Sunday, August 25, 2019

"Why We Can't Wait," a sermon on Luke 13:10-17, preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Detroit

 

"Why We Can't Wait"

Luke 13:10-17

The story we just heard goes straight to the heart of Jesus’ mission as proclaimed in Luke’s gospel.  Earlier in the gospel, in chapter 4, Jesus was also in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he first announced his mission, describing it in terms of human liberation and justice and abundance: “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 let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19).
In today’s reading, the theme of liberation resonates strongly. When Jesus sees the woman, he calls to her and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Later, when Jesus debates the leader of the synagogue and asks, “Should not this woman be set free from her bondage on the sabbath day?”  he is drawing directly from Deuteronomy 5, the version of the commandment that connects Sabbath rest to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.
The synagogue leader was indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, and said, “There are six days for work. So, come and be healed on those days—not on the Sabbath.  But Jesus remembers that the Sabbath law commemorates Israel’s liberation, so he interprets it to be a day for enacting liberation in the present.  To those who want the woman to wait, he says, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?  Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…be set free on the Sabbath day from what has bound her?”

            In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr writes about 1963 as a pivotal year in the American Civil Rights movement.  He includes his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is a call for urgency. 
            Dr. King wrote the letter as a response to eight local white clergymen who had criticized his activities in Birmingham and appealed for a more patient and restrained approach to advocating for civil rights. The "Letter" expresses King's deep disappointment with "the white moderate," who "paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."
The gospel story we heard today is not just a healing story. Luke doesn’t really include details about the healing itself. I agree with one of my colleagues that, at its core, it's a story about what God intends. It's about the urgency of seeing God's intentions brought to pass without delay.[1]
            The primary argument of Dr. King’s “Letter” still speaks to us today, which is why in 2018 the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) began a process toward amending the Book of Confessions to potentially include the letter.

The synagogue leader in today’s gospel story objects to healing this woman on the Sabbath.  Her condition isn’t life-threatening. She’s learned to live with it over almost two decades. So he doesn’t see why she couldn’t just wait a little while longer.  The synagogue leader has misunderstood the basic intention of observing the Sabbath.
            But Jesus reveals a deep logic for why the woman should be restored now. According to Deuteronomy, the Sabbath offers a weekly reminder of how much God values freedom and detests injustice:
“Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work -- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”[2]
The original intention of the Sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, is to provide relief, even if only temporary, from any system that would deny a person -- or any part of creation -- a share of rest, peace, wholeness, dignity, and justice.  So, when the synagogue official says, "Wait just one more day." Jesus answers, "No. The Sabbath is a good day for setting people free. In fact, the purpose behind the Sabbath -- the value God places on wholeness – makes it necessary that I do this now. We can't wait."
In Luke 13, Jesus reaffirms what his scriptures have taught him.  As Matt Skinner puts it, “to perpetuate injustice is to defile the holiness of the weekly Sabbath day that God ordained. To deny freedom is to offend the God of the Exodus. It's because of who God is that Jesus can't wait.”

            Now, the white religious leaders whom Dr. King addressed in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reflected the views of a majority of American society at the time. One survey from 1964 found that 63% of Americans agreed that “civil rights leaders are trying to push too fast” and 58% agreed that the actions of people of color have, “on the whole, hurt their cause.”[3]

            Dr. King criticized white faith leaders and churches that perpetuate injustice by hiding behind theologies that expect God’s blessings to come only in the future.  What’s the old saying, “There’ll be pie in the sky, in the sweet by and by, after you die:

            So, why do some people have a sense of urgency about working for justice, while others just don’t?   Why are some people ready to confess and repent of what the Rev. Jim Wallis calls “America’s original sin,”[4] while others refuse to acknowledge any ways they may benefit from privilege? Why do some react with defensiveness, silence, or argumentativeness when the conversation makes them feel uncomfortable?

            I think much of the resistance comes from fear.  In the church, whether it’s local congregations or presbyteries or denominations, some are afraid of causing conflict…or alienating people, who may leave the church or withhold financial support. Some are afraid of change and becoming a different kind of church that they can’t yet imagine.
            Twenty years ago, when I was fairly new to the presbytery, I was part of the Presbytery’s Anti-Racism Team, which was commissioned and went through a lot of intensive training, to try to deal with structural racism in the presbytery, in response to some events of the time. Over the years, there was pushback, and eventually we no longer had a Presbytery Anti-Racism Team.   Our Presbytery is struggling again…still with racism.  It’s time to do the work that leads to liberation and healing. We can’t wait.

