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.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

To the Boats! (Sermon)

“To the Boats!”
Mark 4:35-41
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

In Mark 4, Jesus has been teaching in parables – those wonderful stories that illustrate timeless and transforming truths about who God is and who we are as God’s creatures. Then, Jesus says, “To the boats! We’re going to the other side.”
Now, that should make the disciples wary. In biblical stories, when people cross a bodies of water things tend to get interesting. But at Jesus’ word, the disciples pile in like a bunch of lemmings. Before long, they’re not hearing another parable. They’re living one. A powerful storm sweeps in. It reaches its foamy fingers over the sides of the boat and tries to swallow them whole. Jesus, however, is curled up in the back, asleep.
Teacher! cry the disciples. Wake up, and help us! We’re dying here! Or don’t you even care?
         Don’t you even care? I imagine that, in one way or another, most of us have asked God that uncomfortable question. Most of us have felt the cold, wet hands of fear pounding against our boats, threatening to take us under. We look for signs of that loving, powerful, ever-present God that preachers and Sunday School teachers talk about, and if we find Jesus at all, he’s sawing logs in the back of the boat. If we do find him, we probably don’t want to hear him ask, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Last week we talked about trust as indispensable not only to faith, but also to Love. Trust allows us to embrace life’s challenges, and to let go of the fear that keeps us bogged down in comfortable sameness, in selfish judgment of others, and in Love-choking apathy toward suffering.
The disciples face something a bit more immediate, though. Their fears aren’t tied to anything abstract, but to the powerful forces of nature trying to kill them! In their situation, letting go may seem like denial or giving up. And we can understand that. Whether we’re talking about one particular storm, like last night, or hurricane season, or climate change, or famine, or terrorism, or nuclear saber-rattling, or anything else, we have more than enough madness to make us want to keep paddles in hand, bailing buckets at the ready, and swimmies on both arms.
When the storms are bigger than our boat, we can’t just shut our eyes and let go of all that worries us. But today’s story suggests that Jesus does exactly that. He lets go, and even finds rest in the midst of the storm. That suggests to me that a truly Christlike faith has nothing to do with escaping the storms. Instead, faith is the art of Christlike letting go and finding rest even in the midst of them. Resting in the midst of a storm means entering the present turmoil as the pathway to a peace that can be experienced in no other way than by navigating that urgent reality.
Remember the psalmist’s testimony: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?…Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear…I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living…be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Selected from Psalm 27)
Remember Paul’s teaching: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For…We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Selected from Romans 8)
         Between Genesis and Revelation, the phrase “Fear not” appears, in one form or another, 365 times – once for every day of the year.
Throughout scripture, God’s Spirit is saying to us, “Peace! Be still!”
All too often, God gets disfigured by testimonies portraying God as a Santa Claus who exists to grant happiness to good people. Faithful living has nothing to do with avoiding the reality of brokenness and outright chaos in the world. No, I think Jesus sends us into the world’s raging brokenness and capsizing chaos. And he doesn’t send us as warriors armed for violent conquest over enemies and evil. Jesus sends us out as witnesses who are trying to learn the art of loving and trusting God’s peace-crafting, stillness-breathing holiness, even in the midst of the storms.
If I went around and asked each of you who has made the greatest difference in your life of faith, many of you would tell stories of people who entered some storm and helped you to find peace in the midst of it; and that peace helped you find passage through it. That’s why we invite people actually to get involved with Family Promise guests, and with the recipients of food at JAMA and Loaves and Fishes. That’s why ASP asked us to make lunches for the families we helped, and to eat with them. That’s why we do youth ministry. We hire someone to jump in the storm-tossed boat of adolescence with the kids we love and on whom we depend.
The final verse of this story quietly proclaims Resurrection. After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples are “filled with great awe.”
“‘Who is this,’ they ask, ‘that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
As the body of Christ, do we inspire awe?
I consider Shane Claiborne a modern-day prophet. He makes a meager but extraordinary living in inner-city Philadelphia by jumping into all kinds of boats rocked with grief and fear. In 2009, the very secular Esquire magazine asked Shane to write a letter to “those who don’t believe.”1 He opens his letter with a parable about walking through downtown Philly with some out-of-town friends. They watched “street performers, artists, [and] musicians.” Next to a magician doing some “pretty sweet tricks,” says Claiborne, “a preacher…[was] yelling into a microphone.” Next to him lay “a coffin with a fake dead body inside.” The preacher’s message: Believe in Jesus or go to hell.
“He wasn’t as captivating as the magician,” says Shane, who wanted to “jump up on a box beside [the preacher] and yell…‘God is not a monster.’”
“The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus,” says Shane Claiborne, “the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.” He laments the Church’s increasingly un-fascinating presence in the world. “We have given [non-believers] less and less to disbelieve,” he says.
I have to agree. How fascinated and fascinating are we? We proclaim Incarnation and Resurrection, for God’s sake! What kind of awe do we really feel and inspire? The disciples who make the greatest difference are those who are truly stirred, awakened, and maybe even surprised by their own fearless actions on behalf of others. And it seems to me that such “fascinating” witness almost never occurs without genuinely trusting God in the midst of some storm, some new adventure, or some immediate new need. And that means letting go. It means being present with and for the people and the creation around us. And while that means trusting outcomes to God, it also means working toward outcomes that are consistent with the Jesus of scripture – that revolutionary, restful, fascinating, incarnation of divine Love, without whom we are nothing, without whom we have decent, orderly, respectable, and lifeless churches.
Let’s be one of the many hands that Jesus, God Incarnate, waves over the world’s suffering in redeeming Love. In the process, we may find redemption in the midst of our own chaos.
Clouds are gathering.
Things are getting interesting.
Let’s go to the boats!

