Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Surprising Faith." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on May 29, 2016, on Luke 7:1-10

"Surprising Faith"

Luke 7:1-10

Have you ever gone to a party where you weren’t invited?  Or where you didn’t feel welcome?  Or maybe you’ve avoided going to an event  where you didn’t feel you’d be welcome. 
         The gospel lectionary text for this week and for the next few weeks might be described as stories of unexpected guests and God’s surprising, amazing graciousness.  In each of these passages, someone receives some kind of hospitality, even though none was required in the circumstances.  
         After Jesus preached his Sermon on the Plain to a great crowd of his disciples and others, he entered the town of Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
         A centurion of the Roman army apparently heard that Jesus was coming.  He heard about what Jesus was teaching and preaching and about the powerful healing he was doing.

            We don’t know how this Roman centurion heard about Jesus.  We don’t know why he cared so much about this slave or whether the slave was Jewish or Gentile.  We don’t know what happened to the slave or the centurion after this encounter with Jesus. 
What we do know is this:  this Roman centurion had heard about Jesus and believed he could heal this beloved servant.  We know Jesus  heals the servant. We know that Jesus is amazed. 
         Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to either the slave or centurion after this encounter with Jesus.  But we do know that Jesus doesn’t ask him to become his follower, or to take up his cross, or to deny himself,  or to share the good news, or any of the other things Jesus often does in similar situations. He only speaks a word of healing.  And he’s amazed at the centurion’s faith.

         In her commentary[1] on this passage, Jeannine Brown reminded me of just how unlikely a character this centurion is to be a model of faith.
But beyond being unlikely, he is also – and this may be even more important – unexpected.  
         This centurion was a gentile—an outsider—who would not have received an invitation to a party with observant Jews.  Although, when we read through the Gospels and Acts, we find that centurions show up fairly often.  Centurions were a part of the Roman occupation force in Judea and Galilee in the first century. 
What’s surprising is that these representatives of Roman occupation are portrayed in positive ways, in this passage and elsewhere in the New Testament.  They end up responding to Jesus and his kingdom message and recognizing who he is.  Sometimes, like this centurion, they respond with faith.
         This oppressor of the Jewish people initiates a conversation with a Jewish healer.  He sends Jewish elders to speak on his behalf to Jesus to prove that he has been a patron of the Jewish people—that he has paid to have their synagogue built.  They tell Jesus, “He is worthy of you doing this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
         Jesus goes with the Jewish elders and is headed to the centurion’s house.  But before he gets there, the centurion sends his friends to keep Jesus from coming to his house. 
         The centurion was probably what was known as a God-fearer, who respected and admired the Jewish religion but hadn’t converted.  He probably knew that Jesus would have been ritually unclean if he entered a gentile’s house.  So he sent word that he was confident that Jesus could heal his servant from a distance.  “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  Therefore I do not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…. “
         Luke tells us that Jesus is so amazed by the centurion’s confidence in him, that he says,  “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
         As David Lose suggests, God regularly shows up where we don’t expect God to be,   and never,  ever stops delighting in surprising us.[2]
         I wonder if this story about the Roman Centurion’s surprising faith is shared by several of the Evangelists precisely because it shows that this man is capable of doing good… and that he is more complex than one might think.  He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community.  He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to just one attribute or judge someone based on one aspect of who they are.
         Shortly after he became Pope three years ago, Pope Francis surprised a lot of people when he said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works.
         The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many people.  A Vatican spokesman quickly came out with an “explanatory note” that contradicted the Pope’s statement and said that the church’s position hasn’t changed, and that people who know about the Catholic Church and choose not to be part of it can not be saved.”
         In the church, we continue to live in the midst of tensions and contradictions.  The church, when it’s acting like an institution, tries to maintain the status quo and keep up the boundaries that divide the people who are worthy from the people we think are not worthy…  that separate the people who are welcome and the people who are excluded and kept at the margins… the people we think will be “saved” and the people we think are outside the circle of God’s love.
         And yet, if we’ve read through Luke’s gospel in its entirety, we know that Luke has been preparing us for this surprising story about one from the occupying army coming in faith to Jesus for healing. 
         When Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth, he reminded the hometown crowd that there were plenty of widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, yet God sent him to a widow in Sidon.  There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but God sent him to cleanse Naaman the Syrian soldier.  This enraged the people who heard it so much that they wanted to hurl Jesus over a cliff!
         As much as we might like God to share our preferences—the scriptures keep reminding us that God’s ways are not our ways.  According to this story about surprising faith, God can use those we perceive as our enemies to teach us about true faith. 
         I’m guessing that many of you know someone who doesn’t go to church…or isn’t particularly strong in their faith…or isn’t a Christian at all.  Today’s gospel lesson invites us to imagine that this person is one of God’s beloved children and that God may use this person to do good things… and even to demonstrate surprising faith. 
         Even if we have decided someone is unlikely to do wonderful things… even if we have decided that someone is unworthy of God’s love… or unworthy to serve God in leadership, we need to open our hearts and minds to see that God’s love and work and salvation reaches far beyond the confines of our human rules and limitations and traditions.
         God keeps showing up and surprising us, reminding us that God’s love shows no partiality.  God in Christ Jesus has come breaking down dividing walls, reconciling us all to God in one body through the cross… bringing strangers and aliens and all of us together into the one household of God.
         Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 29, 2016

