Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Grace of Impossibility (Sermon)

“The Grace of Impossibility”
Mark 10:17-31
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

17As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”(NRSV)

         Mark writes the earliest and the shortest gospel. And he tells the story of Jesus with urgent yet thoughtful purpose. Pay close attention to the context of a story in Mark, and you’ll likely see more than meets the eye.
         For instance, when a man asks Jesus what he “must…do to inherit eternal life” – as if grace can be earned – his question immediately follows Jesus saying that to enter the kingdom of God, receive it as a child would. The man either didn’t hear that teaching, or he’s so possessed by his possessions that he’s blind and deaf to grace. Mark creates revealing tension that way.
Responding to the man, Jesus says, Only God is good, but I bet you know that. And I bet you know the commandments, too, don’t you? Don’t kill, cheat, steal, and lie. Respect your parents.
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth,” the man says proudly.
Jesus looks at the man and with that deep, selfless ache called agape love, says, Good. Now, you’re missing one thing; “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
And just like that, Jesus loses another disciple, because the wealthy man just doesn’t get it. Indeed, with the unforgettable image of a camel and the eye of a needle, Jesus implies that preciselybecauseof all their determination and proud self-sufficiency, wealthy people can’tget it.
Christians who live and worship in wealthy and powerful nations crave stories like the one about a single tiny gate in the wall around Jerusalem, a gate called “the eye of the needle” through which a camel could actually pass if unloaded and forced through on its knees. Such tidbits suggest that maybe Jesus wasn’t entirely right. Maybe violent domination and hyper-consumption are not entirelyantithetical to the ways of the kingdom. But there’s no evidence of such a gate, so it’s a false hope.1
Some have also tried to find comfort in the fact that the Greek word for camel and the Greek word for the thick rope used to tether a ship to its mooring are only one vowel apart.2Such a rope may be smaller than a camel, but threading it through a needle’s eye is no less impossible.
After his eye-of-the-needle comment, Jesus even loses his most faithful disciples – for the moment, anyway. ‘We’re all doomed! they cry.
Well, if you try to do it by yourself, yeah. It’s impossible, says Jesus, “but…for God all things are possible.”
Peter, ever the clueless hero, whines that the disciples have “left everything.” We’re good men, he says. We go to synagogue. We listen to you and other rabbis. We do what you tell us the scriptures tell us to do. We may not deserve to get into the kingdom, but for crying out loud, we ought to! We followed the rules!
The gospels reveal that disciples often mistake rule-following for Jesus-following. Rule-following religion breeds score-keeping, and, therefore, judgment of others. It doesn’t make people grateful, or generous, or humble. Being all about reward, rule-following breeds idolatry. It renders us proud, satisfied, and entitled.
When all we hear Jesus say is Believe in me so that I will forgive your sins and give you eternal life,discipleship can become pretty much whatever we want it to be. So long as we believe, and mostly behave, we don’t have to do anything really difficult.
To enter the kingdom,says Jesus,to understand true abundance and blessedness, follow me. Let go of all your stuff, and learn to practice the impossible.
