Sunday, May 24, 2015

"The Holy Spirit is Still Blowing into our Lives." A sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday at Littlefield Presbyterian Church, on Acts 2:1-21

In some parts of the Christian church, they celebrate Pentecost with sheet cake with birthday candles... and maybe some red punch.   People call it the “Birthday of the church,” which I think is partially true.  But it is just that--  a partial truth.  And it’s a very tame way to celebrate Pentecost.   So I think if we really get what Pentecost is about—we probably won’t celebrate it by singing “Happy Birthday” to the Church.
The story we just heard from Acts is no sweet, sentimental birthday story.   At the so-called birth of the church, there was no organ.  There were no pews fastened to the floor.   There were no greeters handing out bulletins.  There was little resemblance to what the church has become in the early part of the 21st century. 
On Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together, waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
What happened was truly “bewildering,” “amazing” and “astonishing!”  That’s how the crowd gathered in Jerusalem experienced what happened.
Those who were gathered together waiting and praying were filled with the Holy Spirit.  The miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages so that the people from all over the known world were able to understand. 
The miracle of Pentecost is clear Gospel speech.  On Pentecost, Peter was given the power to preach the Gospel clearly and boldly,  to proclaim the coming of the Messianic age preached by the prophet Joel,  a time when all people will preach the good news of Jesus the Messiah, as the world awakens to the great gift of the Gospel.  “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 
But what does that mean?  What is the gospel for our time?  We are in a time that I think can be spiritually bewildering… and discouraging.     I think a lot of people are wondering, with Ezekiel::  “Can these bones live?”

We are living in a time of huge change… and cosmic SHIFT:  technological, cultural, political, and religious.   Think about it:  When I was in the process of moving here to Dearborn 18 years ago, I was a fairly early adopter, with an email account, and a few of you had email.  Technological things that we take for granted now—websites, Google searches, Facebook, Twitter, Pintarest,  e-books, etc.—we didn’t have any of them 20 or so years ago. 
A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life reported in a massive study that 22.8 percent of Americans identified with no organized religion, a dramatic rise from 16.1 percent in 2007, the last time the nonprofit research group took such a sweeping look at religion in America.. [1]
Other things have been changing fast in our society and in the world, and it’s hard for a lot of people—especially older people.  The Presbyterian Church voted last June to allow same-sex marriages in states where it is legal.  Yesterday, voters in traditionally conservative, Catholic Ireland chose overwhelmingly in a popular vote to change their nation’s constitution to allow for same-sex marriage. 
Society is changing.  And, according to Harvey Cox, we are now experiencing the biggest shift in Christianity since the 4th century.   So it’s no wonder we feel bewildered… disoriented… and  maybe afraid.
But I think we’re in a time when God is trying to do amazing new things.  The Spirit is on the move!
Harvey Cox has been saying that we’re living in the “age of the Spirit,” which began around 1900.  Diana Butler Bass says we’re living in a time of “awakening.”  Whatever we call it, it’s a time when we need to open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit to help us discern what the good news is for our time and to empower us to proclaim it.  
A few years ago, I heard Diana Butler Bass suggest that some people in the church have been functioning like we’re on the Titanic-- when actually we are on the Mayflower.  We’re headed to a new world,  as we creatively re-appropriate the core practices of what it means to be Christian:  prayer, worship, hospitality, mission, discipleship, spiritual formation, and praise.
In order to respond effectively and faithfully as the church…  we need to creatively imagine anew,    and embody again what it means to follow Jesus Christ into his coming kingdom in this new world today.  On the feast of Pentecost, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit still blows into our lives today.
            One of the primary ways in which we see the Holy Spirit working in the story we heard from Acts was as a TRANSLATOR--  the one who carries the meaning of the mighty acts of God, particularly the mighty act of God in Jesus Christ--  to all those present.  This translation is necessary because God has done... and is doing something new in the world--  something which both creates and requires understanding...  and love...  and unity. 
            The Holy Spirit translates God’s redeeming work to us...  and our deepest desires and thoughts to God...  and in that translation, binds us together with God and with each other.
            When we are divided by our differences in the church, I believe that the Spirit has the power to translate from a language of division to a language of unity... from the language of exclusion, barriers, and closed doors--  to the language of open doors...   from the language of individualism, isolation, and competion--  to that of fellowship and koinonia. 
            The Holy Spirit is still in the business of filling us with the boldness we need to respond to those who question...  still in the business of helping us break down barriers and build bridges...  still in the business of spreading the word that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  That business is called “The Church.”

