Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Courage for A New Time". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday, Oct 30, 2016

"Courage for A New Time"

Mark 4:35-41

During the dark days of World War II, the World Council of Churches adopted a symbol which had been important to the early church during times of danger, hardship, and persecution:  the church is depicted as a storm-tossed boat, with a cross for a mast.
            Over the centuries, the ship has been a prominent symbol for the church in Christian art and architecture.  This part of the church building is called the “nave,” which is the Latin name for “ship.”  If you look up, you can see how the designers of this building evoked the symbolism.
Then, if you look at the stained glass windows, you’ll see that one of them depicts a ship tossing about on the waters.       
            When the early Christians tried to describe what it was like to be a Christian and to be a member of the church, they said it was like being on a ship with Christ in a storm.     The story we just heard from Mark's gospel seemed descriptive of the early church’s experience.  
            In the Gospel lesson, we find the disciples on a journey.  The journey is not one of their own choosing, but one they've been commanded to take.  
            It must have been a long day.  Jesus had been teaching beside the sea.  There had been a huge crowd gathered on the shore, while he sat in the boat and spoke in parables about the Reign of God.
            When evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, "Let us go across to the other side of the sea."  So, leaving the crowd behind, they set off across the sea. 
            The time I sailed across the Sea of Galilee, it was on a beautiful, calm, sunny day.  It was smooth sailing.  But Peter and the other fishermen among Jesus' inner circle of disciples knew from experience the danger of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee.  As the wind and the waves fill the boat with water, the disciples are filled with fear.  They're sinking, and they’re afraid they might drown!  In terror, they turn to Jesus, who is calmly asleep in the stern of the boat.  The disciples woke Jesus with words we may use to address God when things get scary:    "Don't you care?"
            Mark tells us that Jesus had been sleeping through the storm.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the ability to sleep peacefully is a sign of perfect trust in God's providential care.  So when Jesus was sleeping through the storm it didn't mean that he didn't care about his disciples.  It showed that he had perfect trust in God to keep them all safe.

            Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace!  Be still!"
            The words Jesus addressed to the wind and the waves are exactly the same words he used in the exorcism of the demon-possessed man in the first chapter of Mark.   It's a forceful rebuke, as he commands the forces of the storm, saying, “Be still.  Be calm!"
            And the wind ceased--   just like that.  There was a dead calm.
            Then Jesus said to them, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"
            When you read through a gospel from beginning to end, you get a much better feel for what the evangelist means when he uses particular words and symbols that you miss if you read little parts of the gospel in isolation.  For Mark, faith isn't about holding correct, orthodox beliefs or living an upstanding moral life.  Faith is trust.  Fearfulness is the lack of faith.
            Mark tells us that disciples are sometimes called to do things that are risky or scary to us-- things that require that we trust in the power of God to sustain us, in spite of our fears.
            Mark wrote his gospel in a time of great persecution, under the emperor Nero.  Peter and Paul had in all likelihood been put to death.  The infant church was in danger of being wiped out.  So Mark included stories in his gospel that would encourage the people in the church.
            I think we all live our lives somewhere between fear and faith. A certain amount of fear can actually be healthy, when it protects us by motivating us to avoid unnecessary danger.  But too much fear can be unhealthy.  It can be crippling.
            Bruce Larson was once interviewing Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier about his counseling methods.  He asked, "How do you help your patients get rid of their fears?"
            "Oh, I don't,” was Tournier's immediate answer.  "That which does not frighten does not have meaning.   All the best things in life have an element of fear in them."
            The disciples may have been afraid to cross the sea at night.  They must have felt fearful about going to the gentile side of the Galilee and reaching out to people they'd always regarded as unclean and   unacceptable.   Yet Jesus commanded them to get in the boat and go. 
            We're all caught somewhere between our desire for safety and security and our need to move to new and fearful areas.       It's good to be sensible and responsible...  to provide for our loved ones...  and to avoid certain unnecessary risks.  It’s good for a congregation to use best practices to be faithful stewards of the church’s resources. 
            But there's a difference between having a healthy degree of fear-- and being fear-full.  A certain amount of fear and struggle can actually contribute to our spiritual development.  But when fear takes charge of our lives, it can prevent us from being all that God intends for us to be.
            We might like to think that if we follow Jesus, he'll keep us out of the storm.   But, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we're not promised a safe, successful, long, or trouble-free life.  He never promised it would be easy.
            Congregations have a tendency to want to stay out of the storm.  It's scary to set out into less familiar territory...  to reach out to people who aren't just like us…. or to do some things in new ways.  It would feel safer to stay close to home…or to wait for a weather forecast that guarantees us that there won't be a storm.  
I'm convinced that the storms and the struggles of life-- both on a personal level and as a church-- are part of how Christ teaches us to trust in God's love and power to save us.     If we're going to travel with Jesus, we have to weather some storms. 
            The good news is that when we begin to trust in God's love and saving power we can overcome some of our fears.  We can begin to have faith we can weather the storms of life-- because Christ is with us. 