1This and all following quotations come from:

Sunday, May 21, 2017

From Belief to Trust (Sermon)

“From Belief to Trust”
John 14:1-14
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         When our kids were little, more often than not, a family outing consisted of a trip to the woods. When we lived in Statesboro, GA, that usually meant going to the farm, where we’d walk along the edges of sandy fields or down to the gas line on a road that, at the time, was a shady tunnel of tall pine trees and of live oaks with Spanish moss hanging from the branches like the corpses of ghosts.
         When we lived in Atlanta, that often meant a trip out to that magnificent granite dome called Stone Mountain. In Mebane, we enjoyed the Eno River State Park near Durham where we hiked, fished for blue gill, and watched water snakes sunning on warm rocks. Or we just walked down the dirt road across from the church and wandered through the pastures and woods of the Stanfield farm.
         On these outings, Ben and I had a running game we’d play. It wasn’t an organized activity. It was more of a game of opportunity. When Ben climbed on a fence, a tall stump, a rock, or a fallen tree trunk, I would stand below him and hold out my arms. Without hesitation, he would throw his arms forward like Superman and leap into the air. He laid himself out flat, vulnerable to whatever sticks, rocks, poison ivy, or hard ground lay below. The pure joy for me in this was that I knew that Ben knew that I knew that he was going to trust me, and that I was going to prove trustworthy. And the next time he climbed on something, we’d do it again.
Our game allowed the son to sail, however briefly, through the air and to feel his body’s lightness in freefall. It was a chance to see his father smile and to trust his father’s strength. It allowed the father to demonstrate his playful yet serious love for his son, and to feel that almost perfect delight of being trusted by his child. Such a game had natural limits. Ben eventually got too big for me to catch him. While I know Ben remembers taking those leaps, I’m not sure what, if anything, it still means to him. To me, though, each leap and catch became a 2x4 in a load-bearing wall in the structure of our always-under-construction relationship.
“Believe in God,” says Jesus; “believe also in me.” Believe. Believing has its place in the life of faith. Believing involves a conscious choice for an individual to acknowledge God as a reality, even if a thoroughly mysterious one. But any human decisions we make about God are neither the origin nor the fulfillment of faith. This is what makes a relationship with God and relationships with other human beings so different.
Ben and Elizabeth believed in me because I was right there doing all the normal things that parents do. They could see, hear, and touch me. I could make them feel happy, or angry, or hurt, or embarrassed. (Given the right circumstances, that last one could be a lot of fun!) Using the same criteria, however, they also believed in rocks and pine trees, water snakes and blue gills. In all of those things, seeing was believing. The only choice to make was whether and how to interact with them.
The disciples struggled with this very choice. Immediately before the section of John we read today, the always impetuous Peter declares his absolute loyalty to Jesus saying, “I will lay down my life for you.” But when the cock crows, Peter discovers, to his heartbreaking shame, that all he really believes in is what he sees before him. At that moment, Peter still lacks a larger and vastly more important aspect of faith.
Just before Peter’s empty declaration of loyalty, Jesus says that the thing he really wants from his disciples is for them to love him by loving each other. And that requires more than belief. It requires trust. Trust is that larger and more important thing, because without trust, real Love, particularly agape Love, well, it just doesn’t exist.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. Trust is the path to the way. Trust is the steadfastness of the truth. Trust is the very breath of the life. The ancient Hebrews called it batach, and we see it embodied in Abraham, Moses, Hannah, and the prophets. In the east it’s called, among other things, saddahati, and it describes the daring faith that allows one to leap into relationships of transparent and vulnerable mutuality.1 May Native American traditions speak of The Great Spirit from whom all things come, to whom all things go, and in which all things exist. In Celtic Christianity it’s called the Cosmic Christ, the Christ who was “in the beginning with God,” the Christ through whom “all things came into being,” the Christ who was, and is, and always will be one with God – the God who, says First John, “is Love.”
Through its first two millennia, the Church has often used Jesus’ way, truth, and life statement to try to shackle God to exclusively Christian perceptions and opinions. And while I don’t think that we can claim to be the only ones to see that which we call the Christ, I do think that we can claim, with confident yet humble gratitude, that, in Jesus, we do experience the Son whose entire life, death, and rising again consist of one great leap after another into the Father’s arms. As Christians, we discover the way, the truth, and the life by trusting and following Jesus, the one who embodies world-transforming Love.
Just as the Father calls Abram to go, Moses to lead, Hannah to surrender her child, and David to repent, the Son calls Peter, and all of us, to trust. He calls us to the disciplined practice of leaping into the unknown, knowing that no matter what happens, through our experiences of trust, God is declaring God’s presence to us.
Our leaping trust stirs the rich compost of our lives and creates opportunities for us to witness to God’s presence and faithfulness by living in greater dependence on God’s Love, compassion, and justice in and for the world.
These are the “greater works” to which Jesus refers.
This is the promise of an incarnational faith.
Believe it or not, but trust it with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Purple Bubblegum House (Sermon)

