Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Feed My Sheep:" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Feed My Sheep"

John 21:1-19

         We’re two weeks past Easter Sunday.  But for a lot of folk, Easter already seems long ago and far away.  For some, great joy and hope have given way to the routine of daily life:  family responsibilities…health issues…work concerns.  In the midst of it all, what does the Resurrection mean?  What difference does it make?  Has it changed anything?

         In the last chapter of John, we hear how, after the Resurrection, the disciples’ lives don’t seem to have changed.

         The disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus.  But he’d been crucified and buried.  They’re grieving…frustrated…confused.  They don’t know what the Resurrection means. 

         True, they know that Jesus was raised from the dead.  But what does that mean?  What difference does it make? 

         So, they go back to something familiar—what they’d been doing before Jesus came into their lives.  They go fishing.  They fish all night.  But they don’t catch anything. 

         Yet, as the disciples return to the way things used to be, the risen Jesus seeks them out once again.  He comes to them in their ordinary lives, and he blesses them.  He appears on the beach—but the disciples don’t recognize him at first.  He calls out to them, “You don’t have any fish, do you?”


         “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.”

         The catch is so great that they can’t haul it in, because there are so many fish.  Then John recognizes Jesus, and says, “It’s the Lord!”

         Once he recognizes the Lord, Peter leaps into the water and swims toward Jesus.  Jesus knows how deeply Simon Peter needs to be forgiven for the three times he denied his relationship with Jesus on that awful night before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus says, three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” 

         Peter responds with an affirmation of his love, saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  Three times.  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”

         Then Jesus tells Peter that one day he will stretch out his hands    and someone will take him where he does not wish to go.   Feeding lambs and tending sheep can cost us.  It’s work that will link our lives to pain and suffering.  It will lead us many places we don’t want to go.  If we love Jesus, our relationship with him will change us.


         In today’s gospel lesson we hear Peter getting a new chance.  It’s a couple of weeks after Easter, but it’s another daybreak like Easter morning.  Two weeks after that first Easter morning Peter experiences Jesus’ resurrection power in a quiet way over breakfast, after a hard night’s work. 

         Three years before, Peter was called away from life as he had known it—an ordinary life of a fisherman.  Now again, in an ordinary place and meal, Jesus calls him to “follow” and to be filled more and more with Jesus every day.

         Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ helped to transform him from someone who was afraid to admit he even knew Jesus—into an apostle who was empowered to jump out of his familiar boat and walk bravely into the world with resurrection power and hope. 

         Eastertide challenges us to live out our identity and calling as if we truly believe that Jesus has overcome sin and death.  It challenges us to live as if we trust in his gift of abundant, eternal life.    It’s about following Jesus, embodying Jesus’ love… and being led to places where we are to feed Jesus’ sheep.


         “Do you love me?”  Jesus asks us.

         Then feed my lambs.

         Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.  Yet we know all too well that the compelling call of human need often feels like it is taking us to places we don’t want to go.  Our ability and willingness to go there will be a testimony to the clarity and passion of our Christian discipleship.  Our ability and willingness to follow Jesus is a sign of how we have changed…of how we are being transformed.


         The first disciples huddled behind locked doors, or went back to their old familiar routines.  They struggled with fear about how Jesus calls his followers to go places where they don’t want to go.

         When I get impatient with myself for my lack of courage, or my reluctance to go some of the places Jesus might call me to go in his name, I find comfort and hope in the conviction that God isn’t finished with me yet.  God isn’t finished with any of us yet.

         Part of the good news is that we are in a continuing, evolving relationship with our Lord and Savior, who promises that he will not leave us alone.  He will be with us, to help and to guide us…to provide for our needs…and to comfort and care for us.   The One who commands us to embody his love and light in the world promises us that we will be given the power we need through the Holy Spirit.

         Again and again, Christ reaches out in love to restore us.   Again and again, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”  


         Do you love me?  Jesus asks.

         Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.

         Littlefield has a long history of working to alleviate hunger, in a variety of ways. But lately we’ve been considering how we might do more. A team has been exploring the needs in our neighborhood and how we might address them. One of the possibilities is to send food home for the weekends with the children of McDonald School who are most food insecure. We have been exploring options, talking with the leaders of the local Blessings in a Backpack program, and talking with staff and leaders of McDonald School.


         The needs are great. There are more than 16 million children in the United States who live in food insecure homes. Poor nutrition can result in a weaker immune system, lower IQ, shorter attention spans, and lower academic achievement.

