Sunday, June 17, 2018

Earth as Parable (Sermon)

“Earth as Parable”
Mark 4:26-34
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         The parables of Mark 4 create a kind of theological watershed. And the images are both simple and extravagant. In this collection of stories, Jesus repeatedly – and artfully – compares the kingdom of God to hidden mysteries occurring within the earth. These faithful mysteries happen season after season, year after year. They involve soil, water, sunlight, death, and new life. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like the life-force of the earth itself, the force that makes things grow, become, and change. And while we can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste its effects, we can’t actually observe that dynamic power at work.
         Paul alludes to the same thing. When distinguishing between his ministry and that of Apollos, Paul tells the Corinthians, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe…I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1Cor. 3:5-6)
As human beings, created in God’s image, we, and the faith that is within us, are signs and expressions of the presence of God and of God’s kingdom. And for all of our indelible holiness, all we can do is to bear witness to the mystery. We are its stewards and beneficiaries, not its architects, or builders, or gatekeepers.
The teachings of both Jesus and Paul take us way back. Remember what happens on day 3 of the ancient Hebrew parable of a seven-day creation: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so…And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:9-11, 12b)
Scripture is not a legal document. It’s not meant to limit us or to answer every question. Scripture is a faith statement. It’s a work of art. It’s a Spirit-inspired gift meant to tease us with and invite us into the mystery and the holiness of God’s kingdom-revealing creation. So, when Jesus mentions seeds in his parables, he’s talking about more than seeds. He’s talking about the entire process of beginnings, growth, fruitfulness, falling, dying, and new beginnings. And it seems to me that he’s using this every-day mystery as a metaphor for the very personality of God in the universe. So, in spite of everything that’s obviously and painfully awry, the creation is like the kingdom of God. And it is good.
One of my favorite storytellers is Doug Elliott. He’s a diminutive, gentle-spirited, mustard seed of a man. And if the power went out for good, I’d want Doug Elliott next to me long before I’d want someone like Bear Grylls. Doug is not a “Man Against Nature” kind of guy. He’s not a survivalist who regards the earth as a something to subdue and exploit and the rest of humanity as a potentially hostile presence to fear. Doug Elliott is a Man With Nature. He’s a mystic who has learned how to be in relationship with his neighbors and the earth. Most of Doug’s stories have to do with the natural world, and he delights in sharing its wonders with whoever will listen.
On one of his CD’s, Doug tells about visiting the legendary storyteller Ray Hicks who lived at Beech Mountain, NC. Doug had gone to Beech Mt. to go ginseng hunting with Ray’s sons. When that trip didn’t pan out, Doug spent the morning talking with Ray and his wife, Rosa. For Ray Hicks, keeping silent was genetically impossible. Once he started talking, the rock was rolling downhill. Jack Tales, recollections of experiences, and mountain lore welled up like water from a spring. And that morning, ginseng was on tap.
Doug says that Ray talked about looking for a particular fern, rattlesnake fern. When you saw it, ginseng would be nearby, unless someone had already dug it up. “Yeah,” said Ray, “and some kind of fungus gets hooked up with the roots.”
Doug realized that the old mountain man was talking about a fungus that made what’s called a michorrizal connection. That specific fungus and the roots of plants like ginseng, rattlesnake fern, jack-in-the-pulpit, and mayapples form a symbiotic relationship – a relationship that’s more than mutually beneficial. It’s essential to the survival of both the fungus and the plants.
“What do plants eat?” Doug asks his audience. “They eat light. And they suck dirt. You want to talk about a miracle,” he says. “Whoa! Plants eat light and suck dirt and make wood and fruit” and flowers!
For ginseng, a crucial element in that creative process is the michorrizal connection that its roots form with the fungus. When the fungus makes its way into the cell structure of the roots, it expands the surface area of the roots so they’re able to draw enough moisture and nutrients from the soil to sustain the plant’s leaves above ground so that they can eat enough light to feed the root which is itself the valuable part of the plant. Even the richest soil will not grow healthy ginseng without this essential relationship between fungus and plant.1 Think about what that means for the first parable in Mark 4, the parable of the sower. Good soil is a place teeming with unseen relationships and wonders.
Doug Elliott says that the science of this process is a relatively recent discovery, but somewhere in the consciousness shared by those who have lived in close relationship with the earth for generations, that kind of mystery had already been perceived. And the kingdom of God is like that mystery, says Jesus. It’s like the hidden things that occur for the sake of visible things. Parables are born through our awareness of such mysteries.
Individually and together, we are parables, too. There’s an old proverb that says something like: Be mindful of your life. You’re the only Bible some people will ever read. While that adage is potentially self-serving, it also carries some real truth. When we open ourselves to mystery in the world, when we love each other, when we share laughter in joy and tears in sorrow, when we care for the earth, when we welcome the stranger –when we do these things because we recognize that our own lives are connected to all life, we become living parables.
The kingdom of God is the michorrizal connection among us. And while every day is burdened with stories that challenge our faith, hope, and love, every day is also resplendent with stories and wonders to hear, to behold, and to share. And we hear, behold, and share those stories not to deny and avoid those challenging realities. We hear, behold, and share the earth-wrought parables as a way of participating in God’s ongoing redemption of all that is broken, hurtful, and destructive in the world.
So, in all things, look for the parables. Tell the parables. Be a parable. And trust the Mystery.
1Doug Elliott on his CD “Of Ginseng, Golden Apples, and the Rainbow Fish: Ancient Tales, Traditional Lore, Lively Tunes and a Modern Mythic Adventure” © 2017. (Recorded live at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN.)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Do Not Lose Heart (Sermon)

