Sunday, March 17, 2019

"What Makes Jesus Weep?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyteria Church on Luke 13:31-35

Mosaic on altar in Dominus Flevit chapel on Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"   

"What Makes Jesus Weep?"

Luke 13:31-35

The first time I visited the Holy Land in 2006, I felt very moved by the sight of the Dominus Flevit chapel every time we drove near it on the bus. So, I made sure that, when I led a small group on a pilgrimage in 2009, we took the time to walk down the Mount of Olives and visit Dominus Flevit. The chapel was built near the spot traditionally said to be where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The church’s name, in Latin, means “the Lord wept.”  The shape of the church is in the form of a tear drop.
            The church features a beautiful picture window that faces west, overlooking Jerusalem, in the direction Jesus was looking as he wept over the city.[1]
         Below the window, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city.  It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head, which reminds us that Jesus compared himself to a chicken.  The mother hen’s wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. The hen looks ready to protect her beloved chicks.
        The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin.  Translated into English it reads, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"   The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: “You were not willing.”
            How often have I desired. As John Wurster wrote in his recent blog post, this phrase points us to something significant about who Jesus is. Jesus yearns to gather us to himself, to shelter us, to be in relationship with us. How often have I desired to gather you, and you were not willing?  Too often, we hide. We resist. We follow our own way, try to live by our own version of the truth. And yet God keeps longs to be in relationship with us and keeps seeking us out.[2]
            It’s a very vulnerable stance when there are foxes or other predators around and you're the mother hen. When told that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'"   
Jesus is in very clear and present danger as he faces Jerusalem.  He knows this. The prophet’s job is to speak truth to power, tell hard truths that people don’t want to hear. We know the prophet is right when the point to a sin that entangles us—when they name those fragilities we most fear.
As Eric Baretto says, if we know how and where to look, we find prophets today in all kinds of places. “Prophets don’t predict what is next. They look at the world as it is and, through their God-suffused imagination, see it transformed. What if violence and death were not the order of the day? What if compassion, not selfishness, reigned in our midst? What if we could all see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us?
Baretto continues: “The prophet plants herself in the present, in all its blessedness and mire, and says God is present here. She declares a new world, and in this bold, courageous declaration, God acts. In the very act of speaking a God-inspired word of consolation and hope, prophecy comes to life in our midst—as we lift our hands to serve our neighbor and move our feet to go to the most desolate places and discover there that God and God’s servants are very much alive, very much present. We find that such places are not so desolate after all.[3]
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and certain death. He uses the image of a mother hen who shields her chicks with her own body—and her very life, to express the wondrous love of God.  
         "I must be on my way,” Jesus said. Must.  Jesus uses that word over and over to indicate the divine necessity to which he must be obedient.   Jesus had already announced to his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."[4]  This is what Jesus is about-- delivering God's grace because it is his divine calling.   It is what he must do.  
            Jesus went to Jerusalem to gather that city and the whole world under the protective wings of God’s grace.  Isn’t this a wonderful guiding image for the church’s ministry?  When we see the protective mother hen as an image of strength and God’s protecting grace in Jesus Christ, it can be the pattern for our life together as the church. Acting as a caring hen, the church needs to seek out God’s children everywhere to bring them under the protective wing of God’s grace.
That’s a tall order. Where in the world do we start? 
         I think we start by looking around our world and asking ourselves, “What makes Jesus weep?”    
            I see things that I believe surely make Jesus weep: the violation of basic human rights of so many of God’s beloved children… people in one of the richest nations of the world who lack adequate shelter or don’t know where their next meal will come from… so many of God’s beloved children being killed by gun violence… systemic racism and poverty…Islamaphobia…ethnic cleansing in the land we call “Holy”… God’s good creation being ravaged so carelessly… warfare… children in Yemen dying of hunger…children around the world dying of malaria and AIDS… families separated at our nation’s borders. The list could go on and on.
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, he very clearly said it is to love God completely and to love one another as ourselves. In his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he declared that the spirit had anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to free those who are oppressed. In word and deed, Jesus called his followers live as God’s beloved and loving people, to see all of God’s children as beloved, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
            So, I believe that the hatred and injustice we see around us in the world, the neglect and outright contempt for the poor, the idolatries in Church and culture, the fearfulness and violence surely make Jesus weep.
            This past Friday we woke up to hear that at least 49 Muslims whomassa were gathered for Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in a brutal act of terrorism. (The death count now is at least 50.)  A gunman mercilessly shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition with a weapon that was scrawled with neo-Nazi symbols and the names of white right-wing extremists who had killed others because of their ethnicity or faith. A manifesto released online laid his motivations out to bare: to kill Muslim immigrants. He cited white nationalist extremists in the United States and France and elsewhere as his inspiration.
            When we look around and consider all the things we think make Jesus weep, it can be overwhelming. It may seem impossible. But because we can’t do everything is not a reason to do nothing. We are called to do what we can.
As a congregation and in our personal lives, we need to look for the things in our world that make Jesus weep. And then—because we can’t do everything—we need to focus on where the world’s pain and need meet our deepest passions and our gifts and what we have to offer in service. We need to do what we can do.          
            I think we can learn a lot from history, from prophets and activists who saw something that was wrong and did what they could. In his book Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild tells the story of a mass movement in Britain swayed first public opinion, and finally Parliament, to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.[5]  I  think that any of you who have a passion for peace and justice and interfaith could learn from them and would enjoy the book.
I’m sure it seemed like a hopeless cause to a lot of folk. But activists formed a broad coalition, energized by Quakers and evangelical Christians, but reaching across the political and social spectrum, including people of prophetic faith and shrewd politicians, progressives and conservatives, elites and outsiders.
            William Wilberforce introduced his first anti-slavery motion into Parliament in 1788.   It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807.  They kept working until slavery was abolished altogether, in 1833.