“The Purple Bubblegum House
John 2:13-22
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         With your indulgence, I’d like to take you on a trip to LA this morning. And by LA I mean Lower Alabama, which is, for better and worse, everything Los Angeles is not.
Every three years, since the late 1940’s, on the weekend nearest July 4th, the Salter/Lawson clan has held a reunion. My mother’s mother was a Salter, and this is her extended family – so extended, in fact, that like Jeff Foxworthy’s old redneck joke, it would actually be a fine place to look for a date.
         The reunion takes place in a community called Josie, Alabama. If you need help placing it, Josie is on US Highway 29 just south of Perote, not far from Blues Old Stand and Smut Eye. There’s a crossroads at Josie. Well, crossroads is a little generous, but a county road does turn east off the highway right there.
Josie got its name from my great-grandmother, Josie Lawson. Back in the early 1880’s, folks in that community decided to give their little corner of the world a name. They took suggestions and put them in a hat.  Josie had just been born, so her parents threw in their new daughter’s name. And by the luck of the draw, literally, the people named their community Josie.
About a tenth of a mile north of the crossroads, on the east side of the highway, and maybe 20 feet off the blacktop, stands the now-uninhabitable shell of the old Salter house. During reunions, the Salter clan used to gather in that house. Now we just gather around it in the shade of the oak trees, while the Lawsons gather across the road under a tall pole barn where everyone comes together to eat.
My grandmother, one of twelve children, was born in the Salter house 115 years ago. Beneath the ugly, scalloped siding lies the original heart-pine clapboard, but no one under 80 has ever seen it.
         When built, the house had three large bedrooms coming off of the wide hallway down the middle. During the reunion, sacred artifacts were brought out and laid with care on the beds. They included clothing and jewelry worn by the Salters. There were yellowed letters and faded pictures. There was even a gnarled, wooden cane which, family legend holds, was used by a great-great-grandfather when he walked back to Pike County, AL after being wounded in the Battle of Atlanta.
         Just off the left side of the front porch, next to the door was an addition. Built around 1910, it was, and is, still called the “new room.” Three or four reunions ago, Marianne and I stayed in the new room, and I almost fell through a rotting floorboard and into the heaven-knows-what of a crawl space below.
On the back of the house was the spacious kitchen. Being places of gathering and nurturing, kitchens used to share holy-of-holies status with the front porch. During reunions, the kitchen and the front porch were still the most-used areas of the house.
         If you took the path down the hill behind the house, and followed the rich aroma of moisture and earthy rot, in about 50 yards you’d find the natural spring from which the Salter’s drew their drinking, cooking, and bathing water before deep wells and plumbing came along. The last time I was there, the spring was still running.
         At one reunion back in the late 1960’s, my sister, Laura, and I found a glass jar on a kitchen counter. In the jar were little purple balls of bubblegum, individually wrapped in crinkly cellophane. For some reason, happening upon that purple bubblegum became a defining event.
         That house has stood in that place for over 100 years. Ernest Salter, my great-grandfather, was a country doctor. He lived in and worked out of that house, caring for people in the surrounding counties. Not long after the birth of Edwin, child #12, Josie died of cancer in that house. On numerous occasions after Ernest’s death, members of the family stayed there while in some sort of transition, especially after World War II. The Salter house has been a home, a way station, a refuge, and a place to gather and remember. But time has a way of creating distance, even if you’re not all that far away.