            At the end of an all-day meeting for the purpose of reform of  one of our sister denominations, one of the pastors stood up and said that he thought reform was impossible.  The old structures are too entrenched, he said.  People are too slow to change.   Et cetera.
            “What gives you any hope that we will now or ever change?”  he asked the assembled crowd.
            They sat in silence.   But then a voice called out from the rear of the room, “THE HOLY SPIRIT!”         

            There are times when it’s hard not to feel discouraged.  But we have Christ's promises--  to be with us always...  and to lead us by his Holy spirit.  And so--  let us not lose hope.  
            We are kept on tiptoes--  expectant, eager, maybe even a little nervous!  For the Holy Spirit that gave birth to the church continues to prod, cajole, and urge us forward.   
            It’s been this way since the beginning of the church.  Just when we get settled down, comfortable with present arrangements, our pews bolted securely to the floor, all fixed and immobile--  the right number of pews-- there comes a rush of wind, or a still small voice...  a breath of fresh air...  tongues of fire.
So let us keep gathering together and praying and listening for the Spirit, and know that the Spirit is being poured out afresh on us, empowering us to carry the Gospel into the world.
Come, Holy Spirit!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 24, 2015

Friday, May 22, 2015

Since You Asked: What does the Bible say about women covering their heads?

As a Christian leader who is a woman, I am occasionally asked by Muslim friends  whether Christian women should cover their heads as many Muslim women do. For some Christians in other parts of the world, it is customary for women to cover their heads.  But for women in North America, it is a very small minority who cover.
            I want to begin by saying that, as far as I know, the only place in the New Testament that mentions this is in one of the apostle Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth (First Corinthians chapter 11).   In chapters 11-14, Paul is addressing several problems concerning the worship practices of the Corinthian community, and the discussion of head coverings in chapter 11 is apparently a response to something Paul has heard about what’s going on in Corinth. 
            As biblical scholar Richard Hays reminds us, when we read Paul’s letters, we are literally reading someone else’s mail.[1]  The letter was originally addressed to a young mission church to address particular issues. 
            In these verses in chapter 11, Paul endorses the freedom of women to pray and prophesy in the assembly, although there is the question about what sort of head covering is appropriate for them while exercising this freedom.  The patriarchal order of verses 3 and 7-9 seems to be in conflict with a vision of mutual interdependence of men and women “in the Lord” (verses 11-12).  The passage does not require subordination of women, even though some of Paul’s arguments assume a hierarchical ordering, a symbolic distinction between the sexes.  The immediate concern of the passage is for the Corinthians to avoid bringing shame on the community. 
            In reading other parts of First Corinthians it seems that some of the church members had enthusiastically embraced the early Christian tradition that “in Christ there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”  (Galatians 3:28)   In keeping with this belief, at least some Corinthian women were removing their head coverings or letting their hair down in worship, consciously discarding a traditional marker of gender distinction.  Some scholars believe that Corinthian women who rejected head coverings were expressing their transformed spiritual status “in Christ.”
            The Greek word for “veil” does not appear anywhere in this passage.  Some biblical scholars have suggested that the whole passage deals not with wearing a veil, but with having the hair bound or unbound.  In a more literal translation, we might understand that to have the head “covered” would mean to have the hair tied up on top of the head, rather than hanging loose.[2]  So there is some ambiguity here about what they were talking about.
            In interpreting the Bible, you could take one verse out of context to prove a point you might want to make.  People do it all the time.  For example, someone might quote 1 Corinthians 7:1, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” or to quote the apostle Paul to those who are unmarried, “It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do,” without reading the rest of the passage for the full meanings.  But these would not be faithful interpretations of the scripture.
            However, if you read the whole section of chapter 11, you find that Paul is arguing to get the women back in line with some of his earlier teaching and with the customary practice he has fostered in his other churches.   It seems clear that Paul hopes the women in Corinth will come over to his understanding of the need for head coverings in the worship setting.  But then, midway through 11:2-16, Paul seems to step back and question the implication of his one-sided argument for women to wear head coverings. 
            In his eagerness to bring the Corinthians women into conformity with the practice of women in his other churches, Paul has subordinated them to men and husbands.  Earlier in this letter, he has already taken a counter-cultural position in how he describes the relationship of husbands and wives in marriage (chapter 7) as one of equality and mutuality.  It seems that Paul recognizes that two of his own values are in conflict.  On one hand, Paul wants women believers to accommodate to cultural practices of wearing a head covering in worship.  On the other hand, he believes that in Christ the cultural differentiations between men and women are being challenged by the gospel. [3] 
            Recognizing that he has presented the Corinthians with conflicting arguments, he leaves it to their own discernment, even though he clearly prefers that they conform to the custom of women covering their heads:  “Weigh out these matters among yourselves.”  “Judge for yourselves.” (11:13)
            That is what we do.  We study the relevant passage(s) and the context and the fullness of our scriptures.  I consider how many times Jesus talked about his commandment to love God and neighbor and about our call to live more fully into what he described as “the kingdom of heaven”.  In the big picture, there is one passage in which the apostle Paul advocates for women covering their head (whatever that meant to the early church in Corinth) and then leaves it up to them to decide. 
            I respect the decision of other women to choose to cover their heads (or not), and I cover my head when I visit a mosque, out of respect for that tradition.   But I expect the same respect for my decision. 

