Sunday, July 17, 2016

"The End of a Season". A sermon on Amos 8, preached on July 17.

"The End of a Season"

Amos 8:1-12

The prophet Amos could not have known, thousands of years ago when he was delivering his prophetic oracles, that they would someday appear in the lectionary at this particular moment in American history.  Certainly he didn’t speak his oracles with us in mind. But this passage from the prophet Amos comes at an especially fraught and difficult time in our national life, and it provides us with an opportunity to talk about our life together.
My heart aches each time there’s another shooting or terrorist attack.  In recent weeks, Philando Castile, a school lunchroom supervisor, was shot in Minnesota by a police officer, with his fiancĂ© and 4-year-old daughter in the ca, and Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Then 5 Dallas police officers were killed and 9 officers and 2 civilians were injured by a military veteran who was apparently angry about African-Americans being killed by police.  Officer Lorne Ahrens… Officer Michael Smith… Officer Michael Krol… Officer Patrick Zamarripa… and Dallas Transit Police Officer Brent Thompson were the officers who lost their lives.  All of those killed were precious lives. 
We were still reeling from these deaths when in Nice, France, a terrorist used a 19-ton truck to massacre 84 people and injured more than 200 by driving through the crowds gathered to watch fireworks on Bastille Day.
The Republican National Convention is scheduled to begin tomorrow, and the Democratic National Convention will be held next week. 
This is an intense and troubling time in our nation. So it seems like a good time to take stock of our nation and our society, and to ponder what God might have Amos or some other prophet say to us today.
Amos was an “outside agitator” from Judah—a southerner who was called to speak to a northern audience in a time of national security and material affluence.  The wealth was enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many.  His words may be as difficult for us to bear as they were for Israel and its political ruler and those who were wealthy and privileged.
In last week’s Hebrew scripture lesson, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, went to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel.  The land is not able to bear all his words.  For this Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”
Then Amaziah told Amos to get out of Israel and go back to Judah. “Earn your bread there, and prophesy there.  But never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”[1]

When I was in seminary, one of my assigned papers in an Old Testament class was about distinguishing true prophets from false prophets.  What I discovered was that there were those who claimed to be prophets, who would tell the king what he wanted to hear.  As Jeremiah said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.’”[2] 
Ezekiel criticized the false prophets:  “Because, indeed, because they have seduced My people, saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace—and one builds a wall, and they plaster it with untempered mortar…”  Ezekiel brought a word from the Lord aboutthe prophets of Israel who prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and who see visions of peace for her when there is no peace….’”[3]