[2] David Lose, in Working Preacher blog:  Unexpected Faith.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Beloved." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016.


John 16:12-1512-15
A Baptism on Trinity Sunday

We sang Holy, Holy, Holy” this morning,  because  today is Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the Christian year devoted to a doctrine of the church.  The Trinity is one of two doctrines we share with the church catholic—with a small c”—the church universal, along with the Incarnation. 
            So…  how do we speak of the Trinity?  What does it mean?
            The Trinity is not in the Bible—though the images and ideas on which it was based is there to develop what we sang about as  “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
            Jesus didn’t talk about the Trinity.  Neither did Paul.  It wasn't until the fourth century-- “ 300 years after Jesus”--  that Christian leaders formalized the idea of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in 325, in what we know as the Nicene Creed.  
            The Apostles' Creed, in its original form, is even older, and has been associated closely with the Sacrament of Baptism in many parts of the Christian faith—which is why we’ll say it today-- in continuity with the historic church and in community with the church universal.
            I like what David Lose says about the Trinity.  He says he thinks the church has gotten a little off track with our thinking about the Trinity.  He thinks “the Trinity was the early church’s way of trying to grapple with a monotheistic belief in one God,  in light of their actual, lived experience of God’s activity…in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and after an encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit.  And the Trinity provided an answer…of sorts.  An answer often couched in the language of fourth-century metaphysics….But somewhere along the way the Trinity because less about describing an experience of the living God and more about accepting metaphysical doctrines and definitions of God.”[1]   I think that’s where we got off track.
            It’s a new day, and it’s time for us to be the church for a new time.  I think Karoline Lewis is right when she suggests that nobody cares about doctrine if it’s left behind in the 4th or any other century.  Nobody cares about doctrine when it is preached from the pulpit as if it is law….”[2] 

            In the gospel lesson we heard today, we heard Jesus telling his first disciples,  "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  For all that the Father has is mine." 
            The Nicene Creed was the ancient church’s answer to the questions of its time, using the best philosophical constructs and language available to it at that time.  Who is Jesus Christ?  How do we speak of God? 
            The Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity were worked out at a time when the church was being transformed from a movement—a network of house churches in which people gathered for prayer and table fellowship—into something much more institutional and connected with the power of the empire.
            During times of controversy, the church has found it necessary to re-interpret the gospel for new times, in response to new situations and questions.   We Presbyterians have a whole Book of Confessions!  
            The Brief Statement of Faith” of 1991 is the most recent confession in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions and one we use often in our worship at Littlefield.   It’s a Trinitarian statement, which begins by stating that we trust in the one triune God, whom alone we worship and serve. 
            The Presbyterian Church is in the process of adding the Confession of Belhar—from South Africa— to our Book of Confessions, out of the church’s desire to affirm our commitment to unity, reconciliation, and justice.  General Assembly approved in 2014 in Detroit, and the majority of presbyteries have affirmed it.  The final step is for it to go back to the 2016 General Assembly when it meets this June in Portland.  If the General Assembly approves it, there will be a new edition of our Book of Confessions that includes the Belhar Confession.
            I don’t believe that the Belhar” is the last confession of faith the Presbyterian Church will ever adopt, because I trust that the Spirit will lead us into new truths that we haven’t even imagined yet. 

