Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Wonder of Sunday (Sermon)

“The Wonder of Sunday”
Luke 24:13-35
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
19He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

         Emmaus. Where is Emmaus? Seven miles from Jerusalem, says Luke. Some archaeologists say it could be more like sixty miles. And whether north or west is anyone’s guess. The uncertainty makes Emmaus more than some spot on a map. Like Tarshish, Emmaus is “the place we go to escape.”1 When the story has imploded, when gravity no longer holds our feet to the ground, when grass is orange, and pigs fly – that’s when we go to Emmaus.
We might find Emmaus on YouTube or Facebook. In Andy Griffith re-runs. At Wal Mart. In anger, argument, or war. At the bottom of a bottle. Maybe even in church where so much gets ritualized and so little realized. And when all feels lost, when nothing matters less than what happens now, why not go to Emmaus?
Luke introduces us to a pair of second-tier disciples, Cleopas and a man whose name we’ll never know. The events of Friday and Saturday have sent these two Jesus-followers wandering. Sure, they’ve heard the Sunday morning rumors – that the women saw Jesus, and that he told them, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will meet me.” But this only complicates things. So, on Sunday evening, the two men find themselves on the road not to Galilee, but to Emmaus.
Cleopas and his companion seem mystified, cast into a kind of purgatory. In the confusing chaos of fear, dismay, disappointment, and uneasy hope, their walk feels all the more like an escape.
Have you ever felt that way? Exiled from a story to which you were once intimately connected? Surrounded by an unimagined reality? As human beings, when we depart from our story, from all that has been real to us, from all that has given our lives structure and purpose, we’re like fish out of water. Disorienting experiences, whether chosen or forced upon us, can throw us into a kind of living death.
         Cleopas and his friend are wandering in that living death. Like fish on a riverbank, they flop helplessly down the road toward Emmaus.
That’s when the sudden stranger appears.
         What are you two talking about? he says. He’s baiting these fish.
         The question stops the disciples in their tracks. A person would have to be dead not to know what’s happened over the last few days. So, they bring this clueless man up to speed. And in telling their story, they tell on themselves.
We’d thought Jesus was the one God had promised. We thought he’d be the one to bring Israel back from the brink.
         You mean like Moses did? says the stranger. You do remember Moses, don’t you?
         And then the stranger brings these two clueless men up to speed, not by recounting the last couple of days, but by remembering the last couple hundred generations. In hearing their story again, Cleopas and his companion gulp living water across the gills of their hearts. They begin realize things that their Fridayed and Saturdayed minds had not been able to piece together.
         As the men approach Emmaus, the sun is setting. When they turn toward town, the stranger continues on the road.
         “Stay with us,” says Cleopas, “because it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.”
         The stranger accepts the invitation, and that evening, around the table, he blesses the bread and breaks it. “Then,” says Luke, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” As quickly as the disciples recognize Jesus, he disappears, but they can’t un-see what they’ve seen. The wonder of Sunday has broken over them.
If there’s a dead giveaway for the living Christ, it’s in the willingness of his followers to lay aside all hopelessness and fear, all prejudice and selfishness for the sake of the stranger, whom, we discover, is no stranger at all.
         To welcome the stranger, says Jesus, is to welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me.
         In welcoming others, especially ones whom we don’t know, we do risk making ourselves vulnerable to circumstances we can’t control and to outcomes we can’t foresee. At the same time, we open ourselves to the dynamic presence of the risen Christ. The road to Emmaus is populated with strangers and uncertainty. But the resurrected Jesus transforms even that road into the very threshold of the kingdom of God. And the kingdom transforms us.
         Mark Achtemeier is a Presbyterian pastor who has been a missionary, served congregations, taught at Dubuque Seminary, and now makes his living writing and speaking. Twenty years ago, in the Presbyterian debate on ordination standards, Mark lent his intelligent and thoughtful voice to the argument against opening ordination and marriage to those who were openly gay. Then, the denomination asked him to join other scholars, pastors, and lay people from both sides of the debate for a two-year commitment to study and prepare a theological statement on human sexuality. Mark agreed, and he soon found himself at an Emmaus table.
         For two years, Mark met with, studied with, prayed with, and broke bread with people he had been taught to consider unfaithful. He listened to the stories of Christians who had and were continuing to struggle with their sexual orientation, which was as real and irreversible as their love for God, their love for the church, and their desire to serve.
          Mark could not deny the love and the long-suffering, Christian faithfulness of the men and women he met. By the conclusion of the study, for Mark Achtemeier, the kingdom of God was a larger place. And he faced angry retribution from those who had trusted him to be a particular voice. But after his experience, he understood God, scripture, and Christian service differently. The wonder of Sunday had opened his eyes and his heart in a new way.
         Preacher, did you really need to go there? Just when we’d gotten used to not talking about all of that?
         Well, no, I didn’t have to. But if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that, in our society, we have hardly overcome our prejudices and fears. If anything, they’ve intensified and need to be acknowledged and addressed.
I’ve asked some folks if they’d like to go to UKirk-ETSU for a worship service this evening. The service, which will be led by Olivia Marenco and the students, will close out that ministry’s participation in Pride Fest. We’ll attend the service. We’ll take refreshments for them. We’ll eat with them and visit with them.
Now, I know that JPC is a very purple church. Our red folk are pretty red and our blue folk are pretty blue. We’re not all in the same place on the road. So, if any of you would like to come along, please do. And if you don’t, that’s fine. You won’t be judged by anyone else. If you do, send them to me. I’ll say this, too: Preachers aren’t moderators of debates. When in the pulpit, we’re not here to be unbiased. We’re here to proclaim the truth of the gospel as authentically as we can to edify, nurture, and challenge our hearers. If we remove ourselves and our points-of-view from our preaching none of us will have much to say. On the other hand, we are charged with speaking as humbly, pastorally, and compassionately as we are called to speak honestly and prophetically. So, if you ever do feel judged by me, let me know, because either we show the loving compassion of the risen Jesus to everyone. Or we don’t.
Besides, for all of us, no matter where we are, “…it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.”
May the wonder of Sunday be with you.

