contentious little cliques are assigning to their respective leaders. The message of Christ is self-emptying love, humility, compassion, grace, reconciliation, and justice. So, as long as a messenger is faithful to the message, it’s childish for the church to divide over human loyalties.

         The Corinthian church’s struggle recapitulates old divides between Pharisees and Sadducees, Hasmoneans and Hellenists, David and Saul, Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel. And while it may look like just another power struggle, all of these struggles reveal the same deep, ancient, and common injury.

         One commentator on this passage identifies that injury as “loneliness…[which] is so much a part of our human condition that we cannot escape it.”1

         The abyss of loneliness, he says, becomes the site within the human heart for an acute craving for belonging. The most readily available way for us to meet that profound need is to create and participate in communities: churches, clubs, fraternities, sororities, teams, causes. While such things may help, they eventually disappoint, at least to some degree.2 No human organization can fully accommodate what is really a spiritual longing.

         There are two crucial things about this longing. For one, it bears witness to a profound spiritual wound, a wound that all of us carry from infancy.3 We seek belonging in order to heal from the wound of separation from our pre-existent identity in God. The psalmist sings about this: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed form me when none of them as yet existed.” (Psalm 139:15-16)

Our deepest and truest Self, the Self we were, are, and will always be is intimately attached to that Eternal Mystery, that Creative Energy we call God.

         Second, our longing also bears witness to our untapped aptitude for holiness. “Yes, we’re capable of the most awful atrocities,” said Desmond Tutu. “And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something. It is good also to remember,” said Tutu, “that we have a fantastic capacity for goodness.”4 The source of this capacity lies in the image of God within us. And, as the doctrine of the Trinity declares, God’s very essence is dynamic relationship.

         Relationship. Interdependence. This is our truth. Our longing for belonging speaks of an identity of relational holiness within each of us, and within all of us together. It’s a glorious mystery, and one touched only by things like love-wrought empathy and forgiveness, unbidden dreams and wonder, grateful responses in art and prayer, and even by our deepest pain and suffering. Within each of us, there remains a forgotten but authentic self, and it drives our desire for wholeness and for home. Jesus calls this a magnificent treasure hidden a field. This treasure, this hidden and true self is who we are, and it’s worth everything.5

         Who we are at the core of our human-being is rooted inextricably in God as a field is rooted in the earth herself. I think Paul and Jesus have the same field in mind, and we’re not simply some crop in it; we are the field that God cultivates.

         Now, a field doesn’t lose connection with the earth. However, as people, we do lose awareness of our connection with our environment—with the earth, with Heart, and Soul, and Breath. And when human beings lose awareness of our connection to the Creation, we tend to devolve into materialism. Everything becomes either a commodity to exploit or an enemy to defeat.

         When we lose connection, we imagine ourselves as separate fields, belonging only to what we agree with, or what we think we can prove. So, we choose to belong not to the same earth, but to the fencerows of things like creeds and laws, of skin color, power, status, or, as the Corinthians discover, to the fencerows of personalities.

         In faith, we claim that we are fields in the same holy Creation, and no amount of division will ever change the fundamental reality of our mutual belonging in God. And no other group or loyalty can permanently replace that belonging. So, even as we ally ourselves with transient fencerows, the inalienable gift of our shared image of God lies beneath us, as firm, as sure, and as perfectly identifying as the earth beneath a field. And just as fields as far from each other as Jonesborough and Johannesburg are connected by the same earth, every human being is connected to the same Ground of Being, the same Giver of Growth.

         One of Wendell Berry’s most memorable characters, Burley Coulter, says this about belonging: “The way we are, we’re members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”6

         So, there’s no real belonging for anyone until there is belonging for all. And according to Paul, it’s only when we recognize that truth, and when we begin to live it, that we begin to live as mature, “spiritual” beings—beings who experience the image of God within ourselves, who see and embrace it in others, and who dig deep beneath all the transitory fencerows to share the healing miracles of belonging with those brothers and sisters who stand right beside us. And with that one, 7-billion-strong creature called Humankind.

