Seeing With the Eyes of Christ (Sermon)

“Seeing With the Eyes of Christ”

Mark 6:14-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/18/21

         The disturbing story of John the Baptist’s death makes one reference to Jesus, and no reference at all to God or the Holy Spirit. It’s all about John and his ultimately-fatal relationship with power. So, it’s helpful to understand some context before we read the story itself.

         Mark 6 opens with the account of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. Certain that they know him, Jesus’ family and friends dismiss his teachings as the puffed-up sermonizing of someone who has gotten above his raising. Stung by the contempt of familiarity, Jesus not only laments his neighbors’ disregard, “he [can] do no deed of power,” says Mark. All he can do is lay hands on a few people and heal them.

         How telling is that, though? To Mark, a significant “deed of power” transcends physical healing. Jesus’ truly prophetic gift is in revealing the presence of the kingdom of God, and inviting people into new relationship with everything around them.

         In the next story, Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to minister in his name. He tells them to travel light. Wear clothes, but just go. Then he tells them that if a community rejects them, move on.

         Both of these stories reveal that prophetic living often puts us at odds with family and friends, with our communities, and, most significantly, with those who control wealth and power. The Herods of this world—including the Caesars, Pharaohs, and führers—never hesitate to use, or to encourage others to use, violence as the only reliable means to their ends. Presenting themselves as protectors of religious life, they’ll even usurp religious symbols and language to do so. Simply put, Herod and his kindred do not tolerate prophets who are faithful to God before they are loyal to power.

So, when Herod hears of a rabbi named Jesus gaining popularity and influence by teaching love of God and neighbor rather than loyalty to his throne, he gets a lump in his throat.

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.

29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (NRSV)

The story of John’s death seems as straightforward as it is disturbing. When Herod and Herodias, in a selfish and lust-driven act of entitlement, dissolve their marriages to marry each other, John calls them out. The fact that Herodias was married to Herod’s half-brother, Philip, was only part of the problem. Herodias was also Herod’s niece. So, John would have taken issue with an incestuous marriage.1

As a faithful Jew, John would also have been disturbed by the couple’s cavalier attitude toward marriage itself. For people of faith, both ancient and modern, marriage is a covenant bond to be honored because the commitment between two human beings mirrors God’s covenant with the Creation. While Herod’s marriages were, arguably, none of John’s business, as a prophet he felt compelled to speak to this high-profile, political leader and challenge his decision to slough off one wife in order to marry the other woman…who just happened to be married to his brother at the time…and who also just happened to be his own niece.

         According to Wikipedia, you can read all this in one of the early issues of Soap Opera Digest as well as the Gospel of Mark.

To be honest, I’m a little suspect of Mark’s portrayal of Herod. Like most autocrats, Herod Antipas was notoriously impatient and violent with anyone who didn’t toe his line. So, for the historical Herod to temper his indignation for someone like John the Baptist feels a little out of character.

The iconic southern writer Flannery O’Connor coined a useful phrase when talking about southerners and their connection with Christianity, a connection which is often as ambivalent as it is deep. She said that the south isn’t really as Christ-centered as it often makes out to be, but it is certainly “Christ-haunted.” She said that many southerners, religious and otherwise, harbor silent anxiety that Jesus is lurking about, hiding behind trees and billboards, watching their every move. Maybe that’s the kind of fascination Mark wants us to imagine Herod having for John. Still, given Herod’s well-documented penchant for tyranny, Mark’s depiction of Herod sounds almost sympathetic—until he becomes smitten with his great-niece/step-daughter, promises her the moon, and faces peer pressure to deliver.

         This story is not only disturbing, it’s a terribly difficult text on which to preach. There’s some predictable but rather shallow moralizing a preacher can do, but trying to tease out the gospel here is a little like trying to turn water into wine. We need Jesus’ help to render Good News from this vessel.

         Let’s recall, then, why Herod feels anxiety when he hears about Jesus. According to Mark, when Herod learns of another Jewish holy man living with prophetic boldness, he thinks John “has been raised.” And the idea of John’s return seems to do more than prick Herod with guilt. It seems to strike some measure of fear into him.

         This begs the question: When is the Good News not so good?

Through the centuries, much Christian preaching and teaching has used fear as a motivator. Accept Jesus, or go to hell. Jesus is coming soon, and you don’t want him to find THAT in your refrigerator, do you? He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice!

Such fear-driven nagging doesn’t create joyful disciples and prophetic churches. It creates cowering and selfish lab rats who have been convinced that God’s grace is a scarce commodity that must be bought by Jesus or earned through good behavior. So, to hear that God’s love excludes only exclusion2 doesn’t sound all that good to Herods and preachers who depend on the dependence of compliant minions.

As the Christ, Jesus reveals the fathomless heart of God—who is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and, most of all, the Lover of all things. In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr defines a mature Christian as one who looks for and “sees Christ in everything and everyone else.”3

When Herod hears of Jesus, and when he immediately sees John in Jesus, he’s seeing the threat of more judgment. Apparently seeing everything from a self-referential and, thus, a fearful point of view, Herod sees others only as he sees himself. Blind to any offering of grace, he cannot see what John sees in him—a leader, an example, a child of God. And during his earthly existence, Herod will never see what Jesus sees in him. He will never see the Christ in himself.

This uncomfortable story invites us to imagine how we, too, fail to see the Christ in the people and the world around us, and how that blindness can lead us to deeply destructive fear and selfishness. It also reveals to us the source of prophetic courage: The redeeming love of God at work in the world through the eternal Christ.

That love has the capacity to open our eyes to the holiness in ourselves and in others.

That love has the will to make us both humble and bold in the face of the world’s ferocious appetite for self-consumption.

That love has the power to reveal the ever-present and ever-gracious Creator in whose image we are made.

In all things and at all times, may you see the Christ in yourselves and in others. And may that new sight give you strength to be prophetic signs and reminders of God’s grace.

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Antipas

2https://cac.org/nothing-is-excluded-2015-06-17/

3The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Press, New York, 2019. p. 33.

The Hungering of the 5000 (Sermon)

“The Hungering of the 5000”

John 6:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

7/11/21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”

Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so theysat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (NRSV)

Here we go again—Jesus leading his disciples back and forth across the sea. And in the gospels, this is far more than travel. Jesus, the Word who was in the beginning with God, the one through whom all things came into being, (John 1:1-5) keeps moving over the face of the waters. Jesus’ story seems to recapitulate both the Creation story and much of Israel’s history.

Jesus passing back and forth across the sea recalls the Spirit brooding over the primordial waters.

Then God says, “Let there be light.” (Genesis. 1:3)

Jesus is the Light, says John.

