Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Waiting for the Power": A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Acts 1:1-14.

"Waiting for the Power"

Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-14

In churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’re coming to the end of Eastertide, the season when we focus on celebrating the Resurrection.  The third major festival of the Christian year, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, comes next Sunday.   Before we get to Pentecost, we celebrate the Ascension, and we hear the part of the story that Luke/Acts places between Easter and Pentecost. 
            One part of the story is that Jesus has ascended to glory with God.  The glory of the risen and ascended Christ is good news-- something to celebrate.
            But the other themes in the story invite us to look at the Ascension from a very human perspective, the disciples’ point of view, which is where we stand.   
            Up until now, Jesus has been the chief actor in the gospel drama.      From his birth to his death, it’s Jesus who keeps the story moving. 
In the forty days following the resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to his followers a number of times and continued to teach them about the kingdom of God. 
            But they were still living under Roman occupation. There were still people who were poor and hungry and marginalized. Things were still not right in the world.  So, when Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem, where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?”
             Jesus answered, “It isn’t for you to know these things. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Then they saw Jesus lifted up, and a cloud, which the Bible uses as a symbol of God’s presence--lifted Jesus out of their sight.  And now he’s gone from their sight.
When Jesus was carried up into heaven, the reality they were facing was that Jesus was no longer a part of their daily life, in the same way he had been before. 
            Now what?  What are Jesus’ followers supposed to do?        It would have been hard not to feel anxious and impatient—just as it can be for us.
            There’s so much bad news in the world-- so much fear and anxiety and hatred. Since earlier this past week, our hearts are heavy with the news of precious lives lost: mostly young concert-goers in Manchester, England and a promising young college graduate in Maryland, stabbed to death by a white supremacist.
            In the 24-hour news cycle, we haven’t been hearing much about refugees in the past few months, but a few days ago we heard that more than 30 perished when an overcrowded boat listed while trying to reach Europe from North Africa, and that most of the bodies recovered were toddlers.
            An 18-year-old former neo-Nazi / white supremacist converted to Islam and murdered two of his white supremacist roommates and told the police he killed them because they didn’t respect his Muslim faith.
            We heard about an attack on a caravan of Coptic Christian pilgrims heading to a monastery in Minya, Egypt that killed 28 people.  Friday two men were killed and another injured when they stepped in to protect 2 women from a man who was shouting ethnic and anti-Muslim slurs at them.  This man, too, turned out to be a white supremacist.
            In our nation’s South, there are conflicts over removing statues that celebrate leaders of the Confederacy. