Saturday, March 25, 2017

"When Did We See You?" A Sermon preached for the March 25 meeting of Presbytery of Detroit on Matthew 25.

"When Did We See you?"

Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:34-46

The Presbytery of Detroit has a new theme this year:  “The promotion of social righteousness.”[1] This is not a new thing.  In the past, Presbyterians and other Christians have promoted social righteousness in a variety of ways:  through involvement in the underground railroad and working for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage.  Christians have fought for basic rights for workers, to eradicate poverty, and for civil rights. They did so because they believed that those who follow Jesus should act to advance the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.   This belief was grounded in their faith.

            In the early centuries of this nation’s history, slavery was a part of the American way of life, seen as a necessary part of agriculture and of the economy in the southern and northern parts of the country.  Legally, slaves were considered property and a major part of slave owners’ wealth. 
            The United States Constitution explicitly required that fugitives “from service or labor” must be delivered back to their owner.  By 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act empowered slave owners or hired slave catchers to hunt down fugitive slaves and return them to their owners.  This was the social and legal context.

            In his book, Bound for Canaan,[2] Fergus Bordewich tells how ordinary people, black and white, slave and free, joined together to do what they believed was right in a movement of civil disobedience that challenged prevailing social mores and local and federal law.  This network of clandestine operators eventually became known as the Underground Railroad.
            As Bordewich writes, “Most members of the underground uncompromisingly regarded their work as answering only to a law higher and more sacred than those enacted by mere men….”
            Most of us know about Harriet Tubman. But there were many others who were part of the underground movement that carried as many as 100,000 fugitives to the far northern states and Canada. Bordewich estimates that the network of men and women who harbored or conducted fugitive slaves, plus those who assisted with food, clothing, and legal assistance, numbered more than 10,000. 
            One of the most celebrated stops in Underground Railroad history was Ripley, Ohio.  Hundreds of local people were involved in the resistance work, before the Rev. John Rankin and his family moved to Ripley in 1822. 
            As it evolved, the Underground network in the Ripley area had three components. There were Presbyterian ministers,  and there was the Chillicothe Presbytery that helped to connect the web of relationships that linked Ripley to other towns in southern Ohio.[3] 
            The second component included hundreds of activist abolitionists.
            The third component was a sizable population of free blacks.
            Rev. Rankin and his family built a house on top of Liberty Hill. They kept a lantern burning through the night as a beacon that could be seen from across the river, signaling slaves when it was safe to cross the river and guiding them as they made their crossing to the north side.

            The Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves, even if they were in a free state like Ohio.  When abolitionists sheltered runaway slaves, there was always the possibility that Federal marshals, hired slave-catchers, or local law enforcement officers could demand to search your property, and you could be arrested if they found that you were hiding fugitives. In spite of this, the people of the Ripley area kept many hundreds of fugitives safe until they could safely be moved on to the next station.

            Could it be any more clear that social righteousness is an essential part of our faith and how we show our love for God and neighbor?  The prophets proclaim very clearly how people of faith are to live, with justice and mercy and humility.”[4] 
            The Torah teaches that we are to love those who are foreigners and sojourners.[5]
            As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus, who taught that the most important commandment is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  How we treat “the stranger” or “the other” is how we treat Jesus.

            So how are we called to live?  Is it right or moral or Christian to look the other way, to avoid seeing those who are hungry or oppressed or in danger? 
            Friends, we need to be praying about this.  We need to be studying the scriptures and our history. We need to remember how our nation operated out of fear when we turned away many Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust-- many of whom later perished in concentration camps. We need to be having holy conversations with one another about who we’re called to be… and what it means to have our ultimate citizenship in heaven.[6]  
            For each new time and context, we who follow Jesus need to discern prayerfully how we are called to live. Our faith challenges us to see the face of Christ in those who are “the least”…  those who need mercy and hospitality… those we might be tempted to fear because they are “strangers” to us.   
            We are tempted to live in fear.  If we choose the way of fear, there are those who will try to convince us that we need a bigger and stronger military, that we need to wage war to make peace, that we need more walls and prisons and guns to keep ourselves safe, that we need to keep people who are different out of our country.
            But our faith teaches us that “there is no fear in love... that perfect love drives out fear.”[7]

            Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus teaching that the nations will be judged by how we treat those who are in need and those who are strangers. Those on the king’s right asked, “Lord, when was it that we saw you in need or a stranger and took care of you?” Those on the king’s left asked, Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me….Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me….’”[8]

             The good news is that we are changed through our relationship with Jesus Christ, as he teaches us to see through eyes of love. We look around and see the face of Christ in those who are oppressed or strangers or in need, and that changes how we live.
            May we be found faithful as we live further into this blessed way of love and justice and mercy! So be it!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
Preached for the meeting of Presbytery of Detroit
March 25, 2017

[1] This is one of “The Great Ends of the Church,” in our Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order.