           
            This past week, The New York Times published “The 1619 Project” to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival in America of the first enslaved people from West Africa.[5]  The project’s essays trace links from America’s slave-owning history through the Jim Crow era and into persistent racial inequalities today. The project is an attempt to correct America’s historical ignorance about the causes of contemporary injustice, to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story Americans tell ourselves about who we are.[6]

            Predictably, there has been a backlash from some people who hold onto a particular vision of patriotism that centers on the ideal of white innocence, who are angry and uncomfortable with the reporting and insist that structural racism is a myth.[7]
             
            Look around our region and our nation.  Just this week a candidate for City Council in Marysville, Michigan made national headlines with her statements about her conviction that their city needed to remain a mostly white city, and that interracial couples are breaking God’s law. Does she think she’s a racist?
            Our national government has policies and practices that dehumanize immigrants and those who seek asylum. We have elected officials who promote hatred and division for political gain. 
            Young people and others around our nation tell us they’re afraid because of gun violence…and they want to feel safe.  The list could go on and on…

Talking about injustice and racism are hard, but necessary.  We can’t wait.
We need to learn how to talk respectfully and constructively with one another.  We need to learn to listen to one another to build true understanding and empathy.
A lot of white people don’t like to think that we’ve benefitted from white privilege, or that we do or say racist things without even being conscious of it. And yet, some of us have committed ourselves to gather to discuss books like Waking Up White[8] or White Fragility[9] and have felt challenged and encouraged to continue to grow as anti-racists. We have a number of other excellent resources available that could be the basis of these conversations, like Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and Ijeomo Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race.

We need to learn how to be together, to be honest and respectful and kind with one another, and find ways for the healing we need to begin, so we can all be set free from whatever has bound us.  We need to work together and live further into Beloved Community together.
We live in such a broken, hurting world. We look around our cities and the world, and it can feel overwhelming.  But we follow Jesus, in his Way of love and justice. We are called to carry out his mission of healing and liberation.
Part of the good news is that we are not alone.  We have been baptized into God’s family and are blessed to be part of congregations where we can be nurtured and encouraged and challenged to grow in love and faith. And we have resources in the presbytery. For those who are seeking learning opportunities, you might check out Table Setters groups in our presbytery or the group that’s forming under the Rev. Kevin Johnson’s leadership.

            As a diverse, multicultural congregation, Westminster Church has some unique opportunities to practice living into Beloved Community and to embody God’s love and justice in and for the world.  

            We can’t wait.  In the words of our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith,” the good news is that, “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.…
            “With believers in every time and place, we can rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[10]
            Praise be to God!
            Amen!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Guest Preacher

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Detroit

August 25, 2019





[1] Matthew L. Skinner, “Why We Can’t Wait,” from ON Scripture. http://day1.org/7456-on_scripture_why_we_cant_wait_luke_131017_by_matthew_l_skinner


[2] Deuteronomy 5:12-15

[4] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Brazos Press, 2016.
[8] Debby Irving, Waking Up White.  Elephant Room Press, 2014. This book was commended to the Presbyterian Church (USA) by our previous Co-Moderators of the General Assembly.

[9] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.  For a 20-minute introduction to DiAngelo’s work, you can watch the video of her work with a Methodist Church group:  http://www.gcorr.org/video/vital-conversations-racism-dr-robin-diangelo/

[10] Presbyterian Church (USA), “Brief Statement of Faith” (1990), in Presbyterian Book of Confessions.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"The Next Chapter: It's All About Love." A farewell sermon delivered at Littefield Presbyterian Church.

"The Next Chapter: It's All About Love"

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18


I love to read and write, so it makes sense to me to think of life as being divided into chapters.
In some of the earlier chapters of my life, I grew up, went to college, left the church, taught school, raised a son. Along the way I came back to church, and sensed Christ’s call to “follow him,” which led me to Princeton Seminary, and then to the first church I served, in western Pennsylvania.
In earlier chapters of Littlefield’s story, the congregation was planted and had a vital mission. When there were changes in society and the neighborhood, the church did a mission study that helped the congregation to identify new directions for mission, which was the beginning of an intentional ministry of reconciliation and an emphasis on hospitality and interfaith work.
Back in 1996, the Pastor Nominating Committee of Littlefield contacted me, and we began a discernment process that led to my moving here 22 years ago to be your pastor.