I’m going to share some personal observations. Now, this isn’t sociological research. These are simply the reflections of a 55-year-old who has been listening, watching, reading, and, for the last 22 years, trying to preach Jesus. In the limited cross-section of culture familiar to me, it seems that some of us emphasize adhering to long-standing traditions of thinking and acting. We seek to control property and people for personal gain that we then claim as divine blessing. Others of us seek blessedness in challenging conventional ways of thinking and acting. We declare solidarity with poor, oppressed, and marginalized people, and all the while remain comfortably sheltered in privilege and security. As the culture around us gets increasingly polarized, as we all grasp desperately for control, our rhetoric toward each other gets more accusatory, demeaning, and stuck in absurd superlatives. We’rethe best and the first. You’rethe worst and the last.
Our polarization isn’t linear, though. Our respective furies seem to arc in such a way that we’re actually coming closer together. And rather than finding a place of creative ferment, a place in which we acknowledge both our very real differences andthe ways in which we necessarily balance and complement each other, this new place – which is anything but new in grand scheme of human history – becomes a place in which we simply mirror each other’s brokenness, a place marred by fear, competition, and vengeance. And in that place, our hostility toward each other is breeding a fresh and violent chaos.
Again, that’s just my subjective musing. So, take it or leave it.
Then again, Jesus experienced a time and place in which his disciples and his detractors came together to create fresh and violent chaos. And in the verses immediately following today’s text, Jesus predicts, for the third and final time, that day of darkness. That day when everyone tries in their own broken and selfish way to control the outcome of an out-of-control moment. And in doing so, they find themselves, as differently motivated as they may be, equal partners in the execution of God’s Christ. And out of that all-too-possible violence God creates something impossibly beautiful and hopeful.
Impossibility is an idea that powerful and entitled peoples tend to embrace. And when we limit ourselves to the possible, we regard worldly wealth and violent power as sovereign. So, whoever has the most stuff and can inflict the most damage wins. The world calls that “reality.”
Then Jesus says, Lay all your stuff down. Give it all away. As long as you put your trust in human means and human systems, you will never experience or bear witness to the personally, communally, and globally transforming gift of grace. No,says Jesus, whoever loses wins. Whoever is last is first. And the world calls that “fantasy.”
The Christian philosopher, Jacques Ellul, wrote the following paragraph specifically about money, but if you hold onto anything tighter than you hold onto Jesus, as I read these words, wherever Ellul says “money,” insert whatever idol you may be holding onto: “How [do we] overcome the spiritual ‘power’ of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The…only way to overcome the spiritual ‘power’ of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control…To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.”3
Jesus says it this way, more or less: When you demonstrate discipleship in concrete deed rather than superficial piety, when you find yourself fulfilled at the back of the line rather than the front, thenwill you be following me rather than rules. Thenwill you live a life defined by love rather than fear. Thenwill you inhabit a creation in which the impossible – in which resurrection – is the gracious new reality. And thenwill you inhabit the kingdom of God.
All of this is absurd and impossible, until we surrender all we have and all we are to the grace of God.

