Terror and Amazement (Sermon)

“Terror and Amazement”

Mark 16:1-8

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter 2021

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  (NRSV)

         The women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”

         I tried to think about the last time I felt genuinely seized by spiritual terror and amazement. And honestly, I couldn’t think of anything. Not even at Easter. I’ve been hearing this story for 58 years. And I’ve been preaching it for eleven days shy of 25 years. And when trying to come up with yet another Easter sermon, I identify far more with the women as they approach the tomb than when they run away from it. I wonder who will roll the stone away for me. Who will roll away the stone of my increasingly unexpectant heart—a heart that often feels like it’s trying only to freshen up a corpse, trying only to put spices on an old, old story entombed in an old, old book?

         This week I began to wonder if that weren’t exactly how the women felt. According to Mark, Joseph of Arimathea had placed Jesus’ body in a family burial cave, and sealed the entrance with a heavy stone meant to keep at least the honest people out.

Women bore the primary responsibility for swaddling the bodies of the dead with spices to fend off the stench of decomposition. And according to Mark, the three women tasked with washing and embalming Jesus’ body knew that they couldn’t get in the tomb on their own. That made me wonder: Why didn’t they ask someone to come help them? Then I thought, well, embalming a body would have been a routine practice, but given the women’s love for Jesus, and given the condition of his body when he died, they may have felt rather unmotivated to get inside. So, could these women, distraught by Friday’s horrors and wearied by grief, set out to perform the ritual without really expecting—or even wanting—to be able to get inside the tomb to do it?

I think that more pastors than will admit it approach the beloved texts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost with some of that same weariness. Trying to find something new and invigorating in these same stories year after year can be daunting. Maybe the problem, though, is that we keep trying to find something inspiring, comforting, and “uplifting.” What if we’re missing the point? What if a good Easter sermon actually causes “terror and amazement”?

Now, here in the south, there are more than enough preachers who terrorize believers and non-believers alike with condemnation. It seems to me, though, that being terrified not to believe in Jesus for fear of going to hell is as far from the terror Mark refers to as the love one claims to have for their favorite hamburger is far from God’s agape love for the Creation.

Mark clarifies the terror the women feel by adding amazement into the mix. The women’s terror and amazement well up from the same place. It’s not a selfish terror. It’s not a fear for their own lives or property. It’s the ecstatic terror of realizing that the Creation—in all of its monotony and magnificence, in all of its agony and euphoria, in all of its horror and hope—is, indeed, saturated with the beauty, the holiness, and the feral creativity of God.

Perhaps the terror and amazement of the women on that first Easter morning accurately evokes and illustrates the truest and deepest sense of the word joy. Joy is so much more than mere happiness. And it’s light years beyond feelings of comfort and satisfaction. While joy can be expressed in smiles and shouts of Alleluia, it can also be expressed in tears and the keening grief of those who weep for the world because deep in their hearts they trust that violence, prejudice, hatred, apathy, poverty, and all other forms of suffering run counter to the loving justice and righteousness God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Such evils must be confronted and defied, and they can also be survived because, ultimately, they will be defeated. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed this when, with his extraordinary eloquence and grace, said, “Right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Indeed, says the Resurrection, this is true because death is no ending. Death signals the new thing God begins as evil is being defeated. That is what terrifies and amazes the women: All that stuff Jesus said, all that stuff about the time being fulfilled, about the kingdom of God having drawn near, about forgiveness and renewal, about losing one’s life to find it, about living fearlessly, about feeding the hungry, about clothing the naked, about greatness through humbly service, about loving God and neighbor…Jesus meant all that!

In Mark 3, Jesus is in the midst of a crowd of people, teaching them, healing them, loving them. Jesus’ mother and brothers show up and want to speak to him. Someone in the crowd says, Hey, Jesus! Your mom’s here. She and your brothers would like a word.

And Jesus says, Look around. You! You are my mother and my brothers and my sisters! Whoever follows me in my ways of justice, righteousness, and peace, you are my family!

The terrifying and amazing thing about Easter isn’t the resurrection itself, but the implications of resurrection. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then, as Paul says, “we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4c) If we take all this seriously, terror and amazement will seize us with joy because we are freed, here and now, to live a new and different life, a life of full kinship with Christ. A life of discipleship in which we fearlessly confront the daunting tasks of facing down all the violent Caesars who traffic in Creation-diminishing greed, waste, and racism, and in the wanton and self-serving use of brutal power. Resurrection life opens us to the holiness in ourselves, in the people around us, and in all things. It opens us to the hope of seeing the world transformed through the regenerating love of God. And resurrection alone makes that kind of life possible.

We carry around with us all manner of “spices:” Our church buildings and furniture, suits and ties, theological degrees and doctrines, vestments and investments, policies and protocols. And how much of that stuff is just burial spice? How much of our attention do those things divert from the people Jesus cares for? And when we come to church, when we enter worship, is there some stone that we secretly hope is still blocking the tomb? Still keeping a kingdom life at bay so we can remain comfortable and unamazed?

Brothers and Sisters, I hope this terrifies you: Whether you like it or not, the stone has been moved for you. Life is not what you thought it was. It’s not measured in years. It doesn’t end in death. You won’t experience satisfaction, much less wholeness, by owning, dominating, or even knowing—this is faith we’re talking about. So, your spices are useless.

And I hope this amazes you: There is nothing to fear. Come what may—tears and laughter, feast and famine, summer and winter—your life is defined by joy. It’s defined by faith, hope, and love. It’s defined by what you share, not what you have. God gives you your identity and purpose by calling you to follow the Risen Jesus. And wherever you go next, he’s already there, “just as he told you.”

