Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Bending Our Imagination Toward Hope". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.

"Bending Our Imagination Toward Hope"

Luke 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-9

            The headlines are grim.  Current events, like much about our lives, can leave us feeling hopeless, fearful, and uncertain.  We may struggle to figure out where God is in the midst of tragedy… crisis and hardship.
            When things go terribly wrong, we try to make sense of things.  We think:  there must be a reason.  It’s a way we try to get a grip on things.
            “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
            “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
            Jesus points to two calamities that may have been subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole--one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, and one a random accident. Both saw people snuffed out with little warning and for no clearly apparent reason. Both kinds of events remind us to how precarious our existence is.
            Do bad things happen because people are bad?  The people of Flint—have they been suffering because they’re worse sinners than people of other cities?  The victims of the latest mass shootings—did they do something to deserve to be shot?
            When bad things happen, we may long for a cause-and-effect scenario, so we can explain away suffering as a means of distancing ourselves from it.  We may want God to give people we think are evil or wrong what we think they deserve.  The problem with that is that isn’t the way God works. 
            As Jill Duffield points out, “The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one—is that at some point the math just won’t add up.  We will be persecuted by Pilate for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or the tower will fall on us because we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will seek a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we bad people?  God forsaken?”[1]
            Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke who has researched and written about the prosperity gospel and has been wrestling with how that theology that claims the righteous are blessed impacts her understanding of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.  In a recent piece in the New York Times, she writes:[2]
            “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…
            “Tragedies are simply tests of character.
            “It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
            “I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
            “Pardon?” she said, startled.
            “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
            As Kate writes, “My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee.  But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns.  She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos.  Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: ‘Wow.  That’s awful.’  There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”
            People may wonder, is she a worse sinner?  Did she smoke?  Did she eat poorly?  Not exercise enough?  Bad genes?  We hope for an answer that will explain why she has cancer—an answer that will help us feel safe from getting it.
            I was very moved by what Kate Bowler wrote, so I want to share a little more of how she describes her experience: 
            “Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life.  I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny.  I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep.  I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential… Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
            But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive.  Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors.  In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments.  I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole.  I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again:  Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.”
            So what do we do with this?  “Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.”
            I think questions about who sinned or who is the worst sinner is irrelevant here.   In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gets pulled into a worried conversation about the latest news cycle.  Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise.
            It's such a tempting equation.  But Jesus won't go there.  He denies that there is a simple connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.
            Does this mean that God never punishes us for our sins?   Not necessarily, though there are those who argue that retribution for human evil is built into life.   If we build houses on flood plains, we’ll be flooded out at some point.   If we insist on fighting wars, people will suffer and die.   If we pollute the environment, there will be all kinds of negative consequences.   
            But Jesus doesn’t get into all of that.  He simply denies that there is any easy connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.    It just isn’t that simple. 
            What Jesus does say in today’s gospel lesson is, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  In other words, the issue is not why the tornado hit that particular town…or why the hurricane did so much damage.    God didn’t single out these people for punishment.  The issue is whether or not you and I will repent.

