Feverish Living (Sermon)

“Feverish Living”

Mark 1:29-39

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/7/21

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.  (NRSV)

         I wonder if the first-century writer of Mark wouldn’t have felt somewhat at home in the feverish pace of life of the twenty-first century. As we noted last week, in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story, much of the action happens “immediately.” In the first chapter, “the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness,” (Mark 1:12) That urgency continues into the first verse of chapter 15 when, “As soon as it was morning,” (“In the Greek, “As soon as” is the same word translated as “immediately.”) “the chief priests…elders…scribes…and the whole council…bound Jesus…led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” After that, things slow down. In the words of Joshua, “the sun stood still” (Joshua 10:13) for those who had grown impatient with Jesus.

         Today’s passage begins with that same immediacy. “As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue,” says Mark, “they entered the house of Simon and Andrew.” And at once they tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is bedridden with a fever.

How’s that for irony? Everywhere Jesus goes, feverishness hounds him.

Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and afterward she hurries to the kitchen and gets back to work.

By sundown, the end of that Sabbath day, a crowd stands at the door. They’ve come to be healed or to watch healing happen. Jesus tends to as many as he can until everyone finally goes home.

Now, to some folks, this sermon may begin to feel rather cliché, but maybe some ideas and expressions become cliché because they need to be heard over and over.

         Who among us doesn’t know, or remember all too well, the feverishness of life? And I include young children in this. At what age do we start them in organized sports requiring multiple practices every week, and weekend-long tournaments in far-away towns?

In our culture, busyness has become a badge of honor. “How are you doing?” we ask, and most of the time we either say, “Fine,” or proudly declare that we’re too busy to know what day it is. It seems to me, too, that even more of the time, all we want to hear from others is that they’re either fine or busy. We’re so caught up in our own fevered lives that we seldom have the physical stillness and the spiritual peace required to listen to one another, and to offer compassion to people in need.

The sad paradox is that while many folks try to use busyness to validate their lives, the cost of feverish living is life itself. Frenetic existence is about achieving and acquiring rather than growing and sharing. It numbs us to people we claim to love and to systemic iniquities and inequities that destroy community.

Returning to our story, we see Jesus rise before the sun and slip away by himself. He escapes to a private, quiet place to pray. After sunrise, the disciples launch a desperate search for Jesus. They finally locate him and interrupt his prayer.

“Everyone is searching for you,” they say. (Translation: Jesus, let’s go! We’ve gotta get busy!)

Jesus doesn’t disagree, but he does redirect. Yes, we’re moving on, he says. But there are other people for me to see, and other places for me to go.

Jesus’ feverish pace continues, but all along the way he prepares for that busyness. He prepares by entering, over and over, like a cliché, the relationship-restoring peace of solitude, and the invigorating stillness of prayer.

I think that Jesus’ pulling away from the people who need him is the very point of today’s story. Precisely because of his disciplined retreat from the relentless demands, Jesus is able to fulfill his calling as the Christ. In yet another paradox, only by continually making time to avoid people can Jesus truly be with them and love them.

Years ago I read that the reformer Martin Luther said that the busier his life got the more time he needed to commit to the renewing peace of contemplation. As one who kept on the move in order to avoid arrest and execution for heresy, Luther lived a terribly feverish life, and he could not write, preach, travel—and thrive—if he didn’t carve out ample time simply to sit in the presence of God.

Folks like me are usually expected to provide good examples of faithfulness in prayer. And while I may be well-practiced at cluttering up silences with words, I struggle as much as anyone with the rare gifts of stillness and peace. I struggle with making adequate time for the kind of contemplative prayer that causes fevers to break, wounds to heal, and that opens our eyes to the Spirited Holiness at work creating and uniting all things in love.