         In the United States, Christians were an important part of the Underground Railroad. In his book, Bound for Canaan,[6] Fergus Bordewich tells how ordinary people, black and white, slave and free, joined together to do what they believed was right, in a movement of civil disobedience that challenged prevailing social mores and local and federal law.  Bordewich estimates that the network of men and women who harbored or conducted fugitive slaves, plus those who assisted with food, clothing, and legal assistance, numbered more than 10,000, and that they carried an estimated 100,000 fugitives to the far northern states and Canada.   
            I believe our Christian faith calls us to a truly prophetic faith--- a holistic faith that is united with the struggle for peace and justice.  
            This faith informs my thinking when I ask, “What makes Jesus weep today?”
            I see Jesus weeping over our cities… over our world… over the way humankind has acted…  weeping over how we have failed to be the loving, generous, joyful people we were created to be…  weeping over the violence and oppression in our world.   I hear God lamenting over our unfaithfulness.  God grieves for us… and longs to protect us. 
            Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem follows a collection of parables that call for repentance.  I believe that Jesus’ lament over the city of Jerusalem is less a final judgment on the city and more a call to repentance.   It calls us to listen for God’s word for us today, and to respond faithfully.

Here at Littlefield, we’ve been working for several decades at practicing hospitality that welcomes people who are different into our building for English as a Second Language classes and preschool programs and interfaith programs and interfaith worship services. Some of you have attended interfaith events at local mosques and enjoyed the warm hospitality there. These are some of the ways we build bridges of understanding and nurture relationships. It’s hard to hate somebody or to be afraid of them when you’ve shared meals together and prayed together for healing and peace.
Some of you are growing in your willingness to be uncomfortable in your own spaces, even in your own families, and risk speaking up when someone says something Islamophobic or anti-Semitic or racist.  Those of us who live in Dearborn have neighbors and friends who are Muslim. I know that some of you have had relatives or acquaintances say something that shows their lack of experience or understanding, like “What’s it like to live under Sharia law?”

