Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Community of Love (Sermon)

“A Community of Love”
Ephesians 4:21-5:2
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         While the epistle to the Ephesians is definitely Pauline, almost no biblical scholars attribute the letter to Paul himself. The Apostle did go to Ephesus, but the writer of Ephesians doesn’t drop names at the beginning as Paul does to verify relationship and authority. He actually indicates personal distance from Ephesus, saying, “I have heard ofyour faith…and your love.” (Eph. 1:15)
And because most early manuscripts of this letter don’t even mention the Ephesians in the greeting, some scholars believe that a Pauline disciple wrote this letter well after Paul’s death and used it as a kind of general prologue to a circulating collection of Paul’s work.1
Ephesians begins with a long string of pious clich├ęs. Like water seeking its level, the words of chapter 1 just sort of puddle up on the page and go nowhere. In chapter 2, we begin to sense something of a flow. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Works matter, says the author, but our works witness to God. They’re not a means to curry favor with one who already loves us unconditionally.
“So then,” he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21)
The author encourages his readers to understand that God’s gracious initiative is making them one withChrist. And the purpose for being one with Christ is to make them one in Christ. Individually, they’re created in the image of God. And as a community, they’re the body of Christ. It’s always both/and for the Church, beloved disciples coming together as a holy community bound by God’s love for them and their love for God – which is demonstrated in their for one another, and for all that God creates.
Transcending mere belief in religious precepts, discipleship means following a Jesus way of life. It means forsaking the world’s individualism, greed, and fear. It also means honest confession of our sinfulness. And in confession we don’t condemn ourselves, we humble ourselves. When we confuse being chosen and called by God for special privilege, we smugly ignore all the brokenness and pain around us – especially beyond the church doors.
After exposing human self-centeredness, the author of Ephesians offers advice on what following Jesus looks like:

21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.
31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:21-5:2 NRSV)

         It may be tempting to read this passage as nothing more than a list of superficial morality statements, ending with the impossible command to “be imitators of God.” But such a narrow reading mistakes discipleship for an individualistic means of “getting to heaven when we die.” And if we proclaim that Jesus comes to save us from God’s eternal vengeance, then, at some level, we’re saying that he comes to save us from God. Any god who cannot forgive unless something dies a violent, sacrificial death – that’s not the God revealed in the life of Jesus. And a life of fearful submission to rules for the purpose of saving our individual skins from a god on whose anger the sun rises and sets day after day – that’s certainly not the Christian life Ephesians talks about.
         “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds,” he says, “…clothe yourselves with the new self, created in accordance with the likeness of God.”(Eph. 4:23-24)This is the “true righteousness and holiness” through which we live not as ones who fear some vengeful deity, but as ones who are responding in grateful witness to God. In Jesus, God reveals the height, and depth, and breadth of agape love from which nothingcan separate us.
That love empowers us for new life here and now.
         That love empowers us to speak the truth in love, because to deal dishonestly with others is to deal dishonestly with ourselves.
Selfish anger has the same effect on the community. Pitting one person against another almost always ends up pitting one side against another. It leads to “evil talk” that tears down the community by tearing down individuals within it.
Like termites in the foundation and the walls of the “holy temple” of the faith community, mercenary and fearful actions breed everything named by the author of Ephesians: “bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander [and] malice,” along with a ravenouslust for retribution. When we nurture those feelings in ourselves, we inevitably project them onto God. That’s when God becomes angry, vengeful, violent, and everything else Jesus is not. And isn’t that when we “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” most deeply?
         Perhaps the most illuminating part of today’s reading is verse 28. The instruction to thieves is oddly straightforward, as if thievery were some kind of recognized but second-tier vocation. Oh, and all you thieves, don’t steal. Do honest labor.And, the stated purpose of this instruction, “…so as to have something to give to the needy,” clarifies things not only for thieves, but for everyone.
The purpose of discipleship and Christian community is not maintaining budgets, buildings, and doctrines. Our purpose as a body and as particular members of it is to bear witness to God’s love and grace in the world by caring for those who suffer from poverty, illness, neglect, abuse, and grief. That includes human beings, animals, and the very earth itself.
I know that we live in an anxious, dangerous world. I know that the most dependable god often seems to be Constantine’s god of conquest and domination. And I do know that worldly entities must consider practical questions of how to protect themselves.
I also know that Christian scripture says implicitly and explicitly, “God is Love.”
As a community of faith, do we trust that God is love?
As a community of the Christian faith, do we trust that this God of love is revealed in Jesus Christ whose love for all things is revealed in his willingness to love us until we can’t stand it anymore, until we can’t stand himanymore, until we nail him to a Roman cross, and still we hear him cry, Father forgive them! They don’t know what they’re doing!
Do we trust that God’s love is revealed to us when, after we have denied and killed Jesus, he returns in resurrection “righteousness and holiness” to ask us, as he asks Peter, Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? He asks us this question over and over. He asks it until we realize that for every time we demonstrate our fearful self-obsessions, he is there to give us the chance to profess our love for him all over again, the chance to be resurrected with him all over again.
ThatGod, the one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, is the one whom we are to imitate “as beloved children.”
We belong to and worship that God, and that God alone.
The table is set with the sacrament this morning. You will serve one another a mustard seed portion of Christ himself. And since you truly are what you eat and drink, may this meal transform you, may it transform us, into some truer, bolder, and more gracious revelation of God who is Love, who is real and trustworthy, and who is even now making all things new.

