Sunday, January 17, 2016

"An Epiphany of Abundance," a sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 2:1-11. Preached January 17, 2016, on the Sunday before the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"An Epiphany of Abundance"
John 2:1-11

Jesus and his mother and his disciples are attending a wedding.  Anyone who’s ever officiated or planned a wedding can tell you that things can go wrong. 
            In those days a wedding was a great occasion, and most everybody in the village, plus some people from neighboring villages, would have been invited.   Weddings were hosted by the groom’s family, and the celebrations lasted for up to a week. 
            This is one of only two occasions we meet Jesus’ mother in John’s gospel.  The other time is at the foot of the cross. 
            This celebration is in trouble, because on the third day, they’re running out of wine.  This is a crisis for the family responsible for hospitality. 
            David Lose explains why this was such a disaster:  “Wine isn’t merely a social lubricant…it’s a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and gladness and hospitality.  And so when they run short on wine they run short on blessing.  And that’s a tragedy.”[1]
            Jesus’ mother goes to him and identifies the problem. 
But Jesus says, “That’s really not our concern.  And my hour has not come.”  In the theology of John’s Gospel, “the hour” is the hour when Jesus goes to the cross. 
            His mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
            There were six stone water-jars there, ready to be used in the Jewish purification rituals.  Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.   “Fill the jars with water,” Jesus says to the servants, and they do.   “Now draw some out,” he says, “and take it to the chief steward.” 
            When the chief steward tasted the water that had turned into wine, he didn’t know where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.   He called the bridegroom and said, “Normally people serve the good wine first, and then the cheap stuff when people have already had plenty to drink.  But you’ve kept the really good wine for now.”
            John tells us that Jesus did this as the first of his “signs” and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
            Tom Wright suggests that what John calls “signs” are clues.  In the previous chapter, Jesus has promised Nathanael, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  These signs are moments when-- to people who are paying attention with at least a little faith--  the angels of God are going up and coming down at the place where Jesus is… moments “when heaven is opened, when the transforming  power of God’s love bursts in to the present world.”[2]   Whatever we believe happened that day, John wants us to know that this is a clue that with these events the life of heaven came down to earth. 
            Prompted by his mother, Jesus turned water into wine to point us to his heavenly Father—a God who loves to hear the laughter of people celebrating.     The joyous feast at Cana is still a sign that God wants us to rejoice in the amazing good news of grace and abundance. 
            No matter how hard we may try to “spiritualize” today’s gospel lesson, we have 150 gallons of really good wine at a wedding party that had been experiencing scarcity. 
            Today’s gospel text is about the very nature of God… and about the very purpose of being human.  The nature of God is pure grace-- abundant… surprising grace.  Grace overflowing to the brim, in times and places we least expect it.
            We need to pay attention to the details in this story.  The water-jars  were there to be used for Jewish purification rituals--   When Jesus turned the water into wine, it was a sign that God was doing a new thing.
            What I wonder:  What if Jesus had stuck with his original feeling?  It is not my problem, it is not my time.  What if all of his life Jesus had said, "That’s not my problem and it is not my time"?
            That’s unimaginable, isn’t it?
            Closer to our own time, in the mid 1950s, Martin Luther King wrapped up his course work for his Ph.D. and took his first call to a church.  His dissertation wasn’t done yet when Martin Luther King left graduate school and took a job as a pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. 
            Not long after he went to Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus.  A meeting was held in the African-American community in Montgomery, and they asked who was going to lead the boycott.  
            All the other pastors and all the other influential leaders of the African-American community were smart enough to know that this looked like a risky business.  They decided to get the new pastor in town to lead the boycott.  
            Rev. Martin Luther King had every reason in the world to say, "It is not the right time for me. I have a young family.  I have a dissertation to finish writing.  I have a congregation that doesn’t know me or trust me yet.   If I start out at the head of this enterprise, what will that do to my relationship to my congregation?  It just isn’t a good time.   I have all these reasons why.  This isn’t the time for me to do something like this.” 
            But, as we all know, this very human being was moved from “not my time”-- to yes.
            More than 60 years have passed since the Montgomery bus boycott.   More than 50 years have passed since the March on Washington when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, and since he wrote his last book before he was assassinated:  “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
            Have we made progress since that time?  Undoubtedly.  But we need to be honest with ourselves about where we the people of the United States are   and about our history.
            Later in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[3]
            I believe the gospel has the power to set us free-- as individuals, as a community, as a society-- if we have ears to hear the good news… if we have faith to trust in God’s power to transform us and bind us together in Beloved Community… if we trust in the gospel’s truth to make us free.