[1] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians.  (John Knox Press, 1997), p. 184.

[2] Hays, p. 185.
[3] J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X  (Abingdom Press, 2002),  pages 928-9.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Waiting for the Power". A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on May 17, 2015. Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

In churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’re coming to the end of Eastertide, the season when we focus on celebrating the Resurrection.  The third major festival of the Christian year-- the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost--  comes next Sunday.   Before we get to Pentecost, we celebrate the Ascension, and we hear the part of the story that Luke/Acts places between Easter and Pentecost. 
            One part of the story is that Jesus has ascended to glory with God.  The glory of the risen and ascended Christ is good news--  something to celebrate.
            But the other themes in the story invite us to look at the Ascension from a very human perspective,   the disciples’ point of view, which is where we stand.    When Jesus was carried up into heaven,   when the cloud took him out of their sight, the reality they were facing was that Jesus had vanished.
            As one of my colleagues suggests, there’s an awkward gap in the story at this point.[1]  She compares it to the intermission in a play, between the two acts of the salvation drama.  In both Luke and Acts, the curtain falls on Jesus’ earthly life, as the Risen Christ leaves his disciples and is carried up out of their sight.  Up until now, Jesus has been the chief actor in the drama.  From his birth to his death to his resurrection appearances, it’s Jesus who keeps the story moving.  And now he’s gone--  offstage once and for all. 
            The curtain has fallen.  Now what?  Is the drama over?  By no means.  It’s simply intermission. 
            Now what are Jesus’ followers supposed to do?       It would have been hard not to feel anxious and impatient—just as it can be for us.
            “Lord,”  the disciples ask Jesus,  “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”   We need to know what the plan is.  We want certainty.  We want to know now.    
            Hear what Jesus says:  “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”    It is not for us to know all the details of the big plan.
            But we have Christ’s promises:  “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit...  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

            Luke tells us that the disciples worshipped the risen and ascended Christ.  They returned to Jerusalem with great joy,   and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
            In the verses following the passage we read in Acts, Luke tells how the disciples returned to Jerusalem and went to the upper room where they were staying, where they and certain women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  On the day of Pentecost, disciples were gathered together in one place when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them from on high. 