We’ve been through a lot together over the last 22 years.  When I first got here, this was a bigger congregation than it is now. Yet, there were concerns about whether the congregation had the resources to survive.  I hadn’t been here very long before somebody said to me, “Well, the church only has a couple of years before we run out of money.” That was the first I heard about that. It was explained that several of the church’s leaders with business background had analyzed the congregation’s finances maybe two years before and had predicted that—if nothing changed—the church would be closed in around 5 years. That obviously didn’t happen.
Over the years we’ve served Christ together, there have been changes in society… in the community… and in the church. When I first arrived here, society was struggling with LGBTQ issues, and the Presbyterian Church, along with all the mainline denominations, had been studying and praying and debating about homosexuality since the 1970’s. 
            When the church has struggled with difficult and divisive issues over the centuries, it can lead to greater clarity about Christ’s message and what it means to follow him.  In today’s lesson from the book of Acts, we heard how the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem criticized Peter because he had been eating with uncircumcised people. Peter told them about the vision he had and how he heard a voice saying, “Don’t call impure anything that God has made clean.”
It’s happened that way over the centuries when the church has struggled with slavery, with divorce, ordaining women and later LGBTQ persons. In recent years, we’re being challenged to discern how our faith challenges us to act in the face of systemic poverty, racism, environmental degradation, and other injustice.

Over the years, I’ve became convinced that our Christian faith is all about love.

The gospel message in the New Testament proclaims in various ways how Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth, to embody God’s love for us   and to show us how to live in the way of love. 
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment is, he said what’s most important is two-fold:  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is anybody we encounter—even people who are different… even people we might even see as enemies. 
            In his last talk with his disciples, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  People will know you are my followers by the way you love one another.”[1]

In the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus tells his followers, “If you keep my commandments—the commandments to love God and love the neighbor—we will abide in his love.  He tells his disciples that he has said these things so that we may have his joy, and that our joy may be complete.”

            It’s all about love.

            Over the years, we’ve grown together in the way of love. Littlefield is a place where people are nurtured and challenged to grow in their faith. We have shared God’s love and promoted interfaith understanding in a variety of ways, including through the annual interfaith prayer service and Peace Camp. We have touched people’s lives through our Taize service and the Engage Book group. We’ve glorified God through our worship and work, and we’ve made lots of beautiful music together.  I believe we have grown in our understanding of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ and part of the Beloved Community.
           
            Twenty-two years is a long time. I give thanks to God for the joy and privilege of being your pastor and leader, for the relationships we have formed, for the learning and laughter and tears we’ve shared together…for the baptisms and weddings and funerals and potlucks and picnics and so much more.

            But now it’s time for a new chapter:  for Littlefield and for me.  In my next chapter, I hope to serve God in some new ways. I’ve taken the training to be a Transitional Minister, which I could do part-time or short-term in congregations that are in transition. And I hope to move to be close to my son’s family and have more time to spend with them—especially Gracie Jane!
            It’s time for a new chapter for Littlefield too. The Session is working on finding a Transitional Minister or Interim to be your next pastor, and to help you discern a faithful future for Littlefield’s next chapter.
            Our pastoral relationship will end on May 31st.  After that time, I will not be available to provide pastoral services at Littlefield. Specifically, I will not be available to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals, or provide pastoral care for the members of Littlefield.
            It’s the policy of our presbytery that a former pastor will speak and act in ways that support the ministry of your new pastoral leader, and will not meddle or comment on actions of the session or the congregation.
         The reason for these boundaries is so the congregation can move on into your next chapter.  Because I love you all, because I care about the health of the congregation, I need to not function as your pastoral leader-- so that your new pastor becomes your pastoral leader as he or she performs pastoral duties like funerals and weddings.

            So, today, we give thanks for what we have learned together, what we have accomplished together, all the ways we have glorified God through our worship and work, all the ways we have people have known we are Christians by our love. Today, at the end of this chapter of ministry together, we release one another to move into Littlefield’s next chapter and my next chapter. 
            What comes next? Your mission statement makes it clear that Littlefield’s purpose is “to love God, one another, and all people, and to show God’s love in your work for peace and justice.”
In our broken world, in this Easter season, when old divisions and ancient evils and persistent suffering fill our news feeds and touch our daily lives, those of us who follow the Risen Christ are called to live in his light, to be salt and light and carry on his ministry of reconciliation.
            As we turn the pages on our next chapters, let us pray…and listen for the Spirit…embody God’s love…and show God’s love in our work for peace and justice.
         Let us trust in God’s promises, confident that nothing will hinder God making all things new.
            Amen!