Such a confession is no excuse, but it can be a starting place. If we claim to be the body of Christ, doesn’t it make sense, that, to prepare ourselves for Christian mission, we, too, would regularly pull away from the world? For us as a community, that means more than simply shutting ourselves up for church services once a week. It means making time to lay aside even all the decent and orderly ways of corporate worship and committee protocol so we can sit silently together. For each of us individually, it means creating time and space where we hit the off switch and surrender to the embrace of Spirit, where we just listen and feel. And all of that takes practice—lots and lots of practice.

Covid has required isolation, but not true sabbath. Our world is still as fevered as ever, and prayerful retreat is indispensable to our individual well-being and to our corporate ministry. Through sabbath time we place ourselves in the hands of God who heals our fevers, and deepens our capacity for giving and receiving love.

The Quakers seem to have learned this better than many other Christian groups. Quakers are well known for honoring silence in individual practice and in corporate worship. The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is an adaptation of the poem “The Brewing of Soma” by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.1 The story behind the poem is quite interesting, but for our purposes, it’s enough to recognize that this hymn invites us into stillness and peace.

So, instead of filling more time with my words, we are going to sing this hymn together. As we sing, I invite you to contemplate God’s healing and comforting presence in that stillness and peace.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,

Forgive our foolish ways!

Reclothe us in our rightful mind,

In purer lives Thy service find,

In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard

Beside the Syrian sea

The gracious calling of the Lord,

Let us, like them, without a word

Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,

O calm of hills above,

Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee

The silence of eternity

Interpreted by love!

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and Thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.


Benediction
:

When I Am Among the Trees*

by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”2

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dear_Lord_and_Father_of_Mankind

2”When I Am Among the Trees,” by Mary Oliver. Published in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston, 2006. Pg. 4.

*In Mary Oliver’s poem, I interpret trees as a symbol for God. Thus my reading of her poetic reflection invites us to imagine ourselves walking among the reality of God.

“Feverish Living”

Mark 1:29-39

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/7/21

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.  (NRSV)

         I wonder if the first-century writer of Mark wouldn’t have felt somewhat at home in the feverish pace of life of the twenty-first century. As we noted last week, in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story, much of the action happens “immediately.” In the first chapter, “the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness,” (Mark 1:12) That urgency continues into the first verse of chapter 15 when, “As soon as it was morning,” (“In the Greek, “As soon as” is the same word translated as “immediately.”) “the chief priests…elders…scribes…and the whole council…bound Jesus…led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” After that, things slow down. In the words of Joshua, “the sun stood still” (Joshua 10:13) for those who had grown impatient with Jesus.

         Today’s passage begins with that same immediacy. “As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue,” says Mark, “they entered the house of Simon and Andrew.” And at once they tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is bedridden with a fever.

How’s that for irony? Everywhere Jesus goes, feverishness hounds him.

Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and afterward she hurries to the kitchen and gets back to work.

By sundown, the end of that Sabbath day, a crowd stands at the door. They’ve come to be healed or to watch healing happen. Jesus tends to as many as he can until everyone finally goes home.

Now, to some folks, this sermon may begin to feel rather cliché, but maybe some ideas and expressions become cliché because they need to be heard over and over.

         Who among us doesn’t know, or remember all too well, the feverishness of life? And I include young children in this. At what age do we start them in organized sports requiring multiple practices every week, and weekend-long tournaments in far-away towns?

In our culture, busyness has become a badge of honor. “How are you doing?” we ask, and most of the time we either say, “Fine,” or proudly declare that we’re too busy to know what day it is. It seems to me, too, that even more of the time, all we want to hear from others is that they’re either fine or busy. We’re so caught up in our own fevered lives that we seldom have the physical stillness and the spiritual peace required to listen to one another, and to offer compassion to people in need.

The sad paradox is that while many folks try to use busyness to validate their lives, the cost of feverish living is life itself. Frenetic existence is about achieving and acquiring rather than growing and sharing. It numbs us to people we claim to love and to systemic iniquities and inequities that destroy community.

Returning to our story, we see Jesus rise before the sun and slip away by himself. He escapes to a private, quiet place to pray. After sunrise, the disciples launch a desperate search for Jesus. They finally locate him and interrupt his prayer.