            We live in a tumultuous time—a time of great change and polarization and anxiety— in the world and in the church. 
And yet--- I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time.  I believe that this is a time of new reformation-- re-formation--and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us.   I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world. 
So… on this Reformation Sunday, what do we hear the Spirit saying to us?
            In her blog a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass wrote of the Protestant Reformation movement: “It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as “Reformists.”  Rather, the moniker that stuck was “Protestant.”  Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.
            These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.   The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.” 
The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church-- but that they were also creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  They weren’t content with the status quo.   They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.           
Long ago God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing.   Now it springs forth.  Don’t you perceive it?”[1]
I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time.  I believe that this is a time of new reformation-- re-formation--and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us.   I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
So, on this Reformation Sunday, we can be thankful for the Reformation of the 16th century.   As we look around at the world we live in and see things that are not right, we can be glad that we are freed for a great adventure of faith.”
In the words of our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith,  “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”[2]    
            In this ship we call the Christian life, we will go through some storms.  But we don't need to be afraid, because we know that Jesus is with us.  
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church 
Dearborn, Michigan
October 30, 2016

[1] Isaiah 43:9

[2] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"The Power of Persistence." A sermon on Luke 8:1-8 and Isaiah 58, on Bread for the World Sunday. (With some reflections on the campaign season)

"The Power of Persistence"