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 19, 2019



[1] John 13:31-35



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"Soul Restoration." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Soul Restoration"

Psalm 23


         I used to think the texts for Good Shepherd Sunday should be a fairly “easy” ones for the sermon.  After all, we have the 23rd Psalm.  I memorized it as a child, and have recited it countless times, and sung it.  
            But then I started noticing how often violence and tragedy have struck during Eastertide, in the time around Good Shepherd Sunday.  When the most recent school shooting happened in Colorado, I realized it was near the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.  How many mass shootings have happened since then?
            There have been bombings… and children killed and injured by gun violence—too many to be reported beyond the local news.
            In our nation and around the world, people suffer from the violence of extreme poverty.  
            I believe that God is weeping at our tragedies… at the mess humans have made of creation through violence.”[1]   
            So much loss.   So much suffering.   So many lives forever changed by wounds-- both physical and emotional.  Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and we might want to throw up our hands in despair.  But we never stop hoping for something different. 

            At times like these, or when we face the illness of a child or a dear old friend… or the doctor gives us a scary diagnosis…  we can turn to the witness of faith we find in the scriptures.  The 23rd Psalm has been called one of the psalms of trust, in which those who are praying proclaim their confidence in God’s goodness—despite the very real difficulties they are experiencing. 
            “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. “I trust in God to provide what I need.
            “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
            The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak devastation.  But he has adopted a resolute stance in the face of real threat: “No fear.”   Not because the police and FBI are on the scene.  Not because our military has tools to exact vengeance so that perpetrators can’t hurt anyone again.   No.  Because “God is with me.” 
            This is the core claim of our faith:  that there is one God, the God of love, and that we can place our trust in God to be with us, always.   That doesn’t mean that we will never have to face danger or hardship or sorrow.  But it does mean that we will not be alone in it, and that we will be given the strength to get through.
           
            “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.”
            If our first impulse in the face of terror is fear, the second impulse for a lot of people is vengeance.   Just as the Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, neither does he ignore the reality that there are people in the world who mean him harm.  But in the Psalm, the impulse to vengeance is short-circuited by the deep awareness of grace, which re-directs the energy that would have been drained to exact retribution—and channels it to gratitude and joyful thanksgiving. 
            Our Christian faith point us toward an alternative worldview that shuns reactive violence and opens up possibilities for personal and social transformation--even for enemies. 
           
            We are Easter people—people of the Resurrection.   In the face of violence and death, we hear our sacred texts speaking defiantly, calling us to fearlessness in the valley of the shadow of death… and revealing a vision of a God who will wipe away the tears of those who have gone through great tribulation. 

            In the Acts passage, we hear the story of a little church in Joppa, near the Mediterranean Sea.  In this church, one of the disciples, a woman named Tabitha (or, in Greek, Dorcas) has become sick and died. 

            It may seem hard to relate the death of Tabitha to the violent deaths of April and May in our time.   But, as Margaret Aymer Oget points out,[2]  Tabitha lived in a Roman-occupied world in which wealth and the control of goods were in the hands of the 2 percent, a world in which poverty, malnutrition, and illness were deadly.  Women like Tabitha would have had a life expectancy of fewer than 40 years.  So, her death was also an act of violence, in the sense that poverty caused by injustice is violent. 
            In the face of Tabitha’s death, the little church in Joppa took action.   The widows gathered, weeping and telling her story.  They tended to Tabitha’s body, and they sent for Simon Peter. 
            Tabitha—the beloved and fruitful disciple, is raised up by Simon Peter and restored to her friends.   Of course, news spreads quickly, and many people come to believe because of what happened. 
            Meanwhile, Simon Peter stays in the house of Simon the tanner, a man whose vocation of working with the bodies of animals would have made him unclean.  But apparently, he was not unclean in the eyes of Simon Peter, disciple of the Risen Lord, because God was doing a new thing and breaking down the dividing walls.
            The Easter story back then and now is a story of new life, new possibilities, boundaries being broken down, and transformation. 
            When our world is rocked by tragedy and violence and death and loss, there is great power in those who won’t let the story of a beloved one die, like the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook who have resolved to work as long as it takes for effective gun control laws… and the young survivors of the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Florida… or  the mother of Philando Castile, who has been giving money to pay off lunch debts of poor students to honoring her son, who was a caring lunch room supervisor before he was shot three years ago by a police officer.  

