Sunday, June 19, 2016

"What God Has Done." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, on Luke 8:26-38

"What God Has Done"

Luke 8:26-39

During the Sundays after Pentecost, the lectionary gospel lessons focus on who Jesus is.  In the past weeks, we have encountered some people who recognize and honor Jesus:  a Roman centurion, a woman of questionable morals, and now a man possessed by many demons who lives among the tombs. 
            Hmmm….  Did you wonder? Are these the kind of people you’d expect a rabbi and his disciples to associate with?  And how did they recognize Jesus for who he is, when the disciples and a lot of other people are confused?

Here’s the context.  Luke tells us, “One day, Jesus got into a boat.  He said, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.  He doesn’t really say why he wants to cross over to the other side.   But they set off in the boat.
            While they were sailing, Jesus fell asleep.  A windstorm swept down on the lake and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.  The disciples wake Jesus up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”
            Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves.  They ceased, and there was a calm.
            Jesus said to them, “Where is your faith?”  They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then, is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
The disciples still are not sure who this man Jesus is.  Yet quickly they meet someone who knows exactly who Jesus is.
            That’s where the story we just heard picks up, as Jesus and the disciples arrive at the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the opposite side of the lake from Galilee, in Gentile territory—not a place a Jewish rabbi would normally venture. 
            Once they get out of the boat, Jesus is met by “a man of the city”--  a young man who no longer dwells among the living in the local town.
It seems the people in the land of the Gerasenes didn’t want to associate with a man so possessed that they couldn’t control him.  They had tried to protect him and themselves by binding him with chains, but that hadn’t worked.  Eventually, the demons had driven him away from the community and into the land of the dead, and he was roaming naked among the tombs. 
            According to Jewish tradition, this young man was not only dangerous to himself and others, but religiously unclean, because he was possessed by an unclean spirit, living in an unclean place.  As David Lose puts it, this is the very last place Jesus should be-- which, when you think about it, is where God often shows up.  In moments of profound doubt, grief, loss, or defeat.  And even among those who may have had little interest in God.[1]
            Luke tells us that after this encounter with the man in the tombs Jesus and the disciples sail back home again to Galilee, which seems that the point of the trip across a stormy sea was to meet “this unclean man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean and forsaken environment.”[2]
This man isn’t looking for help.  He doesn’t ask to be healed.  But as soon as Jesus saw the man he knew that he was possessed, and he ordered the spirit out.
When he sees Jesus, this naked, unclean man falls down before him and shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.
It’s a strange story.  I can’t think of any other story in which demons were able to bargain with God. 
The demons begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss.  Could they enter the herd of pigs that were feeding on the hill?  Jesus agrees, and the demons came out of the man and enter the swine, and the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and all the pigs drown. 
I told you it’s a strange story.

The man has been released from the chains of possession.  Like the woman at Simon’s house in last week’s gospel lesson, he is still at the feet of Jesus.  But now he’s “clothed and in his right mind.”  But the crowd that has gathered after they heard what’s been going on doesn’t rejoice.  No.  They’re afraid, and they beg Jesus to leave them alone.
What do we do with stories of unclean spirits and demon possession and deliverance?  There are people in our world who continue to believe in the possibility of demon possession.  But most of us don’t experience demons in the way they’re described in the Bible. 
What I’ve noticed is that all the “demons” Jesus confronts in the gospel stories have a few things in common.  They cause self-destructive behavior in the person.  The person feels trapped in that condition.  And they separate the person from living normally in the family and community. 
 I think for a lot of us, it can be helpful to understand “demons” as forces that have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be.  Understood this way, demons can be a way of describing how it feels to be possessed and powerless by addictions or mental illness or anything that brings torment to individuals or families or communities. It could be a way of describing destructive habits or obsessions, overwhelming anxiety.
The way the gospels tell it, delivering people from demon possession is a central area of Jesus’ ministry.  He encounters people who are bound, and he sets them free.  It’s part of how Peter describes the Gospel message in Acts 10: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” 
At the beginning of this chapter in Luke, Jesus is accompanied by the 12 disciples and certain women “who had been cured by evil spirits and infirmities,” including Susanna, Mary Magdalene, and many others.
The gospel stories tell us that the people who are instrumental in Jesus’ ministry have been healed, set free, and delivered through their encounters with him.  I think in our own time, many people are like the man in this week’s Gospel story: they’re oppressed or imprisoned by whatevertra degrades and demeans life—our lives and others… by whatever voices tell us that we deserve to be overlooked or silenced… all that convinces us of our unworthiness…all that keeps us from living as free and fulfilled persons.  But then Jesus comes along and asks, “What is your name?”
The story we heard today isn’t just about an exorcism, but transformation.  The man goes from being naked to being clothed… from being out of his mind to sitting at Jesus’ feet, in his right mind… from living in the tombs to preaching in the city and telling people how much God has done for him.