Now, to those of us who live in Dearborn, that’s a ludicrous question. But we have people in our lives who live elsewhere, and some of them seem to get their information from propaganda industries that promote fear and hatred.
It may seem like a small thing when you respond to their questions or remarks by saying, “I wouldn’t know. We don’t live under Sharia law in Dearborn.” Or, “I have wonderful neighbors who bring me food and help me shovel my snow,” or whatever. It may be a small thing, but it makes a difference.
There is so much misinformation and fear-mongering and hateful stuff circulating in social media. So, though it may seem like a small thing, we can commit ourselves to actively using social media for good, by sharing posts that promote respect and compassion and understanding.
Another thing we can do is to show up. As many of you know, I make it a priority to show up in the community when there’s a crisis or something that calls for a faithful, neighborly response. When the travel ban went into effect, some of you were there to represent, holding your signs that quoted scripture passages that command us to treat immigrants with hospitality and justice, and reminded us that we are commanded to love one another as ourselves, and some signs that proclaimed, “We love our Muslim neighbors.”
I’ve lost count of the number of candlelight vigils and interfaith services I’ve attended in the past few years. There have been too many terrible mass shootings. I’ve lost count.
So, Friday, when I heard about the massacre in the mosques in New Zealand, I decided it was important that I reach out in solidarity. I attended Friday prayers at one of our local mosques. And then I attended the vigil at the Islamic Center of America and was asked to offer a prayer.  Since Friday, I’ve gotten multiple emails and Facebook messages and phone calls from Muslim friends, thanking me for showing up, and telling me how much my friendship means to their communities.
It seems like a small thing, but it means more than you can imagine to people who are grieving and afraid. Just as we show up for funerals in our community, it offers comfort and shows we care when we show up when our friends and neighbors are in need. It isn’t something that only pastors can do.
It’s something any of you could do, maybe by going out two-by-two, to reach out in friendship and solidarity, to embody God’s love for all God’s beloved people by showing up.
We follow Jesus the Christ, who proclaimed the reign of God…and broke the power of sin and evil…and calls us to follow him on the way of self-giving love.  This same Jesus claims us as his own and promises to be with us always…and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us further into God’s truth and freedom, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”
Amen.  So be it!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 17, 2019

[1] Luke 19:41-44

[2] John Wurster, “Looking Into the Lectionary, 2nd Sunday in Lent,” at Presbyterian Outlook blog.

[3] Eric Baretto, “You Don’t Want to Be a Prophet (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11), at Huffington Post.

[4] Luke 9:22

[5] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Mariner Books, 2006.
[6] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. Amistad, 2005.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

"The Temptation of 'If'.'" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in Lent.

"The Temptation of 'If'"

Luke 4:1-13

If you were here on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, you remember that when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.
            At the age of 30, the man Jesus of Nazareth came to know that he was the beloved Son of God.
            Afterward, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tested by the devil.  The wilderness is hot and barren.  The gospel tells us that "he was famished."
            From somewhere comes a voice-- "If you are God's Son, then command this stone, so that it becomes bread."  And Jesus remembers John...   the Jordan River...  the sky opening and a voice thundering, “You are my Son...  the beloved."
            But now there’s a different voice:  "If you are God's Son...   if you are God's Son."   A rounded stone could become a loaf of bread.   Who could it hurt?   If he is God's child-- then why shouldn't he have what he wants?  The temptation is to turn away from the way of sacrifice.
            The first temptation in the gospel story is to choose the easy life.  We end up hungry for the wrong things.  The life focused on security…  worldly success… or play...  or earthly pleasure-- is a life spent looking for substitutes for communion with God.
            We're tempted to avoid hard things like forgiveness.  Somebody says something thoughtless that makes you feel stupid...   or devalued.  Someone you thought was your friend hurts you deeply.  We should forgive. 
            Or we’re faced with a situation where someone needs to be protected, or where we need to stand up for what’s right and just.
            These are the times when it’s hard to follow Jesus. We’re tempted to do what’s easier.
            Jesus understood the temptation of the easy way.  "One cannot live by bread alone. 

            The adversary tries again.    “If you will worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.”   Jesus could have chosen success… and prominence or wealth-- instead of the way of self-giving love and redemptive suffering.  But he didn’t.

            The tempter tries again.  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple…”   You know what the scriptures say, “God will protect you."
            As Shakespeare pointed out, “There is no error so grave but that some sober brow will not bless it with a proper text."    Even Satan quotes scripture.
            First century Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the temple roof.  Jesus could be the Messiah the people wanted-- if he would do what they expected.   