“Do Not Lose Heart”
2Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians takes us inside the apostle’s deep grief and anxiety clouding his relationship with the congregation at Corinth. It’s not clear exactly what happened, but it is clear that during a previous visit, Paul encountered some strong opposition. Someone in the congregation questioned his authority, or his sincerity, or his faith, or all of the above. Stung by the criticism, Paul cancels a return trip to Corinth.
         “I made up my mind,” he says, “not to make you another painful visit…For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” (2Cor. 2:1, 4)
         Throughout this letter, Paul defends himself and his teaching. He also tries to demonstrate a new-found humility – in himself, in the Church, and in humankind in general. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” he says, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.” (2Cor. 4:7-9)
         Suffering is not punishment for wrongdoing. Suffering is simply a given, and it can’t be avoided by trying to act upright and holy. Paul knows this not only because he has experienced such suffering as a follower of Jesus, but because he inflicted it on so many people before his conversion on the Damascus Road.
I don’t know about you, but Paul’s struggle is familiar ground to me. As both an agent and bearer of suffering, I appreciate Paul’s example of trying to allow God to transform suffering into a witness to the power of resurrection. “For while we live,” he says, “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2Cor. 4:11) With his next breath, Paul writes the words of today’s text.
13But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture —“I believed, and so I spoke” — we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (NRSV)
         It seems to me that an embattled Paul writes these words to himself as much as he does to the Corinthians. He’s encouraging them, and himself, and now us to look beyond all that seems apparent, all that seems obvious and immutable about the human condition. Beneath everything that appears to be falling apart, says Paul, God is building a new heaven and a new earth. Beneath everything that is dying, God is bringing forth new life. Don’t look at what can be seen, he says. All of that is temporary. Look at what cannot be seen. That’s where we encounter the eternal. So, do not lose heart.
Philosophical jargon can be a greased pig. It’s hard to grab hold of. On the other hand, Paul can’t make it too obvious because he’s trying to describe the paradox of living “in the world but not of the world.” His language calls us to wrestle with the complexities of inhabiting the kingdom of God while living in a world plagued by things like war, cancer, poverty, natural disasters, and by the absolute fact that as long as human beings have the capacity to form their own opinions, no two people will ever agree on everything. The unyielding immediacy of such realities can diminish our faith in God, our hope for the future, and our love for neighbor. In 2Corinthians, Paul is trying hard not to lose his own faith, hope, and love.
The gospel encourages us to hold onto those gifts by declaring that God is as present and real in the middle of all our chaos as God is present and real in times of gladness and peace. To realize that truth requires us to learn to open our hearts to the possibility of seeing and experiencing something eternal, holy, and joyful in the midst of the temporal, the mundane, and the painful. It’s a matter of posturing our hearts toward holiness.
In his commentary on this passage, Mark Barger Elliott includes this little parable:
         A follower once asked his teacher, Where can I find God?
         Right here, the teacher said.
         Then why can’t I see God?
         Because you don’t look.
         But what should I look for?
         Nothing, the teacher said. Just look.
         But at what?
         At whatever your eyes see.
         But do I have to look in a special kind of way?
         No, said the teacher, the ordinary way will do.
         But don’t I always look the ordinary way?
         No, you don’t.
         Why not?
         Because, the teacher said, to look, you have to be present, right here. And most of the time you’re somewhere else.1
         The teacher seeks to be thoroughly present in a broken and challenging world because he trusts that it is possible to see all things through God’s eyes of grace. Through those eyes, one can, on occasion anyway, get glimpses of what and how Jesus sees. We can see God not as something other and out there, but something indwelling, something eternally at hand and available. Through Jesus’ eyes we begin to catch glimpses of the holiness of our humanity, and that of both friends and enemies.
         So, do not lose heart. Even when we feel consumed with despair, threatened by things that feel devilish and destructive, God, through those very experiences, is renewing us. That’s how resurrection works. As the redeeming power in the universe, resurrection strengthens us to be present here and now, in the midst of the conflict and chaos, trusting that the ever-present God is in human suffering, transforming it into a means of grace “as it extends to more and more people,” and so that it “may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
That doesn’t mean that we turn away from suffering saying that “everything has a reason.” Not at all. We enter the suffering around us as Jesus did. We enter it with compassion so that we might witness to God’s resurrecting love in and for all the world.
         The nineteenth century English writer Emily Brontë plays with this truth in a poem entitled “No Coward Soul Is Mine.” Because Paul shared the same bold confidence of Brontë’s words, the poem sounds like something the apostle might have written…if he’d had a few creative writing classes.
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere,
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty ever-present Deity,
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I – Undying Life – have power in Thee.

