Sunday, August 6, 2017

True Blessedness: A Gift of Loss, Not Gain (Sermon)

“True Blessedness: A Gift of Loss, Not Gain”
Genesis 32:22-31
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         “I feel so blessed.”
         “You’re such a blessing.”
         These affirmations, as well-intended as they may be, are often as hollow as most of what one hears on religious broadcasting. The very idea of blessing has been co-opted by the moralizing and self-serving distortions of the prosperity gospel in which blessing is synonymous with possessions or personal security and happiness. Getting used to that mindset is understandable, but it can all-too-easily become our truth, even when it’s far from true. To white landowners in the south, slavery was once blessing and truth. To the robber barons of the late 1800’s, so was child labor. So are the greedy and violent conquests of nations driven not by national defense, but by the Machiavellian siblings of divine right of kings and Manifest Destiny. Before the dust settles on those battlefields, the victors turn their backs on the desecration and say, in the name of some god or gods, “We’re so blessed.”
         When blessing gets reduced to wealth or power, when it gets reduced to the preservation of one group’s privilege, it inevitably gets twisted into entitlement. It belongs only to those who deserve it, those who earn it, because God helps those who help themselves. That distortion breeds a callous vanity that is antithetical to everything Jesus teaches and lives.
         All this makes me wonder if First World cultures in general, and First World Christians in particular have the spiritual, moral, and ethical courage to recognize and embrace true blessedness.
         So, what is blessing?
         Today’s story has to do with Jacob in his later years. At first glance, he may remind us of Job. He has a large family – two wives and eleven children. All his livestock and other possessions place him among the elite of his day. Looking at Jacob through First World eyes, one might say that he should consider himself “blessed.” He has lots of stuff.
Jacob is on his way to meet his brother, the firstborn twin, Esau. Remember, through premeditated deceit, Jacob stole the family birthright and Isaac’s blessing from Esau. Jacob’s trickery landed him in the lap of luxury, but as he prepares to face his brother, Jacob feels anything but blessed.
         Reaching the Jabbok River, Jacob sends his family and all his possessions across the river, into Esau’s territory. Not only do the women, children, sheep, and goats go first, Jacob stays behind, terrified of Esau. Jacob is alone, vulnerable, and completely divested of everyone and everything for which he has either worked or connived. He has sent his whole life, his very identity across the river. That’s when it begins.
         “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
All night long, Jacob and “a man” are locked in a kind of struggle for which words like wrestling match, or fight, or combat seem inadequate. At the Jabbok, Jacob experiences a fierce spiritual and existential crisis. To me, this scene feels descriptive of someone weeping through the night, or someone raging at God, casting questions and curses for hours. At the Jabbok, we all confront our brokenness, and that of the creation. The Jabbok where we face the truth that the stuff we had once considered blessing has been revealed as fleeting and empty, maybe even a burden.
         Jacob makes a curious demand. “I will not let you go,” he says to the man, “until you bless me.” Jacob seems to realize that he hasn’t been struggling to win or protect anything. This long, dark night of the soul is revealing Jacob’s true self. The man blesses him with a new name: Israel. You will be called “Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”
         “Prevailed.” That word does not convey a sense of victory over anything, but of having survived. Through this experience, Jacob dies and rises to a new and different way of being alive in the world. Jacob prevails because, at long last, he accepts defeat. He has been humbled into his deepest and truest self. Only when he has lost, only when stripped of his stuff, and of his inflating and inflammatory ego, is Jacob ready to recognize and embrace the fullness of blessing.
Richard Rohr calls this the path of descent.1 Over the centuries, sages in the Church have called that narrow and lonely path “the way of the cross.”
“The path downward,” says Rohr, “is much more trustworthy than any path upward, which tends to feed the ego…[On some level,] Authentic spirituality is…about letting go…letting go of our small self, letting go of our cultural biases, and letting go of our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things, and it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is…letting go of…our need to be right.”2
         Referencing the stories of the prodigal son, and of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Rohr writes that, “Those who are proud of how they have done everything right – but also feel superior to others – are not open to God’s blessing…Fortunately, life will lead us to the edge of our own resources through…[pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general absurdity of life]. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. That’s where faith begins. Up to that moment it has just been religion!”3
         Rohr could have used the story of Jacob, as well. Jacob, meaning all of Israel, and by extension all of us, discovers true identity, purpose, and blessing not by gaining, but by losing. Jacob prevails not through victory, but through what Frederick Buechner calls The Magnificent Defeat.4
         Recently, a friend emailed me at 4:00 in the morning. She was struggling with the imminent and untimely death of a long-time friend. She’d been up all night crying, yelling at God, questioning, praying. I wrote back trying to say that I understood. I asked her to consider the possibility that her tears, shouts, and questions were the prayers that really mattered. Maybe they were even prayers the Holy Spirit was praying for her, “in sighs too deep for words.” I told her that grief was a process that always changes us.
It seems to me that she was on the banks of her own Jabbok, hanging on for dear life, and crying out for blessing. She was on a path of descent where the blessings of a deepened and deepening faith were possible.
         I don’t know how much I helped. But I do trust that for her, as for all of us, true blessedness is the gift of loss, not of gain. Only there do we really learn to trust, follow, and love the one who “emptied himself…humbled himself…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
As we come to his table today, may we come as a community who is willing to lose all for the sake of true blessing, for the sake of receiving and sharing the unearnable welcome of grace, and the eternal belonging that is the household of God.**

4“The Magnificent Defeat” From: The Magnificent Defeat, Harper/San Francisco, 1966. Pp. 10-18.