         Children are fed during the school week by federal government programs, but hunger doesn’t take weekends off.   That’s why the Blessings in a Backpack program has been bringing together private sector funding and public partnership to “feed the future of America, one school at a time,” in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

         Several west Dearborn schools have been served in recent years by Blessings in a Backpack, and Salina Elementary has been added more recently. But we have east Dearborn schools with very high poverty rates.  The principal of McDonald School told me that around 91 percent of their students are in the poverty range, with a smaller number at great risk for hunger.

         The “old-timers” and those who know Littlefield’s history know about the congregation’s history with McDonald School. For the first 10 years or so of Littlefield’s history, the congregation didn’t have a building. For much of that time, Littlefield worshipped at what was then “the new McDonald School.” Some members of the congregation were involved in the Parent Teachers’ Organization and helped out in various ways. 

         When Littlefield used to do the holiday food box project, which was a huge operation, with many partners, we had volunteers and participation from McDonald School, as well as Fordson High School and other organizations. And, as some of you know, Littlefield Church is designated as a safe place in McDonald School’s emergency evacuation plan.  The children are taught that, if they ever need to be evacuated from school, they are to “run to the church.” 

         I hope you’ll all be praying for discernment, for us to show our love in action in a new way and carry out Christ’s command to “feed my lambs.”  This has the potential of caring for our young neighbors in need, but also of deepening our relationship with McDonald School, with those who work together in the Blessings in a Backpack program, and possibly with other organizations with whom we could partner.

         Just as Jesus met with his first disciples at dawn on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes to us.   The dawn is breaking on new chances… the new life Jesus promises us.   Jesus continues to come to us to teach us… and to lead us to places where we’d never have thought to go.  

         The gospel reminds us that God can make a way where there is no way, bringing abundance where there is emptiness, and joy where there is only sorrow.   Jesus’ resurrection gives us the promise of life after death, and the assurance of God’s healing and restoration in this life.

Today, in this time and place, as long ago, Jesus does many signs in the presence of his disciples.   We have the witness of the gospel, which was written “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…and that through believing, we may have life in his name.”

Jesus meets us where we work… or where we despair… or where we question. Whether we’re still feeling “up” from Easter or feeling let down, Jesus keeps coming to us…and calls us to himself and to his new life.  He challenges us with a task to do—caring for his people.

         Do you love me?  Then feed my sheep.  Tend my lambs.

         As individuals and as a congregation, we often fall short of being the loving, compassionate, generous, welcoming people God created us to be.  We don’t always follow through.  Sometimes we even fall away for a while and go back to whatever felt familiar before we recognized the Risen Christ. 

         But Jesus doesn’t give up on us.  After each time we fail…or forget… or are overcome by our fears, Jesus comes to us again and invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment, and calls us to put our love into action, caring for the world God loves.   

         If you love me, show it through your actions.   “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus comes to us today, this morning, starting again, Easter-fresh, saying, “Follow me.”


         Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor

Littlefield Presbyterian Church

Dearborn, Michign

April 30, 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation": A Sermon preached on the Sunday after Earth Day.

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

A Sermon on the Sunday after Earth Day

Genesis 1 & 2

Earth Day was yesterday.  So this Sunday seems like a good day to celebrate God’s good creation and to ponder our place in it.  This is a day to reflect on what our faith says to us about how we are called to live on the earth.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:   in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.
When we look to our scriptures, it turns out that the Bible has a lot to say about creation and caring for creation. There are over a thousand references to the earth and caring for creation in the Bible.[1]  

The first face of God we encounter in the Bible is God as Creator, in the first two chapters of Genesis.  In Genesis chapter one, we hear that God created the earth and all that is in it, and blessed it and saw that it was very good.[2]   On the sixth day, God created humankind in God's image and gave them dominion over living things.  But that isn’t all that happened on the sixth day.