1The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner. Harper Collins, 1966. p. 85.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Peace Be with You (Sermon)

“Peace Be With You”
John 20:19-29
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

John 20:19-29
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (NRSV)

         In the fourth gospel, Jesus’ first post-resurrection words to the male disciples are “Peace be with you.”
         Today, the word peace has lost much of its original depth and energy. While it can refer to a sense of calm and contentment, it’s most often associated with a lack of martial conflict. When we speak of a peacekeeping force, we’re talking about a military presence, aren’t we? When maintaining peace requires continual preparation for war, it’s anything but peaceful. But as much as human beings seem to love violence, the peace we enjoy may never be more than temporary truce. Marjorie Thompson calls that “enforced peace,” and enforced peace, she says, inevitably becomes a “breeding ground for…conflict” because enforced peace and authentic justice occur in different realms.1
The Pax Romana was an example of enforced peace. If it felt peaceful, it was only because Rome had subjugated so much of the known world that, for a time, the empire faced no credible threat from the outside and brutally silenced virtually all criticism from the inside. That meant that those who held the wealth and the power could define what was ethical and just depending on what benefited them.
Jesus lived and worked during the early years of the Pax Romana. It formed the cultural backdrop for his ministry. And it was under the authority of Rome’s great “peace” that God’s Son was tried, convicted, and crucified.
When Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” he has in mind something entirely different than the peace of Rome.
In Hebrew, the word is Shalom. In Greek, it’s Eiréné. In first-century Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was something like Shlama. In the ancient languages, to invoke peace on others was to wish upon them a blessing for which mere words were inadequate. The word peace evoked something of the ultimate Mystery from which all things have come and to which all things will go.
The ancients understood peace as a realm in which humankind could live – a realm of wholeness, community, well-being, and joy, a presence that saturated and surrounded them – even in the midst of fear. I hear the ancients saying that to experience peace is to experience nothing less than the presence of God.
When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” he declares his resurrection presence with the men who betrayed him and abandoned him – and who now feel anything but peaceful. From the realm of resurrection, unfettered by space, or time, or human frailty, Jesus announces his eternal presence with, love for, and forgiveness of his disciples and all humankind.
When we share the peace of Christ, we share the same gift he shares with the disciples on Easter evening. And I think that when we truly sense the Peace of Christ, regardless of circumstances, we experience, firsthand, the saturating and surrounding presence of the risen Jesus.
Without question, it’s a learned discipline to hold and to be held by the peace of Christ. That makes it easy to deny resurrection, to say, like Thomas, ‘Seeing is believing, so prove it.’ But that’s an easy out. You and I don’t get the kind of objective proof that Thomas gets one week later. At least, I’ve never known anyone who has. And, like you, I can’t substantiate a two-thousand-year-old account of a subjective, mystical experience.
It’s also easy to reduce Easter to an individualistic doctrine, something one agrees to intellectually in order to call oneself “saved,” and, therefore, to feel assured of a reservation in the safety of heaven. That turns resurrection faith into a rigorously controlled institution in which people are homogenized and contained, a religious establishment that may be defended by worldly means. That kind of religion doesn’t proclaim the realm of resurrection. But it does square with enforced peace. It paves the way for confusing spiritual blessedness and worldly privilege. And when blessing gets cheapened into privilege, peace becomes just what it was for Jesus, a subversive undercurrent of holy justice advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the forgotten. True peace, then, the Peace of Christ, becomes a threat to those who claim more than their share.
Shane Smith, the associate pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, recently made the observation that when a person or group has gotten used to privilege, equality may feel like oppression.2 But that’s the gift of resurrection. It proclaims God’s desire that no one and no thing be denied the saturating and surrounding wholeness of equality, community, well-being, and joy.
This is difficult for me to accept, because it requires me to confess my own sin, the sin of smugly thinking that my thinking is so in line with Jesus’ thinking that right now I can think of specific people and groups whose humiliation and demise I would secretly enjoy. That’s not to say that I change my opinions or weaken my commitments. It is to say that humility, gratitude, and generosity make a far more constructive place to begin engaging the world than self-righteous judgement.
Then there’s the sin of my failure to work intentionally for equality and justice because I know that as more people get to embrace their own full humanity and Belovedness of God, as a white, Protestant, hetero-sexual, first-world male, I will probably enjoy less and less privilege.
Finally, in my sin, I avoid Jesus’ call to embrace, share, and proclaim the fullness of his peace so that I don’t offend the powerful. It’s safer, more comfortable, and more lucrative for me that way.
I think we’re getting into what Jesus means with his cryptic words about forgiving and retaining sins. When I acknowledge that the peace of Christ is the very presence of the resurrected Jesus, and if, for whatever reason, I don’t share it with others, then I withhold from them and myself a fuller experience of God’s kingdom. Because Jesus’ peace is offered to and not imposed upon, it’s not a matter of whether or not others recognize it and receive it. It’s a matter of whether we, as disciples, are grateful and generous enough to realize that, like candlelight on Christmas Eve, the more we share it, the more there is for everyone.
Jesus’ response to Thomas removes the final nail from the coffin. When offering his wounds to Thomas, Jesus is saying that his peace, his resurrection presence, is revealed and experienced most authentically when we admit our brokenness and our pain, and when we enter the brokenness and the pain of the world. That’s why, in the gradual steps of blessedness in Matthew’s Beatitudes, peace is the penultimate blessing. It comes just before persecution.
It seems to me that when we find the strength for that kind of humility, compassion, and generosity, we discover the deep blessedness of faith – a blessedness not associated with seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus in any conventional sense, but from, nonetheless, believing, trusting, and following the Prince of Peace.
I mean this from the ever-deepening depths of my self to the ever-deepening depths of your selves: The peace of Christ be with you all.
1Marjorie Thompson, The Way of Blessedness, Upper Room Books, 2003. (From the Companions in Christ series) p. 86.
2From a Facebook post on 4/3/18.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