**While preaching this sermon, I knew that it was not complete. (They seldom are.) So as the charge, I added something similar to the following:

         Guilt is not a good place to start on the path of descent. Guilt sends us on journeys of resentment, not of discovery and transformation.
         Having said that, without thinking critically as well gratefully about our material/physical situation, we may become complacent and self-satisfied. We may associate what we have with our efforts alone and interpret them as God’s particular reward for good behavior. And those who don’t have enough must not be as diligent in their faith and work as we are. At that point (and please pardon the cliché), we don’t own our possessions, they own us.
         The path of descent is most certainly the way of humility, of letting go. And along this path, we discover that all we have and all we are is gift from God. We discover that for us to recognize and embrace such things as true blessings, requires sharing them. Only when gratefully and freely share do they reveal their lasting value. Only then do they transform private enjoyment into interactive discipleship. AH

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Never Again (Sermon)

“Never Again”
Genesis 9:1-3, 8-17
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         In July of 1984, while working as a summer youth director in N. Augusta, SC, I took a small group of kids on a mission trip to Bennettsville, SC, a rural community that had been devastated by tornadoes that spring. We went to offer such help as we could, and our experience gave us new respect for nature’s power to rearrange people’s surroundings and priorities. In the midst of it all, one image stood out.
         While ripping apart a shopping center, the largest tornado grabbed a quarter-ton I-beam and hurled it through the air for about a mile. It landed in someone’s front yard, about 30 feet from the front steps. It stuck in the ground. Angled back toward the house, it looked like an arrow that had missed its mark. Of that 18-foot beam, about half remained above ground. The family left it there, and by the road they placed a granite marker engraved with the date of the storm and the words In God we Trust.
         After the trip, I was in the church kitchen one afternoon telling the cleaning lady about our trip. Kind-hearted and soft-spoken, the woman listened intently behind a tight-lipped smile that seemed to acknowledge the pain, yet without surprise.
         “You know,” she said putting a finger to her cheek, “You hear about things like that all the time, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and people getting hurt and killed. And I really think that those things are the good Lord trying to tell us something.”
         She was a wonderful lady, and I enjoyed her company. But she may have gotten her theology from TV preachers.
         Many televangelists flog their listeners with dispensationalism, a theology that divides human history into quantifiable eras, or “dispensations” of divine revelation. Believing that global death and destruction must herald the second coming, dispensationalists crave the fall of civilization. Convinced that all suffering, regardless of the cause, is God’s judgment, they grant their toxic blessings to religious and political leaders who have the power to call up fresh floods of violence and to drown the world with division and fear. Only then, they say, will Jesus return.
         Sure, breaking certain laws can cause suffering. Defy the law of gravity and one discovers just how true the old saying is: It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop. Of particular concern to me is the fact that, for years we’ve been reaping the bitter fruits of poor stewardship of the earth, which, according to both creation stories, is the original human vocation. That’s simple cause and effect, and that’s on humankind not God. Until we recognize the natural connection between our sinful lust for excess and convenience on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other, the waters will keep rising. And if we don’t make that turn, how will future generations sustain themselves?