            Barbara Brown Taylor writes about noticing something new about day six, after years of thinking that we humans had day six all to ourselves.  She noticed that day six starts two verses earlier than when humans were created, with the creation of land animals-- cattle, to be exact, along with unspecified creeping things and wild animals. 
            “What a comedown.” Taylor says.  “A reminder that although God may have made human beings for special purposes, we were not made of any more special stuff than the rest of creation. We were made on the same day as cows and creeping things and wild animals of every kind. God gave us dominion, it is true, but God did not pronounce us better than anything else God had made. ‘God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”[3]
            But what does “dominion” mean? 
Over the years, there were interpretations of “dominion” that taught people to view themselves as superior to nature, and justified treating nature as something to be exploited. Some have said, “I believe God gave us the job to do what we want with creation. Which could mean, “I think the Bible says we have the right to destroy things that get in our way. “Dominion” came to be understood by a lot of people as doing whatever they wanted to creation, or even as “domination.”
            But that has resulted in air and water pollution, the loss of animal species, the loss of trees, environmentally caused disease.
            Christian ethicist James Gustafson calls this “despotism”-- one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted the Bible as their divine right to dominion over the earth.  In this view, Gustafson says, “you don’t have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees, and set it on fire. Then you are free to scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, tiny wild iris, toads, and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come and cover your artwork with steaming asphalt. Oh, and if the mountain laurels block your view of the river, just turn the dozer on them too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots. The river will silt up eventually, until you can push a sharp stick three feet straight down in the sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the riverbed. But what the heck, if the trout die, you can still buy some at the grocery store already cleaned and boned for just a few dollars a pound. You are Lord over this playground, after all--God said so, right? It is all for you.”[4]

            When we study the Hebrew word “rada” that’s translated as “dominion,” we discover that the meaning is more like care-giving, even nurturing-- not exploitation.  Human beings are created in the image of God, so we need to relate to nonhuman creatures as God relates to them.[5]   Dominion is about responsible stewardship.

            In chapter 2 of Genesis, we have another creation story, in which God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and put him in the garden of Eden “to till and keep it.”
God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam, to serve the garden and to keep it. As God keeps and sustains us, we are to keep and sustain God’s good creation.
            The Hebrew word translated as “keep”, shamar, is sometimes translated as “guard,” “safeguard,” “take care of,” or “look after.” Shamar is about a loving, caring, sustaining kind of keeping. In the blessing of Aaron in Number, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” the word for “keep” is the Hebrew word shamar--the same word we heard in Genesis 2.
            If we are fulfilling God’s commandment to keep the creation, we make sure that the creatures and other living things under our care are maintained so they can flourish.  As God keeps people, so God’s people are to keep God’s creation.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is minding his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness beneath Mount Horeb when he encounters an angel of the Lord who appears in a flame from a bush that is burning but not being consumed.
Moses hears the voice of God instructing him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
The ground on which Moses was standing was wilderness.  The name of the mountain, “Horeb,” simply means “wasteland.”  There was no sanctuary there, no religious shrine, nothing to make it seem extraordinary in any way.  And yet it was “holy ground.”  So I hope that we’ll all think and pray about what makes ground “holy.” 

In our society, we can argue about the politics of environmental justice.  But it has become clear that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.  Those of us who call ourselves Christians need to take seriously what our faith says about Creation.
When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not na├»ve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, and it helps. But efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global, too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[6]  
As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.
I was inspired by the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon when I read recently about what they’ve been doing to care for creation.
A little over twenty years ago or so, Cameroon, along the coast of west Africa, had a rich tropical evergreen forest that provided shelter for animals and birds of all kinds and enriched the fertility of the Cameroonian soils. In the next fifteen or so years, this forest was mostly destroyed. There were several causes, but a major one the indiscriminate deforestation by foreign timber companies carrying out unsustainable logging practices, in agreement with the Cameroonian government, which was looking for ways to fill in budget shortfalls.
The result of this is climate change, as dry winds from the Sahara Desert find their way easily to the south, causing drought, which has endangered animal and human life. Water supplies have been drying up.  The dry season is longer and hotter and is followed by more floods and longer rains. 
Cameroon used to be a great exporter of food crops in all of Central Africa, but has now been experiencing food insufficiency for its own population.  
The Presbyterian Church of Cameroon started an annual event of tree planting every last Sunday of May to the first Sunday in June.  Every Presbyterian was asked to commit to planting trees every year. At least 400,000 trees were planted every year in an effort to “rebirth” the creation destroyed by irresponsible human beings.[7]
            The Presbyterian Church in Cameroon committed to promote life through community action for water, clean air, flora and fauna. They covenanted to undertake to minimize loss through faithful stewardship of resources that encourages renewal, replenishment and abundance, and to uphold the integrity of creation for abundant life for the world. The vision statement for the seven year environmental plan is “Protect Creation, Save the World!!![8]
            They’re still planting trees and hope to plant trees in all the 10 regions of Cameroon and ensure water catchments in communities are protected and developed.
            This has evolved into an interfaith project, working to raise environmental awareness about tree planting, not only within local Presbyterian churches but also with the local Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Mission, and Muslim communities.  They work  through young people in Presbyterian colleges and government schools to form clubs to plants trees and mobilize PCC movements – the Christian Youth Fellowship, the Christian Women Fellowship and the Christian Men Fellowship – to plant trees in identified communities nationwide as volunteers. They’ve organized training workshops, worked through the media and provided tree seedlings to be planted by volunteers, in collaboration with the Ministries of Forestry, Environment, Agriculture and Research.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.
So… let us commit ourselves to live as faithful stewards on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 23, 2017