April Newsletter

Dear Friends,
         In my Dad’s study of Aristotle, one of the central lessons he gleaned and took great joy in sharing had to do with gratitude. He called it at least two things: Practical Thanksgiving and ThankGodfulness.
         “I thank God for you,” was a line he used frequently, and not just in talking with his family. He considered gratitude the appropriate place to begin any interaction with anyone – friend, acquaintance, stranger, enemy. When beginning with gratitude, we ask ourselves, What is the beautiful, loving, and just thing to do with and for the person in front of me right now?
         Jesus called that love. Putting it into practice is called discipleship. The community it forms is called the kingdom of God.
         Jonesborough Presbyterian, I thank God for you. Over the years of my dad’s struggle with ALS you have cared for me, been patient with me as I left town more than I would have otherwise. And after Dad’s death, you have shown me and my family the compassionate love of Jesus. It is no wonder that JPC seems to be bucking the trend of declining membership and sparse worship attendance. You know how to do community, and you do it graciously and genuinely.
         For the cards, the calls, the visits, the hugs, the prayers, the food – for just being you, Thank You.
         May God continue to bless all of us in our ministry together, and each of us as we respond to the particular ministries for which we are gifted and to which each of us is called.
May our congregation continue to grow into a place where God’s people are free to discover those gifts and then equipped to serve. That is to say, may we continue growing into an outpost of the True Church, the Body of Christ, a visible community of hospitality, gratitude, and service.