“Everyone is searching for you,” they say. (Translation: Jesus, let’s go! We’ve gotta get busy!)

Jesus doesn’t disagree, but he does redirect. Yes, we’re moving on, he says. But there are other people for me to see, and other places for me to go.

Jesus’ feverish pace continues, but all along the way he prepares for that busyness. He prepares by entering, over and over, like a cliché, the relationship-restoring peace of solitude, and the invigorating stillness of prayer.

I think that Jesus’ pulling away from the people who need him is the very point of today’s story. Precisely because of his disciplined retreat from the relentless demands, Jesus is able to fulfill his calling as the Christ. In yet another paradox, only by continually making time to avoid people can Jesus truly be with them and love them.

Years ago I read that the reformer Martin Luther said that the busier his life got the more time he needed to commit to the renewing peace of contemplation. As one who kept on the move in order to avoid arrest and execution for heresy, Luther lived a terribly feverish life, and he could not write, preach, travel—and thrive—if he didn’t carve out ample time simply to sit in the presence of God.

Folks like me are usually expected to provide good examples of faithfulness in prayer. And while I may be well-practiced at cluttering up silences with words, I struggle as much as anyone with the rare gifts of stillness and peace. I struggle with making adequate time for the kind of contemplative prayer that causes fevers to break, wounds to heal, and that opens our eyes to the Spirited Holiness at work creating and uniting all things in love.

Such a confession is no excuse, but it can be a starting place. If we claim to be the body of Christ, doesn’t it make sense, that, to prepare ourselves for Christian mission, we, too, would regularly pull away from the world? For us as a community, that means more than simply shutting ourselves up for church services once a week. It means making time to lay aside even all the decent and orderly ways of corporate worship and committee protocol so we can sit silently together. For each of us individually, it means creating time and space where we hit the off switch and surrender to the embrace of Spirit, where we just listen and feel. And all of that takes practice—lots and lots of practice.

Covid has required isolation, but not true sabbath. Our world is still as fevered as ever, and prayerful retreat is indispensable to our individual well-being and to our corporate ministry. Through sabbath time we place ourselves in the hands of God who heals our fevers, and deepens our capacity for giving and receiving love.

The Quakers seem to have learned this better than many other Christian groups. Quakers are well known for honoring silence in individual practice and in corporate worship. The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is an adaptation of the poem “The Brewing of Soma” by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.1 The story behind the poem is quite interesting, but for our purposes, it’s enough to recognize that this hymn invites us into stillness and peace.

So, instead of filling more time with my words, we are going to sing this hymn together. As we sing, I invite you to contemplate God’s healing and comforting presence in that stillness and peace.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,

Forgive our foolish ways!

Reclothe us in our rightful mind,

In purer lives Thy service find,

In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard

Beside the Syrian sea

The gracious calling of the Lord,

Let us, like them, without a word

Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,

O calm of hills above,

Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee

The silence of eternity

Interpreted by love!

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and Thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.
Benediction
:

When I Am Among the Trees*

by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”2

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dear_Lord_and_Father_of_Mankind

2”When I Am Among the Trees,” by Mary Oliver. Published in Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston, 2006. Pg. 4.

*In Mary Oliver’s poem, I interpret trees as a symbol for God. Thus my reading of her poetic reflection invites us to imagine ourselves walking among the reality of God.

Called to Both Brokenness and Wholeness (Sermon)

“Called to Both Brokenness and Wholeness”

Mark 1:21-28

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/31/21

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (NRSV)

         Mark’s telling of the gospel opens with the grand announcement: Jesus is the Son of God.

Throughout the first chapter, Mark hammers away at that message. He validates John as Isaiah’s messenger who prepares the way for God’s Anointed One. So, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” the Holy Spirit invites us to join the Son in his kingdom-revealing, Creation-transforming work. That work often meets resistance because it challenges the status quo of greed and power.

