Easter: Discovering Life in Christ (Sermon)

“Easter: Discovering Life In Christ”

John 20:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunrise 2022

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)

         On Sunday, Mary Magdalene rises before the sun. Maybe there is some starlight, but for the most part, her day begins with darkness swaddling her like a shroud.

         On Maundy Thursday, we talked about darkness as a negative thing. And yet, darkness is also a kind of equalizer. In the dark, we may know up from down, and we may still know our own left from our own right. But spin around a few times, and we might have to wait for daybreak to know east from west. And in the dark, we share our humanity entirely differently. It may be that we actually share our humanity more deeply.

         In his journal, Thomas Merton describes darkness as a kind of baptismal font. He writes of attending the night office during Holy Week when the choir sang without a single ray of light in the sanctuary. “I thought of the darkness as a luxury,” he said, “simplifying and unifying everything, hiding all the accidents that make one monk different from another monk, and submerging all distinctions in plain obscurity. Thus,” he says, “we are all one in the death of Christ.”

Merton then tells of singing the Benedictus, “the canticle of thanksgiving for the Light who is to be sent. Now He is sent,” says Merton. “He has come. He has descended into the far of night…” and gathered all things to himself.

         Merton imagines that in this gathering, “We will see one another with white garments, with palm branches in our hands. [And the] darkness,” he says, “is like a font from which we shall ascend washed and illumined, to see one another, no longer separate, but one in the Risen Christ.”1

         “In Christ” is a kind of mantra in the New Testament epistles. A quick search reveals that from Romans through Revelation, in the NRSV, the phrase “in Christ” appears 90 times. And for Paul, in Christ refers to an inviting and inclusive mystery. He’s bearing witness to God bringing “all things” together—the whole of Creation—and uniting them in Christ.

According to John, as Mary arrives at the tomb, she sees three figures—two “angels” and a man she assumes is a gardener. After reading Merton’s journal, I imagine Mary still submerged in the darkness of grief, and yet hers is a cleansing and enlightening grief. And when she hears her name, all things come together in Christ, including the three figures she has seen. They gather into the wholeness that was, and is, and will always be the presence of God’s Christ. It is very much like the experience Cleopas and his friend have on the road to Emmaus later that day, when they recognize the Christ in a complete stranger.

         Now, that’s one way experience Easter—as a mysterious and unpredictable revelation of God’s irrepressible, whole-making grace in the world. Recognizing this oneness, this gathering of all things in Christ, is the redeeming gift of Resurrection. It’s also a challenging gift because the world isn’t always open to wholeness and union. Indeed, more often than not, much of the world resists the in Christness of the Creation because, among other reasons, living in Christ involves so much give and take, and in an anxious, divided, and competitive world, we often become consumed with taking rather than giving.

To discover and experience the in Christ life, we are invited to give up all the selfish habits of being that divide us, habits that obscure the image of God within us and that prevent us from seeing the image of God in others. Habits like pride, greed, fear, and vengeance. Habits that humankind manifests in attitudes like racism, consumerism, nationalism, and other violence-breeding distortions of our God-imaged humanity.

         We call it Holy Saturday—the day between Good Friday and Easter. For people of faith, Saturday is, spiritually and liturgically, a day of darkness. In the grief of that day, past and future dissolve into a kind of timeless present when we are washed of all selfish expectations, and when, by the illuminating darkness, God grants us the opportunity to recognize that God is gathering together all things in Christ.

Caryll Houselander was a British writer, artist, and Christian mystic in the first half of the 20th century. Her most memorable mystical experience occurred on a subway in London when, in her heart and mind, she clearly saw “Christ in all people.”

“Quite suddenly,” she recalled, “I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because he was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here in this underground train, not only the world as it was at that moment, not only [all] the people…of the world, but all those yet to come. I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here…in every passerby—Christ.”