Grace and Peace,

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Strange Beginning to a Strange Ending (Easter Sermon)

“A Strange Beginning to a Strange Ending”
Mark 16:1-8
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Easter (11:00am)

16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

         Jesus’ death was no great surprise. Indeed, it was predictable. In Caesar’s realm, death awaits almost everyone who garners too much attention, too large a following. Things might have been different for Jesus had he given in to temptation and lived according to the ways and means of Caesar. When some one or some group gains recognition for brutality, for creating fear and enmity, for belittling and persecuting opposition, or for flaunting wealth, Caesar usually sees an ally. For Caesar, there can never be too much violence and vengeance. Violence and vengeance are life insurance for death.
         Jesus held firm in the face of temptation, though. His life was defined by humility, justice, and fearless love. He didn’t live by the sword or by an angry tongue. He didn’t shun the weak, the sick, the outcast, the foreigner. And those who truly followed him, those who allowed their lives to be storied by his example became hard to threaten. Jesus had given them everything that mattered – belonging, dignity, purpose, and not for themselves alone. Jesus had given them his Shalom as vision for all humankind, indeed, for all creation.
         Jesus posed more than a political threat to Caesar. He posed an existential one. And Caesar had no good answer for Jesus’ revolution of Shalom. To survive the onslaught of agape love, Caesar had to resort to the shock and awe of crucifixion. And that was natural enough for Caesar. He’s been doing it for millennia.
         Biblically speaking, Caesar is more than the Roman emperor. Caesar, like Pharaoh, like Jezebel, like Herod is a metaphor for human hearts turned toward power, greed, and revenge. All of these things make Caesar as predictable as he is destructive. He depends on a world un-muddied by paradox and the possibilities of radical newness. Because Caesar’s means are effective, by Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers have been reduced to three courageous women.
         Now, when those women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they do so assuming that Caesar’s predictable realm still reigns. They expect things to follow an unwavering narrative. They will cover Jesus’ body with fragrant spices because everyone knows what unpleasant things happen to moldering organic matter. And according to long-standing tradition, embalming is women’s work.
Sealing tombs with large rocks is standard practice. And the rocks are really heavy. Gravity tends to be consistent that way. So, on their way, the women fret about who will help them move the stone away from Jesus’ tomb.
As they walk and talk, they may shed a few tears, but that’s no surprise, either. Death and grief are intrinsic to the orderly progression of things. Knowing this, Caesar sustains his ongoing crusade against Shalom by holding clouds of fear, pain, and grief over his subjects.
When the women, who don’t expect anything out of the ordinary, reach the tomb, they have an encounter that is as extraordinary as it is brief. They discover that the stone has been moved. Some guy wearing a white robe says that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells them that they’ll find Jesus in Galilee.
The women run away, too terrified to speak to anyone.
Most scholars consider the women’s speechless retreat from the tomb as the original ending of Mark. In all likelihood, verses 9-20 were added years after Mark finished his manuscript. But isn’t “For they were afraid” a rather unsatisfying ending?
As I sat with this story last week, it occurred to me that Mark’s abrupt ending only begins to make sense if we tie it back in with the beginning of Mark’s gospel. The opening lines of Mark are a sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
To me, those words feel laden with mystery, with breathless surprise, like someone saying to himself or herself, Wait. What just happened? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those are the words inspired by the events of Easter. And they return us exactly where the young man dressed in white says to go.
“In those days,” says Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Mark’s ending deliberately returns us to the beginning of the story. And isn’t that what resurrection is all about – new beginnings and new life? An empty tomb proves nothing. It takes a full and fully human life to bear witness to the risen Jesus. Following him is all about returning to his extraordinary story, telling and entering it over and over again. We’re not called to try to prove the resurrection. We can’t do that. We’re called to live in the realm of resurrection, the realm of paradox and mystery – the very place that Caesar doesn’t want us to live, because he can’t control us there.
Easter people don’t try to gain access to pearly gates by regurgitating doctrinal passwords. We don’t chain ourselves to moral standards in order to avoid hell. Even Caesar welcomes that kind of religion, because it’s based on fear. Fear-based religion makes for submissive and violence-tolerant vassals.
Resurrection creates transformed and bold disciples – Easter people who follow Jesus in losing our lives, over and over, as we become more fully Christlike – and by that I mean more fully human, truer to the image of God within us. Easter people choose to live lives of paradox, fearlessly investing ourselves in Jesus’ justice, compassion, and forgiveness even when surrounded by meanness, self-indulgence, and retribution.
Easter people also confess that when Jesus’ radical ways seem too demanding or absurd we often run away, terrified and speechless. But Jesus always welcomes us back, and not because we’ve groveled in guilt and promised to be good. He welcomes us back because God is good.
         I want to close this sermon with words written by Wendell Berry. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I hope that you will hear in it a description of, and a call to resurrection life, the life of paradox and radical newness:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Practice resurrection.

1Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. Pp 151-152.