Today’s passage also recalls the crossing of the Red Sea because Jesus, too, leads a wandering and hungry people to a place of promise and abundance. And in a scene that recalls Moses challenging God regarding provision for weary travelers, Jesus asks his disciples where they might find enough food for the people who’ve been following him.

       A frustrated Philip says, You’re Jesus. You tell us!

       Then, smearing sarcasm thick as butter, Andrew says, Hey Jesus, here’s a kid with five loaves and two fish. That should feed everyone, shouldn’t it?

       Back in the wilderness, the Israelites cried out for the fleshpots of Egypt. We might have died slaves, but we wouldn’t have starved to death!

       “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for [God] has heard your complaining.”’”

And quail and manna pour out of heaven. (Exodus 16:1-15)

       “Tell the people to sit down,” says Jesus.

       To me, it seems like avoiding the issue to argue over a miracle of multiplication of resources or a miracle of the sharing of resources hoarded by fearful and selfish people. Both are miraculous. Then again, given that human cultures tend to define success as excess, the latter just may constitute the greater and rarer act of God. Still, the thing that begs attention is that after all have eaten, they have 12 baskets of leftovers. The story isn’t over! However, the greed, the fear, and the selfishness that breed human suffering—they’re not over, either.

       We want a king! cries Israel. We want to be like everybody else!

       You’re going to regret this, says Samuel. But here, Saul will be your king.

At his coronation, Saul, already showing signs of incompetence, hides in the baggage. And the painful reality begins to set in: Israel is going to have trouble bowing before any king other than Yahweh because all other kings, including David, will disappoint. They will cause suffering. (1Samuel 8:19-10:27)

       John writes that “When Jesus realized that [the people] were about to come and take him by force to make him king,” he ran away. Jesus doesn’t hide, he just knows that, as he will say to Pilate, his “kingdom is not from this world.”

While history often repeats itself, in Jesus, history takes a whole new turn. It makes another crossing of the sea. Re-creation is happening. Resurrection, which is not confined to Easter morning, is happening. It’s about more than leftovers. It’s about a New Creation The story is never over!

       Another remarkable thing about Jesus is that when he feeds the crowd, satisfying physical hunger seems to be a means to an end. I think his first concern is to create a new hunger. His Socratic banter with Philip and Andrew reveals that the picnic in the grass foreshadows the Great Banquet, not a soup kitchen. Sure, the people’s physical hunger is important to Jesus. He just seems equally interested in creating a hunger for the Kingdom of God.

       When Jesus says “whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he’s not calling his disciples to seek satisfaction. He’s calling us to recognize within us the gift of an enduring—if not always recognized—hunger for God and for God’s realm on earth. And he calls us to nurture that hunger through contemplative living, sacrament, and service.

       The mystery deepens, because the hungrier we become for God, the less appetite we have for worldly things, and the more satisfied we actually become.

One critical spiritual hunger is the hunger for justice and righteousness. In the midst of pronouncing God’s judgment on Israel’s self-indulgent ways, Amos utters those unforgettable words: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

       Jesus reiterates Amos’ call when he, as the second Moses, ascends his own Mt. Sinai and delivers a new and more gracious law. Among the new “commandments” are these: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled;” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:6 & 9)

       With this in mind, the feeding of the five thousand becomes a kind of narrative prism that bends the light of our souls so that we recognize within us and around us the enlivening hunger for the justice, righteousness, and Shalomof God’s realm.

       Frederick Buechner wrote: “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand…we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for…The Kingdom of God is where we belong,” says Buechner, “and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”1

       Maybe this homesickness is at the heart of all human division and violence. Maybe we’re all hungering for belonging and peace, but we’ve confused certainty for faith, power for hope, and self-satisfaction for love. And when that happens, too many interactions become competitions in which there are winners, losers, and collateral damage. And in such an environment, everyone loses.

        We do have small victories, though. And those victories don’t necessarily come when we get our way. They come when we realize that what unites us, at the deepest and the most human and humanizing levels, is our shared image of God, which is itself our shared hunger for God.

       We will gather around Christ’s table today and celebrate a sacramental appetizer of the Kingdom of God. And while I do hope you feel fed, nourished, and empowered, even more do I hope that we all leave here hungering, homesick, and hand-in-hand. For through our shared and embodied hungering for the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit reveals something new of her redeeming justice and righteousness, her enlivening abundance, and her ever-faithful presence.

1Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1992. Pp. 152-153.

Holy Spaces (Sermon)

“Holy Spaces”

Mark 5:21-43

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Allen Huff

6/27/21

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth

34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”

36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”

40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (NRSV)

         As Marianne and I were preparing to move away from Shelby eleven years ago, an incredibly handy, generous, and good-humored friend named Bill asked if he could help us. So, we compiled a short list of minor repairs that would help our tired, old house look a little more attractive when we put it on the market.

One thing we asked him to do was to check the yard lamp set in the ground where the driveway and front walkway met. In the 8½ years we lived there, it had never worked. Bill didn’t take long to diagnose the problem.

“You got an air gap,” he said.

“An air gap?” I asked.

“Yep. There’s air where there ought to be wire.”

It had never occurred to me to pay attention to the space between the house and the lamp. I only knew that the lamp wouldn’t come on when I flipped the switch by the front door that didn’t seem to operate anything else. So, we just dug up the lamp post and tossed it.

Sometimes, the in-between spaces hold gifts of beauty, holiness, and guidance. Artists know that well. It’s the spaces in a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of music that become the places of invitation and contemplation. An impatient observer will miss them, but Spirit moves in the spaces.

People who care for people know about sacred spaces, too. Therapists, counselors, and spiritual directors learn how to respect and mine the rich spaces in between words, tears, and laughter.

         When reading biblical texts, we often focus so much attention on main characters, sensational events, and a blinding expectation for precepts and absolutes that we lose sight of the spaces and the silences where the deeper holiness, revelation, and transformation happen.

         Today’s text is two stories, one sandwiched in the other. Mark situates these stories in the midst of his larger discourse, so they both contain spaces and are surrounded by them.

         Listen for the spaces. “When Jesus had crossed…again…in the boat…to the other side…a great crowd gathered around him…and he was by the sea.” Can you feel Mark opening up the landscape? He’s creating anticipation. Wait for it, he says. Wait for it!

         With each story, Mark is preparing us for the next, and then the next, all the way to Sunday, where the last line of the original gospel, leaves us on the threshold of not just another space, but the uncharted territory of resurrection: “So [the women] went and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) And the universe reveals itself as a space of unfathomable wonder and possibility!

         Back in Mark 5, the spaces invite us to recognize the heart-sick parent, the ailing 12-year-old, and the suffering outcast within each of us. Mark invites us to enter the sacred space of our human helplessness where we wrestle with our grief, our dependence on others, and our spirited will to live and to participate in human community.

