Sunday, October 15, 2017

And He Was Speechless (Sermon)

“And He Was Speechless”
Matthew 22:1-14
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t like Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the wedding banquet. I much prefer Luke’s kinder, gentler version. So, before reading the story, we’re going to spend some time understanding the context. Let’s back up to the middle of chapter 21.
         In Matthew 21:12-17 Jesus drives the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. Holding the temple leaders responsible for the spiritual and ecclesiastical defilement of Israel, we Christians use a loaded word; we call it the “cleansing of the temple.” Choosing the word cleansing, opens the door not only to pride among Jesus’ disciples, but also to the insidious phobia of anti-Semitism.
         Jesus takes a profound risk in chasing these folks out of the temple. And while he’s clearly furious, it seems to me that his fury is the scream of his heart breaking. I don’t hear him saying, ‘All of you are bad people!’ I hear him saying, ‘This is not who you are! You’re better than this, and you know it!’
The people aren’t evil. The problem is the institution. It has become an organism with a life of its own. It consumes resources, like a fig tree, maybe – in particular, a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit. Existing for itself, the institution no longer carries out the purpose of blessing that dates back to the call of Abraham.
         The morning after Jesus empties the temple of merchants and moneychangers, he curses a fig tree that has no fruit. It seems harsh, perhaps, but a figless fig tree is good for kindling and compost, and not much else. Similarly, a spiritless spiritual community is nothing but a building and a consumer of resources. It’s no different than any other social or civic club that collects dues and engages in a little conspicuous altruism. A spiritless spiritual community has given up on mystery, holiness, and its for-the-sake-of-others blessedness. It has also abandoned its prophetic voice.
         After cursing the fig tree, Jesus returns to the temple. Offended, the spiritual leaders confront Jesus. They question his authority, and Jesus ends up telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes have higher and holier standing than they do. Then Jesus tells them the parable of the wicked tenants. In this story, a landowner sends his servants then his son to collect a harvest. After the workers kill the servants and the son, the landowner executes all the workers.
“Therefore I tell you,” says Jesus to the spiritual leaders, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Mt. 21:43) Do you hear the connection to the story of the fig tree, to the cleansing of the temple, and to the call of Abraham?
The spiritual leaders want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowds who love Jesus. Enslaved to their power within the institution, those spiritual leaders say nothing.
Jesus plows straight into his next parable, today’s text. It’s another strange and difficult story spoken into a rising tide of anxiety and emotion. Matthew is leading us toward a flashpoint in the conflict between Jesus and power. It will be called Friday.

Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’
 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’
And he was speechless.
13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Initially, the conservative Pharisee in me cringes because these stories are aimed at me. The progressive, 21st century Christian rankles at the violent image of God. The only side of me that likes them is that smug, bigoted, first-world religionist who looks for any reason to fear and judge others for being different from me. For being Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or in any other way non-Christian (at least relative to me), or for being un-American (at least relative to me), or for having a skin color darker than mine, or for posing what I interpret as a threat to everything that I hold dear. That smug, bigoted, first-world religionist in me always hears Jesus taking my side in his stories. That guy always assumes that God is as small, vindictive, and merciless as I can be.
I come face-to-face with that guy almost daily. Like those who have been invited to the wedding banquet, he makes light of the invitation. He’s more interested in looking busy in his office than he is in following Jesus. Like a shark who smells blood, he enters the feeding frenzy of acrimony and insult where neighbors attack each other with guns, clubs, automobiles, and most insidiously, with their words – often spoken through social media, which is becoming, in many ways, a fiercely anti-social force in our culture.
When I stand before that smug, bigoted, first-world religionist in me, and in others, when I see the carnage around me, I tend to lose my voice. I become a speechless wedding-crasher. Why? I tell myself that I’m just trying, in trying times, to hold together a congregation of disparate theological and political opinions. That’s not a bad goal – unless all I’m really trying to do is hold onto my job, my benefits. Then I choose speechlessness and call it pastoral sensitivity. But whom does a speechless disciple really serve? Whom do I really love and worship? Whom do I really trust?
When Jesus faces opposition, he never chooses speechlessness. At the risk of his life, Jesus speaks. And he inspires the adage that states, quite accurately, that “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”1
         When the king in the parable confronts the man who has no robe, the man is “speechless.” He says nothing about the selfishness of those who ignored the invitation. He says nothing about the injustices of all that bloody murder and revenge. He says nothing.
         Is it possible that the words he could have uttered – words of gratitude and congratulations for the bride and the groom, words of compassion for all who had been killed, words of solidarity with the guests – could it be that such words, spoken with conviction and love, weave the wedding robe?
         I’m not advocating any kind of works righteousness. We don’t earn our invitation to the banquet. The parable is not about who’s in and who’s out with regard to salvation. It’s about who accepts the call to live as “chosen” ones, bearers of visible and audible fruits of prophetic faith, even as Friday looms. It’s about living as embodied speech, declaring that the wedding banquet has been prepared and that all are welcome.
         Thomas Merton took a vow of silence. And when he did, he closed his mouth once and for all. But his spirited life was all about speaking, all about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
Our words and actions are figs. They’re the fruit of our faithfulness. What we say and don’t say are not the difference between our being accepted and rejected by God. Only a god made in our image withholds grace. But speechlessness is not an option for disciples. Speaking truth and justice to power in the institution may get us in trouble, because power doesn’t want to hear “politics” in church. Power forgets how consistently political Jesus is. Our speech – our patient, humble, honest, challenging speech – is both our robe of righteousness to wear and our cross to bear. Our speech cries out to humankind, “We are better than this, and we know it!”
         If we have said Yes to the question, “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior,” we have a new voice with which to proclaim our discipleship and to weave our wedding robes. If all we want is a Savior, someone to save us from personal sins, we’ll be satisfied with speechlessness, even in the face of injustice.
If Jesus is our Lord, however, Lord of our lives, we have spirited words to say and spirited work to do. Here. Now. Today.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Healing of Wounds (Story Sermon)