2C. Clifton Black, in his article “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pg. 169.
3Charles L. Campbell, in his article “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pg. 169.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Intrusive Grace (Sermon)

“Intrusive Grace”
John 9:1-41
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Years ago, I read a book entitled, The Christ-Haunted Landscape. In the book, Susan Ketchin compiles short stories or excerpts from novels by twelve southern writers whose work frequently includes religious themes. After each reading, Ketchin interviews the writer.
         Most of the authors grew up in the church and know the Bible fairly well. With only two or three exceptions, however, all of these wonderfully creative people have left the church, and many of them for rather uncreative reasons: Busyness or weariness of hypocrisy. Others really struggled with the whole idea of faith.
         Randall Kenan, an African-American writer from Chinquapin, NC, says, “I was having a lot of trouble in college about faith…My doubt arose when I realized that my religion came from a cultural happenstance, when, where, and to whom I was born. Most of us inherit our religion,” he says, “[And] that really bothered me.”1
         I understand that. Religion was in the air I breathed and the water I drank, too. Maybe the same was true for you. And isn’t that the nature of an inheritance? Be it the gift of an estate or the curse of a congenital disease, an inheritance comes a result of who we are. And while we might walk away from a bank account, we can’t just walk away from a birthmark or heart disease.
         The influence of an inherited faith may feel like it has more in common with the legacy of a congenital disease than a beach house. Even if we do walk away from the church after having been raised in it, the stories linger. Certain tunes and lyrics still creep into our thoughts. There will always be something familiar about the cadence of the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles’ Creed, or Psalm 23. And, depending on our experiences, the very idea of worship will give rise to feelings of hope, or joy, or fear, or boredom.
         When Presbyterians speak of this truth, we often use that loaded term “predestination.” We’ve been argued with and scoffed at because of it, and that’s because few people really understand the biblical concept of predestination. The engaging story of Jesus healing the man born blind can help us with it.
John 9:1-41
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
9Some were saying, “It is he.”
Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”
He kept saying, “I am the man.”
10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”
12They said to him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.
He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.(NRSV)