         Consider Jairus, a man of influence, a leader of the very community that shaped Jesus himself. And now that community feels threatened by Jesus’ disorderly grace. But Jairus’ daughter is dying. That possibility is, itself, a yawning cavern for us to enter. It asks us to ask, What happens if the girl dies?

Does Jairus become an unrestrainable wild man, howling at the moon and bruising himself with stones?

Do her friends become bridesmaids who let their lamps go out?

Does the community become rocky, thorny, hardscrabble ground, unfit for planting seed?

All of those references come from stories earlier in Mark. By telling them, he has already created spaces that help shape the story of Jairus humbling himself before Jesus and begging for help. They also give us room to ask, What is death? What does it mean?

Could Mark intend for us to wrestle with those questions before he tells the Easter story?

         During the same 12 years of Jairus’ daughter’s life, a woman has experienced a hemorrhage of some kind. For 12 years this woman has been considered unclean. In the eyes of the community, she’s as good as dead already. So, she comes to Jesus of her own accord. Unlike Jairus, though, the woman’s years of suffering and humiliation have numbed her to consequences. So, she comes in a kind of holy defiance.

         Let the crowd do with me as they please. They cannot do worse than they’ve already done. I will be healed, or die trying.

         Like a labyrinth, these stories lead us to a centering space where we stop and linger. And we ask ourselves, Where are we dying or dead? How do we dismiss or crowd out God’s creative holiness. How do we threaten others with our own loud doubt and self-righteousness? And where is the Christ in our suffering and in the suffering of the Creation?

         If we read the stories of Jesus’ life with patient anticipation, if we sit in partnership with them like the spacious trinity of artist, brush and canvas, they will offer us something new. For in that partnership, we are the canvas. And God, through the Holy Spirit, is creating something beautiful with our lives.

          For a decade, the Sunday school class that I’ve been involved with has used an approach to Bible study that seeks to create the kind of space we’re talking about. In this study, we read two or three versions of a text on which I will preach, and instead of me filling up the space with words and pronouncements (I do plenty of that on Sundays), we ask ourselves three simple questions.

First, What word, phrase or image catches our attention? What jumps out as new? The point is to sit with the text, relate to it, and allow it to open us.

         Then we ask, What is the Spirit’s call to each of us through this text? This question is personal, and we don’t always get so vulnerable as to name God’s individual call to each of us. Then again, that kind of discernment usually takes more than 30 minutes. The point is that the text reads us as much as we read it.

         Finally, we ask, What is the Spirit calling us as a congregation to be and to do?This question acknowledges that we’re a corporate body, and God calls us to hopeful action within and on behalf of the community. A faithful Christian witness is defined far more by lives of compassion, peacemaking, justice, and joy than by any claim to doctrinal purity.

Think about it, don’t we remember Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage because they demonstrated trust in Jesus, not because they professed belief?

We have two grieving families to tend to right now. Healing doesn’t always mean “getting better,” does it?

Nonetheless, scripture is like Jesus’ robe. We can touch it and feel his presence and his renewing grace. And through that experience, we can even become the hem of Jesus’ robe for others.

No Going Back (Sermon)

“No Going Back”

John 20:19-29

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

6/20/21

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)

         In his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, taking the role of the protagonist, describes a personal crisis by saying, “One day I fell into a hole.” That metaphorical fall sparks a transforming journey into and through the depths of hell. Along the way he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, who represents reason and logic, all that appears certain, predictable, and dependable. Virgil leads Dante through nine levels of hell before finally reaching the pit, the center of the earth where a three-headed Lucifer is buried to his waist in a frozen lake. In each mouth, he chews on a notorious sinner. In the middle, suffering the most, is Judas. The others are Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar.

         In a surprising twist, Dante learns that to exit hell, he can’t turn around and go back. Virgil shows him another hole right next to Lucifer’s ice-bound body. They scramble through the hole, climb down Satan’s leg and begin traveling toward purgatory and paradise.

         I’ve always heard that when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but back up. Dante illustrates the spiritual truth that when we hit rock bottom, the way forward doesn’t lead back to anything. It takes us down and through, toward something unexpected and brand-new. That’s why Virgil eventually stops and says that Dante’s deepening journey requires a new guide.

         Early in life, Dante had fallen in love with a young woman named Beatrice. In her early 20’s, Beatrice married a wealthy banker, but soon died of the bubonic plague—which caused three pandemics over some 1400 years. Even in death, Beatrice continued to inspire Dante. So, she becomes his guide through purgatory and into paradise. Dante’s point is that Virgil’s masculine energy of reason and logic alone cannot lead to wholeness. Humankind also requires the nurturing compassion and beauty of feminine wisdom.

         With all that in mind, let’s join the disciples, cowering in their locked room. They’ve heard that Jesus has risen, and they know that the authorities will believe that the disciples are behind the disappearance of the body. That’s the logical and reasonable explanation. However, if Jesus has really been raised, the disciples also know that Jesus knows that while Judas betrayed him to the authorities for money, they all betrayed him in their own ways and for their own selfish gain. And now, in that cold and dark room, with a menacing Lucifer chewing on the treacherous Judas inside each of them, they wonder, How do we come back from this?

         Suddenly, Jesus stands among them.

“Peace be with you,” he says. He shows them his wounds. As wonder swells in the disciples’ hearts, Jesus speaks, again: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In that locked room, quarantined at the bottom of the pit, the disciples discover that their journey isn’t over. Remember, Jesus is very different now. He’s been resurrected not resuscitated! So, too, are the disciples different. Because going back is not an option, going forward will require a new guide.

         In an act that recalls God breathing on a handful of dust to create the first human being, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Breath of God, Wisdom herself, becomes the disciples’ new guide revealing a new way forward, and revealing the new creations within the disciples themselves.

         From Adam and Eve’s exile from the garden, to exiled Hebrews returning to a forever-changed Jerusalem, to disciples learning to deal with resurrection, biblical storytellers consistently affirm that whatever will be will not be what was. And what lies ahead will be fraught with wounds even as it is bathed with God’s presence. Our individual and collective human journeys all pass through suffering—never around it.

         When Jesus breathes on his disciples, he breathes on us, as well. With the Spirit as our guide, we are called and empowered to proclaim wholeness and hope to the world. So, Jesus’ charges us: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In the gospel of John, sin is defined as a failure to recognize and follow Jesus. So, when Jesus commissions us to forgive, he does not grant us the right to judge. He calls us to live in such a way as to reveal him and make him known. We share God’s forgiveness only to the extent that our lives faithfully reflect the inclusive and redeeming grace of Christ.

Similarly, to retain sins means to refuse to live and love as Jesus lived and loved. So, discipleship involves our commitment to repentance and to living the new and abundant life of Christ. This is the resurrection journey.