1Roger Gench, Feasting on the Word (Year A, Vol. 1), Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 350ff.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

4The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 116.

5Ibid. (Without quoting Richard Rohr directly, I am using ideas that he develops in his discussion of the True Self throughout his book, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self.

6Wendell Berry, The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership, North Point Press, 1985, pp. 136-137.

A Blessed Gut-Punch (Sermon)

“A Blessed Gut-Punch”

Luke 6:17-26

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/13/22

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,

for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,

for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,

for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you,

for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (NRSV)

         When considering the Beatitudes, it seems to me that most of us think first of Matthew’s version—“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and so on. Now, Matthew’s version is deeply instructive for us. And by extolling virtues like meekness, mercy, and peacemaking, it calls us to profoundly countercultural, transforming, and, therefore, Christ-like action. And I suppose that Matthew’s carefully spiritualized presentation can feel a bit more palatable for people who already feel, in some way, blessed.

That’s why, when Luke’s Jesus says, Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted, and when he follows that by saying Woe to everyone who is rich, full, happy, safe, and well-liked we get a gospel wake-up call that hits like a gut-punch.

While no one can know which version may be closer to Jesus’ actual words, it is authentically Lukan to present blessedness in terms that are not just stark, but explicitly inclusive of people who feel left out, people who would accuse organized and formalized religious traditions of paying more attention to words about love and justice than they actually pay attention to people who need to be loved, people who need justice in the form of advocacy and activism as well as crisis assistance.

Another difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts is that in Matthew, after Jesus welcomes and tends to the people, he takes only his disciples up a mountain. And there, in private, above everyone else, he utters his memorable teaching.

In Luke, Jesus does all the same welcoming and healing, but he doesn’t take the disciples away to teach them. He stays right there, on that “level place,” with the people. So, as he tells his disciples that blessedness is found in the midst of poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution, they’re looking right into the faces of people who are so desperate that they’re grabbing at Jesus like refugees clambering for the last boat out of a war zone.

Put yourself in a brand-new disciple’s shoes. Jesus hasn’t yet called even you blessed, and that’s what he calls people who are suffering through what anyone else would consider a cursed existence.

It’s interesting. When Jesus faces the abject need of the neediest of the needy, he locates the source of their hope in their predicament itself: Blessed are you in your suffering.

You know, maybe we can look back and see how an unpleasant experience may have helped us to grow, to become more grateful, or to empathize with others who are suffering; but is Jesus actually saying that, to know what true blessedness feels like, one must welcome suffering?

The answer to that question would seem to be a qualified yes. And here’s the qualifier: The key to understanding the relationship between suffering and the blessedness Jesus talks about is to understand the parallel relationship he reveals when he connects more debilitating suffering with worldly privilege and comfort.

What most of us have been conditioned to call blessedness, Jesus calls woeful. And I hear him saying that the things that may make us feel content and comfortable often blind us to the fullness of our humanity, because they blind us to the humanity of people who suffer. He’s saying that reaching for, expecting, and feeling entitled to unexamined wealth, gratification, and human adoration is a recipe for creating hell on earth because an uncritical, self-indulgent life must be protected by ignoring, exploiting, and even condemning anyone “beneath” us. And no one, says Jesus, is beneath another.

The late Desmond Tutu wrote: “We are each a God-carrier, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God…

“To treat [anyone] as less than this is not just wrong…It is…blasphemous and sacrilegious…Consequently injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a…spiritual imperative.”1

Every single week, in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And whatever it means for any of us to do God’s will on earth, doesn’t it mean for all of us to do more than offer lip service to some ideal? Doing God’s will on earth means inhabiting and cooperating with God’s realm in which all human beings have their fundamental worth and dignity affirmed through having adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and to have a community share in their tears and their laughter. To participate in providing such fundamental human rights to all people is to do justice, and, thus, to do God’s will.

