Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Is the World About to Turn?": A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church for Third Sunday of Advent

The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin word for joy.  That’s why we lit the pink candle today.  Yet, as I meditated on the scripture passages for this Sunday, I kept thinking about how painful a season this can be for many people--  people who are lonely, people who are grieving the loss of a loved one,  people who are struggling with illness and wondering where God is in the midst of it all…  people who are depressed,  people who are trying to maintain their sobriety during a season of parties… people who are too poor to be a part of the festival of extravagance the merchants would have us believe is what Christmas is all about. 
            We remember that yesterday was the 1-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.  We mourn the loss of the children who died there and the principal and guidance counselor and teachers who gave their lives, and know that the lives of their loved ones will never be the same.
            We try to make sense of what happened, but then there’s another shooting in Colorado last Friday, not very far from the massacre that took place at Columbine High School.   And we’re reminded that in the year since the school shooting at Sandy Hook, at least 194 children more children have been killed with guns.  Such senseless loss of all those precious lives!
            There’s so much wrong in our world, and in the midst of all of it, a lot of people may be wondering:  where’s the good news?
            I think when we look around our world,  it exposes our brokenness as human beings and as a society and reminds us how much we need a Savior.  We live in a broken world.  We’re still waiting for the kingdom of God, and we yearn for it.  We wait and hope for what we can’t yet see.

            In the gospel lesson we just heard, we hear John beginning to doubt his own message.   This is the same John who recognized Jesus from his mother's womb, leaping with joy when her cousin Mary came to visit.  John the prophet, who lived in the desert eating locusts and honey, preaching to anyone who would listen: "Prepare the way of the Lord!"   John the Baptizer, who knew Jesus the moment he laid eyes on him at the river Jordan and baptized him and was there when heaven opened and the spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove.    What's happened to him—this man of faith-- that he should suddenly doubt Jesus' identity?    
            "Are you the one who is to come...  or shall we look for another?  John had envisioned a mighty and powerful Messiah, come to sweep away all the wickedness of the world and destroy evil.  Jesus will set the world straight, and justice and righteousness will rule the day.  The oppressed will be liberated and the hungry will be fed.  Those who resist, those who don't believe,  those who continue to sin--  they'll be separated from the righteous like chaff from the wheat.  They'll be swept away and cast into the "unquenchable fire."
            That's what John expected and proclaimed.  That's what drew crowds to hear his message and be baptized.  Then Jesus arrived on the scene.  John stepped aside...  and essentially said,  "Go for it, Jesus!  Bring in the Kingdom!  Wipe out the old age, and bring in the new!"  And nothing happened.