When my mother was a child in Montgomery, about an hour up the road, her mother called every trip to Josie “going down home.” Descendants who had moved to southwest Georgia called it the “Alabama Home.” Illinois and Michigan relatives called it the “Josie Home.” When I was young, a trip to Josie was called “going to the country.” Since the discovery my sister and I made nearly 50 years ago, our family has called it “The Purple Bubblegum House.” Do you feel the progression of distance?
While I always loved going to the Salter house, and in spite of having deep and identifying roots there, it was never my home. When I arrived, I expected someone to have gotten it ready. When I left, I straightened up anything I put out of place, but I left the real cleanup and maintenance to others. During reunions, I sat in the shade of oak trees and nostalgia, but not in the light of immediate belonging to and personal responsibility for that place.
         The temple is Israel’s old home place. Through the temple, Yahweh lived with the people and the people lived with Yahweh. By Jesus’ day, distance has taken a toll. And while it wasn’t any one person’s fault, that which had been built as a place for worship has become an object of worship. Its rich, spiritual traditions have dimmed into mere religion. Israel’s old home place is disappearing beneath the kudzu of self-serving piety. Its priests and prophets and have become administrators of a large, wealthy, and powerful business. Like the Purple Bubblegum House, it’s a well-visited, but rather un-lived-in relic.
         When Jesus enters the temple, the Jews are preparing for a reunion of sorts. They’re preparing for Passover, the ritualized remembrance of the formative experience of Exodus. And Jesus doesn’t just enter the temple; he makes an entrance. Grabbing a handful of ropes and slinging them around like a whip, he drives moneychangers and livestock salesmen out of the temple the way he drives demons out of people.
         Over the centuries, the intensity of Jesus’ reaction has caused lots of embarrassment and equivocation. It’s also been used to justify all manner of un-Christlike violence.
Well, I started wondering: Could Jesus’ disruptive zeal be an intentional reenactment of Passover? Could he be re-membering more than just the preparations to leave Egypt? Could he be trying to remind the Jewish people that just as they fled the enslaving whip of Pharaoh, now they must flee the enslaving whip of a religion that has become an institution that exists for its own sake? Is this the beginning of a new Passover and a new Exodus? A new journey of discovery with Jesus, the new Moses, saying, Let my people go! Let this deathliness die and new life arise!
         Facing changes and challenges of our own, we can understand why the temple leaders opposed Jesus with such panicked fury. He is threatening everything that has become sacred, dependable, and comfortable to them. So, said Fred Craddock, “in the throes of death, and in a move toward self-preservation, the temple keepers…destroy the One in whom God and humankind meet.”1
         For eons, human beings have been manipulating, intimidating, and even killing in order to control and maintain beloved institutions. The Church participates in that carnage, and sometimes, that so discourages me that I want to hang this robe on a hook and walk away for good.
But where would I go? Josie, Alabama? I don’t live there. I don’t live in Shelby, or Mebane, or Statesboro, or Augusta, either. For now, I live in Jonesborough – with you.
         As the Church and a church, we are Christ’s body, a place of transforming worship, fellowship, and witness. When we forget that, we live as an aging and irrelevant institution in love with itself rather than with God. But when we clear this place of its forgetfulness, of its rigor mortis, when we really come alive here through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, this is a well-lived-in house – a mansion with many rooms, and porches, and shade trees, and well-springs, and memories, and a big kitchen where we all eat together.
         Every Sunday can be a family reunion, and the more new and unfamiliar faces there are, the more like God’s family we look.
Whether you have come here all your life, or whether you are here for the first time today, Welcome Home!

1Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Craddock, et al. 1993, Trinity Press International. Pg. 155.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Gate (Sermon)

“The Gate”
John 10:1-10
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         When our Sunday school class discussed this passage two weeks ago, one member of the group enlightened all of us on first-century sheepfolds. He told us that, as the name implies, a sheepfold is an enclosed space in which sheep are kept, usually overnight when predators prowl the darkness. He also said that sheepfolds were essentially commons areas. So, my sheep would have been mixed in with your sheep, and all of them entrusted to the care of the shepherds on graveyard shift.
         Now, sheep aren’t known for being particularly smart animals, but they apparently have the capacity to distinguish voices, and to trust that one familiar voice when it speaks. So, in the morning, my flock would follow me, and your flock would follow you as we each lead our own sheep to green pastures and still waters.
         The gate, then, was more than a passageway to be opened, closed, and guarded. It was a gathering place – the place we congregated to lay our flock by for the night, and where we met again to call our flock out at the dawn of each new day. This reminds me of the last verse of Psalm 121: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
When Jesus calls himself the gate, he lays claim to that same welcoming and commissioning lordship. He is the gathering place where we are received, watched over, and sent back out.
It seems to me that one of the most consistent sins of the Church has been its willing, and often deliberate confusion regarding its place in the sheepfold. The Church has assumed for itself the role of the gate, rather than the witness to it. Now, by necessity, all human communities, including the Church, create statements of identity and purpose, as well as procedural guidelines. The Church’s blunder begins when it forgets that it’s a community of intentional and transformational witness to Mystery, to Incarnation and Resurrection.
It’s hard to be that kind of community, though. Religiously speaking, we’re not the only game in town. And it’s all-too-easy to adopt the exclusive ways and violent means of nations and other worldly institutions. In an effort to survive, we – and that’s a very broad, 2000-year-old we – have frequently gotten in bed with worldly power in order to protect and enhance our status. The medieval Roman Catholic Church got so politically powerful that it frequently bullied political leaders with the threat of excommunication. Make these policies, and issue these statements, said popes to emperors and kings, or we will condemn you to hell.
Now, fear does motivate, but it does not redeem. It doesn’t welcome, heal, and renew. Fear does not and cannot bear witness to Christ. But God knows the Church has tried to use fear as a tool for ministry.
Today we will celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. If we were Jonesborough Presbyterian Church 200 years ago, some of you would have little metal tokens in your pocket. And when it came time for communion, only those with tokens would be able to receive the sacrament. In the days prior to the sacrament, you see, the pastor would visit with each member who was eligible to take communion, and he would examine you. He would ask you questions about what you believe, and how you’ve been behaving since the last time you took communion. And if you didn’t pass muster, you didn’t get a token. You had to sit there, excluded and afraid, watching others more deserving than you partake in the reminder of God’s unconditional grace in and for the creation.
I am unspeakably grateful that my job does not include that kind of gatekeeping. I am not the gate. We are not the gate. Jesus is the gate. He is the place where we gather to be reminded that we are members of his own beloved fold. He calls us in. He surrounds us with himself. And he sends us out to live as witnesses to his gracious Love in and for the world.
No, the world is not a safe and comfortable place. There will always be threats and challenges to the well-being of all things under the sun. That being said, if there are “thieves and bandits” who warrant our vigilant attention, I think they are, first and foremost, those voices in our own midst that seek to limit grace, to guard the gate, and to make it a place to which one must earn access. Thieves and bandits seek to control rather than contribute. They seek to investigate rather than invite. They tear down and destroy by abusing and abandoning peacemakers, those who demonstrate poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity of heart, and who, in the face of violence and persecution, remain at the gate, that place of kindness and compassion.
Striving to enter the fold wielding power and peddling influence, thieves, bandits, and gatekeepers may, for a time, sustain a status quo that benefits a privileged few. Unlike the true gate, however, they are helpless to lead anyone to abundant life.
When I, as a minister of Word and Sacrament, stand at Christ’s table to speak the invitation, to pray the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and to recite the words of institution, I make it my mission to open this table to everyone. I don’t ask anyone to profess anything in particular or to act any certain way. Some may find that irresponsible, and I can appreciate that. A certain degree of understanding does help a person to engage meaningfully in the sacrament. But, remember, when Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, he institutes this sacrament. And he shares that most significant meal with people who do not understand him, men who will abandon him. He even dips bread into the dish with Judas, his betrayer. Jesus receives all of them at the table.
In place of the Passover meal, the Gospel of John includes the profoundly intimate scene of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. During that holy moment, Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7)
Through all things, Jesus trusts that his words and actions will, as God says through Isaiah, “not return to me empty, but…shall accomplish that which I purpose. (Isaiah 55:11)
As the gate, Jesus offers himself as the place to gather, to be welcomed, embraced, fed, nurtured. He offers himself as the one through whom we are sent out to live as those who have been healed of fear, judgment, ingratitude, and death in all its forms.
In return, Jesus asks of us both far less and far more than submission to well-argued dogmas and commitment to quantifiable behaviors. He asks us, for the sake of others, to trust his voice, to follow him, and to live the new and abundant life of holy Love.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Emptied into Fullness (May 2017 Newsletter)