The term “justice” often gets reduced to law enforcement, to the old eye-for-an-eye practice of retributive justice. And that same word—justice—can cause discomfort when applied more broadly to loving others as prophetically as Jesus did. As the Church, though, as the body of Christ, doing biblical justice—restorativejustice—is who we are. It’s what we do. Doing justice in the name of Christ proclaims, as Tutu said, that all human beings are God-carriers.

Doing justice in the manner of Jesus means that we start with those who might appear to be the furthest from blessedness. And that’s difficult for western cultures because we have been taught to see ourselves as independent, self-made people who have what we have because we earned it. Now, I’m not arguing with the value of goal-oriented hard work. However, if, as Christians, our goals are primarily to secure self-centered gains and accolades, then we miss something important. We miss grace.

Our book group is reading The Book of Joy which chronicles a week of insightful and delightful conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. One comment that has spoken powerfully to me was made by the Dalai Lama’s right-hand-man, Jinpa. Jinpa said that “modern society has prioritized independence to such an extent that we are left on our own to try to manage lives that are increasingly out of control.”2

Right now, out-of-control seems to be the norm for our planet and everything on it. Right now, blessedness can feel like nothing more than just getting through the day. And one temptation in out-of-control times is to focus only on ourselves and those closest to us. I think that out-of-control life is exactly what Jesus addresses in his call to love in the midst of suffering.

The saving love Jesus embodies is about so much more than each individual’s post-mortem destination. It’s about caring for one another and for the earth. It’s about recognizing that as long as injustice continues to affect any of us, none of us can truly experience the peace and wholeness of God’s blessedness.

When Jesus declares the humblest of humanity blessed in their suffering, he is inviting us into the joy of here-and-now salvation. He invites us into the darkest and most painful corners of our lives and the lives of those around us, because there, by necessity, we learn to depend, mutually, and ultimately, on his presence, his strength, and his grace.

         Where do you feel, or where do you see others feeling broken, beleaguered, and afraid? In that place, we all stand on the same, level ground—in need of God’s Christ.

May you reach out for him. And may you experience the blessedness of his resurrecting love.

1https://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/C00E753C68A605EF2540EF23F30FEDED/A2AE94689C106E613D3F7F9A22A6E02E?alternativeLink=False

2The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, NY, 2016. p. 95.

Deep Water (Sermon)

“Deep Water”

Luke 5:1-11 

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/6/22

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (NRSV)

       I remember—decades ago—watching my father-in-law train a horse. The more-than-two-year process began, of course, with the birth of a foal. Like her mother, she was a warm chestnut-brown. She had stockings on her forelegs and a thin, lightning-bolt snip on her muzzle. The first day of Gypsy’s life, my father-in-law, whom everyone in Screven County, GA knew as Bully, was there to watch her try to stand on her long, rubbery legs. They jerked about as if controlled by separate committees, each with its own agenda.

A delighted Bully watched and encouraged his minutes-old horse. “Aay, Gypsy Rosa Lee! Let me see you stand up! Atta girl!”

       As the days passed, Bully would ease closer and closer to Gypsy. Soon enough, she’d hear his voice and come running on her own. Bully would reach out and stroke his filly’s neck. He’d lean into her, drape an arm over her back, and eventually rub under her belly where the girth strap would go.

As the trust grew—and all the while with her mother, Ginger, nearby—Bully slipped a halter around Gypsy’s face. A little later, he clipped a lead rope onto the halter and guided her around the sandy lot, the hot Georgia sun on their backs. When she no longer fought the rope, Bully would tie Gypsy to a post and brush her.

       Over the months, Gypsy got frequent chances to smell a saddle. Toward her second birthday, she learned the feel of a bridle, and a bit between her teeth.

Next, Bully laid thick blanket on Gypsy’s back and set an English saddle over it. He buckled it around Gypsy’s belly, and let her get used to that strange accessory.