            For the entire previous chapter in Luke, Jesus has been calling for repentance—for lives turned around to embrace God’s mercy and gift of new life.   But people think he is talking about someone else—the Galileans Pilate had slaughtered as they worshiped, or the eighteen killed in Siloam when that tower fell on them.
            Like most of us, they try to avoid Jesus’ challenging words about repentance by playing the "But look; we’re not bad as them" game. You know that game?
            But Jesus will have none of it and makes the point that this is not about comparing ourselves with others.
            Unless you repent, you will all perish.  Unless you repent.
            Jesus follows this cheery thought with a story about an un-productive fig tree that gets one more chance -- aided by some re-invigorating horticulture -- to realize its purpose.  “Give it another year.  Cultivate the soil so more, and add some more manure, and give it another chance to bear fruit.”
            The parable clarifies Jesus’ motivations for previously exhorting people to “repent.”
            A lot of people hear “repentance” and think of behavior and guilt, as if Jesus’ primary goal was to reform personal morality.  But I think this is a misunderstanding.
            To repent is not so much a matter of giving up certain habits or practices… or about being sorry—as it is a matter of loyalty.  The Greek word that we translate as repentance—metanoia—means “to turn.”   Repentance means that we turn away from the forces of sin and evil—and turn toward God’s ways. 
            When we repent, we see things differently, and we come to new understandings of what God makes possible…  about how God wants us to live… and about what the world is like when God’s will is done.
            When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” he isn’t saying that repenting will extend our lives or offer some kind of miraculous shield against super-storms or disease or catastrophe.  Rather, our repentance will lead to bearing fruit.  If we turn toward God’s ways and see things as God wants us to see them, we will live out God’s intentions for us.
            When Jesus calls us to repent, he’s inviting us to discover God as the source of our sustenance…belonging…meaning…and hope in this difficult life-- and into the future.  Repentance is the change that occurs within us when God meets us and re-shapes our understanding.
            The gospel invites us to live our lives in response to God’s gracious and patient invitation.  We don’t need to be wicked to repent.  If we find ourselves feeling empty… confused… overwhelmed…barren… aimless…or simply out of touch with the source of life, we have another chance to live out our God-given purpose and to bear fruit.   
            As a gardener and someone who grew up in farm country, I love the parable of the fig tree-- especially the image of manure being spread over the roots of our lives, to help us grow into who we are created and called to be.   God is willing to give us another chance… and can use anything and everything in our lives to help us grow, rooted and grounded in Christ, to produce good fruit.
            So, I wonder:  What does it take to turn us around?  How much manure does it take to bend our imaginations to trust in God to provide for us and sustain us? 
I believe God can use the manure of a spiritual or health or relationship crisis to cultivate and nurture us into a new life.   When we repent in the truest sense of that word, we can spend the rest of our lives embracing the new life God offers us.
            Earlier today we heard the prophet ask,  "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"   This is a question of eternal importance.  
            On this third Sunday of Lent, where do we need repentance?  Where do you need to turn around to embrace God’s love and promise of new, abundant life?
            This Lent, some of us have been getting some extra "fertilizer" and "cultivation" for our spirits through the practice of various spiritual disciplines.   Some of us have been getting our spirits "cultivated" in our weekly Lenten book study gatherings, and a few of you have been reading our Lenten book on your own.   Some of us have committed ourselves to a personal Lenten devotional practice.
            I believe God uses these kinds of spiritual disciplines to cultivate and fertilize our souls.  This cultivation can break up the hard soil that forms around our hearts.  Then, with the help of the Gardener, we will bear sweet juicy fruit-- the fruits of the Spirit.
            The good news in the story we heard today is that we worship a God who doesn't want to give up on us.  In Jesus, God calls us to live a transformed life, cultivating and nurturing our souls with daily care and attention.  If we will return to the God who created us and loves us, we will have life and we will have it abundantly.
            Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 28, 2016

[1] Jill Duffield, “3rd Sunday of Lent-February 28, 2016”, posted at The Presbyterian Outlook at

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"What Makes Jesus Weep?" A sermon on Luke 13:31-35 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, preached February 21, 2016 on the Second Sunday in Lent.

"What Makes Jesus Weep?"

Luke 13:31-35

It was my great privilege to visit the Holy Land in 2006 and 2009.  I felt very moved by the sight of the Dominus Flevit chapel every time we drove near it.   This small church was built near the spot traditionally said to be where Jesus cried over Jerusalem. The church’s name, in Latin,  means “the Lord wept.”   The shape of the church is in the form of a tear drop.
            The church features a beautiful picture window that faces west,   overlooking Jerusalem, in the direction Jesus was looking as he wept over the city.