The Healing of Wounds
Romans 8:18-30
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Years ago, I pulled into one of those gas station-truck stop-minute mart-fast food-donut shop places you find on major interstates. I needed gas, and by golly found it.
I got out of my car and looked over at all the transfer trucks lined up at the diesel pumps. And the truck nearest me caught my eye immediately, because on the side of the trailer in huge red and black, all capital lettering was the word “G.O.D.”
G.O.D. was an acronym. It stood for Guaranteed Overnight Delivery. Now that’s marketing. When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, forget FedEx. Call G.O.D.!
And what trucker, regardless of creed, wouldn’t take some pleasure in saying, “Yeah, I drive for G.O.D.?”
         You know, I would bet my ordination certificate that underneath some of your smiles lies a desperate desire for God to box up and overnight an answer to some burning question, or a cure for a painful illness or experience. Laughter has lots of health benefits. It can relieve and even heal some of life’s deepest pain. It can also serve as camouflage for denial. And denial is kind of petri dish for resentment and despair. It allows us to ignore suffering – our own and that of other’s.
         As the body of Christ, we proclaim that God enters not only human history but the vulnerability of the human condition itself. And while Jesus reveals the deep woundedness within God, faith is not a cure for suffering. It’s not a bypass around it. In fact, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, faith calls us into the most profound human suffering. Paul says that through the sufferings of the present time, through the groaning of the entire creation, God is at work, transforming this world from brokenness toward wholeness. And shared wounds, be they curable or incurable, become transformed wounds. And transformed wounds become redeemed and redeeming wounds.
         Still, why do healthy and happy people get sick and suffer? Why are folks who are full of joy and promise driving down the road one minute and being airlifted to a trauma center the next? Why do people open fire on concert crowds, in night clubs, and, for God’s sake, why in schools? Why must Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I don’t know. That question has been a hobgoblin of religious faith since the beginning of time. And as much as we might wish it were true, God is simply not in the overnight trucking business.
         Nonetheless, I do trust that God is with us. I trust that God is relentlessly present in human history through, oddly enough, human suffering. I look at Christ’s wounds as bottomless wells, flowing with the love of an attentive Creator. What might that look like?
         Michael was a 42-year-old husband, father, and pastor. One cold, February afternoon the family pediatrician called Michael and his wife, Abby, to his office for a private consult. Their only child, a twelve-year-old daughter named Hannah, had been suffering from terrible headaches. A check-up and an MRI had revealed an angry tumor making itself at home inside Hannah’s brain. Surgery would be in three weeks.
         At first it was all Michael and Abby could do to pull themselves up and out of the chairs to leave the doctor’s office. Violent waves of shock and fear broke over them. Their thoughts raced, but their bodies seemed to move in slow motion. The ground swelled and shifted beneath them. Feeling off balance, they held onto each other and drifted toward the parking lot.
         When they found their car, they sat down in the front seat. Michael gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and Abby pulled her seat belt across her body but didn’t fasten it.
         Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. He held them in the palm of his hand to find the car key. On top of that jagged heap of silver and bronze sat the key fob that held them together. Made of clear plastic, it was the kind of key fob that people put pictures of their children or grandchildren in, but inside Michael’s was a piece of plain white paper with a crayon drawing of a sunshine wearing sunglasses and a smile. It was shining down on two stick figures, one tall and one short. They held hands in a patch of blue and yellow flowers. On the other side, scribbled in red pencil, were the words, “God loves Daddy and me.” Hannah had made in Bible School when she was seven years old.
         Michael and Abby looked at the key chain, then at each other, and the dam broke. For twenty minutes they sat in the car, holding each other. They poured great, heaving sobs onto each other’s shoulders. They didn’t speak. They just wept and wept, until finally Abby looked up and noticed that a heavy film of condensation had formed on the inside of the car windows. The thought of rumors floating around about the pastor and his wife fogging up the car windows in a parking lot brought them back to the present about as gently as anything could.
         On the way home, Michael took a circuitous route. He drove through out-of-the-way neighborhoods so their tears could dry, and the redness in their eyes could clear. They talked and decided not to tell anyone just yet. They would let Hannah know that the doctors were going to help her with her headaches, but that it would be a few weeks before they could see her.
         A plan like that would never work, of course. Michael and Abby both began pulling away from work and friends. They smiled less. They asked fewer questions. They found excuses to end conversations sooner. Michael’s sermons began to show signs of carelessness, and his delivery became hollow and unconvincing.