In time, Bully would stand for a few moments in the left stirrup, then step back down. Then up and down again. When Gypsy tolerated that, Bully swung his right leg over her back and sat still in the saddle and spoke calmly to her.

When Gypsy seemed comfortable with someone on her back, Bully tugged on the reins, and let the skittish filly walk him around the 3-acre rye patch behind the small pole barn.

Then, one day, at long last, Bully shut Ginger in a stall, opened the main gate, saddled up Gypsy, and rode her out to explore the farm. As they rode away, mother and daughter whinnied excitedly to each other as the distance between them grew further and as the relationship between horse and rider grew closer.

       For a horse, having some demanding biped tie you up in leather, climb on your back and lead you out beyond the fence that has defined your world since the day you were born—that’s some pretty deep water.

       Simon, says Jesus, is this your boat? Will you take me out in it? Just offshore so I can talk to these people. You know how well sound travels over water.

       Thanks, Simon. That worked well. Hey, would you push out a little deeper?

Maybe even further? That’s great. Now, throw out your nets. Catch some fish.

       Really? All night and nothing? Well, would you try anyway? For me?

       When Simon returns to dry land, that’s when he goes outside the main gate. That’s when he enters the deepest water he’s ever experienced—the waters of discipleship. 

       Jesus’ call to disciples consistently comes as something both unexpected and unmerited. There’s nothing exceptional about Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Just think about Bully watching his new foal struggling to stand. How could he be confident that she would eventually carry him on her back? Well, it’s pretty simple: She was a horse. So, too, the fishermen meet Jesus’ criteria for discipleship—they’re human beings. Jesus will make them disciples.

       The story of Bully training his horse and that of Jesus calling and equipping disciples mirror each other. Neither process happens overnight. They take time, patience, understanding, forgiveness. Most of all, they take trust and love.

       While Jesus loves us into discipleship, his call may unsettle us. It changes things within us and around us. At first it may seem like a terrible burden is climbing onto our backs and spurring us out beyond familiar and comfortable boundaries. For Simon it begins with an abrupt but sharp awareness of the extraordinary. He doesn’t know who Jesus is when those fish nearly sink his boat, but he does recognize the presence of holiness. And it terrifies him.

       The metaphor of training a horse is falling apart down now. Discipleship doesn’t “break” us. It doesn’t reduce us to beasts of burden. Indeed, as we open ourselves to the Christ, we become more fully human. As we love God by sharing ourselves with others, our lives become both simplified and magnified. We experience an unburdening. Selfish millstones such as greed and pride begin to fall away. Discipleship also emancipates us from legalistic religion and turns us out onto the deep waters of Christ-centered, servant-hearted spirituality.

       Now, we may choose to follow Jesus, but we don’t necessarily choose where to go. One way to discern whether a direction is of holy origin is to check the water. If it feels shallow and safe, chances are good that we aren’t yet where Jesus wants us to be. He tends to lead his disciples toward deep water where we have to trust him more than we trust our boat. Deep water is the place where our faith is challenged and stretched like Simon’s nets—stretched to their limits, but not broken, just overflowing with unforeseen possibility and hope.

       David Wilcox is an Asheville singer-songwriter who’s been around for many years. He’s not a Christian artist, but he has Christian roots that shape many of his lyrics. In one of his earliest songs, entitled “Hold It Up to the Light,” he sings about facing a big decision having to do with his vocation as a musician. Like Jacob at the Jabbok, he wrestles with all the possibilities before finally committing himself, at which point he sings these lines:

I said God, will you bless this decision?
I’m scared; is my life at stake?
But I see if you gave me a vision,
Would I never have reason to use my faith?
1

       The “vision” to which Wilcox refers is not a vision of how a plan might unfold. He means a mystical experience that would “prove” all doubt away. It’s the singer’s way of accepting that he must act on pure trust.