There is great power in those who weep with God over violence to humanity and creation    and open themselves to work with God for peace… reconciliation… and justice. 
            Unlike the little church in Joppa, we can’t summon an apostle with the power to raise the dead.  But we can still follow the example of the early church.  We can tend to the bodies and to the wounded people… we can tell the truth about the fatal toll of guns, bombs, poverty, and disease. 
            When we refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and poverty and violence and terrorism and bigotry, we break death’s ability to have the last word. 
            When we trust in the Shepherd God of love and mercy, we can live confidently.  God gives us what we need… and restores our souls… and guides us in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake. 
            We don’t need to be afraid, because the God of goodness and love is with us, as we work to restore the soul of our communities and the world. 

            Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! 
            Amen!



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 12, 2019



[2] Margaret Aymer, “Acts 9:36-43: Why I Pray That April Tragedies Bring May Justice,” in Huffington Post, April 17, 2013.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Do We Love Jesus?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter.

"Feed My Sheep." Photo taken at the Primacy of Peter site, in Galilee, by Fran Hayes 

"Do We Love Jesus?"

John 21:1-19; Acts 9:1-20

We’re now two weeks past Easter Sunday.  But for a lot of folk, Easter already seems long ago and far away.   For some, great joy and hope have given way to the routine of daily life:  family responsibilities…health issues…work concerns.  In the midst of it all, what does the Resurrection mean?  What difference does it make?  Has it changed anything?
            In the last chapter of John, we hear how, after the Resurrection, the disciples’ lives don’t seem to have changed.  They have seen the risen Jesus.  But they’ve gone back to the same old thing they used to do.  They’ve gone fishing. 
            The disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus.  But he’d been crucified and buried.  They’re grieving… frustrated… confused. 
            True, they knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  But what did that mean?  What difference did it make? 
            So, they go back to something familiar—what they’d been doing before Jesus came into their lives.  They go fishing.  They fish all night.  But they don’t catch anything. 
            Yet, as the disciples return to the way things used to be, the risen Jesus seeks them out once again.  At dawn, they see a stranger on the shoreline, but they don’t recognize him. But Jesus knows them. This “stranger” calls to them with a term of endearment, “children.”
Jesus comes to them in their ordinary lives, and he blesses them.  He calls out to them, “You don’t have any fish, do you?”
            No.
            Then he tells them how to fish: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.”
            The catch is so enormous that they can’t haul it in. There are fish of all kinds. The symbolic significance of the number—one hundred fifty-three—is lost on modern readers. But the meaning of the story is not: there are fish of all kinds. This is an abundance that is inclusive and diverse.
            This story reprises themes in several other traditional stories about the disciples: the work of the disciples as fishermen…the radical call for them to become fishers of people… and the reminder that Jesus told the disciples that “apart from me you can do nothing.”[1]
            John recognizes Jesus, and says, “It’s the Lord!”  Then Peter leaps into the water and swims toward Jesus.  Jesus knows how deeply Simon Peter needs to be forgiven for the three times he denied his relationship with Jesus on that awful night before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus says, three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 
            Peter responds with an affirmation of his love, saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  Three times.  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”
            Instead of praising his declarations, Jesus tells Peter that one day he will stretch out his hands    and someone will take him where he does not wish to go.   Feeding lambs and tending sheep can cost us—even cost us our lives.  It is work that will link our lives to pain and suffering.  It will lead us many places we don’t want to go.  If we love Jesus, our relationship with him will change us.
            On this third Sunday in Eastertide, the lectionary gives us two stories of transformation. The stories we heard are about two great saints of the church, Peter and Paul.  In the book of Acts, we encounter Saul, who was introduced in chapter 7, as the young man who was present when the angry mob stoned Stephen to death.  Luke tells us that Saul took care of their coats for them, that he approved of their killing Stephen, and that he was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women believers, and imprisoning them.[2]
            In the story we heard today from Acts, Saul is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He has gone to the high priest and gotten letters of authorization to the synagogues of Damascus, so he can look for followers of the Way and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
            Now, Saul was well-educated and devout.  He was someone who had his faith and values all figured out.  His mission in life was to stamp out the movement of those who followed the risen Jesus on the Way.  Saul was very certain that he was right—and they were wrong.
            So far in Acts, Saul is described almost entirely in terms of his certainty and his violence.   It is this violence that Jesus addresses when he speaks out of the heavenly light, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
            By identifying himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting, Jesus identifies with the believers in their suffering, and he makes Saul’s violence a central issue of his conversion.