         I think Thomas’ initial doubt that Jesus had been raised comes from that deep spiritual understanding. Remember, when Jesus leaves to go raise Lazarus, it’s Thomas who says to the others, Come on, let’s go die with him. He knows that if Jesus defies logic and reason and raises a dead man, he’ll be killed for it.

So, if Thomas doubts, it’s probably because he knows that if Jesus is alive, in whatever shape or form, following him will mean slogging through Friday and Saturday, because no one—including Jesus—gets to Sunday by going backward. Jesus doesn’t come back out of the grave so much as he goes slap through it.

In the slowly-receding wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world to which we are awakening is not the world we remember. It can’t be. Much about that is painful. Virtually all of us know people who experienced the virus and its lingering effects. Some of us are grieving friends or family members who died of the virus. And as we all know, Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. It will be part of our new reality forever. Thanks be to God for modern medical science which created effective vaccines so quickly.

There’s also much about the new reality that has the potential to be positive. I say potential because to perceive the positives demands a shift in perspective. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Covid-19 reminds us of how small this “great big old world” really is. It reminds us that neighbors aren’t just next door and across the street. They’re across the country and across the planet.

During the pandemic we also learned that quarantine can be healthy, but it’s dangerous when we use it to isolate ourselves from people against whom we are prejudiced, or hold a grudge, or about whom we are ignorant.

God has truly created humankind to be one community, one family. And our connections run deep. Our lives and choices can affect people far away from us and generations yet to be born. We need each other; and we need each other to be good stewards of our own lives, of our communities, and of the earth we share.

As God has sent Jesus, so Jesus now sends us. He sends us through death, through the grave and into this Creation which God is making made new and whole through the presence of the eternal Christ whose Spirit is our guide, our redemption, and our hope.

“Storied into the Christ Mystery”

Mark 4:26-34

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

6/13/21

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)

         It seems to me that Christians often use the term kingdom of God as synonymous with heaven. And while we take both of these mysteries on faith alone, and while we speak of both of them metaphorically, the similarities pretty much end there.

         Jesus speaks far more often of the kingdom of God than he does of heaven. And God’s realm isn’t some ultimate Eden or Shangri-la. The kingdom of God is Jesus’ metaphor for a way of holy living in the here-and-now. To inhabit the kingdom of God, we deliberately, and with significant effort, sacrifice, and shortcoming live the life of Christ—the life of radical grace in which we celebrate all life as holy. That means working for justice for all peoples, loving one another as God loves us, and caring for the earth as stewards who recognize the eternal and immutable interdependence of all things.

         While that may sound like pie-in-the-sky, it calls us to the hard work of nurturing the creative, relational, human community which the Holy Spirit is always forming and re-forming. Our experience of this beloved community happens as we participate in it, as we release pride, fear, and greed, and approach everything we say and do with Christ-like gratitude and generosity. These interactions become the turning of soil. They’re the scattering of seeds of justice, kindness, and humility, after which we “sleep and rise night and day.” That is, we let go of the need to control outcomes. We simply trust that God gives growth to whatever God plants.

I was talking with Cari Gregg last week, and she seemed a little overwhelmed. That happens to virtually everyone at the beginning of something new. Like a farmer standing over a brand-new field, Cari doesn’t yet understand the potentials or the needs of the soil. Nor has she experienced the rhythms of the climate. While I didn’t think to use Jesus’ agrarian metaphors, my advice to her was, essentially, to go out into the field. Let her shadow fall across it. Get to know it. Visit the kids and their parents. That’s how we scatter the seeds from which God creates things like mustard plants, oak trees, and youth groups.

When farmers plant their crops, they usually have some purpose or vision in mind. Ultimately, though, planting is an act of faith. The weather does what it does. Farmers come and go. To plant is to trust that, come what may, God is the life-force, the heartbeat, the eternal yes within all living things, and God will grow what a given field has been gifted to grow. And sometimes, by grace, God reveals purposes that we don’t anticipate.

The house two doors down from us was sold over a month ago, and the new residents haven’t moved in. The yard, which the previous owners had seeded, and re-seeded, and tended with care used to grow only grass. As the earth reclaimed the yard, though, several kinds of wildflowers flourished, daisies in particular. I’d never seen any indication of such gifts beneath the surface of that manicured yard. But there they came, bright, healthy, and even edible! (Pro-tip for eating daisies: They taste much better when bathed in ranch dressing.)

“With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them.” Apparently, there were plenty of parables Jesus told that never got recorded. He walked about, constantly telling these short, simple, earthy stories and implying that crucial insights on the meaning of life had been planted in each one. The problem was that Jesus didn’t reveal those secrets to anyone except the twelve disciples. Mark says that Jesus spoke to the people only in parables, and let each person understand as they were able.

The telling of parables is itself the sowing of seed. And each day, hearing hearts could be good soil; or they could be hardened paths, or rocky ground, or thorn-choked jungles. So, Jesus kept telling the stories and allowing the Spirit to give the growth. His teaching was an act of vulnerability, as well, because, from day one, many hearers’ hearts grew only the weeds of fear and resentment.

The Greek word from which we get our word gospel means “good news,” but not everyone hears goodness in Jesus’ words. Any time a prophetic voice speaks to God’s radical grace and field-leveling love for the entire Creation, those who have become dependent upon the privileges of status and wealth become defensive. That was certainly the case among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. In Jesus’ teachings, their hearts heard a threat to their hold on political and religious power. We can imagine them feeling especially threatened when Jesus spoke in parables that many of them couldn’t understand, but which many of those who were poor, marginalized, and exploited did understand. And it would have surely rankled these wealthy, powerful men to see people they had manipulated for personal gain being affirmed by Jesus’ defiant kindness and energized by his selfless love.

This is where the difference between the Kingdom of God and whatever heaven may or may not be comes into play.

Now, while I’m not denying or dismissing heaven, no one knows for certain what happens when our human bodies die. Yes, we have the witness of scripture. Yes, there are the claims made in books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven. Nonetheless, the post-mortem mystery is entirely a matter of faith, and the best we can do is trust the boundless grace of God. To dangle people between heaven and hell and call it proclaiming God’s good news is to exploit both the gospel and the people with whom we share it.

Jesus’ primary concern for his followers transcends their deaths. He wants them to realize a vision of God’s kingdom as an earthly reality, something in which they—in which we—participate daily and on both personal and communal levels. Jesus calls us into fields of service in which we help sow the seeds of faith, hope, love, and justice.

It’s been said that Jesus told so many parables that he became one. And maybe that’s what he wants us to become—human parables. Since our bodies do, quite literally, rise from the earth and return to the earth, we are truly earthen vessels. We are soil in which God has planted seeds of wholeness and holiness. So, we have an intimate and immediate stake in living according to the ways of God’s justice and peace. Our bodies and those of our neighbors, the bodies of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,” all depend on the ability of humankind to see ourselves as inseparable from and responsible to all that God has created.