Palm Sunday (Sermon)

“Palm Sunday”

Isaiah 55:12-13 and Luke 19:29-39

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/28/21

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.  (NRSV)

29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  (NRSV)

         The gospel according to Luke includes several elements unique to Luke’s own telling of the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. For instance, it’s both interesting and significant that Luke makes no mention of palm or any other “leafy” branches. So, as Jesus rides toward the gates of Jerusalem, on a conscripted colt which isn’t even green-broke, people spread their cloaks along the road in front of him. Only their cloaks. That difference may seem small, but the theological implications are intentional and profound.

In ancient Rome it was tradition on days of national celebration to wave leafy green branches and to cry out, “Hosanna!”—which means, “Lord, save us!” And for Romans, Caesar was Lord. That practice finds its contemporary counterpart in a crowd of US citizens at a Fourth of July parade waving flags and crying, “God bless America!” And very recent memory reminds us of how dangerous the ideological cocktail of religion and nationalism can be.It’s particularly significant, then, that the word Hosanna is also conspicuously absent in Luke.

         Luke presents Palm Sunday as an entirely theological moment happening in the midst of a particular political, social, and economic context. Steering us away from nationalistic language and images, the storyteller helps us to imagine Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem as a revelatory moment. In Luke 19, Jesus identifies personally and intimately with creatures and the Creation.

         When Jesus enters the City of David, he does so in the midst of God’s time and space, not Rome’s. Not even Israel’s. The events to follow on the heels of this deep and holy moment will humble all human kingdoms. It will expose them as dull, distorted, and temporary. During Holy Week we learn that no earthly nation can claim Jesus, because God, in Christ, once again lays claim to the entire Creation.

         While the absence of palm branches and shouts of Hosanna is important, of all the marks that Luke puts on this story, the one that may proclaim the gospel in the most subtle and earthy way lies in the final two verses.

         When the Pharisees say to Jesus: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” making noise and praising God, Jesus turns to them and says, Look, if the people don’t sing praises, then the stones will do it for them.

         Come what may, says Jesus, God will provide a witness to Jesus. If it doesn’t come from the human beings who know him, then it will come from the Creation itself. The rocks, he says, will “shout out.” Or as Isaiah says: The mountains and hills will burst into song; and the trees will clap their hands.

Paul hints at similar wonders when he says, “The whole creation groans in labor pains” as the new creation wells up and springs forth.

         To us and to all this glorious earth, God is revealing the kingdom. And through the redeeming work of Jesus, we are being readied to recognize and to inhabit that kingdom.

         Have you ever heard the creation praising God? I believe that all of you are creative enough to imagine trees clapping their hands when breezes blow and cause the branches to clack one against another. And I, for one, choose to think that I’ve heard stones cry out.

         There’s a beautiful little waterfall up near Little Switzerland, NC called Grassy Creek Falls. The falls are not as spectacular as some, but there’s no less splendor in their simplicity. Our family frequents that waterfall, and the experience is almost always the same for me. After hiking the mile in, I clamber down the steep bank to the base of the falls. Sitting near the cascade, the cool, feathery spray strokes my face and arms. I close my eyes, and listen to the slap of water on rock.

         Do you know that sound? When the just right volume of water hits rock with just right force, it really does sound like human hands applauding something wonderful. Yes, this is entirely subjective, but at that little out-of-the-way waterfall, the rocks and the water together are clapping their hands, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re doing so in celebration of God’s incredibly good work—the good work of water and rock, of beautiful mountains, a rich and lively forest, life-giving relationships, and blessed solitude.

         Even when I’m like Martha, too busy and too distracted to acknowledge the holiness of the wonder of the Creation, the rocks never are. Right now, even as I speak, they continue to slap out their praise, and to invite all with ears to hear to join their celebration.

         Now, I know that our world is not all waterfalls and sunlight. The twin pandemics of racism and Covid continue to sicken, kill, and rearrange human lives. Never-ending wars continue their plodding death marches. Two mass shootings in the last two weeks claimed 18 lives. Over the last few days, violent storms damaged or destroyed people, homes, and peace of mind. And don’t most of us carry around other anxieties, as well? Things that keep us from celebrating the full joy available to us?

         If today is such a day for you or for someone you love, if you struggle to experience the joy of the Christ riding unpretentiously into your life, take heart. Just as the Holy Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to pray ourselves, the rocks cry out praise for us. When our hands are still, the trees are not. When our feet are heavy, the mountains skip in joyful celebration for us. Shut your eyes and hear the creation shout, Blessed is the one who comes in God’s name! And O, dear God, let there be peace on earth!

         Even if Luke’s gospel raises questions about whether or not the people waved palm branches as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, there are still palms to be waved and clapped—the palms of our own hands. Let your palms applaud along with the rocks and the trees, with everything wild and free, because from this celebration no one—and no thing—will be excluded.

         Let’s also remember, by Friday the celebration we enjoy today will melt into darkness and tears. This happens because, to be honest, we don’t fully understand and appreciate the grace of God or the one who reveals it. For some reason, grace often causes human beings to doubt and resist. And those things fester into betrayal and denial.

         We will begin to understand all this a little better next Sunday, but for now, on Palm Sunday, let’s join in the chorus of all creation, singing and clapping our gratitude and our hopeful praises to God.

         And let us open the gates of our hearts to welcome the One whose own palms tell us a story of love our minds have barely begun to comprehend.

