Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Enough." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 6:1-21, on God's abundance.

2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-21

In the process of spreading the word about our picnic today at Hemlock Park, I put an invitation on Facebook and said, “All are welcome.”  Jim McCreadie put a sign up on the church door telling anybody who showed up where we are, and he wrote, “All are welcome.” 
            So I started wondering, “What if a bunch of people saw that invitation and showed up for lunch?  Would we have enough to feed everybody? “  Then, when I got back to today’s scripture lessons, I thought:  “How relevant.”    

            The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle story that’s told in all four gospels.   So I think it’s clear that it was important in the life of the early church.  The lectionary wants to be sure we don’t miss an important theme today, so we also heard the story from Second Kings.
            In Second Kings, we hear how a man came, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God:  twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain.  Elisha says, “Give it to the people and let them eat.”  But his servant says, “How can I set this before a hundred people?”  In other words, we don’t have enough. 
            Elisha says again, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for this says the LORD, “They shall eat and have some left.”  He set the food out for them.  They ate.  And there was some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
            One of my colleagues suggests that we can take this passage as an example of the way of life in the community gathered around the power of God.  It begins with the practice of stewardship by the man who brings a portion of his first fruits to Elisha.  It seems he offered the remainder of the first fruits to God in some other context.  In the first fruits, he offers to God’s people his best, but also the first harvest of his labor.  To do this, he would have to trust that God will provide more, so he can feed and support his family.[1]
            Out of this act of stewardship comes the possibility for hospitality, as the gift is used to feed the multitude.   This is a recurring theme in the Bible.  Earlier in the Elisha stories, a woman from Shunem is in desperate poverty and debt when Elisha tells her to send her children out to borrow empty vessels from the neighbors, and suddenly they have an abundance of oil to sell and pay off their debts and have a livelihood. 
            Later, when there was a time of famine in Gilgal, Elisha told his servant to put a big pot on and make some stew.  They gathered up a wild vine and some wild gourds and added some flour.  People were afraid the foraged food was poisonous, but there was nothing harmful in the pot, and they could eat. 
            That’s where today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures picks up, with its acts of faithful stewardship and hospitality flowing into the abundance of God.   People look at something and see scarcity.  If we’re afraid that there won’t be enough, we’re tempted to hoard what we have. 
            The servant looks at the small offering of first fruits and at the large crowd and says, “How can I set this before a hundred people?  There won’t be enough.”
            The person of God looks at the same small offering ant the large crowd and sees not scarcity—but an opportunity to bear witness to the reality and power of God’s abundance.  So Elisha promises,  “They shall eat and have some left.”  According to the word of God, it is so.
            God’s blessings are often more abundant than we realize.  When we are thankful for God’s love and goodness,  and trust in God’s abundance, we are free to share with our neighbor. 
            Fast forward…
            “The Passover, the festival of the Jews was near,” and a large crowd was following Jesus.   I can imagine that in their minds they were seeing connections between Jesus and Moses.  When Jesus goes up the mountain, the crowd follows him.   Jesus sees the crowd, and he says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”   
            He says this to test Philip. 
            Philip is sure they don’t have enough.   “Six months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each person to get even a little.”
            But Andrew tells him, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But what are they among many people?”   In other words, we don’t have enough.        
            Jesus told them to have the people sit down.  Then he “took the loaves and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.”   Everyone had as much bread and fish as they wanted.  When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing is wasted.”  So they gathered up the left-overs, and they filled twelve baskets. 
            When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”   

            Now fast forward to today.  Imagine that Jesus is testing us.   Imagine there’s a mission project for which we’re sensing a call.  But we exercise responsible money-management procedures, and the numbers say we don’t take in enough revenue to support the mission.   We don’t have enough.  
            I wonder.    Do we expect to be part of a miracle? 
How might our work as a congregation be different if we intentionally see what we do—each and every thing we do—as a way God can use us to reveal God’s power? 
            What if we understood a part of our mission to be responding to human hungers and as a way to point to Christ’s abundance?
            What if – when we make ministry decisions—we remind ourselves of how Jesus can multiply resources so that there is enough?  
            We can choose to focus on scarcity and survival—or we can be agents of God’s grace and abundance, bringing hope to weary souls.  
            The love of God is made known to us through Jesus Christ, the one who knows our needs and our hungers and offers us the bread of life.  This was good news for the crowd gathered in John’s gospel near the mountain, and it is good news for us.
            So let us offer all we have to Jesus and trust that he will take it, bless it, and use it.  Let us take God’s abundance out into the world, so that they too can know that through Christ Jesus they are enough… and there is enough.
            Thanks be to God!

