Sunday, September 27, 2015

"It's All About Love." A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church for Good News Sunday, on Sept. 27, 2015.

"It's All About Love"

Good News Sunday Sermon

Isaiah 43:1-7; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17

         Today is officially Good News Sunday at Littlefield!   We told people that—if they brought someone to worship today—we promise that they would hear some good news! 
            I hope that people were paying attention to the scripture passages today as they were being read.   Have you heard some good news?  I hope so.  That takes a bit of the pressure off me, now.  Though I’ll do my best.

            I do believe we have good news to share--  important and life-changing good news.  Sometimes I think I risk sounding like a “broken record.”   Some of you have heard me say this over and over again, in various ways.   But the more I’ve studied the scriptures over the years and looked for the main themes and the big picture, the more I’ve become convinced that our Christian faith is really all about love. 
            God loves us.  We are—all of us-- God’s beloved children.  Our faith is about responding to God’s love for us and for all God’s children by loving God   and loving all the people God loves. 
            The Old Testament includes a lot of stories and verses that a lot of us find puzzling and troubling.  Yet one of the major themes in the Old Testament is of God’s steadfast mercy.  One of my Old Testament teachers at seminary did her doctoral dissertation on the recurring theme of “hesed”,  which is a Hebrew word that can be translated as “mercy,” or “steadfast loving-kindness.”   One of the other prominent themes in the Old Testament is how God keeps sending prophets to call people back to living in right relationship with God and neighbor…  and how those right relationships are characterized by love and justice and mercy.
             The gospel message in the New Testament proclaims in various ways how Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth, to embody God’s love for us, and to show us how to live in the way of love.   Jesus preached about the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God” and how we are called to live into it.       
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment is, he said what’s most important is two-fold:  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is anybody we encounter—even people who are different…  people we might even see as enemies. 
            In his last talk with his disciples, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  People will know you are my followers by the way you love one another.”[1]
            In the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus tells his followers, “If you keep my commandments  [the commandments to love God and love the neighbor] we will abide in his love.”   Jesus tells his disciples that he has said these things so that we may have his joy, and that our joy may be complete.

            Jesus made it very clear that it’s all about love.  So I keep wondering how so many people who call them selves Christians could be so confused about this.   
            We live in such a broken and fearful world.   Our government spends vast amounts of resources fighting terrorism.  Alarm systems to protect homes, businesses, and even churches are commonplace.  
            We live in a nation plagued by gun violence.  Every year in the United States,  an average of more than 100,000 people are shot.   That’s an average of 289 people shot every day, and   eighty-six of them die.   Precious lives, of beloved children of God—lost. 
            So many people in our society fear and mistrust those who are different:  Muslims…  people whose skin is a different color…  immigrants.     
            There are too many people in our nation who are hungry or food insecure or lack the basic things they need to live a life of dignity.
            In the midst of all this brokenness and fear and injustice, how are we-- as people of faith-- called to live?
            “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God--  for God is love.   Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.    No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
            I hear the scriptures saying that loving one another is a spiritual practice, and that-- as we work at loving one another—God is living in us and working in us and perfecting love in us….
            “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love casts out fear.  Whoever fears has not reached maturity in love.”
            We love because God first loved us.   If we say, “I love God” but hate our brother or sister, we’re lying about loving God.   As we heard in First John,  “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen—cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
            Fear divides us.  It leads to violence and destruction.   Hatred and fear are toxic.  They harm us as persons and as a society.
            But there is a way out.  It is not the way of fear, and hate and violence; it is the way of love.  In Dr. Martin Luther King’s words:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
            If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we have a long way to go to drive hatred and fear out of our lives and out of our society.  Living in the way of love is not easy.  Living in the way of love is too hard to do on our own power alone.
            And so… we need to be in prayer.   We need to open our lives to God’s call in our lives, as we live further into God’s dream for the world—the world that God so loves.   
            We need each other.  The Greek word ekklesia which we translate as “church” literally means an “assembly,” or those who are gathered together.  We need to come together as a community of faith--  not for the sake of coming to a place called church--  but for the sake of coming together as part of the Body of Christ… for the sake of gathering as disciples who need to learn and practice living in the way of love.   We need to love one another and encourage one another.  We need to love one another into becoming more and more the beloved children of God we were created to be.   We need to love one another into becoming the beloved community. 
            God isn’t finished with any of us yet.  Our love isn’t yet perfect, and it hasn’t yet cast out all our fears.   But God is still working in and among and through us,  through the power of the Holy Spirit-- leading and empowering us to become more patient and kind and generous… and helping us to become less envious or controlling… less irritable or resentful. 
            God is still working in us, guiding us further into the truth, re-forming us, teaching us what it means to go out and be the church out in the world, in this time.
            The good news is that as we grow more and more into God’s way of love, God’s love will cast out our fears.
            In a broken and fearful world, 1we can trust in the Holy Spirit to give us courage to pray without ceasing.[2]   As we work with others for justice, freedom and peace, our lives will be transformed, and together we can change the world.             
            So be it!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan]
September 27, 2015