            By this time, Jesus has preached the Sermon on the Mount.  He's healed people possessed by demons   and raised Jairus' daughter from the dead.  His ministry has taken root, and a crowd of believers around him is growing.
            But nothing was happening the way John had thought it would.  The Messiah was supposed to change things.  He was supposed to fix it so that the wicked no longer prospered,   and the righteous people, like himself, were saved. 
            Things weren't going well for John.  He was in prison.  Nothing was happening the way he'd envisioned it.  Jesus wasn't throwing anybody into unquenchable fire or wiping out sinners.  No.  He was visiting them in their homes, and even eating with them!
            So John finds himself not living in a new era-- but imprisoned in a very old world dungeon, with a lot of questions and doubts.   So he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come?  Or are we to wait for another?" 
            John's question may be our question as well.  By simple virtue of our being here this morning—especially this Sunday traveling through unplowed streets and treacherous highways--  we make the statement that we-- like John--  have recognized the Messiah in Jesus.  In a variety of different ways, we're trying to prepare the way of the Lord.  Every week, we come here and confess our faith that Jesus is Lord.  Every week, we search for new, more effective ways to teach and preach and live that truth.  Along the way, we've acquired some definite ideas about our Lord.  As students of the Bible...  of tradition...  and of our own experience, we have certain expectations of Jesus and what he will do for us his people--  sooner or later.
            But—if we’re honest with ourselves-- who hasn't had doubts?  Who has never asked John’s question in times of  disappointment or anger or loss or confusion?  Jesus, are you the one?  Or shall we look for another?                         
            Who has never looked to other things for our joy and excitement and security-- haven't we gone off to look for another?
            It’s hard to wait.  It’s hard to be patient. We tune into the news, and sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, Jesus, are you the one? Or shall we look for another?  We’d like to hand Jesus the ax John talked about and see him chop down all the trees that don't bear good fruit.    But Jesus lays it down again, and sends us back into the wilderness of our lives, with words of love on our lips, to carry out his mission of compassion and peace and justice.  We pass out food to hungry people, and warm socks and hats and gloves to those need them,  and take cookies and carols and holiday cheer to a lonely shut-in.
            They seem like such little things--  these small acts of love.  They don't satisfy us in the way a little vengeance would--  a God with an ax.  But they are the tasks we have been given to do, while we wait.   And we have promised to try.
            Perhaps it amounts to serving the God who is--   instead of the one we would like God to be.  It was hard for John.  It's hard for us today.  "Are you the one who is to come?  Or shall we look for another?"
            Jesus answered John’s people,  "Go tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight... and the lame walk.  Lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.  The dead are raised up...   and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."
            It's a radical answer--  almost as radical as the question...   an answer delivered completely in the passive voice, without a single claim for Jesus.  There are no "I" statements here.  The blind are seeing and the lame are walking--   but who's responsible?  Jesus apparently refuses to take credit...  to take charge and singlehandedly rescue the human race from the circumstances of their lives.[1]
            "Go and tell John what you hear and see,"  Jesus says.  We might wish Jesus would work a showy miracle on the spot or give us a simple, pat answer.  "Lift up your eyes and see,"  he says.  "See for yourself.  Make up your own minds."
            What is Jesus saying?  It sounds as if he's saying,  "Go and tell John that everyone who is expected has already arrived.  Go tell him what you hear and see--  that things may not be working out the way he wanted them to...  but that every now and then, in surprising places, amazing things are happening.  People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received the sight to see it. 
            People who were paralyzed with fear-- are limber with hope.  People who were deaf from want of good news-- are hearing the good news.   And best and most miraculous of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah--  but the work of God, carried out by all who believe...  and that there is no end in sight to what God is doing in the world.
             I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:  “Tell him I am the one, if you must.  But tell him also that yes, he should look for another...  and another...  and another.  Tell him to search every face for the face of God and not to get tripped up on me because what's happening here is bigger than any one of us.  What is coming to pass is as big as the Kingdom of God."[2]