            I like the way Jim Wallis talks about the power of the truth in his latest book:[4]
            “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.  I truly believe that would be the best thing for all of us.
            To become more free because of the truth.  To become more honest because of the truth.  To become more responsible because of the truth.  To become better neighbors because of the truth.   To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.  To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.  To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth….To become better and freer human beings because of the truth.
            I agree with Jim Wallis when he says, “We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.
            Wallis says when he crossed the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march that helped bring voting rights to all our fellow citizens, he realized that we can find answers in crossing another bridge—“the bridge to a new America that will soon be a majority of minorities.”[5]
            He’s talking about a new America that is coming into being due to demographic changes.  By the year 2040 or 2045, the majority of U.S.  citizens will be descended from African, Asian, and Latin American ancestors, according to the US Census Bureau projections.[6]   “We will have become a majority of minorities—with no one race being in the majority.  The United States will be no longer a predominantly white nation--  but a multiracial nation, which will make the assumptions of white privilege…increasingly less assumed.  That multiracial reality is already the case in many major cities around the country….” and for several whole states.[7]
            Truth be told, many white Americans—especially older white Americans—find that kind of demographic shift troubling.  Some commentators have been pointing to this uneasiness about shifting demographics as something that’s fueling the fears and suspicion of immigrants and people who are different that we hear voiced by some of the candidates. 
            It seems to me that we can choose how we will face the changes that are happening.   We could approach them fearfully…grudgingly… and imagine all the worst possible scenarios about how terrible things will be.  Or we could trust in God to be with us as we cross over a bridge to becoming a more diverse and inclusive nation.  We could imagine how God could use us as people of faith to model what it means to live as Beloved Community and to be part of a transformation of our country that is more and more fully a nation of abundance, where there is truly liberty and justice for all. 
            Jim Wallis tells about the time he was invited to talk to his son’s fifth-grade class about immigration.  They went through the long history of immigration in this country.  All the children in the class learned that they were part of our national history—people who had chosen to come to America or were forced to by the chains of slavery.  Then he told the students about our current problem of 11 million undocumented people living in uncertainty and fear for years and even decades, being unable to safely obtain medical care, being exploited without protection by unscrupulous employers… and being separated from family members. 
            The students asked the obvious question:  “Why don’t we fix that?  Why doesn’t Congress change the system?”
            Jim said, “They say they’re afraid.” 
            The students looked even more confused and asked, “What are they afraid of?”
            Jim said he paused to think…and looked around the room—a classroom of a public-school fifth grade class in Washington, DC.  He looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children.  Then it hit him.
            “They’re afraid of you,” he replied.
            “Why would they be afraid of us?” the students asked.
            “They’re afraid you are the future of America.  They’re afraid their country will someday look this class—that you represent what our nation is becoming.”
            This group of 11-year-olds looked even more confused.
            “They’re afraid this won’t work,” Jim said.  “Does it work?”
            The children looked at one another.  Then they responded with many voices, saying, “Yeah…Sure…Of course it works…It works great…It’s really cool!”
            Together they decided that their job was to show the rest of the country that this new America coming into being is, in fact, really cool.[8]
            Some of the stories we heard during Advent remind us that sometimes people have a failure of imagination,  like Zechariah, when the angel Gabriel told him Elizabeth was going to have a baby:   “How can this be?” [9]
            In our time and place, God calls us to be the people who come to know God, to experience the grace and abundance of Jesus Christ,  to embody that love and live together in Beloved Community with all of God’s children.  
            Whenever we think we don’t have enough—enough money or power or privilege or security--  whenever we think the party’s over because things are changing, God will keep doing new things and surprising us with new wine that is sweeter and tastier than ever before… and give us dreams and visions to help us live more fully into the life of abundance and grace into which God calls us.  Can we imagine it?   Is anything impossible for God?      
            In a world threatened by ethnic, racial, and religious conflict, the consequences of trying to defend the status quo   or of wallowing in the valley of despair and fear and negativity are enormous.   But the rewards of inclusive justice and healing are too important not to try.           
            The prophets and the gospel call us to dream, to imagine an alternative reality of Beloved Community for all God’s people.  They challenge us to embody it in our daily lives, trusting that God will provide abundant new wine  and better things than we ever tasted or seen or imagined   and a life overflowing with joy and blessing in God’s presence.
            Thanks be to God! 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 17, 2016

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 2B: What Grace Looks Like!” 

