Monday, June 8, 2015

"Remembering, Rejoicing, Re-committing": a sermon on John 21:1-17, for a celebration of 85 years of mission and ministry at Littlefield Presbyterian Church

"Remembering, Rejoicing, and Re-Committing"

John 21:1-17

“I’m going fishing,” says Simon Peter.  And others apparently say, “I’ll go with you.”    So, it’s back to life as usual. 
            Do you find yourself wondering--  why would the disciples go fishing just days after Jesus’ resurrection?            
            After the resurrection, the disciples had locked themselves into a room, because they were afraid.  But Jesus had come to them and said,  “Peace be with you.”  He showed them his wounds, and they recognized him, and they rejoiced!   Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And then he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”   The followers have been blessed and sent by the risen Christ. 
             So…    What’s going on here?  Shouldn’t the disciples be out preaching?  Shouldn’t they be fishing for people? 
            And why is the story here at the end of John’s gospel anyway?  The words at the end of chapter twenty sounded like they were the end:
            “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in Jesus’ name.”[1] 
            Doesn’t that sound like the end?—like things were pretty well wrapped up?
            But it isn’t the end.   This is just one more reminder that the Bible isn’t tidy.  The work of the Spirit isn’t tidy. 
“After these things, Jesus showed himself again.” 
            The disciples had fished all night, but they didn’t catch anything.  At dawn, Jesus appears on the shore—but they don’t recognize him.  “Children, you have no fish--  have you?” 
            “No,” they shout back over the water. 
            “Cast your nets to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
            They throw out the net and soon it’s filled with fish.  Do you have a sense of déjà vu?  Haven’t we been here before? 
            In Luke’s gospel,  in chapter 5, the fishermen had fished all night and hadn’t caught anything.  Jesus says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  They caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break, and they were amazed at the catch.  At that point, Jesus told them, “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you’ll be catching people.”  And the disciples left everything and followed Jesus.”
            So again I’m wondering:  Why are the disciples back fishing for FISH?

In John’s gospel, we have this fishing story with an amazing catch at the end of the story--  after the resurrection.  We hear Jesus saying “Follow me,” as though it’s a beginning.
            The first disciples were having a hard time figuring out how to live after the resurrection, so they were holding on to what was familiar to them. 

It seems they needed a new beginning—a new call.   So Jesus takes bread and fish and gives it to them, and they share a meal together.   Then Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord.  You know I love you.”  (Now this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times on the night he was arrested, because he was afraid.)  Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” 
            A second time, Jesus asks Peter:  “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Yes, Lord.  You know I love you.”  Jesus says,  “Tend my sheep.”
            A third time, Jesus ask, “Do you love me?”  Peter says, “Of course I love you!”  Again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”  
More than two thousand years later, we’re trying to figure out how to follow Jesus in this new time.   I don’t have to tell you that this is a challenging time for the church—and not only for smaller congregations like Littlefield.
The church in North America has been in decline.   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, a few of us had email accounts.  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.. [2]
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 anxious or afraid.
It’s tempting to just go fishing.  And yet… there have been times of disruption and change and loss before, in the world, and here at Littlefield. 
             Back in 1960, Littlefield had 1,250 members.  But a lot of things started changing.  For a variety of reasons, mainline churches began to lose prestige and power and lost anywhere from a quarter to a third of their members.  This was just the beginning of some challenging times for Littlefield Church.
            Harry Geissinger came to be the senior pastor and brought strong visionary leadership the congregation needed.  The 1960’s and 1970’s were tumultuous times in our society, in the world, and in the church.  Life in the metro Detroit area was marked by social upheaval and a series of crises in the 1960’s, including block-busting and the 1967 race riot.  The congregation struggled with the impact of “white flight” out of its Detroit neighborhoods and significant growth in the number of Arab Americans in its Dearborn neighborhoods. 
            The changes in the community reduced the size of the Littlefield congregation.  Some churches might have packed up and moved to the suburbs. 
            But, as a mission study done during this time observed, “In the face of tremendous social changes going on all around it, Littlefield Presbyterian Church did not split apart or turn in on itself.  It didn’t close down or lose faith….”  
            In the mid- to late-seventies, a need emerged and was identified: to develop a relationship with our Arab-American neighbors, to bridge cultural differences and overcome misunderstandings among Christians and Muslims.  Since that time, Littlefield Presbyterian Church has taken a leadership role in carrying out a ministry of reconciliation.
            In 1979, Bill Gepford began his work as Director of Arab-American Relations in Dearborn and Assistant Pastor of Littlefield. This was a result of “a strong sense of mission and faith in the future…”  This pioneering program was supported by the General Assembly, the Synod of the Covenant, the Presbytery of Detroit, and Littlefield Church. 
            1986 was a big year at Littlefield.  The first Interfaith Thanksgiving Service was held at Littlefield, with participants from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, and the service continued for many years until many communities in the region started holding their own interfaith Thanksgiving services. 
            The same year the congregation’s holiday basket project served 80 families and continued to do so until a few years ago.  One of the things that was so impressive about this program was how it brought together local organizations like ACCESS, Fordson High School and McDonald Elementary schools,  merchants, and others to work together to feed hungry people.
            In the late 1980’s, there were three classes of English as a Second Language being held at Littlefield, operated by the Dearborn Public Schools, and in 1990 the congregation began a cooperative relationship with the YWCA to offer a Head Start preschool program.  Both of these partnerships served the people in the community and provided supplemental income to help fund Littlefield’s mission. 
So it was a disappointing and anxious time when we lost both these community programs a couple of years ago.  We have another congregation renting space on weekends, and that helps.  But, as our finance committee has been telling us, “If nothing changes, Littlefield only has a couple of years.”