The Hour of Reckless Love (Sermon)

“The Hour of Reckless Love”

John 12:20-33

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/21/21

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  (NRSV)

         Yesterday was the first day of spring. The calendar told us, but it only confirmed what we already knew. Even before the vernal equinox, the days have been lengthening and brightening with sunshine and birdsong. Ducks and geese have paired off on riverbank and pondshore. Daffodils, crocuses, and trout lilies are blooming in yards and on damp hillsides. Maple trees are blushing with their deep, rich red. And with all that is flowering, many of us are starting to wheeze and sniffle.

Unlike July 4th, or Labor Day, or a birthday, spring is more than a single day. It’s an unfolding, a season of change that builds toward the hot, earth-swell of summer.

         As Jesus’ third Passover approaches, signs of other changes have begun. The Jewish leaders rejected him. He wept publicly at Lazarus’ grave. In a surreal moment fraught with the tension of things to come, Mary, the sister of both Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with an entire pound of expensive perfume, and wiped them with her hair. Then Jesus enters Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”

And now, among the pilgrims who have made their way to the City of David, a contingent of gentiles makes an appearance—Greeks John calls them. Finding the disciple Philip, they say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They want to talk with this Jewish anomaly for whom neither age, nor gender, nor race, nor class, nor physical infirmity can hinder inclusion in God’s household of grace. And if, as Luke alone records, Jesus really did pray, from the cross, for forgiveness for his accusers and executioners, then Jesus’ grace embraces us even when we surrender to sin’s most merciless impulses.

That one bothers me. Something inside me would rather believe that the likes of Derek Chauvin, Dylan Roof, and Wayne Williams would feel more wrath than grace. But grace is always a stumbling block to Pharisees.

Back in John 7, the Pharisees, unwilling to accept Jesus’ authority, sent their police to arrest and silence the rabbi. Jesus put them off saying, You may know where I come from, but you don’t know where I’m going. And you can’t follow me there, either.

Stunned, these “spiritual” leaders reveal both their graceless outrage and their racial prejudice: Where’s this guy going that he thinks we can’t find him? Is he going among the Greeks? (John 7:28-36) Imagine everyone’s surprise when Greeks show up at Passover, in Jerusalem, asking for Jesus. When he learns of their presence, Jesus says, “The hour has come.”

Whether we’re observing signs of the arrival of spring or of the kingdom of God, those signs tell us that some kind of ‘hour has come.’ And Jesus says that we’ll know when the kingdom hour arrives because, like a grain of wheat, something will die. For us, it may be the death of materialism, the death of some prejudice, the death of the fear of taking a prophetic risk for the sake of others or the gospel. I’m praying that the turmoil in our culture today is a decisive wave in the all-too-slow death of racism.

Whatever deaths people or communities must die to experience greater liveliness, and wholeness, and holiness, those deaths do not come easy. Not even for Jesus. “My soul is troubled,” he says when things take an ominous turn. And after wondering if he might even pray his way out of his quandary, Jesus steels himself saying, “No,” this is my hour. I will face it for the sake of all Creation.

         Like the crosses we take up, the “hours” that truly define God’s people are not hours of our own making. One metaphor for the life of faith is a journey of openness to the various moments of consequence that God gives to us, “hours” in which we are called to respond in servant-hearted love to the people and events around us. Such faithfulness, says Jesus, demands that “Those who love their life lose it…[while]…those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

The word hate causes many of us to recoil. But we’re talking about Jesus, the incarnation of love, so, we have to understand hate in the context of Jesus’ love. In The Message, Eugene Peterson illuminates this verse by rendering it this way: “Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”

“If you let [your life] go, reckless in your love,” you will live your days emersed in the ever-arriving hour of God’s grace in Jesus, the “author and perfecter” of reckless love.

When the Greeks arrive, Jesus knows that his message has spread beyond the house of Israel. The world is knocking at his door, and Jesus knows that this will threaten Caesar. There are both ancient and modern Caesars, and they all symbolize worldly power. And Caesars will never willingly share their control with the likes of Jesus, who leads people in the ways of compassion, justice, and collaboration rather than power, wealth, and domination.

In reckless love, Jesus embraces his hour. And in the fullness of that love, he issues a call to everyone who would be his disciple. If you want to serve me, then follow me, he says. And wherever I am, you’ll be there, too, ready to embody reckless love when your hour arrives and asks of you what you can give only through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last Thursday I heard thunder for the first time in many months. A herald of springtime, thunder stirs the heart and shakes the walls. When it’s close enough, we can literally feel it in our bones. When we hear thunder, we know that warm and cold air are colliding, and that change is at hand.

When God speaks of the glorification of God’s name through Jesus, some of those standing nearby hear thunder. Others think that an angel has spoken to Jesus. And perhaps they’re both right. Jesus makes it clear that it’s the people’s experience that matters. “The voice has come for your sake not mine,” he says.

I hear Jesus saying: You all needed to hear this, because you need to understand that what’s going to happen in Jerusalem will reveal the ultimate impotence of the ways and means of greed-driven economics, violence-driven power, and fear-driven bigotry. Those are the ways of the ruler of this world, and they will be driven out. By grace.

As followers and servants of Jesus, we are called and empowered to participate in the ever-arriving hour of God’s kingdom on earth. That’s what salvation and new life look like—our fearless, grateful, and hopeful engagement of the Holy Spirit’s work as we declare that God does, in truth, “so love the world” that God sends the Son, not to condemn it but to redeem it. Jesus comes to make you, and me, and all things new and whole. That’s what he means by drawing all things to himself.

Christ’s hour has come, so this day and all days, let us continue to die to all that is selfish, fearful, and violent so that we may we experience and share the ever-present, always-redeeming, and recklessly-loving grace of God.

Grace: God’s Antivenom (Sermon)

“Grace: God’s Antivenom”

Numbers 21:4-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

3/7/21

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.  (NRSV)

         This is an odd and rather disturbing story. But let’s remember that the Israelites have been on the move for nearly forty years. Wandering. Belonging nowhere in particular. Sometimes not even belonging together. (e.g., Exodus 18:13-26) And all the while they’ve been waiting to be told that they have finally arrived in the coveted Promised Land flowing with milk, and honey, and sanctuary.

         After forty years, all the Hebrews seem to remember about Egypt are stories of overflowing “fleshpots.” It’s as if they’ve forgotten about the slavery—about being owned, tortured, and killed by Egyptians. Even generations beyond such an experience, neither the oppressed nor the oppressors forget that kind of thing. Nor should they. But for the Israelites, who are hungry, tired, and still waiting to find their place and purpose in the world, Egypt is an old story told by old people, and the memory of slavery has lost its sting. No longer connected to the past because of the struggles of the present, the people complain to Moses saying: If God is real, and if we’re really God’s people, then why are we so miserable? We’re sick of eating bad food and living like migratory beasts!

         That’s when God unleashes the “fiery serpents.”

         You want to know what detestable and miserable feel like? says God. Here! The bushes are going to burn with fangs and venom rather than my presence! So, listen to the screams. Bury your neighbors. Live in relentless anxiety. That’ll teach you!

         There are preachers who preach that god. If that’s what you’re looking for, though, you’ll have to go somewhere else. This preacher won’t give it to you. Jesus did not reveal a god of retributive justice—a god who gets both mad and even. Jesus revealed that God restores, reconciles, and renews the world through a grace that is often called irresistible. But that grace is really more illogical and inexplicable that irresistible. It doesn’t make sense for Jesus to offer grace to people who are as impatient and ill-tempered with him as the Israelites are with Yahweh. Maybe that’s why the Gospel of John specifically redeems this story.

Remember, in Numbers, God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. When bitten, a person looks at the serpent, the source of their pain, and is healed. In John 3, Jesus refers to this story saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:15) The terrifying and scandalous cross of Christ becomes the antivenom that delivers the Creation from poisonous judgment and violent oppression.

         The connection between the bronze serpent and the wooden cross is unmistakable. Both stories declare that God becomes newly and more palpably present through our sufferings. And like Rome many generations later, the snakes don’t go away. So, while dealing with the serpents becomes a way of life for Israel, so does trusting that God remains faithful.

         Looking at the bronze serpent becomes a kind of sacrament, a way of life in relationship with God in a world that is often more of a trial to endure than a joy to inhabit. Walter Brueggemann says that God takes “the serpent…and transforms it into a stable, enduring, reliable cultic object.” Brueggemann then suggests that the bronze serpent may be “a form of transubstantiation.”1 Like bread, wine, and water, it’s an external representation of an internal and eternal reality—the reality of God’s grace.

Here we confront one of the enduring and empowering paradoxes of the Judeo-Christian faith: While oppression and despair are dramatically symbolized in the fiery serpent and the Roman cross, so are the redeeming promises and the reconciling grace of God­—because that’s how God works. God turns sea into dry land, wandering into belonging, exile into return, swords into plowshares, water into wine, enemies into friends, and death into life.

A group of us are reading Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson. The book is written as a series of letters to African-Americans who have died as a result of systemic and sustained racism in our nation. It reads like a modern-day book of Lamentations. And while Dyson intentionally makes the book difficult for both black and white communities to read, his goal is to inspire restorative action. He holds up people with dark skin who, over the course of 400 years, have suffered the fiery serpents of injustice, people who have been exploited, lynched, and marginalized by fair-skinned people who have, for the most part, feared and denied the God-imaged equality of all humankind. Echoing Walter Brueggemann, Dyson lifts up those who have died, calling them “souls crushed into sainthood by the forces of evil, a ritual of sacred Black transubstantiation that turns their bodies from flesh and blood into holy hashtags and metaphysical martyrs for justice.”2

While Dyson’s words challenge many of us, his approach is thoroughly biblical. He raises up the bodies of those who have died at the hands of an unjust system, and he does so not to judge and condemn, but to invite us into God’s ongoing, gracious, and redemptive action.

I, too, wince my way through Dyson’s book because it disrupts my peace of mind. I resist the truth that I owe much of my sense of security in simply walking down the street to the privileges granted to me by a congenital lack of melanin in my skin. I don’t want to admit that. I want to think it’s because I’m a decent, hard-working, good-humored human being. And isn’t that the point? Who doesn’t want that to be the case for themselves?

That’s all the Israelites wanted. When the wilderness experience made these former slaves feel less than worthy, less than loved, less than human, they blamed a blaming God. God may have led them out of slavery, but, in their minds, God had also let them down. God had deposited them in that wasteland bereft of fleshpots and overrun with snakes and other perils. And yet through the very thing that threatened them, through the serpent itself, God creates and communicates healing.

So, too, in the Roman cross—the symbol of tyranny, abuse, and systemic violence—God creates and communicates redemption and reconciliation.

That’s God’s way. God, who chooses the foolish and the weak to bring down the clever and the strong (1Corinthians 1:27ff.), takes that which creates prejudice, fear, and even compliance with evil and turns it inside out. God lifts up those who have been wounded by suffering and injustice and reveals them as beloved children who are full of eternal grace and truth. At the same time, God exposes all that is poisonous and unjust as the slithering but withering idolatries of a broken world.

So, in the face of fiery serpents and empires of greed and violence, let us, as we prepare for Easter, look upon the empty cross of the risen Christ. And may it remind us that God is still redeeming and renewing the Creation according to the gracious ways of Jesus—the ways of justice, peace, and agapé love.

1Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B. “Fourth Sunday of Lent.” Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. P. 222.

2Michael Eric Dyson, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2020. P. 60.

Faith – Our Divine DNA (Sermon)

“Faith – Our Divine DNA”

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Romans 4:13-18

2/28/21 – Second Sunday of Lent

13-14 The ancient promise made to Abraham and his descendants, that they should eventually possess the world, was given not because of any achievements made through obedience to the Law, but because of the righteousness which had its root in faith. For if, after all, they who pin their faith to keeping the Law were to inherit God’s world, it would make nonsense of faith in God himself, and destroy the whole point of the promise.

15 For we have already noted that the Law can produce no promise, only the threat of wrath to come. And, indeed if there were no Law the question of sin would not arise.

16-17 The whole thing, then, is a matter of faith on [our] part and generosity on God’s. He gives the security of his own promise to all [people] who can be called “children of Abraham”, i.e. both those who have lived in faith by the Law, and those who have exhibited a faith like that of Abraham. To whichever group we belong, Abraham is in a real sense our father, as the scripture says: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’. This faith is valid because of the existence of God himself, who can make the dead live, and speak his Word to those who are yet unborn.

18 Abraham, when hope was dead within him, went on hoping in faith, believing that he would become “the father of many nations”. He relied on the word of God which definitely referred to ‘your descendants’.  (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

         Embattled and still in its infancy, the church in Rome must wrestle with one persistent, fundamental question: Who are we? And in a world marinating in anxiety, the early church, that wrestling is intense, passionate, and often violent. In determining its identity, the community has to decide how men and women relate; how leaders are chosen and empowered; how strangers are treated; and how those who threaten the community will be stopped, and either rehabilitated or punished. Like any other emerging community, the church must also decide how they will remember and interpret the past. What stories and whose stories will be told? How will prominent individuals and defining events be taught and remembered?

It seems to me that this very question holds a central place in our own nation’s current struggle with race. When a long-oppressed community begins to claim the beauty of its full humanity, and the power of its identity and history, those who have held influence over them and over the writing of history will, almost inevitably, feel threatened. And in a nation which has claimed spiritual/religious language as foundational, that struggle is as deeply theological as it is social, political, and economic.

The councils that wrote the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds may have been shaping Christian theology, but they did so as much for political stability as for theological orthodoxy. At the direction of the emperor, they were deciding how, for the sake of the empire, to remember, interpret, and appropriate the enigma of Jesus, who, apparently, was not going away.

Setting up and maintaining the early Christian community became a kind of a cultural genome project. It sought to determine how the new community would be inseminated with the theological, political, social, and economic attributes of Jesus.

Forgive the somewhat graphic nature of that image, but we’re talking about personal and communal identity at the level of DNA. Who are we? And whose are we?

Every culture does this, and a vivid example from American culture is the story of George Washington confessing to his father that he cut down the cherry tree. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in college before I learned who Parson Weems was, and how he fabricated and propagated that outright lie in order to teach children the virtues of telling the truth. Metaphors are inherent in religious language, but it’s always appropriate for a community to ask if it has strayed into the tactics of outright falsehoods.

Jesus leads his followers across the brand-new Red Sea called Resurrection. On the other side, people like Peter and Paul lead that same community into the wilderness of a brand-new spiritual and cultural identity. In doing so, they help to shape the community’s memory of not only the recent stories of Jesus, but the ancient stories of their faith. Paul pays particular attention to Abraham. And Abraham’s story, says Paul, is all about the fundamental characteristic of faith.

According to Paul, faith is the divine DNA that defines us. And by faith Paul means more than “believing in” God. He means trusting the God in whom we claim to believe, and he means loving that God by loving our neighbors with steadfast and non-sentimental resolve.

In making his point, Paul encourages the new faith community to alter its thousand-year-old understanding of the law, and, thus, of themselves. Honestly, though, I think Paul would say that he’s not really changing anything. He’s restoring the community to its deepest and truest self. That’s why he uses Abraham rather than Moses as the standard.

To restore the people to their chromosomal faith, Paul scrapes away at all the legalism that has become a kind of fungus on their spiritual practices. Within the community, score-keeping has obscured and distorted their God-imaged character of servant-hearted trust and love.

In an effort to pry the law from the people’s dying fingers, Paul says, “The Law can produce no promise, only the threat of wrath to come…The whole thing, then, is a matter of faith on [our] part and generosity on God’s…[And] faith is valid because of the existence of God…who can make the dead live…Abraham, when hope was dead within him, went on hoping in faith.”

Because the community’s identity hinges on their faith in and loyalty to God above all else, Paul demotes the law, and holds it in service to faith.

Having said that, let’s also acknowledge that every religion creates structures of theology and governance. We do that because all communities need structure to thrive. Even the laws of nature affirm this. Where would we be, for example, if gravity were not a dependable law? What if we had to live with the anxiety of coming untethered from the earth without warning, and floating away until gravity kicked in again, and yanked us back to earth with a splat?

I think Paul understands all of this. Still, when inserting himself into Rome’s struggle with who belongs and who doesn’t, the apostle makes the point that when Jesus-followers live as if the law represents our fundamental DNA, we inevitably do more to destroy the beauty and the wholeness of God’s Creation than we do to give thanks for it, and to steward it, and to share it. Wherever people seek to trust God and love neighbor, there is the community of faith. And if people can’t find that community in the Church, or in a congregation, they’ll leave it and create that community for themselves elsewhere. And who can blame them?