            Did you notice?  Jesus responds to all three tests with Scripture. All three responses are from Deuteronomy, the part of the Torah that details what covenant relationship looks like, that tells and retells the story of who God is…and who God’s people are… and how God works.  Jesus comes back to the faith that had formed him, the rote prayers repeated so often that didn’t leave him when he needed them the most.
            Knowing who you are and whose you are is essential to your wholeness as God’s child, and to your awareness of what God wants you to do with your life.    Satan’s primary objective isn’t getting you to do something wrong-- but to get you to forget who you are.  The Adversary wants you to lose your identity…  and your sense of belonging to the family of God.
            The ways Satan tries to convince us that we don’t deserve God’s love are subtle and clever.  And these temptations-- like the temptations of Christ-- are far more treacherous than an impulse to disobey one of the commandments. 
            Think about this tricky question: “If you are a child of God, then why don’t you feel more like one?   This can be deadly, because sometimes we don’t feel much like a beloved member of God’s family.  The temptation is to believe that-- if you’re not feeling like a child of God-- then maybe you aren’t.
Or about this temptation: “If you are a child of God, why don’t you act more like one? 
When we’re tempted to forget who we are, we’re in a kind of spiritual desert.  The word “wilderness” or “desert” has often been used as a symbol for being lost spiritually.  Sometimes we don’t feel or act like children of God.  Sometimes it seems as though we’re wandering around in a wilderness, not knowing who we are. 
Being in a wilderness place is an unavoidable part of the Christian walk.  We fight some of our greatest spiritual battles when we’re out in the wilderness.  It’s a time when we’re confronted with ourselves.  and we need to clarify what it is that we want or desire more than anything else.             
            When we're tempted to forget who we are...   when we're tempted to take the EASY way--   we're called to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus went back to the scriptures that he learned as a child… the stories he’d heard at home and in the synagogue.  He remembered the things God had done for him.  He recalled the truths God had spoken. 
That’s what we’re called to do. We need to remember this story of Jesus in the wilderness. 
There were no witnesses to this event but Jesus.  So, he must have told the disciples-- in the hope that they would remember. 
            Remember that we have a savior who understands our struggle.  Remember how Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and made it clear what his mission was in his inaugural speech in the synagogue in Nazareth:
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
            Remember who you are:  a beloved child of God, claimed by God’s grace… and called to work in partnership with Christ to embody God’s love and to work for reconciliation and justice and peace in the world. 
            Following Jesus sometimes leads us into the wilderness, where we are tested and prepared by God for ministry in this world.  It isn’t a comfortable place to be, but there, in the wilderness we come to rely more and more on God as the source of our strength.  In the stillness of the wilderness, we quiet ourselves to hear God’s voice and to meditate on God’s word.
When we’re tempted, everything is at stake.  As Christians we’re called to carry on Christ’s saving work in the world.  God has an important plan for our lives.  So, as we journey through Lent, let us seek to follow Jesus more intentionally. 
The good news is that, beginning with our baptism, God claims us and calls us and by the Holy Spirit gives us the power we need to carry Christ’s saving love into the world.

Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 10, 2019


Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

“Earth to earth.   Ashes to  ashes.   Dust to dust.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.“

            In much of the Protestant church, Ash Wednesday wasn’t really observed until the last thirty or forty years.   I do remember celebrating “Fasnacht Day,” the Pennsylvania-Dutch version of Carnival or Shrove Tuesday, or Pasczki Day. I experienced King cake for the first time a few years ago.
The Methodist Women of the church in which I grew up made mountains of fried doughnuts in the church basement to sell to raise money for mission, and I remember the fragrant deliciousness. Some of us have enjoyed Fat Tuesday pancake suppers. There are so many delicious ways to use up lard, butter, sugar, and other fats before the Lenten fast.
            The ancient Church in its wisdom worked out the rhythms of the Christian year. For many of us who didn’t grow up Catholic, Ash Wednesday was a new experience at some point.  Some congregations eased into holding an Ash Wednesday service that was centered in the Lord’s Supper, and maybe in another year or two or more also invited people to have ashes imposed if they wanted them.  Maybe the first year or two, a few people came forward for Ashes, and then another year more people wanted ashes.
I think the practice has been growing, as people have recognized that it’s a gift to be reminded of our mortality.  It helps to bring things into focus for us.