         Below the window, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city.  It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head, which reminds us that Jesus compared Himself to a chicken.  The mother hen’s wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. The hen looks ready to protect her beloved chicks.
         But that never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did.  The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin.  Translated into English it reads, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"   The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing.
            Reflecting on this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “ If you have ever loved someone you couldn’t protect,  then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament.  All you can do is open your arms. You can’t make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world --wings spread, breast exposed -- but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.[1]
            It’s a very vulnerable stance when there are foxes or other predators around and you're the mother hen. When told that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'"   
Jesus is in very clear and present danger as he faces Jerusalem.   He knows this.  Yet he intends to go on to Jerusalem and certain death, and he'll do it on God's timetable, not Herod's.   Jesus will be that mother hen who shields her chicks with her own body—and her very life.   If that fox wants them-- he will have to kill the hen first.
This is no abstract theory-- but the most concrete expression of love known to humanity.  Jesus is our own mother hen, whose wings were spread not in flight-- but in gathering.  When Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, he did what every parent here is willing to do for their children. We are God's beloved children, and Jesus has done it for us.
         "I must be on my way,"  Jesus said.    Must.  Jesus uses that word over and over to indicate the divine necessity to which he must be obedient.   Jesus announced to his disciples,  "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raise."  This is what Jesus is about--  delivering God's grace because it is his divine calling.   It is what he must do.  
            Jesus went to Jerusalem to put that city and the whole world under his wings of grace.  That’s the strength we see in Jesus’ own mission.  He went to the cross in order to gather all of God’s children under the protection of God’s grace. 
            The strong, protecting hen—what a wonderful guiding image for the church’s ministry!  Seeing it as an image of strength and God’s protecting grace in Jesus Christ,  it can be the pattern for our life together as the church.   Acting as a caring hen, the church needs to seek out God’s children everywhere to bring them under the protective wing of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. 
            If the church is to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, then his mission must be our own.  Jesus’ mission was to offer God’s grace to the world. 
            That’s a tall order.  Where in the world do we start? 
            I think we might start by looking around at our city…and our world…and asking ourselves, “What makes Jesus weep?”    
            Look around and see things that surely make Jesus weep:  the violation of basic human rights of so many of God’s beloved children… people in one of the richest nations of the world who lack adequate shelter or don’t know where their next meal will come from… so many of God’s beloved children being killed by gun violence… ethnic cleansing in the land we call Holy… God’s good creation being ravaged so carelessly… warfare… children around the world dying of hunger and malaria and AIDS… the children of Flint poisoned by lead in the water pipes…    The list could go on and on….
            The litany of lament could be overwhelming.  But we follow Jesus the Christ, who proclaimed the reign of God…and broke the power of sin and evil…and calls us to follow him on the way.  This same Jesus claims us as his own and promises to be with us always…and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us further into God’s truth and freedom.  We have a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, showing us the ways they were faithful in their time and praying for and with us.
            As a congregation   and in our personal lives, we need to look for the things in our world that make Jesus weep…and then—because we can’t do everything—we need to focus on where the world’s pain and need meet our deepest passions and our gifts and what we have to offer in service.
            We face some problems in our time that can seem overwhelming and insurmountable.   But I think we can learn a lot from the activists who created a mass movement in Britain that swayed first public opinion…  and finally Parliament to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.  I would add that I think that all of us who have a passion for various peace and justice and interfaith issues could learn from them.
            The 18th century activists overcame many of the obstacles faced by activists in our world:  lobbying by elites invested in the status quo, a legislature that delayed action in favor of “further study,” and a reactionary wartime political climate, to name a few. 
As Adam Hochschild points out in his history of the abolition movement,[2]  antislavery organizers pioneered many tactics that continue to be used today:  speaking tours, mass boycotts, local chapters of national groups, and voter guides, all to fight an unjust economic system with global reach. 
            Throughout the 1700s, many thinkers were against slavery—in theory.  But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach.   I’m sure it seemed like a hopeless cause to a lot of folk.        Other than John Wesley, many evangelicals spent the first four decades after the Great Awakening more interested in converting slaves to Christianity than in freeing them.  John Newton, who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace,” worked as a slave ship officer for six years after his conversion to the Christian faith, and was a minister for decades before he publicly opposed the slave trade.  
            But by the mid-1780s, the time was ripe for change.  The key to antislavery forces’ successes was a broad coalition, energized by Quakers and evangelical Christians but reaching across the political and social spectrum, including people of prophetic faith and shrewd politicians, progressives and conservatives, elites and outsiders.
            William Wilberforce and his group of friends profoundly changed the political and social climate of their time.  Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy upper-class merchant family who was in a position to turn his wealth into increased social standing.   But then his life was changed.
As a young man, Wilberforce became a convert of the religious revivals that transformed 18th-century England.  At age 21 he got himself elected to Parliament.  His life and his vocation as a Member of Parliament were profoundly changed by his newfound faith, and he  became a force for moral politics.
            In 1788 Wilberforce introduced his first anti-slavery motion into Parliament.  It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807.  It was an historic and moral victory, but Wilberforce wouldn’t be satisfied until slavery was abolished altogether.
Wilberforce and a group of Christian fellow parliamentarians and lay people known as “the Saints” were behind many social reforms that swept England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and worked tirelessly toward the goal of abolishing slavery, year after year. 
Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery, and Wilberforce died three days later, his work finally done.[3]
            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.
            I believe our Christian faith calls us to a truly prophetic faith…to have a holistic faith that is united with the struggle for peace and justice.  