Again, that’s the point of Jesus’ parables.

He stories us into the Christ mystery.

He calls us, as parables, to live as signs of God’s realm of grace.

He invites us to inhabit and to welcome others into the kingdom of God which is already here-and-now. Today.

“Unforgivable?” (Sermon)

Mark 3:20-30

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

6/6/21

20 [And] the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (NRSV)

In Mark 1, immediately after calling his first disciples, Jesus dives into, what feels like, a ministry of deconstruction. He encourages abstinence from fasting. He picks grain and heals on the sabbath. He touches lepers. By chapter 3, the Pharisees and the Herodians have crawled into bed together to discuss ways to destroy Jesus.

         Mark sets up the story up so that we feel the stress when Jesus can’t even find a quiet moment to eat lunch. As things escalate, word gets to Jesus’ family that he’s “out of his mind.” That’s the same word Mark uses to describe Jesus’ action of casting out demons. “He has Beelzebul,” cry the scribes, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” The religious leaders see Jesus as possessed and in need of exorcism.

         Now let’s remember, the four gospels are not objective histories. They’re highly subjective, interpretive remembrances of a remarkable person. So, in remembering Jesus, Mark paints a picture of a man whose words and deeds cause friend and foe, angel and demon alike to wrestle like Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok River.

From his opening verse, Mark has been preparing us for this foundation-shaking clash between God’s revelation and the people’s dismay. Mark wants us to enter the story and feel overwhelmed with questions about Jesus, and what his sonship and lordship mean.

         In the gospels, some are trying to process the extraordinary notion that Jesus is Emmanuel, the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ. Others throw all their energy into trying to prove the fantasy of such a claim. The naysayers are always those who hold political, economic, or religious power—or they’re people who fear and revere those who do. So, when this unorthodox rabbi challenges the power arrangements, his anxious critics are quick to accuse him of evil.

         The odd and spiritually convicting thing about Jesus, is that his transforming love often burns brightest for these very folks. That’s why he engages them, asking, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” His point is that while the division which brings down homes and kingdoms is the work of greed, resentment, and fear, reconciliation and wholeness are gifts of God’s Spirit. When human beings reach that depth of selfishness and despair at which the source of wholeness and reconciliation seems to be the very source of brokenness and division, then we have forsaken God’s Spirit.

         The new life to which Jesus calls us begins with an inward death to all that is idolatrous within us. And it does take a kind of death to recognize that all human beings bear the image of God simply by virtue of their humanity. And this death enlivens us for experiencing and proclaiming the gospel in such a way that we, as “believers,” don’t simply “believe” something wonderful. With the Spirit’s help, we make it believable—by incarnating it. Instead of trying to insist that others believe what we believe, what if we imitated Jesus in demonstrating God’s grace, love, and justice in and for the world? And before we can effectively speak of resurrection, mustn’t we live as signs of resurrection?

One of the first steps toward participating in gospel incarnation is confession. We admit that we and our tradition have—in the name of Jesus!—done deep and lasting damage to other people and to the earth. That confession is crucial because when a community denies its sin, opting instead to proclaim only what it thinks makes itself exceptional, it forsakes the virtue of honesty. And when self-exalting communities fail to name and confess their corporate need for forgiveness, they almost inevitably fall into division. Then they simply fall.

         Let’s remember that forgiveness is not forgetting. A wrong that can be forgotten is just a prank, like giving a kind of milky orange sweatshirt with a big white “T” on it to someone who would prefer, oh, I don’t know, a bright red sweatshirt with a big black and white “G” on it, instead.

         To forgive as God forgives us is to look a neighbor in the eye and say, ‘What you did and cannot undo hurt me deeply. It will forever shape our relationship. Nonetheless, in order for that shape to be love, I release all desire for revenge. I surrender our future to God. And I trust that the scar between us will bear witness to our shared experience of a reconciling grace that lies beyond our ability to create.’

         Forgiveness is really hard work. But it’s the lifeblood of incarnational ministry.

         The notion of an unforgivable sin is a dodgy thing. It gets misused. Untold numbers of people have been more-or-less blackmailed into professions of faith because they’ve been convinced that God is a god of retribution. People with religious authority have told them that to avoid hell, regurgitate these formulae, give this much money, dress and behave this way. It seems to me that such an approach may add names to church rolls, but does it really create people and communities of faith?

         Grace is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, but all-too-often we put more trust in the fences we build and the fears we nurture than we do in the grace of the one who creates us in love and for love. When that happens, we distort the gospel and turn it into a source of brokenness and division. 

They, whoever they may be, don’t belong in our church. They’re not our kind of people. Isn’t such prejudice a symptom of the ever-crumbling hell of a house divided? And isn’t that what happens on Friday?

On Friday, we choose swords instead of confession.

On Friday we choose money over the presence of God.

On Friday we deny having ever known the Christ or having been moved by his love.

On Friday we cry out, “We have no king but Caesar!”

On Friday we choose disaffection from all that heals and makes whole, and, in blasphemous despair, we scream that the very Gift of God is a demon to be crucified.

It seems to me that on Friday, the Beloved Community, including all of Jesus’ beloved disciples, participated in the “unforgivable sin.”

         That’s the point of Thursday night. Around the table, Jesus said to the disciples, Listen, things are about to get rough, and you’re going to need something to get you through, something to sustain you when truth seems unbelievable, when life seems unlivable, something to remind you that no matter how far you may feel from grace, you cannot go far enough to escape it.

         So here—here is bread and wine. This will not only remind you of me. This IS me.

         Now, let this remain a mystery. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fight about it. Just receive it. Receive me. Share me.

And in this way, you will know that even when you feel “unforgivable,” you are already forgiven.

How Can These Things Be? (Sermon)

“How Can These Things Be?”

John 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/30/21 — Trinity Sunday

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (NRSV)

Nicodemus, a Jewish leader of some standing and influence, comes to talk with Jesus. Because this encounter doesn’t happen in a vacuum, let’s remember that Jesus has just done something unthinkable. Immediately prior to today’s text, Jesus runs the moneychangers out of the temple.

The moneychangers were there to facilitate Passover rituals. They were there to help pilgrims who had traveled from far and wide to exchange their local currencies for the currency they needed to pay taxes and to purchase animals for the sacrifice of atonement. This long-standing tradition was considered, for the most part, both necessary and helpful for the temple and the worshipers.

We can imagine how, in the minds of the Jewish leadership, Jesus’ actions attack the legitimacy of temple authority, the sanctity of Passover, and, therefore, the integrity of the Jewish faith itself. With this grave offense still a raw wound for religious leaders, Nicodemus’ desire to meet Jesus as something of an equal constitutes a significant risk. So, while concealing himself under the cloak of night may seem cowardly, it only says that Nicodemus understands the potential consequences of his actions.