         When we claim to know and love Jesus, and yet prefer to remain comfortable and complacent in systems that seem to work to our advantage but which cause obvious suffering to others, our own voices quickly become the demons that protest Jesus’ redeeming presence in the world. To gloss over that dissonance between our professions of faith and our actions, the Church has used soft and fragrant falling-in-love-with-Jesus language to talk about spiritual union with God. It seems to me, though, that we might more accurately compare entering relationship with God to the disturbing convulsions of an exorcism.

As he does with the man possessed by a demon in Capernaum, Jesus heals us—he liberates us—from the selfishness and fear that possess us and make us destructive to ourselves, to people around us, and to the Creation. So, his gracious act necessarily pushes us out of the corrupting realities of greed, fear, and desires for supremacy. He leads us into the truth of love, of gratitude, generosity, and mutuality.

While that news is as good as it sounds, it’s also true that Jesus’ liberation almost always involves a significant cost. Just imagine the mental, spiritual, and emotional convulsions of the first disciples as they left their families and their vocations to follow Jesus. Mark makes it sound as simple as dropping their nets, but how can that be? Beginning something new is hard enough; so, wouldn’t immediately following Jesus be excruciating? That’s why Jesus compares discipleship to a kind of death. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” he says, “and those who lose their life, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

Before any of the gospels were written, Paul made the same argument: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed…For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:3, 6-7 NRSV)

While Mark doesn’t suggest that the demon-possessed man in the synagogue was trapped within a “body of sin,” it was common in the first century to blame illness, poverty, or any othersuffering on a person’s sin. So, most of the “good religious people” in the synagogue that day would likely have dismissed the man as a pathetic sinner and shunned him as a public nuisance. If he’s suffering, he deserves it, they’d say. Leave him be.

Now, the NRSV reads, “Just then” the man was in the synagogue. In the Greek, it’s the same word that appears over and over in Mark and usually gets translated “immediately.” To me, the apparent suddenness of the man’s presence mirrors the suddenness of Jesus’ presence on the scene. Both of them show up possessed by some powerful spiritual indwelling. And both of them are capable of causing the kind of dis-ease that any of us are likely to feel when confronted by someone whose presence demands of us more than superficial pleasantries.

Because Jesus teaches with an unfamiliar authority everyone’s senses are already heightened. Then, immediately, this crackpot shows up, and the people gather their children close. They move their wallets to their front pockets. They position themselves for fight or flight. Then, the man says something that sounds perfectly absurd. He calls Jesus the “Holy One of God.”

In Mark, Jesus is cagey with his identity. So, he rebukes and silences the demon, and the man seizes and thrashes like someone dying in terrible pain. The worshipers now find themselves in a real dilemma. Given what they just witnessed, which one is actually the crackpot? The man and Jesus both seem to be living in alternative realities. But Jesus’s authority appears capable of redemption and of making people whole.

Mark concludes this story saying that the people were “amazed” by Jesus, and that his “fame spread throughout the surrounding region.” Mark also seems to suggest that being amazed falls short of a truly faithful response to Jesus. To seek to amaze or to be amazed is self-centered. Jesus wants followers who will not fear but will engage people like the demon-possessed man. He wants people who will live inside a Creator-and-Creation-focused reality that is a place of chaos as much as it is a place of shalom because it is as fraught with suffering as it is with wholeness and hope.1

Richard Rohr calls this the “cruciform pattern” of reality.2 “Jesus,” says Rohr, “was killed in a collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths, caught between the demands of an empire and the religious establishment of his day. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a ‘mixed’ world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. [Holding together all the primary opposites, Jesus] hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.”3

         As not only the archetype of this holy paradox, but as the one who comes to restore that paradox in humankind, Jesus heals the man. Mark never mentions what happens to him, but just because he was healed doesn’t mean he wouldn’t continue to suffer in this magnificent yet malignant world. It seems to me, then, that his disappearance becomes our invitation. The absence he leaves is where we step in to help create presence in Jesus’ name. His life is now our life. Jesus frees us to see, hear, think, and act differently in, with, and for the Creation. He frees us to care for each other, and especially for those who suffer.