[2] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan:The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.

[4] Micah 6:8

[5] Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 10:19

[6] Philippians 3:20

[7] 1 John 4:18

[8] Matthew 25:32-45

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Living Water, Living Faith: A Samaritan Woman Tells Her Story." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Living Water, Living Faith"

John 4:4-42

            I used to go to the well in the early morning or at the end of the day, with the other women of the village.  The sun is not so bright then, and the air is cooler. 
            The women and girls visit with one another as they draw water and fill their vessels to take water back to their homes.  There’s a kind of sisterhood that’s a natural part of the scene at the well. Long ago, I used to be part of that sisterhood. 
            But now I am shunned.  When I approach the well, the women stop talking.  They look at me, disapproving…rejecting.  When I turn to leave, they snicker.  How did my life end up like this? 
            So now I go to the well at midday.   I have become invisible.  No one talks to me.  You’d think they would be more sympathetic.  It could be any of them who lost their husband, their place in society, their livelihood, and their security.  Their husbands could die, and if they don’t have a son, they could and end up being passed down from one brother to another in a Levirate marriage.  Or their husbands could divorce them.  As women, we don’t have a lot of control over our lives in these situations. 
            I’ve wondered if perhaps my presence reminds them of how fragile their situations are…how vulnerable they are.    

            Several days ago, as I approached the well, I noticed a solitary man sitting there, as if he were waiting for someone.  I was immediately suspicious. This man was Jewish.  But it was very unusual to see a Jew in Samaria.
            You might wonder how I knew he was a Jew.  This is something that we Samaritans notice.  We are taught at a very young age not to have any relations with the Jews.  Jews and Samaritans have hated and mistrusted each other for centuries.  Most Jews try to avoid our people--they see us as outsiders and heretics.  They make wide detours around Samaria when traveling between Galilee and Judea so that they won’t be contaminated by our mixed blood. 
            Jews and Samaritans share the same scriptures--the Torah.  But our holy place is near here, on Mount Gerazim, and the Jews insist the true center of worship is Jerusalem.  Some time ago, Jewish troops destroyed our holy shrine on Mount Gerazim. 
            The Jews are afraid of being ritually contaminated by any contact with Samaritans. 
            And yet this Jewish man talked to me, saying, “Would you give me a drink of water?”

            I wondered:  How can this be?  This Jewish man couldn’t be talking to me-- a Samaritan!  A woman.  An observant Jew certainly wouldn’t be talking with a woman who wasn’t a relative.  He certainly would talk to a nobody like me.  I was so startled by his request that I said, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"
            I didn’t know what to think.  The man disregarded my question, as it was of no concern to him.  He didn’t seem to care that I was a Samaritan.  He looked at me-- he saw me.

            I don’t know when I’ve talked so much.  I’ve been so isolated and lonely.  I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe my nervousness loosened my tongue.  I certainly didn’t expect to have a long conversation with this man.  But he listened to my question.  He took me seriously.  And he responded:
            "If you knew the gift of God, you could have asked, and he would have given living water."
            Well, I didn’t understand what he was saying.  I didn’t know what he meant by “living water.” But I wanted to keep talking with him.  There was just something about him.  So, I asked:
"Who do you think you are?   You don't even have a bucket!