Having said that, Nicodemus’ questions also suggest that his faith lacks depth and heart. Sure, he’s curious enough to go see Jesus, but self-preservation appears to be his first concern. And even when he hears directly from Jesus, he’s unwilling to commit himself to Jesus.

It seems to me that such is often the case when what we desire in matters of faith is a level of certainty that faith, by definition, does not offer. Thus does Nicodemus ask his frustrated question, “How can these things be?” Thinking literally and selfishly, he can’t imagine what Jesus means when he speaks of being “born from above” and “born of water and Spirit.” He can’t see the connection to his own life when Jesus says that “the wind blows where it chooses” without needing any kind of permission or explanation from human beings.

To Nicodemus’ question, Jesus says something that may sound insulting, but which I consider revealing and empowering. “Are you a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and yet you do not understand these things?”

The implication is that, as “a teacher of Israel,” Nicodemus has all the spiritual, theological, and priestly tools he needs to make sense of what Jesus is saying. If Nicodemus will listen with his heart to the stories he tells, and if he will feel, with his whole body, the rituals he practices, then what Jesus says and does should make sense. At their core, all those stories and rituals are sacred portals between this world and the eternal kingdom of God which Jesus has come to announce and reveal.

The same is true for us. Our stories and our communal rituals of prayer, worship, communion, service, and care for one another, and our work for justice in the world are not ends in themselves. We listen and look through these things to experience and to share the dynamic mystery we call God.

John seems to be saying that, for first century Jews, the rituals themselves had become idols because they had become the focus. Like closed windows, they kept the unpredictable but life-giving Spirit-wind at bay. So, when their faith had been reduced to religious business, the temple became a “marketplace,” a place consumed by consumerism, a place where profit and power rather than God were deified. And when Jesus called the status quo into question by clearing the temple of all of that well-intentioned but heart-darkening sin, then perhaps, somewhere deep within Nicodemus’ atrophied spirit, something began to stir. With the veil still covering his eyes, he creeps through the darkness to acknowledge that Jesus has some special connection to the holiness that the Jewish leaders were supposed to teach, but which they apparently don’t understand.

This returns us to Nicodemus’ honest but rather feeble question: “How can these things be?”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus’ response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience…There is nothing secondhand here…Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?”

In this encounter, Jesus invites Nicodemus—and all of us—to experience God in the concrete realities of human existence. That’s why the Judeo-Christian tradition tells stories and practices things like Passover and communion. Stories have characters, plot, humor, conflict, tension-and-release. And our rituals hinge on concrete elements—bread, wine, water—things that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted.

The material stuff of Creation is itself a spiritual gift from God. It’s an outpouring of God. It’s only when we divorce the “flesh” from the “spirit” that the flesh becomes problematic, something to exploit, or worse, something to judge and condemn. So, while we proclaim Jesus to be the incarnation of God’s eternal Christ, the “earthly things” Jesus speaks of are the first incarnation of God. That’s why Paul can say to the Romans, “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that [God] has made.” (Romans 1:20) Being human, Nicodemus saw all those concrete realities. He just seems to have missed the holiness in them.

In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr echoes Paul, saying, “Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God.”1 And the Christ, whom John and others call “the light of the world,” is the one through whom human beings see that innate holiness in the Creation. Light, observes Rohr, is not something we see, but that by which we see.2 The Christ, then, is the light by which we see that same Christ in other people and in the created order as a whole. So, Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, Until you’re willing to see God through me, no explanation I give you will help you.

In refusing to let Nicodemus off the hook, Jesus invites him to claim the gracious gift of faith, that is, the spiritual eyesight that sees the holy, eternal, and affirming presence of God in all things. For Nicodemus, and for us, that means taking the risk to trust something that cannot be proven, but which can—through faith, hope, and love—be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted in the joys and the challenges of human existence.

As human beings, and as people of faith, we have the tools to experience God’s holiness. So, may we open our eyes, ears, hands, noses, and mouths to the presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ. And may we remain humbly aware of the holiness in ourselves and gratefully aware of it in those around us, so that our hearts become sails that catch the wind of God’s Spirit as it moves us from darkness to light, from apathy to action, and from clay-footed certainty to bright-winged faith.

1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 13.

2Ibid. p 14.

Here I Am (Sermon)

“Here I Am”

Exodus 3:1-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/16/21

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (NRSV)

      There’s a gospel connection lurking in this ancient text. Listen to the revealing harmony as we overlay portions of two biblical stories:

      “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro…”

      “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

      “There an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire…”

      “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…” (Luke 2:9)

      “[God] said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be a sign for you…when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’”

      “This will be sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God…” (Luke 2:12-13)

      “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight…’”

      “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.’” (Luke 2:15)

      “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them…’”

      “My soul magnifies the Lord, for the Mighty One has…brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…” (Luke 1:46 & 52)

      Jesus is often called the “Second Moses.” It seems fitting, then, that the stories of Moses’ call and of Jesus’ birth mirror each other so closely. What’s more, they are two of many biblical reminders that God’s call tends to surface in the midst of wilderness—whether geographical or spiritual. And that call often evokes an eager response.

      “Here I am,” says Moses.

      “Here I am,” says Samuel.

      “Here I am,” says Isaiah.

      “Here I am,” says Mary.

      “Here I am,” says Ananias.

      In most of these stories, the Here I am character experiences a kind of existential hiccup. Moses hiccups when his Here I am becomes, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?”

      Does that feel like familiar ground? To say, “Yes!” then, “Wait! Who am I to do that?” If it does feel like familiar ground, it is also, says God, “holy ground.” And a fruitful journey through the holy land of Here I am to Who am I? and back again requires openness, humility, and a fierce hope.

We see that in the conversation between God and Moses. On the holy ground of call and response, the Who am I? question marks the moment when Moses confronts the demands of new responsibility. And it’s a profoundly intimate moment. Take your shoes off, says God. Moses receives his call barefooted—that is to say, exposed, vulnerable, and dependent on grace.

      After getting Moses’ attention with a sight that defies reason, God turns and calls Moses to work that is even less plausible than a burning bush, and far more frightening—Go tell Pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves.

God then assures Moses with a sign that isn’t particularly assuring. When Moses has completed his task, he and the Hebrews will worship right where he now stands barefooted and overwhelmed. This “sign” is not some good luck charm or a compass to guide him. It’s a promise toward which Moses must both live and lead others. It’s an invitation to pure trust. And isn’t that appropriate? Forgive the cliché, but the life of faith really is a journey—a journey of risk, and discovery, and hope. And Moses isn’t buying it.

      The Hebrews won’t believe me, he says. I was raised in Pharaoh’s house! Plus, I’m wanted by Pharaoh for murdering an Egyptia!. Can you at least give me a letter of reference or something?