[1] Stephen Edmondson, in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, Proper 12. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Ears to Hear, Eyes to See." A sermon on Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29; and Psalm 85, from Littlefield Presbyterian Church. Preached on July 12, 2015. This was an observance of the Week of Righteous Resistance, as we stand for racial justice and in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters whose churches have been burned. We received a special offering to donate to rebuilding..

The gospel lesson we just heard is part of a long story, that’s told partly in flashback.  The scene is suspenseful and as grisly as anything you’d see on television.  It’s really unlike anything else in Mark’s account of the good news, and it seems sort of out of place. 
            So it might make us wonder why Mark tells this story at all.  As David Lose points out, later evangelists must have asked the same question, because Matthew shortens it considerably and Luke leaves it out.[1]
            I think Mark was trying to show a contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus’ disciples—then and ever since.   Mark has placed this story just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he joins them in making that kingdom more tangible and real than they might have imagined.
            Herod’s Kingdom—the kingdom of the world—is dominated by the will to power.  This is the world of competition, fear and envy … the world we see on the evening news.
            How different the kingdom of this world is to the kingdom of God.  Jesus sends his disciples out in vulnerability, dependent on the grace and hospitality of others, to bring healing and mercy, with no expectation of worldly reward or recognition or gain.  
            Mark seems to be putting a choice before us: which kind of kingdom do we belong to and want to live into? 
            We have prophetic figures in both of our scripture passages today:  Amos and John the Baptist.    God calls Amos to leave his home in the land of Judah and prophesy to the rebellious people of Israel.  John is beheaded.   So this isn’t exactly Prophet Appreciation Sunday.  But then, God’s prophets don’t tend to get a lot of appreciation.  I think that’s because they bring messages that are hard to hear.   They bring judgment. 
            Amos sees a wall build with a plumb line.  A plumb line, as I understand it, functions to keep the wall vertically straight during construction.  The heavy lead at the end of the string judges how the wall is measuring up and helps to maintain the integrity of the building by providing a vertical reference point.[2]
            God is setting a religious and ethical plumb line in the midst of the kingdom of Israel to see how they stand, and they fail to measure up.  They’re not upright.  
            These words are hard for a lot of people to hear.  There are always people who want to silence a prophetic word from the Lord, to protect the status quo…  to protect the systems of power and privilege… to protect previously held and cherished beliefs.  Judgment is hard to hear.

            In the weeks since the massacre of 9 people at Emanuel AME Church, some of us have been thinking and talking a lot about race relations in our country.
            Whether the six African-American churches that have been burned since then are determined to be arsons or even hate crimes, when a black church burns—a half century after the Jim Crow era—it brings back troubling memories.
            It wasn’t so long ago that there were a rash of hate crimes directed at black churches.  Since at least 1822, when the first recorded burning of a black church occurred in South Carolina, church arson has been a default response of racists frustrated with progress on civil rights.
            Churches played a critical role in the civil rights movement and were targeted overtly.   One of the most heinous church attacks was that of 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed in a 1963 bombing while getting ready for Sunday school.       Torching churches such as Mount Zion persisted decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,  100 years after Booker T. Washington dined at the White House and 150 years after the end of the Civil War.[3]
            I know this is hard to hear for a lot of people… hard to think about.   A lot of us would rather not think about it.  For white people, it’s a sign of privilege that we don’t have to think about race every single day, or with the same kind of urgency as people of color.
            But I think God is calling us to a greater righteousness.   Our nation is still under construction, struggling to live more fully into a society where there is liberty and justice for all. 
            As people of faith, we continue to be challenged by God’s vision for us, the kingdom of God—if we have ears to hear.  Prophetic voices keep bringing God’s word to us.  They keep holding up God’s plumb line to our life together and calling us to greater faithfulness and righteousness. 