            One of the events I attended at the Wild Goose Festival last week was a Town Hall on Racial Justice, with Jim Wallis and other panelists.  Near the end, there was a time for questions and response, and someone asked, “When I go home, how can I talk to my congregation about racial justice without upsetting somebody?”   Can you guess what the response was?   “You can’t.”  For a lot of people, it isn’t easy to hear or think about it.  But it’s necessary and important.
            Whether people in Israel heard Amos’ message as good news or bad news would have depended on where they found themselves in the story.  If they were comfortable with the status quo, they probably heard it as bad news.  But if they were poor or marginalized or oppressed, they would have been glad to hear that there were consequences for those who act unjustly and that God would be bringing an end to this wickedness. 
            This week’s Hebrew scripture lesson began with a vision that the prophet received:
            This is what the Lord GOD showed me—a basket of summer fruit.  He said, “Amos, what do you see?”  And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.  “Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”
            In my study this week, I was reminded that puns are common in biblical prophetic literature.  When you get the pun in this passage, it’s jarring.  The Hebrew word used for “summer fruit”—qayits-- sounds similar to qets-- the word for “end”.   Some of the translations try to re-create the word play in English, saying something like “The time is ripe for my people Israel.”[4]
            Phillando Castile, Alton Sterling, police officers in Dallas, mass shootings in schools and night clubs and malls, the state sanctioned executions of those on death row, kids who are hungry in our own extended neighborhoods—everywhere we look, we find suffering,  injustice and death.  There are cycles of violence and retribution, oppression and marginalization that play out over and over again. 
            These things are painful to see and hear.   People who are privileged may get through life without seeing or hearing some of them at all.  But God calls us to be quiet and listen, and to see things through God’s eyes, to see the pain of God’s beloved children.
            Now that nearly everybody has a video camera in their phone, violence and injustice is being documented and shared over the internet.  So, unless we refuse to see it and hear it, we are more aware of it. 
I think—I hope and pray—that we have finally reached a tipping point, that we are heartbroken enough now that we are ready to recognize the end of a season in the life of our society and that we are ready to do the hard work of listening and learning, and to commit ourselves to God’s way of justice for all God’s people. 
            I think the time is ripe.  We can do better in our society, in this new time.  We can be better—with God’s help.
At the Wild Goose Festival, Jim Wallis reminded us that 75 percent of white Americans have entirely white social networks.  The lack of direct, regular, and personal connection makes it very difficult to get beyond the racial biases and stereotypes that are still so strong in white American society. [5]   
Fifty years after the great victories of the civil rights movement, and Dr. King’s reminder that Sunday morning at eleven o’clock was the nation’s most segregated hour, most Americans still live most of their lives segregated from other races.  In many parts of our nation, we live in different neighborhoods, and most of us are not together in our schools and churches.  So most people don’t have opportunities to talk more deeply together and develop the empathy and meaningful relationships that bring understanding, friendships, common citizenship, and even spiritual fellowship—unless you work at it intentionally.
When you’re not with other people, you simply don’t know what their lives are like, what they’re most concerned about, what their core values or top priorities are, what they’ve been going through, and what they desire for their children.  You learn about other people when they’re your neighbors, or parents of your children’s classmates or teammates, or members of your religious congregation….[6] 
You learn a lot about people if you did, as a pastor in Atlanta started to do a few days ago, on his daily commute on public transit, where he is surrounded by persons of color.  He usually focuses on reading on the train, which isolates him.  But after all the shootings recently, he decided to push past his comfort zone and engage with people. 
In his blog, Presbyterian pastor Greg Allen-Pickett wrote:  “Last week, our country convulsed from the untimely deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both precious children of God. I have been wracked with many emotions. But as I made my morning commute, I realized that what I am feeling must pale in comparison to what my black sisters and brothers are feeling. So for the past week, I wore my clerical collar on my train ride and I asked my fellow riders how they were feeling; this is what I learned….”[7]
I hope you’ll read his post.  In summary, he heard people of color saying that they’re sad, they’re scared, they’re fearful, and they’re angry. He was surprised to hear that they’re hopeful. The people on the train expressed hope that things will get better.  They expressed “hope that God is present, even the midst of all of this injustice, and that God is actively at work, redeeming and reconciling.”
So what did he learn from this experience?  He says most days when he gets on the train, he keeps his head down, and he usually reads a book.  But with his nose in a book, he wasn’t connecting with the people around him.  He learned that to be an ally, he needs to close his mouth and listen—really listen—and pay attention to the world around him.  He learned that it isn’t about him, that he can strive to live with empathy and compassion, and to be humble about his inability to fully understand the experience of being black in this country.  He learned that he needs to push out of his comfort zone, to make eye contact and interact with people who are different, to ask authentic questions and be prepared for authentic answers—answers that may challenge him and make him uncomfortable. 
As he writes, it is in that discomfort that we begin to grow.  And this Presbyterian pastor learned from this experience about the power of prayer. He learned how to pray from his sisters and brothers on the train that he prayed with.  He learned that “even in the midst of profound darkness, there can be hope and light.”

I think we need to hear peoples’ stories and acknowledge their pain and fears.  So I’m grateful for the courage of a number of people—mothers of black children, elected officials, and others—who have shared some of their experiences and posted them online, and I’ve been sharing some of them on Facebook, for those who “have ears to hear.”

When you trample those on the margins, Amos tells us, things will not go well for you. The end of injustice is coming, whether or not you have eyes to see.  
The good news is that God loves every one of us and wants us all to live in beloved community together.  God wants all God’s children to  enjoy freedom and justice and joy. 
Do we believe this?  Can we trust that God loves us and all God’s children, and that God has a plan for us that is good for all of us?  Is anything too wonderful for God?
The time is ripe.  It’s up to us.  How will we respond?
Will we join God in heralding the arrival of justice for all?  Or will we stand in the way?
I pray that we will all respond faithfully. 
May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Amos 7:10-17

[2] Jeremiah 6:14
[3] Ezekiel 13:10, 16.