            During Advent, we're reminded that we wait for the second and final coming of Christ.  It’s a paradox:  Christ has come.  Christ is here.  Christ is yet to come.  But in the meantime, we're given the sight to see glimpses of God's Kingdom breaking in.  A very different kind of kingdom, a reign that comes, not by force, but by the birth of a child who came to life in a humble little stable.  The Kingdom of God was present in that common, yet extraordinary birth, as God was born as a helpless baby who came to live among us, full of grace and truth.  The mystery we celebrate at Christmas is the mystery of God-with-us...  Emmanuel.  
            When Jesus sent word back to John—“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them”—he wasn’t just cataloguing his previous day’s to-do list.  Nor was he simply quoting Isaiah.[3] 
            Most importantly, Jesus was encouraging John to cultivate what Ted Wardlaw called  “eschatological eyesight”  to see past what is yet unfinished in our world in order to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God drawing near.[4]
            Wardlaw writes how, near the end of the twentieth century, some people in the Presbyterian denomination pulled out their calculators and assessed things from a certain angle and then went public with a startling prediction.  Influenced by all the literature about the decline of the mainline church, they predicted that if present trends continued, Presbyterians would become virtually non-existent sometime in the twenty-first century. 
            They put this prediction in what they thought was a particularly clever way.  They said that, if present trends continued, Presbyterians would become “the Amish of the twenty-first century.”  It was a way of saying that, for all practical purposes, Presbyterians would be marginalized and irrelevant, as if we were horse-and-buggy people—totally out of date and rendered invisible by our irrelevance in a world that had totally eclipsed us. 
            Wardlaw remembers that prediction was made in print and was repeated at any number of church meetings.  Whenever that prediction was voiced—“the Amish of the twenty-first century”—people laughed at how cleverly the thought was put.
            Then, in the fall of 2006, we watched as an Amish community in Pennsylvania grieved over and buried a group of their own schoolchildren who had been slaughtered by a rage-filled man with a gun that he finally turned on himself.  In the midst of their grieving, this Amish community paused to send a delegation to reach out in forgiveness and compassion to the widow and family of the one who had slaughtered their children, and even to provide financial support for them.  The world watched in disbelief as they summoned a strength that was impossible, humanly speaking…and then dealt with the sin and tragedy that had penetrated their world by beholding it all with the right kind of eyesight. 
            We watched as they returned love for evil…as they reached out in healing and redemption.  We watched in complete awe as they directed our gaze, if we had the eyesight ourselves to see it, toward a light shining in the darkness--  a light that the darkness could not overcome.
            What a witness!   In a world that can be dark and threatening and incomplete and full of terror, what a difference it can make if we can have the right kind of eyesight, as we move further into God’s future.  May we have eyes to see the long view.  May our eyes be opened to  see God’s activity in what happening.
            In the first verse of the hymn we’ll sing later, we sing with Mary, “Could the world be about to turn?”  By the second and third verses, the we sing “the world is about to turn.”  And in the fourth, we affirm that God is turning the world around.”[5]
            On this Third Sunday of Advent, the rose-colored candle reminds us that God invites us into joy.  God offers us hope, trusting that the day is coming when that hope will become reality.
            In the meantime, every time we reach out with love...  care...  and compassion--  the Kingdom of God grows a little larger...  and is that much closer to being fulfilled. 
            So-- in the meantime, let us wait patiently.  For the coming of the Lord is near, and the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.

Let the fires of your justice burn.

Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,

And the world is about to turn.


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 15, 2013


[1] I continue to be grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor all these years later for some insights on this passage, in “Are You the One?” in Mixed Blessings (Susan Hunter Publishing, 1986), p. 57.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, ibid.
[3] Isaiah 35:5
[4] Theodore J. Wardlaw, Journal for Preachers, Vol XXXI, Number 1, Advent 2007, (Decatur, Ga: Journal for Preachers, 2007) p. 6
[5] “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” / “Canticle of the Turning.”  Text: Rory Cooney, 1990.  Music:  Irish melody.  Text and music from 1990 GIA Publications, Inc.  This is in the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God (2013). 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Daring to Hope". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.

“Daring to Hope”
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

            Last weekend I saw “Catching Fire” at the movies.  It’s the film adaptation of the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.[1]  The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic and totalitarian country of Panem, which is a fictionalized North America of the future.  According to the story,  war and environmental disaster destroyed the United States, and out of the remnants grew the new country of Panem. 
            This country consists of a wealthy Capitol city—the center of totalitarian power--with twelve destitute districts surrounding it.   The Capitol asserts complete control over the districts, forcing the people there to abide by strict rules and work in industries that supply the needs of the Capitol.
            The annual Hunger Games are a nationally-televised spectacle in which 2 teenagers from each district are randomly chosen to be tributes and forced to fight to the death in a huge arena.  The games are an instrument of oppression, designed to remind the people in the districts how powerless they are.  They reminded me of the way the Roman Empire used the cross as an instrument of torture and to make a spectacle of the punishment of those who resisted their occupation. 
            The Hunger Games trilogy is part of the dystopian fiction genre that has grown in popularity over the past 100 years, but especially in the past several decades.   Younger people, in particular, have been resonating with the themes of systemic evil—including imperialism, totalitarianism, devastation of the environment, growing inequality between the rich and poor, and the search for meaning and hope.
            The themes we find in our scripture texts in Advent are struggling with some of these same themes. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie with down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. . . .
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…
That’s what the prophet Isaiah said 700 years before the birth of Jesus. He was probably writing in the period of the Syro-Ephramite war, when the dynasty of David seemed like a mere dead  stump compared to its enemies.  The nation had been defeated and humiliated by another national power,  Their government was weak and ineffective, and the people were dejected and demoralized.    In the midst of all that, how do you live in hope?   Isaiah’s words must have seemed terribly unrealistic—as unrealistic as Isaiah’s words seem to a lot of people today.
            As Woody Allen put it:  “The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.   Another time, Allen said, "On the day the lion and the lamb lie down together, only the lion is going to get back up."
            Or as someone else said, to have the wolf lie down with the lamb, we would need an inexhaustible supply of lambs.
            And yet—we are still longing for a time of righteousness and justice and peace.  The vision of harmony in these verses from Isaiah are often referred to as “the peaceable kingdom.”  For a long time, I’ve been drawn to the images painted by Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher-artist, who was so inspired by the vision in Isaiah 11 that he painted at least 66 “peaceable kingdom” paintings.