       Think about it: When Jesus calls the fishermen, he does so in a boat. And we’re not talking a ship. We’re talking a very small craft. Have you ever stood up in a canoe? How’d that work out? In that tippy little boat, the men lack solid footing. They have to trust that Jesus will provide everything they’ll need as they learn to follow him into and through even deeper waters. And there they’ll learn to love him by loving and serving humankind.

It’s a frustrating paradox, but it’s the lack of certainty that often makes Christ’s call authentic.

As we gather at Christ’s table, I invite us to listen for his voice calling us to lay down old and shallow ways of living in and relating to the Creation. Hear him calling us to follow him into the deeper waters of faith, hope, and love. For there, as disciples, we become partners with Christ in revealing the unimagined abundance and grace of God which is always as present, just below the surface, as Christ himself is always present in bread, and wine, and neighbor.

1David Wilcox, “Hold It Up to the Light,” from Big Horizon, A&M Records, 1994.

Robust, Resilient Sheep (Sermon)

“Robust, Resilient Sheep”

John 10:22-39

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/30/22

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?”

33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled— 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. (NRSV)

         Last Sunday, in Luke 4, we heard Jesus claim his messianic voice. His hearers were delighted—until Jesus suggested that God doesn’t discriminate between Gentiles and Jews. Infuriated, Jesus’ friends and neighbors chased him toward a cliff, planning to heave him onto the rocks below.

         Today, in John 10, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem hear words of grace from Jesus, they want to execute him on the spot. And this time it’s not because Jesus tweaks their religious pride or racial prejudice, but because he dares to claim that he and God are one—one essence, one voice. Instead of throwing Jesus onto the rocks, the Jewish leaders threaten to throw the rocks onto Jesus.

         The conversation that leads to the confrontation arises from a direct question: Tell us plainly, say the Jewish leaders, are you the Messiah? Apparently hopeful, but reluctant to take anything on faith, they demand answers and assurances before committing themselves.

         Last week I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, When God Is Silent. In that same volume, Taylor says this: “Only an idol always answers.”1 Taylor’s words are so true as to make certain people want to stone her. Yet even Jesus experienced the silence of God. According to gospel accounts, God spoke directly to Jesus at his baptism and his transfiguration. And after the Transfiguration, we never again hear God speak directly.

The Transfiguration mirrors Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai where God spoke the ten commandments, and the people heard thunder, saw smoke, and then trembled in fear. Afterward, the Hebrews told Moses, Look, from now on YOU speak to us. If God speaks again, we’ll die! (Exodus 20:19)

When Israel came down from Mt. Sinai, their relationship with Yahweh matured into their faith in and their faithfulness to God’s presence through the Law and the prophets. Later still, God’s persistent silence inspired words of lament, cries for God to speak once again. Perhaps most well-known is the cry from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…I cry…but you do not answer.” (Psalm 22:1-2)

In Matthew and Mark, as Jesus dies—as he who is one with God dies—he wails his delirious prayer into the deep silence of God. And he does so in the accusatory words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Well before his death, though, Jesus answers the Jewish leaders by saying, “My sheep hear my voice.” They trust me. And they follow me. That’s all Jesus says when asked to declare for certain that he is God’s Messiah: My sheep hear me and know me.

There’s a pejorative term being cast about these days. ”Sheeple” is used to show the disdain of one group toward another. It’s used to reproach those with whom one disagrees for not thinking for themselves. In today’s highly-polarized climate, to throw the “sheeple” stone is to dismiss others as expendable livestock.

It’s pretty horrible how we so easily and confidently belittle, condemn, and even persecute each other, isn’t it? Even among like-minded peer groups, if one doesn’t fully engage a prevailing attitude, one can be made to feel unfaithful to what the group deems right and true. I think that today’s culture of relentless suspicion and tribal vengeance is making many of us anxious, depressed, and even hopeless.