            Last week, as we grieved the loss of our brother Hank, we gave thanks for the gift of his life, and witnessed to our faith and hope in the Resurrection.  We were reminded, once again, that our days on earth are numbered.
            When we are reminded of our mortality, we remember that not only are we dust and that we will return to dust, but we remember those who have gone before us.
            On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that repentance means turning away from our self and turning toward Jesus. We are that the Lenten journey isn’t just about giving up something, but also about standing up for someone, because our faith calls us to do so.
            The season of Lent can be a time for peeling away layers of insulation and anesthesia and denial that keep us from the truth of God’s promises. 
            Lent is about looking at our lives in as bright a light as possible—the light of Christ.  It is during this time of self-reflection and sacrificial giving and prayer that we make our way through the over busy-ness  and the messiness of our lives.  We let go of defending ourselves.  We let go of our self-loathing.  We cut through our arrogance and certainty and cynicism and ambivalence. 
            What’s so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we grow further into the freedom for which God created us.  We’re reminded that the same God who created us from the very earth to which we will return delights in us and loves us in all our broken beauty. 
            In the season of Lent, we are invited to return to God with all our hearts…to remember that God is more amazingly gracious and merciful than we can imagine.  We are invited to remember who we are and whose we are. 
            Lent invites us into the paschal mystery—to renew our discipleship, our life in Christ.  The season invites us to live out our baptism—to turn away from sin and to turn to the abundant way of life God offers us through Jesus Christ.

            As we receive the ashes and hear the promise that you are dust and to dust you shall return, know that it is the truth.  Know  that this truth can set you free to live in the awareness  of our mortality and our beloved-ness… and let us turn to live our lives in the light of that truth and love.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 6, 2019

Sunday, March 3, 2019

"Holy Transformation." A Sermon on Transfiguration Sunday.

"Holy Transfiguration"

Exodus 34;29-35; Luke 9:28-43

         Many of the great events in the Bible took place up on a mountain.  Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Elijah called down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel.  Peter made his confession of faith on a mountain.  Jesus often preached on the mount.  That's a pattern we can see in the scriptures.
            In both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons we heard today, we see a pattern.  Generally, when Moses heard God's Word for him and the people of Israel, it was when he was off by himself...  away from too much busy-ness and noise.  At times, Moses brought the Israelites out of the camp...  away from the distractions of their everyday work and routine-- to hear God speak to them directly.  
            When we study the Bible, we see this pattern of withdrawing-- going apart for awhile to be with God-- and then returning.
            Sometimes it takes longer than we think it might.   When Moses came down from Mount Sinai the first time after a time apart with God, he found the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.   Since they'd broken the covenant, Moses broke the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
            Then Moses made a second trip up the holy mountain.  He stayed there forty days and forty nights, fasting.  He wrote out the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments.   He prayed, "Show me your glory,” and God passed before him.  The LORD proclaimed the holy NAME to him and revealed more of the divine nature than had ever been revealed to the people before, saying,
            "The Lord... the Lord,
              a God merciful and gracious,
              slow to anger,
              and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
              keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
              forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
              yet by no means clearing the guilty....

            It was after this revelation that Moses came down among the people with his face shining so brilliantly that the people were afraid to come near him.  His appearance had been changed by his time apart with God.   There'd been a holy transformation.
            We know from reading the gospels that after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.  He spent forty days alone in the wilderness, fasting and being tested, before he began his ministry. 
            Jesus had been praying alone, with only his closest disciples near him, when he began teaching them that he would have to undergo great suffering...   be rejected by the religious authorities...  be killed...  and the third day be raised.  Then he told them that anyone who wanted to be his disciples would have to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him.

            It's eight days later when Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples and goes up on a high mountain to pray.   While he was praying they saw his face change, and his clothes become dazzling white.   Then Peter and James and John saw Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus.
            A cloud comes-- a sign of God's presence, as it had been in the Exodus.  From the cloud, a voice speaks:   "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” echoing the voice heard when Jesus was baptized. 

            At his baptism, there's a moment when the veil of the present is stripped away to reveal who Jesus is     and who he will be.   Now, the disciples are told not only who Jesus is-- but they also hear that they are to "listen to him."

            This strange mountaintop experience of worship happens on the way to the cross.  The end of the drama is over the horizon-- a tragedy that will end in death for Jesus...  and the scattering and disillusionment of his disciples.  On the way, there’s this mountaintop experience that looks toward the cross...  and yet transfigures the cross in a burst of revealing light and glory.

            On the Sunday of Transfiguration, just before Lent, the church makes its weary way toward the cross on Good Friday.  The story we heard talks about withdrawing and returning-- a dynamic we see throughout the gospels.  I believe this pattern of withdrawal and return is at the HEART of Christian worship...  and at the heart of our Christian life.