            I don’t have to remind you that this is a hard time, a time of transition and struggle for the church of Jesus Christ, throughout North America,  and for this congregation at Littlefield.  It’s hard to be so demographically challenged here, in the city,  here in east Dearborn.  It’s hard to see so many beloved friends getting older and less active, more frail.    It’s hard not to worry about how we’ll have enough people to do whatever we need to do.  It’s hard not to worry about the future of the congregation, in terms of our finances.   How will we support the mission?
            We need to be honest about our fears and anxieties.  We need to grieve the losses.   But we also need to be devoted to praying together...and to blessing God with joy...and waiting for power from on high.
            If it feels like we’re in an intermission in the carrying out of God’s plan of salvation, then we need to practice waiting for God.  If the time you’re living in seems like an intermission in God’s plan for your life,    if Jesus has vanished from your sight,   and the Holy Spirit’s power is only a distant promise--  then it’s our job to wait.  Not just to be idle, or to kill time, but to wait as disciples are called to wait-- with trust and hope.  With eagerness and expectancy for the beginning of the next act. 
            Do we believe that God can work miracles?   Do we believe God can use us to transform the world?   Do we believe that we can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens us?               How many of us want to believe these things?        

            I believe God has the power to work miracles, and that God wants to use us to transform people’s lives.  But it is not in God’s nature to coerce us.  We have choices.           
            In the great drama of God’s salvation story, you and I can choose to fill our intermission time with enjoying our friends and refreshments, until the time-filling activities become the most important things.  We can even choose to leave the theater altogether, and go off to try to find another story to give meaning to our lives. 
            But there is no other story that will fill the God-shaped hole in our lives.  God is the One who can give deep meaning to our lives, and gives it in God’s own time, when we are ready, in God’s eyes,  to carry out the mission God has planned for us.   If we believe this, then we need to live through our intermission times as the first disciples lived through theirs.
            When nothing much seemed to be happening, and they couldn’t see where the future would lead them, they remained focused on the drama of God’s salvation story, and worshipped God with great joy.  They were centered in God’s gracious, powerful promises as they  worshipped joyfully.

            In his book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis talks about “The Critical Choice:  Hope Versus Cynicism.” 
            Wallis says that one of the big struggles of our times is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope.  The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope—that these realities can and will be changed.  This choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice—one that can have enormous political consequences.  Wallis argues for a better religion--  a prophetic faith—the religion of Jesus and the prophets.
            According to Wallis, the difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power, and possibility of hope.  And that is indeed a spiritual and religious issue.  More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even a religious choice. 
            I agree with Jim Wallis when he says that hope is not a feeling.  It is a decision.  And the decision for hope is based on what you believe at the deepest levels—what your most basic convictions about the world and what the future holds--  all based on your faith.
            We can choose hope, not as a naive wish--  but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world.            I believe this hope is grounded in faith…and nurtured in our worship life.
            The Civil Rights movement in the United States grew out of the African-American church… and then others joined in—people who chose to hope.  

            During the days of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say, “We are prisoners of hope.”   
I know I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s powerful.  
            During Apartheid,  the South African Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during Tutu’s sermon at an ecumenical service.  Tutu  stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of the cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said   and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances.
            They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before   and kept them in jail for several days to make a statement and a point:  religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime.
            After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, Tutu acknowledged their power, saying, “You are powerful,  very powerful.”  But then he reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority:  “I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”
            Then in an extraordinary challenge to political tyranny, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”  He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. 
            The congregation’s response was electric.  The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power.  The heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers.  Yet the congregation was moved—empowered—to literally leap to their feet, shouting the praises of God.  They began dancing.  They danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers.  Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
            Some time later, a few days before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa, Wallis remembers wondering, “Who would have ever believed?    And that’s just the point, he says.  We have to believe.
            I know…   I know…   We’re just a little church.  We’re so demographically challenged.  So many of the members are older.   Everybody is so busy…   and so on….
            And yet, we are called.  Christ has given us a Great Commission:   You shall be my witnesses.
            We have Christ’s promise:  You will receive power…
            Like the first disciples, we have the promises of God to cling to, even in times of sorrow and anxiety.   These promises are ours, even at times when it seems that Christ has vanished.[2]  
            So let us cling to God’s promises and rejoice in them.  Let us be ready for the curtain to go up on the Salvation story.  Because in God, there will be a second act.
Rev. Fran Hayes
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan 48126