1C. Milo Connick, The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Thoughts History, Literature, and Thought. Duxbury Press, North Scituate, MA, 1978. p. 334.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Miracle of Enough (Sermon, with a story by Dr. Russell Mays)

“The Miracle of Enough”
John 6:1-14 
Allen Huff and Russel Mays
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.
4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

         “Make the people sit down.” Jesus utters this seemingly innocuous line, but when rabbis teach, they sit while the people stand. I don’t know how that tradition began, but the purpose behind such arrangements usually has to do with creating a distinction that helps the listener to focus attention on the speaker. We still do that – in churches, classrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms, chambers of congress, rallies on courthouse steps.
         So, when Jesus, a first-century rabbi who has been teaching a crowd, says Make the people sit down, he’s doing more than inviting them to rest. His instruction signals that something’s about to happen. The crowd’s passive role is about to change to one of active participation.
         The story of the feeding of the 5000 is a miracle story. Our word miraclecomes from a word meaning an object of wonder. In the gospels, Jesus’ miracles are just that, objects of wonder that point toward the presence of God in the world, and specifically in Jesus. Many people associate miracles with supernatural events, things that people can’t do. And while I don’t deny that Jesus performed such wonders, it seems to me that limiting the miraculous to events which we can only observe and receive means missing a lot of God’s wonder in the world and in our own lives.
         If Jesus feeds 5000 people by creating something out of nothing, that’s pretty wonderful. But how does that transform us? What does it ask of us? If Jesus feeds 5000 people by creating a new sense of community, by creating a sense of abundance so that a group of human beings willingly combines gifts and resources theyalready have, then theyparticipate in the miracle. Feeding 5000 people this way is no less miraculous than by spontaneous generation, because, in absolute faith, Jesus does something revolutionary. He reveals that the prevailing economic mindset of scarcity is simply an attitude of self-centered fear. The kingdom of God is defined by abundance. The kingdom of God is defined by the Miracle ofEnough.
         The miracle of enough declares that whatever the need, we have enough at hand. Godreveals that by drawing out gratitude and generosity hidden within us. Such a miracle makes us not only more willing to share when we feel concerned for ourselves, but willing to receive when pride would prevent it. A clinched fist can neither give nor receive.
As a poet, storyteller, and life-long educator, Russell Mays listened to us talk about backpacks and a new school year. He knew we were talking about more than bags and report cards. We were talking about children and the well-being of our present and future community. Years ago, Russell wrote a story that invites us to stop, to sit down, and to be aware of children and the gifts that they are and the gifts that they have. When he offered to share this story, today seemed an appropriate opportunity to help us see what loaves and what fishes each of us has, and how we might open ourselves to God’s ongoing miracle of enough, and how, through faith in God’s abundance, enoughis truly all we need. 