         We do live in a world of fear, greed, and violence, and those debilitating demons can torment us; and they can torment others through us. At the same time, as followers of Jesus, we can recognize those destructive emotions and desires and confront them, because, as Timothy says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2Timothy 1:7 NKJV)

         Whenever and wherever the world attempts to suppress or deny the kingdom of God, whenever and wherever the world tempts us to reject the inclusive love and restorative grace of God in Christ, Jesus is there to silence our fear-ravaged hearts and selfish minds. And he calls us to return to the new reality of God’s realm, where all people are welcome, all things are shared, and all Creation is made new.

1Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 313.

2https://cac.org/coincidence-of-opposites-2019-02-07/

3Ibid.

The Catch of the Day: Repentance (Sermon)

“The Catch of the Day: Repentance”

Mark 1:14-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/24/21

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.  (NRSV)

         Jesus’ cousin, John, has been arrested after calling out Herod for marrying his sister-in-law. And for having the prophetic courage to question a political leader’s ethical conduct, John gets thrown into prison. He will die there—beheaded by Herod. And yet, as this dark and violent chapter of John’s story begins, Jesus declares to all who will listen, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

         This should not surprise us. Creating new beginnings out of chaos and death is God’s forte. God did it at the very beginning, when “the earth was a formless void.” God did it with an aged and barren Sarah; and again when Jacob deceived Isaac and Esau; and again when the Hebrews fell into slavery in Egypt; and again when the inept King Saul almost destroyed Israel; and again when Israel was taken into captivity by Babylon—twice. And when Mark reminds his readers of John’s arrest and execution, he’s foreshadowing the most remarkable of new beginnings, the one created between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

         We can’t know for certain that Jesus actually knew, at that moment, how his own life would unfold, but he knew the scriptures well. He knew Israel’s story. So, he could, in good faith, proclaim that God was already responding to John’s suffering in a way that would redeem all the injustice and all the grief that so many Jews were experiencing under the thumbs of Caesar and Herod.

Jesus also sensed that God had called him to awaken people to a brand-new spiritual life, to an awareness that recognizes, welcomes, and even inhabits the new thing God is always in the midst of doing. Jesus calls that new thing The Kingdom of God.

         Mark suggests that Jesus puts all of this together not only in the aftermath of John’s arrest, but in the bright light of Jesus’ own baptism and through the defining experience of his temptation in the wilderness. Mark takes a total of five verses to narrate both of those watershed events. And immediately (that seems to be Mark’s favorite word), Jesus begins to preach the kingdom and to call his first disciples.

         Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee Jesus invites two sets of brothers, all of them fishermen, to follow him. Now, the NRSV translates the last part of verse 17 to read “and I will make you fish for people.” Commentator Ted Smith thinks that the NRSV’s action-oriented language obscures something crucial about Jesus’ call. Smith says that a more accurate translation would read, like the old King James, “and I will make you fishers of [people].” Ted Smith says that using the noun “fishers” makes Jesus’ call not just about performing an act, but about engaging a new and very specific identity.1

         That distinction makes sense to me. I remember talking about fishing with the principal of the middle school in which I taught for four years. Dr. Freeland, an avid hunter and fisherman, said that it wasn’t uncommon to watch two people fishing the very same water, maybe even out of the same boat, and to notice that one of them was catching fish and the other was watching it happen. The differences would be subtle—the depth of the line into the water, the distance between the lead weight and the hook, the size of the hook, how long one waited before repositioning the line. Fish are not particularly smart creatures, but they are creatures of habit, and a real fisherman pays attention to the habits of fish, to the habits of water, to the weather, to the seasons, to his or her own state of mind while fishing. To “go fishing,” then, is to do more than chuck bait and wait on a bite. It is to enter and interact with the world. For fishermen who fish to eat and survive, fishing is an existential practice. Out of gratitude and necessity, they strike a holy balance between life and death.