[1] Preface to The Green Bible: Understanding the Bible’s Powerful Message for the Earth. New Revised Standard Version. Harper One Publisher, 2011.
[2] Genesis 1:1-31
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “”The Dominion of Love,” in The Green Bible.”
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoting James Gustafson, in The Green Bible.”
[5] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Abingdon Press, 1994), page 346.
[6] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in

[7] Carolyn Bush, “Finding Our Place.” A Sermon preached at McCormick Theological Seminary, in “Worship in Celebration of Creation, In Recognition of Earth Day.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Only the Beginning." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday.

"Only the Beginning"

Matthew 28:1-10 

For a lot of people, this is a season of spring flowers, a time for getting together with family, a time for chocolate bunnies and yellow marshmallow chicks.  But on Easter Sunday mornings Christians make our pilgrimage back to the tomb, looking for Jesus.
            We go with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they go to the tomb. They were there when Jesus was crucified, and they saw him die.  They were there when Jesus’ body was carried into the tomb. 
            Now that the Sabbath is over, the women head to the tomb at daybreak.  In their despair and grief, they’ve come to say goodbye to the One who had given reason to their hopes.
            Preachers and regular church-goers know what’s coming next. But these  women at the tomb didn’t know. They had no idea--even if they had heard Jesus say things about how dying, and three days, and then rising.
            The women were approaching the tomb in the darkness, when suddenly they feel the earth quake, as an angel of the Lord comes down and rolls back the stone and sits on it.
            The angel shows the women the empty tomb, saying,  “Don’t be afraid.  I know that you came looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for he has been raised.”
            Don’t be afraid. He has been raised.
            It’s Easter Sunday, but for a lot of people, it feels like we’re living in a Good Friday world. If you feel like you’ve been living in a Good Friday world, you can probably relate to the two Mary’s and the other disciples.  They’re stricken with grief…disillusionment… disappointment.  Things haven’t turned out the way they’d hoped.
            As Paul Raushenbush writes, “I’m waiting to feel Easter this year. That morning when I shout with that particular joy, and laugh with that particular freedom that comes from a certainty within my soul that what we say--that love is more powerful than death--is really true. Because today as hearts break and bombs drop and leaders betray and bonds fray, I don’t see love overcoming anything, and there is, deep within my soul, a despair that I can’t shake, won’t shake, because I know, for too many souls, death is real.
            “I’m waiting to feel Easter this year, even as crucifixions continue unabated and sisters and brothers of all genders and colors and races and creeds find themselves hung out to die, cut off and alone. I’m waiting for Easter this year, even as my fist clenches and mind flinches and inside me I feel walls built, and closing in, and my defense is a good offense and, meanwhile, “where is my Lord? I am looking for him and they took him and buried him and I don’t know what I am to do….”[1]
            Do you wonder too?  How do we celebrate Easter when vulnerable people are the victims of brutal attacks/?  When undocumented immigrants in our country are having their families separated by deportations? When the people of Flint are still struggling with unsafe water and the children are facing a lifetime of developmental problems?   How do we celebrate Easter when refugees from Syria and Sudan are crowded into camps or risking their lives to escape violence and warfare?   When, for the poor of our country and the world, it’s always Good Friday? When gay men in the Chechen Republic are being detained and tortured?  How do we celebrate Easter in a world where we try to make ourselves safe with guns… and make peace by shooting missiles and dropping bombs?
            And yet, even in the most heartbreaking of times, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary show up, even when their hearts are broken by overwhelming suffering and loss.  They love Jesus, and their love for him compels them to face death head-on.   So, despite pain and loss, despite their fear, because they love Jesus, they keep showing up.[2] 
            The angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” The way our English translation reads, “Don’t be afraid” could sound like a command, and it’s impossible to overcome fear on command.  But, as one of my colleagues points out, what the angel says is not a command, but rather a comforting assurance. “There is nothing to fear. You don’t need to be afraid.”  Matthew tells us that this calming voice comes from a messenger who speaks with power that’s beyond this world--a messenger who rolled a huge stone away from the door of the tomb and shone like lightning.[3]
            God’s power has overturned all expectations of how things happen in the world and show that goodness is stronger than evil and love is stronger than death. 
            The women were still afraid, of course.  But they believe the good news of the angel and obey.  They take the angel’s message to heart and, in fear and great joy, they’re on the way to tell the disciples, when they meet the risen Christ.
            The way Matthew tells the resurrection day story, we know that the women “ran to tell the disciples,” but we don’t get to listen in when they deliver the good news.
            But we know the women delivered the message, because Matthew tells us in verse 16 that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee.” And we know the story didn’t end there.  This was only the beginning.
            The good news of Easter is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and goes before us.
            Don’t be afraid.  There is nothing in the future that can separate us from the greatness and goodness of God.   In the Resurrection, God has triumphed over death.  God's power and love are stronger than even the power of death.  The God of LIFE-- who is powerful enough to have raised his Son from the dead-- promises that-- because he lives--  we shall live also.  In the presence of God's greatness and love, we don't need to be afraid of the future.
             Christ is risen!  Anyone who encounters the Risen Christ will never be the same again!   When we commit our life to the Lord who lives now and forever, our fear of the future changes into hope,  whether that hope is fulfilled in this life or the next.
            Do we believe that?  If we do believe it, how can that good news transform our lives?  
Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  But it’s more than that, or we wouldn’t be here over 2,000 years later, singing  our “Alleluias!” 
In the resurrection, God showed us God’s wondrous love and power.  When we follow Jesus, we learn more about the amazing plans God has for our lives, and we gradually learn to trust  in God’s promises. 
The angel suggests that if we want to encounter the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we need to look toward a resurrection happening in present and future tenses.  Resurrection isn’t something that happened just one Easter Sunday morning, long ago.  It keeps happening, and is continuing today with you and me.  God has big dreams for us and for the world, and Easter is just the beginning. 
In the letter to the church at Colossae, we hear the apostle Paul talking about resurrection in terms of new life.  I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: 
            “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.  See things from Christ’s perspective.
            Your old life is dead.  Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God.  He is your life.  When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too--  the real you, the glorious you.  Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.” (Colossians 3)