Having said that, attaching a sin, or even a sinner, to every storm and illness is more than self-serving theology. It’s idolatry. It makes judgments for God.
The story of the Great Flood becomes helpful when we remember that it has less to do with our sinfulness than it does with God’s grace.       A little background: The concept for the biblical story was sponged from one chapter in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. The book of Genesis reached its current form, more or less, during the time of the Babylonian Exile. It became a staple of preaching and worship for a vanquished people who were being told that their crisis was their own fault. The flood narrative helped to restore Israel’s identity and vision. ‘Exile is not the judgment of an angry God,’ says the story. ‘It’s a symptom of the world’s lust for power and excess, for wealth and convenience. And God, who is faithful, loving, and just, is with us, now and always.’
         Through Isaiah, God makes this explicit: “[To me] this is like the days of Noah,” says God, “just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed…” (Is. 54:9-10)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
         While the story of the flood begins with God attempting to blot out evil by blotting out humankind, it also shows God discovering the futility of such efforts. “The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” says God. This lament acknowledges that neither floods, nor tornadoes, nor plagues upon our houses will turn us around; and they certainly won’t redeem us. So, God makes a new covenant and promises that never again will God use “grapes of wrath” to bring about transformation.
         Why won’t we learn the same thing? All the wars and rumors of wars on this planet, and all the glorification of them reveal that humankind still trusts violence more than we trust God’s covenants of grace. That misplaced trust makes dispensationalism very lucrative business. Its apostles terrify their way deep into people’s minds and pockets.
By contrast, the flood story proclaims that God initiates a covenant with us and remains faithful to it, even when we don’t. Rather than trying to force our hand through catastrophe, Yahweh, who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” (Ex. 36:4) commits to shepherding us patiently toward faithfulness. Isn’t that the God revealed in Jesus?
In a brief article entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr on Moral Motivation,” L.L. Wilmoth says, “the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but…a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper…language” for proclamation.1
The story of the flood begins with an anthropomorphic God feeling “sorry” for having created humankind (Gen. 6:6), and seeking to correct the creation through “criticism and command.” After the flood, God realizes that punitive violence never produces constructive change. The story ends with God deciding to pull humanity forward, to charm us into aspiring toward things like righteousness, faithful stewardship, and grateful, generous living. The language becomes gracious and covenantal rather than resentful and coercive.
“Never again,” says God. “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”
This is more than some silver lining. This is God entering the creation’s relentless suffering with healing love and redeeming purpose.
God commits to this new covenant with a sign as simple and as elegant as a wedding band – the rainbow. Think about that: Rainbows require both bright sunlight and significant moisture. The sign of God’s covenant arcs across the heavens only when there’s obvious tension between fair skies and foul.
This same tension makes the last first and the first last.
It makes losing one’s life the very way to discover one’s true life.
It’s makes poverty, grief, hunger, and persecution signs of “blessedness.”
This same tension makes shepherds kings and Friday “Good.”
Because of this tense yet gracious paradox, God’s promise of “never again” floods the earth with hope. And we hear it echoing in Jesus’ “final” words to his disciples: “And remember,” he says, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20b)