         Jesus and his disciples notice a man blind from birth. He’s begging for alms, which is the only career track for blind people in that cultural context. Steeped in their own inherited tradition, the disciples understand and engage the world in terms of retributive justice. So, they ask, “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind?”
         Jesus says, in effect, God doesn’t cause suffering. God enters suffering for the sake of those who suffer.
Then, without asking the man if he wants to be healed, without asking for a profession of faith, Jesus spits on the ground, makes a couple of tiny mud pies, rubs them on the man’s eyelids, and heals him.
         The man quickly becomes the talk of the town – and on the Sabbath, no less. Angry Pharisees begin to question the man. As the inquisition progresses, the man’s responses begin to move from oblivious wonder to honest faith. At first it was simply, ‘Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did, and now I can see.’ Next, he affirms Jesus as a prophet. Then he boldly challenges the Pharisees. Listen to you,he says.You don’t know who he is, but he opened my eyes. Everybody knows that God works like this only through people who are faithful and just.
         When he finally lays eyes on Jesus, the man says, “Lord, I believe.”
         Grace often does that. It intrudes on our lives. It comes as an inheritance – something unearned and uninvited. It makes me think of the tortuously privileged lives of British royalty. Born into a family that mustmaintain a very public and scripted protocol, those folks belong to their inheritance more that it belongs to them. And for the good of their culture, most of them uphold their roles pretty well – at least outwardly.
For Christians, predestination is about inheriting more than a particular tradition or belief. It’s about inheriting a responsibility. It is about being the church, the “ekklesia,” the “called out ones.” It’s about being thrust into a remarkable story and engaging the world according to the new and unnervingly gracious terms of that story.
         We who inherit faith often find ourselves doubtful of what and why we believe. Maybe we do get put off by arrogance, hypocrisy, and relentless scandal in the church – or by the church’s failure to speak both prophetically and joyfully into our privileged and increasingly selfish culture. Maybe we get too busy to care anymore. Or maybe we pull away because of unresolvable questions about the arbitrary horror of human suffering, or, like Randall Kenan, the arbitrariness of our own inclusion in faith itself.
         These are all important and necessary questions. They’re part of the process of claiming faith as a gift rather than a congenital disease.
The young people in this congregation either have been or may be baptized into the covenant of God’s intrusive grace. And if they’re here, it’s because you bring them. When they’re old enough to think for themselves and to ask their own questions, what will happen?
If we used the Sabbath to teach them that what matters is getting, owning, and controlling, if we teach them to care for themselves first, if we teach them to fear, they will leave here diseased, blind from birth. And they will either become carriers of a hereditary disorder, or they will they leave in search of a cure.
         But, if we use the Sabbath to say Here’s mud in your eye,
If we seek to celebrate the image of God within us,
If we teach them to seek the image of God in others,
If we teach them that people matter more than expensive stuff in our sanctuaries,
If we teach them – by example – to trust the kingdom of God before we trust earthly kingdoms,
If we teach them to receive faith as a proclivity toward love rather than a burden of Pharisaic self-righteousness,
If we teach them that the very creation around us is a self-revelation of God and that we are its stewards,
Then maybe, just maybe, they will see with their hearts and live in such a way that bears grateful witness to God’s intrusive grace in their lives and in the world.
What they see and receive is what we see and give to them.

1Susan Ketchin, The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 1994. P. 297.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Gift Economy (Newsletter)

Dear Friends,
         While we love to give and receive from each other, there’s something particularly holy about gifts given and received in unblemished love. Sure, we like to hear Thank you and You’re Welcome, but in a pure, gift economy, the gift is given without subversive expectations of reciprocation, and the gift is received without the burden of indebtedness.
When strings – implicit or explicit – are attached to giving, the gift is lost. It becomes a mere investment, or the trading of favors. The ethics behind investment giving and receiving creates rigid hierarchies where the wealthy and powerful are always trying to trade up for influence and advantage. The more people indebted to them, the more powerful they become. These hierarchies can create a certain amount of civil order, but they inevitably create resentment and envy, at both personal and cultural levels.
By contrast, the ethics behind a gift economy, which is based on the cornerstones of gratitude and generosity (i.e. grace), creates community. 
         In September we held our annual Alternative Gift Fair. The original purpose of alternative giving is to provide the opportunity to give something other than “stuff” to each other during Christmas and for birthdays. Alternative giving offers a way at least to dabble in the pure gift economy. It’s a chance to give something out of simple gratitude, generosity, and abundance. We give to help mitigate specific human needs, so, instead of putting something material between ourselves and the person whom we recognize with an alternative gift, we scatter that gratitude and generosity like the sower scattering seeds.
We will continue accepting Alternative Gift Fair donations through the month of October. If you haven’t already given, please consider making a gift. The 2018 recipients are The River, Family Promise, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (all gifts going to Hurricane Florence recovery), and Sunset Gap. We will have cards available if you wish to send someone a note saying that you have remembered them with a pure gift, a gift given to enrich the life of someone else in their honor, or in memory of someone you both loved.
Remember Paul’s words: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”(2 Cor. 9:7) The word cheerfulcan also be translatedmerryorglad.These words describe an unencumbered heart, one in the midst of rejoicing. A gift cheerfully given is a gift offered for the sheer joy of sharing. And thatis the heart that knows the blessedness of giving over receiving.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Lonely Places (Sermon)