Jesus himself systematically dismantles the DNA of law-based religion. He openly flouts the law when he heals and picks grain on the Sabbath, when he fraternizes with Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. Five times in Matthew’s sermon on the mount, Jesus launches into a teaching on some holy law saying, “You have heard it said,” then he turns it inside out saying, “but I say to you.”

Jesus’ very life is the giving of a new law: The law of grace, the law by which we live in and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Paul is doing the same thing. In Romans 13 he writes these earth-shaking words: The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder…[or] steal…[or] covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)

Here’s the catch: The law of love cannot be followed by mere obedience. It takes practice and hard work. To abide by a law that says things like “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” requires the steel-toed boots of trust and the leather gloves of agape love made real by Resurrection. To abide by the law of grace is to embark on a journey. It is to go when God says, “Go,” even when a cost-benefit analysis proves the risk unjustified.

That is the journey of faith, the journey on which we rediscover our true, God-imaged selves and the eternal community of God’s kingdom of grace.

The Time Is Fulfilled (Sermon)

“The Time Is Fulfilled”

Mark 1:9-15

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/21/21

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

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.”  (NRSV)

“The time is fulfilled…the Kingdom of God has come near.”

       We hear those words through ears conditioned by 2000 years of Christian tradition. First century Jews heard those words through theologically-conditioned ears, as well. However, foundering beneath the weight of Roman rule, Jews of Jesus’ day expected and even craved God’s kingdom to be a renewal and extension of David’s reign. They expected the messiah to set things right through military means. Those expectations made their culture a kind of petri dish for would-be messiahs. Men waving swords and claiming to be God’s Anointed popped up everywhere, and one after another faded into oblivion through either irrelevance or execution.

John the Baptist himself had to deflect the hopeful projections of messiah hunters. Don’t look at me, he said. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”

Of all unlikely people, a carpenter from Nazareth shows up and begins to live a life of remarkable authority. His authority is so utterly different from the people’s expectations, though, that they only begin to imagine that Jesus could be the messiah when their concrete experiences of him begin to resurrect their spiritual memory. In particular they remember Isaiah who said: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist…The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (Selected verses from Isaiah 11:1-6)

       Mark identifies John as the voice crying out in the wilderness. He describes the coming of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And he shows us wild beasts surrounding Jesus during his forty days of temptation. Through all this, Mark shapes the remembrance of Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant who says, The time is fulfilled.

And remember, Jesus takes years to mature into and to earn credibility as God’s offered messiah of reconciling love rather than an oppressed or a privileged people’s desired messiah of military might. For his part, though, Mark jumps straight into these connections. For him there is no reflective “What Child Is This,” no soppy “Away in a Manger,” not even any rousing “Joy to the World.” The earliest gospel writer begins his telling of the Good News not with the joyous celebrations of Christmas, but with the rigorous self-examination of Lent.

       The idea of time being “fulfilled” captures a lot of attention. Unfortunately, many people and groups associate God’s fulfillment of time with the end of time. Consumed with fear, trusting only violence, and motivated by extremely narrow world views, militant groups like the Taliban and the Oath Keepers continually grab headlines with their willingness to destroy almost anything or anyone they consider in their way. As different as such groups are ideologically, their tactics and effects are much the same. The authoritarian order they seek to create inevitably devolves into conflict, and even into chaos, because such order serves only their group. And it’s into that very dis-order that God continues to call people of faith to embody, to demonstrate, to live the reconciling love of Christ.

As Christians, we enter lives of transformational love through the Lenten discipline of repentance. To have any authority or credibility for addressing the ills around us, we have to begin by confessing the brokenness and incompleteness within us individually and within our institutions.

The very word repentance conjures up a variety of images. It evokes all manner of reactions. For many, repentance means turning from all those “bad things” sinners do. And while repentance can certainly apply to individual transgressions, biblical repentance refers to a community’s corporate turn from the overall conditions that make them feel defeated by or beholden to the seductive and destructive powers lying behind every Caesar and every Jezebel. To live inside the notion that, come what may, love will prevail in this world requires more than intellectual assent. It requires a courageous turn away from violence, greed, and fear, and a steadfast turn toward gratitude, hospitality, and justice.

Because pride and certainty are among the costs of taking up our cross and following Jesus, disciples may struggle with feelings of infidelity to groups with which they identify. But neither nationality, nor denomination, nor even goodness is the point. The point of Jesus’ call to repentance is that time is in its fullness. Even now, when anxiety and despair overflow, now is the time to choose to live according to the redeeming and humbling demands of his love.

The imperative of repentance is far more comprehensive and urgent than anyone’s need to be good so that I go to heaven when I die. Caesar and Jezebel have no problem with that kind of self-serving religion because it creates pliable subjects who are easy to influence through systems of rewards and threats. What worldly kings and princes don’t want is people who intentionally, consistently, and fearlessly acknowledge the kingdom of God as a present reality, because when they do that, they’ll do more to love their enemies than to kill them. They’ll become gadflies for justice. Their primary concerns will lie in loving God, loving neighbor, serving the poor and the outcast, and caring for the earth. That’s what a life of repentance looks like. That’s what it means to be a child of God.

“You are my Son [You are my Daughter], the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Can you hear God saying that to you? Can you embrace the timely good news of God’s radical, unconditional love for you? It can be hard to hear God’s words as words spoken directly to us. Maybe we lack confidence that we’re worth loving. Maybe we’ve even given up on love. It sounds so sentimental, how can it affect real change? Or maybe it’s hard because we know that acknowledging our own Belovedness of God means acknowledging the God-Belovedness of every other human being, even, and perhaps especially, the Belovedness of those people whom we fear, envy, or just plain don’t like.