         I imagine Houselander and her fellow travelers on that underground train buried in a kind of darkness. Sure, there were lights on the cars, but can’t you imagine heads bowed in dark silence, eyes open but seeing little and acknowledging less? All of them crowded beneath a shared pall of busyness, of anxiety about living in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s as the dark clouds of war gathered? So deeply did she see and experience her vision, that, through some uncommon grace, Caryll Houselander, like Mary on Easter morning, saw the Christ in each person and in all people together—all one in Christ.

Her vision lasted several days and shaped the rest of her life in relationship to all human beings.

Like Mary Magdalene, Caryll Houselander could not have held onto the Christ she saw in the people around her. He was not corporeal in the same way they were, but he was—and he is, even now—no less real, loving, and faithful.

My prayer for all of us is that we allow God’s Spirit to Easter us toward union with God in Christ every day. And one way to do that is to open ourselves to the font of simplifying and unifying darkness with the same expectation and hope with which we open ourselves to the Light. For in the darkness of our own difficult and disturbing days, we have the opportunity to do exactly as Jesus calls us to do, to lose our lives so that we might find them anew.

Please trust this, my friends: In the new light of Resurrection, we are being made one and whole through the shared embrace of God who is bringing together all things in Christ.

1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 99.

2https://catholicwomensforum.org/who-was-caryll-houselander-and-why-was-she-called-a-divine-eccentric/

The Fragrance of Christ (Sermon)

“The Fragrance of Christ”

John 12:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

4/3/22

         In John 11, Jesus resuscitates Lazarus and confirms the unique power of the one who called himself “the resurrection and the life.” In that same chapter, John describes the treacherous fallout of raising Lazarus—namely how it caused a small group of Jewish leaders to plot the deaths of both Jesus and Lazarus.

That’s an uncomfortable paradox: Jesus’ restoration of life provokes a scheme to cause death.1 For some reason, life-giving holiness often generates an equally powerful and determined will to end the lives of those who demonstrate the radical love of life-affirming acceptance and life-giving grace. It’s discouraging how often genuine holiness provokes violent reactions from worldly powers-that-be. In John 11, those powers are represented by Caiaphas and his small circle of co-conspirators.

         It’s necessary to acknowledge that John’s gospel is often considered a source of anti-Semitism in Christianity. And indeed, John frequently refers to “the Jews” as Jesus’ principal opponents. It seems to me, though, that John is speaking primarily of those Jewish leaders who hold ecclesiastical and social influence, and who can whip the masses into a frenzy when they—the so-called leaders—feel their privilege being challenged. These leaders also know that when Jesus adds raising the dead to his already popular works of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming outcasts, people will flock to him and throw their support and loyalty his way instead of toward folks like the high priests. For the most part, it’s this little clutch of Jewish leaders who feel threatened by Jesus, not the Jewish people in general.

Whether in first-century Judaism or in twenty-first-century Christianity, those who are most likely to feel threatened by Jesus and his followers are those who approach life most pragmatically. Dealing in absolutes and certainties rather than in the mysteries and possibilities of faith, they’re often the ones who, like Caiaphas and, for a time, Judas, keep their fingers on purse strings rather than heart strings, who remain more concerned about weapons than wisdom, and who spread more loathing than love.

And then there’s Mary.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (NRSV)

The sister of both Lazarus and Martha, Mary is more interested in affection than etiquette. She is hungrier for growth than for groceries. And filled with such deep gratitude for Jesus, she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on his feet, and overwhelms the house with fragrance.

The pragmatists in the room act appalled.

What a waste! they say.

And I guess they have a point. Once all that perfume is poured out, it cannot be re-bottled. This extravagant act convinces me that Mary, with her keen spiritual awareness, comprehends what Jesus did for Lazarus. She knows that Jesus endangered his own life by restoring the life of her brother. So, her gesture becomes an act of lavish thanksgiving and blessing, not wastefulness. It declares Mary’s defiant love for and solidarity with Jesus. It’s an offering made completely and irreversibly to him. So, whatever Jesus’ lot will be, Mary is prepared to share it.