         Just two weeks into their ruse, Michael muddled through a session meeting and closed with a quick, spiritless prayer. He said a general good-night to everyone at once and ducked into his study, pretending to be caught up in some urgent matter.
         Just when he thought he was safe for one more day, he heard a soft knock at his door, and in walked one of the elders and her husband.
         Connie Ayers was in her late fifties. She was tall and elegant, always dressed neatly, every hair in place. She spoke up infrequently in session meetings, but she was smart and insightful. When she did speak, she did so with grace and a playful sense of humor, especially when tensions began to rise. Her husband, Scott, taught high school English.
         “Michael, you got a minute?” said Connie.
         Michael had always been a poor liar, but he forced a smile and dug in deeper saying, “Sure! What can I do for you two?”
         “You can be honest with us,” said Connie. “Michael, something’s wrong with you and Abby, and Scott and I are concerned.”
         Michael stared at the floor and felt a lump rise in his throat. There was nowhere to turn, no busyness or formality to hide behind. He had told himself that it was the Christlike thing to do to set his struggles aside. But he’d been caught, like a possum in the headlights, and right then he felt that he had more in common with a possum than with Christ. Sinking back into his chair, he knew it was time to come clean.
         Michael motioned for Connie and Scott to sit down, and he began to talk. With each word of his story, a little bit of the weight of the last two weeks seemed to lift. Connie and Scott sat and listened. They didn’t interrupt, and they didn’t look away from his tears. When Michael finished, Scott reached over, took his pastor by the arm and said, “Michael, you’re our pastor. We know you love us. But we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We can and will love you like you love us. If you’ll just let us.”
         The next Sunday, Michael stood up in the pulpit, and he read from Romans 8. He told everyone what was going on and how Connie and Scott had helped him to face his fears, his grief, his anger, his denial. He shared some of the conversations he and Abby had had with Hannah. It was the most difficult sermon he had ever preached, but it was the most sincere and cathartic.
         Late that evening, after putting Hannah to bed, Michael and Abby sat down together on the sofa and tried to relax with some quiet music and a glass of wine. The day had been exhausting, and the next morning they would take Hannah to the hospital for her first surgery. Just as they were beginning to feel that sleep might be possible, the doorbell rang.
         Michael groaned and got up to answer it. He turned on the porch light and looked through the window.
         “Connie!” he said in a sharp voice.
Alarmed, Abby jumped up and ran to the door. “What’s going on?” she said.
         Michael opened the door and Connie Ayers stepped into the foyer. She was wearing blue jeans and a faded pink sweatshirt. Her eyes were puffy and red, and her cheeks pale. Her hair was very neatly out of place.
         “Michael,” she said, “I had to come to tell you how much your sermon meant to me this morning.” She paused. Then she said, “I also came to tell you something.
         “Michael, I’ve never said anything to anyone about this before, except for Scott…but your story the other night…and the way you opened up in your sermon today. It forced me to go back many years.”
         Abby said, “Come on in, Connie. Sit down.”
         Connie sat in a maroon wingback chair. She took a deep breath and said, “So here it is. I was born a twin, but when my sister and I were eight years old, she contracted meningitis. We never knew how she got it. But in less than a week, she was dead. I never got over it, because I never dealt with it. Why did she get sick and not me? Why did she die and not me? Why did my parents look at me that way? And today, your sermon…I realized just how angry I’ve been at God all these years.
         “Since my sister’s – since Katie’s death, I’ve been plagued with doubts about just how much power God has and just how much God really loves and cares for us. I had to come to see you tonight to tell you this, because Hannah’s surgery is tomorrow. And I hoped that maybe I could do for you what you did for me.”
         “What exactly did I do for you,” said Michael.
         “You opened yourself up!” said Connie. “You opened up your broken heart and showed it to us. You showed us how God is present in your deepest and most intimate pain. And just as you were finishing your sermon, I looked up at the cross on the wall behind you, and before I knew it I had said out loud, ‘My Lord and my God!’”
         “My Lord and my God?” said Michael. He suddenly felt terribly uncomfortable.
         “No, no, no!” said Connie. “Don’t you see? It was like I was the disciple Thomas, and you were the wounded hands that Jesus held out to me after fifty years of doubt, and hurt, and anger. I reached out and touched your wounds, Michael. I felt them. And when I did, I was able not just to believe, but to trust, for the first time in my life, that Jesus really is alive! I was able to trust it because I finally understood that Jesus’ death is God’s wound for us to see and to touch.
“Michael, it’s something you say all the time, not just at Easter. And today I heard it. Resurrection is God’s promise that even when wounds can’t be healed, they can be redeemed. That’s what you tell us, Michael. And I finally got it.
         “So I came to open my wounds for the first time in fifty years. I came to share them with you.
“Michael, Abby, whenever you need to touch them. Here they are.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