That’s the thing about the love of Jesus, though: Only when it we humbly and gratefully share his love do we fully receive it.

If you still want to find some sort of Lenten discipline, then for the next forty days—and beyond—try greeting everyone you meet with what my dad called “ThankGodfulness.” Thank God for each person, and ask yourself, what is the most loving response to this God-imaged human being right now, in the fullness of this moment. To live our days in gracious, truth-telling love and gratitude for one another and for the creation is to live in love and gratitude for God. It is to live in the kingdom of God, which, thanks to Easter, is no longer simply “near,” but ever-present and real, even if still hidden and mysterious.

       Friends, we cannot wait to live as God’s beloved children.

The time is fulfilled. The time is now.

Baptism: The Beginning of the Journey (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

“Baptism: The Beginning of the Journey”

Romans 6:1-11

Ash Wednesday 2021

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/17/21

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

         As the traditional symbol of Ash Wednesday, ashes represent the dust from which the author of Genesis says that God created humankind. Thus, does a pastor or priest say, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return” as she or he dips a finger into that fine, black powder and makes the sign of the cross on a worshiper’s forehead.

         We are impermanent creatures. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we sentient beings are a fleeting presence. “For a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like yesterday when it is past,” says the psalmist. (Psalm 90:4) So, as we prepare ourselves for the journey to Easter, ashes remind us that the road ahead necessarily takes us through the very real death of Friday.

         During Lent we also take seriously the reality of sin.  And while each of us has our individual transgressions, more concerning are the ways that we participate in the systemic sins of families, communities, and institutions. I say more concerning because the systemic sins of humankind are often things we don’t readily or fully acknowledge, like racism. Other systemic sins like greed and the glorification of violence aren’t just things we struggle to acknowledge; they become things we actually spin into noble traits. Even people who claim to be following Jesus are often quick to call personal excess “blessing,” even when that excess means poverty for someone else. Even people who claim to be following Jesus will call the spoils of brutal power “manifest destiny,” and sometimes “divine right,” even when such spoils mean exploitation of other peoples or the environment.

         Those delusions become so intoxicating and addicting that it can be profoundly difficult to extricate ourselves from the grasp of sin. That’s why Paul uses the image of being “enslaved to sin.” Our brokenness can own us, consume us. And it can all-too-easily destroy others through us.

         On this Ash Wednesday, you’re not in the sanctuary for me or someone else to look you in the eye and remind you that as surely as you are beloved by God, you will not survive this life. But in the Christian tradition, ashes aren’t the only symbol that speaks of the reality of death. So, this year we begin Lent not by wearing the dust of our impermanence on our foreheads, but with confession and the waters of baptism. Confession and sacrament immerse us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death.”

         The synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. John’s gospel seems to imply Jesus’ baptism but doesn’t make it explicit. It may be that the writer of the fourth gospel, like many other people, has trouble making sense of the fact of Jesus’ baptism. Why, the question goes, does Jesus submit to John’s baptism? Doesn’t John offer a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”

          Yes, John’s baptism was one of repentance and forgiveness. It seems to me, though, that to focus on whether or not Jesus had a personal need for such a baptism, misses the point. Through the Incarnation, God enters more than the body of one person. God willingly enters the human condition.

I have to think that Jesus knows that as a human being and as a Jewish male in the first century, he is more than an individual. He’s part of a demographic, part of a long-running story. And as a human being, he accepts not only responsibility for his individual speech and actions, he also accepts his place in the surrounding religious, political, and economic culture which has been, which is, and which will continue to be hurtful to other human beings and to the earth.

I’d be willing to bet the farm that if I asked a Jewish woman in the year 30CE how she expected to be treated by Jewish men in general, she would shake her head and give a less-than-complementary assessment of the way men treated women. That’s why Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well, with Mary Magdalene, with the sisters Mary and Martha, and even with his own mother are not Hallmark channel moments, but radically prophetic acts that both defy and transform human relationships, and therefore human culture.

In surrendering to baptism, Jesus does more than John can even be aware of because Jesus’ baptism has to do with more than washing away sins. In his baptism, God Incarnate takes a great leap in the process of becoming, intentionally and thoroughly, human. Jesus’ journey toward Friday and Sunday begins in earnest at his baptism. His life is the original Lenten journey.

         As we remember our own baptisms, I invite and encourage all of us to look at the sacrament as something we do not just for ourselves, but something we do in community. In baptism, and in reaffirming baptism, we commit and recommit ourselves to becoming fully human in the way that Jesus is human. We acknowledge that we are eternally, irrevocably loved by God. We’re sons and daughters of God. We’re sisters and brothers of Jesus. We’re fellow travelers with him on the road to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Samaria, Jerusalem, Golgotha, Emmaus, and beyond.

         Through baptism, we are, as Paul says, united with Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. In baptism, we are claimed by God, equipped by the Holy Spirit, and sent forth to be signs of God’s gracious and loving purposes in and for all Creation.

With fresh joy and gratitude, may you claim God’s promise in baptism. And with renewed conviction and hope, may you follow Jesus, God’s Christ, in a Lenten journey toward your own full humanity and toward our shared resurrection life.

Transfiguration: Prophecy and Apocalypse (Sermon)

“Transfiguration: Prophecy and Apocalypse”

Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 9:2-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

2/14/21

Isaiah 40:21-31

21Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood

from the foundations of the earth?

22It is he

who sits above the circle of the earth,

and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

and spreads them like a tent to live in;

23who brings princes to naught,

and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,

scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

when he blows upon them, and they wither,

and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?

says the Holy One.

26Lift up your eyes on high and see:

Who created these?