Mary’s actions challenge us to ask ourselves just how much power over us we grant to money and to the things it buys, whether that be expensive perfume or influence with people of influence. And if we’re completely honest, we’re likely to be a little embarrassed by our answers.

In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian pastor Bill Carter tells the story of attending a clergy stewardship conference and listening to a presenter talk about generosity. Carter says that when “the presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God…the [roomful of preachers] began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.’

“The reaction was electric,” says Carter. The pastors “began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume.” They whispered nervously about the legality of destroying money. They laughed uncomfortably about how wealthy the presenter must be if he could so casually waste a hundred dollars.

“‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. I am offering it to God, and that means that it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’”1

         Mary’s all-in offering of perfume is often considered a foreshadowing of Jesus’ burial. And that is, indeed, something John wants us to understand. I also wonder if Mary’s offering creates a kind of fragrant link between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.

When we talk about Jesus raising Lazarus, we call it a resuscitation instead of a resurrection. And we do so because Lazarus, who returns to the same body will also return to the same grave.

Jesus’ resurrection is an entirely different thing. While we speak of the resurrection of the body, we also speak of an unimaginably new resurrection body. That distinction is consistent with Jesus’ reluctance to be touched by Mary when she sees him in the garden on Sunday morning. It’s also consistent with Paul’s affirmation that Jesus’ resurrection body is incomparably different from the body he inhabited during is earthly ministry. (1Corinthians 15:35-55)

Whatever a resurrection body may be—and no one on this side of the grave can know—it does seem safe to trust that it’s at least a body that will not return to the grave. Our previous bodies, then, like that $100 bill, will, at least eventually, cease to be of use to anyone.

         Lazarus’ resuscitated body can continue to be of use—if he gets over the jolt of having been forced to return to the world with all its suffering as well as all its beauty. Jesus’ resurrected body declares that his previous incarnation is over and done. Having poured his life out like Mary pouring out her bottle of perfume, Jesus can no longer be re-bottled. Having been poured out, he continues to be a fragrant offering turned loose in the Creation for the sake of all Creation.

         I think that’s our call—to live as the fragrance of Christ in and for the world. If so, then we ask ourselves: Do we, as Mary does, pour out our words and actions like a fragrant and extravagant offering? Do we, as Jesus does, go all-in on loving God by loving our neighbor and caring for the Creation?

Or do we, like Caiaphas and his terrified little junta, impose a graceless and self-serving pragmatism on the people and the environment around us?

         The table before us is set with a reminder of the extravagant grace of God’s outpouring in Jesus. The gift of the incarnate Christ is meant to set us free from dead-end devotion and loveless longing.

As we receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may each of us sense God’s Spirit being poured into us, strengthening us, and empowering us to experience for ourselves and to embody for others the out-poured fragrance of God’s eternal Christ, who unites all things in himself through his all-inclusive, non-violent, Creation-transforming love.

1JaeWon Lee Carter, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 141.

2William Carter, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 142.

The Bitter Pill of Grace (Sermon)

“The Bitter Pill of Grace”

Luke 15:11-32

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/27/22

         Luke 15 begins with Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with “sinners.”

         Standing face-to-face with those who know the law, and who abide by it with loveless resolve, Jesus tells a short parable: If a shepherd had a hundred sheep, and he lost one, wouldn’t he search for that one sheep until he found it? And when he did, wouldn’t he call his family and friends together to celebrate? And wouldn’t you?

         No response.

         Okay, says Jesus, suppose a woman loses one of the only ten coins she has. Won’t she sweep the entire house until she finds it? And won’t she rejoice when she does? And wouldn’t you?

         The Pharisees and scribes seem to feel nothing inside their cold, tombstone hearts. So, into the tension, Jesus tells another story.

         11 “‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’

“So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

31 “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  (NRSV)

         Jesus leaves that story hanging the same way that Luke leaves Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes hanging. And that leaves us hanging, too. What does the elder son do? What effect do the father’s actions have in the family? In the community?