Our new life in Christ isn’t about spiritual perfection—but of spiritual progress.  Whether we’re eight or eighty, God isn’t finished with us yet.  We are all works in progress.

In the film “Tender Mercies,” Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a down on his luck country singer who manages to climb out of a bottle long enough to find a new life for himself as husband to a young widow and step-father to her young son.  The way the film tells it, all this happens through “tender mercies”—the “tender mercies” of God. 
Because that is the case, one Sunday morning Mac and his stepson are baptized in the Baptist church of the small East Texas town where they live.  On the way home, their hair still wet, they talk about what has happened to them.  The boy seems pleased enough that he has been baptized, but perhaps a little confused that the high drama of his baptism has had so little apparent effect on him.
“I don’t feel any different,” he says.  “At least not yet….  How about you, Mac?  “You feel any different?”
“No,” Mac says.  “I don’t feel any different.  Not yet.”
“Not yet,” he says.  Those words “not yet” hint at expectation and promise.
Not yet, perhaps.  But there is a power at work within us, the power of resurrection. 
I believe that God never meant for there to be only one resurrection, but many resurrections— enough to bring all of God’s people alive with the kind of life Christ has. 
In the resurrection, God showed us God’s wondrous love and power.  We discover that God has an amazing plan for our lives.  We come to trust that the story of our life with God has a joyful ending. 
In the meantime, with God’s help, we can move beyond our fears, in the presence and power of God.  We have been raised with Christ into new life.  As we learn to live as freely and openly as Christ lived, we will find our deepest and most abiding joy… and we can work in partnership with Christ to bring in God’s kingdom-- on earth, as it is in heaven. 
Christ is risen!  Alleluia!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 16, 2017

[1] Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (April 2017) Michael Adee shared this on Facebook, and I haven’t find another link.
[2]Jill Duffield, in The Presbyterian Outlook.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm / Passion Sunday: The Story of Christ's Passion

Palm / Passion Sunday is always a full day for us at Littlefield.  We begin with the liturgy of the palms, including a procession in which we remember Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The service moves toward the story of the crucifixion. It's a powerful service.