The Answer
by Russel Mays
On Monday I went to the bench in the park where I had often gone to savor the sunshine and the birdsong as the finishing touch to my brown-bag lunch. This day; however, I found an old man in rumpled clothes and red high top shoes. It was early spring. The morning chill was still loitering among the bud-laden trees. He nodded silently, watching his whittling, as I seated myself beside him. He looks cold and hungry, I thought, and I have plenty more food at home. Perhaps I should give him my lunch. 
"Beautiful day!" I said, pointing upward at nothing in particular to avoid eye contact, fearing he would sense my pity. 
"Yes, it is!” he replied, "and each one is more wonderful than the last!"
Surprised by the happy and somewhat philosophical nature of his response, and fascinated by the sense of peace I heard in his voice, I courageously risked a glance. 
He had a broad smile and ruddy skin, but his eyes - his eyes shone with the same peace I had heard in his voice. "I-I'm not really h-hungry," I stammered, "had a big breakfast. Would you like my lunch? It's ham on rye." 
"Wouldn't think of taking your entire lunch, Sir,” he stated, "but I'd gladly share if you don't mind. I find a little lunch with a friend more filling that a whole lunch alone." 
"I'd be honored,” said I, and opened the sack. 
We ate, spoke of the coming of spring and parted with a handshake. All afternoon I felt unexplainably satisfied. 
I went to the bench in the park every day that week, and was disappointed not to find him there. I ate my lunch wondering where he might have come from and where he might be. 
The next Monday I was pleased to see him again, although I had forgotten the extra sandwich I promised myself I would bring. Again, we shared lunch, conversed about little things, and parted with a handshake. 
Our lunch meetings went on for several months - always on Monday; and while the single sandwich was always more than enough, the conversation became a rich dessert that gave my Mondays - indeed my entire week - a special happiness. 
At long last, I felt close enough, though he was still without a name - perhaps bold enough - to ask why he always seemed so serene and peaceful. He put down his whittling stick, turned, looked directly into my eyes and said, "I was granted the answer to a prayer, and I am satisfied with my life." 
"Can you share it with me?" I asked, not able to conceal my excitement. 
"You have been so kind," he said as he touched my shoulder, "in sharing your lunches and yourself, not out of pity, but as a friend - that I shall gladly share it with you." 
“I was an artist,” he said, “I dedicated my life to the pursuit of beauty. My heart burned to create, or at least to discover, the most precious and beautiful thing on earth. Twelve years ago there was an accident in which I was nearly killed. While in the hospital, I had a dream. In that dream I asked God to show me His most precious and beautiful creation before I died. In the dream, the answer to my wish was promised, but no great revelations seemed to come. I began to give up hope and eventually dismissed the dream and the answer as delirium.
"My health improved some, and my savings were exhausted. I have no family, so I was moved to the state health care center. It's a good place, comfortable, but lonely. When the school year began, I discovered that children passed by every morning and afternoon on their way to and from school. I had always loved to hear children laugh and play, so I made it my routine to be near the gate every day. 
"One day, for no apparent reason, a tiny, smiling, befreckled red-haired girl walked over and handed me a perfect white rose through the gate. She was missing two front teeth. The instant the white rose touched my hand, the long-forgotten dream flashed through my head. I had not recalled it for years. The next day, a tall, black boy wearing jeans and a red hat handed me another perfect, white rose. My next rose came from a child in a wheelchair. She was being helped by a friend. Her head was tilted to one side, but her smile was clear. Each day when I received the perfect, white rose, offered in silence by child after child after child; the dream thundered through my mind and heart, and I began to feel great peace. 
"I received hundreds of roses, each delivered by a different, smiling, wonderful child. I placed the roses in a tall can in my room - eventually in several tall cans. The flowers were strangely identical and flawless, and did not seem to wilt. The collection grew and grew until their fragrance filled the room! 
"This must be the answer to my prayer, I thought. The perfect white rose must be the most precious and beautiful of God's creations. I was puzzled. One night, as I lay down to sleep, I thanked God for answering my prayer and apologized for having given up so long ago, but I also asked, 'Why the white rose?' I wondered, why, with all the spectacular colors of the universe, all of the precious gems, and the enormity of the mountains; why would God choose the simple white rose as His most precious and beautiful creation? 
"Wondering, I fell to sleep, and as I slept, I dreamed. Once again I was talking with God. 'Did you see my precious beauties?' He asked. I did, but why did you choose the simple, perfect white rose? 
"'Look again,' He said gently, 'and treat them well.' Confused, I turned to see. There, in the petals of each rose, was the face of the child who had presented it to me - children of all nations, children of all colors, children of all faiths - smiling children, able children, and children in need. THEY are his most precious and beautiful creations! At last, I understood!" 
He stood, wiping a tear from his eye, and thanked me once again for sharing my lunches and my self. Shaking my hand more firmly than usual, he walked away. 
I have never seen the old man again. 
Today is a special day - it is early spring, and a Monday. Today I’m having lunch in the park with my wife and our newborn child; and the park seems filled with the fragrance of roses. If you listen, you can hear the wind whisper, "They are my most precious and beautiful creations - treat them well." ©1997 Russell Mays

With the exception of the Resurrection, the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. And John says it was a child who had the five loaves and two fish. It was a child’s generosity through which Jesus revealed his faith in the ongoing miracle of enough to a hillside full of people. What he revealed is his miracle-inducing faith in us. When we are humble enough to be grateful and generous enough, then through God’s miracle of enough, there is more than enough!
Jonesborough Presbyterian is already very generous, and I thank each of you for that. As our faith in the miracle of enough empowers us and emboldens us, what else might we do as individuals and as a congregation?
Jesus invites us to sit down, take a risk, and find out.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

And He Had Compassion for Them (Sermon)