[2] Wright, John for Everyone, Chapters 1-10 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), Kindle Edition, Loc 472.
[3] John 8:32

[4] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin:  Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  (Brazos Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 388.
[5] Wallis, location 407.
[6] Marcie Bianco, “The Year White People Will Become a Minority in America Has Been Declared,”, December 11, 2014, cited in Wallis’ book.
[7] Wallis, Location 4396.
[8] Wallis, Location 4388.
[9] Luke 1:5-25, 57-66.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"A Different Way", a Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Chuch on Epiphany Sunday, January 3, 2016.

The after-Christmas sales have been going on since December 26, and a lot of people in the wider society have moved past the celebrations of Christmas.
            However, the church is on a different calendar.  There are twelve days of Christmas.  So today we’re celebrating the Epiphany, which actually falls on January 6.   In Latin America and parts of the Caribbean, Three Kings Day is the big celebration of Jesus’ birth.  And in the Eastern part of the Church,  Epiphany is the important festival and celebrates the baptism of Jesus.
            In Matthew’s gospel, the Christmas birth narrative is told in the first chapter.  By the first verse of the second chapter, the shepherds are a distant memory.     When the mysterious seers from the East bring their gifts and worship, Jesus is almost two years old.   The holy family is settled in Bethlehem, raising their toddler.  
            On the road to Bethlehem are a group of MAGI--  wise men--  searching the darkness of the sky...  following a star...  hoping to find the Christ child.  They left the comfort and security of their homes to travel through the desert on their quest. 
            When they saw that the star had stopped--  they were overwhelmed with JOY!  They found the child Jesus...    and they knelt down and worshiped him.  Then they offered him their GIFTS of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
            In his story about the Magi, Matthew tells how some people responded to the birth of the Christ with joy...  and devotion.
            But woven into the story of the Magi's devotion is the story of Herod's reaction to the birth of the King of the Jews.  Herod responds by plotting to KILL him.
            Herod knew that his kingdom would be threatened by a new king.  The possibility of not being in charge of the kingdom didn't bring him joy.  He was confused...  and afraid… “and all Jerusalem with him.”  If this child was really the Messiah--  it would change everything.
            In Matthew’s telling of the Nativity story, we hear a note of fear and opposition to the Messiah’s birth.   The news of the birth of a new “king of the Jews” threatens Herod’s power and the status quo. 
            Perhaps the fear and agitation was also about how the world might be changing, that God is doing something new, and that nothing can stay the same. 
            The arrival of these three astrologers is a sign that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening…that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s mercy and salvation.  This isn’t a new theme in Judaism.  But now it is happening in ways that wise ones can see it.  Who knows what could happen next?
            Do you hear the givenness of that event—the gift?   Do you hear the inclusive and universal nature of it?  What God did in and through Israel in Jesus is not only for Israel-- but for the whole world, for all people. 
            If we were listening carefully on Christmas Eve, we heard the angel say this to the shepherds:  this good news is for all people. 
            Some of us hear this as good news.  But for others, this more inclusive understanding of God’s salvation plan is troubling.  For those who are more privileged or powerful, the idea of change can cause a fearful response.   Herod had instructed the magi to come back and tell him where they’d found the Christ child.  But they’d been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they’d traveled back to their own country by a different way.  An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him the Herod would be searching for them and sent them to Egypt, so the Holy Family became refugees.
            Herod was so terrified of the promise that God would, in this child, restore peace and justice that he was willing to slaughter the infants of a whole region.  When he realized the magi hadn’t come back to tell him where the Christ child was, he ordered that all the children two years and under in and around Bethlehem be killed.  This reminded people of what had been written by the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”[1]
            As David Lose suggests, such a grim account of wholesale massacre and desperate flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now.[2]   How many Syrian refugee families have left everything behind in a desperate flight for safety?  How many children are starving to death around the world or dying of preventable illnesses?  How many families are grieving the loss of a loved one due to gun violence or warfare?  How many families are contending with their own sorrows and hardships?
            The light shines in the darkness, but there is still so much darkness in the world.   But Matthew wants us to know that in Jesus—Emmanuel—God has drawn near to us and came to live among us, full of grace and truth. 
            When life is beautiful and filled with goodness and grace, God is part of that, blessing us and celebrating with us.  When life is hard and painful and scary, God is part of that too, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with the promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us more and more deeply into God’s loving embrace…and promising that nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love.[3]
            Our scripture lessons for Epiphany are GOOD NEWS!  We hear the prophet Isaiah saying, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”  No matter how dark things look to you now, look around.  You shall see and be radiant.  Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  
            The Gentiles from the East, these outsiders kneeling to worship the Christ child,  remind us that to worship the Christ with them is to see humanity differently, as one family of God, and that the mission of the church is to nurture, promote, work for, and celebrate the oneness of the human family—not to divide it
            Here too we can learn from the Magi and how they  responded to Christ’s birth.  The magi had to take another road home.  Not the most direct route, or the most convenient or comfortable. 
            Now that we have traveled to Bethlehem, things can be different for us. 
            I love the way Peter Gomes puts it:  “For we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible.  We have seen God…and survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing that our faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of the encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest night of the soul at that wondrous star-filled night.”
            The world will change because we are changed.  We have seen God—not high and lifted up—but lowly and vulnerable.  God with us! 
            We have seen the reality and power of love to conquer hate and violence.  We have wondered at the mystery of life and love.  We have seen the Christ child, and nothing will ever be the same.
            We are changed.  And because we are changed, the world will change, gradually, as we live out our call to carry Christ’s light out into the world...  to let the light of the gospel shine through our lives. 
            Let the light in,  live in it, and let your light shine  That is the heart of the Christian life.
            Which brings us to this Table.  For here Christ, the Light of the World, offers himself to us in the gifts of bread and wine.  This table is open to all who have been claimed by Christ in baptism, all who come to be fed, all who desire to know the truth and power of Jesus.    
            So come.  Taste and see…and feast in the radiant reality of Christ our Light.  May the Light of the World not only shine on your life, but live in and be reflected in you.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 3, 2016