He who brings out their host and numbers them,

calling them all by name;

because he is great in strength,

mighty in power, not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord,

and my right is disregarded by my God”?

28Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

29He gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

30Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. (NRSV)

Mark 9:2-9

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (NRSV)

       Isaiah 40 begins with the words Handel used so effectively in the Christmas portion of The Messiah. “Comfort ye, O comfort ye my people.” Isaiah 40-54, often called Second Isaiah, announces that, by God’s grace, Israel will leave Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. And in today’s reading, we hear the prophet calling Israel to trust that promise by remembering all the ways that God has already demonstrated faithfulness to the people.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” says Isaiah. “Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” God is the Holy One, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Source of forgiveness, deliverance, peace, and enduring strength among the people.

       In the middle of the passage, the prophet makes a distinction between God and worldly powers. “Scarcely are [princes and rulers] planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when [God] blows upon them, and they wither.” The cautionary tale of the impermanence of princes, rulers, and nations reminds Israel that God has created and called them to a unique reason for being and to very different ways of being.

As the people of God—and even as a people whose identity is tied to Jerusalem—Israel has been called to a way of life that transcends the boundaries of geography and time. God’s purview includes all that lives and moves and has being beneath the heavens. And God has called and commissioned this specific nation, Israel, to move among the world unhindered by loyalties to anything but God. Because “the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth,” Israel is a nation of global witness and welcome.

Jerusalem may be a place of origin, a home base even, but as Isaiah illustrates in chapter 11 with the vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-9), the purpose of the Holy City is to set an example of harmony, wholeness, and belonging for all creatures. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says God, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Blessed to be a blessing in and for the Creation, Israel’s life is an ongoing spiritual journey. Always being transfigured by God, Israel continually experiences and reveals the transforming presence of God—throughout the Creation and throughout the ages.

When Peter, James, and John follow Jesus “up a high mountain apart” from everyone and everything, they witness something apocalyptic. Modern use of the word apocalyptic has almost ruined the ancient, prophetic concept connected with that language. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t meant to terrify readers and hearers with warnings of Armageddon or other violent, end-of-time scenarios. It was written and spoken to reveal something holy and gracious, something full of spiritual energy and heat. It could be unsettling; change often is. But apocalyptic literature and speech are always meant to generate hope and to inspire encouraging, edifying, redemptive action.

During their brief apocalyptic vision on the mountain, Peter, James, and John are reminded of all that they had “known…heard…[and] been told…from the very beginning.” For there, with Jesus, stood Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the ancient prophets of Israel. And Jesus is just “talking” with them, like farmers standing around the bed of a pickup truck musing on the weather, wheat prices, and high school football.

Speechless but not silent, Peter says to Jesus, Hey, let’s stay here! I’ll build a hut for each of you, and we’ll just live in this bright warmth forever.

It seems to me that Peter wants to lay claim to that mountain. He wants to hold it and own it. He wants to plant himself on that peak the way “princes” and “rulers” try to plant themselves. But Jesus knows that when nations try to establish themselves that way, “Scarcely are they planted…[and] sown [before God] blows upon them, and they wither.”

A thick cloud gathers, and from it, God shuts down Peter’s fantasy. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And with that, the apocalyptic moment ends. Peter looks around and sees only Jesus, James, and John. And no more talking clouds.

Mum’s the word on all of this, says Jesus. After the Son of Man has been raised from the dead, let people know. But for now, hush.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is secretive about his identity. It’s not that he doesn’t want people to know who he is. It’s that he doesn’t want the kind of bootlicking attention princes, rulers, and celebrities demand. Jesus wants people who are willing to listen to him and live like him, even when living as signs of God’s grace and agents of God’s love is demanding or dangerous.

Both Isaiah and Jesus are calling people to transfigured and transformational living. He’s calling them to live prophetic and apocalyptic lives. Whether in Babylon, Jerusalem, or anywhere else, God’s people belong to God before any celebrity prince, violent ruler, or transitory nation. And as disciples of Jesus, our call is to follow him. And like him, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling as transfigured or transformable as I was eleven months ago. Living in isolation, bouncing between computer, phone, and television screens, not having visited family in Georgia in over a year, slogging through this wet, dreary winter, and caught up in the anxiety of a culture in turmoil—some days, I get overwhelmed. Some days I get downright discouraged. I yearn for a bright, transfiguring, apocalyptic experience. But the clouds remain heavy and silent—except for the relentless rain. I pray that you’re coping better than I am, but I know that many of us are struggling.

       Into such physical and spiritual enervation, Isaiah says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Remember! God is Lord of heaven and earth, and God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. [And when you grow] faint and…weary, [when you] fall exhausted…wait for the Lord [and you] shall renew [your] strength, [you] shall mount up with wings like eagles, [you] shall run and not be weary, [you] shall walk and not faint.”

Waiting for the Lord doesn’t mean catatonically enduring the passage of time because you’re in the back of some line. Waiting on the Lord is more like a waiter waiting on diners in a restaurant. Holy waiting involves tending to neighbors, tending to those in need, tending to the Creation. It means living a hopeful, awe-filled faith in the moment regardless of circumstance and trusting that God, who is already present in the future, is inviting humankind toward a place and time in which we will have yet another experience of redeeming grace to remember and to strengthen us for challenges yet to come. To wait for the Lord is to engage today’s struggles and opportunities with confidence, peace, and gratitude.

Isaiah’s words to Israel are the words of God’s Universal and Eternal Christ to all humankind. Even when we feel overwhelmed with apprehension or grief, we will, by grace, “mount up with wings like eagles,” we will “run and not be weary,” we will “walk and not faint,” because God was, God is, and God will always be with us.

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.