            Can you imagine it?  A time when God’s reign is finally consummated, when the Messiah—the anointed one—brings it in, when broken creation becomes the completely harmonious creation God intended?  Wolf, leopard, lion, and bear will live in harmony with the domestic animals like lambs, calves, goats, and cows.  Lions will eat straw like oxen, and a little child will play over the holes of poisonous snakes.  The earth will be filled with the “knowledge of the LORD.”  What a vision!
            It’s hard to wait.  It’s hard to hope. 
            Now fast forward from Isaiah seven hundred years or so.  Two hundred years had gone by since the people of Israel had had a prophet in their midst.   They’re living under occupation, with the Roman army enforcing the oppression of the Empire.
            Suddenly, John shows up in the wilderness, looking and sounding a lot like Elijah, who was expected to return to prepare the way for God’s coming Messiah.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” John says.  “Prepare the way of the LORD.  Make his paths straight.” The people were desperately in need of hope, so crowds were going out to him, confessing their sins.
            John’s call to repentance and preparing the way is a call to turn around and look for and hope in God’s future, which is breaking in on them.  It’s a call to commit to see our world as God’s world and our future as God’s future, because that’s what repentance is about. 
            Today, more than 2,000 years later, we are still waiting and longing.   Look at the headlines.  The City of Detroit is going through a bankruptcy, and people who worked their whole career in Detroit are worried about their pensions.  A lot of us haven’t recovered from the hardships of the recent financial and real estate crisis.  The gap between the very rich and the poor keeps widening, and the people in the middle keep losing ground. 
            Jesus has come to live among us, full of grace and truth, and called us to follow him, living God’s way of love.  We are called to live differently, but we still live in a broken world where injustice and oppression are the norm. 
            In some parts of the world, children are kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and girls risk having acid thrown in their face every time they dare to show up at schoo or challenge the patriarchy in the culture. 
            The people of Palestine live under occupation in a conflict that looks hopeless to a lot of people.  Syrians who were forced from their homes are living in terrible conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries or are internally displaced. 
            In our own communities, a parent can work 40 hours a week and still not be able to afford nutritious food or other basic necessities for her children.
            In our own nation, consumerism and individualism rule, and for many people, having the latest toys (for children or grownups), instant gratification, fashionable clothes… our chocolate and coffee at the cheapest possible prices are more important to some of us than the lives of the people who labor to supply them.   Our political process is stuck-- an ineffective system, in which protecting  political ideologies and hoarding and accumulating personal wealth are higher priorities than feeding the hungry.  The list could go on and on.
            So… how are we to live?  Do we give in to hopelessness and despair? 
            How are we to live as a community of faith?  Do we dare to live in hope, and practice trusting in God to provide what we need to carry out the mission to which we are called?  Or do we surrender to fear… and circle the wagons and just try to survive for a while?  These are all matters of faith.
            The struggle to end oppression and build a better world is complicated…hard… messy… and scary. 
            How do we live in the time between the vision and the final fulfillment?
            Do we dare to believe in the vision?  Can we imagine a better world?  Can we believe in the possibility that injustice and oppression can be overcome, with God’s help? Do we dare to trust in God’s promises? 
            John the Baptizer came proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near, calling people to repent, and to prepare the way of the LORD.  He pointed toward God’s anointed One and said that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Jesus came and “proclaimed the reign of God: preaching the good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinner, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[2] 