Easter Fullness (Sermon: Easter Sunrise-2018)

“Easter Fullness”
John 20:1-18
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunrise

John 20:1-10
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes. (NRSV)

In his version of Easter morning, John places Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the mysterious disciple “whom Jesus loved” at the tomb. Arriving first, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus’ grave has been disturbed and that his body has been removed. Distressed over what she logically assumes is a case of grave robbery, Mary runs to Peter and the other disciple to tell them that “they” have moved Jesus’s body. In John, “they” refers to the leaders of the Jews.
         The two men run to the tomb. They enter and discover that Mary’s story is no idle tale. But the sight terrifies them. They fear that the Jewish leaders will come for them next, so they hurry home, and by the end of the day, all the disciples are locked inside one house.
         What if those ten verses were the end of John’s resurrection witness? To me, that terribly unsatisfying ending would accurately describe the life offered by a resurrection theology based on nothing but an empty tomb. If we base our faith on an empty tomb alone, we’ll huddle together in locked sanctuaries, our individual and corporate lives a tangle of bewilderment, distress, and selfish fear. Empty-tomb theology is a theology of absence. There’s nothing gospel about it.
         As the Church, we’re not called to explain resurrection any more than the gospel writers do. None of them even try to guess what happened in the tomb before the women arrive. They simply describe the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus. They set the example for proclaiming a living and present Christ, not an empty tomb.
         It seems to me, though, that one problem for the Church has been that an empty tomb is easier and safer to deal with. A life defined by absence and scarcity is a lot less demanding than a life of resurrection fullness. Empty-tomb theology allows for a kind of divisive certainty that’s foreign to true spirituality. Empty-tomb theology pits us against each other. And it fits on bumper stickers that say things like, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Thanks be to God, resurrection isn’t about an empty tomb. Resurrection is about the fullness of God’s ongoing self-revelation in and for the creation. And Easter invites us into that revelation.

John 20:11-18
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)

When consumed by absence, Mary’s eyes and heart are hollow and dark. And no one – least of all you and I – can blame her. Her last memory of Jesus was of his execution on a Roman cross. And it’s safe to assume that she knows all-too-well what dead looks like, and that it’s usually a permanent condition.
One way to understand grief is to see it as love that has lost its object. After a significant loss, that love must find a new purpose, and we a new identity. Grief also hurts because we’ve lost someone who loved us. That person knew us through-and-through, and still cherished, trusted, and forgave us. They made life a more joyful and holy experience.
Think about who that someone might be for you, that person who has died, or whose death would cause you the kind of grief that Mary Magdalene is feeling in the garden. Memories may be a source of happiness, but nothing can replace his or her presence. Nothing can substitute for hearing your name in that person’s voice.
“Mary!” says Jesus.
Mary doesn’t ask for an explanation. Nor does she question herself. When she hears her name in that beloved voice, the heavens open, and she recognizes Jesus.
“Rabbouni!” she says.
Don’t touch me, says Jesus. I’m here, but not like I used to be. I’m different. And while a lot is going to look, feel, and sound the same, everything is different now, even you. In time you’ll begin to understand. Now, go, and tell the others that there’s more to come.
Easter happens in the midst of grief, loss, and fear, but it moves beyond them. And Easter doesn’t come with noise and flashing lights. Easter creeps up on us in the speaking of our names, in the reminders that we are known and loved more fully than we can imagine.
Easter doesn’t have to come to us from beyond the grave, either. Because our theological tradition considers the Kingdom of God a here-and-now reality, we can gratefully acknowledge how God continually Easters us through people we can see and touch.
My dad has occupied a lot of my time and energy over the last few years. And I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of him since his death two weeks ago. But Dad figured intimately if not physically in what I consider an Easter moment that happened almost twenty-four years ago.
As I’ve shared with you before, my sister got me interested in working with dreams. And one of the central faith claims of dreamwork is that dreams are gifts from God. They’re holy utterances of love, affirmation, and healing.
It was August of 1994. I was about to complete my supervised ministry at Timberridge Presbyterian Church in McDonough, GA. It had been a great summer, a confirming experience. I had preached and visited. I took trips with the youth. I’d been challenged and mentored by a wonderful supervising pastor named Tom Bagley. And I’d been embraced by a loving and very patient congregation.
Then, one night, in the depths of sleep, the image of my dad appears. In the dream, Dad doesn’t speak. All he does is smile and hand me a stole, the symbol of a pastor being yoked to Christ, yoked to his or her vocation.
Dad was Thomas Allen Huff, Sr. He, along with my mom, gave me not only life, but my name, Allen. God used Dad, the one for whom I am named, to affirm my given name and my baptismal name.
Allen, said God, I have chosen you to join those who recognize the presence of Jesus in the world, and the need for his love, justice, and peace. Go and tell Easter stories. Go, and tell people that there’s more to come.
Even today, when I feel weary, when I feel disconnected from all that once felt holy and beautiful, when I feel like nothing more than an empty tomb, that dream wriggles into my consciousness. It speaks my name, and it renews me.
Easter is about God’s naming and calling fullness. And perhaps we feel it most powerfully when we share it, when we stand with and speak the names of those who grieve, who hurt, who hunger, and who continue to work for justice in a world enslaved to the empty tombs of violence and greed.
This day and all days, may you hear your name spoken in some new way, some way that reminds you of your holiness and of your Beloved-ness of God.
May you see it in others, and with the voice of Christ, may you name it for them.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It's Not the Splash - It's the Ripples (Sermon)