            What makes Jesus weep today?
            I see Jesus weeping over our cities… over our world… over the way humankind has acted…  weeping over how we have failed to be the loving, generous, joyful people we were created to be…   weeping over the violence and oppression in our world.   I hear God lamenting over our unfaithfulness.  God grieves for us… and longs to protect us. 
            Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem follows a collection of parables that call for repentance.  I believe that Jesus’ lament over the city of Jerusalem is less a final judgment on the city and more a call to repentance.   It calls us to listen for God’s word for us today.
             During these days of Lent, I pray that we will be nurtured to grow more and more into Christ’s image.  Through our personal spiritual practices and our group studies and our worship, may we be fed, so we can grow from chicks into chickens, so we can give what we have received…  and teach what we have learned…and love the way we ourselves have been loved…by a mother hen who would give his life to gather us under his wings.
Amen.  So be it!

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood," The Christian Century, February 25, 1986. 

[2] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. (Mariner Books, 2005)
[3] Jim Wallis, “Revival for Justice,” in Sojourners magazine (March 2007), pp. 5-6.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"Filled With the Holy Spirit. A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016.

"Filled with the Holy Spirit"

Luke 4:1-13

            On this First Sunday in Lent, we are invited to follow Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days.  These forty days echo the forty days Moses spent fasting while writing the covenant for the people of Israel,[1]  and also the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert experiencing their own temptations.  It’s no coincidence that Lent is forty days.  So, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, I hope this story can challenge and encourage us in our own forty days of Lent.
            If you were here on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, you remember that John the Baptizer had been going around the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah:  “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”
            When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”
            At the age of 30, the man Jesus of Nazareth came to know that he was the beloved Son of God.
            Afterward, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit,  was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He needs to decide what kind of son he’s going to be.     The wilderness is hot and barren.  The gospel tells us that "he was famished."
            From somewhere comes a voice-- "If you are God's Son,  then command this stone, so that it becomes bread."  And Jesus remembers John...   the Jordan River...  the sky opening and a voice thundering,  "You are my SON...  the beloved."
            But now there’s a different voice:  "If  you are God's Son...   if you are God's Son."   A rounded stone could become a loaf of  bread.   Who could it hurt?   If he is God's child--  then why shouldn't he have what he wants?  The TEMPTATION is to turn away from the way of SACRIFICE and SUFFERING… and to serve himself.  The temptation is for Jesus to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. 
            The first temptation in the gospel story is to choose the easy life.  We end up hungry for the wrong things.  The life focused on security…  worldly success… or play...  or earthly pleasure--  is a life spent looking for substitutes for communion with God.
            We're tempted to avoid hard things like FORGIVENESS.  Somebody says something thoughtless that makes you feel stupid...   or devalued.  Someone you thought was your friend hurts you deeply.  We should forgive.  But it's a hard part of following Jesus.
            Jesus understood the temptation of the easy way. But he knew:  "One cannot live by bread alone.” 