We have a brief introduction to put the Passion story into context, and then we hear the story.  This year, we heard from Matthew's gospel.



In a few moments, we are going to hear the story of Christ’s Passion, as told by Matthew. 
            The crowds greeted him as the Lord’s Messiah, with loud hosannas.  They were hoping Jesus would overthrow the Roman oppressors, and the Romans took note.
            On the other side of the city there was another parade.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, was entering the city with his cavalry and foot soldiers, as he did every Passover.  There was often trouble in Jerusalem around the time of the Passover—a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.   So, the governor would bring in his troops to reinforce the troops that were permanently stationed near the Temple, as a show of power and force. 
            The peasants in the crowd knew the symbolism from the prophet Zechariah:  a new kind of king would be coming to Jerusalem “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 
            In the prophecy, this king would banish war from the land— no more chariots, war-horses, or bows.  Jesus’s procession was a counter-demonstration, a contrast to what was happening on the other side of the city.  
            Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world.  Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision-- the kingdom of God.  This contrast— between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar— is central not only to the gospel story--   to the story of Jesus and the church.
            The people in the crowd who shouted “Hosanna” were half right.  Jesus did come as God’s Messiah. But they didn’t understand what that meant. This was not about “regime change” by violence, but the love of God poured out upon the world in a way that breaks down the things we use to separate “us” from “the” and brings us together to be a community of God’s beloved people.[1]
            The religious and political authorities were also half right. Jesus was a threat.   Jesus is still a threat. He threatens our inclination to define ourselves and others as “us” and “them.” He threatens our trust in securing our future by hoarding wealth and power. He threatens our habit of drawing lines and making rules about who is acceptable and who is not.[2] He threatens our trust in trying to secure our safety and security by violence.
            During Holy Week, may we be startled and challenged into seeing God’s Reign afresh, as the subversive, empire-challenging reality that it is.

Following this introduction, we heard the story of Christ’s Passion, according to the Gospel of Matthew.  You can follow this link to read it online:

[1] David Lose, Palm / Passion Sunday A.

[2] I am indebted to David Lose here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Martha's Story": A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 11 on the 5th Sunday in Lent.

"Martha's Story"

John 11:1-45

My name is Martha.  My sister Mary and I live in the village of Bethany, which is about two miles from Jerusalem.  Our brother Lazarus lives here too.  Lazarus-- oh, there’s so much to tell.  I’m trying to sort things out… trying to comprehend all that has been happening.  It’s a long story. Where to begin?
            As you may know, one of our dearest friends is Jesus, an itinerant preacher and teacher from Nazareth. Whenever he is in the area, we are honored to welcome him into our home, to give him and his close disciples a place to rest and have a good meal.   

            Some months ago, Jesus had been going around in Galilee.  He was purposely staying away from Judea, because some of our religious authorities had been plotting against him--looking for an opportunity to kill him.  When it was almost time for the festival of Booths, Jesus went secretly to Jerusalem.
            Some of our religious leaders were looking for Jesus at the festival and asking people where he was. I heard that there was a lot of whispering going on in the crowds about him, and there was controversy about who Jesus is   and about his teachings.
            On the Sabbath, Jesus healed a man who had been born blind, by putting mud on the man’s eyes.  When the man washed the mud out of his eyes, he could see! 
            Our religious leaders were divided because of the things Jesus was doing and teaching.

            Later, during winter, at the time of the festival of the Dedication, Jesus was walking in the temple. Some religious leaders gathered around him and demanded he tell them plainly: “Are you the Messiah-- or not?
            They didn’t like his answer. They picked up stones, preparing to stone him. They accused him of blasphemy, saying that he was claiming to be God. They tried again to arrest him, but he escaped.
            Jesus went across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing people earlier, and he stayed there.  We heard that many of the people who were there believed in him.
            Jesus had been across the Jordan for a time when my brother became very ill.  We were very worried, so we sent a message to Jesus, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
            If you’ve ever had a loved one who was gravely ill, you can understand our fear and desperation when we saw Lazarus getting worse.  We had faith in Jesus’ power to heal, and we hoped that he would come back and heal Lazarus,
            But he didn’t come.  And then Lazarus died.  Our friends and neighbors gathered to mourn with us. We prepared his body for burial, and we placed him in the tomb. 
            Our hearts ached with grief-- the grief of losing Lazarus and also the grief that our beloved friend didn’t come.  Jesus stayed across the Jordan two days after he got our message about Lazarus being ill.  Two days!
            Later, a disciple told us that Jesus waited in order to glorify God.  I don’t understand that.
            When Jesus told the disciples that he was ready to come to Bethany, they didn’t want him to come because of the danger.  But by that time Jesus was determined.