“Lonely Places”
Mark 9:30-37
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”(NRSV)

Lonely places.
Introverts usually crave them.
Extroverts usually fear them.
In lonely places, flying solo with our daydreams and nightmares, we can come to fresh understandings and energies, or we can come undone. The irony is that fresh new understandings and energies often require a certain degree of undoing. Therapists, tribal elders, the Holy Spirit, and other teachers often guide individuals or groups into lonely places for coming-undone experiences that lead to growth, transformation, and healing.
Led himself by the wisdom pulsing at the heart of creation, Jesus seems to know that when his disciples face their rabbi’s death, they will, in some way, come undone. So, he keeps their journey through Galilee a secret. He shepherds them through remote places because coming undone is much more effectively and healthfully accomplished beside still waters.
Jesus learns this for himself at his temptation. He goes into the wilderness alone and faces all the selfish possibilities lying at his fingertips. It takes everything he has to push through the seductions of pride, and for his temptation to become a beneficial undoing.
I think that when the disciples begin to imagine that Jesus may actually die, they face temptations similar to those that Jesus overcomes. They begin to imagine who gets to be in charge after his death.
“What were you arguing about on the way,” asks Jesus. An embarrassed silence surrounds them. Out in that lonely place, confronting the reality of life without Jesus and the hope he represents, the disciples have already begun trying to fill the void of uncertainty, to wrangle their way into ascendancy. As Jesus leads his followers through the valley of the shadow of death, they turn this terrifyingly gracious, lonely-place experience into a childish political primary.
And Jesus shakes his head saying, Have you guys heard nothing I said? To lead others, one must have a servant heart. True greatness is about humility.
Then, Jesus picks up a child and says, Listen, how you welcome a child reflects how you welcome me, and not only me, but God, who sent me.
The image of Jesus holding a child is meant to scandalize first-century readers. Children represent a responsibility that lies well beneath the concerns of most self-respecting men. Jesus is leading his followers into yet another lonely place where accepted arrangements are breaking down. And he illustrates the difference between humiliation and humility. Humiliation shames and devalues other people, usually for the purpose of dominating them. And humility recognizes, intentionally, the image of God in others. Humility values self and the other equally.
“For by the grace given to me,” writes Paul, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) Paul goes on to say that we’re all members of one body. Only in humility can we accept, appreciate, and love one another as unique and vital members of the same body. To live humbly requires an often-painful transformation. Biblical literature uses the stark metaphor of death to describe that transformation. And virtually all deaths, metaphorical and literal, include some kind of lonely-place sojourn – if not for the one who dies, then for those who feel the loss.
Many primitive cultures created lonely places. One day during my grandfather’s experience with terminal cancer, he told his daughter, my mother, “Now I understand why the Indians used to take their old people out into the woods and leave them to die.”
While those heart-breaking words reveal the weight of one man’s suffering, they also reveal how burdensome good intentions can be on someone in the midst of suffering.
We often surround those who suffer with food, small talk, attention to household chores, flowers, Helen Steiner Rice, and expectations of a valiant fightagainst disease or grief. While we may intend such things as expressions of love and grace, they can become attempts to control and avoid. They can become ways to argue with mortality about who is the greatest. Sometimes the most comforting presence in the face of suffering is that friend who sits silently and patiently with us, that friend who resists the temptation to cloak suffering with layers of words, that gifted friend who, like the angels and wild beasts of Jesus’ temptation, simply waits on us. They wait while we, as the old spiritual declares, walk that lonesome valley by ourselves.
Any argument with mortality, like any argument about relative greatness, is the stomachache that follows a feast on the poisonous fruit of pride. Pride may be the seminal offense from which all other sins arise. I say that because it seems to me that all transgressions germinate in a person’s or a group’s attempt to assume superiority over others, over circumstances, or over God. Pride’s opposing virtue is humility – the gift of seeing and celebrating the equal beauty and value of all people. So, it makes sense for Jesus, while holding a child, to tell a bunch of prideful, first-century men that to be truly great, we must first learn humility.
Ravenously competitive and fearful cultures make pride a virtue, so, humility does not come easy. It requires a spiritual death. And nothing can bring pride to its knees, nothing can make pride come undone like experiences of acute loneliness and vulnerability.
In foretelling his death, Jesus prepares his disciples for an experience of dire poverty. They will need each other. And they will not be able to carry on Jesus’ work without humbly depending on fellow servants, whoever they may be.
It comes as no surprise that in the very next story in Mark, we hear the disciples complain to Jesus about a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
We tried to stop him,they say. He wasn’t one of us.
And Jesus stuns them with a rebuke:Why in God’s name did you do that? Why are you still trying to argue about greatness? Whoever is not against us is for us! Humbly welcome their help!
When confronting our limits as human beings, when realizing that we’re not so great as we’d like to think, the Spirit leads us into a lonely place to die a healing death. As often as we find ourselves striving for greatness, victorious “rightness” over one another, we must die that death.
Lonely journeys into humility and service reveal the indescribable value, the wholeness, and the purpose unique to ourselves, to those around us, and to the communities which God creates through us.
May we all enter places of transforming loneliness through which we become one body, a body who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God and with God’s son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Jesus-The Messiah of Losers (Sermon)