            The adversary tries again.   This time, the temptation is an appeal to the human desire for power.    “If you will worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.”    Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world.  This was a temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah:  political and military might and rule. 
            Jesus could have chosen success… and prominence or wealth-- instead of redemptive suffering.  But he didn’t. 
            That Jesus rejects this is a clear sign that his messiah-ship, his kingdom, will be a different kind of kingdom than people were expecting.  Jesus’ mission isn’t about asserting worldly power, but about saving others, about sacrificial service.

            The tempter tries again.  “If you are the Son of God,  throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple…”   You know what the scriptures say,  "God will protect you."
            As Shakespeare pointed out,  "There is no error so grave but that some sober brow will not bless it with a proper text."    Even Satan quotes scripture.
            First century Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the temple roof.  Jesus could be the Messiah the people wanted--  if he would do what they expected.   
            This may be partly a foreshadowing of the crucifixion and a temptation for Jesus to save himself from death.      But this temptation seems to be about another alternative path for Jesus’ power, leading to fame and riches, rather than to service and the cross. 
            Out in in the wilderness, Jesus had to answer the hard questions about who he was and what his mission would be. 
Out in the wilderness, Jesus faced these three decisive issues in the process of spiritual maturity-- issues each of us has to work through,  if we want to tackle the challenges of life with a strong sense of who we are and whose we are.
It might be easier if the Evil One appeared in a red suit with a pitchfork, so he's easy to identify.  But often the tempter appears as a sensible way to meet our worldly needs--  or at least our selfish desires.  When we give in to those temptations-- we push ourselves away from God and God’s will for our lives.
            Jesus was continually tempted to make it easier for himself.  But he kept foregoing comfort...  applause..  and wealth to be true to his God-given identity.   Jesus was never freed from temptation, and we won’t be either.

            So--  why do we keep giving in to temptation?   I think it’s because we give in because we FORGET. 
            Jesus' antidote for temptation   was REMEMBERING.  When he was tempted, he was able to come back with the words of the SCRIPTURES.   He remembered who God is,   and how God works. 

            What’s at stake here is a question of IDENTITY.  Who is Jesus?  Who are we? 
            One of the saddest conditions a person can face in life is AMNESIA--  not knowing who you are.  It’s frightening when a person doesn’t understand what life is about…  when life has no meaning or purpose. 
            That’s what made Willy Lohman such a pathetic character in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman.  After Willie committed suicide, his son Biff says that the heart of his father’s problems   was that he didn’t know who he was.
            Knowing who you are   and whose you are   is essential to your wholeness as God’s child, and to your awareness of what God wants you to do with your life.    Satan’s primary objective isn’t getting you to do something wrong--  but to get you to forget WHO YOU ARE.  The Adversary wants you to lose your identity…  and your sense of belonging to the family of God.
            The ways Satan tries to convince  us that we don’t deserve God’s love are subtle and clever.  And these temptations--  like the temptations of Christ--  are far more treacherous than an impulse to disobey one of the commandments. 

