Sunday, September 25, 2016

"It's All About Love". A Sermon on Good News Sunday at Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"It's All About Love"

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17; Isaiah 43:1-7

Today is officially Good News Sunday at Littlefield!   We told people that—if they brought someone to worship today—we promise that they would hear some good news! 
            I hope that people were paying attention to the scripture passages today as they were being read…and the words of the Psalm we sang.  Have you heard some good news?  [I hope so.  That takes a bit of the pressure off me, now.  Though I’ll do my best.]

            I do believe we have good news to share--  important and transformative-- life-changing good news.  Sometimes I think I risk sounding like a “broken record.”   Some of you have heard me say it over and over again, in various ways.   But the more I’ve studied the scriptures over the years and looked for the main themes and the big picture,  the more I’ve become  convinced that our Christian faith is all about love. 
            God loves us.  We are—all of us-- God’s beloved children.  Our faith is about responding to God’s love for us and for all God’s children by loving God and loving all the people God loves. 
            The Old Testament includes a lot of stories and verses that a lot of us find puzzling and troubling.  Yet one of the major themes in the Old Testament is of God’s steadfast mercy.  One of my Old Testament teachers at seminary did her doctoral dissertation on the recurring theme of “hesed”, which is a Hebrew word that can be translated as “mercy,” or “steadfast loving-kindness.”   One of the other prominent themes in the Old Testament is how God keeps sending prophets to call people back to living in right relationship with God and with their neighbors…  and how those right relationships are characterized by love and justice and mercy.
             The gospel message in the New Testament proclaims in various ways how Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth,  to embody God’s love for us   and to show us how to live in the way of love.  Jesus preached about the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God” or “God’s dream for us”  and how we are called to live into it.       
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment is, he said what’s most important is two-fold:  Love God.  Love your neighbor. 
In the parable of the Good Samaritan,  Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is anybody we encounter—even people who are different…  even people we might see as enemies. 
            In his last talk with his disciples, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  People will know you are my followers by the way you love one another.”[1]
            In the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus tells his followers, “If you keep my commandments—the commandments to love God and love the neighbor—we will abide in his love.  He tells his disciples that he has said these things so that we may have his joy, and that our joy may be complete.”

            Jesus made it very clear that it’s all about love.  So I keep wondering how so many people who call themselves Christians could be so confused about this.
            We live in such a broken and fearful world.   Our government spends vast amounts of resources fighting terrorism.  Alarm systems to protect homes, businesses, and even churches are commonplace.  
            In this election season, we hear some politicians speaking to the fears and prejudices of many voters.  There are people who are afraid of Muslims… people afraid of African-Americans—especially males.  Muslims are afraid of being attacked.   African-Americans are afraid of being shot by police officers who are afraid of them.  
            So many people in our society fear and mistrust those who are different:  Muslims…  people whose skin is a different color…  immigrants.    
            We live in a nation wracked by gun violence.  Every year in the United States, on average,  more than 111,000 people are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, or by police intervention, and over 32,000 die.      That’s an average of 306 people shot every day, and 90 of them die.   Every day, 48 children and teens are shot, and 7 die.  Precious lives, of beloved children of God—lost. 
            There are too many people in our nation and around the world who are hungry or food insecure.
            Around the world, there’s war… genocide… people living under occupation. 
            The list could go on and on.  The bad news in our local communities, in our nation, and around the globe can feel overwhelming.
            In the midst of all this brokenness and fear and injustice, how are we-- as people of faith-- called to live?
            “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God--  for God is love….  Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.    No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
            What I hear in this is that loving one another is a spiritual practice, and that-- as we work at loving one another—God is living in us and working in us and perfecting love in us….
            “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love casts out fear.  Whoever fears has not reached maturity in love.”
            We love because God first loved us.   If we say, “I love God” but hate our brother or sister, we’re lying about loving God.   As we heard in First John,  “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen—cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
            Fear divides us.  It leads to violence and destruction.   Hatred and fear are toxic.  They harm us as persons… and as a society.
            But there is a way out.  It is not the way of fear, and hate and violence;  it is the way of love.    In Dr. Martin Luther King’s words:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
            Fifty-three years after Dr. King gave his “I have a dream speech” during the March on Washington, we can see that we have made progress.   Just yesterday, at the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, President Obama, the First Lady, and 99-year-old Ruth Bonner, the daughter of a man born into slavery, together rang the bell to celebrate the opening. 
 But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we have a long way to go.  And so… we need to be in prayer.   We need to open our lives to God’s call in our lives, as we live further into God’s dream for the world—the world that God so loves.   
            We need to come together as a community of faith--  not for the sake of coming to a place called church--  but for the sake of coming together as part of the Body of Christ… for the sake of gathering as disciples who need to learn and practice living in the way of love.   We need to encourage one another… and love one another.  We need to love one another into becoming more and more the beloved children of God we were created to be.  
            I remember one stewardship season John Haugen stood before us and told us about how he and Reema came to be regular attenders here, rather than coming a few times a year.  He said he’d been so disheartened by the outcome of an election and some of the things that were going on in the world.  And then he said, “But what am I doing to make things better?”  So they promised themselves that they’d come every Sunday for a while, and then they just kept coming. 
            John was invited to share his faith, and I’ll never forget his witness.  He told us, “I’m a better person because I’m a part of the people here.” 
            I think that’s an important part of why we need to come together as a community of faith.  We keep getting reminded that God loves us, that we are beloved children of God.  We’re challenged to love God fully and to love our neighbors, and we encourage one another.
When we understand ourselves to be beloved children of God, when we start seeing others as God’s beloved children, it changes us.  It’s transformative.
            God isn’t finished with any of us yet, and our love isn’t yet perfect, and it hasn’t yet cast out all our fears.   But God is still working in and among and through us,   through the power of the Holy Spirit-- leading and empowering us to become more patient and kind and generous… and helping us to become less envious or controlling… less irritable or resentful. 
            God is still working in us, guiding us further into the truth, re-forming us, teaching us what it means to go out and be the church out in the world.
            The good news is that as we grow more and more into God’s way of love, God’s love will cast out our fears.
            In a broken and fearful world,  we can trust in the Holy Spirit to give us courage to pray without ceasing.   As we work with others for justice, freedom and peace, our lives will be transformed, and we can change the world.     
            So be it! Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 26, 2016