            The Jewish man said to me, "Everyone who drinks of this water from the well will thirst again.  But those who drink of the water I give-- which is living water-- will never be thirsty.  The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up eternal life."
            I pondered this puzzling comment and wondered about this "living water".    What could he mean?  Something about that phrase spoke to me and reminded me of the thirst I was experiencing in her soul and spirit.  Would this mean that I wouldn’t have to come to the well again? 
            I hate making the lonely, shameful trips to the well every day.  To never be thirsty again-- that sounded wonderful to me!  I pleaded for him to give me this living water:  "Sir, give me this water that I may never be thirsty."
            "All right,” he said.  “Go call your husband."
            There it was.  I was sure then he would treat me like the rest of the town does.  Once he found out I have no husband, I’d be back where I started.  What was I supposed to say to him-- that I had been in five marriages and now was with a man who would take care of me but wouldn’t marry me?  I felt trapped…shamed.  But I told the man the truth: “I have no husband.”
            "That's right,” he said.  “You have no husband.  You've had five husbands, and the one you're with now is not your husband.  You told the truth when you said you have no husband."
            Somehow, when the man said it, I didn’t hear the judgment and scorn that has been my life these past years.  It sounded more like he was naming my pain, the way our society has passed me from man to man until I no longer have even the dignity of marriage. 
            I wonder:  How does he know this about my life?  “You’re some kind of PROPHET-- aren’t you?”

            I don’t know what got into me.  We kept talking.  He told me the most extraordinary thing.  He knew that Samaritans worshipped God at Mount Gerazim, while the Jews worshipped God in Jerusalem.  That is just one of the ways that our two peoples disagree.  But Jesus told me that none of that mattered anymore.   What was important was to worship God in an attitude of spirit and truth.  God is not confined to one place.
            Well, if that were to happen-- we could all worship God in a way that doesn’t divide us into enemies.
            I could begin to imagine a God who valued all people, regardless of where they worshipped or which tribe they were from, or whether their neighbors thought they were worthless.  At least I longed for such a God.  I longed for a God who would give me water when I was thirsty.  I long for a God who loves everybody--even nobodies like me.
            Eventually I said, “Well, such deep subjects.  When the Messiah gets here, he’ll explain all this deep stuff to us.  When Messiah comes, far in a future time.  But not here.  Not now.”
            But the man at the well said: “The hour is coming and is now here.  I am the Messiah--the Christ.  The Anointed One.”

            Then I knew:  this man was offering me the very water that I needed to sustain me.  Living water that gives life!   I had to tell someone-- everyone! 
            I left my jug by the well and ran into town.  I ran back into town and told people, “Come and see!  There is a man at the well who has told me everything I have done!  He can’t he be the Messiah--can he?”
            The people all ran to the well. They listened to me and believed me! They were even talking to me! 
            The people who’d been traveling with the man had come back to the well with some food they’d bought and they tried to get him to eat something.  But he said to them, “I have food to eat that that you don’t know about.  My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work.” 
            We didn’t understand what he was talking about, especially when he talked about fields and sowing and harvesting.
            Many of the people from our city believed in the man.  They said it was because of what I’d said: “He told me everything I have ever done.”
            They invited him and his friends to spend some time with us.  And they did.  They stayed for two days.
            I found out that his name was Jesus.  He treated me as a fellow human being that deserved the grace of God simply because I was living on this earth.
            I came to believe that my life has value, and so did my neighbors.  They began to treat me with respect and made me feel like I was one of them.
            They came to hear Jesus because of my testimony.  But then they heard the good news for themselves-- the good news of God’s love and eternal life for us all.  We have life that is nourished with living water.
            Thanks be to God!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 19, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

"How Can These Things Be?" A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 3:1-17.

"How Can These Things Be?"