         In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, comparative religions scholar Karen Armstrong says that Gandhi, by the end of his life, “claimed that he no longer hated anybody. He might have hated the oppressive system of British colonialism, but he could not hate the people who implemented it.
‘Mine is not an exclusive love,’” said Gandhi. “‘For…a love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.’”1
         Linger with that phrase: A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.
         Gandhi, a Hindu, lived what I would call a Gospel faith so much more faithfully than I have ever dared to live it. Embracing Jesus throws us into a paradox. He invites us to commit our entire being – heart, soul, mind, and strength – to the disciplines of agape Love. The paradox mystifies us when we realize that committing our whole selves to Love means emptying ourselves as completely as Jesus “emptied” and “humbled” himself (Philippians 2:7-8). To love as we are loved means both denying and claiming the fullness of our God-imaged humanity.
         This is extraordinarily difficult for us. Always rewarding competition over compassion, fear over gratitude, greed over generosity, and pride over humility, first-world cultures reduce faithfulness to a narrow set of broad loyalties. It comes across as a kind of God and country syndrome in which the regurgitation of certain dogmas and slogans are all one needs to give the appearance of devotion. That veneer allows the individual to claim entitlement to a degree of excess that robs the disadvantaged of their opportunity to thrive and the privileged of their deeper and truer humanity. The “Christian nation” of Great Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw nothing inconsistent with combining Jesus-speak and imperialism. That same social/religious paradigm leads many of us to confuse excess and well-being with God’s blessing and, therefore, poverty and hardship with God’s judgment. (Thus, a US congressman can dismiss the majority of those with pre-existing medical conditions as bad people.2)
         It seems to me that, Jesus, not to be undone by the frailties of his followers, often goes underground. He relentlessly seeks alternative ways and means of doing Love’s transforming work in the world. Now, I do trust that God always abides in and for the Church, and loves the creation in and through the Church. I also trust that God acts through any one or any institution who, at any given time, has the capacity for enduring the paradox of the fulfilling emptiness of grace. But oh, what a joy it is when the Church finds the grace to be truly faithful to Love!
Richard Rohr writes these words of assurance and summons: “The great thing about God’s love is that it’s not determined by the object. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.3
When following Jesus, we are not mercenaries. We are enfleshed expressions of the presence of God’s transforming and resurrecting Love in and for the world.
May we all be emptied into the fullness of that promise.

1Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010. Pp. 181-182.