            To some people, it may seem like a hopeless cause.   But I believe the time is ripe for change.  And I believe nothing is impossible for God. 
            Today, I think many people in our society truly are against racism    and really long to live in a nation in which we have justice for all.  Throughout the 1700’s, many people were against slavery—in theory.  But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach.             

            On New Year’s Day, 1773, in a small church in a market town outside of London, the congregation gathered for worship.  The pastor rose to preach, and began with a poem he had written to describe his conversion experience 25 years earlier—a poem we sang today.
            Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

            That saved a wretch like me!

            I once was lost, but now am found.

            Was blind, but now I see.

            The preacher, John Newton, had been the captain of a slave ship.  While crossing the Atlantic on his way home, he and his crew encountered a terrible storm.  Assuming all was lost, the captain of the ship cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us!”
            They survived.  It was May 10, 1748.   John Newton never forgot that moment for the rest of his life. 
            For Newton, this initial conversion experience came suddenly and clearly.  One moment he was blind to the presence of God.  The next he could see.   For the rest of his life John Newton observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day when he subjected his will to a higher power.
            There are various versions of the story of John Newton’s conversion.   Some tell a story of how Newton’s life was so changed that he turned the slave ship around and sailed back to Africa and set the captives free.  Some tell how humanely Newton treated the slaves on the ship.
            The truth is,  at that point and for many years afterward, Newton was captive to his culture’s understanding of slavery.  Slaves were seen not as persons—but as property…  as cargo on a ship. 
            Newton continued to see his work in the slave trade as what he described as a “creditable way of life.”  He valued the time he had at sea to study the Bible.   On his voyages, while slaves were lying in shackles below them, Newton gathered his crew on deck for prayer,   “according to the liturgy…officiating myself.”[4]
            Looking back, Newton wrote:  “During the time I was engaged in the slave-trade, I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness.  I was upon the whole satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out for me….   It is indeed accounted a genteel employment, and is usually very profitable.”[5]
            Newton continued to make his living in the slave trade for some years.  His last voyage on a slave ship was in 1953-54—six years after his conversion during the storm.  After leaving the sea, he eventually studied for the priesthood.  He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1764 and,  over time, gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher.
            During these years, Newton’s mind and his religious faith were focused not on changing the social order of his world, but its spiritual life.   He had come under the influence of the Evangelical movement.          
            To the Evangelicals of 18th century England, theirs was a nation that had lost its moral bearings.  There was widespread alcoholism and prostitution.
            Evangelicals advocated studying the Bible,  frequent prayer, and rigorously keeping the Sabbath.  They disapproved of theatrical plays, gambling, most dancing, and pubs. 
            At that time, most people in Great Britain were convinced that the British Empire’s economy would collapse if slavery were abolished.  They couldn’t imagine the Empire without slavery.  They didn’t really see how their faith was a reason to oppose slavery.
            For fifty years, William Wilberforce and other activists, including the Quakers worked to end slavery in the British Empire.  
As for the preacher John Newton:  in around 1772, he wrote the words for “Amazing Grace.”  But it wasn’t until 8 years later, in 1780,  that he began to express regrets about his part in the slave trade--  thirty-two years after his conversion.
            In 1785 he began to speak out openly against slavery.  He wrote a pamphlet that was widely read, and he testified in court about the evils of the slave trade.  He continued to speak out until his death in 1807.
            Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery. 
            In 19th-century America, religious revivalism was linked directly with the abolition of slavery and movements of social reform.  Christians helped lead the abolitionist struggle, efforts to end child labor, projects to aid working people and establish unions, and the battle to obtain voting rights for women.  Evangelical Christians fought for social causes.  For Evangelical Christian evangelists and leaders like Charles Finney, the gospel and the cause of working against slavery went together.
            Change can be hard.   Change can be slow.  But the church has done amazing things in the past—things that transformed the society.  
            When we have ears to hear… when we have eyes to see—God can use us.   The Psalmist sings of this promise:

            When we pray, “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD,
            and grant us your salvation.
Let us hear what God the LORD will speak;
For he will speak peace to God’s faithful,
To those who turn to God in their hearts…
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other…
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before the LORD
And will make a path for God’s steps.[6]

May it be so!