            The voice of the risen Christ intrudes and devastates Saul’s self-confident journey.  He opens his eyes, but he can’t see.  He has to be led around by the hand, and he doesn’t eat or drink for three days.   Saul, who knows so much about religion, who could quote chapter and verse of the scriptures, is rendered helpless by the blinding light on the road to Damascus.  He needs to be led by the hand, healed, and instructed by the very ones he’d planned to round up and bind and drag back to Jerusalem to face the religious authorities.
            What happens to Saul on the road to Damascus becomes a transformative moment.  When Paul encountered the risen Christ, he was blinded by the brightness of the light of Christ and transformed-- from a man committed to aggression and persecution of those who were different, those who challenged what he believed— to one who was lost and struggling.  In the process of his conversion, Paul learns that the agenda he set for himself was futile, and that God’s plan is the only plan that matters. 
            Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ helped to transform him from someone who was afraid to admit he even knew Jesus—into an apostle who was empowered to jump out of his familiar boat into waters that were over his head     and walk bravely into the world with resurrection power and hope. 
            In this third resurrection appearance, we hear Peter getting a new chance, as he experiences Jesus’ resurrection power in a quiet way over breakfast.
           The Risen Christ appears to the disciples, makes them breakfast, and then dialogues with Peter on the nature of discipleship. Loving Jesus leads to feeding God’s sheep, providing for their physical and spiritual hungers.
            Those who encounter Christ are called to reach out to the world sharing good news for body, mind, and spirit.
In an ordinary place and meal, the disciples receive a kind of re-commissioning.  They are reminded who they are and what they were called to be and do. 
            Easter is about living out our identity and calling as if we truly believe that Jesus has overcome sin and death.  It’s about living as if we trust in his gift of abundant, eternal life.    It means following Jesus, embodying Jesus’ love. It means being with Jesus as we gather together to hear the good news… and in the places we are led to serve.
            “Do you love me?”  Jesus asks us. Then, feed my lambs.
            Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.  Yet, we know all too well that the compelling call of human need often feels like it is taking us to places we don’t want to go.  Our ability and willingness to go there will be a testimony to the clarity and passion of our Christian discipleship.  Our ability and willingness to follow Jesus is a sign of how we are being transformed.
            The first disciples huddled behind locked doors, or went back to their old familiar routines.  They struggled with fear about how Jesus calls his followers to go places where they don’t want to go.
            When I get impatient with myself for my lack of courage, or my reluctance to go some of the places Jesus might call me to go in his name, I find comfort and hope in the conviction that God isn’t finished with me yet.  God isn’t finished with any of us yet.
            We have Christ’s promise that he will not leave us alone.  He will be with us, to help and to guide us…to provide for our needs…and to comfort and care for us.   The One who commands us to embody his love and light in the world   promises us that we will be given the power we need through the Holy Spirit.
           Again and again, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”   This is no cheap grace Christ offers us.  Again and again, Jesus calls us: “Follow me.”
            Do you love me?  Jesus asks.
            Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.
            Just as Jesus met with his first disciples at dawn on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes to us.  Jesus keeps coming to us to teach us and to lead us to places where we’d never have thought to go.  
            The gospel reminds us that God can make a way where there is no way, bringing abundance where there is scarcity, and joy where there has been sorrow.  Jesus’ resurrection gives us the promise of life after death, and the assurance of God’s healing and restoration in this life.
Today, in this time and place, as long ago, Jesus does many signs in the presence of his disciples.   We have the witness of the gospel, which was written “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…and that through believing, we may have life in his name.”
Jesus meets us where we work, where we despair, or where we question or doubt. Whether we’re still feeling “up” from Easter or feeling let down, Jesus keeps coming to us.
            Jesus meets us in in our friends or in strangers.  He challenges us with a task to do—caring for his people.  He gives us work that truly satisfies us, and invites us to make him more and more the center of our lives.  One way or another, Jesus comes back and calls us to himself and to his new life. 
            Do you love me?  Then feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.
            As individuals and as a congregation, we often fall short of being the loving, compassionate, generous, welcoming people God created us to be.  We don’t always follow through.  Sometimes we even fall away for a while and go back to whatever felt familiar before we recognized the Risen Christ. 
            But Jesus doesn’t give up on us.  After each time we fail…or forget… or are overcome by our fears, Jesus comes to us again and invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment, and calls us to put our love into action, caring for the world God loves.  If you love me, show it through your actions.   “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus comes to us today, this morning, inviting us to start again Easter-fresh, saying, “Follow me.”
            Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 5, 2019