            We live in fearful and sorrowful times.  Last Sunday we woke to hear that a gunman had walked into the Pulse Night Club and killed 49 people and injured 53 more. A few days ago was the one-year anniversary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre, when 9 people were studying the Bible and praying when a white supremacist whom they welcomed into their midst shot them.  Brothers and sisters--beloved children of God— were killed because of who they were.   
            When we tune into the news, we’re bombarded with bad news in our nation and around the world.  Sometimes it’s hard not to feel trapped and hopeless about the destructive chaos we see around us.
            Because they are our brothers and sisters, part of God’s family, we can’t turn our backs on the pain and suffering and injustice.   As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." 
            Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment is two-fold:  to love our God with everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mark 12:28-31; Matt. 22:34-40) We can trust that Christ, who is our peace and has made us one, is breaking down the walls of hatred that divide us, and entrusts us to a ministry of reconciliation. (Ephesians 2:14) 
            The good news is that there is nowhere that is forsaken by God.  There is no place God is unwilling to go, to reach and free and heal those who are possessed or broken or despairing.  God loves all people:  male and female, young and old, gay and straight; black, white, Asian, Latino, believers and non-believers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs… the list goes on.   God loves the world.  (John 3:17)
In the wake of violence and tragedy, I believe God is always among those who are in the greatest pain and need.   This challenges us to prayerfully ask, “Where are we willing to go?  Whom are we willing to love?  In what ways can we embody God’s love to those in the greatest need?” 
 Friends, we worship an awesome, loving God.  God is with us, working through us to seek out those in need, to share God’s grace and mercy in word and deed, and to witness to the hope we have in Jesus.
            And that, my friends, is good news!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 19, 2016

[1] David Lose, “God in the Shadow Lands,” at in the Meantime.
[2] David Lose, “God in the Shadow Lands,” at In the Meantime.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"She Has Shown Great Love." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 7:36 - 8:3

"She Has Shown Great Love"

Luke 7:36 - 8:3

In the 2003 movie “Luther,” an early scene portrays Martin Luther wrestling with the character and intentions of God.  Luther asks his mentor, an elder monk, “Have you ever dared to think that God is not just?... He [sic] has us born tainted by sin, then He’s angry with us all our lives for our faults, this righteous Judge who damns us, threatening us with the fires of hell!”
“Martin, what is it you seek?” the old monk asks.
“A merciful God! A God whom I can love.  A God who loves me.”[1]
Luke’s story brings Martin Luther’s concerns—and ours-- to the center:  What is the nature of God’s righteousness?  How are we saved from sin and reconciled to God?  Who is Jesus?
Once again, Jesus is in conflict with a religious leader.  A Pharisee named Simon has invited Jesus to dinner, and Jesus is there at the table.  A woman of the city crashes the party.  What causes tension in the story is that she’s a woman… and a sinner, and that she approaches Jesus while he’s at table eating.
 We don’t know her name.  We aren’t told the nature of the woman’s sins. Tradition has remembered this woman as a prostitute, but Luke doesn’t say that.  We just don’t know.
The way Luke tells the story, Simon the Pharisee doesn’t get it.  He’s hypocritical and self-righteous.  He invites Jesus to dinner, but he’s quick to turn against Jesus.  
When Simon sees what the woman does, he mutters to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him and that she is a sinner.” 
Jesus speaks up and says, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  And then he tells the parable about a creditor and two debtors, and asks him who will love the creditor who forgives the debts more--  the one who owed fifty denarii or the one who owed five hundred denarii.  “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt,”  Simon says.  Jesus says, “You have judged rightly.” 