“And He Had Compassion for Them”
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.
31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (NRSV)

         In reading a commentary on this passage last week, I came across something that made a lot of sense to me. Douglas John Hall says that there are two “fundamental questions” percolating through all the rhetoric characterizing today’s “global religious striving: (1) How does your God view the world?—the basic theological question; and (2) How does your God ask you to view the world?—the basic ethical question.”1
“Ethics flow from theology,” says Hall. How we interact with the world is a dead give-away of our understanding of God.
If we imagine God as angry, vengeful, and mollified only through violent sacrifice, then competitive, exploitative, suspicious, winner-take-all relationships with each other will be the God-ordained norm. We’ll be quick to blame others for their own suffering, because God punishes all wrong-doing and rewards all right-doing. And when we do admit wrong, we’ll expect our priests to serve as intermediaries between us and our saber-toothed deities. So, kill the lamb, burn the calf, sacrifice the virgin. Inflict suffering so that our god’s bitter vengeance toward us will be drowned in the blood of someone else! When following the gods of retribution, compassion is not only unnecessary, it’s a character flaw.
         If, however, we truly see God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, then, says Hall, compassion is “the essence of the One who created us.”2 If God is as full of compassion and mercy as Jesus is, if God is bigger than our own prejudices, fears, and hurts, if God truly outshines our agony, we will have access to reasons and resources for living as signs of grace, for entering the world’s brokenness and sharing the wholeness of the kingdom of God.
         Entering the world’s brokenness can be exhausting. That’s why, when the disciples return from their mission trip, Jesus takes them away to a deserted place. He knows that they need sabbath time. They need rest and healing just like the people they’ve helped, but the world just presses back in on them with all its fears, and tears, and desperate hopes. And when it does, Jesus digs deep. He gets up and meets the world’s suffering head-on once again. “He [has] compassion for them, for they [are] like sheep without a shepherd.”
         The rest of today’s text is more of the same – Jesus showing compassion to people who are sick, lonely, and lost.
         Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the foremost Jewish scholars of the 20th century. Read through even a few of his quotations, and one encounters the deep and timeless wisdom of the man and his faith. One may also understand how Jesus, raised in the often-violent tradition of first-century Judaism, embodied an ethic of compassion and justice. Heschel says that, “To the prophet…God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.…Moved and affected by what happens in the world…God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature; [God’s] willingness to be intimately involved in [human] history.”3
         As God Incarnate, Jesus personifies an ethic of proactive compassion. Showing compassion, then, defines us as Jesus-followers. Now, there’s a familiar, Bible-Belt codeword that’s supposed to define us, but it’s been completely hollowed out and emptied of its radical substance: “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ” has been reduced to a kind of status symbol, a secret handshake, something to distinguish those who are in from those who aren’t.
         Let’s put some things together here: We claim personal relationship with Jesus. We also claim that Jesus is the incarnation of God. If Abraham Heschel articulates faithfully the wisdom of the prophets, and I believe he does, then God’s essence is defined by a relationship of intimate, shared suffering in and for the Creation. So, the salvation associated with a “personal relationship with Jesus” cannot be a selfish, I-got-mine endeavor. The subsequent ethic never offers anything more than lifeless platitudes in the face of human suffering.
It was meant to be.
Everything happens for a reason.
God needed another angel in heaven. I just hope she had a personal relationship with Jesus. Please pass the doughnuts.
         Salvation is light years beyond all that. We demonstrate the true depth of our personal relationship with Jesus not in our confidence about what will happen after death, but in our confidence in what we can do and endure in this life for others. Living as Jesus-followers means living as vessels of healing love and reconciling grace. That makes our lives and our relationships microcosms of God’s macrocosm of compassion. To have a “personal relationship with Jesus” means one has accepted the call to live as grateful reflections of God’s relationship with us, as signs of God’s eternal compassion for all Creation.
         Learning to trust that God is at work in the world, learning to trust that love is the creating and concluding reality, learning to trust that entering the suffering around us leads to more significant and longer-lasting change than causing suffering—all of this begins with understanding God’s fundamental nature as compassion.
         Look, I know you hear this stuff every week, but to me, agape love and compassion lie at the very heart of God and thus the gospel. I can tell inspiring stories and illustrations. But the point is for you to live your own stories of faith. I can get you to chuckle with a well-timed Bless your heart. But the point is for you to discover your own abiding joy in Christ. I can generate the dreaded comment, “nice sermon, Preacher” from four out of ten worshipers. But the point is not to leave you satisfied. It’s to make you hungry for more. If what a preacher says doesn’t make a listener want to go out and experiment with compassion in the world, or at least a little uneasy when he or she doesn’t do so, then we’re just entertainers.
It follows, then, that congregational success isn’t about numbers of bodies in the pews, or the size of a budget, or an attractive facility. The success of a congregation is seen in the desire of its members to reach out in fearless love beyond themselves because they know that they are expressions of a Creator whose fundamental character is preemptive and unconditional compassion.
If we view God as compassionate, and as our source of compassion, the Creation is a place that needs and deserves our compassion response. There’s more suffering around us than any one of us can enter, of course. But we’re disciples not saviors. We are called to do only what we can do.
May we all, with fearless intent, share the healing love and joy of Jesus.