[1] John 15:5
[2] Acts 7:58-8:1

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

Luke 24:36b-48; Genesis 2:4-15

 
Earth Day was this past Monday.  If you turned on the news or gone online this week, you’ve been hearing some challenging ideas about caring for the environment.  So, this Sunday seemed like a good day to celebrate God’s Creation and to ponder our place in it.  It’s a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today—this week--we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
The Bible is a powerful witness to the sovereignty and providence and creativity of God—the Holy One who is the Source of all life.
In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[1]  God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis chapter 2:  to care for the earth.  “Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Over the years, we allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,” and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.” 
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe   and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls-- rather than all of creation. 

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solutions.  But there is science and a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.
When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not na├»ve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but recycling and efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
The issue is too global, too political, too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[2]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
There was a time when we’d sing some hymns to celebrate the glories of creation on Earth Sunday and maybe give out packets of seeds.  But I agree with Leah Schade when she writes in The Christian Century:
“Now is not the time for feel-good “green” hymns and ecological tokenism in our churches.” Not when the government has been implementing anti-environmental policies, giving coal mining companies free rein to pollute waterways. Not when air pollution, pesticides, poor diets, and radiation have led to a sharp increase in cancer diagnoses among children. Not when fracking and drilling are poisoning the air, water, and land of our communities.”[3] 
And not when people like Waldomiro Costa Pereira are being murdered for trying to protect their land from rapacious corporations and wealthy landowners.
Conflicts over land are common in Brazil, where 1 percent of the population owns nearly half of the nation’s land. According to the Guardian, Brazil saw 61 killings of land rights activists in 2016, and 150 in the several preceding years. Pereira was affiliated with the Landless Workers Movement and had been standing up for the rights for poor farmers, in a heroic act that cost him his life.[4]
Latin America has a long history of struggles over land and resources, with the rural poor trying to eke out a living while those in control of the land extract riches from its bounty. The murder of environmental activists is not a new development. But, as Leah Schade points out, there’s a new layer of urgency in recent years, with the exacerbation of climate change and the increased desperation of people fighting for their communities and their very lives. When people are dying for God’s earth and for indigenous and marginalized communities, we can’t ignore the evil that reigns with impunity against people working for environmental justice.[5]
There is a life-and-death struggle being waged against corrupt governments, corporations, and criminal gangs that are seizing land from people in order to exploit the land for minerals, timber, fossil fuels, or corporate agriculture.
We in developed countries may condemn these injustices, but the demand for many of these products comes from us.  We need to be mindful of how, in the words of our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith,” we have ignored God’s commandments, like the command to be faithful stewards of the earth… We have violated the image of God in others and ourselves, accepted lies as truth, exploited neighbor and nature, and threatened death to the planet entrusted to our care.[6]

Since the earliest days, the church, has honored the martyrs who have died for their faith. “From Stephen to Perpetua to Ignatius of Antioch, martyrs are models of courage in the face of hatred, fear, and evil.” As Leah Schade points out, martyrs have been models of courage in the face of hatred, fear, and evil. They refuse to cower to violent regimes, and they face their deaths knowing they have fought the good fight.

Theologian Robert Costanza states the stewardship challenge this way: “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[7]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house” is oikos, which is the root word for “economics” … for “ecology” …and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus, she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all-- if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview-- because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.
We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So, let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!

Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 28, 2019





[1] Genesis 1:1-31
[2] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground.” My notes say that I read this at an old website, at  www.goodpreacher.com

[3] Leah D. Schade, “Let’s Make Earth Day about the Earth martyrs,” in The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/lets-make-earth-day-about-earth-martyrs

[4] “Land rights activist shot dead in Brazilian Amazon hospital.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/brazil-land-rights-activist-shot-dead-amazon-hospital
[5] Schade, in The Christian Century.
[6] Presbyterian Church (USA), “Brief Statement of Faith,” 1990. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/brief-statement-of-faith/

[7] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.