[1]Marjorie A. Menaul, in The Abingdom Women’s Preaching Annual, Series 3, Year B (Abingdon, 2002), p. 119
[2]I am grateful to Marjorie Menaul for this phrase, which really resonated with me.

"Commanded To Love". A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on May 10, 2015. Texts: Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

I recently came across some notes I’d taken from a book a group of us read together in the park some years ago--— Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?   
There’s a story in the book that continues to trouble me.   Yancey retells a story told by a friend of his who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.
            A prostitute came to him in "wretched straits"--  homeless, sick, addicted to drugs,  unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.  Yancy's friend said, "I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story....   I had no idea what to say to this woman.
            He said, “At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.  I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face.  "Church!"  she cried.  "Why would I ever go there?  I was already feeling terrible about myself.  They'd just make me feel worse."
            What struck Yancey about that story, he says, is that—according to the gospels-- people much like this prostitute came to Jesus--  not away from him.  The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. 
            So he asks:  Has the church lost that gift?  Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.  What has happened?--  he wonders.
            I've found myself pondering the questions Philip Yancey was asking,   as he to pondered the meaning of grace.
            Yancey quotes author Stephen Brown's observation that a veterinarian can learn a lot about a dog owner he has never met just by observing the dog.  He goes on to ask an important question:  "What does the world learn about God-- by watching us-- his followers?[1]
            I could really resonate with Yancey  when he observes how--  like fine wine poured into a jug of water--  "Jesus' wondrous message of grace gets diluted in the vessel of the church."[2]    I think he’s right.   Jesus' gospel of grace has been diluted and distorted by the church     
You've probably heard me say it before:  "Everything we do is witness.  Some of our witness is very positive...   and some of it is very negative witness."
A lot of people have been turned off by people who call themselves Christians…  and some have been wounded by the church.  For some time I’ve been saying that I think the wrestling with the tension between LAW and LOVE in the church is a sign that we may be on the verge of a new kind of Reformation.   I believe that we need to recover a sense of urgency to focus on Jesus’ Great Commandment:  the commandment to love.  When he was asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”
 It sounds simple enough.  But it isn’t easy to LIVE the great commandment.  God’s ways are not our ways. 
In the book of Acts, we have an account of how the early church worked through a crisis.  Who is included in God’s salvation plan?  In chapter ten, Luke tells how the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was seeking God, had a vision in which an angel of God told him to send for Simon Peter… and how Peter had a vision that challenged his ideas about what it means to be a person of faith.
While Peter was still trying to figure out what to make of the vision he had seen of the assortment of unclean animals on a sheet   and the command to not call profane anything that God has made clean, he was led to the house of Cornelius.  There he preaches the gospel  of Jesus Christ, and proclaims  that he now understands that “God shows no partiality.”  In other words, God intends to include people that—left to its own devices—the church wouldn’t include.  That’s the context of the story we heard this morning from Acts.
            The circumcised believers had just witnessed the Holy Spirit falling upon on all who had heard Peter's sermon.  But how could this be?--  they wondered.  The Holy Spirit is being poured out even on the Gentiles?  
            We need to remember that Jesus and his first followers were Jews.  As a faithful Jew, Peter had taken the regulations in the Jewish purity codes for granted and observed them all his life.            But then he has a series of experiences that challenge his understanding. 
            Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit,  just as we have?   So he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and he stays with them for awhile.  
            It would have seemed very clear to some people in the early church what God required of them.  For many centuries, their religious tradition had taught them that to be a “holy” people means to be separate...   and to have very clear, distinct boundaries between their community and those outside the community. 
            And yet, in this story in Acts, we hear how the church was learning from the Holy Spirit and actually changing its policies.  The early church in Judea begins to realize that they’re going to be in relationship with people they’ve always avoided--  and that the church should minister to them.[3]
            There were still a lot of legalists who kept insisting that the Gentiles had to be circumcised    and observe the Jewish purity laws in order to be followers of the Way.    But God had a new vision for the church.
            So--  what might this story be saying to us today?  What do we see in God’s vision for the church in our time?
            I think we need to be asking questions about how God might be at work in the midst of the struggle.   How do we discern God’s will for the church--  in this time...  in this context?   Can we be open to the leading of the Spirit further into the truth--  even if it means we’ll have to change our minds about some things?
            Like our ancestors in the faith before us, we need to figure out what God’s will is for us in our time.        
"Abide in my love,"  Jesus says.  "This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you...."