[6] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  Brazos Press, 2016. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Traveling Light". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 10:10-20.

"Traveling Light"

Luke 10:1-20

A short story by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried,” has often been assigned reading for high school or college students.  It’s filled with descriptions of the things the soldiers packed in their gear in combat zones in Vietnam.  They carried pocket knives, letters from girlfriends, cigarettes and C-rations.  They carried diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks, and foot powder.  They carried compasses, maps, and weapons.  What they carried was partly what they thought they needed to survive and partly an expression of their combat mission.  “They carried all they could bear,” writes O’Brien, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
            More recently, there have been several exhibits of photographs and artifacts dealing with this theme.   One of them is currently at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, focusing on the experience of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, most of whom traveled with little more than the clothes on their back and some small memento to remind them of home.  
            To document their life-changing journey and shed light on the trials and trauma refugees experience, Jim Lommasson has created a traveling exhibit on what it means to leave everything behind, “What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization.”  He invited refugees to share a personal item that was significant on their journey.  Some shared a family snapshot, an heirloom dish, or a childhood toy.  The project is about what’s worth holding onto when you have to travel light.

            I don’t know what kind of a packer you are, but I keep trying to travel lighter when I go away for a conference or on vacation.  My tendency is to try to have all the clothes I may need—appropriate clothes for each kind of activity and weather possibility, something to read, groomintg and health supplies, and so on.  It all adds up.

             But I hear what Jesus said to the seventy:  “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…”  In fact, carry nothing, not even what prudent people would pack for a trip—no money, no extra pairs of shoes—nothing.  Disciples are to be utterly dependent upon God and the hospitality of others.  Disciples are to carry only the gospel and our trust in God.
            Jesus has appointed these seventy or so to go on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he plans to go, as kind of advance teams.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  Go on your way.
            “See,” cautions Jesus, “I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves.”    This is important work, with high stakes.  Travel wisely.  Travel light.   
            Hearing and sharing the gospel require as few distractions as possible in any age, in any place. 
            Consider how much bigger the average size house is today than a generation or two ago.  We have bigger houses, with bigger closets, so we can have more stuff.  We have to pay more to use more energy to heat and cool the bigger houses and to run all the appliances and electronic gadgets we’ve come to see as necessities.  A bigger house with more stuff takes more time and energy money to maintain and clean and secure.   
A wealthy businessman who had grown up poor said in later years, “Life gets complicated when you own more than two pair of pants. 

            Jesus sent the seventy disciples out and told them that wherever they were welcomed, they Lukewere to eat what is set before them…to cure the sick…and to tell people “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  Wherever they were not welcomed, they were to go out into the streets and announce that they were protesting the lack of welcome, as they wipe the dust off of their feet.  Yet they were also to tell those who didn’t welcome them: “The kingdom of God has come near.” 
            I believe that all these details are included in the gospel story to show that something big, something risky and dangerous was happening. 
Like the early disciples, we are also sent out.                         
Another thing today’s gospel story tells us is that being sent out in mission requires letting go of a lot of baggage.  We need to be able to move quickly, without unnecessary hindrances or distractions.  We can’t be free of all burdens, but we need to bear the right burdens.  It’s a question of priorities.
During the Protestant Reformation, part of the work was to discern what was essential for Christ’s church and what needed to be left behind because it got in the way of being faithful for that time. 
John Wesley always insisted that his Methodist circuit riders have few possessions.  He knew that our possessions have a way of hindering us.  So the circuit riders were expected to travel light.

Those of us who have been life-long church members have been spiritually formed by worship, Christian education, participating in mission, and being a part of the faith community.  Some have cherished memories of how things used to be.  Others who came to Littlefield from another faith community may have memories of what was especially meaningful to them in another congregation.  Others may have a vision of what church can be in this new time. 
As much as we might want everybody to be happy and to have all the things they feel would make them comfortable on the journey, that’s not the life to which Jesus calls us.  We’re called to faithful service, and Jesus tells us we need to travel light.  We need to discern what’s essential for the church’s mission today.