By Whose Authority (Sermon)

“By What Authority”
Matthew 21:23-32
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         One of my favorite pastoral hobbies is to mess with impressionable minds in the youth group. There’s a lifetime of twisted joy in the momentary look of dismay on a roomful of young faces when the preacher says in all seriousness, that in Georgia we consider slugs a delicacy – sautéed in herb butter with a white wine reduction. Or that no, Marianne can’t come to Brooke’s for the bonfire.
         “Why not?” they ask.
         “Because,” I say, “every first Wednesday evening she has to meet with her probation officer.”
         Such foolishness has given rise to a mantra that comes in the form of a warning: Don’t trust Pastor Allen unless he’s wearing his robe!
         I enjoy all of this, and I’m both encouraged and humbled by the implied regard for this priestly garment. Don’t trust him unless he’s wearing his robe is a kind of backhanded statement of faith. It reminds me that I must choose my words carefully, whether I’m robed or not.
         Now, that doesn’t mean that I should avoid honesty, or saying difficult things, or that I should try to please everyone. It means that whether I’m wearing this robe or not, my words must echo the words of Jesus and my actions must reflect his love and grace. A robe like this lays on the one who wears it an authority and expectations similar in gravity to the authority and expectations laid on a judge who wears a robe in a courtroom, or a doctor who wears a lab coat in a hospital. Then again, all who are baptized wear the garments of love and grace. So our speech and actions matter, in here, out there, on social media, even in private. It’s about our fundamental identity.
         In the course of all faith traditions, there come times of conflict between the authority of the robed institution and its powerful defenders and the robeless masses who know that while they may not hold power, they still hold the authority of ones who are named, loved, and called by God.
         In our story today, the robed keepers of institutional power have had enough of the plain-clothes rabbi from Nazareth. Who is he to claim the spiritual authority to bulldoze his way through the temple like that? Who does he think he is calling the moneychangers robbers? Who is he to rewrite the Torah with all his “You have heard it said…but I say to you” heresies?
         Jesus may be a learned Jew. He may say and do remarkable things, but the chief priests and elders do not regard him as one who speaks with authority – because he challenges their authority. He also challenges the tradition, the scriptures, and everything comfortable to robes, rules, and rituals. So they ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things?”
         You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours, says Jesus. When John baptized, was he doing God’s work or his own?
         John the Baptist was another un-robed speaker of daring speech. He’s dead now, but the chief priests and elders never had use for that loose cannon who called them snakes and illegitimate children. But the people consider John a man who spoke for God.
         These powerful men face an enfeebling quandary. If they say that John was doing God’s work, Jesus will scold them for not believing John. But to say that John followed his own agenda will get them more than a scolding from the crowds who consider John a prophet.
         So, these finely-robed men muster all their decisive authority and say, We don’t know.
         That’s what I thought, says the robeless one.
         Well, what about this, says Jesus. And he tells them the parable about the man with two sons.
         Which son does the father’s will? he asks.
         “The first,” they answer, completely unaware that what they thought was a softball was a bowling ball falling toward their toes.
         “John came to you in the way of righteousness,” says Jesus, “and you did not believe him.” Tax collectors and prostitutes are holier than you are, he says. They trusted him, and even when you recognized his authority you worshiped your tradition, your comfort, your institutional power instead of the Spirit that animated John’s life and voice.
         Do you see the subversive thing Jesus does? He answers the initial question. “John came…in the way of righteousness.” And John said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus, who is known for his tradition-defying, robe-shredding welcome of those whom the law condemns, is claiming for himself the authority of the Blessed One of whom John spoke.1
         What does this say about authority? According to the Gospel, lasting authority lies not in the hands of the powerful, but in the hands of the powerless. Authority lies in the hands and hearts of those who learn to trust the one who comes robed not in gold-trimmed linen but in fearless compassion and redeeming love.
         Our reformed tradition is a great gift, a thing to receive and pass on with thanksgiving and hope. And it comes to us through the bold faith of robeless ones who risked life and limb defying the abuses of the corrupt robes of the medieval papacy. Nonetheless, Jesus’ ministry among the keepers of an entrenched institution says that no tradition is immune from becoming abusive. The Priesthood of All Believers may even be particularly at risk.
         Richard Rohr writes: “There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments—and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness…[by] our…lack of [reverence, our lack of] fascination, humility, curiosity, [and] awe.”2
         Religious and spiritual traditions are included in the categories of sacred and desecrated things. A desecrated tradition has lost its sense of wonder, its sense of expectation. It has lost its connection with the holiness within all things. Those who live in desecrated traditions tend to keep gates rather than to welcome strangers. When traditions become desecrated, disciples tend to fear and judge neighbors rather than love and bond with them. They tend to look at things like skin color and ethnicity while ignoring the image of God. When our spiritual tradition becomes too closely associated with our prevailing economic and political systems, we become entitled consumers and turners of blind eyes to injustice and suffering.
         God has given us a living story and a sacred community. God grants to all of us authority to receive and share these gifts for Christ’s sake. When we lay aside our desecrating quests for power and privilege, when we exercise sacred authority with humble gratitude, we discover our inner first son, and our inner tax collectors and prostitutes. We learn to repent, to seek and to offer forgiveness.
         On this World Communion Sunday, Christians of all nations and persuasions gather around this table. The differences in table dressings and robes vary not simply from hemisphere to hemisphere, but from one side of the street to the other. But Christ is Host at every one of these tables.
So come – all of you. And here may you find yourselves newly and differently robed. May you find your true selves and your eternal belonging in the redeeming love of Christ, the Host.

1Lewis Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011, p. 119.