         The parable of the father and his two sons illustrates, memorably, that at the heart of all matters, human and divine, lies the foundation of relationship. And the Judeo-Christian tradition uses the language of covenant to describe those relationships that reflect our understanding of God’s purpose and desire for all Creation.

         Living in covenant relationship with God, other human beings, and the earth is difficult. It demands the agonizing death of human selfishness and pride. Last week, we talked about repentance as turning. Repentance also involves a kind of death.

         When the younger son recognizes his potentially-fatal selfishness, he rehearses a humbled plea to offer to his father. Dad, he says, I’ve made a mess of things. I insulted you personally and disgraced you publicly. Having broken a sacred trust—indeed, having effectively wished that you were dead—I know that you have every right to consider me dead to you. Because of what I’ve done, I’ve lost the right to be called your son. But would you take me on as a hired hand?

         The Pharisees and the scribes know what the father should do with his son. He should hold a qetsatsah ceremony. That involves filling a large jug with burned nuts and corn and smashing it into smithereens at the young man’s feet. He then shouts his former son’s name out loud so that everyone knows that he has been cut off from the family and the community—forever.1

According to the law, that’s what the father should do. He should channel all the elder-brother disgust he can muster and disown that ungrateful son. Instead, the father embodies grace. He humbles himself—in fact, he humiliates himself. He runs out to welcome his son and orders up a celebration. You and I really can’t understand how awkward such a party would be for those who attend. The story, though, illustrates the profound difference between covenantal and contractual relationships.

         When I work with couples getting married, I make the point that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. People enter contracts to pursue their own interests. One says to the other, I’ll give this to you, but only under the condition that you give that to me. It’s a quantifiable exchange that doesn’t happen without the enforceable guarantee of getting as well as giving. And contracts have their place. We engage in contractual relationships every time we check out at a grocery store, or restaurant, or online.

         In contrast, when people enter a covenant, they do so with a willing and eager vow—for better or worse—to make the well-being of the other as an equal or greater priority than their own well-being.

         What makes covenant more challenging is that it necessarily implies forgiveness, which, paradoxically, becomes a kind of pre-condition to unconditional love. And that condition is placed on the one who loves. As Alexander Pope said: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

         You’ve come home! says the forgiving father. That’s all that matters. You’re home!

         Isn’t that what God says, over and over, to prodigal Israel?

         Covenantal grace can be a bitter pill. It seldom seems fair. But rather than using the contractual language of merit, covenant speaks to that thread of eternity called grace that binds all things together. And not everyone gets it.

         With a sneer, the elder son says to his father, “This son of yours” has turned you into a sucker, a loser. Look at all I’ve done for you all my life! And you’ve done nothing for me!

         Who among us cannot relate to the contract-minded elder brother? And if to him, then to the Pharisees and scribes?

         The father in this parable, however, does something for the elder son that is no less scandalous, no less covenantal than what he does for the prodigal. He turns his back on his guests to go outside and “plead” with his angry son. No matter how faithful and hardworking a son might be, virtually no traditional, self-respecting, first-century father would plead with a son.

         Throughout the parable, the father does everything wrong—at least culturally. Nevertheless, Jesus holds him up as an example of God-bearing grace. Through this father, Jesus illustrates that forgiveness is the foundation of covenantal relationship. Forgiveness and love are certainly mutually-inclusive, and perhaps even synonymous. They are attributes of God that we cannot undo through our own fragile-egoed judgments. To forgive is to incarnate in our own bodies, minds, and spirits the Creator of the Universe, because God relates to all things through covenant, not contract.