         Jesus doesn’t call Simon, Andrew, James, and John because he wants them to fish, but because they are fishermen. And he will make of them a new kind of fisherman. They’ll understand their fishers of people work as a brand-new vocation, as an identity that rises out of a new way of living, moving, and having human being in, with, and for the world.

         Jesus also points out an essential step to take when moving beyond fishing to become fishers of people. Entering that new vocation requires repentance. It seems to me that over the centuries, the Church has so drastically narrowed the concept of repentance that the word has lost its mystery and power. I think most of us approach repentance like people who are merely fishing rather than like people who are fishermen. The biblical and spiritual concept of repentance is more than acknowledging and feeling guilt for one’s sins. Repentance means allowing God’s Spirit to turn us in an entirely new direction.

Sure, in repentance we take responsibility for actions that have hurt others or ourselves, but full repentance also means taking stock of one’s surroundings, one’s priorities, fears, desires, prejudices, and commitments. People who live according to the ways of repentance read their own lives the way fishermen read the water. They search their own souls for places of fullness and emptiness; and then, turning from the emptiness, turning from the selfishness, they cast the nets of their love where they will gather the most nourishment for themselves and for others. For fishers of people, repentance is the catch of the day.

         When looking for disciples, Jesus looks for people who will understand repentance. He looks for people who will trust what their eyes don’t necessarily see; people who trust the truth and the wholeness they feel in the depths of their hearts; people who trust the Creator of sky, and wind, and soil, and water, and fish; people who can own their failures and forgive themselves and others.

The ways and means of true fishermen are good training for followers. So, to Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and I will up your game. I will make you fishers of human beings. I will teach you to read waters you don’t even see yet. I will lead you in lives of repentance, lives in which, together, we will offer nourishment, strength, and reconciling grace to all humankind.

         I’m going to close this sermon with a song. I’ve sung it to you before, but it’s relevant every time we read this text. I hope illustrates the kind of struggle that disciples experience when hearing Jesus’ call, when learning to trust him and to follow him, and when learning to live a life of repentance.

Taking Up a New Life

w/m by Allen Huff

© 2020

Andy and me been fishing that water since we were eight years old.

Daddy had us up and out every morning in the dark, and rain, and cold.

For twenty years we lived our days on that same sandy shore.

And every day and every fish looked like the one before.

I was hungry for adventure, for somewhere else to be,

So when that stranger came to town, and he said, Follow me,

I felt a wind blow through my hair and a shiver down my spine.

Storm’s a-coming, Andy said beneath that sunny sky.

Well, that very day, my brother and me signed on.

We didn’t know just what to expect, but it wasn’t kingdom come.

We left the nets right where they lay, and the boat beached high and dry.

In disbelief our daddy said we’d left him there to die.

But something died in me, as well, when that rabbi showed his face.

He cast his nets all over me, and pulled me from the lake,

And I realized just how much I did not want to change.

To follow him my life would be forever rearranged.

Chorus:

Taking up a new life and laying down the old,

Never happens all at once ‘cause the end is not the goal.

All we saw, and said, and did, like compost in the earth,

Feeds the future with the past making way for new birth.

Fishing had been my life and work, a vocation good and fair.

But Jesus saw much more in me than I had ever dared.

He read the waters of my soul like I could read the lake,

And he said, Fish for people from now on, and Rock will be your name.

Faithful to a fault to what I thought I knew was real.

I rolled a stone across my mind and made certainty the seal.

When I told him he was wrong, he looked me in the eye

And said, Bless your heart, you clueless fool; me you will deny!

Bridge:

Well, a rock and a millstone are just the same if to one you are bound,

So to teach me to swim, that rabbi let me drown.

Now gold and silver have I none, and neither do I need.

To know where I’ve been and who I am shines light on what can be.

Chorus

1Ted A. Smith, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 289.