Charge (prior to the Benediction):
As an archetypal first son, a newly and differently-robed Paul says to the Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another forgive each other…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

For This Reason (Sermon)

“For This Reason”
Matthew 18:21-35
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Peter is always pushing boundaries. He’s always trying to wedge his will into Jesus’ teachings. In this instance, he wants some clarification on this whole business of forgiveness. How often, he asks, should we forgive? Upwards of seven times?
         No, says Jesus, not seven times, but – and here the translation you use matters – you are to forgive seventy-seven times – or – seventy times seven.
Now this tests my fourth-grade aptitude in math, but I’m pretty sure that option two equals 490.
One has to imagine Peter standing there in absolute disbelief. What?! Forgive that lying, cheating, thoughtless good-for-nothing four-hundred-ninety times?!
The idea of forgiving the same person, nearly five hundred times, that’s too much to ask, isn’t it? Besides, when does extending that much grace make you a doormat or even an enabler?
Into that moment of mystified resentment Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving servant. And he begins that parable with a three-word preface: “For this reason.” The reason to which Jesus refers seems to be the emotional distress that his teachings cause. And he causes distress intentionally – and repeatedly. He uses hyperbole to jar his listeners into imagining their place in the world differently.
Forgiving someone anywhere between 77 and 490 times, says Jesus, is like a slave who owes his master 10,000 talents. There’s no consensus on how to convert that figure into contemporary terms, but a conservative appraisal suggests that 10,000 talents represent more than a hundred thousand years of laborer’s wages. So, when Jesus tells his story and asks his hearers to imagine a slave asking for a little more time to come up with the money, he’s not simply being playful. He’s being preposterous. It is impossible for a slave to pay off a debt of more than 3 billion dollars. This is Jesus’ way of saying that this story is about far more than money.
Likewise, when it comes to forgiving someone else, it’s foolish, in fact it’s utterly useless for Peter to keep accounts. Keeping track of how many times who forgives whom means that forgiveness has never even been offered. And if it has, it has only been offered as some kind of tool, some kind of leverage for one to hold over another. It’s like me saying to you: Don’t forget, I forgave you when you were unkind to me. I forgave you when you misunderstood something I said. Even when you sat in my pew, I forgave you. So, you owe me!
Apparently, that’s how Peter understands forgiveness. And for that reason, neither seven times, nor seventy-seven times, nor four-hundred-ninety times will ever be enough, because he is keeping score. He will always be like the slave who begs for but refuses to grant mercy.
There’s a cliché we’ve all heard and we’ve probably all used at one time or another: Forgive-and-forget. Forgive-and-forget works for spilled milk. It works for an oversight by your partner in Bridge or Spades. And for the record, forgive-and-forget should never even be considered as an optional response when someone sits in “your” pew, because you don’t own a pew, not in a sanctuary in which the kingdom of God is proclaimed. When you find someone sitting in the pew you normally occupy, then for God’s sake, sit somewhere else. And if that offends you, well, forgive me and forget it.
Having said all that, forgive-and-forget does not apply to matters that cause genuine harm and suffering. True forgiveness does not forget intentional betrayal or injury. Indeed, true forgiveness remembers what caused the suffering. True forgiveness looks the offense and the offender in the eye and says, “What happened caused me, or someone I love great suffering. It should not have happened. And neither you nor I will forget it. Nor should we. Our relationship may be different from now on because of what we’ve been through, but I choose not allow that memory, that moment in time to control my future, to limit my joy, to reduce me to something less than I am and can be in Christ. Will you walk with me through this shadowed valley?”
Forgiveness is not fulfilled in one act of declaring forgiveness any more than a marriage is fulfilled in the act of saying “I do.” To forgive is to ask the other person to join you on a journey toward new relationship, new wholeness. That person may not come along with you. They may not even acknowledge the need to be forgiven. And if they’ve truly done something for which you must forgive them, that makes forgiveness harder on you, but no less important. When we withhold forgiveness until it is earned by the other, or when forgiveness becomes a self-aggrandizing gesture, we’re just keeping score. We’re not settling debts, we’re racking them up.
The same is true when we find ourselves needing to confess to someone else and to ask their forgiveness. In confession, we acknowledge to another that our decisions and our actions have caused suffering. That person may not be ready to forgive just yet. But just as we begin the journey of forgiving others, we may begin the journey of being forgiven. Even if the only one who seems to forgive us is ourselves.
Whether forgiving or being forgiven, when humbly offered, the act of forgiving releases us from the toxic burdens of resentment and vengeance. It banishes the demons of judgment. Forgiveness is nothing short of entering a fresh experience of resurrection.
That makes forgiveness a way of life, a cross to bear, a discipline that requires practice. For this reason, we must learn to forgive ourselves first. We must confess our selfish ways, our weaknesses and fears, and offer ourselves grace. To forgive as we forgive ourselves is synonymous with loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
I think Jesus refers to self-forgiveness when he speaks of forgiving “from the heart.” Not to forgive ourselves renders us ungrateful for the grace God shows to us and impotent to share it with others. For this reason, I struggle with Matthew’s rendering of this parable. I truly believe that the only way we can experience God as the brutal, score-keeping master in the story is by refusing the Christ within, refusing to receive and to share forgiveness. That all-too-human master in the parable has nothing in common with the God revealed in Jesus.
Having said all that, forgiveness doesn’t mean allowing wrong-doing to continue just because we have found strength to forgive. Yes, Jesus forgives unilaterally and completely, but he doesn’t ignore or excuse actions that require forgiveness. The whole point of the Incarnation is that in Jesus, God enters a violent, resentful, unforgiving world to demonstrate love and to work for justice, because allowing us to continue living and acting destructively is neither loving nor just. God has a greater vision for God’s beloved creation.
For this reason, as disciples of Jesus, our demonstration of love and our work for justice begins right here – in our own hearts where we forgive ourselves, and in our own families and churches where we forgive each other. And from here we move outward – hands and feet, hearts and tongues, eyes and ears – all in grateful witness to God’s redeeming love and justice in and for the world.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