“It’s Not the Splash – It’s the Ripples”
Luke 19:29-40  
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

29When [Jesus] had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34They said, “The Lord needs it.
35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road
37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (NRSV)

         The liturgical observance of Palm Sunday includes leafy branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” In Jesus’ day that word and those branches were reserved for momentous, big splash occasions like national celebrations and ticker-tape parades. And we do tend to imagine Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem as a magnificent splash, don’t we?
         Luke, the gospel to the poor and marginalized, presents a more understated account. He doesn’t even mention the nationalistic symbol of leafy branches, only cloaks laid on the roadway. Luke does say that Jesus’ disciples – a small band of powerless misfits – shout Hosanna, a word used to welcome conquering heroes. And their hero arrives not on a great steed, but astride an unbroken colt whose value seems suspect because its owners barely blink an eye when a couple of strangers borrow it without permission.
         Because the scene lacks spectacle and sensationalism, reporters would have chosen to cover the public execution of those two thieves who stole something of greater value than some scrawny colt. Watching two men nailed to crosses writhing in pain – now that’s entertainment! Forget the veracity of the news and the reporters’ lack of objectivity, nothing sells ad copy like nationalism draped in fear and vengeance.
         In Luke, God’s arrivals tend to be quiet gurgles rather than eye-popping splashes. Remember, the birth of Jesus is a lonely whisper through the bare branches of winter. Sure, some shepherds describe a heavenly host of angels, but who knows what they really saw? And who trusts shepherds, anyway? According to Luke, then, the king trotting into Jerusalem was born to parents who were shown all the hospitality offered to your average barnyard animal.
         Our contemporary culture is addicted to big splashes. Believers and non-believers alike expect experiences of God to be sensational and overwhelming, because only then can they be convincing and real.
I hear Luke saying, No, the story’s not about some triumphalistic splash. It’s about the things that happen out of sight. It’s about the mystery at work in the deep darkness just before the dawn a few days later. It’s about bread broken and eyes opened. It’s about things we would no more expect than we would expect rocks to start talking.
         Written years after the first Easter, the gospels aren’t great splashes. They’re ripples. That’s why Luke doesn’t end his story with the resurrection of Jesus but continues on with the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. I think Luke wants us to see that the arrival of Jesus doesn’t end with his birth, his entry into Jerusalem, or even with his resurrection. The arrival of God in Jesus Christ continues. Luke wants us to watch, and to feel, the ripples continuing to spread from generation to generation.
How many of you experienced parents cringed when your children begged for some kind of pet? If you did, you might have done so because you suspected that all your kids had in mind was the splash – that momentary newness that wears off as soon as your kids realize that the dog, or cat, or hamster must be cared for day after day. But you wise parents probably went ahead and got the critter because you knew that it wasn’t about the splash. It’s about the rippling lessons of relationship with and responsibility for something other than one’s own self.
         You and I are ripples from the splash that began in the beginning when the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Yes, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, but even this enfleshed Word is part of the ripples God set in motion long before.
         As Jesus’ colt descends the Mount of Olives and clip-clops into the City of David, a cluster of disciples feels those ripples spreading into their hearts. They, in turn, send ripples into the air with their shouts of Hosanna! They send ripples into the earth by spreading their cloaks on the ground. These ripples lap against the stony shores of Pharisee hearts, and they can’t handle it.
         “Rabbi!” they say. “Calm your people down!”
         Too late! says Jesus. They’re just ripples from the God-splash that happened billions of years ago. Even these ancient rocks are ripples, he says, and you can’t shut them up.
         Where are the places that holiness laps against the shores of your heart?
Where are you being shown the rippling presence of Jesus in your life and the lives of those around you?
While some of those revelations may arrive as breath-taking events, they’re probably fairly subtle things, instances that occur in the nooks and crannies of your life. You may know them as ripples of eternity because they don’t happen for your sake alone. And they’re much more than some beautiful sunrise or bird’s nest. They’re the teasing little moments that push the ripples of love and compassion outward from you and into and for the world.
It seems to me that learning to relinquish our lust for the big splash helps us to experience the transforming blessings of the ripples.
         Big-splash conversions are badges of honor in evangelical circles. And I’ve become skeptical of the way dramatic, individual experiences are used. They tend to become standards for authenticity. Years ago, I heard a young missionary say, “We’re out there trying to get people saved.” The young man had splashed his way out of addiction, and I celebrate that with him. But his personal experience imposed a no splash/no salvation dogma on his target audience.
         I don’t recall a splash. And I’m convinced that faith doesn’t begin when we say “yes” to Jesus. That’s just one moment in God’s ongoing work in the Creation. Our faith is about participating in the ripples of yeses that continue throughout our lives. It’s about the forgiveness we give and receive, the cups of cold water we offer to those in need, the visits we make to those who are lonely, the prayers we pray with those who suffer. It’s on such down-to-earth colts that Jesus steals into our hearts and rides through our lives and into the world.
         In early January many folks find themselves depressed after having put so much into the Christmas splash. But Christmas is about the ripples. It’s about the day-to-day reality of Jesus’ life. The same is true for Easter. While we make special plans for that day, our celebrations remind us that we are ripples of resurrection. We are called to the steady work of walking from Capernaum to Jerusalem to Emmaus, from Damascus, to Rome, to Wittenburg, from Sudan, to Selma, to Parkland. And we’re called to remain grateful, generous, and hopeful through it all.
Enjoy the splashes when and where you can. But may your lives be ceaseless ripples of love, fresh reminders of the constantly and gently arriving presence of God’s Word made flesh.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Ladder (Story Sermon)