Luke 18:1-8; Isaiah 58

Our faith tells us that God is merciful, loving, and powerful.  But the injustice and suffering we see all around us challenge that conviction. 
As Matthew Skinner suggests, “The system is rigged.  It always has been.”[1]  And so, as Skinner points out, people of faith have been complainers. 
“Justice never prevails,” the prophet Habakkuk complained to God.  Job lamented why God remained silent and apparently indifferent while he suffered:  “I call aloud, but there is no justice.”  [Habakkuk 1:4]
            Describing the abuses perpetrated by those who wield power, the prophet Micah said, “Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire. Thus they pervert justice.”  [Micah 7:3]
            People of faith complain—not because we’re whiney or grumpy.  When we complain about injustice, we’re insisting on a different world.  We remember that God created the world and called it good…and intends goodness.  We ache to see God’s intentions for human flourishing become realities.   So we keep doing what we can to help our hopes become a reality.
            In the gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus tells a parable about a widow who refuses to put up with an unjust system.  Luke says the  parable is about the disciples’ need to pray always and not to lose heart. 
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”
For a while this unjust judge refused, but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
This widow uses the resources she has:  her voice and her persistence.  In time, her continuing advocacy for justice eventually gets results.   
Jesus said, “Will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who pray day and night?” 
In her society, the widow in the parable would have been marginalized and powerless, but she did what she could:  she prayed always, persistently.  Rather than wishing passively for things to be better, she advocates actively for justice, in her commitment to do what she can to work for a better world.
            Jesus tells about the persistent actions of this widow to show us what Christians are called to do.  Our Christian faith invites us to channel our frustrations with the brokenness of our society into prayer, and then into prayerful action.  Our faith calls us into advocacy that demands a response from God and from our society.  As people of faith, as individuals and communities, we are called to advocate for justice from those who have the power to grant it.  This advocacy uses whatever tools are available.  Whatever it takes to get the system to change, even if sometimes it’s only a little.
            Right now we’re in the midst of the ugliest political campaign I can remember.  I know many of us are very troubled by the lack of civility and how the mud-slinging has distracted us from the kind of serious discussion of important issues of vital importance to our nation.  It’s hard not to feel hopeless at times about the polarization in our nation.   
            Elections are pivotal moments, with outcomes that will last into the future, and there’s a lot of anxiety around this.  All the drama and debate and rhetoric could distract us from our basic calling as followers of Jesus.   
            In the midst of all this, we need to remember that there is no perfect candidate.  No one person can solve all the problems.  So it’s good news that we aren’t electing a Messiah—because we already have our Messiah: Jesus Christ, whom alone we worship and follow.
            All of the candidates have shown us who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.  So we need to pray for discernment, that we may use our votes to support the candidate who is best equipped to lead our nation through this time of great change and challenge.  
            No matter who wins the election on November 8, we know that we are beloved children of God.  We know that God is good, all the time.  We know that God continues to call us to embody God’s love in the world, and to work for justice and peace, to be repairers of the breach, the restorers of our communities and our nation.  We are called to work to promote the well-being of our neighbors and especially those who are denied justice.  This is true now, and it will be true on November 9 and the days that follow.
            Now and every day we are called to be a servant church.  When we are most faithfully being the servant church, we’re feeding the hungry, calling on the sick and visiting the home-bound.   We’re serving those in the community who are needy and hurting, through friendship and practical kinds of help.  We’re standing with those who are marginalized, and with victims of  violence and assault.   When we’re being the servant church, we share in Christ’s ministry in the world by generously supporting the mission of the church with our tithes and offerings.
            And—something I’ve been thinking a lot about the past few weeks—we’re being a servant church when we work to build bridges of understanding, when we work to bring about reconciliation.  I hope we’ll be praying about this in the days leading up to the election and following.  This congregation has committed itself to peacemaking.  So how can we build bridges that cross partisan divisions and work toward healing?  
            Now and every day, we are called to care for those in need.  Today has been designated as Bread for the World Sunday.   Yesterday was World Food Day. 
            We who have plenty to eat are reminded that many people don’t, and that many of those who are hungry or food insecure are children. 
            Bread for the World reminds us that nearly 16 million children in the United States, in one of the richest countries in the world — that’s almost one in five — live in households that struggle to put food on the table. Many of these children have parents who have jobs and work hard, but whose wages aren’t high enough to cover the high costs of rent, transportation, and utilities — and daily meals.
            So our federal government’s feeding programs serve as a lifeline for vulnerable children and families. Because children are hit especially hard by the effects of hunger and malnutrition,  nutrition programs aimed at children are particularly important. 
            A healthy start in life — even before a child is born — pays off for years, in terms of intellectual development --not only for individual children and families, but for communities and our nation as a whole.
            Only one out of every 20 grocery bags that feed people who are hungry come from church food pantries and other private charities.   Federal nutrition programs, from school meals to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), provide the rest.   Our government’s child nutrition programs serve millions of children each year. 
Locally, and in the short term, we are helping to alleviate hunger when we give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program through our Two Cents a Meal offering… when we support Church World Service…when we support the mission of the Open Door or Focus Hope or volunteer at Gleaners.
            But we also need to work on the systemic causes of hunger.   For a lot of us,  hunger and poverty seem overwhelming.  But we don’t have to do it alone. 
            Bread for the World is a faith-based education and advocacy organization that I’ve belonged to for some years.  The reason I personally support Bread for the World is because they have a remarkable record of helping win passage of bipartisan legislation that addresses hunger.   As a result of this advocacy, children in the United States receive vital nutrition.   Emergency food reaches refugees from famine and conflict in Africa.  Agricultural development is enabling hungry people in various parts of the world to grow enough food to feed their families.
            If you want to help Bread for the World with this important, persistent advocacy work, you are invited to give them a donation.  Or you could commit yourself to sending letters to your elected representatives in Congress.  I’ll post a link on the church Facebook page and send one in an email to help you do this advocacy work if you feel led to do so.
            It took me between five and ten minutes to personalize the form letter at the website, which was then automatically sent to my congressional representatives.  It’s a small thing, but it’s important.  It’s a way to act prayerfully and faithfully.
            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."
            We are called to serve—to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
When we respond to Christ’s call and work together, we can help to change the conditions and the policies that allow hunger to persist. 
            We are called to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house… to care for basic needs of those who are marginalized.
            Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises us that we will not have to do this alone.  When we call, the LORD will answer.  When we cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”[2]
            If we remove the yoke, the speaking of evil, if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
Then our light shall rise in the darkness.
            This is a blessed promise and vision:  

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places…
you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… 
you shall be called the repairer of the breach..
the restorer of streets to live in.
So be it!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 16, 2016

Here's a link to Bread for the World.  You are invited to contribute to their  Offering of Letters to advocate with Congressional representatives to end hunger, with an emphasis on women and young children.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Increase Our Faith". A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday


"Increase Our Faith"

Lamentations 1 and 3; Luke 17:5-6

In the American church, we tend to avoid lament.  But I agree with the Rev. Jill Duffield when she says, “There are times in our lives when lament is the only response possible.[1]  Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against injustices.
            In the wake of 100 more children dying in Aleppo, Syria… in the week when 6-year-old Jacob Hall died following the shooting at his school by a teen-aged gunman… as we continue to process images from Charlotte and Tulsa… Syria and Yemen.  We struggle to deal with racial injustice and with the violence in our society. 
This very day—and every day-- in our nation, families of murder victims are weeping amidst the ruins of their lives. Wives who are battered by their husbands live in fear for their lives if they leave, and children are abused by their parents.  In our own nation and around the world, people are hungry or food insecure.  This very day, at various places in the world, there are people who are the innocent victims of warfare and oppression.  The list could go on.