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love,
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.

Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every Existence would exist in thee.

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void,
Since thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

1From Mark Barger Elliott’s article on Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 3). Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 115.
2Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine.” From Passion and Peace: The Poetry of Uplift for all Occasions. Compiled by Diane Tucker. Wood Lake Publishing, 2017. p. 281.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

From Farm to Table (Sermon)

“From Farm to Table”
Mark 2:23-3:6
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Mark 1 is a whirlwind introduction to Jesus. Beginning with John the Baptist, it includes Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the calling of the first disciples, three high-profile healings, and Jesus’ first preaching tour through Galilee. It closes with Jesus as a kind of reluctant celebrity. He “could no longer go into a town openly,” says Mark.
         Mark 2 walks us through a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. With each clash, the intensity builds, and the mighty Pharisees become increasingly hobbled by righteous indignation.
         The first incident occurs in Jesus’ own home. A crowd has gathered inside and is spilling into the street. Four men who have brought a paralyzed friend climb onto Jesus’ roof. They dig a hole through it and lower their friend to the floor at Jesus’ feet.
         “Your sins are forgiven,” says Jesus.
         “Blasphemy!” cry the Pharisees.
         “Holy mackerel! Look at that!” says the crowd.
         Jesus’ radically new witness to God angers the Pharisees. More addicted to power over the masses than they are committed to authority on behalf of God’s beloved people, the legalistic Pharisees come across as pathetically mystified. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” “Why do…[Jesus’] disciples not fast?” “Why are [Jesus’ disciples] doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Why? Why? Why?
The third Why? occurs in today’s text, and Jesus’ answer draws from a story that was ancient even in the first century. He refers to an account from 1Samuel 21. David is on the run from a murderously angry King Saul. He asks the priest (Ahimelech, not Abiathar) if he has anything to eat. Only what’s holy, says Ahimelech. He’s referring to the bread of the Presence, which is bread kept out as an offering to God. It’s to be removed only when fresh bread replaces it, and only the priests can eat it. Smelling fear on Ahimelech’s breath, David, who’s on the lam all by himself, says that he and his men are hungry.
This is Yahweh’s bread, says the priest. Are you and your men clean?
Oh, sure, says David. King Saul has sent us on a secret mission. The details are classified, but my guys haven’t so much as laid eyes on women for a long time.
Ahimelech gives David the bread.
Now, the stories aren’t exactly comparing apples to apples. There’s no mention of the sabbath in 1Samuel. And while David may be hungry, his story is layered with lies. Jesus’ disciples aren’t running from anyone, and they’re not really harvesting the grain. They’re just idly noshing on it on a sabbath – the way that you and I might sit on the couch and eat popcorn on a Sunday afternoon while watching the Braves blow a big lead in the bottom of the eighth. It’s all just normal stuff.
         With the sabbath as background, Mark puts us in fourth commandment territory. The comparison is to the bread of the Presence itself – something created and set aside as a means of drawing us closer to God. Jesus’ point is that such things – the bread of the Presence, the sabbath, the law itself – exist not for their own sake, but for the sake of humankind. To the extent that human symbols and systems deepen us spiritually, they serve us well. When allowed to become equal to God, they inevitably become idols. We may even prefer them to God because we can comprehend and manipulate them. And instead of welcoming others into God’s means of grace for all creation, our inner Pharisees dole them out on the basis of merit.