         In his journal, Thomas Merton wrote, “I think I am beginning to understand something about the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel—the lost sheep, the lost drachma, the Prodigal Son. Our dearest Lord is showing that he means everything about the fatted calf and the rejoicing to be taken literally, and that He means to pour out every kind of happiness in rivers upon those who ran away from his mercy but could not escape it.”2

         Richard Rohr echoes Merton’s words when he says, “The great thing about God’s love is that it’s not determined by the object. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. That’s difficult for us to accept, says Rohr, because “We naturally live in what I call the meritocracy of quid pro quo.” That is, the meritocracy of contract. “We must,” says Rohr, “be taught by God…how to live in an economy of grace.”3

         It seems to me, that we are most truly our God-imaged human selves, when we—through Christ and in the strength of the Holy Spirit—intentionally live in ways that confound and even threaten the Pharisees and scribes within us and among us, because we say to them, We understand your concern, but honestly we’re not worried about what you think others deserve. Just watch what happens when we love them, anyway!

1https://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_qetsatsah_ceremony

2 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and Edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 85.

3Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate…Seeing God in All Things [CD, DVD, MP3])

Good Soil (Sermon)

“Good Soil”

Luke 13:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/20/22

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (NRSV)

         Before jumping into our text, let’s recall a deep-time story. Against God’s specific instructions, Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. Soon hiding behind scratchy fig leaves, the couple knew they’d been busted. Adam tried to blame it on both God and Eve.

Well look, he said “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave [it to] me.” 

But the devil made me do it! said Eve (Gen. 3:13)

Interesting. As soon as human beings had both language and community, people started blaming their failures on others.

It’s significant that the couple could not return to the garden after they ate the fruit. Once their eyes were opened, they could neither un-see what they’d seen nor un-taste what they’d tasted. They had entered a new reality, one they had to learn to both endure and enjoy. And here’s the good news in the story of Adam and Eve: The first gift is life itself. The second gift is companionship. And the third gift is the gracious, double-gift of repentance and forgiveness.

Whatever mistakes we try to hide behind our fig leaves, they don’t have to define us. That’s what makes repentance a gift and, therefore, Lent a season of hope and new life.

In today’s gospel text, some people are talking to Jesus about a particularly graphic atrocity when Pilate mingled the blood of executed Galileans with that of a Jewish animal sacrifice. While historians agree that Pilate was a violent authoritarian who was willing to use any means to maintain power, the blood-mingling incident has no historical confirmation outside of Luke’s gospel. Maybe that’s why, when the people ask about it, Jesus immediately turns the people’s attention away from the sins of others and toward the issue of repentance. He does so by mentioning a tragedy at the tower of Siloam, an event which also lacks corroborating evidence. In doing so, Jesus turns what are likely fabrications, or at least embellishments, into object lessons.

Maybe we can see some similarities in how Parson Weems’ thoroughly un-true account of George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree became a beloved national myth about, ironically, truth-telling.1

Jesus’ point is to say, No, God is not some vengeful beast. And repentance is more than mere confession. It’s a way of life, and it’s for everyone, not just those whom you decide to call sinners.

Too much Christian teaching has declared, explicitly and implicitly, that God basically creates us for hell then sits back to let us decide for ourselves whether or not we want to go to heaven. That reduces our lives to non-stop efforts of trying to appease or, like Adam and Eve, to hide from an angry God. But any god of insatiable anger and eye-for-an-eye vengeance is a projection of our own fears and prejudices. Those small-g, made-in-our-image gods allow us not only to persecute enemies, but to treat neighbors, friends, and family with self-righteous disdain, spite, and even contempt. So, those gods are emphatically not the God revealed in Jesus. That’s the point of Jesus’ decisive “No” to those who wonder if Yahweh had used Pilate to kill sinners.

Jesus follows that No with a parable. In the story, a landowner gets impatient with a fruitless fig tree. Get rid of it, he tells his gardener. It’s just wasting space.

Well, let me work with it, says the gardener. I’ll tend it for another yearI’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Then you can decide what to do.

Now, I’m no gardener, but my wife is. And my way of helping her with either flowers or vegetables is to keep my distance. I can kill a rock garden, and she can make one grow. I’ve seen her restore plants that almost anyone else would throw away, because where some would see a lifeless twig, she’s able to feel just enough life stirring in just enough cells to send some new shoot reaching for sunlight.