            By the time Jesus got here, Lazarus had died!   The mourners had been with us, and he had already been in the tomb four days.
            When I heard that Jesus was coming, I went and met him, while Mary stayed at home with our guests.  I let him know how full of grief and anger and disappointment I was.  I said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
            Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.”
            I answered, “Yes, Jesus. I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
            But then Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
            I began to understand that Jesus meant something more, something more immediate-- not just an end-times promise, but something that makes a difference here and now.[1]
            I said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

            Then I went back and called Mary.  I took her aside and told her that the Teacher had arrived and was asking for her. She went to him quickly.  The mourners followed her, because they thought she was going to the tomb, to weep there.  When Mary got to where Jesus was, she knelt at his feet and said, as I had, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
            Jesus was deeply moved when he saw Mary and the others weeping.  He asked, “Where have you laid him?”  They said, “Lord, come and see.”
            Jesus began to weep, and some people said, “See how Jesus loved him!”  But some of them said, “He opened the eyes of a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept this man from dying?”

            When Jesus came to the tomb, he said, “Take away the stone.”
            We weren’t expecting that.  Lazarus was dead.  I have to say that I had given up hope by this time.  Our Jewish faith teaches us that the soul leaves a person’s body on the third day after death.[2] 
            I said, “Lord, he has been dead in the tomb for four days.  Already there is a stench!”
            But Jesus asked me, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
            So, they rolled away the stone. Jesus said a prayer. Then he cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” 
            What a sight that was!  Lazarus came stumbling out of the tomb, with his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
            Then Jesus said to us, “Take off the grave clothes.  Unbind him, and let him go.”
            Many of the people who were with us that day believed in Jesus. But the chief priests and the Pharisees were afraid that if he kept getting more followers, the Romans would come and destroy our temple and our nation.  They called a meeting of the council, and they decided that Jesus must be put to death.
            Because of this, Jesus could no longer walk about freely, and he and his close disciples went to the town of Ephraim, near the wilderness.  That’s where he was until he came to Bethany.
            Of course, we prepared a dinner for him that night.  I was serving, as usual, and Lazarus was seated at the table with Jesus and the guests.
            What Mary did next I can’t really explain.  She brought out a clay jar of pure nard, which is a very costly perfume.  She loosened her hair in a room full of men, which is something we never do.  She anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

            Would I have done what Mary did?  I don’t think so.  I tend to be the sensible, practical sister.  I’m not as demonstrative as Mary.  She’s more spontaneous and free…and very intense.
            Yet in her way Mary acted out the great love and gratitude we have for Jesus for everything he is and does--and especially for restoring our brother to life.  When she dropped to her knees and poured the ointment on Jesus’ feet, she was anointing him for his burial.
            It was an extravagant act of love.  I think she was doing something more than any of us can fully understand.
            Mary’s perfume covered the stench of death on Lazarus, and it still lingers in our house… and in Mary’s hair.

            Passover is near, and Jesus has told us that his “hour” is near. 
I keep thinking about everything that has happened these past days.  There’s so much I don’t understand.  When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb when he had been dead and buried-- what does this sign mean?   When Lazarus came out of the tomb, with the grave cloths on, what did Jesus mean when he told us all to “unbind him and let him go”? 
            What does it mean-- what Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life?”   I have so many questions.
             Our religious leaders are plotting to arrest and kill Jesus.   I’ve heard that they’re also plotting to kill my brother, because people see him as proof that Jesus is the Messiah.   
            Passover is coming soon.  I feel like something very important and life-changing is about to happen.  There is a sense of expectation in the city.  People are so excited since they learned Jesus is here for the Passover.
            It is hard for me to feel faithful or hopeful right now.  Yet I know that I have been changed by what I have seen and heard.  So--for now--I will cling to Jesus’ promise, even though I don’t understand it completely: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
            Thanks be to God!     

Re. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 2, 2017

[1] David Lose, “Heartache, Miracle, Invitation.”
[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on John 11:1-45