         God calls us to sabbath observance for our sake, says Jesus. We don’t exist simply to populate the sabbath like ants in some glorified ant farm. And grain in the field, like the bread of the Presence, is a holy gift from God. To pick it, to feel it on the tongue, to taste it, such simple actions can be sabbath experiences when we do them mindfully, gratefully, humbly – when we recognize the Spirit renewing us through them. That’s how Jesus is lord of the sabbath, regardless of the day of the week.
         At some point after the grain-picking episode, Jesus is in the temple again. It’s the sabbath, again. He sees a man with a withered hand. If Jesus waits until sundown to heal the man, the sabbath will have ended, and he won’t offend the Pharisees. But the man and his suffering stand before Jesus now.
To everyone in general and to the Pharisees in particular, Jesus says, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?”
The Pharisees watch with interest, but without compassion. They see the man as just another ant on the farm. His suffering is secondary to their sabbath observance. Mark says that the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” moves Jesus to both anger and grief. While this story appears in all three synoptic gospels, only Mark includes the detail about Jesus feeling both anger and grief toward the Pharisees. And I think that pairing those two emotions has profound implications for us.
Estranged from grief, anger ignores the creation’s inherent holiness.
Estranged from grief, anger ignores our own faults and limits.
Estranged from grief, anger tills the soil of our basest, Machiavellian impulses. If the ends justify the means, it’s not the devil who makes me do it. God blesses everything from my pettiest selfishness to my most idolatrous cruelty.
Estranged from grief, anger seeks revenge in ever-escalating degrees. Feeling only anger after Jesus restores the man’s withered hand, the Pharisees, that very sabbath day, scurry away from the synagogue to conspire with political leaders about how “to destroy” Jesus.
As beneficiaries of the inequities of religious and cultural idolatries, the Pharisees hear Jesus’ good news as bad news. It challenges them – and us, because very often we are they ­– to face and confess our complicity with every kind of injustice – religious, political, social, economic, environmental. The gospel calls us to embrace the new life of the kingdom of God where, in spite of ourselves, God feeds us with the bread of eternal Presence and restores our withered lives. God helps us to choose the ambiguities of faith, the uncertainties of hope, and the demands of love over the idolatries of power and fear.
Our version of the bread of the Presence lies on the table before us. If the god it calls to mind is a god of griefless anger, a god who can only be appeased by some violent death, then we’ll most likely reduce our churches to little ant farms – idols for idle hands and minds. And we may even sacrifice others, willingly, for our own ends.
As the Bread of Life, though, Jesus reveals God at work within our theological and ecclesiastical structures not for the purpose of limiting and controlling us, and certainly not as a way of being limited and controlled by us. Indeed, our rules don’t apply to God. No, God squeezes just enough of God’s eternal self into our structures in order to tease us toward freedom from every selfish idolatry. That’s why everyone, with no exceptions, is welcome at the Lord’s Supper. We may set the table, but Jesus is Lord of the table. He is Lord of this day and all days – past, present, and future. From farm to table, the bread and the cup are his life and joy for us.
Let’s make Jesus’ joy complete. Let’s gather at his table, and be made whole, and made one.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

What's Your Angle? (Sermon)

“What’s Your Angle”
Acts 2:1-21 
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Pentecost Sunday

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:1-21 NRSV)