“Jesus - The Messiah of Losers”
Mark 8:27-38
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (NRSV)

         Early last week a prominent televangelist publicly stated that Hurricane Florence missed his area because of his prayers. He then implied that if people in Georgia and the Carolinas had his faith, God would favor them, too, and send the storm to hit people who didn’t matter. All cruel vanity aside, if this guy can really affect the weather, why he doesn’t just pray that deadly storms don’t even form in the first place?
The man’s remarks are simply another example of something that’s been true throughout human history: Competitive, potent, and privileged cultures tend to worship whatever god or gods seem to favor winners.
         Now, we deserve a little credit. Most of us here have a sufficiently healthy image of God, enough compassion and simple decency to know that wealth and power have nothing to do with God’s favor. While I think we know that, we’re constantly bombarded by proclamations and displays of thanksgiving to the god of winners. The conflation of state with church or synagogue or mosque may be the most complicated and perilous of signs, but other things work on us, too – simple things. The athlete crosses home plate, throws a touchdown, or drains another three-pointer, and afterward, he kisses his fingers and points to the heavens. The synonymy of God and worldly victory creates a self-serving ethic because it creates God in our image.
If any part of us still wants or expects Jesus to be the Messiah of winners, we can relate to Simon Peter.
When Jesus called him, Peter was a dyed-in-the-wool, god of the winnerskind of guy. He knew about the Exodus and Miriam’s song: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21)
Peter would have known the prayer of Jabez who “called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” (1Chron. 4:10)
Peter would have known about Israel’s prophetic tradition which often compares Yahweh to a warrior laying waste to enemies and their lands. He would have known about the perceived promise to David of an eternal, earthly throne.
While Peter would have known all of these things and more, he may have felt like a loser. He was, after all, just a lowly Jewish fisherman in a Roman territory.
Jesus knew all of that, too. He knew that the Roman authorities and the complicit Jewish leaders would take offense at his ministry. He knew that oppressed Jews wanted their long-awaited Messiah to lead them in a military revolution and make Israel the once-and-for-all winnerin Palestine. And they wouldn’t take kindly to a Messiah who didn’t deliver thatvictory.
So, Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” is laden with the baggage of Israel’s expectations.
The disciples say: They think you’re the return of one of the prophets.
Maybe Jesus feels the question inside that answer: Are you our hero. Are you our victorious deliverer?
So, Jesus strips it down: “Who do you say that I am?”
“You are the Messiah,” says Peter.
Don’t tell anyone, says Jesus. Then, he tells his disciples that he’s going to be rejected by the religious authorities. He’s going to suffer at their hands, and be killed by them.
Peter lashes out saying, No! If you’re the Messiah, you will NOT be a loser! We worship the god of winners!
Only in hell, says Jesus. So, “get behind me Satan!”
Jesus does not promise the kind of victory that Peter expects from the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t promise that if people go to church and pray hard enough, they’ll enjoy comfortable and easy lives. He doesn’t promise that believers will be winners. Jesus himself will pray until he sweats blood, but Hurricane Friday will still blow into Jerusalem. The storm surge of frustration and fear will dash Jesus against the rocks of Roman judgment. And Israel’s hopes will drown – for the time being.
 Here’s what Jesus does promise: “If any want to become my followers…deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross and follow me…For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus is the Messiah of Losers. How many followers do we still have for that Messiah? How many takers for his promise?
The thing about Peter is that, beneath his selfish and reactionary fear, he really does understand. Remember, when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Peter and Andrew dropped everything. They left their nets, their livelihood, their family, their security. They lost their lives to follow Jesus. And they’re still learning to live into new life with Jesus.
The deaths we die when choosing to follow the Messiah of Losers are usually slow and painful. But discipleship is all about letting go. It’s about losing ourselves into something bigger, deeper, and holier. It’s about losing ourselves into the conscious awareness and acceptance of this new thing called the kingdom of God. And math in the kingdom is backward. Growth as Jesus followers happens by subtraction. To experience and participate in the kingdom, we turn loose, because grasping at material things inevitably makes us dependent on violence and exploitation.
Sure, we need food, shelter, community, and some degree of security. And Jesus calls us to harmonize those needs with discipleship. That’s why we need the Messiah of Losers. He promises that losing fearful and selfish ambition frees up more space in our lives for us to hold on to Jesus and to his gospel.
Again, you know this. You know the things we crave but which separate us from God and from each other.
Listen, I love my righteous indignation toward anyone who pushes my buttons. (As the beginning of this sermon makes clear!) But even when I think my views have merit, if over committed to my own opinions, I become Pharisaic and arrogant. When my decisions and attitudes reveal that I believe God is onmy side, my way of life begins to diminish the lives of others. And I consider their loss my own God-ordained win. And that diminishes my life, as well.
So, Jesus says, Allen, lose that attitude. Lose that old life and that old self. You’re making someone else’s life a living hell. Make more room for following me.
Like Peter, I have trouble hearing that. But when I intentionally relinquish even some of my selfishness or fear, I realize that – while I still have arthritis, a bad back, 20 extra pounds, and a whole barnyard of neuroses – I begin to experience new awareness of and appreciation for what life becomes when I have a little more Jesus and a little less Allen. And oddly enough, when that happens, I begin to feel more like myself than ever.
Less really is more with Jesus – the Messiah of Losers.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Digging In and Reaching Out (Sermon)

“Digging In and Reaching Out”
Mark 7:24-37
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.
34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.
37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