“The Ladder”
John 3:1-17
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         My name is Nicodemus. I’ve been a leader of the Jews for many years. And just weeks ago I would have told you how confident I was of myself, and of my mastery of the law. I would have told you that in knowing the law, I knew the heart and mind of God.
         Part of me still aches for that sense of clarity, for that certainty. But things have changed. Where my vision once seemed clear, it’s now blurred. Where my feet once felt like they stood on broad and solid ground, they now step tentatively, as if crossing some high, narrow bridge through thick fog.
         Things really turned when I snuck out one night to speak with that young rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth. He’s an odd man, disturbing and compelling at the same time.
         My brothers on the Sanhedrin think little of him, as did I at first. But the reports of things he said and did fascinated me. I was curious. He wasn’t of high birth or formal education, but if what people were saying were true, where did Jesus get his authority if not from God?
         I spoke to Caiaphas about Jesus, and the chief priest did not receive my questions with patience.
“Have you forgotten his sacrilege in the temple?” he said.
Then he sneered saying, “We’ve seen his kind before. He won’t last long.”
         I let it drop, but the curiosity kept stirring inside me.
One night, I was unable to sleep. And like my mind, my feet wouldn’t stay still. So, I found myself sneaking through the streets of Jerusalem toward the house where Jesus was staying.
Pitiful. Me, a leader of the Jews, creeping like some cockroach through the inky shadows of that new-moon night.
         When I reached the house, I knocked so gently I knew that part of me didn’t want the door to open. But in a moment, it creaked on its hinges. It was one of Jesus’ disciples. That bunch of vagabonds. You know, Jesus may have lost his temper in the temple, but many consider his choice of followers his greatest weakness.
The one called Peter answered my knock. It was midnight, but if the sun had been shining behind him, it would have been no less dark in the huge man’s shadow. A fisherman, patient and strong, Peter must have been watching over the others, waiting to catch someone like me in some act of mischief against Jesus.
“Who are you,” he said in a threatening voice.
         “My name is Nicodemus. I’m a priest. If possible, I would like to speak with the Nazarene.”
         Peter eyed me with suspicion. Then a quiet voice from above said, “Peter, let him in.”
The disciple opened the door and stood aside. He led me to a wooden ladder against the back wall. It led to an opening in the roof.
“Up there,” he said. Then he caught me by the arm. “Count the rungs,” he said, “and step over the sixth one. It’s coming loose.”
         I thanked him and eased onto the ladder. It groaned and flexed beneath my feet.
         Jesus sat across the rooftop on front edge of the house. He was staring into the sky as if the stars themselves were some still and small-voiced text he was reading.
He motioned for me to come and sit beside him. As I shuffled across the timbers of the roof, I thought of Adam, reaching out with dreadful curiosity when tempted with forbidden fruit.
“So,” he said. “What brings you here?”
         “Rabbi,” I said, “we know you’re a teacher sent by God. Who else could do what you do without God’s help?”
         Returning his gaze to the sky, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Nicodemus. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.”
         Born anew? I wondered. Born anew?
“Jesus, I heard you turned water into wine, but how can anyone be born a second time?”
          “I’m talking about a different kind of birth,” he said. “I’m talking about a spiritual birth, a birth from above.
“Right now, Nicodemus, you can’t see beyond the worldly realm. It’s not your fault, but over the years, the leaders of our faith have reduced God’s Torah to a scoresheet. You’re missing the fundamental blessing – the blessing of holy community through which people come to know and love God.
         “The physical world is good, Nicodemus. It’s a great gift from God. Indeed, the creation is a revelation of God. As such, everything around us, including each other, is an invitation – an invitation into the deeper world of relationship with all that is seen and unseen. That’s the world of Spirit and truth.