         “In the last days,” God declares, the heavens will open, as for a drenching rain, and all flesh will be soaked in the rising waters of the Holy Spirit. Then, all that wrinkled flesh will prophesy that love is our native tongue. Love is the language by which God proclaims the Good News that all things are being redeemed and united in Christ. One difficulty is that all flesh may see it together, but not all flesh will see it the same. What constitutes holiness to some will appear as drunken foolishness to others.
Years ago, Shelby Presbyterian held an evening prayer service for a member named Sherry. Sherry had developed a very rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. She had a husband and two daughters, one in high school, one in middle school. Folks from all over the community came to the church to pray for that family. As Sherry lay in ICU, sedated and intubated, we gathered around her husband and laid hands on him on her behalf.
It was a moving and heart-wrenching scene. And some might have looked at it and thought it kind of quaint and sentimental, or maybe desperate and grasping. A sympathetic heart would have seen at least an act of solidarity with a family in crisis. Because most of us in the sanctuary that night found our hearts angling toward the Mystery of holiness and love, we witnessed an act of prophecy. Now, we weren’t naïve. We knew Sherry wouldn’t survive. Nonetheless, there we were, in the power of the Holy Spirit, singing, speaking, and wailing our prayers to God who is real, present, and, come what may, more powerful than any illness or loss we might suffer.
         Paul says that there are many gifts but one Spirit who gives them. What each of us does with our gifts – or rather, what the Spirit does with each of us – will often appear very different. And that diversity of perspective reveals the wide spectrum of the Holy Spirit’s beauty and work.
         Did you know that a rainbow – for us a symbol of God’s promises – is caused by sunlight refracting through individual droplets of water at angles between 40 and 42 degrees? And those small differences in the bending of the sun’s light reveal the spectacular array of colors within light itself. To appear, a rainbow requires those precise angles and billions of water droplets.
         At Pentecost, inebriated on the Holy Spirit, the disciples find themselves bending holy light. They proclaim the love of God in Jesus in every color of the linguistic spectrum. The event in Jerusalem is not glossolalia, speaking in tongues. Luke describes an event when the gospel is proclaimed in all languages, for all people. It’s a moment when, through the Holy Spirit, God reveals that God’s love reaches beyond any boundary that humankind creates.
         You may be a single droplet, but what happens when the Holy Spirit bends the light of God through you? What’s your angle? What’s your unique color? This is the Pentecost question. And because it has to do with the Light of the World refracting through you, it has to do with vocation.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about wrestling with her sense of call, even as she studied in seminary. “I did not have a single clue what I would do when I graduated,” she says. “I did not even belong to a church. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on this earth?”1
         She began to experiment more intentionally with prayer. Her first efforts left her feeling more empty than full. Then she discovered a fire escape on the side of an abandoned Victorian home next to the Yale Divinity School. It was one of those ancient structures clinging precariously on the side of the building. A “Danger: Keep Off” sign warned would-be climbers that the steps could prove more of a stairway to heaven than an escape from fire. “The fire escape turned out to be an excellent place to pray,” says Taylor. Up there on the fire escape, she learned to pray, she says, “the way a wolf howls.” Up there on that fire escape, she encountered the fire of the Holy Spirit.
         “[One] night,” she says, “when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’”
         “‘What kind of answer is that?’” wondered Taylor.
         “‘Do anything that pleases you,’ said the voice in my head, ‘and belong to me.’”
         Initially bewildered by the experience, Taylor began to understand that “it was not what [she] did but how [she] did it that mattered.” She discovered that when the Holy Spirit bent through her preaching and writing, beautiful things happened for her and for many others. In 1996, Baylor University named Barbara Brown Taylor one of the most influential preachers in the English-speaking world.2 To illustrate that the Holy Spirit never finishes with us, in the late 1990’s, Taylor left the parish ministry to join the faculty of Piedmont College in Demorest, GA. Because of Barbara Brown Taylor’s preaching, writing, and now teaching, in 2014, TIME Magazine named this Episcopal priest and teacher at a small college in a backwater town in northeast Georgia, one of the world’s 100 most influential people.3
Pentecost lives are lived with purpose, passion, and openness to change. They require constant self-examination and critique so that we discover the new ways God is bending our holiness into beautiful colors and voices that bless and build up the creation. And everyone participates in this great bending of holy light. God pours Spirit out on “all flesh,” says the Joel, men and women, young and old, slaves and free.
Pentecost is about so much more than getting saved. Indeed, if Pentecost is about “getting” anything, it’s about getting out of the way so that God can reveal God’s love in us and through us for the sake of others.
The epigraph of the chapter to which I referred in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is a quotation by Henry David Thoreau. In a letter to a friend, Thoreau says, “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”3
Your goodness, like your inherent holiness, comes as a gift of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit. You did nothing, nor could have done anything to deserve much less create your giftedness. You are simply a steward of the gift – chosen, called, and sent.
What’s your angle? What will you do with your Pentecost gift?