            Think about this tricky question:  “If you are a child of God, then why don’t you feel more like one?   This can be deadly, because sometimes we don’t feel much like a beloved member of God’s family.  The temptation is to believe that--  if you’re not feeling like a child of God--  then maybe you aren’t.
Or about this temptation:  “If you are a child of God, why don’t you act more like one? 
When we’re tempted to forget who we are, we’re in a kind of spiritual desert.  The word “wilderness” or “desert” has often been used as a symbol for being lost spiritually.  Sometimes we don’t feel or act like children of God.  Sometimes it seems as though we’re wandering around in a wilderness, not knowing who we are. 
Being in a wilderness place is an unavoidable part of the Christian walk.  We fight some of our greatest spiritual battles when we’re out in the wilderness.  It’s a time when we’re confronted with ourselves..  and we need to clarify what it is that we want or desire more than anything else.        
            When we're tempted to forget who we are...   when we're tempted to take the EASY way--   we're called to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus went back to the scriptures that he learned as a child… the stories he’d heard at home and in the synagogue.  He remembered the things God had done for him.  He recalled the truths God had spoken. 
That’s what we’re called to do. We need to remember this story of Jesus in the wilderness. 
There were no witnesses to this event but Jesus.  So he must have told the disciples-- in the hope that they would remember. 
            Remember that we have a savior who understands our struggle.  Remember how Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and made it clear what his mission was in his inaugural speech in the synagogue in Nazareth:
            “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, to liberate those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
            It is hard to resist the power that the world loves and values.  But in the beginning of today’s gospel lesson is the promise.  You don’t do this on your own.  “Filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And you are.  That is your promise.  “Filled with the Holy Spirit” is God’s promise that extends beyond Luke to Acts.
            In the beginning of Acts, we hear Jesus’ promise:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 
            “Filled with the Holy Spirit” is not a one-time thing or a temporary truth, but an eternal promise for God’s people.
The good news is that, beginning with our baptism, God claims us and calls us and by the Holy Spirit gives us the power we need to carry Christ’s saving love into the world.
            So remember who you are:  a beloved child of God, claimed by God’s grace… and called to work in partnership with Christ to embody God’s love and to work for reconciliation and justice and peace in the world.   
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 14, 2016


[1] Exodus 34:27-28

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Holy Transfiguration". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.

 "Holy Transfiguration"
Luke 9:28-43

In  both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons we heard today, we see a pattern.  Generally, when Moses heard God's WORD for him and the people of  Israel,  it was when he was off by himself...  away from too much busy-ness and noise.  At times, Moses brought the Israelites out of the camp...  away from the distractions of their everyday work and routine-- to hear God speak to them directly.  
            When we study the Bible, we see this pattern of withdrawing--     going apart for awhile to be with God--  and then returning.
            Sometimes it takes longer than we think it might.   When Moses came down from Mount Sinai the first time after a time apart with God, he found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf.   Since they'd broken the covenant,  Moses  broke the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
            Then Moses made a second  trip up the mountain.  He stayed there forty days and forty nights,    fasting.  He wrote out the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments.   He prayed, "Show me your glory,"  and God passed before him.  The LORD proclaimed the holy NAME to him and revealed more of the divine nature than had ever been revealed to the people before, saying,
            "The Lord... the Lord,
              a God merciful and gracious,
              slow to anger,
              and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
              keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
              forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
              yet by no means clearing the guilty....”

            It was after this revelation that Moses came down among the people with his face shining so brilliantly that the people were afraid to come near him.  His appearance had been changed by his time apart with God.   There'd been a holy transformation.

            We know from reading the gospels  that after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.   He spent forty days alone in the wilderness,  fasting and being tested,   before he began his ministry. 
            Jesus had been praying alone, with only his closest disciples near him, when he began teaching them that he would have to undergo great suffering...   be rejected by the religious authorities...  be killed...  and the third day be raised.  Then he told them that anyone who wanted to be his disciples would  have to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him.
            It's eight days later when Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples  and goes up on a high mountain to PRAY.   While he was praying  they saw his face change,   and his clothes become dazzling white.   Then Peter and James and John saw Moses and Elijah,  talking to Jesus.
            A cloud comes-- a sign of God's presence, as it had been in the Exodus.  From the cloud, a voice speaks:   "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,"  echoing the voice heard when Jesus was baptized. 

            At his baptism, there's a moment when the veil of the present is stripped away to reveal who Jesus is     and who he will be.   Now,  the disciples are told not only who Jesus is--  but they also hear that they are to "LISTEN  to him."

            On the Sunday of Transfiguration, just before Lent, we hear Bible stories about withdrawing and returning.  I believe this pattern of withdrawing and returning is at the HEART of a faithful Christian life.
            In the midst of the hectic busyness that most of us experience as ordinary time--  it's hard to find the time and space to develop a spiritual life.  It takes commitment and discipline to look and listen for God. 