            In the midst of the pressures of life...  in the hectic busyness that most of us experience as ordinary time-- it’s hard to find the time and space to develop a spiritual life.  It takes commitment and discipline to look and listen for God. 

            This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday-- the beginning of Lent...  the forty days leading up to Easter.  If we want to grow in our faith...   if we want to be ready to experience the new life of the Resurrection, then we need to "take time to be holy." 

            Today's scripture lessons remind us how important it is to take time apart to be with God...  and listen for what God wants to say to us. 
            On the way to the cross, we need to withdraw and listen. We need to watch for the shining light of epiphany-- as God reveals his glory to us and transforms us gradually into God's likeness. 
            That's the reason for a Lenten discipline.   If we want to be followers of Christ-- we need to be true disciples.  We have to give Christ time to teach us...  and transform us into his likeness.
            I think some of you can testify that worship makes a difference in your lives.  I'm convinced that worship, study and prayer make all the difference.
            We withdraw up on the mountain, so that we can return to the valley.  We return to a world that hasn't changed.   But we've changed-- however gradually.  We have seen the Lord.  We've heard a voice. 

            Without such precious times of renewal... withdrawal... and vision, we wouldn't be able to endure life in the valley.   We wouldn't be able to walk the road that leads to the cross. 
            If we expect immediate and total spiritual perfection-- we're expecting too much.  Our transformation is happening gradually, like the transformation of the first disciples.  The Peter who was so enthusiastic about the mountaintop experience is the same Peter who denies Jesus in the face of the cross.  Human failure to comprehend, let alone live up to, divine revelation is a hard fact of life. 
            God calls us to accept it as fact, but to be strengthened by the assurance that God never gives up on us.  The Lord never abandons us to failure.   
            God gives us the hope we need to follow Jesus boldly, and gives us the Spirit of the Lord to lead us further into the truth...  further into the freedom that Christ offers us.
            The Apostle Paul said that we "see the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror dimly"...   and that we're being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another."  

            God isn't finished with any of us yet.  At our worst moments-- both individually and as a church-- we act as if God is finished with us.  We act as if creation had been finished a long, long time ago.  But nothing could be further from the truth. 
            The Holy Spirit still moves over the face of the waters.  God still breathes life into piles of dust.  Jesus still shouts us from our tombs. 
            God still sheds new light on our understanding...  and lights our faces with the radiance of His glorious self-giving love.  God continues to shine upon us... to transform us, almost imperceptibly, one degree at a time.   

            And that, my friends, is good news!
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 3, 2019



Sunday, February 24, 2019

"To Love as God Loves"

Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38

            Writing at the Presbyterian Mission blog, Rebecca Lister writes about how her son recently finished the requirements for the Boy Scout’s highest honor, Eagle Scout. As part of his final project, he designed and built a Little Free Pantry and a Little Free Library. He and several other Boy Scouts, family members and volunteers helped install them under some shade trees in front of the church.  The pantry has been very successful, as it is often empty. They were thrilled to see that the community was using it.
            Rebecca was surprised to discover that not everyone in their community was as pleased about the Little Free Pantry as they were. She said she talked with several people, both inside and outside of their church, who question the concept of “free.”  “Isn’t that teaching people to be dependent on others for food?” asked one person. “Why shouldn’t they have to work for their food like everybody else?”
            Another person said, “I know I’ve seen people go in and take out food who can afford it. I saw one woman talking on her cellphone as she did it. If she can afford a phone, she can afford food.”
            Rebecca says that she’s always taken aback in conversations like these. She can certainly see their arguments. But deciding who is poor enough to be really poor—really needy—is dangerous business. Someone who looks well-dressed and carrying a cellphone may have just experienced a recent job loss. Perhaps they were impacted by the recent government shut-down or some other emergency. They may have some money, but knowing they can get a few cans of soup to heat up for their family for dinner may be what their weary spirits might need. It isn’t a permanent solution, ideally. And who knows? Maybe that same person who took something out of the pantry when they needed it in rough times will put something back in the pantry in good times.[1]

            As someone said, there will always be needy people and greedy people.  It isn’t our job to decide which is which. That is up to God. It’s our job to do what God asks us to do—and leave the judging to God.
            Jesus doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—after you find out that they are really poor and deserve it.”  He doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—but only a little, because they might become dependent.  He doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—but only if they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