"John 3:1-17

            When we meet Nicodemus, he has come to Jesus at night. We see him stepping out of the darkness.  He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus who is one of the members of Jerusalem’s ruling religious body, the Sanhedrin. He’s a Pharisee, a religious leader who knows God’s law.  This unconventional new preacher is a peasant from Galilee, and he’s just been on a rant in the Temple with a whip of cords, turning over the money changers tables.  So he doesn’t want to risk having anyone seeing him talking to him.  But he’s intrigued.  He recognizes that there’s something different about this rabbi, and he wants to know more.  He doesn’t know what to ask.  But Jesus seemed to see through him and understand his question, even though he hadn’t asked.
Jesus answers, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above-- or born again.”  The word Jesus uses can mean both those things.
I love how my friend Marjorie puts what Jesus is saying: “You’ve got to be reborn.  Born anew.  Born from above.  Born of the Spirit.  You’ve got to become innocent again, open, wide-eyed, new…You’ve got to let go of your own capabilities and competence, your achievements and reputation.  You’ve got to let go of all the things that make you so self-sufficient and separate you from the awe and wonder and breath of God.  You’ve got to start all over with the first steps….
“Until you admit that you don’t really know the steps, you can’t learn how to dance. Until you surrender into God’s arms and let God take the lead, your own arrogant self-reliance will keep you from experiencing all the joy of the dance which you so dearly yearn to join.”[1]
Nicodemus is a leader in the religious community.  There’s a lot at stake here.  He must be thinking of what it would take for him to give up everything he knows and has, everything he’s accomplished and worked for, his control over his life, his certainties.  Maybe he’s thinking how true it sounds that the world he’s bet his life on is the world of human structures and power and norms and rewards. He’s staked his life on these things.  And yet, he hears what Jesus is saying about a very different world, where the Holy Spirit can blow in a new creation that he can’t control. 
“How could this be?” he asks. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
Up until now, Nicodemus has defined faith as keeping the law.  He’s an expert at it.  You live up to God’s expectations by living a good pure, moral life.  And he doesn’t see the new reality in front of his eyes.
“Are you a teacher and you cannot understand?” Jesus asks him.
Jesus nudges Nicodemus to leave his comfort zone.  Nicodemus hears Jesus’ word of grace and new life and invitation.  But at the end of the conversation, he goes back into the night.  He doesn’t respond immediately to Jesus’ invitation to be born anew.  He resists. 
Humanly speaking, we can understand why.  We need to leave what we know to see the new thing. Our human temptation is to try to make everything fit neatly into the nice, manageable boxes of how we’ve always understood the world.  We may long for a God we can control…a God that fits into our own comfortable image, rather than the other way around.  
To be born anew, we need to consider how life might be different. Can we trust God enough to leave what we know and go to a place God promises to show us?

Nicodemus must have continued to ponder what Jesus said.  He must have been changed by what he heard.  Later in the Gospel of John, we discover that Nicodemus can’t forget that night-time encounter.  This is the persistence of God’s grace.

When we meet him next, Nicodemus is seated in the Temple with the religious leaders.  They’re waiting for the Temple police who have been sent to the courtyard to arrest Jesus. When those guards return empty-handed, the authorities are not pleased.  In fact, they are more than that-- they are dismayed to hear the police say: "Never has anyone spoken like this."[2]

In the midst of the condemnation that follows, Nicodemus dares to speak up.  Grace is working in him as he says: "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing-- does it?"
Nicodemus is still clinging to the one thing that has always been certain in his life-- the Law.
The Pharisees draw on their ultimate prejudice against Jesus when they say: "Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee." And so, Nicodemus seems to once again drop back into the darkness.
But God’s grace goes on working.
We will never know how Nicodemus continues to wrestle with it, how many times he faces the fact that admitting Jesus into his life will cause him to leave behind much that he holds dear:  position, power, human respect.
We encounter Nicodemus again near the end of John’s gospel. Jesus has died on the cross.  As night falls quickly, two new disciples step forward. One is Joseph of Arimathea, boldly asking Pilate for the body of Jesus and offering his own tomb for the burial.  
And joining him in the task of ministering to the one who died as a common criminal is Nicodemus.  He comes bringing the spices to anoint the body.[3]  He comes to claim the dead body of the teacher he was unable to publicly acknowledge in life.  He comes to perform an action that belongs to the family of the deceased.

And so, in every way, Nicodemus has left his past life-- and has chosen a new one. Grace has claimed him.  He buries the Teacher whose words haunted him until he could accept them.  Something new and wonderful is being born in the soul of Nicodemus.
In his story, we indeed see amazing grace working its transforming action.
God’s love and patience are constantly active in our world.   God works patiently in our lives--prodding, suggesting, challenging, inviting, and encouraging us.  God’s Spirit blows freely and firmly, shaping us and sending us and empowering us. 
God loves the world so much, that God comes personally to each one of us-- not to condemn or judge us, but to love and save us.  God labors constantly to give us new birth-- to push us into abundant life, if we are willing to trust God enough to know God in a new live in a new way.
            The GOOD NEWS is that even in our darkness, Jesus is here, and his promise is sure.
            Thanks be to God!

[1] Marjorie Wilhelmi, “Night Light.” A sermon on John 3:1-16, from a digital file she shared with our colleague group.  SN405.