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Snake! (Sermon)

Genesis 3:1-24
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         There’s a cliché that I can understand, but can’t stand: “The only good snake is a dead snake.”
I’ve never grieved the death of fire ants or cockroaches. With clear conscience, I’ve ended the lives of houseflies and stink bugs. And with my bare fingers I’ll help my wife squish Japanese beetles by the dozen in her garden. But there’s something about snakes that I can’t shake. I’m fascinated with them. I don’t want to be surprised by them, and I don’t go around catching them and handling them. But when I’m outside, I look for them. I want to see them.
These prehistoric creatures show up frequently in my dreams, too. Having a prominent place in the pantheon of archetypes, snakes possess a mythical hold on the human psyche. Slithering and lurking, hissing and striking, they symbolize danger and fear. But because poisonous species carry the cure to their bites in their own venom, snakes often represent healing, as well. The symbol for the medical community is the caduceus – two snakes winding their way up a winged staff. Living beneath the ground, they frequently represent a deep and earthy wisdom. And because they shed their skin, snakes often represent transformation and new life. Whatever the association, anything that draws out of us such visceral reactions is begging for attention.
         As someone steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, when I think of the Genesis story snaking its way through the interpretive forests of centuries and cultures, I have trouble limiting my understanding of even that serpent to a symbol for treachery and sin. Most of us have been taught that this story illustrates how evil and suffering entered the world. But such readings ignore the rich revelations below the surface.
         By interacting with this forked-tongued symbol of danger, the man and the woman move from security to vulnerability. And by interacting with this skin-shedding symbol of transformation, they also move from innocence and unawareness to a state of deeper understanding of themselves, of the creation and their place in it, and, most importantly, of the holiness of God. At first, it looks and feels like a painful snake bite, but maybe this story also reveals potential for human health and wholeness.
         Ancestors that predate all of our parents and Sunday school teachers bequeathed to us an image of Eden that describes both a garden that was and a heaven that awaits. And personally, I’m coming to understand the descriptions of this garden/heaven are the honest longings of human hearts and minds overwhelmed by human suffering. Thus, we have images of an existence where there’s no pain, no cancer, or war, or famine, or mosquitoes, and where we don’t even remember snakes.
         I can’t say what my own timeless heart of hearts remembers of Eden. And my continually evolving expectations of the life to come look nothing like what they did years ago. All I have, all any of us has is the here and now. And who can imagine this life without story, without the ebb and flow of weariness and wonder, ecstasy and agony, heartache and healing? So, what would life be like without “snakes”? It’s right here, in what often feels like the snake pit of real life that we experience and cling to God’s grace.
         In Genesis, God declares the consequence of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “In the day that you eat of it you will die.” But after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve shed their skins of innocence. The misty ignorance clears from their eyes. And instead of dying, they are tended to by God.
Yes, giving in to temptation does mean that human life now includes death. It includes experiences from which human beings need deliverance and recovery, and in which we need strength for endurance. The story also reveals that humankind, having moved beyond its original state, now has the opportunity to truly understand what it means to bear God’s image.
         I’m beginning to see the events of that last day in Eden as much more than a “fall” or a death. I’m beginning to see a birth and an ascent, as well. In this story, humankind begins to make peace with the reality of suffering and evil, and with our part in perpetuating it. But this story is not about fault-finding. It’s not about laying blame. It’s about declaring that regardless of where all the snakish evil comes from, God enters our suffering, choosing to transform and redeem both our accidental and intentional brokenness. Spiritual maturity depends on accepting that reality and following God into suffering – our own and that of others – with faith, hope, and love. That’s what it means to be made in God’s image. I think the storytellers say as much by attributing to God these words: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”
The creation has always been wounded by evil, by deliberate sin, and by plain old bad luck. Our world is fraught with disease, poverty, and war, with neglect and abuse of people and the environment. Thorns and thistles can choke our energy and creativity. Our labors, which are meant to sustain us, can tear us down. Destroyed by dishonesty, greed, and arrogance, relationships and communities become petri dishes for violence and cynicism. In the midst of everything that can make this life a living hell, life-restoring examples of beauty, kindness, wonder, and joy also weave their way into our experiences.
         We are both cursed and blessed by the knowledge of good and evil. Out of love for a broken and suffering world, God gives to humankind, to you and me, gifts of vision, compassion, and creativity. And without such gifts, without people willing to claim them, nurture them, and share them, what would happen to our hope? As the Church, we are called to be a reminder of the Love that creates us, and a foretaste of the Love that awaits us. And God not only calls us to that work, God entrusts us with the burden of doing it in the throes of the creation’s brokenness and suffering.
         Ask people who are passionately involved in a particular church what makes their commitment strong. I’m willing to bet that it’s not what the preacher says or what songs we sing on Sundays, but how they serve God and neighbor in and through that faith community. If folks show passion in worship, it’s because they are personally involved in that congregation’s ministries of compassion and justice in and for a hurting creation. What they experience in the sanctuary is connected to experiences of freely-offered discipleship. God is not real and alive because the preacher says so, but because the worshipers have relationships with hungry people at the food pantry, homeless children in Family Promise, sick and dying people in hospitals and nursing homes.
Without entering human suffering, “church” all-too-easily becomes a plastic Eden – a place where we try to hide from God, a place where faith is reduced to moralistic obligation, or to some kind of civic duty.
The Garden of Eden may be a long-ago memory in the hearts of humankind, but the Kingdom of God exists visibly, audibly, and palpably whenever and wherever we forsake the temptation to live fearfully and selfishly, and choose instead to live gratefully and compassionately, in the midst of the world’s grief, loneliness, and despair.
Jesus reveals and embodies that truth for us. When he says, “Follow me,” he invites us into salvation. And the path of salvation leads not around or away from evil and suffering, but straight into the heart of it. And there we proclaim, in all manner of actions, and “when necessary”* in words: “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