1Douglas John Hall in his article, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B/Vol. 3), Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009. p. 260.
2Ibid. p. 260.
3Ibid. p. 262.

You are being sent out in the name of Jesus Christ.
May your faith be unambiguous and fearlessly compassionate.
May you be the fringe of Jesus’ cloak for those who suffer.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Redeeming Prophecy (Sermon)

“A Redeeming Prophecy”
Mark 6:14-29
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”
15But others said, “It is Elijah.”
And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.  21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”
23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”
25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

         Mark’s prose is normally very lean, but in chapter 6, he takes unusual pains to describe Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Mark’s depiction of the younger Herod is quite consistent with those of Josephus and other historians.1
Neither an actual king nor very great – except in his own mind – Herod Antipas was a Roman puppet who excelled only at adultery, deceiving the public, and, like most Roman governors, bullying the people in his territory in order to maintain stability and control. Put all that together, and we see that Herod had no kingdom, and what he governed wasn’t really his. So, when he offered to give half of his kingdom to his daughter, he offered something that didn’t even exist. Mark’s earliest readers would have realized the absurdity of Herod’s proposition and would have made most of them shake their heads in amused disgust.
Having said that, Herod did have significant power. He had free rein to say and do as he pleased, so long as he didn’t displease Rome. He could harass and even kill whomever he deemed a political or personal threat. That’s precisely why John the Baptist was languishing in prison. In the tradition of the prophets of old, John spoke truth to power. When he called Herod down for adultery, he wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t have the political clout to get away with it, especially since the woman scorned in the process was angrier than Herod.
The story of John’s death – which is a flashback in Mark – needs little explanation. John dies because Herod makes a rash promise. Unwilling to look weak in front of his guests, he has to follow through on his vow to give Herodias whatever she asks – even John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Power can do that. It can make people do things, justify things, and turn blind eyes to things that normally we would know to be inappropriate or simply wrong. This text refers to Jesus only in passing and doesn’t even mention God, but here’s where it connects with the life of faith. The lust for power and the lust for other things implied in the story, are forces on which the nations often turn. That’s why God’s prophets, new and old, repeatedly call out both kings and priests who grasp for control and privilege.
During Herod’s governance, Jesus’ ministry has been gaining momentum. And those who hold political and religious power are feeling the gravity of the Jesus movement. Trying to make sense of it all, some say he’s Elijah, who was supposed to return. Some think he’s John the Baptist come back from the dead. Some consider him another old-style prophet that God sends out from time to time. Both Elijah and John represent that vein of prophecy. So, if Jesus evokes images of the ancient tradition of bold action and challenging speech, he must be doing and saying things that make the powerful defensive and the comfortable uneasy.
John’s and Jesus’ lives also demonstrate that when prophets are faithful to God, heads may roll, and they won’t always be the heads of those in power. Faithfulness to God tends to put a prophet or a prophetic community at odds with prevailing cultures of aggression and dominion, because, contrary to popular stereotypes, prophecy isn’t about foretelling the future. Prophecy is about stripping the veneer of convention and propriety off of society and revealing the deadly infections of idolatry and denial lying beneath.
Moses’ first prophecy was to tell Pharaoh that the Hebrews should be set free. Then, for forty years, Moses had to keep convincing the Hebrews that Yahweh had chosen to be in relationship with them on behalf of the creation. That was both the harder prophecy and the basis for all subsequent prophecy. Prophets remind us of who we are, whose we are, and why.
Samuel’s prophecy began with trying to reveal the greedy lust for power and prestige behind the Israelites’ desire for a king. They wanted to be “like the [other] nations.” When God told Samuel, Let them have their king, Samuel’s prophecy shifted into revealing the ways that Israel’s unfaithfulness was destroying her identity.
Isaiah’s prophecy begins with revealing the reasons that Israel is in exile in Babylon. When a holy community abandons its calling in order stockpile worldly status and security, it will sell its holy soul for those things. For Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and all the rest, prophecy calls Israel back to relationship with God, and to living faithfully for the sake of the creation. She can’t do that while putting her hope in worldly power.
Isaiah’s prophecy concludes with the promise of deliverance. And the Christian community understands Jesus of Nazareth as God’s promised suffering servant. Jesus rises from humble beginnings to live as a voice of fearless prophecy, a voice of advocacy for everyone and everything that is loved by God, especially those who are abused, exploited, and forsaken by Caesars, Herods, self-serving priests, and complicit communities.
Both John and Jesus threaten the likes of Caesar, Herod and Caiaphas. But there’s a difference, too. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John the Baptist is depicted as almost merciless in his prophecy. He sees and names what needs reform, but he makes his case with angry, aggressive judgement. John’s ministry says, God’s gonna get you! Turn or burn!
Jesus also sees and names what needs reform, but there’s no question that he loves even those who oppose him. Jesus’ ministry says, God’s got you. Return to the arms of grace.
John the Baptist prepares us because he calls us to self-examination.
Jesus redeems us because he incarnates both God, and the fullness of the prophecy of old. He embodies the call to “do justice…to love kindness, and to walk humbly with…God.” (Micah 6:8)
Following Jesus demands more than “being good,” and promises more than “heaven when we die.”
Following Jesus involves living differently than the prevailing culture of fear, greed, and violence.
Following Jesus means living in simple trust that God is real, and true, and that God alone is eternal.
Following Jesus means seeing the fullness of God’s time even in our time, because God’s kingdom is here and now.
The prophetic vision and courage of Jesus compelled the writers and signers of The Barmen Declaration to say in 1934, to Hitler, the Herod of their day: “Jesus Christ…is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”2
Simply stated: Jesus is Lord, not Hitler or the Third Reich. Of those bold prophets, some escaped into exile. Some were imprisoned. And some lost their heads.
Herod can and will do his worst. And there will always be those who will say in one way or another, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Nonetheless, because God has got us, come what may, our hope and our future are in following Jesus. And I’m sorry, but no, he doesn’t spare us from every trial and every ill. Sometimes following Jesus means following him to the cross.
Jesus will, however, walk with us through every Friday trial and every Saturday emptiness. And even when we lose our heads, Jesus will be there – he is here – in the strong promise of Sunday, making you, and me, and all things new.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