1All references to Barbara Brown Taylor’s story come from: An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. HarperOne, 2009. Pp. 109-110.
3Taylor, p. 107.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"In Life and in Death We Belong to God" (Sermon)

“In Life and in Death We Belong to God”
John 17:6-19
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         The more time I spend with John’s gospel, the more I really feel John’s desperate love for the desperate community to whom he writes. They’re in crisis, because by the end of the first century, the young church is having to absorb some gut-wrenching realities.
For one, they’re realizing that Paul’s testimony concerning Jesus’ immediate return appears to have been wishful thinking. Life as the Christian community won’t be about waiting for Jesus. It’ll be about participating in his ongoing work. While it will be about spiritual growth, it’ll also be about engaging the world, just like Jesus did.
As the years separate them further and further from first-hand remembrances of Jesus, the Church is also learning that not everyone remembers the same things, and not everyone processes Jesus’ story the same way. So, Jesus’ followers have begun to splinter into factions based on differing emphases and opinions. And divisions cause tension.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that worldly powers are not warming up to the new faith community. Threatened by the Church’s loyalty to Jesus before to Caesar, the powers-that-be treat Christians as subversive and dangerous.
In a couple of centuries, Constantine will gather the Church under his wing and begin to domesticate Christian theology and practice. He will effectively say the same thing Jesus is saying to his disciples: I am yours, and you are mine. By casting Rome as the benefactor and protector of the Church, emperors will strip Christians of their spiritual fierceness. Constantine will pave the way for the misconception that to belong to the Church is to belong to the state. The misconception that what Jesus calls “the world” is as much savior as Jesus himself.
Maybe both Jesus and John see this coming. When reading John’s account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, one can feel the anguish. Jesus is preparing his followers to live in a world in which they will face tribulation without benefit of his physical presence. The tone is not “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” A defiant Jesus goes toe-to-toe with the world in general, and thus with Rome in particular in claiming the Church as his own. The Son says to the Father:
6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me
 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (Jn. 17:6-19 NRSV)
Jesus’ prayer reminds the disciples and the early Church that their experience of God and witness to God depend on maintaining their identity in God. That’s not to say that God abandons them to punish them when they’re not faithful. It’s just to say that only by remaining connected to God through prayer, fellowship, and Christlike service do they continue to experience God as real, relevant, and powerful. That’s a tall order when the world is breathing down your neck. And that’s why Jesus prays for them. And his prayer illustrates what Paul meant when he said, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26)
John wants his readers to see that their overwhelming sense of dis-orientation in a hostile world mirrors that of Jesus’ disciples on the eve of the crucifixion. He wants the community to remember that, come what may, God is faithful, and that they are beloved and gifted. And like all who are blessed by God, they’re not blessed for their own sake or because they’re more deserving than anyone else. Blessedness is the God-given capacity to serve as a sign and source of blessing for others.
Blessed to be a blessing describes our identity as servants who belong to God and who are sent out by God. And to believe what Jesus teaches means far more than signing on to some theological proposition. Identifying ourselves as children of God and followers of Jesus means accepting the call to live as signs of the presence and love of God at work in the world – which God so loves.
As the Ecclesia, the Called-Out Ones, we are not removed from the world. “I have sent them into the world,” says Jesus.
Throughout the Farewell Discourse and the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus is charging and commissioning his disciples to turn their hearts and minds toward the demanding task of discipleship. He’s challenging them to lead the community in continuing his gospel work of healing the sick, reaching out to the outcast, speaking up for the voiceless, loving the unlovable, rejoicing in the creation, and confronting worldly systems of violence, domination, and exploitation. And they – WE – must do all this holy, kingdom-of-God work in a sanctified spirit, a spirit of penitence, gratitude, vision, and humble courage.
Jesus’ prayer sounds a lot like an ordination prayer, doesn’t it? He lays a very specific claim and identity upon the disciples. He also offers comfort and hope, because throughout this section of John, Jesus keeps mentioning, and, indeed, promising, the gift of The Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Holy Spirit, the Church simply doesn’t exist. The Spirit not only fills us, the Spirit fills the spaces in-between us with the empowering gifts stated in our ordination vows: “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” As we continue to discern who we are and what God is calling us to be and empowering us to do at any given moment, the Spirit is holding us together like surface tension. As contexts change, the specifics of our calling evolve. We either respond, “walk[ing] by faith, not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7), or we blind ourselves with superficial distractions. And when we forsake vision and risk, we fade into irrelevance.
“We don’t understand why our youth aren’t coming to church,” say the elders. “We give them pizza!” Doesn’t the world offer the same?
I’ve said this before: Jesus does not come in order to prepare us to be dead. In John 10 he says, “I have come that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s a here-and-now promise. Life after this life is in the hands of God who is more gracious, forgiving, and trustworthy than any of us can imagine. As participants in and stewards of this life, we are caretakers of one another and the earth. Most of all, we’re caretakers of those who have no caretakers – whoever they may be. Discipleship is a long-haul commitment to be handed down, generation to generation.
“As for prophecies,” says Paul, “they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” (1Cor. 13:8)
“It is he,” says Isaiah, “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” (Is. 40:22a, 23)
Scripture is not subtle in affirming that sanctification means, as the opening line of A Brief Statement of Faith declares, “In life and in death we belong to God.” That is, we do not belong to Pharaoh or Caesar. And for those who find our God-given identity in Jesus, that means carrying on his mission in the world, fearlessly proclaiming in word and deed that God is Love, and that Love, and only Love, has no end.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Holy In-Betweens (Newsletter)