Then Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house.  You gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.  Hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Then Jesus turns to the woman and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
What contrasts Luke shows us in this story!  Here are two religious leaders suddenly in the presence of a sinful woman.  Simon the Pharisee has an understanding of righteousness that causes him to distance himself from her.
The root meaning of the word “Pharisee” is uncertain, but scholars tend to think it probably comes a word that means, “those who are separated.”  In their attempt to stay pure and acceptable, they have separated themselves from the rest of humanity.  The Pharisees were trying to keep all the thousands of laws that were developed to fill in the gaps between the Ten Commandments.  
In contrast, Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God’s gracious love and forgiveness, and teaching that the greatest commandment is the commandment to love God completely and to love other people.
Simon is guarded and stingy with his love.  He is quick to judge Jesus and wants to rebuke him when he doesn’t meet his preconceived expectations.  In the end, Simon is rebuked, while the woman--a sinner—was the perfect hostess and is forgiven her sins.
Simon likes to think of himself as righteous, blameless, so he responds to Jesus as one who has been forgiven little.   He “knew” the woman was a sinner, and he assumes that she has defiled Jesus by touching him.  
In Simon’s economy, righteousness is about calculating worth or worthiness.  But when Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth, he revealed what Jill Duffield calls “the messy, glorious gift-economy of God’s love.”[2]
As Jill points out, Jesus knows that many of us operate out of a more “capitalistic mindset” and “don’t get it,” so he tells “a dollars and sense parable.”  So which one of the debtors is more grateful?  The one who was forgiven of the greater debt. 
A few weeks ago I shared a post on Facebook by Mark Wingfield, who’s a Southern  Baptist minister from Texas.[3]   This post on what he is learning about transgender people went viral and was read by more than a million people.  He recently wrote a follow-up blog that details the response he got to his first post. 
Rev. Wingfield writes, “In two weeks’ time, I have exchanged personal correspondence with more than 400 people and have heard the personal stories of people from all over the country.”  He heard from transgender persons, from the parents and friends of transgender persons, from clergy, doctors, teachers, counselors and lots of average people.
He writes, “One transgender woman wrote to tell me her story and signed off with these words: ‘Sincerely, a woman who hopes that God still loves her.’”
One of the most heartbreaking messages Rev. Wingfield received was from a single mom with four kids, including one who is transgender.  This entire family recently was kicked out of their church, and the mother was asking for help in finding another church in her city where they would be accepted.
Another person wrote that, as a youth, he had been a deeply devoted Bible study leader in his church, but was asked not to attend that church anymore after coming out with a non-conforming gender struggle.[4]
Sadly, the church of Jesus Christ is most known today for what we’re against, rather than who God is for.

 “Simon, do you see this woman?”   When Jesus speaks to Simon, it’s as if he says, “If you weren’t so obsessed with your own righteousness and purity, you could be celebrating God’s love and forgiveness as she is. 
Do we see this woman?  The way she throws off cultural expectations and the norms of religious purity rules, the way she gives fully of herself, in an act of love and gratitude and fearless intimacy?
Mark Wingfield says when he wrote his original post about what he’s been learning about transgender persons, he wanted to get beyond headlines.  He wanted to go deeper than bathroom wars.  He observes that parts of the corporate world are trying to learn and trying to do the right thing for their employees.  One of the key phrases being used is, “Bring your whole self to work.”  There’s even a TED Talk on it on Youtube.  The idea is that employees perform better if they can be themselves at work and don’t have to live in fear.  As Wingfield asks, why is corporate America ahead of the church on this? 
Why, indeed?   What do you think?

I agree with those who think that saying, “Bring your whole self to church” would require us to be honestand not only about gender identity and sexual orientation.  In traditional church culture, we’ve been conditioned to be polite and nice.  We might think it’s dangerous to be our true selves at church—especially if we don’t feel like we fit the image of a perfect Christian. 
For many people, it feels safe to talk about happy things.  But what if we or our children have deviated from the norm?  What if we’ve been unsuccessful, in the world’s eyes?  What if we’ve had struggles with financial insecurity or food insecurity… with depression or anxiety or substance abuse or mental illness… with loneliness… or a failed marriage?   

            “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”
            “God so loves the world….”    The world.  That includes all of God’s children.
Too often we miss hearing that the good news is for us.  Some, like Simon, aren’t receptive--  so we miss encountering God’s gracious love and forgiveness in a new way. 
Do you see her?  Jesus asks.  Do you see the way she welcomes me into her heart and life?  Do you see the love, the adoration, the gratitude in her response?
Luke tells us that soon after that dinner party, Jesus went through cities and villages, proclaiming and bring the good news of the kingdom of God.  The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities and who provided for them out of their resources.
  The good news is that Jesus reaches out to people who know they’re sinners and to Pharisees and good church people.  Jesus reaches out to you and to me in love, offering a new, abundant life.
God loves you, whoever you are.  
So… what are we going to do with all this love?

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
June 12, 2016

[1] I’m grateful to Gregory Anderson Love for reminding me of this scene in the movie in his “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Pentecost and Season after Pentecost). Westminster John Knox Press, 2010,  Kindle Location 509

[4] I really appreciate Mark Wingfield’s blog posts and am very indebted in today’s sermon to them.  Mark Wingfield, “Painful lessons from a pastor’s viral transgender post,” May 31, 2016, at