To an Uknown God (Sermon)

“To an Unknown God”
Acts 17:16-31
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         A fine line separates the conviction that makes a disciple bold, and the certainty that makes a zealot dangerous. Paul often appears to have one foot on either side of that line. So, he is alternately a bull in a china shop stampeding over breakable treasures, and a humble mystic walking alongside fellow believers with patience and love.
         When feeling bullish, Paul loudly declares an imminent, “fixed day” of judgment. He exudes an almost neurotic urgency to change the world as soon as humanly possible.
         That’s the old Paul, though. The fundamentalist Pharisee, the religious zealot who has proven himself not only capable of organizing and committing violence in God’s name, but quite efficient at it. Let’s face it: Before his Damascus Road experience, Paul was a terrorist.
Afterward, he’s still Paul. He still has the capacity for launching into words and deeds fueled by the blinding passion of religious certainty. And he begins to make room for the Christ within. The emerging Paul has the capacity for confession and compassion. He can tolerate ambiguity. Still, he continues to struggle with balancing his desire to love as Christ loves, and his single-minded passion as a zealot.
         Entering Athens, Paul immediately feels his zealot’s blood begin to boil. Everywhere he looks he sees idols. So, he heads straight to the synagogues and marketplaces to argue with whoever “happen[s] to be there.” In ancient Athens, rhetorical debate is a kind of spectator sport, a cross between Sunday morning talk shows and minor-league hockey. Ever the intrepid one, Paul leaps into the fray and rails against idolatry.
         “What does this babbler want to say?” ask the Athenians.
To find out, they drag Paul to the Areopagus, the site of the most consequential debates in Athens. In this place of intellectual and cultural ferment, Paul has the ears of people whose opinions help to shape the mindset of the empire. And Paul steps onto this very public stage with the hoof of a china-shop bull on one foot and the sandal of a holy mystic on the other.
         He begins by blurring the line between compassion and sarcasm. ‘You Athenians really take your religion seriously,’ he says. ‘And that’s good. You even have a statue set aside to honor what you call An Unknown god.’
         Isn’t that fascinating? In the midst of the pantheon of named, storied, and all-too-human Greek gods, someone in Athens has had the spiritual humility and curiosity to acknowledge mystery.
         Then Paul says that he knows who that unknown God is, namely, “God who made the world and everything in it…[the] Lord of heaven and earth…[who] does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
         Having sparred extensively with lesser partners, Paul enters the Areopagus with ever-deepening wisdom, patience, and mindfulness. Steeped in prophetic mystery, he focuses on this Unknown god as common ground. He knows that God us unknowable. He knows that God is not a created being, nor even some perfect version of humanity. He is learning, as the Apostle John will write, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1John 4:8) As Love, God is the creative energy within all things, the mysterious gravity holding all things together.
         Paul describes the holy paradox. He says that God is real and near enough to be the one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” the way fish live, and move, and have their being in water. At the same time, this mystifying Presence transcends all the rhetoric, all the “art and imagination of mortals.” This eternally present God defies every effort to be completely known. That means God transcends any given religion.
         If this paradox illustrates the truth of God, then building altars and shrines to God becomes one more way to “grope,” as Paul says, for the kind of knowledge that creatures cannot have. Even when well-intended, our altars and shrines are still human creations. Because they must be financed, maintained, and insured, they often do more to keep us distant from God than they do to bring us closer to God. And even when we built them in honor of God, at some level, they tend to encourage a degree of certainty that claims to have solved mystery, to have overcome transcendence. So, they reduce God to something knowable, and if known, then controlled by our theologies, arguments, and traditions.
         It seems to me that as Christians in general, and as a particular congregation who wants and indeed needs to renovate its own physical space, we must keep some uncomfortable questions before us:
To what extent do we turn our churches, our sanctuaries, and our committees into idols?
         What familiar and comforting knowable gods do we tolerate, saying that we need them in order to worship the God revealed in Jesus?
         What non-Christian symbols and powers do we snuggle up to in our places of worship?
         What selfish equivocations do we write into our doctrines and polities that open the door to the kinds of fear, resentment, and greed that Jesus, whom we claim to know so well, specifically condemns?
         I have neither the wisdom nor the authority to declare final answers to those questions. I do think, however, that we’re all very much like Paul. We have the hooves of china-shop bulls on one foot and the sandals of humble mystics on the other. We have the capacity to do terrible violence to each other and to the earth. We can also act in ways of transforming faithfulness and world-healing compassion. We’re both capable of and culpable for worshiping hand-made idols whose strengths only reveal our weaknesses. And while we cannot contain it, we can bear witness to the ineffable mystery of God who lies both beyond our grasp and at the very core of our being.
         In the 14th century, an anonymous monk wrote a book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a guidebook for Christian contemplative prayer, and its basic premise states that there is only one way for human beings to “know” God, and that is to lay aside all of our assumptions, all of our codified beliefs and so-called “knowledge” about God. In an act of willful surrender, we turn our minds and egos over to what he calls “unknowingness,” and there we begin to feel, to taste, and to see God’s true nature. According to the author, God cannot be “thought.” God can only be loved.1
         The very point of this thing called “religion” is not to know that which cannot be known. It is to love the one who is Love. And I think we do that most faithfully when we boldly, gratefully, and joyfully care for one another and for the earth.