            These are all reasons for lament.  “Lament,” said South African theologian Denise Ackermann, “is the sound suffering makes when it recovers its voice.”
            Devastation can silence us.  You see a lonely city that once was full of people and vitality, and what do you say?  The city “weeps bitterly in the night.” 
The book of Lamentations was written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  Many people were killed in the 18-month siege of the city, and the lives of survivors were broken—ruined.  Lamentations gives voice to the suffering. 
In the first chapter of Lamentations, the city of Jerusalem is personified as a woman…a mother mourning the loss of her children and her honor.  “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become…. She weeps bitterly in the night… she has no one to comfort her.”
The author of Lamentations never heard of Charlotte or Washington or Tulsa or Detroit or Aleppo, but he knew what devastation looks like… and he knew that in the face of devastation, lament is the sound suffering makes when it recovers its voice. 
            We live in a broken, hurting world.  How are people of faith to respond?      When we wonder if there any words that can adequately address the pain in our world, we can look to the scriptures, especially in the prayers of lament.
            In the laments in scripture, we hear the voice of a community where loneliness, isolation, and desperation are the reality of everyday life.  I imagine that anyone who hears this can make some connection with their own suffering.  The painful realities of  loss, death, depression, disease, job loss, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty and oppression   join us together across time and space.  We can understand these laments because of our own grief.
            Laments, like those in Lamentations, can be acts of faith and courage, which are tacit acknowledgments of our covenant with God and others.[2]  
            A cry in the darkness is an act of faith because it presupposes that someone is listening.   Infants cry out because at some level they expect and trust that someone will hear and respond to them.     
            During the Second World War, in England, people noted that orphans who were placed in over-crowded wards with few caregivers grew silent within two weeks.  The silence spoke of their growing sense of hopelessness and the futility in crying out.  This silence represented their belief and experience that no one would hear and respond to their cries.  They lost the courage to act, to speak. 
            So our laments represent a risk and a hope that a trusted person will hear us and reply.  It is a covenant of care that binds both the one who laments and the one who listens.[3]
One of the saddest things about the writings from the book of Lamentations is the overwhelming sense of being alone.   How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!... She has no one to comfort her.”
Many people around the world feel that way every day.  Some folk are feeling alone because of personal tragedies:  death, a broken relationship, loss of a job, addiction, illness.  Some, like those we heard in Lamentations, feel alone because of the political or economic situations.  They may be poor beyond belief, or living under occupation, or refugees.  They may be people who are convinced that, in our society, their lives don’t matter.
During times of lament, we need each other.  In the community of one another, in communion with one another, we find the strength we need to move beyond the paralysis of aloneness   and into the power to serve God with all we are and have. 
The people of Judah experienced terrible exile and loneliness.  They got through it by coming together on a regular basis to weep together, and to remind each other that God had been faithful and loving in the past    and would be in the future.  The community reminded people that they were not alone.  They had each other, and they had God.  In community, they were able to get back to singing songs of joy and celebration, because they had God and each other.
“This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.  God’s mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness!”[4]
We are called to love one another, to embody God’s love. We need to do it not just here where we live, but with our prayers, our financial help, sometimes our physical presence, for our brothers and sisters around the world.
Yet too often it feels like we’re just not up to living out our call.  So we can relate to what we heard in today’s gospel lesson.  The disciples come to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!”  Jesus, give us the faith to do this better.  We need you to help us out here, so we can embody this great love to which you call us....
            In the original Greek, Jesus’ response is something like: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed [which you do have], you could say to this mulberry tree..."[3]  In other words, Jesus is not quite chastising the disciples for their lack of faith, but saying that even a tiny bit of authentic faith which they already have is more powerful than they can possibly imagine. 
            Or as Fred Craddock puts it:  "Even the small faith they already have cancels out words such as 'impossible' (a tree being uprooted) and 'absurd' (planting a tree in the sea) and puts them in touch with the power of God."[4]  They do not need to have their faith increased.  They need, rather, to trust in the power of the faith they already have.
            On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  We remember that God is with us, and that God is faithful.   
            As we come to the Lord's Table today, we remember Christ's victory over death and evil and sin in the Resurrection--   the source of our strength and hope and new life…  and courage.
            We celebrate the good news that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between people...  and that Christ is our peace.[5]  
             Today, around our nation, around the earth, Christians come together around the Lord's Table--  the one place where we are one, no matter what our race, or language, or nationality or theology or politics.
            As we come to celebrate this sacred feast with our brothers and sisters in the faith, let us pray that we may be filled with Christ's passionate dislike of whatever keeps us from his peace.  As we eat the bread and drink from the cup, may we do so in thankfulness for the unity we find in Christ...  and in willingness to go out to be God's peacemakers in the world.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 2, 2016


[2]Ryan Lamothe and Cynthia Geisen in Lectionary Homiletics, October 3, 2004, p. 11.
[3] Ibid., p. 11.
[4] Luke 3:21-23
[5]Ephesians 2:14-