            This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday--  the beginning of  Lent...  the forty days leading up to Easter.  If we want to grow in our faith...   if we want to be ready to experience the new life of the RESURRECTION,  then we need to "take time to be HOLY."   We need to take time apart to listen for what God wants to say to us.
            That's the reason for a Lenten discipline.   If we want to be followers of Christ--  we need to be true disciples.  We have to give Christ time to TEACH  us...  and TRANSFORM us into his likeness.

            On Transfiguration Sunday, we follow Jesus as he withdraws up on the mountain.  Like Peter, we might want to keep Jesus up on the mountaintop.  We might want to stay in high places and enjoy mountaintop spiritual experiences.
            But we have seen Jesus transfigured, and we have heard the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.” 
            “Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth.”   I like the way David Henson puts it:  “Jesus chooses to make his home not over and above us, but with us and among us, empowering us and journeying with us, in the valley of the oppressed who are shadowed by the powers of death and destruction.  And Jesus brings liberation not through power and prestige but through expansive, redemptive love in us and with us.”[1]
            We need to follow Jesus back down to the valley, to a world in need of healing and reconciliation.  We return to a world that hasn't changed.   But we've changed--  however gradually.  We have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the Lord.  We've heard a voice.  And now we know not to be afraid.

            Without precious times of renewal... withdrawal...  and vision, we wouldn't be able to endure life in the valley.
            If we expect immediate and total spiritual perfection-- we're expecting too much.  Our transformation is happening gradually,  like the transformation of the first disciples.  The Peter who was so enthusiastic about the mountaintop experience  is the same Peter who denies Jesus in the face of the cross.  
            We fail to live up to God’s vision.  We fall short.  But God never gives up on us.
            God gives us the hope we need to follow Jesus boldly,  and gives us the Spirit of the Lord to lead us further into the truth...  further into the FREEDOM  that Christ offers us.
            The Apostle Paul said that we "see the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror dimly"...   and that we're being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another."  
            The missional church movement keeps reminding us that we are sent out to embody and demonstrate the gospel in the world.  Decades earlier,  theologian Emil Brunner put it this way:  “As a fire exists by burning, the church exists by mission.”  
            In other words, the church isn’t here to meet the needs of the people who are here, but to send us out in mission. 
            I believe God has a purpose for us here in east Dearborn.  Littlefield is a unique congregation that offers hospitality, theological and spiritual openness, and a commitment to mission, peacemaking, and interfaith work.  We have unique opportunities to share the good news of God’s love with such a variety of people.               
             We’re beginning to get glimpses of God’s vision for being church in this new time.   In recent years, we talk of “emerging” Christianity, of a “new paradigm” faith that is adapting to changes in a pluralist, post-Christian world.  Some folk have begun calling this movement “transformational Christianity.”  Some call it “missional church.” 
            I think this is an exciting time for the church, and I feel hopeful.  I believe that God is able to change the lives of people through big churches and little churches-- when the church is being an oasis of grace, practicing radical hospitality, reaching out to people who need to experience God’s love in a community where they can be transformed.  I believe there are people out there who need that,  people we are being called to serve. 
            So I wonder:  What might happen here if we learn to trust in God's power to transform us and give us the power to make a difference in the lives of people we haven't yet met?  What might happen if we trust that—if God has a mission for us here, that God will provide what we need to carry out the mission?
             God isn't finished with any of us yet.  At our worst moments-- both individually and as a church-- we act as if God is finished with us.  We act as if creation was finished a long time ago.  But nothing could be further from the truth. 
            When we are afraid, we need to remember to listen to God… and to be receptive for God’s vision for us.
            God still sheds new light on our understanding...  and lights our faces with the radiance of  glorious self-giving love.  God continues to shine upon us... to transform us, almost imperceptibly,  one degree at a time.   
             And that,  my friends, good news!
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 7, 2016   

[1] David R. Henson, “The Temptation of the Transfiguration: On High Places, Presidential Politics, and the Glory of God (Lectionary Reflection).