[2] John 7

[3] John 19

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"A Crisis of Identity": A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in Lent

"A Crisis of Identity"

Matthew 4:1-11

         It’s no accident that Jesus is out in the wilderness. After he was baptized in the muddy waters of the Jordan, he was led out into the wilderness to be tempted—or tested.  (The Greek word in the original text can mean either.) 
            Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation… a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy.  Moses fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai as he received the words of God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Elijah fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness before he received a new commission from God.  The people of Israel wandered around in the wilderness for forty years after they were liberated from slavery in Egypt-- until they could learn how to be free people.  
            When he was baptized, Jesus heard a voice from heaven proclaim, “You are my son...  my beloved.  In you I am well pleased."  Then the Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the middle of nowhere to decide what kind of son he's going to be. 
            Can you imagine?  The wilderness is hot and barren.  The hills are dust heaps.  The rocks are jagged.  The wind howls at night. It's been days...   weeks-- since he's eaten.  The gospel tells us that "he was famished."
            From somewhere comes a voice:  "If you are God's Son, then command this stone, so that it becomes bread." 
            The devil is tempting Jesus, suggesting that the reality of his identity is the question: “If you are the Son of God…” Are you really? Can you prove it?  But Jesus’ responses show him pondering an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?
            "If you are God's Son, then command this stone, so that it becomes bread.  If you are God's Son.”
            Could Jesus turn a rounded stone into a loaf of bread?   Who could it hurt?   If he is God's child-- then why shouldn't he have what he wants?  The temptation is to turn away from the way of sacrifice.
            Every day we’re besieged by advertisements and other messages that seek to touch us in our sense of insecurity and inadequacy, to undermine our God-given gift of identity with the promise that if we buy this car or use that deodorant or make our teeth brighter we will be acceptable. The message of the consumer-consumption culture is simple: you are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. It’s a lie-- a demonic attempt at a kind of identity theft.
            Each day, we’re tempted to be less than God created us to be.  We’re tempted to choose what is easiest… or comfortable-- without thinking about how much more is possible.  We’re tempted to reject our God-given identity…  and God’s dream for us. 
            Every time we choose what seems the easiest path-- we become less.  Jesus understood the temptation of the easy way.    He was tempted to take the easy...  comfortable way too.  
            "One cannot live by bread alone.  Obedience is more important than comfort.

            The adversary tries again.   This time it's from the highest point on the temple roof:   "If you are God's son, throw yourself down.  You know what the Bible says, “God will protect you."
            As Shakespeare pointed out, “There is no error so grave but that some sober brow will not bless it with a proper text."    Even Satan quotes scripture.
            First century Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the temple roof.  Jesus could be the Messiah the people wanted-- if he would do what they expected.  
            Today, we may be tempted to follow the rules and keep up a Christian look like good religious folk, in a conventional sense of righteousness-- even as we lower our expectations of what we can be for God.  If we take that approach, we slowly but surely choose comfort over concern...   success over sacrifice...  respectability over radical, self-giving love.
            In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, quoting from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”[1]
            The tempter’s voice comes back with promises of palaces and kingdoms:   "Compromise and it's all yours."  Jesus could have chosen success… and prominence.
            But Jesus came to proclaim and to bring the reign of God. By choosing not privilege or power but rather obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross.

It might be easier for us if the Evil One appeared in a red suit with a pitchfork, so he's easy to identify.  But often the tempter appears as a sensible way to meet our needs-- or at least our selfish desires.  We might hear the devil's nagging voice in our desire for success and self-sufficiency.  Or it might nag us with the fear that there isn’t enough-- worries that we need to hoard for ourselves, because there isn’t enough for everyone to have of what we need.  The temptation might be a nagging fear of how dangerous the world is and how we need to be afraid. 
            Jesus was continually tempted to make it easier for himself.  Jesus was never freed from temptation, and we won’t be either. 

            What’s at stake here is a question of identity.  Who is Jesus?  Who are we?  The most important thing about you-- is who you are.
            One of the saddest conditions a person can face in life is amnesia-- not remembering who you are.  It’s frightening when a person doesn’t understand what life is about…  when life has no meaning or purpose. 
            That’s what made Willy Lohman such a pathetic character in Arthur Miller’s play, "Death of a Salesman.After Willie committed suicide, his son Biff says that the heart of his father’s problems was that he didn’t know who he was.

            Knowing who you are   and whose you are is essential to our wholeness as God’s child, and to your awareness of what God wants you to do with your life.   Satan’s primary objective isn’t getting you to do something wrong-- but getting you to forget who you are.
            The ways Satan tries to convince us that we don’t deserve God’s love are subtle and clever.  And these temptations-- like the temptations of Christ-- are far more treacherous than an impulse to disobey one of the commandments. 