            We live in troubling, sometimes scary times, and it’s easy to be pessimistic and fearful about our nation and the world, and about the church.  We know that in the North American church, membership has been declining.  The Presbyterian Church and other mainline churches have been downsizing their national organizations due to financial constraints.  Some congregations have left the denomination, in response to previous General Assembly actions on GLBTQ ordination and same-gender marriage. 
            The theme of the 2016 General Assembly was “The hope in our calling,” and from what I’ve heard and read, this was a hopeful assembly.  The commissioners worked hard, studying, listening to testimony, praying, worshipping, struggling with complex and difficult issues.  As always, they did everything “decently and in order,” because that’s how Presbyterians do things. 
            I posted some reports on Facebook during GA, and I recently emailed a summary of what happened at GA to you.  I hope you’ll read them, and that we can talk about anything you have questions or concerns about.
            There were several things that made this Assembly both historic and hope-full.  First, for the first time, a co-moderator team was elected to share the leadership equally:  Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, both pastors, both women, elected in the year that marks the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women to Word and Sacrament and the 85th anniversary of the ordination of women as ruling elders. 
            Second, the Assembly adopted the Confession of Belhar into our Book of Confessions, which is part of the Constitution of the PC(USA).  Belhar emerged in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, post-Apartheid.  It confronts the sin of racism and calls for reconciliation, unity and peace.  Following the vote, someone from the Assembly floor began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and others joined in.  By the second verse, the body had joined hands, and then lifted them upward as they sang together. 
            It was moving to see this in a video, but as I read peoples’ reports of moments like this, I couldn’t help wishing I could have been in Portland for GA.  These moments remind us that when we follow Jesus, liberation, justice and redemption, peace and joy and hope are all part of the journey. 
            South African theologian Alan Boesak who helped to write the Belhar confession, was in Portland for the vote.  He reminded the church that we are called to more than simply say the words of the confession; we are called to live them, embody them.  As Belhar affirms, “We believe . . . that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.”
            On Friday, the Assembly elected J. Herbert Nelson, a third-generation Presbyterian pastor, an African-American man, and prophetic voice for justice, to the office of Stated Clerk, which is our top ecclesiastical and constitutional office, representing the denomination in interfaith and ecumenical settings.
            Rev. Nelson challenged Presbyterians to stop focusing on internal church disputes, numerical survival, and labeling each other as progressives or conservatives.  He said, “Nowhere in holy writ do I read the terms ‘liberal, moderate, or conservative.’” 
I believe this is true.  These are not biblical categories.  They foster conflict narratives about “us” and “them” with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and should not define our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
            As J. Herbert Nelson said, we need to focus on “the impact God can make through us” in a broken world.  He said of the Presbyterian Church: “We are not dead, we are reforming, we are alive and we are well.   But “To only think about the survival of the Church is to set our aim too low.” 

            Much of what happened at General Assembly gives me hope.  In the midst of all that’s going on in the world, God is up to something and wants to use us to bring about good.  As today’s gospel lesson reminds us, we need to travel light.  So we need to leave behind our worries about survival, our resentment or mistrust of people who aren’t like us or don’t believe exactly the same things we do.  We need to stop hauling around our nostalgic longings about how we used to do things, and pack for the mission we have today. 
            When we trust that God will provide what we need for the journey, that will free up room for us to carry the good news of God’s love and freedom out into a world where God calls us to bring healing and peace and restoration.
            Jesus sent out the seventy in his name, but it became clear that they were part of a larger mission—a mission that is not yet completely unfolded, a mission whose final goal is even yet unfolding, a battle against evil, against the powers and principalities of this world. 
            There is still more teaching, more witnessing, more healing, to do.  There are still hungry people to be fed.  The poor still need to hear good news…captives and oppressed people who need to be freed…blind who need to recover  their sight.[1] 
The GOOD NEWS is that God has graciously claimed us in your baptism and chosen us and calls us to help to transform the world. 
            Somewhere along the way, we will be called to leave our excess baggage behind.  We will be sent out to places we never imagined we’d go in the name of Christ.  We will carry the one important thing:  a gospel of love and justice and peace.   The way will be hard and the path will be uncertain, but by the grace of God, our work will become a part of God’s work and will help to knock the powers of evil off the throne,  and our names will be written in heaven.
            Thanks be to God!

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

[1] Luke 4