            I don’t claim to fully understand the mystery of the Trinity, and I don’t trust those who say they do.   Basically, the Trinity is our best but inadequate attempt to describe the mysterious nature of God in the language of metaphor. 
            The traditional formula of the Trinity is:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and there are times when we use the traditional language as an expression of our unity with the universal church.    For example:  We always baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” because we are commanded to do so by Jesus in the Great Commission, and also because it’s an expression of our unity with the universal church. 
            But in our own time, some have been exploring a variety of alternative, more inclusive ways of describing the Trinity, like “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.”
            All of the metaphors are inadequate to define or explain the mystery of God.   The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that there is always more to God than we can comprehend… always more of God than we can explain… always more than we can sing or preach or prove.   
            Whenever we find ourselves digging in to defend what we’ve always thought about who’s in and who’s outside of the circle of God’s love, whenever we think we have God all figured out,  we need to remember in humility and openness what Jesus said:  "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into the truth.
             I think the language of the Trinity points us to relationship and mutual devotion.  A twelfth-century scholar, Richard of St. Vincent, reflected on this    and spoke of God in terms of shared love, and a community in which that love is expansive and generous.  
            The good news is that God is love.   God loves the world and chooses to create and redeem you and me and each and every person.   God chose to come in the person of Jesus, to live among us, full of grace and truth, to embody God’s love for us and teach us what it means to be beloved children of God.
            In the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus, we hear the words spoken from heaven to Jesus:  "You are my beloved.   With you I am well pleased."    In our baptism,  these words are meant for us as well: "You are my beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

Beloved.  Child of God. 
What difference does it make in our lives when we come to believe we are beloved children of God?  What difference does it make in how we treat each person we meet, when we believe that they are also God’s children?  
In a culture of individualism and competition, it’s a counter-cultural idea to stake our lives on the amazing, gracious love of God, freely given to us—unconditionally.
The early church marveled at this gift when they wrote in First John:  See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God--  and that is what we are![3]
We believe that.  If you hang out with us at Littlefield, you’ll be issued a name tag that says you are a “Child of God.” 

As followers of Jesus, we believe we are called to love God and our neighbors, to work for peace and reconciliation and justice for all, to embody the love of Jesus Christ in all our relationships. As we grow in faith together, we trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us, to lead us further into the truth, and to empower us to live into God’s Kingdom.   Through the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, we teach and encourage each other to live in the way of God’s love, the way of God’s wisdom.

One of the great joys of the Christian life is when parents present their children for baptism.  This is their public declaration that they want their child to be a part of the church and to have a ministry in it.
            Baptism is central to our identity as Christians.    As we live into our baptism, we learn who we are and whose we are.  We are nurtured to see ourselves as beloved children of God, and that can make all the difference!
            The baptismal font stands at the front of sanctuary to remind us that we’ve been initiated into this congregation, as well as into the universal church of Jesus Christ.
            In our Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, our understanding of baptism emphasizes God’s initiative.  God reaches out graciously to us, and offers us the gift of life in the kingdom as a free gift.  We respond by dedicating our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and committing ourselves to follow him.  Baptism is the beginning of our life in the church…a first step in a journey that takes a lifetime.
            When we baptize children, we promise to teach them who they are in the light of God’s truth.  We promise to teach them what makes them different as part of a holy people…a royal priesthood…consecrated to God’s service. 
            When parents present their child for baptism, they promise to live the Christian faith themselves, and to teach that faith to their children, by word and example.  To grow up in the faith, we and our children need to worship and learn together—in our families, and in the faith community which is the church. 
            Today, we’re inviting Dominic to be part of the great adventure we call church. What God will make of Dominic’s life, or where God will lead him, we don’t know. But what we do know-- what we can say with certainty, because we have God’s promise—is that God is with us every step of the way.
            May God bless Dominic and his family and all of us on our adventure in faith, as we live into God’s Kingdom together!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 22, 2016

[1] David Lose, “Trinity C: Don't Mention the Trinity!”.   
[3] 1 John 3:1