            Could it be that-- in order to be Jesus' friends-- we need to be willing to sacrifice some of the things we've always believed?
            As we seek God’s will for us, we need to study and faithfully interpret the scriptures.  We need to learn how to talk with one another about difficult issues.  We need to create a community of  welcome  and peace and safety where people feel safe to come...  and safe enough to let you know who they are.   We need to be a community where we can all feel safe in sharing our hurts and doubts and struggles and fears...  a community where we can learn and heal and grow together...   a place where people will know we’re Christians by our love.
            We won’t always hear a clear answer that we like--  an answer we’re all going to agree on.   A group of human beings isn’t going to always agree on everything.   So, as we hear God saying, “What God has made clean, do not call profane,”    can we be open to whatever new growing edges God gives us in our life of faith?  Can we find ways to live together in love--  even when we disagree with one another about some things?   Can we love one another even when we disagree with one another about human sexuality… or the church kitchen… or any number of things?  
            As the story unfolds in the New Testament, it tells how the church discovered that God had  “broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles”[4]  and founded a Realm that would cancel exclusionary distinctions between “male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free”[5]...    and brought them all together in one Body of Christ.[6]
            These are not easy times for the church.  But I'm convinced that God is up to something.

            God's love and grace are truly amazing!    So how do we love one another, as Christ has commanded us?  How do we connect with people who are seeking God?  How do we share the good news of God's amazing grace with the people who most need to hear it?
            As we seek to prayerfully discern a clearer vision of what God has planned for us, we can approach the future as a real Pentecost kind of adventure.      
            We need to be praying for answers to questions like "Who needs to hear the gospel of grace and love?"    Who among us?  Who outside these walls?  "What gifts do we have to offer someone who is seeking God?"   "What can we do to reach out to them… and to minister to them?"  Are we prepared to love anyone to whom the Spirit leads us?     
            I think that--  if we are serious about living as friends of Jesus and being part of the Church of Love--   we will find ways to connect with people who need to be reassured that they are welcome and loved.   We will find ways to minister to them  and with them.  
            If we are serious about being friends of Jesus, we will do what he commands us.  We have been chosen to go and bear fruit--  the fruit of love...  fruit that will last.
            The good news is that Jesus says these things to us so that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete!
            Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Fran Hayes
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 10, 2015



[1]Philip Yancey, "What's So Amazing About Grace?   (Zondervan, 1997), p. 14.
[2]Yancey, p. 29.
[3]Acts 11:21-26
[4]Ephesians 2:14-15.
[5]Galatians 3:28
[6]Ephesians 3:4-6; 4:1-16.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"What Is to Prevent?" A Sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on sunday, May 3, 2015, on Acts 8:26-39

"What Is To Prevent?"
A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church Sunday, May 3, on Acts 8:26-39.