Fire. Light. Wind. Breath. Water. We find all of these images, and others, in Christianity’s lexicon of symbols for the Holy Spirit. To varying degrees, all of these things share the characteristic of being able to seep into the nooks and crannies of the world, thus revealing what I call the invasive grace of God. Through the Holy Spirit, God seeps in to be present and active where God is neither expected, nor welcome, nor acknowledged. I find God’s capacity to percolate indiscriminately in the world most upsetting when I catch myself imagining God confined to some container of my own making.
         We are threatened by anything that we cannot control,” says Richard Rohr, “that part of God ‘which blows where it will’ (John 3:8)…We look for God ‘out there,’ and the Spirit is always ‘in here’ and ‘in between’ everything…Now even science is revealing to us that the energy of the universe is not in the particles or planets—but in the relational space between them! And we are having a hard time measuring it, controlling it, predicting it, or inhibiting it. It sounds an awful lot like Spirit.”1
         Our culture finds itself in a time of increasing division and enmity, and not simply between opposing views but between opponents. Like everyone else, I have my own opinions, and one way to begin paying attention to the holy “relational space between” disparate opinions is to acknowledge the differences. Rather than calling us to judgment, this invites us to stand in humble reverence of the spaces – the realm of the Holy Spirit’s energy and work. And that can be a painful place to stand, because right now the spaces can feel like chasms.
When treating a significant laceration, a doctor doesn’t begin by immediately sewing it up just to hold the skin together. She irrigates the wound first, clearing it of visible and invisible debris that could cause infection, and, thus, more serious trouble. She looks carefully at the damaged tissue lining that new and tender in-between place. She imagines how the raw and jagged edges can be reintroduced. She wants the site of healing, the forever-apparent scar, to be strong.
Pentecost is May 20th. This celebration marks more than “the birthday of the Church.” It reminds us that all those in-between spaces within the Creation are alive with fire, and water, and light. They are alive with God’s redeeming Spirit. The body of Christ is called to be intentionally and patiently present in those spaces, each of us humbly honest with our thoughts and feelings, and gratefully aware of the thoughts and feelings of others. To do so is to hold one another in prayer. After beginning with a prayerful posture, humbly, compassionately, and gratefully, then and only then might our actions flow among us like the dynamic and eternal flow of love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Unhindered Grace (Sermon)

“Unhindered Grace”
Acts 8:26-38
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.
He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?
 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