[1] Jeremiah 31:15

[2] David Lose, “Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation, Part 2.  Thursday, Dec. 25, 2013, at www.workingpreacher

[3] Romans 8

"Jesus' Baptism and Ours". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Baptism of the Lord Sunday on January 10, on Luke 3:15-17, 21-23

           "Jesus' Baptism and Ours"
          Luke 3:15-17, 21-23

 Here we are again, in the season of Epiphany, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  Each year the lectionary gives us the story of Jesus’ baptism, as told by Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This year, it’s Luke.            
            When Jesus came out to the Jordan to be baptized, he came to be publicly identified as the one John had been proclaiming as the pivotal figure in the movement towards the kingdom of God.  His baptism was a sign that God was now taking steps through Jesus’ ministry that the world was beginning to turn.
            Jesus’ baptism takes place in community.  It is not a private ceremony.  After Jesus is baptized, the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
            Jesus’ baptism was an epiphany moment—as the Holy Spirit descends upon him… and  he and others heard confirmation from God:  “You are mine.  Beloved.  I am well pleased with you.” 
            “You are precious in my sight, and I love you.”  These are words the people of Israel heard—words that helped them to understand who they were, and whose they were. 
            Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children.   It  reminds us of the promise:  God loves us unconditionally.   Baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are:  God’s beloved children.  We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.
            Baptism is about knowing who we are--  so we don’t waste  precious time searching frantically for an identity that something or someone else can confer on us--  but instead, use our lives to live out our God-given identity.
            The same Spirit that descended on Jesus baptizes us!   We can live in confidence that-- no matter how often we fall short or fail-- nothing that we do or fail to do can change the fact that we are God’s beloved children.  This identity is something God gives us—as a gift.
            Maybe you don’t remember, but at your baptism, that voice named and claimed you.   We need to remember our baptism.  So, turn to your neighbor, and remind them.    Tell them, you are God’s child...  God’s beloved.   God loves you and claims you.  [People actually got out of their seats to share this good news.  There were smiles and maybe a handshake or hug or two.]
            There’s something else we need to remember:   at our baptism, God gave each of us the gift of the Spirit.   So, let’s turn to one another and remind one another:  You’ve got the Spirit, because God gave it to you when you were baptized.
[Again, people moved around a bit and made sure everybody was reminded that they’ve got the Spirit.]