            Think about this tricky question: “If you are a child of God, then why don’t you feel more like one?   This can be deadly, because sometimes we don’t feel much like a beloved member of God’s family.  The temptation is to believe that-- if you’re not feeling like a child of God-- then maybe you aren’t.
Or this temptation: “If you are a child of God, why don’t you act more like one? 

            The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus in the desert, there were no witnesses.  So, Jesus must have told the disciples in the hope that they would re-tell the story and remember.   
            Whenever Martin Luther was confronted with temptation, he would remind himself:  "I have been baptized."  He remembered whose beloved child he was.   We need to remember whose we are.
Beginning with our baptism, God claims us as God’s beloved child and calls us to carry on Christ’s saving work in the world.
            When we're tempted to forget who we are, we're called to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus went back to the scriptures that he learned as a child… the stories he’d heard at home and in the synagogue.  He remembered the things God had done for him.  He recalled the truths God had spoken. 
That’s what we’re called to do.  We're called to remember the stories of what God has done and the truths God speaks to us.  As a community of faith, we need to hang out together and remember together. 
We need to remind one another that we are beloved children of God.  Because that’s who we are, we have value and worth and purpose.  We need to keep reminding one another that we are enough and that there is enough to go around… and that we don’t need to live in fear.
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 5, 2017

[1] Deuteronomy 6:13

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Meditation on Ash Wednesday, from Littlefield Presbyterian Church

“Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.  
 Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.“

            Recently I got a Facebook message from someone who grew up Catholic, asking if we observe Ash Wednesday and have ashes.  That’s a good question.
            In much of the Protestant church, Ash Wednesday wasn’t really observed until the last thirty years or so.   For a lot of congregations, the imposition of ashes was a new thing.  But I think the practice has been growing, as people have recognized that it’s a gift to be reminded of our mortality.
            Thinking about this, I was reminded of an interview I heard with novelist Yan Martel.  In both The Life of Pi and his newest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel explores faith, religion, and death and grieving, so the interviewer asked him about some of the influences in his life.  Martel mentioned that he has spent a lot of time volunteering in a palliative care unit, which has brought some things into focus for him. 
            That has a ring of truth for me and I imagine for those of you who have spent time in “walking people home.” 
            In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us  that “until the late nineteenth century, the front room in houses, called the parlor, was where one would receive guests, but it was also where the bodies of the dead would be laid out for visitation.              People used to die at home, at which point their loved ones would lovingly wash and prepare the body and lay it in the parlor.  Neighbors, friends, and family would come to see the body and perhaps stroke the hair or kiss the forehead of those who had gone to their rest.  Death was a part of life.  The advent of funeral parlors as businesses changed all that.[1]
            Nadia tells how she found herself doing a funeral, preaching about Jesus and suffering and love, a few days before Ash Wednesday a few years ago, and then going to the hospital on Ash Wednesday to visit new parents and their baby. 
            Nadia held baby Willa in her arms and thanked God for brand new life.  Then her parents asked for ashes.  For them and for baby Willa.    She pressed ever so gently into her forehead, onto this brand new skin that had only been exposed to air for a few precious hours and said that even she, full of beauty and hope and just hours from her mother’s womb, even she will return—return to dust and the very heart of God.
            And then, Nadia says, she knew.  She knew more than any other Ash Wednesday in her life, that the promises of baptism and funerals, the promises of birth and death are so totally wrapped up together.  For we come from God, and to God we shall go.  And that there is so much that gets in the way of that simple truth.   At times like funerals, we’re more aware that all that other stuff doesn’t matter any more. 
            Ash Wednesday and Lent aren’t about punishing ourselves for being human.  It’s about peeling away layers of insulation and anesthesia that keep us from the truth of God’s promises.  Lent is about looking at our lives in as bright a light as possible—the light of Christ.  It is during this time of self-reflection and sacrificial giving and prayer that we make our way through the over grown and tangled mess of our lives.  We let go of defending ourselves.  We let go of our self-loathing.  We cut through our arrogance and certainty and cynicism and ambivalence. 
            What’s so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we are free.  We’re reminded that the God of our salvation, the same God who created us from the very earth to which we will return delights in the truth that you are God’s very own redeemed sinner, beloved, in all our broken beauty. 
            So, as we receive these ashes and hear the promise that you are dust and to dust you shall return, know that it is the truth, and that the truth will set you free.
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan 
March 1, 2017

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.  Convergent Books, 2015.