*This quotation is often and probably mistakenly attributed to St. Francis of Asisi. (

Sunday, July 9, 2017

So That None Should Be Alone (Sermon)

“So That None Should Be Alone”
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-23
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         The creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis create in me a sense of awe and gratitude. Imagining the cosmic scope of the story in Chapter 1 is like sitting on top of Buffalo Mountain and watching the sun set over the plateau to the west, and the stars come out over the Appalachian highlands to the east. Reading the earthy, nitty-gritty detail of the story in Chapter 2 is like watching my wife at work in her garden.
         Both stories offer magnificent and compelling, but thoroughly distinct images. They harmonize well enough, but any attempt to create unison between them yields artificial results. We can no more overlay the two stories and get one authoritative history than we could overlay photographs to the east and west of Buffalo Mountain and get one coherent perspective.
Think about it: Did God take seven days to create the universe, as described in Genesis 1, or a single day as described in Genesis 2? Did God make all the animals first then human beings, as in Genesis 1, or the human male, then all the animals, then the human female as in Genesis 2?
The discrepancies do not overwhelm the sophisticated brilliance in Genesis. Aware of the limits of language, the ancient storytellers used images and symbols to suggest what their hearts felt but their words could not adequately describe. Feel free to disagree, but I have to interpret the creation stories as statements of faith rather than historical documents, as poetry rather than science.
Back “in the day that God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis 2, all was dry and barren. But, in this pre-beginning, beneath the surface, a spring flows. Down in the unconscious depths, the possibility of water churns like undreamt dreams and unwritten songs. And all that potential needs a vessel. So, God pulls the waters upward, through the dry and gritty void. Streams and rivers flow. They feed the sky. Clouds gather. Rains fall. Plants take root and grow. But who will tend them? Who will enjoy them?
Scooping up a handful of water-logged dust, God infuses it with ruach – with breath, a holy spirit. Into the enlivening stew, God adds humankind – a unique blend of matter and spirit, consciousness and unconsciousness, instinct and innovation.
         “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,” sings the psalmist, “the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
         In some way, all living things share God’s breath; so all living things are holy. And the deep capacity for awareness of self, awareness of the waters above and below, grant to the human a particular holiness, a particular likeness to God. This gift will get all humanity into a bit of a pinch, but first, the man is simply to care for all that God has created. He has more than existence. He has something to do, something to give his life meaning. He has a calling, a vocation.
         Having formed the man of dust and water, having blown animating breath into his nostrils, God sets the man in the garden to till and keep it. He is free to eat and enjoy all of it – with one prohibition: Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Being as much like God as he is, knowing good and evil would be one burden too many on the man’s heart of flesh. He’d have trouble bearing that burden without mistaking himself for God - especially if he’s alone.
         “It is not good that the man should be alone.” What a profoundly revealing thing for God to say. In the first creation story we hear God say, “Let us create humankind in our image.” And later in the second story, after Adam and Eve have been exiled from the garden, God says, “See, the man has become like one of us.”
God doesn’t have some kind of multiple personality disorder. The storied image in which we are made is one of relationship. To be like God in the healthiest sense necessarily involves others. This is the point of Trinitarian language. God is one, but because God is Love, the essence of God is relationship.
         The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote: “One cannot be a self on one’s own.” The man needs an other because loneliness diminishes both our humanity and our holiness.
         So, God experiments with animals. And they’re wonderful, but the man needs more than dogs and dolphins, copperheads and chickadees. He needs a partner who will both counter and complete. So, God closes the man’s eyes and sends him into a deep, self-emptying sleep. During that time of unconsciousness and vulnerability, God removes a rib, one of the bones that protect the man’s heart and other vital organs. From that piece of the man’s foundational structure, God fashions another human being, a woman. At last the man has a companion, someone who may expose his heart a little bit, but one who cures loneliness.
Let’s remember, loneliness and solitude are two very different things. We often choose and enjoy solitude for Sabbath renewal, but loneliness is the curse of exclusion from community. The creation story in Genesis 2 declares that exclusion and loneliness run counter to God’s will – for everyone. No human being should be alone. We need each other the way scripture needs both creation stories.
         Who we are and what we do as human creatures, we do in community. As a place of creativity, the Church is called to share in God’s eternal breathing. By telling the ancient stories and living our new ones, we wade in the waters of all that is seen and unseen, of that which is and that which is becoming.
         As a place of purpose, the Church is called to nurture vocation. We till and keep the God-planted garden on which all human beings depend, and in which we all may experience our strengths and weaknesses, our God-given gifts and those of others.
As a place of worship, the Church encourages prayerful solitude, where we learn to listen for and to relate to God. And as a place of community, we do not tolerate loneliness. We welcome, enjoy, struggle with, and forgive one another.
         Each day, may you look deeply into yourself. May you see both your fragile dust and water held together by God’s holy breath, and your own extraordinary beauty and potential. May you sit in wonder before yourself and others as you would sit on a mountain top, watching the sun set and the moon rise.
         We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” in God’s image. We often know that image within us by acknowledging the selfishness, the violence, and other brokenness within us, as well. Whether we want them or not, both realities, both stories our ours. One participates in God’s creativity and joy. One struggles with it, and often denies it.
The more we love one another as God loves us, the more we experience and share the God within us and within others.
We’re in this life together – all of us, all of our stories. And this must be God’s intent for us, so that none should be alone.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ambushed by Resurrection (Sermon)