            The way the lectionary works, we rarely get to the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, so we don’t hear this passage from Luke very often.  In this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Jesus admonishes his hearers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Be merciful. Don’t judge. Do good to those who hate you.  Offer the other cheek to the person who strikes you in the face. If someone takes something from you, don’t ask for them to return it.
            This text is familiar—but hard!  Some people manage to embody these demanding, seemingly impossible instructions. In the Genesis text we heard Joseph extending grace and mercy and forgiveness to the brothers who betrayed him and sold him away into slavery.
            We all know the Golden Rule embedded in this passage, but how often do we truly live by it?  It can take a lot of effort to control your anger when someone cuts you off in traffic… or fails to act in the way we think they should…or wrongs us in some way.  
            We may long for the unqualified forgiveness, reconciliation, and unearned compassion Joseph shows his brothers. And yet, we struggle with Jesus’ teachings.
            These verses have been manipulated and have left those who are already vulnerable and victimized even further abused. Some preachers over the ages counseled people to stay with abusive spouses using these verses as proof of God’s will to do so. We need to be clear:  Jesus never condones abuse, and he condemns injustice. Jesus insists his followers live by his standard of love and justice, even when dealing with their enemies.
            A lot of people talk about the “Golden Rule,” as if it’s a simple, easy way to live.  But it’s hard to break the cycle of retribution and violence. It’s hard to break a habit of counting the ways someone has wronged us. It’s counter-cultural to practice mutual respect and treat each person with dignity—even those we don’t think deserve it… or those who are our enemies… or those who have wronged us.
            Keeping score of wrongs, getting even—that’s what enemies do. Some may secretly hope or plan for bad things to happen to their enemies. Maybe we just avoid and ignore them.  This is how much of the world behaves toward enemies. We go to war with them. We rejoice in their failures and mourn their successes. We try to get people to side with us against the person we believe has wronged us.

Time after time, the Tutsis and then the Hutus were caught in a cycle of retribution and violence in Rwanda. In the last terrible outbreak of violence, loyalty to tribe even outweighed allegiance to religious vows for some clergy.
            In Jerusalem, sacred sites can separate rather than unite. In the land we call “Holy,” the body count grows, and the promise of peace seems impossible.
            In such a world as this, what do we make of the ethics of God’s kingdom—or “kindom”?  We know the words: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Forgive.”
            These teachings are so often ignored. But we do catch glimpses of how Jesus’ teachings could provide a new way for us to live together: in the United States’ Marshall Plan’s assistance to former enemies following World War II… in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of Apartheid…in the World Bank’s partial forgiveness of the debts of poor nations at the urging of church coalitions supporting a time of Jubilee.[2]
            Jesus asks, “What credit is it to you if you love someone who loves you, if you do good to someone who does good to you, if you lend to someone who will later lend something to you?” Jesus calls his disciples to stop keeping score, and to trust in the God who changed everything by settling the whole world’s old scores.
            When we gather to worship together, we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, so we can live into the new life God offers us. But in our individual lives, in our families and in our congregation, there are sometimes unresolved grievances and rifts of long duration. Siblings who haven’t spoken to one another in years. People who hold on to their grievances and can’t seem to get beyond them, even when they cause great pain.
            Reconciliation is always hard to come by, but nothing is impossible for God. In Genesis, we hear that Joseph “keeps score no more.” He breaks from the past and invites his brothers to put the past behind them as well.
            Jesus set the example of active non-violence when he was struck on the face and tormented during his trial. He sets the principle: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”
            As followers of Christ, we are called into a new life in which we see things in a completely different way, a life in which we want to behave differently. We are called to look at each person through the eyes of love.

Jesus calls us to love as God loves: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”
            The good news is that it is God’s very nature to be merciful and loving, even toward those who don’t deserve it. And that includes us.

            Jesus doesn’t tell people to remain victims—but to find new ways of resisting evil. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs.
            Many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they said. But the authorities and oppressors didn’t know what to do with this kind of resistance.  When people around the nation turned on their televisions and saw these acts of non-violent resistance, hearts were changed.  Victims were refusing to be victims. Victims were refusing to fight back with violence. Victims were standing up for justice.  This love is not practical—but it can change the world.
             Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 24, 2019

[1] Rebecca Lister, “The Needy and the Greedy: What makes us afraid to give freely to the needy?

[2] Phyllis Kersten, in “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century.