[1] John 13:31-35

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Fear Not". One of 2 sermons preached in our Interfaith Prayers for Peace at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on September 18, 2016

"Fear Not"

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sister also. - 1 John 16b-21

For those of us who long for a better, more peaceful world, it’s  painful to see so much of what’s going on in the world… in our nation… and in our communities.  There’s so much bigotry and hatred and fear.  Fear of the “other.”  Fear of “them”—of “those people.”  Fear of change.  Fear of anyone who doesn’t look and act like us.  Fear of terrorism and crime.  Fear of losing status or privilege.  Fear of economic insecurity.  The list could go on and on.   

Last week we observed the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  Since that time, the longest series of wars in American history, violations of human rights, trillions of dollars spent, and loss of thousands of lives have all failed to resolve or reverse the causes of the violence that struck us, or to make us safer or less fearful. 
We grieve the loss of American lives, and we also need to grieve the loss of civilian lives due to our nation’s military actions.  Our armed forces apparently don’t keep track of deaths resulting from our military actions.[1]  But the estimated documented civilian deaths from violence following the 2003 invasion of Iraq is estimated to be between 163,000 to more than 182,000.[2]
Fifteen years after 9/11,  as we remember and reflect, we need to ask ourselves whether our reliance on war and violence have made the world a better and safer place—or more divided, polarized, and dangerous.  I don’t have any simple answers for you today.  But as people of faith we need to be praying about this. 
            In our nation, in the midst of all the violence and hatred and injustice in our society… in the midst of racism and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism… in the midst of all the need-- it’s easy to feel overwhelmed… and despairing.  We live in such a fearful time, and the rhetoric of the political campaign season has magnified it. Fear breeds animosity and hate.  Hate breeds more fear.  It’s a vicious cycle.   
It can feel overwhelming.  What can one person or just a few people do?  

            We can begin by praying together… and forging bonds of friendship and solidarity… getting to know one another better… opening our hearts and minds to one another… and finding ways to work together to change our communities… and change the world. 
            Some of us have been working on these things.  Imam Elahi and I have been working together in our Dearborn Area Interfaith Network group (and its predecessor Dearborn Area Ministerial Association) for the last 19 years.  Cantor Roger Skully has been involved with other interfaith groups in metro Detroit.  Years before—back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Rev. Bill Gepford and others did some pioneering interfaith work in Dearborn and the metro Detroit area.
            Our commitment to peace and justice and reconciliation, and our love for our own children, demands that we provide a better inheritance for them.”
            On this Sunday before International Day of Peace, we are challenged to re-commit ourselves to PEACE… to live our lives as if we believe that peace is possible.
            Christians…Muslims…Jews…Sikhs…Hindus…Buddhists… and all people of faith and goodwill —this is a time for us to find ways to come together and work for a better, more peaceful, more loving world.  We can work for a less fearful world, because love casts out fear.
            There’s hard work to be done.   But together we can work together to make a difference.  
             After worship, we invite you to stay for a time, to enjoy refreshments and conversation.   I hope you’ll make a new friend today.  Talk with one another about your families—especially your children or grandchildren and about what kind of a world you want to leave for them.
            Let us renew our commitment to change the world, beginning today. 
            May it be so!

Rev. Frances Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 18, 2016

Note:  This was part of our Interfaith Prayers for Peace event, in observance of International Day of Peace.  We also heard a sermon from Imam Muhammad Elahi from the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, and Cantor Roger Skully from Downtown Isaac Agree Synagogue in Detroit sang prayers and a benediction.  

[1] “We don’t do body counts.” – General Tommy Franks.