Good gardeners know that caring for plants starts with caring for the soil. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. The seeds are not at fault for their failure to thrive in poor soil. If the earth is unwell, it won’t sustain life, much less produce good fruit. In order to provide a healthy environment for things to grow, the soil has to be nurtured.

Hiding behind the fig leaves of the tree in Jesus’ parable is, well, a fig tree! A tree with both the capacity and, given the tree’s DNA, the desire to produce figs. Hiding behind those fig leaves is a kind of prayer: “Help me to be a real fig tree!”

And that is a prayer of repentance.

Hiding behind our fig leaves of fear, guilt, and all that utterly useless shame is exactly what God has created and loves—human beings who crave belonging, purpose, and joy. And from the Christian perspective, we are most fully and fruitfully human when we are in community. As communities, then, we have much more in common with soil than with individual plants. Our shared calling is to create a fertile environment for holiness; and we don’t create holiness. That’s God’s doing. Repentance, then, is less a private act of regret than it is a public act of solidarity in, with, and for one’s community, and the entire Creation for that matter. Repentance is less a private act than it is a public act of communal restoration.

While there is an individual element to repentance, through repentance—which in Greek means “to turn”—we’re turning more than our own selves. We’re turning the very circumstances in which we all live. If the prayer of the fig tree is “Help me to be a real fig tree,” the prayer of good soil is “Not my will but yours.”

As good soil, we involve ourselves, as Jesus did, in the social, political, and economic realities around us for the sake of the Creation—and especially for the sake of all that suffers and cries out for love, acceptance, care, healing, or rest.

To reduce discipleship to church-going, or doctrine, or conspicuous morality is to live for ourselves. And that would make us rather lifeless soil. Aren’t we more than that? Aren’t we here to participate in God’s work of creating, nurturing, and celebrating life?

The Lenten discipline of repentance restores us to community. It also restores as community. It returns us to the soil-tilling, fertilizing work of discipleship. As Jesus’ disciples, we’re here to help God offer hope to the poor, food to the hungry, laughter to those who weep, and welcome to those who have no place to belong.

We are called to live as a community of good soil in which mysteries beyond our comprehension and control produce the healthy and healing fruits of compassion, justice, and reconciliation. These fruits nourish us with desire, strengthen us with courage, and inspire us with gratitude.

And they reveal the entire Creation as something saturated with the ever-fertile love and grace of God.

1https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/parson-weems/

From Fox-Hearted to Christ-Hearted (Sermon)

“From Fox-Hearted to Christ-Hearted”

Luke 13:31-35

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/13/22

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  (NRSV)

         Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. And they were both kind of fox-hearted men, cold predators who feasted on their herds by binging on political executions. Remember, Herod Antipas had John the Baptist’s head served on a platter—literally.

         The image of a fox also reaches deep into the collective memory of the Jewish people. In the book of Judges, Samson uses a huge skulk of foxes to exact a violent but rather creative revenge against the Philistines.

         In the story, Samson marries a Philistine woman, but not for love. He uses her to infiltrate the enemy. During the week of his wedding, Samson deliberately creates a ruckus that allows him to separate from his bride before they can consummate their marriage.

         Eventually, Samson returns and demands his wife back. In a revealing display of “biblical marriage and family values,” his father-in-law says, and I quote, “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister prettier than she? Why not take her instead?”

         Having manipulated the desired offense, Samson says, “‘This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.’

         “So Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took some torches; and he tied the foxes tail to tail, and put a torch between each pair of tails. When he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines, and burned up the shocks and the standing grain, as well as the vineyards and olive groves.”

         Now, when the Philistines learn who is responsible for the attack, and why, they round up Samson’s ex-wife and her father and burn them alive. (See Judges 14-15) The Word of the Lord? Thanks be to God?

         For such a memorable biblical story, it contains an awful lot of fox-heartedness and very little redemption.