“Ambushed by Resurrection”
Matthew 10:34-39
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         The passage we just read appears in Matthew and in Luke. In fact Luke, in some respects the most socially and religiously provocative of the four canonical gospels, includes not one but two versions of this text. To be honest, I have never liked this passage. It always feels like an ambush.
         “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” What happened to the Prince of Peace?
         “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” What happened to Honor your father and mother?
         To be worthy of me, says Jesus, take up your cross. Didn’t Rome use crucifixion to manipulate public behavior through the most horrifying cruelty possible?
         To really live your life, release your death grip on it. With that, Jesus challenges some of the most fundamental tenets that first-world cultures celebrate and enshrine as “inalienable rights.” Things such as: Grab all the gusto you can! Control your own narrative!
Dogmatic maxims like these can lead to trouble. If I claim some divine right to grab all the gusto I can get, I inevitably keep grabbing, even when it means grabbing more than my fair share. And the more I consume, the more insatiable I become. That becomes a way of life. I feel entitled to all I want, so, I lose sight of others and their needs. I lose compassion for them.
Similarly, when I claim divine right to control my own narrative, I will have to control other people’s narratives, because my life cannot be distanced from the lives around me. Controlling my narrative, means forcing my opinions, my desires, and my fears onto the lives around me. And I find that if I don’t do this, my neighbor’s own quest for well-being may hinder my gusto-grabbing happiness, or threaten my power-hungry and image-conscious ego. Only when I get my way, by whatever means, is God in heaven, and all right with the world.
         Into all of my efforts to manipulate and rationalize advantages for myself, Jesus keeps saying emphatically and unequivocally, Stop it! To use your God-given gifts to make some kind of god out of yourself is to misuse them. It’s also, unavoidably, to exploit your neighbors.
So, give it up, Allen. Lose that life. Only then will you truly live.
         Like I said – I’ve never much liked this passage. But bless my heart, it’s challenge to me is what makes it gospel for me.
         Here’s how things unfold: While these six verses do feel rather blunt at first, I stop and remember that Jesus offers them as an expression of Love, not of anger or vengeance. After spending enough time with them, I begin to hear them revealing a purpose that aims to heal and make whole. Instead of blunt, they become incisive.
         When Jesus says that he comes not “to bring peace, but a sword,” I can hear him saying that he comes to sever some of the bonds that human beings hold most tightly and dearly. But, what’s loving about that? Well, I think he does that not to end relationships, but to re-new them.
When a broken bone doesn’t set correctly, an orthopedic surgeon may have to re-break the bone and re-set it. The intentional break and re-set allows the arm, or leg, or rib to be restored to proper alignment and to full strength and function.
         If this is the kind of thing Jesus is talking about, then in order for groups of people, even those as close as family, to discover their true purpose and their deepest joy, they must cut themselves loose from what has become outdated ties. Then, in a consciously-chosen act, they commit themselves to something new, something even deeper than the bonds of family relationships, deeper than the bonds of any sort of tribe, congregation, denomination, party, or nation. Even more appropriate than the image of re-setting a bone, is the image of cutting the umbilical cord between a newborn and mother.
         Marianne gave birth to our children in a birthing center in Rincon, GA. Both times, I watched Marianne, exhausted and awestruck, hold that pink, wrinkled, puffy-eyed baby she had carried within her for nine months. And both times, the midwife took two surgical clamps and pinched them down tightly and close together on that gently twisting, bluish-gray tether still attached to our baby’s belly.
The midwife held out a pair of sterile scissors and said, “Would you like to cut the umbilical cord?”
         It was not a merely symbolic act. By cutting the cord, I severed the most vital physical aspect of the pre-natal bond between Marianne and our children. Forever. The experiences of both pregnancy and childbirth were complete, and an utterly new set of relationships began, for all of us. Relationships of unspeakable joy and heartache. Relationships of relentless discovery and bewilderment. Relationships in which we began a continual process of coming together, ripping apart, and coming together anew. Peace is a rare gift in all of that purposed turmoil.
         All relationships experience turmoil, don’t they? Things as they were end. And after each experience of change and loss, the Spirit lays us at our mother’s breast, freshly re-formed and capable of new depths of trust. Accepting this process as not merely inevitable, but healthy – that’s the key. It’s a necessary step toward making peace with the always surprising ambush of Resurrection. I think that’s how losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake becomes an experience, ultimately, of great joy.
         For us as Christians, the Sabbath day is always a celebration of Easter. No matter what outside distractions may clutter our hearts and minds on a Sunday morning, the reason we gather is to bear witness to the transforming power of Resurrection in the world. All that we say and do and sing should proclaim that truth.
In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As you pass the bread and cup today, I ask you to say something different. As the first tray comes, say to your neighbor, “Broken bread for your broken heart.” And when the second tray comes, say, “The cup of Resurrection.”
As we remember Jesus’ passion at the hands of a fearful and violent empire, may we all be reminded that through this ritual meal we are being nourished with the resurrecting power of agape Love, that perfect Love that liberates us from all encumbering fears and loyalties, so that we may die to self, and rise to Christ. So that we may live in and share the presence of God’s kingdom here, and now, and always.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Imperative of Compassion (Sermon)