“Don’t look so surprised, Nicodemus. You have the stories of the Exodus and the prophets. You have the poetry of the psalmists. You have all you need to hear everything I’m saying.
“Like the wind, you hear it, but you don’t know exactly where it comes from or where it’s going, do you? It’s the same way with everyone who is Spirit-born, everyone who walks in the flesh while living in the Spirit.”
         “Rabbi, I…I’m not following you.”
         Jesus looked at me with those deep, night-sky eyes. “Nicodemus,” he said, “bless your heart. You’re a teacher of Israel. You’ve memorized so much, but you understand and feel so little.”
         At that point Jesus began to speak some more, but he didn’t seem to speak just to me. He spoke inward, to himself. Or maybe he spoke outward, to God, or to the stars, or to ages yet to come. He said something about believing earthly things and heavenly things. Something about how no one had ascended into and descended from heaven but the Son of Man.
         Then he talked about God’s love for the whole world. He mentioned an only Son, sent by God, and how that Son connected everyone with God in such a way that he brought us into God’s presence and light. He said that the Son’s purpose wasn’t to keep score or to punish, but to redeem. In all of this he made no mention of laws or sacrifice. Only love.
“Jesus, what you’re talking about,” I said, “sounds like a love that lives beyond the law. Is there even a word for that?”
Jesus let a silence as deep as the heavens fall around us. He didn’t answer, and when it was clear he wasn’t going to, I got up. Frustrated and confused, I made my way back to the ladder. When I set my foot on the top rung, it dawned on me: I had counted six rungs on the way up, but I hadn’t counted beyond that. So going down, which was the bad one? I had no idea. I leaned into the ladder and held tight to the upper rungs as I made my way down. I expected, at any moment, to feel that weak rung give way and send me crashing into the pile of snoring roughnecks below.
         When my foot touched solid ground, I turned and found myself face to face with Peter.
         “You okay?” he said. I think I heard a grin in his voice.
         “Yes,” I said. “Did you fix the ladder while I was up there?”
         Peter shook his shaggy head. “No. Did you trust me when I told you to avoid the sixth rung?”
“Of course, I did.”
         “But you didn’t count above it, did you?” 
         “No, I didn’t.”
         “So, coming down became a kind of step-by-step leap of faith.”
         “I suppose so,” I said.
         “‘No one,” said Peter, “has ascended into heaven but the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.’”
          So, he had listened to our conversation.
“Nicodemus,” he said, “here’s what we’re learning from Jesus: He is the Son of Man. He is God’s Son. And I’ve decided that he’s kind of like this ladder.
         “You doubted the ladder when you went up because someone told you it wasn’t safe, but you had feel your way down. And the ladder held. It will always hold, Nicodemus. It will always take you to the roof where you can stand beneath the endless heavens, where you can feel the renewing peace of awe and humility. And it will always deliver you back to earth.”
         It seemed that I had misjudged this fisherman.
Peter stamped his foot on the dirt floor of the house “Nicodemus, this earth, right here, right now, this is where the Son of Man and all who follow him live their Spirit-born lives.”
Just then, a breeze rattled the shutters on the front of the house. In the cedar outside, a warbler began to sing. Down the street a dog barked. I wanted to stay and hear more, but dawn was about to break, and I could not be seen leaving that house.
“I should go,” I said.
“I understand,” said Peter. “But listen, Nicodemus, everyone in authority is saying that Jesus isn’t safe. And while there’s a certain truth to that, he is faithful. He’s true and good. He can be trusted.”
         I thanked Peter, and he opened the door for me. The moment I stepped into the street, someone whispered my name.
Terrified that I’d been caught, I looked around.
“Up here,” said the voice.
I looked up and saw Jesus peering from the roof.
“There is a word for it,” he said, “a word for love beyond all law.
“The word is grace.”