Charge to Congregation:
Care for each other and the earth
as you do would care for yourself
and for any family member.
And always remember, as Mahatma Gandhi said:
“There are people in the world so hungry,
that God cannot appear to them
except in the form of bread.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Grace of Confession (Sermon)

“The Grace of Confession”
Matthew 18:15-20
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Matthew 18 consists of a collection of Jesus’ teachings. While it’s unlikely that Jesus said these things in rapid succession, a central theme does hold this patchwork together: the reality of sin and the necessity of forgiveness. Of particular concern in this chapter are the sins perpetrated by church members against other church members, and the forgiveness required to heal the strained and broken relationships.
Indeed, to be the Church faithfully and effectively in the world, followers of Jesus must, in deliberate and disciplined ways, practice confession and forgiveness. We cannot survive as a community without daring to speak the truth in humility and in love when we see something compromising the integrity of our witness. Nor can we survive without daring to admit the truth in humility and in love when we are acting in ways that compromise the integrity of our witness.
         Having said that, when we dare to call attention to the sin of others, we must always be prepared to accept the possibility that the offense we name says more about our own ravenous egos than it does about someone else’s transgression. While that can go on ad nauseam, it’s crucial for us to recognize our limited capacity for truly gracious judgment. Without that humble acknowledgment, we create communities defined by a vicious legalism in which we exchange gifts like patience, compassion, and honest self-reflection for the illusion not simply of righteousness, but of being right. And that’s just a power play.
         It seems to me that, throughout the Gospels, Jesus is marginally interested in our naming the sins of others, and deeply concerned about our ability to confess our own sinfulness and our own limited understanding of the heart and mind of God.
Years ago, a pastor told me that he had decided to omit the prayer of confession from worship. He called it a pastoral move. He said that most people came into church after rough weeks. They felt burdened by six days of expectations and criticism that they simply had to endure. So, leaving out the confession on Sunday was his way of trying to help people not to feel so beaten down and defeated. While I understand his point, I think he missed the point.
Our model for confession shouldn’t be that tragic figure from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale, who flogs himself every night in his closet while remembering his dalliance with Hester Prynne. Confession is not about tearing ourselves down and wallowing in guilt over past or even ongoing mistakes. It’s not about humiliating ourselves for being contemptible failures who don’t deserve God’s grace. In confession, we admit, humbly and completely, that we have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In confession, we consciously acknowledge before the eternal and unfathomable mystery which is God, that you and I, and all human beings are, ultimately, equals.
Back to Jesus’ teaching: When someone believes that he or she has experienced an injury or insult at the hands of another within the community, go talk to that person. If they listen, beautiful. If not, take two or three folks with you as witnesses. If that doesn’t work, spill the beans in front of the whole congregation. And if even that fails, says Jesus, then treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector.
The knee-jerk reaction is to hear Jesus telling us to treat as contemptible those who refuse to confess their errors and to correct their ways. But is that really what he is saying?
Jesus is no stranger to the accusations he seems to be authorizing us to make. Back in Matthew 11, when accused by some fellow Jews of the sin of keeping unclean company, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy by saying, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:18-19) What does that say about the company Jesus keeps?
In chapter 12, Matthew quotes Isaiah who identifies the Son of Man as the one who “will proclaim justice to the Gentiles,” and “in [whose] name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:18d, 21) What does that say about Jesus’ opinion of non-Jews?
I hear Jesus saying that when someone contributes to the community’s suffering, and when that person refuses to accept his or her share of the responsibility, the members of the church are to act, yes. But first and foremost, they are to remember who they are. They are followers of Jesus. And Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors as human beings worthy of patience, compassion, and love. Indeed, he welcomes them as neighbors for whom grace is all the more important.
 “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” says Jesus in Matthew 9, “but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means,” he says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Matthew 9:12-13)
Jesus is challenging us not to cast each other away during times of struggle, but to embrace, to love, and to forgive all the more fervently, to listen and to speak to each other all the more honestly.
Forgive as you are forgiven. Love as you are loved. These teachings are synonyms. Our experience of and our witness to the Gospel depends on our willingness to set loose our forgiveness-hindering egos, and to bind ourselves together in love.
As for those last two verses: I admit my skepticism that God’s criteria for action is agreement between two people. That sets bar too low. You can find two people to agree on most anything, whether it’s destroying nuclear arsenals or using them. Two-person agreement reduces the question to a matter of which god do any two people believe in – one of violence and vengeful conquest, one of peace and reconciliation, one of distance and indifference, or no god at all? I honestly believe that the God revealed in Jesus is characterized by grace, peace, justice, relationship, and reconciliation. And right now, I can find more than two people who agree on that. So why doesn’t God seem to be making it happen?
Who am I to say that God isn’t doing that? And if I’m blind to God’s gracious activity in the world, in spite of all that is and appears to be broken, that means I have something to confess. I have to confess that, in spite of what I profess to believe about God, if someone puts more power and wealth in my hands than my human heart and mind can handle, I just might follow that god. I am as vulnerable to greed and selfishness as anyone else. How about you?
Thanks be to God, though. The Gospel remains very consistent with its proclamation of grace, a gift which is, at every moment, offered to Jews and Gentiles alike, to the destitute and tax collectors, to sinners and saints, to the just and the unjust.
Like it or not, we’re in this together. And wherever we are, whoever we are, God is always here, always among us.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Here I Am! Who Am I? (Sermon)