What happens in the story we heard in Acts chapter 8 sounds like something from the Old Testament: an angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to go to the road to Gaza.  So Philip is traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza—a wilderness road—when he encounters an Ethiopian riding in a chariot. 
Luke tells us quite a lot about both of these men.  Philip is one of seven Greek-speaking Jewish Christians appointed by the Twelve to tend to the needs of others, especially widows, in the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community.  He is known as Philip the Evangelist, who eventually settled in Caesarea, and has four daughters who were considered prophets in this Christian community.[1]
Embedded in this story are a number of interesting details.  We’re told that the Ethiopian—a black African—was the treasurer of “The Candace,” the official title of the queen mother and real head of government in Ethiopia.[2] 
Since he’s traveling in a chariot, we know he’s a person of status.   That he possesses a scroll of the prophet Isaiah shows that he is wealthy. 
Luke tells us that the Ethiopian is a eunuch, which was not unusual for someone in that time and culture whose life was devoted to serving in the queen’s court.  He had probably been castrated, probably as a child, so that he would be considered trustworthy around all the women in the queen’s court.
That this man was a eunuch was an important detail to Luke, because he mentions it five times.
This man may have been an Ethiopian Jew, or I think more probably a “God-worshiper” returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  God-worshipers, or God-fearers, were Gentiles who accepted the theological and ethical teachings of Judaism and worshiped with Jews in the synagogue without becoming full converts.   
Philip hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from the book of Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he’s reading.  The Ethiopian says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  Then he invites Philip to get into the chariot and ride beside him.  
The passage he’s reading is one of what we may recognize as one of the “Suffering Servant” songs:
"Like a lamb led to slaughter, in humiliation justice was denied him and he was cut off from the land of the living, cut off from all progeny." 
Now, according to Deuteronomy 23, castrated males were not to be accepted into the Jewish community.  The different translations of that passage have interesting ways of describing this category of people who were excluded:  “No one who has been emasculated by cutting or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.”  You can look up the other translations for yourself if you’re interested.
The Ethiopian may have experienced exclusion as he tried to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, if Deuteronomy 23 was being enforced in a rigid manor.  We don’t know. If so, he may still have had his experience of rejection in mind as he was reading Isaiah:  “In his humiliation, justice was denied him.”   No matter how much this man may have longed to be a full member of the Jewish community, the religious rules would have excluded him because of his physical condition.[3]  Scripture makes it clear that eunuchs were not allowed in the Temple—not even in the Court of the Gentiles, which was an outer court.[4] 
Here is someone else who has been denied a full life, cut off from God and people, condemned to have no generations to follow and remember him. And so the eunuch is curious. Who is this being described? What has he done? What is going to happen to him? Of course, what he probably really wants to know is what is going to happen to him-- the eunuch. Yes, it is as if the scripture has become a mirror, and the eunuch recognizes himself in it.
Now, before Philip was sent down this wilderness road, he has been preaching “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” in Samaria, and as a result, many Samaritans “were baptized, both men and women.”  By preaching in Samaria, Philip has broken through two important barriers:  religion and race.  He is convinced that God loves even the Samaritans, and that they are welcome to join this new inclusive Jewish sect—the community of the Messiah. 
Even though Jesus had commissioned his followers to be his witness in Samaria,[5] this breakthrough had apparently raised eyebrows among the Jewish-Christian leaders in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine them saying, “But we’ve never done that before!  We’ve always believed that the Samaritans were heretics… “
The enforcers of the religious boundaries sent Peter and John to Samaria to look into the matter of including the Samaritans, and they prayed for them, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter and John preached the gospel to many villages of Samaritans on their way back to Jerusalem.
The Spirit was on the move!  So I think there are three characters in this story.  The Spirit of God brought Philip to the eunuch, so that he can interpret the scripture to him.  He tells him that the suffering servant as described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus… and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.
Can you imagine how the eunuch would have responded to that news?  All people? Does Philip really mean that?  New life for all people?
As they’re traveling along that wilderness road, they come to some water. The eunuch impulsively jumps up and with great excitement, proclaims, "Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
What is to prevent him from being baptized?  A lot of people would want to say, “God says no.   God says you’re not even allowed in the Temple, because you’re a eunuch.  We’ve got a couple of Bible verses we can quote to prove it.  Like in Deuteronomy chapter 23.   It’s what we’ve always believed.  God says no.”