From Here I Stand to Here We Go (Sermon)

“From ‘Here I Stand to Here We Go’”
Mark 6:1-13
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Brian McLaren is a pastor, preacher, teacher, and writer who grew up in a strict, fundamentalist household and community. As a young adult, he shifted toward evangelicalism. His theology was still fundamentalist, but its contemporary clothing freed him from some of the wagon-circling confines of his upbringing. Still feeling restricted, McLaren began to ease toward broader understandings of God, scripture, and humankind. Through all of that evolution, each step had one thing in common: As he progressed, Brian was simply moving from one static theological encampment to another. He was searching only for a place to stop and to say, “Here I stand.”1
         In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, McLaren calls his own bluff. And he challenges the Church to consider where God is calling it to go in the future. “The Bible,” he says, “is a book of migrations.”2 Humankind is always on the move, and “Jesus himself [is] perpetually in motion, leading his disciples from town to town, their physical movements mirroring the spiritual odyssey on which he [leads] them.”3
McLaren’s argument makes sense to me. Just think about the stories of creation, the flood, Abraham’s and Sarah’s journey, Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, and that’s just the first two books of the Bible.
         Back in Nazareth, his hometown, Jesus confronts the immovable feast of theological and cultural stasis, the self-satisfied entrenchment of Here I stand. After preaching in his childhood synagogue, he gets a blistering review from the crowd. Where’d this guy get this stuff? Who does he think he is? We know him, and he’s no better than us!
         The people around whom Jesus grew up can’t seem to handle the idea that anyone of significance could arise from their midst. Indeed, Nazareth has a reputation for being a uniquely unremarkable place. In John 1, Nathanael initially dismisses Jesus saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) If the Nazarenes are given to such self-loathing, then they’ve earned their reputation. When folks are that stuck, life has more in common with potted plants than pilgrims on a journey. Jesus upsets them because he challenges not only their assumptions about who God is and what God does, but about who they are, and what they are capable of doing.
         After being dismissed in his hometown, Jesus laments the people’s uninspired faith with a familiar Greek proverb: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.” Jesus expands that proverb to include the prophet’s “hometown…kin…and house.”4 The lament isn’t a selfish thing. Jesus isn’t upset that the crowds don’t swarm him with celebrity worship. He aches for those he couldn’t help. And he couldn’t help them because of the community’s spiritual inertia.
         Jesus leaves Nazareth and heads into nearby towns to continue his work. And somewhere in the midst of it all, he seems to decide that while he will do what he can, if he empowers his disciples to do what they can, together, they’ll reach a lot more people. That sets Jesus apart. He’s not another Pharisee. He’s more like Moses – the leader of an Exodus. Like God taking some of the spirit that rests on Moses and using it to empower more leaders, Jesus shares his spirit with his disciples and sends them out. As the mastermind of a new and continuing spiritual migration, Jesus comes not to say, Here I stand. He comes to say, Here we go!
         Yes, sometimes we must make a stand and hold firm for justice and righteousness. Racism, genocide, sexual abuse, exploitation of people and the environment – such things cannot go unopposed. But we make such stands precisely because we journey with the one who fearlessly stands with the oppressed and stands against brutal authority. When we separate piety from discipleship, when we separate “whosoever believes” from “when you did it to the least of these,” a place merely to stand can allow us to ignore the commands that bookend Jesus’ ministry: Follow me and Go into all the world.