We May and We Must (Sermon)

“We May and We Must

1Samuel 3:1-20

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/17/21

Ancient Hebrew priests like Eli had a very specific role in the life of Israel. As arbiters between the community and God, they called the people to faithfulness in living and to repentance when they went astray. And God expected priests to lead by example, to model both faithfulness and repentance.

In 1Samuel 2 we learn that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were priests by birthright, were “scoundrels.” They stole the best food brought in for sacrifices. They seduced the young women who welcomed worshipers at the tent of meeting. To make matters worse, Eli did nothing to stop them.

         In chapter 2, we also learn of a kind of vision that Eli had. A “man of God” comes to the aging priest and says that when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, God chose an ancestor of Eli’s to serve as priest. So, Eli’s priestly lineage had the authority of both God’s anointing and long-standing tradition. In light of Eli’s failures, though, God was about to break that tradition. Eli and his household were going to fall, and God would raise up a new priest: A “trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”

Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”

17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”

18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. (1Samuel 3:1-20 – NRSV)

         The story opens in a barren season. God’s word and guiding visions are rare. In the midst of that spiritual winter, a boy encounters God in a word-saturated vision. In his innocence and inexperience, the boy mistakes the voice calling him for Eli’s voice. Eli may have failed in many ways, but the storyteller says that “the light of God had not yet gone out.” The reference may be to an actual lamp in the sanctuary, but it also alludes to the old priest’s spiritual awareness. As far as Eli has fallen, he does, finally, recognize that God is calling Samuel.

Next time you hear the voice, says Eli, tell God that you’re listening. Samuel listens, and he receives the ear-tingling news of Eli’s downfall. Already aware of the judgement against his household, Eli says, Let God do what God will do.

That Samuel doesn’t yet “know the Lord” through all of this tells us that God is taking fresh initiative. Following the failure of Eli and his sons, God is calling a new priestly line to lead Israel.

In Israel, a priest was a pastoral theologian. He was called by God to perform sacrifices and to teach the Torah. He was also a practical theologian. He was called to lead the people in applying the Law in their lives. He was also called to speak prophetic truth to the people, regardless of its popularity. And in Israel, crises often became the most critical times to hold the community accountable to the demanding truths of the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me”—and the Shema—”Hear O Israel, the Lord [alone] is our God…love the Lord…with all your heart…soul [and] might.” Teach all of this to your children, and make it part of your everyday lives. (Deuteronomy 5:7 and 6:4-9)

Those truths served as the bedrock of Israel’s spiritual, ethical, moral, political, and social existence in the ­“real”world. Belonging to God and to God alone, everything they did was tied to their blessed-to-be-a-blessing call from God.

For Eli, then, was it imperative that he call his sons as well the community to faithfulness. In failing to do that, Eli failed to honor the first commandment and the Shema. His silence threatened to undermine all of Israel and her role as a redeeming presence in and hopeful blessing to the wider world.

As with ancient Israel, our Christian spirituality and witness cannot be limited to holding church services and doing altruistic things with time, talents, and tithes. Faithfulness to God includes our interactions with the world beyond the Church. And God calls us to mirror the ways and means of Jesus, who lived a life of radical commitment to God, and who called Jew and Gentile alike to lives of shared experience, shared responsibility, shared wealth, shared suffering, and shared joy.

I’ve heard it suggested that pastors cannot rightfully express viewpoints addressing the wider community’s struggles. I understand that concern. Someone with the authority of the pulpit must tread carefully; and certainly, the pulpit should never be used as a something partisan. Then again, while someone may have the right to say that others don’t have the right to speak, the biblical story doesn’t let pastors or the faith community off that easy. God’s Holy Spirit creates and calls a prophetic community.

The story of Eli and his sons demonstrates that there are times when silence is complicity in actions that are destructive to community and, therefore, fundamentally antithetical to God. The gospel also demonstrates that there are times when Christians and Christian communities have not only the right but the responsibility to claim their Christ-voice and speak to issues of justice, equality, and peace in the wider world.