[1] John 13:31-35

[2] This is an allusion to the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Interfaith Prayers for Peace on the Sunday before International Day of Peace, at Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan, on September 20, 2015. A meditation from a Christian perspective. We also heard a recitaiton from the Qur'an, a short sermon from Imam Elahi, and selections from the Hebrew scriptures and prayers from Cantor Roger Skully.

Luke 19:41-42; 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

"As Jesus came near and saw the city (Jerusalem), he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes."

For those of us who long for a better, more peaceful world, it’s  painful to see so much of what’s going on in the world… in our nation… and in our communities.  It can make us weep!
            For many of us, it’s the images of children that haunt us the most.  A staggering number of Syrian refugees are children and teens.  We were shocked and grieved a few weeks ago to see the photo of the body of a toddler washed up on the shore.  And now we learn that another refugee child has been found dead on the shore, and more are missing at sea.
            Many of us mourn when we remember there are millions of other children who die each year on this planet with little notice-- of malnutrition and of illnesses that could be prevented or treated if the world cared enough.
            Here in the United States, the Department of Agriculture reports that around 10 percent of households with children are food insecure—unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.  More than 1 in 9 children in Michigan live in extreme poverty, at less than half the poverty-level income.
            The rate of gun deaths in children and teens in the United States is shockingly high.
            Many of us are troubled by events like the massacre of 9 African-Americans gathered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston for Bible study in June by a white racist   and other race-related violence.
            In a neighbor city—Sterling Heights—there’s an ugly conflict over a request to build a new mosque.
            The list could go on and on… 

            I don’t know about you, but I find myself mourning all this violence and need and destruction… and longing to do something.  But it feels overwhelming.
            So--  what can we do?  In the midst of all the violence and hatred and apathy in our society… in the midst of racism and Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism… in the midst of all the need-- it’s easy to feel overwhelmed… and despairing.  What can one person  or just a few people do?
            We can begin by praying together… and forging bonds of friendship and solidarity… getting to know one another better… opening our hearts and minds to one another… and finding ways to work together to change the world. 
            Some of us have been working on these things.  Imam Elahi and I have been getting to know each other and working together in our Dearborn Area Interfaith Network group (and its predecessor Dearborn Area Ministerial Association) for the last 18 years.  Cantor Roger Skully has been involved with other interfaith groups in metro Detroit. 
            Some of you are part of one or more interfaith Facebook groups whose purpose is to build bridges of understanding—hence the names “The Bridge” and “Our Bridge.” 

            In the Christian tradition, we believe that Jesus came to embody God’s love in the world.  When people came to Jesus and asked him which commandment in the scriptures was the most important, Jesus answered, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” 
            In Luke’s version of this, he tells how someone said, “Who is my neighbor?”  and Jesus went on to make it clear in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone God puts in our path--  even someone we might have considered to be an enemy.[1]
            In the center of the passage we heard a few minutes ago from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, we hear that God has reconciled us to God’s self through Christ, and has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation.    Christians are not to look at anyone from a human point of view.  We’re not to see people who are different in some way as those other people.  We’re called to look at people through God’s eyes of love and to see our common humanity.    
            I think we need to spend more time doing interfaith scripture study, so I could share a passage like one of the ones we’ve heard today, and say, “Here’s a text that’s important to our faith.  What’s a text from your tradition that connects with it?  Where’s the common ground?”  Can we do that?  Will we do that? 
            Our commitment to peace and justice and reconciliation, and our love for our own children, demands that we provide a better inheritance for them.”
            On this Sunday before International Day of Peace, we are challenged to re-commit ourselves to PEACE… to live our lives as if we believe that peace is possible.
            Christians…Muslims…Jews…Sikhs…Hindus…Buddhists… and all people of faith and goodwill —this is a time for us to find ways to come together and work for a better, more peaceful world.
            There’s hard work to be done.   But we can work together to make a difference.
             After worship, we invite you to stay for a time, to enjoy refreshments and conversation.   I hope you’ll make a new friend today.  Talk with one another about your families—especially your children or grandchildren and what kind of a world you want to leave for them.
            U2 sings a song that begins like this:
            “Every generation gets a chance to change the world….”