         In one of her books, Barbara Brown Taylor distinguishes between Christians who are ordained to full-time ministry and Christians who make their living doing something else. Vocationally speaking, all Christians are called not simply to mission, but to the same mission of experiencing, following, and sharing Jesus. The Church just hasn’t always been faithful about empowering the laity to see themselves as ministers. The unfortunate result, Taylor says, has been to “turn clergy into purveyors of religion and lay people into consumers.”5
Religious consumers, ordained and lay alike, look for a place to stand. “I’m comfortable here,” they say.
Ministers, ordained and lay alike, look for a place to launch, a place to say, Here we go. They say, “There’s work for us to do together.”
Like Pharisees, many clergy have become satisfied with, or maybe addicted to, their authority in the community. And much of the laity has turned loose of its call to live as the priesthood of all believers in the work-a-day world. I understand that, too. To work a regular job and then to layer kingdom ministry on top of that sounds exhausting. In a lecture on the ministry of the laity, Taylor called lay people “God’s best hope for the world.” (And there are a whole lot more folks like you than there are of folks like me!) After the presentation a woman, perhaps from Nazareth, came up to Taylor and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be that important.”6
         Taylor imagines that no one ever suggested to the woman “that her ministry might involve just being who she already is and doing what she already does, with one difference: namely, that she understand herself to be God’s person in and for the world.”7
         That can be a hard place to get to in wealthy and entitled cultures. Having chosen to associate ease and excess with divine blessing, western Christianity struggles to make sense of Jesus’ call to journey with nothing but a staff, just like the Nazarenes’ struggle to make sense of someone from Nazareth being anointed by God. Shaped by a culture of scarcity and fear of loss, Here I stand theology trusts a stance on Jesus rather than Jesus himself. It reduces faith to church-attendance and creedal orthodoxy.
         Here we go theology – migratory theology – is the theology of discipleship. Come what may, it trusts and follows Jesus. Come what may, it proclaims and relies on God’s abundance. Maybe the truest affirmation of faith is to pick up a walking stick and say, “Jesus has called us. Come what may, here we go.”
         Now, how do we know where to go? More than once I’ve shared with you one of Frederick Buechner’s most famous quotations: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”8 That’s not a call to some self-centered and nebulous follow your bliss. It’s a call to claim your baptism, to claim your Belovedness of God and your God-given gifts and to go where you can develop them, delight in them, and offer them for the sake of the whole creation.
Discipleship is hard work. But it’s life-giving work. And all it requires of you is a staff. On one end of the staff, the end that grounds you and stabilizes you, is gratitude for who you are and for what God gives you. The other end of that staff, the end with which you reach out to help, to forgive, and to heal, that end is love, love for God, love for neighbor, and love for the earth.
         You have your staff. Where are you going?

1Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. Convergent Books, NY, 2016. Pp. x-xi.
2Ibid. p. x.
3Ibid. p. ix.
4Efrain Agosto in his article, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B/Vol. 3), Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009. p. 215.
5Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, Lanham, MD, 1993. P. 28.
6Ibid. p. 29
7Ibid. p. 29.
8Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper & Row, NY, 1973. P. 95.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Holy Spaces (Sermon)