         At issue in today’s gospel reading is the fact that the Pharisees, whom Luke consistently depicts as shallow, self-serving, and power-hungry, are acting kind of like foxes themselves—or at least like a bunch of border collies who have started smoking behind the gym with the rottweilers and chihuahuas. So, when they tell Jesus that he needs to leave immediately because Herod has a torch tied to his tail, and is coming to burn him out, I hear them exploit the situation to get rid of Jesus. Hey Jesus, they say. Herod’s after you! You should go away!

         And Jesus responds saying, Bless all-a-y’all’s hearts, but you can go and tell that fox that he can’t keep me from doing what God called me to do.

         After that, Jesus turns toward the holy city and rips open his heart in passionate lament.

         “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Then he grieves the blindness and deafness of the people with whom he is so helplessly in love.

Next, mixing metaphors, he says, in effect, The fox is in the chicken coop! And how I wish I could gather you beneath my wings like a mother hen, but the fox has charmed you. You have become his food, and some of you are even turning into foxes yourselves!

The coop is yours now, says Jesus. And I can’t wait until you recognize me as the one whom God has sent to you.

         The juxtaposition of fox versus hen is stark, isn’t it? The stories of people like Samson, Joshua, and Elijah remind us that even faith communities often tolerate, excuse, and, indeed, crave ruthless and predatory behavior in their heroes. But to embody such faithlessness, is to declare that, ultimately, we trust avenging violence more than we trust God’s reconciling grace and restorative justice.

That’s what the religious leaders tell themselves at Passover. Jesus has to die, and if we can’t kill him during the celebration, Pilate can. All we have to do is plant a seed of fear in his little canine heart. Tell him that Jesus is a dangerous heretic who doesn’t revere and serve the emperor.

Isn’t that the way of things? Everyone trying to cast everyone else as the fox—the threat who must be stopped. And when consumed with anxiety, when blinded by God-grieving, prophet-killing predation, we miss the signs of promise and hope that are right in front of us. 

Earlier in Luke, John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s jail, sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus tells them to pay attention to all they’ve seen and heard. The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor—all of them are experiencing new life and new hope. (Luke 7:19-23) And if that’s happening, something good is afoot, something transforming, something holy. And God is calling all Creation to participate in it.

After saying this, Jesus, utters another lament. He grieves the duplicity of the critics who said that, because of his austere and sober ways, John must have a demon. For he “has come eating no bread and drinking no wine.”

But, says Jesus, when I keep company with people simply to love them, you condemn me for being a glutton and a drunkard.

Then Jesus says this: “Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” (Luke 7:33-35)

Matthew’s Jesus says it this way: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16 & 20)

Jesus reminds us that the life we live reveals what is truly important to us. The ways we interact with and care for others and the Creation reveal our hearts in ways that silver crosses around our necks and rubber WWJD bracelets cannot.

I think most of us are lamenting a world in which torch-tailed foxes seem to have their way unhindered. Every day we feel the weight of predatory rhetoric and violence, the degradation of the environment, and a suffocating scarcity of Christ-hearted justice, kindness, and humility.

When Jesus says “Nevertheless” to all of that, he makes us a neverthelesspeople. Easter will shout a reverberating Nevertheless into the fox-heartedness of the world. Easter reaffirms the great affirmation of Christmas—the affirmation that the Creation is God’s first incarnation and most concrete promise that “God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 3:16b)

Easter will affirm these things. Right now, though, it’s Lent. And Lent is our opportunity to acknowledge that even we, who claim to follow Jesus, not only recognize suffering in the world, we often aggravate it by participating in Herod’s predatory fear and greed.

Nevertheless, we know who we truly are. We know that God has created and called humankind to participate in God’s ways of Christ-hearted love.

Listen, we’re not foxes on the prowl. So, let’s file down our fangs and clip our claws. In all that we say and do, may it be obvious that we are the vindicating children of wisdom. We are incarnate signs of the household of God.

And wherever we go, let us all go there in the name of “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

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.