            To those living under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire, Jesus taught and embodied a different way of being in the world that allowed even the marginalized and the poor to reclaim their identity as children of God.  To people whose identities had been shaped by centuries of living under exile and oppression of conquering empires, Jesus demonstrated that the empire doesn’t have the power to define who you are. 
            Jesus proclaimed a message of hope that has been spiritualized and distorted by some.  The gospel isn’t about a pie-in-the-sky,  escapist hope, but a way of  living into God’s dream for us and participating in God’s will being done on earth as in heaven—in the day-to-day reality of life. 
            When we repent—when we turn away from the ways of the world and the empire and turn toward God’s way of righteousness and justice and peace, we find our lives changing.  We can no longer be content to exist under the old ways of the world.  
            I believe that God means for all God’s people to live in peace with one another and with the whole creation.  God’s dream is for us to live in the way of righteousness and justice and peace.  But there is still a gap between the vision and reality. 
            And so we wait.  We wait for the time when God will fully bring in the Kingdom.  But we live into the Kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of justice and peace, as we work for a better world that more fully embodies God’s dreams.
            Sometimes we  look around and all we see are dead-looking stumps,  and we have a hard time believing in new life.  It’s hard to see how things can be different… or how the little things we do can make a difference.  We
            The past few days we’ve been remembering Nelson Mandela’s life.  As I reflected on today’s scripture texts, I thought:  back in the 1970’s, as Mandela was serving his 27-year-prison sentence and apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa, how hard it was to see the hope in the situation?  And yet by 1990 Mandela was released from prison and working toward reconciliation and a democratic government in South Africa. 
            As Jim Wallis wrote, “Nelson Mandela combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life has blessed the world with courage and hope.”[3]
            When I was in the Holy Land in 2009, we met with some Ecumenical Accompaniment workers from the World Council of Churches program, one of whom was South African.  I learned from him that South Africans have a significant commitment to the Ecumenical Accompaniment program, because they believe it’s important for them to walk with Palestinians as they work for a just peace, because, in the midst of a situation that looks hopeless,  they embody hope.
            Sometimes new life emerges from the most unlikely places, emerging as a tiny green tendril out of a stump that looked dead.
            Do we believe this?  Can we live into this hope?
            We live into hope in a variety of big and small ways when we change the life of a family by providing them with a goat or a flock of chickens with a gift to the Heifer Project.  We help schools and clinics in Palestine when we buy crafts from PalCraft Aid or fair trade Palestinian olive oil, and we let the people there know that we have not forgotten them.  It helps them to hope.
            When we buy fair trade chocolate, children in Africa and Latin America get to go to school because their families earn a fair wage.  Our purchase of fair trade coffee changes the lives of families.
            Shopping ethically and buying locally as much as possible makes a different to peoples’ lives and the environment.  When we make choices to care for the environment and support global and domestic humanitarian causes,  we make a difference.  These are some of the ways we dare to hope and live hopefully.
            We wait, living in hope, not only because God became incarnate in the Christ child, not just because Christ promises to come again.  We live into hope because the Christ’s reign is among us now as we live by God’s Spirit.  As we live into God’s dream for us, working for justice and peace for all of God’s beloved children, we are daring to hope.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse...
            What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s new beginning in this time and place?   Will we tend the seedling in our hearts and nurture it?  
            In this season of waiting, God comes to us and nudges us: “Look!   There on that old dead stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?”
            Do you see it?

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church / Dearborn, Michigan
December 8, 2013

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy.
[2] “Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church” (USA), 1990.
[3] Jim Wallis, “The Most Important Political Leader in the 20th Century: Jim Wallis on the Life of Nelson Mandela.”