It seems to me that a major problem in all of this is that, regardless of which side of the spectrum one identifies with, more and more, we’re feeling forced to choose between absolutes. Whether on the right or the left, we can find ourselves being expected to commit ourselves to specific assumptions and ideologies that put us in constant competition rather than in hopeful cooperation. That allows and even encourages us to be just mean.

The word “sheeple” can be aimed from either side of any aisle, because what matters is not the particular -ism we hold, but the fact that we hold it with such unrestrained certainty that we deny that all of us are limited and imperfect human beings in need of God’s grace and guidance.

For the record: I am not claiming some high ground. Living in the same frenzied world as everyone else, I struggle every day to maintain a posture that is honest and, as Paul says, patient, kind, and humble.

         It seems to me that Jesus was up against similar challenges in his relationship with the Jewish authorities. First century Israel was enduring yet another occupation by a foreign power that ruled by intimidation and military threat, by making occupied peoples feel sheepishly dependent on them, beholden to them, and by demanding absolute loyalty from them. So, when the Jewish leaders ask Jesus for his messianic ID, they want assurances that he has a plan to overthrow Rome. After all, that was the anticipated job description of the Messiah. Instead, they hear Jesus claim a shepherding union with God. His response requires the Jewish leaders to ask themselves important questions. It asks them to think carefully about Jesus’ human interactions. His claim of intimate communion with God puts all people of faith in a place of critical reflection and contemplation. And it’s an uncomfortable place because it has immediate implications on how we live our own lives.

Jesus calls the Jewish leaders, and us, to understand that whenever we hear voices of compassion, justice, and generosity, whenever we hear voices that challenge the world’s ways of idolatrous violence and greed, we are, in truth, hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd—God’s incarnate and universal Christ. To follow the Good Shepherd is not to be sheepish. It’s not to be manipulated. It’s to trust God’s voice and to respond with our own commitment to lives of shepherding love.

Mahatma Gandhi is often credited with saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Apparently, however, what he actually said was deeper, and more challenging and empowering. He said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [sic] changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”2

When John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he’s the Messiah, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5, Luke 7:22)

Again, Jesus doesn’t answer Yes or No. He challenges his questioners to pay attention, to interpret what they have “seen and heard,” then to “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

If we are truly the body of Christ, all other loyalties are rendered secondary, because what we do and how we do it, and what we say and how we say it become the “seen and heard” things of which Jesus speaks.

None of us are perfect disciples. Still, we ask: How often do our actions and words reflect the world’s selfish idolatries? And how often do they reflect the grace-filled, life-honoring, world-transforming actions and words of God’s eternal Christ?

1Barbara Brown Taylor, When God Is Silent. Cowley Publications, Cambridge/Boston, 1998. p. 80.

2https://josephranseth.com/gandhi-didnt-say-be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world/

Cliffhanger (Sermon)

“Cliffhanger”

Luke 4:14-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/23/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Ibid. p. 66.

It Is Time (Sermon)

“It Is Time”

John 2:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/16/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s re-enter the story.

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

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

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

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

“That can’t be!” says the other.

“But it is!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is time for us trust miracle.

It is time for us to embody hope.

It is time to embrace one another in compassion.

It is time for us to do justice.

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

And that leaves out exactly no one.

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

Becoming the Beloved (Sermon)

“Becoming the Beloved”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/9/22

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

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

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

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

And the crowds ask, How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         What do you want to do? asked Nouwen.

Write a novel, said Bratman.

So do it.

I don’t have the talent.

Sure you do.

I don’t have time or money.

Excuses, said Nouwen.

Reality, said Bratman.

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

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

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

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

“How [do I do that]?” Henri asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2Ibid. p. 20.

3Ibid. pp. 26 and 37.

4Ibib. pp. 38-39.

From Darkness Toward Light (Meditation)

“From Darkness Toward Light”*

Isaiah 9:2-7

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Meditation for Blue Christmas Service

12/19/21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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