Okay, so what does all this mean? 
            Without the rest of Jesus’ life, his baptism isn’t something we can comprehend.  We can only comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ baptism when we look at the days and years that followed that day in the Jordan.  It’s when we see Jesus taking his place with hurting people that his baptism starts to make sense.  Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan foreshadowed his baptism on the cross.  Baptism was Jesus’ commissioning for ministry.
            During the week before his death, Jesus was challenged by the leaders of the temple:  “By what authority do you do these things?”
            Jesus answers by referring to his baptism:  “Was the baptism of John from heaven-- or not?”    In other words, I was baptized.  That’s how all this started.”  It was in the waters of baptism that Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth     and to live with grace.
            Baptisms, like all beginnings, find their meaning after the event.  Beginning is usually fairly easy.  Finishing is usually harder.
             Starry-eyed young couples who are in love come to the pastor, and very often, they’re focused on having the perfect wedding.  It’s part of the pastor’s job to remind them that the wedding is just the beginning.  It’s the living out of the promises they make that’s the hard part...  the part that will make all the difference ten or fifty years from that day.
            Baptism is the beginning of a journey.  We’re handed a map, but we have to take the trip.  It takes our whole life to finish our baptisms...  to fulfill what was started when we were baptized. 
            In baptism, God proclaims God's grace and love for us.  God claims us and marks us as God’s own.  We have a new identity as members of the body of Christ.
            So we are baptized   and begin a lifelong pilgrimage with God...  a lifelong process of conversion and nurture which begins at the font...  and doesn't end until death,  until we are at last tucked safely into the everlasting arms of the God who first reached for us in baptism.
            God keeps on reaching out for us throughout our lives.  God isn't finished with any of us yet.  Every day we live out our baptism.  Every day we need to respond to God's gracious gifts in our lives...  open ourselves again to God's work in our lives...  say YES in all the big and little things we do   and people we meet   and promises we keep throughout the day.
            A major part of God's daily saving work in our lives is God's gift of the Holy SPIRIT.  Just as God's creating Spirit hovered over the waters in the very BEGINNING, the Holy Spirit works in us...   leads us daily...  tugging at our lives until we are fully turned toward God. 
            In our baptism, we become part of a royal priesthood...  a holy nation...  in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness, into God's marvelous light.[1] 
            As followers of Christ, we're called to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to God.  
            In our Reformed part of the Protestant branch of Christ’s church, we take our membership in the priesthood of all believers very seriously.  In fact, in the Presbyterian Church, we take this calling so seriously that we ordain our officers for service.  The questions we ask at a service of ordination and installation of elders and deacons--  the questions you'll hear in a few minutes--  are the same questions asked of a Teaching Elder, or Minister of the Word and Sacrament, except one.   The congregation makes promises too:  to support and encourage and pray for those who are serving as officers.              
            Every one of us gathered here has been given a particular set of gifts to use in God's service.  This community of believers is part of God's plan to bring good news of healing and freedom to a broken, hurting world. 

            On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday,  we are reminded of Jesus' baptism...   and our own.  We are reminded who we are...  and whose we are.
            At your baptism, the same Spirit came down upon you as came down upon Jesus at his baptism.   The same Father said to you,  "you are my beloved son"...   or "you are my beloved daughter."  The same Father has continued ever since to hold you...   and to work to empower you for God's work.

How easy it is, in the midst of this life, to forget who you are...  and whose you are.  So the church is here to remind you that God  has named us...  and claimed us...   and seeks us and LOVES us unconditionally.
            What a difference it can make in our lives when we know—deep in our souls—that we are God’s beloved!   
            This is the gift Baptism gives to us.   We are children of God, joined together with Christ to all the other Children of God. 
            So...   remember your baptism...  and be thankful.  For this is who you are.
            Listen attentively for God’s call.  Go on and be the minister God has called you to be.  Use the gifts God has given you as a sign of the outbreaking of the kingdom of God.  Take on new challenges in your ministry.  Rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and empower and uphold you. 
            As you go out into the world, be the minister that God has called you to be...   ordained you to be. 
            So be it! 

 Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 10, 2016

1]1 Peter 2:9.