“Here I Am! Who Am I?”
Exodus 3:1-15
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Everyone knows that Moses is different. They can look at the boy and see that he has almost nothing in common with those who live – by birth or choice – in Pharaoh’s house. Besides, putting the pieces together doesn’t require sophisticated detective work.
While Pharaoh channels his inner Hitler, killing off as many young, Hebrew males as possible in order to keep their population under control, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the river to bathe. She finds a Hebrew baby in a basket floating in the reeds. She picks him up, claims him, and names him. Then, very quickly, she finds a Hebrew nursemaid, who just happens to be the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t know that, but we do.
Growing up in Pharaoh’s home, Moses feels an increasing dissonance between who he appears to be and who he is. The problem is that he doesn’t know which is which. Soon enough, he chooses and commits to a particular identity. He picks up a brick and kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew.
         After that, the Egyptians want Moses dead, and the Hebrews want nothing to do with him. So Moses flees to the Midianite wilderness, where he rescues Jethro’s daughters from some thugs who try to run them away from a watering hole. This good deed lands Moses not only in Jethro’s good graces, but in Jethro’s family.
         Many years later, after the death of the Pharaoh that Moses knew, Moses is out tending Jethro’s flocks. An odd light appears in the wilderness. He investigates, and from that burning bush God says, “Moses! Moses!”
         “Here I am,” says Moses.
And God says, “[Moses,] I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…I have come down to deliver them…” So, says God, Moses, you will go Egypt. You will face Pharaoh. You will deliver the Israelites from Egypt.
         This may sound familiar: A shepherd seeing an odd light, hearing a strange voice announcing deliverance, and being told to go do something about it. Still, it’s a kick in the gut for God to make all these grand declarations about what God is going to do, and then tell Moses that he is the one who will go toe-to-toe with Pharaoh.
“Who am I,” asks Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh…?”
         Who am I? That’s more than modesty. It’s more than a lack of confidence. It’s even more than outright fear. It may be all of those things, but I have to imagine Moses asking that question as one who has struggled all of his life with who he is, where he belongs, what history really claims him and identifies him. Think about it. He was born a Hebrew slave, raised as a privileged Egyptian, escaped as a wanted murderer. And now he’s passing time as an ordinary husband, father, son-in-law, and farmer.
         “Here I am,” says Moses. Then, “[Wait,] who am I?”
         It’s profoundly revealing that when Moses asks God about what he should say when asked about who sent him to Egypt, God says to tell them, “I AM WHO I AM” sent you.
As unsatisfying as it may sound, the question Who am I? is answered by I AM. As people of God, who we are and what we do declare our understanding of who God is and what God does.
If we believe that God is legalistic and vengeful, we will be legalistic and vengeful.
If we believe God is creative and loving, we will be creative and loving.
If we believe God is exclusive and greedy, we will be exclusive and greedy.
If we believe God advocates for the poor, the despised, and the sick, we will advocate for the poor, the despised, and the sick.
If we believe God requires violence and suffering to be “satisfied,” we will inflict violence and suffering on others as a way to please God.
If we believe God redeems human suffering by entering it, we will enter human suffering and help to bear one another’s burdens.
Our understandings of God and self have everything to do with each other.
When at our best, we are people of faith, living into a future we cannot see, trusting that God is present in it, redeeming and completing it.
“And this shall be the sign…that it is I who sent you,” says God, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
The sign that declares God’s involvement will come after all is said and done. That means that each step in the right direction may indicate progress, but it doesn’t guarantee happiness, health, and comfort for any given moment. That’s the exasperating paradox of faith. We move ahead with a story behind us, but little more than hope in hand. And yet we live each moment as if that hope were, at last, fulfilled.
The story of Moses illustrates that all of our experiences contribute to our discovering who God is and who we are. And we never finish making that discovery. Each step of the way teaches us something. Think about it: To lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, it takes someone who is a Hebrew, who is also familiar with the house of Pharaoh, and who is sufficiently distant from both. It takes someone who has the boldness and vision needed to survive in all kinds of situations, someone who has had a transforming experience of God. It takes someone who is learning to trust that come what may, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is and will always be I AM WHO I AM.
One of the liturgical terms for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is The Feast of Victory. But the elements of this victorious feast are symbols associated with Friday, the day of apparent defeat. God is not placated, God is not “satisfied” by Jesus’ brutal death at the hands of a heartless institution. God is not so pathetically human as to demand, much less need that kind of furious, bloody revenge.
Nonetheless, Friday is a step toward Sunday. Friday is not fulfillment, but it is what we give God to work with. And God sees to it that Friday leads in the right direction. God transforms Friday into a bush that burns but is not consumed.
On Sunday, we hear a declaration of deliverance. And we hear God calling us to experience, to announce, and to share that fearless, creation-transforming, Pharaoh-challenging compassion called Resurrection.