In the Theological Declaration of Barmen, pastors and religious scholars did just that: They raised their prophetic voice and challenged Nazi attempts to co-opt, corrupt, and even silence the Church’s message and make it compatible with a fascist agenda. The writers of Barmen declared that their “imperiled” church was “threatened by the teaching methods and actions…of the ‘German Christians’”—(the state church of the Third Reich). Those methods and actions undermined the theological foundations and the unified witness of the body of Christ. And when that is allowed to happen, says Barmen, “the Church ceases to be the Church.”2

At great risk to themselves, these priests and prophets declared, “we may and [we] must speak…since we…have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.”3

Declaring that “Jesus Christ…is the one Word of God which we have to hear…trust and obey,” the writers of Barmen rejected “false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides [Jesus], still other events and powers, figures and truths.”4

On January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, fellow Christians raised the cross of Christ next to symbols of white supremacy, hate, and violence; but hate and violence have no place in Christ’s Church. Now, I do not think that everyone present that day was racist, hateful, and violent. It is clear, however, that that particular cross was raised not as a prophetic counterpoint to but as willful participation with those destructive forces. So, it is theological rather than political to say that, as followers of Jesus, we cannot, like Eli, remain silent in the face of such desecration.

In our own anxious days when holy words and guiding visions are all-too rare, God is calling our names. Like Samuel, let us say, “Here I am…Speak for your servant is listening.”

Whatever God says to us, “we may and [we] must” respond with a freely-offered, full-throated, prayer-actioned commitment to Jesus Christ, and to his ways of trustworthy prophecy—the ways of love, justice, and non-violent peace. For he and he alone is our way, our truth, and our life.

1Lawrence Wood, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 245.

2-4For the text of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, see: https://www.creeds.net/reformed/barmen.htm

Shining Light into Darkness (Newsletter)

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                             Shalom,

                                                      Pastor Allen

1Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you alone,

have I sinned,

and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence

and blameless when you pass judgment.

5Indeed, I was born guilty,

a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

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

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

9Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,

O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

16For you have no delight in sacrifice;

if I were to give a burnt offering,

you would not be pleased.

17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God,

you will not despise.

18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,

19then you will delight in right sacrifices,

in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar.

(Psalm 51 – NRSV)

1The Lord is my light and my salvation;

whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—

my adversaries and foes—

they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me,

my heart shall not fear;

though war rise up against me,

yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the Lord,

that will I seek after:

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

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

and to inquire in his temple.

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

he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;

he will set me high on a rock.

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

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

I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

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

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,

you who have been my help.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me,

the Lord will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O Lord,

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

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

for false witnesses have risen against me,

and they are breathing out violence.

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

14Wait for the Lord; be strong,

and let your heart take courage;

wait for the Lord!

(Psalm 27 – NRSV)

A Demanding Redemption (Sermon)

“A Demanding Redemption”

Isaiah 43:1-7  Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

1/13/13

Isaiah 43:1-7

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer (Newsletter Article)

         Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

Most Holy and Merciful God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participants in the Kingdom (Christmas Eve Sermon)

“Participants in the Kingdom”

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

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2020

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (Isaiah 42:1-9 – NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent: The Art of Letting Go (Sermon)

“Advent: The Art of Letting Go”

Mark 1:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

12/20/20

Fourth Sunday of Advent

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

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

In such cultures, public service becomes self-service.

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

Excess becomes a sign of God’s favor.

Poverty becomes a sign of personal weakness.

The poor and the earth become commodities to exploit.

Christmas becomes a commercial event.

The cross becomes jewelry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we trust his lordship and embody his love.

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

2-3Ibid.

An Incarnate Hope (Sermon)

“An Incarnate Hope”

Service of Healing and Wholeness

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Second Sunday of Advent — 12/6/20

Genesis 1:1-10

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

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

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in the dependable turning of the seasons,

in the delicious fertility of the earth,

in the renewing warmth of fire,

in the refreshment of water,

in the loveliness of the lilies of the field,

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

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

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

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

in the twin ecstasies of laughter and weeping,

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

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