“The Imperative of Compassion”
Matthew 9:35-10:8
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Listen again to Matthew 9:36. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
When Jesus sees the crowds, when he gazes at them, listens to them, when he physically, emotionally, and spiritually enters their “harassed and helpless” world, he has “compassion for them.” In The Message, that line reads, “his heart broke.”
         Matthew 9:36 doesn’t just chronicle one moment in Jesus’ life. It reveals the very heart of God. To me, that one particular verse is For God so loved the world…, I have come that you might have life…, and Father forgive them all rolled into one.
         Jesus reveals that God’s heart overflows with compassion for the Creation. Compassion means to suffer with. True compassion permeates and surrounds suffering. And that’s what Jesus does. It’s who he is as God Incarnate. In Jesus of Nazareth, God enters the nitty-gritty of the Creation, the dullness, the joy, the suffering – all of it – just to say, I see you. I love you. And I am always with you, in your suffering as well as your celebration.
         Now, the compassion of God in Christ has a caveat. And that caveat does nothing at all to limit or diminish grace. Indeed, that caveat invites us to experience and to participate in the fullness of God’s grace.
         After looking at all these folks who suffer, whose needs for healing and hope far outweigh their resources and abilities, Jesus speaks to his disciples. And I would paraphrase is comment this way:
The time is at hand! There is deep readiness in the world to see and hear what God is revealing. But right now, there aren’t enough folks who are driven by compassion. Too many are motivated by greed and fear. They’re driven by a desire to conquer and control. The wealthy and powerful of the world view suffering as weakness, so they thoughtlessly overlook and abuse those who suffer. So, pray with me, says Jesus. Let’s ask God to send people of compassion into the world to be with those who suffer, to feed them, to clothe them, to heal them, to cry and to laugh with them, to love them.
         Maybe the disciples see it coming. Maybe they don’t. But when Jesus asks them to pray for laborers in the harvest, he expects them to do more than sit still and shut their eyes while they “have a prayer.” Disciples don’t just pray for help. Disciples don’t just entertain thoughts about how much need exists. Disciples are those who live as answers to those prayers. That’s the caveat. When Jesus tells the disciples to pray for laborers, he is calling them into the harvest. He is challenging them to embrace the knee-buckling burden of discipleship by going out and embodying God’s compassion and Love for the Creation.
         At the end of the Prayers of the People, I often ask God to help us not only to acknowledge people and situations in need of prayer, but to go and be with those folks, to enter those situations personally. Sure, we often pray for people who are far away, for people already well-attended by family, or for situations beyond our immediate influence. The extent of our involvement in many of those individual lives and wider circumstances is often limited. But remember the historical Jesus. He lived in one very specific and long-ago place. Given his temporal limitations, he did all he could possibly do. As Jesus’ disciples, we are the expansion of those limits. As people shaped by the gifts of Easter and Pentecost, we have the authority of Jesus’ fearless compassion and his eternal Spirit. His work is God’s work. So, our work is his work.
         A North Carolina friend of mine recently shared the story of a brief encounter she had while sitting in a waiting room. In that waiting room, a talking head on TV delivered a news report. A woman sitting next to my friend became agitated, even angry. She began to talk with my friend. The two quickly realized that they had very different political opinions.
         “Maybe we should pick another subject,” my friend said. The other woman agreed. They talked about kids and grandkids, instead. In that conversation, my friend learned that this woman had a grandson who had been killed in a car accident. Just one year ago. On the day he graduated from high school.
         My friend said that the conversation “ended with a hug.”
“I know this doesn’t address political differences,” she said, “but it certainly made us both feel better toward one another.”
Isn’t that the point? To see a human being and not an opinion?
         More and more in our culture, we are nurturing and even depending on a kind of pathological need to win, to be “right,” to gain some ideological upper hand. In an age of suspicion and vengeance, when meeting someone for the first time, we tend to wonder, “What are this person’s political views? What’s his or her theology?” A relationship that begins with those questions has the chance of becoming a friendship only if the two people discover that they’re on the same side of some aisle.
When relationships start with the humanizing question, “What’s your story?”, they can begin with compassion and understanding. Even if it’s one-sided, the people involved have a greater chance to move toward gratitude and generosity and away from judgment and competition.
         I think that’s what discipleship is all about. Jesus calls and empowers us to be instigators of compassion. That means taking the initiative to be people of grace with and for the people around us. That’s not easy. It takes practice. It takes discipline to live according to the ways and means of grace. That’s why people who do so are called disciples. They practice the disciplines of compassion, patience, forgiveness, justice, gratitude, and generosity.
         It sounds strange, but when Jesus sends his disciples out, he tells then not to go to the Gentiles or Samaritans. “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. I hear Jesus saying not to venture too far from home – not just yet. Speak first to those who share your history, who speak your faith language. Practice with them. Some of them may even join you in spreading compassion.
         Friends, a “harassed and helpless” creation cries out for disciplined, heart-broken voices. Suffering and compassion are being dismissed as weaknesses to be exploited by those who hold power, and by those who are fearful of and angry at those who do. Jesus is calling us to be different, to live in our particular place and time according to the imperative of compassion. It really doesn’t matter what side of an aisle we’re on. Wherever we are, disciples are called to be guided not by platforms and party lines, but by empathic Love for all humankind and for the earth itself.
Whenever we feel pressured to act without compassion, or to justify words that tear down rather than build up, as disciples of Jesus, we must acknowledge that we are being tempted to follow something other than Jesus. We must learn the humbling discipline of sucking up our pride, of reining in our egos, of resisting the craving for any victory that comes at the expense of Love.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” says Jesus. For the sake of others, live in God’s kingdom of compassion. If you do, you will find fellow travelers to keep you company, to keep you motivated.
And if you don’t – if we don’t – who will?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Claim the Voice, Share the Gift (Sermon)

“Claim the Voice, Share the Gift”
Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-13
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