      Getting all existential, God says: Tell them my name is I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM sent you—the I AM of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I AM the one who was, and is, and is to come. Now go.

      Having been raised in an Egyptian household, Moses’ well of Hebrew memories isn’t even damp at the bottom. But maybe hearing God say I AM stirs something elemental within him, something that begins to remind him of the old story of Abram who leaves when God says, “Go.”

      God’s call for Moses to free the Israelites is also a call to establish a brand-new set of memories by which God’s people may live into new hope. And through the long and ragged arc of Here I am’s and Who am I’s, I AM eventually speaks another word: Emmanuel. Through Jesus of Nazareth, God says, I AM with you, in person. And so, the ongoing Exodus of Creation continues.

      Humankind is always somewhere on the Exodus continuum. We’re either slaving away in some Pharaoh-possessed kingdom. Or we’re crossing some sea trying to escape it. Or we’re chasing former slaves and trying to capture and oppress them all over again. Or we’re building golden calves because pillars and clouds don’t persuade us anymore. Or we’re simply wandering about, and complaining about the food.

Sometimes, though, we’re settling in to new ways of life, new and more edifying ways of being in relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth. Remembering the faithfulness of God, we look hopefully toward a future we can’t yet see, but which we trust because we trust that we didn’t get to wherever we are completely on our own.

      Here in the early 21st century, being the Church is no easy calling. Sometimes the best we can do in our wilderness is to throw up our hands and say, “Here we are,” then work through every “Who are we?” moment with memoried grace. So, we keep telling the stories, trusting that God is creating, through us, new and renewing memories for generations to come.

      The issues that plague our wilderness may seem irresolvable, but they will, in time, find resolution, because just as God called Moses to address the issue of Hebrew slavery and oppression, God is calling us to address the issues of our generation—issues which do, in part, define our era. And because Jesus himself did, as Mary said, bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly, the Body of Christ must, in my opinion, exercise a voice in addressing things like poverty, violence, racial injustice, and environmental justice.

Having said that, the issues themselves do not define us. We are defined by how we deal with one another in the midst of them. And until we, as followers of Jesus, answer God’s call to deal with each other as God deals with us in Jesus, we may never truly experience the peace that passes understanding.

      To use Mary’s words again: “In remembrance of [God’s] mercy, according to the promise [God] made to our ancestors,” (Luke 1:54b-55a) let us say to God, Here we are. Then let us be resolved to be defined by our Here I am of openness to God, and by our Christlike love for each another and for all Creation.

Future Tense (Sermon)

“Future Tense”

Isaiah 40:1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/9/21

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (NRSV)

         The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and scattered the Israelites to every corner of the empire. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to re-program the Hebrews, to breed the Jewishness right out of them. That is to say, he wanted to erase their memory. The formative people, places, and events of the past would no longer be part of their identity. From that point on, the Hebrews would have one endless Babylonian present.

It didn’t work. The people kept telling their stories.

The Israelites passed the stories of their faith from generation to generation not to mire themselves in the past, not to hold onto some impossible wish that things would return to “the way they used to be.” Sharing their spiritual history was an act of subversive faith. It prepared and empowered the community for embracing God’s ever-changing and always-becoming Creation.

The Hebrews’ God-memories followed them like a dust cloud and led them like a pillar of fire. Their spiritual memory transformed despair into hope and defeat into new beginnings. It said that while today may be burdened with suffering, nonetheless, we trust that the future is rich with possibility because we have experienced God’s faithfulness over and over.

Memory is crucial. It’s the soil in which faith grows. And the future is the harvest, so, the future tense is the mother tongue of faith.

         Isaiah 40 begins what most scholars call Second Isaiah, and this new voice speaks directly to Hebrews languishing in exile. It starts with encouragement, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Then Second Isaiah shows his prophetic empathy saying that things are so painful as to be unjust. In what can sound like an indictment of God, he says, Israel has “received…double for all her sins.” Nonetheless, despair does not define Israel’s future.

         It’s interesting, faithlessness often comes disguised as pragmatism. That’s just the way the world works. It is what it is. Learn to live with it. Because the future can’t be known or guaranteed, pragmatism won’t trust it. From time to time, most of us wallow in that empty place of seeing only what seems to be. In a place of faithlessness, one can justify all manner of fearful speech, violent behavior, self-righteous prejudice and certainty. Life often seems safer and more reasonable when we avoid the future tense of faith. And yet, to people in exile, Isaiah offers a word to counter the apparent reasonableness of hope-choking faithlessness.

         “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level…Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

         Such hope can sound foolish. And it certainly isn’t the experience of the Hebrews’ day-to-day existence in exile. As Isaiah speaks, though, his words flood their hearts like light flooding into a house that has been shuttered for years. By invoking the future tense, the prophet invites the people to return not just to Jerusalem, but to a posture of expectant faith. Empowered by memory, gratitude, and hope, faith declares the future to be a realm in which all that is broken will be healed, all that is unjust will be made just, and all that is violent and destructive will be redeemed by God’s promised Shalom.

         Today’s text from Isaiah is a staple of Advent, and during Advent we focus on waiting and preparing. Advent is about more than preparing for Christmas, though. Advent is a liturgical metaphor for the life of faith itself. It’s about committing ourselves to the long, difficult work of living today in the light of God’s promise that exile is not forever. So, when Isaiah says, “Get you up to a high mountain…lift up your voice with strength…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”, he’s saying that God’s future has begun. And he’s calling Israel to live in God’s future—today.

         No, things are not perfect, not for the Hebrews, and not for us. And while we’re made in the image God, we’re only an image. We wither and fade like flowers and grass. Yet even now—inasmuch as we live with humility, love with compassion, and work for justice—we do proclaim to the world, “Here is your God!”

         The past year has burdened us with a kind of captivity. We’ve had to mask, distance, quarantine, Zoom, and wait throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. And the experience isn’t over, but we’re finally hearing words of comfort. We’re finally hearing intimations of a new future opening up. Just like the stories of exile would remain with the Hebrews, stories of the pandemic will remain with us. Indeed, all indications are that the virus itself will remain with us. But thanks be to God for modern medical science, we and our descendants will be able to receive vaccinations against and, perhaps, increasingly effective treatments for Covid-19.

         The few individuals present in this sanctuary today represent this congregation’s first steps toward a return of the whole to public worship, fellowship, and service. Jonesborough Presbyterian hardly has the same significance to the Christian faith that Jerusalem did to Hebrew exiles in Babylon; nonetheless, today is a future-tense utterance of our collective faith that God is always with us.