[1] David Lose, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms” at In the Meantime, at

[2] Since my construction knowledge is limited, I am grateful to Tyler Mayfield for his explanation, at the Working Preacher.

[4] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 71-75.
[5] Ibid., p. 71.
[6] Psalm 85

Sunday, July 5, 2015

"Speaking Truth." A sermon on Mark 6:1-13 and Ezekiel 2:1-5 on the day after Independence Day

“Speaking Truth”
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13

         Here we are on the day after the Fourth of July, and the lectionary texts have us reflecting on what it is like to be God’s prophetic voice in the midst of our community and our culture.  Both of our scripture texts make it clear that it isn’t easy to speak God’s truth.  There will be mighty resistance.
         According to Old Testament scholars, the prophet Ezekiel was active from about 593-571 BCE—a period of time that includes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon in 587 BCE.  It was a time of great turmoil for the people of Israel.  Today’s reading tells us how God called Ezekiel to prophesy to the people of Israel, who have been rebellious. 
         “You shall speak my words to them,” the LORD says, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”  God tells Ezekiel not to be dismayed or afraid.
         Now, this is pretty standard stuff, in terms of what we know of the Old Testament prophets.  They are sent by God to the people, to call them back to the covenant.  They are often ignored… forgotten… berated… mistreated…tortured…and sometimes killed.  People don’t listen to them. 
         And yet they keep being called… and they keep speaking God’s  truth. 
         Fast forward 400-plus years to Jesus.  As Christians, it may be hard for us to understand that to most of the people of his time he was just another rabbi or prophet.  In today’s lesson,  Jesus is in his hometown, in the synagogue.  Mark tells us that “he began to teach,” and that no one is very happy with what he has to say. 
         These are people who know Jesus and his family.  In some way they seem to believe that what Jesus is saying is from God:  “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by him!” 
         Mark’s account doesn’t give us a lot of details, but Luke’s version tells us that Jesus told the people in the synagogue:  “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, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
         But the people of Nazareth took offense at Jesus’ teaching.   Then Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kind, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except for laying his hands on a few sick people and healing them.  Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.
         I wonder if the hometown folk might have been willing to give this young man the benefit of the doubt, as long as he didn’t say anything too unexpected or challenging.  They might not have been inclined to doubt the source of his teachings if he hadn’t made them feel so uncomfortable. 
         Now, we might like to think that if we had been among Jesus’ hometown folks, we would have heard him gladly and changed our ways in any way he thought we should.  We’ll never know what we would have done then.  But the real question is:  What do we do now?
         I don’t think human nature has changed much over the centuries. Skepticism can be helpful.  There are too many examples of people who were led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, often with very bad outcomes. 
         But then how do we determine who is speaking the truth?  How do we discern the real prophets from the fakes?   It can be very hard to tell.  We let our prejudices get in the way.  We expect people to fit a certain mold…to look and sound a certain way. 
         All through the Bible we hear how God used the most unlikely people to do God’s work, and often the people involved weren’t too happy about it.  Very often God’s truth comes from sources we least expect.  And often the truth is inconvenient… or disturbing. 
         The truth disrupts our carefully designed paradigms…our carefully guarded prejudices…our convenient belief systems.  No wonder we ask, “Who do you think you are?”  The truth can threaten the very foundations upon which we have built our assumptions about other people…about systems of governance…about everything.  We all have prejudices and biases and assumptions that we rely on to get us through the day. 
         Look around at our world.  Here we are in the twenty-first century, and human beings are still fighting wars and practicing genocide across the world.  We still allow corporations to exploit people and the planet. 