            Today, let’s renew our commitment to change the world, beginning today. 
            May it be so!

[1] Luke 10:25-37; also Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31

Friday, September 11, 2015

Out of Ashes and Fear: Remembering 9/11 Fourteen Years Later

Throughout this non-stop busy day, I’ve been remembering 9/11 fourteen years ago.  I’d been doing some work from home with a morning show in the background before heading to the church office when the terrible, tragic events of the day began to unfold.  With a sick knot in my stomach, I gathered up my work bag and grabbed my 5-inch TV to carry to the office.  Like many of you, I was glued to the news that day, watching and praying. 

I remember one of my Muslim neighbors saying that day, “O, Fran.  We’re so sorry.”  As if my gentle, loving neighbors could have had anything to do with that act of terror.  They couldn’t comprehend what happened that day any more than I could—how anyone, in the name of God/Allah/religion/faith could perpetrate such a thing.

We sent out a group email to the church list, and a group of us gathered that evening in the sanctuary to search for a word from God in the midst of the pain and terror, to hold hands, to weep together, and to pray.

We received a poster via email that read, “This is a hate free zone.”  We printed several  and posted them on the church doors.  Over the next few days, Muslim neighbors, some of whom were staying very close to home until they felt safe, would ask if they could come into our Presbyterian church and pray.  Some of them lit candles for peace.  I think they all felt safe and welcome in our sanctuary.

During the weeks and months that followed, people of faith from the Dearborn area and beyond gathered together in various houses of worship, in churches and mosques.  We shared our grief and pain, heard religious and community leaders struggle to share some wisdom, prayed, and looked for a way to move forward in hope.

Out of the terrible loss of that day fourteen years ago, out of the ashes and fear came a new or renewed commitment to work together to build bridges of understanding in our communities.  Several of our local mosques held open houses and invited the neighborhood to come and learn more about Islam.  The church I serve, Littlefield Presbyterian Church, had the first of a series of Muslim-Christian Dialogue Days. We began with an interfaith worship service in the morning, a time for lunch and conversation, and afternoon presentations from religious and community leaders. 

As a result of the interfaith and peacemaking work by various congregations and our Dearborn Area Ministerial Association (later Dearborn Area Interfaith Network), we have grown and strengthened relationships.  These relationships helped us to work together to respond effectively as a community when outside anti-Muslim activists like Terry Jones, Acts 19, and the “Bible Believers” with their pig head on a stick came to town trying to cause dissension.

The Interfaith Prayers for Peace that we will hold on Sunday, September 20 at Littlefield Presbyterian Church is our latest effort to bring people together, to celebrate our unity and diversity, to find common ground, and to pray together for peace in our communities, in our nation, and the world.  All are welcome.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Holy Healing". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 7:24-37

          Jesus is exhausted and he tries to have some time to himself.   But then a desperate mother comes to Jesus, seeking healing for her sick daughter, literally throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet.  She risks her dignity…and risks being shamed—to enter a home where she isn’t wanted, to throw herself down in front of Jesus, who didn’t want to see her.
            And how does Jesus respond?  Not in the way we might have hoped.  This woman is literally begging for help for her daughter, and Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
            If Jesus' words trouble you, you're in good company.  Biblical scholars have struggled with this saying for centuries, but especially, I think, the past few decades.
            In the parallel story in Matthew, Jesus doesn't even answer the woman.   When the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 
`           It sounds like Jesus is dismissing and insulting this woman.  Mark uses the diminuitive form of the Greek word for “dog,” so we might want to soften the effect and think Jesus was talking about feeding cute little puppies.  But that wouldn’t really be an accurate translation. This story is troubling for a number of reasons. 
             It seems that Mark wants to be sure we know who this woman is.  He tells us, “the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by descent.”  In other words, she’s NOT JEWISH.
            Contrast how Jesus responds to this un-named Gentile woman with the named male, Jewish leader earlier in Mark.  Jesus went with Jairus and healed his daughter.  No problem. 
            But now Jesus is in Tyre, which is Gentile territory, when he says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