But that isn’t what happened.  An angel of the Lord had sent Philip to encounter this Ethiopian eunuch.  This God-fearing eunuch who was studying the prophet Isaiah invites Philip to ride with him and lead him in Bible study. 
I wonder if, during the course of their Bible study in the chariot, Philip and the eunuch read the next few chapters in the scroll of Isaiah.  I wonder if they got to chapter 56, where Isaiah proclaims:
“Thus says the LORD: maintain justice, and do what is right, 
for soon my salvation will come,and my deliverance will be revealed….
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say.
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
... and do not let the eunuch say,
   "I am just a dry tree."
   For thus says the Lord:
   To eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant,
   I will give in my house and within my walls,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons or daughters;
   I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off. “[6]

Over the years, scholars have wondered how Isaiah could have said such a thing.  Surely he knew the holiness code as written in Deuteronomy.  A eunuch was excluded from the assembly of the LORD.[7]  Why would Isaiah have said this after the exile, when the survival of the remnant of the people of Israel was at stake?  This was a time when having children would have been a priority… and when purity and boundaries seemed critically important.  And yet, in just such a time, Isaiah wrote that foreigners and eunuchs would be welcome in the household of God.
Could it be that the Spirit of God was hovering over the text and over the prophet, bringing forth a different word to overturn the word of exclusion?  
The Spirit of God has been on the move.  Surely it was no coincidence that the story in Acts 8 of an Ethiopian eunuch brings together the two categories of Isaiah 56 together in this one person.  Luke is steeped in the writings of Isaiah from the day in Nazareth when Jesus read from Isaiah’s scroll[8] to this day on the wilderness road. 
The work the risen Jesus began on the Emmaus road, opening and interpreting the scriptures, Philip is continuing. 
Through his storytelling and his actions, through his relationships with people, Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God—the gospel of love.
When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, Jesus said:  “Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On this hang the whole of the Law.” 
Jesus’ teaching and ministry were all about love and compassion and healing.  He reached out to people on the margins of society—people the good religious people of his day thought of as sinners and outcasts.
The eunuch listens to Philip as he shares the good news of Jesus.  And then with longing and excitement, he asks:  What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?
What does Philip do?   He sets aside the narrow confines of purity laws and exclusion… and throws open the wide doors of God’s love and mercy.  He embraces the spirit of the law, and baptizes the eunuch. 
This is gospel in action.  That’s what happens when we really study the Bible.  It’s transformative. It changes our minds. It changes our lives. And, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we go on our way rejoicing.
That’s a very different thing from when people pick a verse or two or three to support what they already “know” and say, “No. God says no.”

He went on his way rejoicing!   Tradition tells us that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first one to take the gospel to Ethiopia, and that makes sense to me.  He went on his way rejoicing—so full of joy and gratitude that he would have wanted to share the good news.
The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, for he has become a full member of the household of faith.  Then the Spirit sends Philip on to share the good news in new places.  The Spirit is on the move.
There is good news for us and for all God’s people today.  God continues to come to us and to work in the lives of women and men who abide in Christ.   By that same Spirit, God unites us to Christ in the waters of baptism. 
 God gives us grace to abide in Christ, so that we can rejoice and grow in grace and produce the fruit of God’s reign in our lives.   We are sent forth to share the amazing wideness of God’s love  to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God.
This is the Good News of the Gospel.  May it be so for you and for me.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan 

[1] Acts 21:8-9.
[2] Paul W. Walaskay, Acts  (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 86.
[3] Walaskay, p. 86.
[4] Deuteronomy 23

[5] Acts 1:8

[6] Isaiah 56:3-5
[7] Deuteronomy 23:1.
[8] Luke 4