         As we got ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, a lot of people shopped for picnic food, so they could celebrate with a cook-out.  Many  of my neighbors stocked up on fireworks—lots of fireworks.  But I wonder how many of us have read the Declaration of Independence recently?   We’re all familiar with the part of the Declaration of Independence that says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   But a lot of us may not remember the words in the Declaration of Independence that call the original inhabitants of our nation “merciless Indian Savages.”   [Don’t take my word for this.  Google it and read the document.]
         “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Slavery has a long and ugly history that goes back thousands of years.  When the United States was formed, slavery was an important part of the economy, and many of the “founding fathers” owned slaves.  In 21st century America, it is easy for some of us to look at our past and be disappointed, ashamed, even disgusted by slavery.  It isn’t something we want to even think about.  But we need to understand the history of slavery and race relations in America.  We need to be courageous enough to look honestly at where we’ve come from as a nation, and about systemic racism in our society-- if we are finally ready to commit ourselves to repent of the wrongs and work for “a more perfect union.[1]   
         It’s hard.  A lot of people were hoping we’d moved into a post-racial society, but we can’t believe that.  Just in the past year we’ve had Ferguson and Baltimore.  And then nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston while they were gathered for Bible study and prayer, by a white supremacist whom they had welcomed into their midst.  Since then, at least six predominately black churches across the South have gone up in flames.  At least three of those fires are suspected to be the work of an arsonist, and one is being investigated as a hate crime.  African-American clergywomen have received threats.  African-American churches are being advised by Homeland Security and other government agencies on how to keep their people as safe as possible.
         A lot of people are resigned to the status quo… or afraid of how changes might affect us.  The conversations are hard for us.  Even when we hear a kingdom vision of a better, more just and inclusive and peaceful world-- we have a hard time envisioning what it would be like.  We have a hard time believing. 
         Change is hard…and slow… and scary for a lot of us… and certainly for the church.  We want things to be familiar and safe. 

         In  C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion King of Narnia, represents a Christ figure. Lucy, is talking with Mr. Beaver, and she’s curious about Aslan.   She has never seen him, but has heard that he is "on the move," and anticipates meeting him. "Is he safe?" she asks.
         "Who said anything about being safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Course he's not safe-- but he's good.  He's the King,  I tell you."[2]
         Jesus is good-- but not safe.
         Like the people of Nazareth, we have a choice in how we respond.  Like the people of Nazareth, we can resist and try to keep things comfortable and familiar and safe and free —free for us and for people like us.   We can complain about the things that are wrong in our nation and the world and how things are changing.  We can use our energy to maintain the status quo as long as possible.  
         We could do that.  Or we can listen for God’s word for us.  Even when it calls us to changes in our lives.  Even when it calls us to work for change, for a society in which there truly is liberty and justice for all. 
         America! America! God mend thine every flaw.
         Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.[3]
         On this Independence Day weekend, it’s a time for us to celebrate the many things that are good about our nation. 
         But we follow Jesus, who came to live among us, full of grace and truth, preaching a gospel of repentance.  As followers of Jesus,  it is also a time when we are challenged to re-dedicate ourselves to his mission,  to living more fully into the kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice and peace, which we also know as Beloved Community. 
         As Christians, we need to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering.... who have lost precious loved ones in an unfathomable act of hatred and violence… and others who have lost their church buildings and whatever sense of safety they may have had.   We need to reach out to them to show them we care.   We can help them re-build, and we can find ways to work with them to help mend the flaws in our nation.
         My hope and prayer is that we will continue to be transformed by God’s gracious love,  and that we may be strengthened to hear Christ’s truth.  

         As we come to the Lord’s Table today, may we be open to experience Christ’s real presence in this holy mystery.  May we be fed and strengthened.  As we experience God’s gracious love, may we be transformed.  May our commitment to Jesus Christ be renewed.
         Then let us go out into the world to serve Jesus by speaking and embodying God’s truth and love.

The Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
July 5, 2015



[1] “A more perfect union” is a quote from the Preamble to the United States Constitution.
[2] C.S. Lewis,  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (Geoffrey Bles Publ., 1950).
[3] The words of this national song, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” are written as a prayer for our nation and recognize that we have flaws that need to be mended, with God’s help.