            I think Mark wants to make sure what a big deal it is when Jesus ultimately performs the miraculous healing. 
            So what do we do with this story? 
            Some scholars believe that Jesus had a long-range evangelistic plan to go to the Jews first...  and then later to the Gentiles.  In their thinking,  Jesus isn't so much saying no--    as he is saying, "First things first.  One thing at a time."
            But the language Jesus used!    "Dogs?"   From what I've read, it's a racist, derogatory term commonly used at the time by some Jews who wanted to put down gentiles.  A lot of people in that culture in Jesus' time thought this Gentile woman has no business being in the company of any Jew--  much less the Messiah. 
            But Jesus has been challenging a lot of the traditional religious beliefs and breaking through a lot of the barriers that separated people.
            Some scholars believe Jesus was giving voice to the traditional beliefs of the time as a test of the woman's faith.  Some believe he was voicing those narrow beliefs to let her make the point that needed to be made.
            Other scholars believe that this desperate, emboldened woman changed Jesus' mind about his mission and who he was called to save.
            I lean toward that understanding myself, as I remember the context.   In Mark’s narrative, this story is sandwiched in between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand.    Is the bread of life that Jesus offers intended only for the children of Israel?  Or is there enough for everyone? 
            I know there are people who are troubled by the idea that Jesus would change his mind… as well as people who are troubled by the language Jesus used in this story.  Maybe we have to keep chewing on this bread for now.  Like Jacob at the River Jabbok—we need to keep wrestling with it  until we receive a blessing. 
            In any case, this woman doesn't back down.  I love the way one of my colleagues puts it:  "Dog indeed!  She keeps right on nipping at Jesus' heels." [1]   The woman dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him.  Even on these terms, there still should be something from him--  some scrap of grace--  for someone like her,  someone who comes to him in faith.   The woman seems to trust in the abundance Jesus keeps teaching about.  She seems to be challenging him to judge her by what's in her heart. 
            Where the religious establishment and their traditions could only see an outsider--  Jesus sees the woman's heart of faith,  and her persistence, and he heals her child.   From this point on, Jesus continues to expand the circle of God's mercy to include those others consider outsiders.  He welcomes all who put their faith in him.  So, when you look at the big-picture story, it looks like Jesus changes his mind and his plan.

            That's good news for us.     We are all welcome.   We are all included in the circle of God’s mercy.   When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, it meant his church would be open to the world.  In response, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be open to those whom some people see as outsiders, outcasts, and sinners.  We are called to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.          

            I don’t want to ignore the other story we heard in today’s gospel lesson.  At first glance, they might not seem to have a lot to do with each other--  except that they’re both healing stories.  And I believe that is significant.
            Healing is one of the major themes in the New Testament.  One of my colleagues counted all the healing stories and found that there are forty-one healing stories, told in seventy-two different versions in the four gospels.  These healing stories take up twenty percent of the gospel material.[2]  I agree with Susan Andrews when she says that these healing stories tell us something very important about the nature of God.  God continues to be the creator of our lives—shaping us, mending us, healing us into wholeness.
            When people asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he said that the most important commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, all our mind and all our strength… and to love our neighbor as ourselves.    As we grow into a more loving, trusting relationship with God, we become healthier in our hearts and souls and minds and strength.  All of those dimensions of who we are become more integrated…and we become more whole, as we grow into the life God desires for us. 
            In the gospel stories we’ve been hearing over a few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus challenging legalistic interpretions of God’s law and proclaiming that purity is not defined by law—but by the love in one's heart and the hospitality and compassion we live in our lives.
            The story about the Syrophoenician woman is a turning point in the gospel, as Jesus redefines who is acceptable in God’s eyes.  The healing turns out to include stories about social healing:  …strangers are welcomed and outsiders become part of the family of God. 
            So what does all this mean for us today?      
            The Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf and mute man refused to believe that God’s mercy and healing are limited to insiders and people like us.  They believed that Jesus could immediately meet their need.  They embodied a faith that trusts in God’s goodness and abundance—a faith that pushes past legalism and exclusivity. 
            When we allow our ears and our hearts to be open to the images of people leaving everything they have, everything they know, desperately seeking safety and freedom for their families—refugees seeking refuge—the Syrophoenician woman can teach us that, in God’s abundant economy, there is enough for everybody.  There is enough, if we reach out and share.
            My friends, this is GOOD NEWS!  So, like the people in the gospel story, may we be astounded and say, “He has done everything well!
            As followers of Jesus, may we embody God’s abundant compassion, so that people will look at us and be astounded with us and say, “They do everything well!
            So be it!   Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 6, 2015

[1]I am grateful to Heidi Husted for this imagery,  in "Living by the Word" in Christian Century (Aug. 16-23), p. 829.
[2] I am indebted to Susan Andrews for this insight, as well as the sermon title, in  “Holy Healing,” at