       On Easter morning, Jesus isn’t all that gets raised. Questions and concerns get raised. As the Christian community grows, hackles get raised. The Jesus-followers not only preach and practice a message of radical welcome, they pool their wealth and share it. Threatened by such uncensored grace, the secular and religious powers-that-be in Jerusalem begin to persecute the new community.
       Some Christians flee, and when they take the gospel with them, we’re reminded of the parable of the sower. Scattered by persecution, followers of Jesus are seeds carrying the germ of the gospel. While I don’t believe that God causes or celebrates any sort of persecution, I do believe, that as the creative and defining force within the universe, God is known through God’s inclination to redeem even the most unholy and inhuman actions. God’s magic is to use them for good. But positive results arise from painful events. They come as gifts of resurrection. That’s what Easter is all about – God creating something so unexpected and transforming out of the atrocities of Friday that we actually remember that day as Good.
       The disciple Philip has just returned to Jerusalem from Samaria. Ministry is making him open and available to the Holy Spirit in ways he never imagined. As Philip travels southward, into the wilderness, the Holy Spirit, ever the opportunist, makes the disciple aware of a nearby chariot carrying a high-ranking official in the Ethiopian government.
Things get a little PG-13 here. But let’s face it; the Bible is not a G-rated book. This official is a eunuch. He’s been castrated, probably at a very young age.
Widely practiced in ancient cultures, intentional castration created a pool of male servants who lacked the hormones that could lead to willfulness and aggression. Eunuchs could be trusted to care for kings, and queens, and harems, and money.
       In Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch is a Jewish proselyte – a convert. He’s been to Jerusalem to worship. Think about that: The Queen of Ethiopia allows the keeper of her country’s wealth to travel to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. She allows him to ride a thousand miles away to worship the one who makes barren wombs fruitful, the one who heals the sick and the blind, the one who resuscitates the dead. She sees no threat in allowing her emasculated servant to engage the power of the one who makes somebodies out of nobodies.
       Seeing that the man is reading Isaiah, Philip says, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
       ‘I could use some help,’ says the man, and he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.
       The eunuch is reading Isaiah 53, the prophecy concerning the Suffering Servant. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…like a lamb silent before its shearer…In his humiliation justice was denied him.”
The eunuch, who has been physically mutilated in order to be trusted, finds a scripture that gives voice to his own humiliation and to his sense of injustice. His involuntary sterilization not only robbed him of the possibility of a normal life, it makes him unclean. According to the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 23, eunuchs are ineligible for full participation in the community.
It begs the question, Why would he even want to become Jewish? It also clears the way for him to receive the gospel when Philip offers it to him. The eunuch hears the gospel as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – and not just the suffering servant part. As the Ethiopian continues to read Isaiah, he gets to chapter 56. “Do not,” says the prophet, “let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.”
Isaiah’s next verse is a wonderful line that was Freudian long before Freud. “I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Is. 56:3-5)
       Isaiah shaped Jesus’ own theology. So, Philip accepts the man where he is, as he is, because that’s Jesus’ way. As the Church, though, we often make some self-serving presumptions. We often assume that when someone hears and receives the gospel, they will think and act like us. Homogeneity makes us feel safe. It makes us buy into the fiction that sameness equals rightness.
It used to be the practice that all men came to church in coats and ties, and all women wore dresses, hats, and gloves. The “Sunday best” dress code was imposed, and to fail to comply was to show contempt for God. Those who defied the code represented something dark and foreign, something spiritually suspect and impotent.
Liberated by the gospel, Philip shares the good news with one who is both a eunuch and a foreigner. And being welcomed and affirmed, the man recognizes his own humanity, his own worth, and his own powerful potential.
       “Look!” he says, ‘There’s some water! What’s to prevent me from getting baptized?’
       The law says, Everything. People like you can’t belong.
       The Gospel says, Nothing. Nothing can hinder your inclusion in the body of Christ!
       The gospel declares to the eunuch that he has been created in God’s image. His life is bright and pregnant with possibility.
Listen: Before the Church can be a place for all people, we have to learn to be a place for all of ourselves – even those parts that we have learned to deny, repress, and exile to some distant desert. Those dark and foreign parts of us belong to God, too. They’re holy and full of promise.
Some of us may wrestle with a deep-seated urge toward violence and control. And as harmful as that urge can be, simply to label it sin and repress it is to reject a potential gift. If we harness that energy and incorporate it onto a foundation of compassion and humility, it can be resurrected into decisive and prophetic leadership.
       Conversely, to judge oneself for feeling indecisive and non-committal may be to ignore a call to ministries of discernment, a holy work that requires hearing and considering many voices.
       I think God wants us to accept, to make peace with, and to assimilate even those parts of ourselves we have tried, in effect, to castrate. God wants us to love all of ourselves as we are loved by God. With that in mind, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” takes on new significance, doesn’t it?
       Recognizing the power and potential of his own life, the Ethiopian eunuch sees the sparkle of water and asks, What is to stop me from claiming my wholeness and my Belovedness in Christ?
And Philip’s says, Nothing. Nothing can hinder you from your full humanity in Jesus.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, God meets us where we are, and loves us as we are. But God doesn’t seem satisfied to leave us there, either. At this table, we don’t shamefully cast off sin nearly so much as we gratefully take on and take in God’s redeeming grace.
       And no one will be hindered from God’s table of grace.