Now, I have to tell a little story.  At some point shortly after I’d moved here and bought a house, I was having a conversation with someone who said, “Well, we’re only going to be open for another 2 or 3 years.”
What I discovered was that a couple of our elders with business experience had looked at the finances a few years before that and projected that “if nothing changes, the church would have to close in 5 years.” 
That was 18 years ago.  Obviously, some things did change.

In the Presbyterian church, every time a pastor leaves, the congregation does a mission study.  After Del Meester left in 1994, the mission study said it well:  “Outreach to the community is at the heart of Littlefield Church’s ministry….Our primary challenge is the one that has always faced Christians:  to discern what God is calling us to do, and to reflect and model God’s love, justice, and peace…. The members of Littlefield believe that the work of the Holy Spirit among us gives us energy and mission and that we are called by God to re-invent and re-orient ourselves with regard to who we are and what to do as God’s people.“
A few months after I got here, Doris Edwards came to me with an idea for holding a Peace Camp at Littlefield, and by the next summer, in 1998, we held our first Peace Camp.  We’ve held one almost every year since, and are gearing up for Peace Camp 2015.
The events of September 11, 2001 changed all our lives and had a major impact on our congregation’s life, as we had a renewed sense of urgency about working to further understanding and cooperation between different religious groups. We had a series of Christian-Muslim Dialogue days in those years, as well as a number of educational forums.  In recent years, we have held an Interfaith Prayer for Peace service in September.   We find ways to come together to grow in understanding  and pray together for peace.

So here we are.  Today we remember and give thanks for 85 years of mission and ministry at Littlefield.  It’s easy to get discouraged when we look around at the small numbers.  But Littlefield continues to be a very special congregation with a unique mission. 
The new people who have joined us in recent years seem to think Littlefield is a special place.  We’re thrilled to have children again.   And for a small congregation, we have wonderful music. 
A little later in the service, we’re going to have some time for “rejoicing”, so we’ll continue to count our blessings then.

This is a challenging, sometimes confusing, sometimes anxious, but also exciting time to be doing ministry!  Things are changing, and we have so much learning and discernment to do, in order to serve Christ faithfully in this new time, with new possibilities. 
When we feel like giving up and going fishing, Jesus keeps showing up.
             Do you love me?  If you do, feed my sheep. 
Do we hear him calling?   Follow me.  The world needs you to be salt and light… and to love one another and your neighbors.

            Now to the One who by the power at work within us
            Is able to do far more abundantly
            Than all we can ask or imagine,
            To God be glory in the church
            And in Christ Jesus,
            To all generations, forever and ever.   Amen.  

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 7, 2015

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