“Holy Spaces”
Mark 5:21-43
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         When it comes to storytelling, songwriting, painting, sculpture, dance, virtually any kind of artistic endeavor, the spaces between matter as much as the objective content.
In The Creation, that famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo would have ruined the effect had he allowed God’s and Adam’s fingers touch. They have to be close enough to generate hopeful tension while leaving enough space to communicate the artist’s understanding of both God’s desire to create and the human being’s hunger to exist.
         I am in no way an aficionado of dance, but whenever I channel-surf past some show that has ballroom dancing, I do notice that the space between a dancing couple is a kind of third partner in the choreography. When the dancers fail to maintain that space, their dance can become either crowded and clumsy or distant and individualistic.
          When a singer is singing a song that has more to say than “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”, it’s crucial to slow the melody down in places, to include intervals for instrumentation, or even quick moments of silence. Those spaces allow for emotional energy to build or to release as needed.
         Advent and Lent are liturgical forms of this literary space. And while we often clutter them with loud anxiety, they’re meant as times to slow down and listen, times to allow God’s Spirit to leak into our awareness and humble us toward new understanding and purpose.
It seems to me that when we read the gospels, we tend to focus our attention on the objective events of Jesus’ life, and often ignore the spaces of doubt and the silences of awe without which revelation and transformation don’t seem to happen.
         Today’s text compresses two stories – the stories of Jairus and his daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage. And the reading begins with an invitation into holy space. “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side…” Do you feel that space opening up? “When Jesus had crossed…again…in the boat…to the other side.” In that phrase, Mark opens wide a space of possibility and anticipation. Remember, Jesus had just crossed this body of water, and when he did, there was an unforgettable storm and an even more unforgettable response to it by Jesus. Whenever gospel writers speak of Jesus crossing water, climbing a mountain, or being approached by someone, you can almost hear them saying, “Wait for it.”
         The spaces of memory are realms of holiness. They hold potential for newness, because they’re spaces of expectation and preparation. If we dwell in the spaces of Mark 5, we may realize that, like Jairus, we all have a 12-year-old girl within us or near us. As our own youthful innocence and hope, she stands at the threshold of full potential. And if she dies, something about us will die. We may become wild and unrestrainable, howling at the moon, bruising ourselves and others with stones. If she dies, our lamps may go out. If she dies, we may become rocky, thorny, hardscrabble ground, unfit for growing seeds.
All of those references come from earlier stories in Mark. By sharing them, Mark creates the spaces that prepare us to hear about Jairus humbling himself before Jesus and begging for help. Remember, Jairus is a man of influence, a leader of the community that helped to shape Jesus himself. Jairus’ actions scandalize the community, especially the leadership. But his desperate love for another makes him good soil. It makes him a bright light, even if it does drive him beyond the boundaries set by the law and its keepers.
         Then we meet a woman who, for 12 years, has experienced a hemorrhage. The specifics of her condition don’t matter. It’s enough to know that for 12 years – ever since Jairus’ daughter was born – this woman has been considered as good as dead in the eyes of community. Unclean and unwelcome, she has not been able to claim and live her own rightful humanity. So, she comes to Jesus, too. But unlike Jairus, whose humility throws him at Jesus’ feet in terrified anguish, her years of humiliation have numbed her to consequences. While the crowd may see her as a kind of vacant space, she represents a daring and holy fearlessness.
         Her actions say, Let the crowd do with me as they choose. They can’t do worse than they’ve already done. I will be healed or die trying. And when the woman touches Jesus’ robe, he feels part of himself pour out and fill what others had seen as an empty space, but which the woman knew was her own holy and beloved life.
         If we enter and engage the stories of Jesus’ life with even a hint of the artistry available to us as creatures made in the image of God, those stories will reveal more than some remembered event. They will deliver us into those holy and redeeming spaces where we begin to discover the unique terrain, demands, and blessings of new life in Christ.
         What might all this talk look like? At the beginning of this sermon, I suggested a few ways we might begin recognizing and interacting with sacred space in everyday life. And right now, let’s turn our attention to the communion table set before us. As we prepare for it, I’ll say some words so familiar that some of you could recite them right now. There are at least a couple of reasons for using the same words over and over. First, these familiar words connect us with the generations of Christians who have come before us and those who will follow. The liturgy of the Lord’s Supper is something that binds us to the whole community of saints – past, present and future.
         Second, by virtue of familiarity we don’t get too caught up in the words themselves. Sure, that can be a problem. They can slip past us like white noise. Then again, because we know them so well, we can sit with the words. They can become a kind of centering prayer that creates a space through which we enter into the mystery of the sacrament. So, when I invite us to the table, when I offer the prayer of thanksgiving, and speak the words of institution, try sitting with the words, the elements, and the people around you the way that you might sit with the 23rd Psalm, or John 3:16, or the Lord’s Prayer, or Amazing Grace.
         Listen, but don’t necessarily listen directly to me. The words are designed to create a space through which we enter into the creative and redeeming holiness of resurrection. It’s a healing space because in it the Spirit resuscitates that child within us. In that space our tired, discarded self is restored to community and, therefore, to life.
         This table is the very hem of Jesus’ robe. And when we gather around it, and when we eat and drink from it, when we touch it, it raises us up and fills us with the forgiving and transforming presence of God.