Two things about that: First, there’s a very real sense in which today is less a return than a continuation. I’ve been delighted by, encouraged by, and at times in awe of the way this congregation has not stopped doing ministry. You haven’t stopped having ministry team meetings. You haven’t stopped loving and caring for each other. You haven’t stopped supporting the food pantry, Family Promise, Loaves and Fishes, the Day Reporting Center, and other outreach ministries. You haven’t stopped tithing. You haven’t stopped caring for this building. Those of you who can, haven’t stopped worshiping online or in the parking lot. In short, you have not stopped being Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. And I thank God for all of you!

Second, while today marks a return, it’s not a return to the way things were. It’s a new beginning. Too much has happened over the last year. Our faith stories and our human story have experienced too much since March of 2020. As we return, then, let’s expect to find some new life to live and to share. Let’s expect some new work to do. God doesn’t see us through painful times just to return us to some comfortable status quo. When God redeems the past, God also prepares us for some new and deeper calling. And whatever that calling may be, it has to do with lifting up valleys and leveling rough places.

It has to do, as Amos said, with doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

It has to do with participating in God’s ongoing redemption of the Creation.

It has to do with welcoming all human beings into God’s fold of holiness and wholeness.

I’m different than I was a year ago, and I bet most of you are, too. As we, one step at a time, move beyond pandemic exile, let’s discover our new selves. And let’s embrace our call to bear a bold new witness to the already-and-not-yet realm of God’s justice and peace.

A Model of Goodness (Sermon)

“A Model of Goodness”

John 10:11-17

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/2/21

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  (NRSV)

It’s an affirmation all of us have heard in one context or another: “She’s a good woman.” “He’s a good man.” “They’re good kids.” I really like it when someone says to a specific individual, “You’re good people.” When spoken to one person, that folksy phrase affirms not only that person; it affirms that person’s community. It also embraces and welcomes that person and his/her people into the community of the one pronouncing goodness.

Goodness, though, is a relative concept. Different people and groups can have diametrically opposed understandings of goodness. What I consider good, someone else may consider foolish or even bad. Such variances are all-too-evident in today’s world. And while it is truly good to span the gulfs of disagreement, the true goodness of reconciliation and redemption never happens quickly or easily. Such goodness requires that those in conflict surrender to principles and practices that will lead them in ways of reconciliation and redemption. And that takes the leadership of people who have committed themselves to doing good work, to living as agents of goodness, even when they, in their imperfect selves, aren’t always as good as the work they do.

In today’s text, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” And it’s interesting: While the Church has, for millennia, taught that Jesus was “perfect,” according to Mark and Luke, Jesus rejected the goodness label.

Mark and Luke record an encounter Jesus has with a man (traditionally called “the rich young ruler”) who asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus. “God alone is good.” And look, you know what to do, anyway—follow God’s commandments.

Oh, I do that, says the man.

Then Jesus broadsides the man’s self-assured ego saying, Okay. So, now you lack only one thing. Go, sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.

The man walks away in distress. He’s too comfortable in his wealth, too secure in his public influence to embrace the kind of deep goodness into which Jesus calls him and desires to lead him. (Mark 10:17ff and Luke 18:18ff)

In John 10, Jesus appears to embrace the label of goodness. Twice he calls himself the “good shepherd.” According to most commentators, though, the word usually translated “good” is better translated as “model.”1 Jesus is the model shepherd. To model something means to enact behaviors consistent with an ideal. Goodness is itself an ideal, a deep and abiding essence.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus wasn’t good. I’m saying that, according to the text, when Jesus claims to be the “good shepherd,” he declares something very specific. He declares himself trustworthy. He promises to lead by example—by demonstrating justice, righteousness, and love. Like a “good shepherd,” Jesus will lead his followers to green pastures and still waters. He will reconcile them with their enemies. And he will accompany them through every painful, death-shadowed valley.

Returning to the rich young man: As he walks away, we can almost hear him saying to himself, Give up all my comfort, power, and privilege, and actually, physically follow Jesus and live like him? No thank you! I’m no sheep!

We can understand his reluctance, can’t we? As citizens of a nation that consumes far more than its share of the world’s resources, and that has the capacity to exert planet-altering influence, we don’t like to think of ourselves as sheep, either. The steep down-side to privilege and self-determination is the sense of entitlement that comes with those luxuries, and which usually presents as the sin of pride.

In the list of the seven deadly sins, pride is almost universally considered “the original and most serious” sin. It’s regarded as the source of and inspiration for all other sins.2

Those who claim to be leaders but who lead people from a posture of pride, are, according to Jesus, “hired hands.” And hired hands are concerned only for themselves.

Hired hands committed to wealth and power seldom lead. They manipulate and coerce.

Hired hands don’t make contributions to causes or communities. They make investments. They do favors for which they expect favors in return.

Hired hands don’t really make friends. They just make allies for future endeavors.

Averse to real responsibility, hired hands will take credit, but will almost never admit fault.

Because hired hands must win at any cost, reconciliation and redemption are signs of weakness.

And when the chips are down, hired hands abandon the flock. They never learn what it means to save one’s life by losing it.

Prior to the resurrection, Simon Peter was a hired hand. He claimed to follow Jesus, but he refused to accept that Jesus would die. He refused to accept that Jesus should wash the disciples’ feet. And on Friday, in undeniable hired-hand fashion, he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Peter, still brash and flawed, begins to live into a new way of being, a new way of leading the people whom Jesus led. Eventually, Peter himself becomes a model of the “model shepherd.” And according to tradition, he also lays down his life on behalf of the good shepherd and his flock.

One thing that makes the good shepherd truly good is that he recognizes the universality of his flock. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” says Jesus. No single sheep and no one fold can claim exclusive right to the “one shepherd.” The voice known by all sheep, whoever they are, is the good shepherd’s voice—the voice of compassion, justice, community, and peace. And by peace, I mean that wholeness and holiness that come from recognizing the sacredness in all Creation and working to reveal it and preserve it. When we share the peace of Christ with each other, it is that reconciling, redeeming peace we share.

When Jesus says that his sheep hear and know his voice, he affirms our essential nature as creatures made in the image of God. So, he’s saying to each of us, “You’re good people.” He lays claim to and welcomes every one of us.

While Jesus’ voice does comfort us, even more so does it challenge us. It calls us to lay aside our selfish pride and to follow him—completely—in humble and grateful service on behalf of those whose lives are tortured by poverty or oppression, who are tormented with mental and emotional despair, who are burdened with physical pain, and even those who are blinded by hired-hand pride.

Friends, the “good shepherd” knows you and claims you. He claims all of us, because he knows that deep down, beneath all of the suffering and all of the bluster, beats the heart of the Beloved.

May you listen for and hear the shepherd’s voice.

May you model your life after his life and his ways of seeking, evoking, and embracing the goodness in yourself and in those around you.

And in following the good shepherd, may we all be reconciled and redeemed.

1Sarah Heinrich, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 451.

2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins#Pride