          The stories we just read from Numbers and Acts are stories of God’s people in crisis. They reveal displaced groups at cross roads struggling to discern identity and purpose. And the particular leaders involved – Moses in the wilderness and the Apostles in Jerusalem – come to God confessing their emptiness and vulnerability. As creative, diligent, and even faithful as they may be, they know that, on their own, they cannot overcome the height, depth, and breadth of their crises. They need help.
         Leadership in the household of faith, leadership of any kind for that matter, can be an intensely demanding obligation. It requires gifts of discernment, courage, and decisiveness. Because leadership is fundamentally an act of service, it also requires mature sensibilities of compassion, humility, and justice. Perhaps most challenging to individualistic cultures like ours, effective leadership requires a commitment to the well-being of others before one’s own well-being.
Without these attributes, leaders may become like Pharaoh, for whom neither slavery nor genocide is too high a price for wealth and power; or like the sons of Eli who are spoiled, selfish, and deaf to wisdom and holiness; or like King Saul who, lacking all gifts for leadership, goes insane before everyone’s eyes; or like Jezebel, who holds the reins of power by the force and fury of cruelty, and does so long enough that eventually the eunuchs who are supposed to protect the queen throw her to her death from a high window.
All of these key figures face crises, and all of them, ignoring higher virtues, seek the guidance of flatterers and the security of violence. Their stories live on in scripture, and we read them and heed them as cautionary tales.
Moses and the Apostles face their crises differently.
In Numbers, the Israelites are newly-freed slaves. They’re on the run and complaining about how tired, hungry, and afraid they are. Their escape from Egypt has become a desert pilgrimage that seems crueler than Pharaoh’s taskmasters. Their story illustrates that when something gets the best of us, only the worst remains. And when the emotional dam bursts, the Hebrews project all their fear and anxiety onto Moses, whose own frustration grows.
         In Acts, the disciples feel all alone in the world. They had expected Jesus to return Israel to a power and a glory that would last forever. And after Resurrection, all Jesus does is vanish in the mist. Sure, the disciples have been praying and eating together, but they find themselves mired in a kind of static wandering. Their only accomplishment seems to be choosing Matthias as Judas’ replacement at the table. But to what end? What do their rituals accomplish? Whom do they follow?
         While Moses and the Apostles often prove flawed and fumbling, they are servants of God. During their crises, they find themselves filled with something mysterious and moving. They open themselves to the Spirit, who comes not to resolve every problem, but to help shoulder the burden of leadership. The Spirit reveals itself as a gift being offered not simply to people like Moses and the disciples. The Spirit proves to be a gift who offers itself to all people through the likes of Moses (who murdered), and Peter (who denied), and Matthew (who swindled), and Bartholomew (who did nothing memorable at all). Leaders of God’s people are those who, having embraced their giftedness, seek to evoke, celebrate, and trust the giftedness of others.
         Remember the stories: Some of Moses’ spirit leaks out beyond the designated seventy to a couple of nobodies named Eldad and Medad. When they prophesy, Joshua cries out, “My lord Moses, stop them!”
         And Moses, who is learning more by the moment, scolds his reactionary young assistant, who will eventually succeed Moses and lead Israel. “Are you jealous for my sake?” says Moses. I wish every one of God’s people were prophets! I wish God’s spirit would fall on all of you!
         Isn’t that what happens in Jerusalem?
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” ask the observers of Pentecost, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language?” Luke goes on to name sixteen different nationalities and ethnicities who hear God’s deeds of holiness and power being proclaimed in their own languages. Add the Galileans, and it’s seventeen.
Those who watch all of this happen are bewildered. And who wouldn’t be? To learn that God’s Holy Spirit dwells inherently in all of Creation, that it really is written on human hearts, and that no one and no thing lies outside the loving desire and redeeming reach of God – such revelations challenge the comfortable but mistaken notions of redemptive violence and of God’s household as a place for deserving members only.
In both the wilderness and Jerusalem, the Spirit of God makes itself known through an outpouring of prophetic speech, through gracious words uttered by folks who are ordinary, fallible, hesitant human beings. Many different voices in our world claim holy authority. And many of those voices seem diametrically opposed to each other. While we’re not called to judge, we are called to discern. And we each have to do that. When I hear a voice claiming cry in the wilderness status, I listen for accents of Love, of peace, of forgiveness, of promise, and of grateful openness to all of God’s creation. To me, such things declare the presence of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, when a voice claiming prophetic authority provokes fear and division, envy and vengeance, and creates barriers to relationships and healing, I cannot trust that voice.
It seems to me that right now, many of the voices screaming at the extremes are really quite close together in effect. Both poles tear at the wounded, fragile body of the Creation. So, whether a voice drives into crowds of people on a bridge, or stirs the chaos of ignorance and hate, or jeopardizes the well-being of the future for profit in the present, or brutalizes an effigy for laughs, such a voice does not declare the Holy Spirit of God.
         Brothers and sisters, we are called to claim our spiritual gifts and to speak so confidently of redeeming Love and reuniting Shalom that we sound drunk to those who fear both the moment and the days to come.
This is our prophecy, our Pentecostal gift to share – to speak and live the resurrecting grace of God.