         According to Mark, immediately after Jesus says that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out, we hear words come out of Jesus that dismiss and belittle a woman asking for help. He implies that she and her kindare Gentile “dogs.”
Matthew, the gospel to the Jews, includes this story. Luke, the gospel to the Gentiles, does not. And neither does John.
To me, Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman creates the most disturbing moment anywhere in the gospels. It’s much less difficult for me to hear Jesus say take up a cross and follow him than to hear him label a whole group of people dogs. Yes, Jesus helps the woman, but he never retracts the dog analogy. So, some will use this passage to justify exploitation and abuse of people who were born into a particular cultural heritage or skin color. When disembodied from the wider context of the Gospel, this is a dangerous story.
         I’m not alone in my queasiness with this passage. Over the centuries, commentators have rushed in to protect Jesus saying that he said this on purpose to “test” the woman. William Barclay even sugar coats it saying that Jesus had to havehad a wry smile on his face knowing that the woman would have her snappy comeback ready.
But what if Jesus isn’t just joking? What if he’s not manipulating this conversation in order to create a teachable moment for us to romanticize or dodge? What if Jesus is so thoroughly tired, so thoroughly frustrated, so thoroughly humanin this moment that he says something for which he gets a bit of a tweak? Could this story represent a moment when, by the same grace that called him out of eternity with the Father into the messy reality of the physical moment, Jesus receives a reminder that as God Incarnate, as Son of God/Son of Man, as the Messiah, he carries with him, at all times, in all places, not just the gift of Divine Presence and Love but the responsibility of sharing it with all the world?
While it may sound threatening even to ask that question, given the details and language of the story, how can we not ask it?
Before you gather the tar and the feathers, step into the shoes of this Gentile woman. You are utterly dependent and vulnerable in that moment. Your voice counts for virtually nothing, unless you do something wrong. Then you get attention. Very focused attention. The attention of stone-wielding Jewish men for whom killing you as an act of piety will be great sport.
In fact, when you ask Jesus for help, and he says that it’s “not fair to [throw the children’s food] to the dogs,” and you counter with, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” that could be the disrespect that gets you stoned. And you know it. But hang the consequences. Your daughteris sick, and that’s Jesusin front of you. So, like the persistent widow, you keep knocking.
Being Love Incarnate, Jesus is deeply moved and, apparently, renewed by your love and your bold faith. From where he sits, exhausted from being hounded by one selfish request after another, Jesus sends you home with the promise of wholeness. And you go home ready to celebrate the gift that you know awaits you.
Remember, Jesus is a Jewish rabbi, through-and-through. He’s committed to his spiritual tradition. Because of that, he belongs, wholly and ultimately to the God who demands justice, kindness, and humble faithfulness. Yahweh does not honor the walls erected by human pride, prejudice, and fear. And because we are Christians, we belong, wholly and ultimately, to Jesus who is our one and only Lord and Savior. And Jesus, who “did not count equality with God as something to be exploited,” (Philippians 2:6) models for us the truth that the road of faithfulness requires our entire being all the time.
Back in the Decapolis, Jesus finds himself being hounded again. Another group of people bring to Jesus a man who can’t hear or speak. Unable to communicate, the man can’t truly participate in community. This time Jesus asks no questions about motive or cultural identity. He recognizes a call to restore wholeness to an individual and to an entire community. Jesus takes the man “aside…away from the crowd.” He will do this, but he’ll do it privately.
The scene gets awkward – fingers in the ears, spitting, and tongue-touching. But to me, the most interesting thing Jesus does is to heave a sigh before saying “Ephphatha,” be opened. In that sigh, I hear Paul’s wordless Spirit-prayer. A prayer not just for the healing of one human being but for all humanity. A prayer that says, God, help the people who will see and hear about this to know that I’m not a contestant on Israel’s Got Talent. I am your Christ, and I am here for all of them!
It’s significant that immediately after these two covert healings, Mark shows Jesus doing something very public and very memorable: He feeds four thousand people, and he does so without worrying a whit about who are Jews and who are Gentiles. “I have compassion for the crowd,” he says, because they’re hungry.
Christian mission follows a similar progression. We move from the narrow confines of those who feel familiar, safe, and deserving outward to all people simply because we’re all human beings. And throughout that process, there’s a lot of deep and wordless sighing. Like Jesus, we don’t get to decide who walks up to us and into our lives. We can only sigh through the questions and the discomfort that come with reaching beyond ourselves to share the gospel with all whom God loves.
By the time that Jesus feeds those four thousand folks, he’s as vulnerable in the presence of the religious and political authorities as the Syrophoenician woman was vulnerable in Jesus’ presence just a short time before. After feeding the multitude, Jesus meets resistance. The Pharisees demand that Jesus give them a sign that he has the authority to do such signs – as if the signs themselves are insufficient to declare his authority.
You’re not going to get any more signs that you’ve already gotten,says Jesus. The question is not about Jesus’ authority versus the authority of the people in power. It’s about God calling all of us to respond to, engage with, and share the renewing power of holy love.
The signs are alreadypresent. Indeed, they’re on the table this morning. For centuries, the Church has said of this table, No Syrophoenicians Allowed, and any leftovers we’ll throw outside to the birds, the ants, and foraging dogs.
No more of that, though. If you’re in this sanctuary, you’re one of the thousands in that Palestinian field. Jesus sees your hunger, and our compassionate Lord wants you to eat. He is the host – not me and not this congregation. So, all of you are invited to this table of proclamation. You’re invited to receive these signs of God’s presence and love.
And you’re challenged not only to let them heal you of all brokenness, deafness, and fear, but to go out, renewed, proclaiming and sharing God’s boundless grace.
So come, and be fed.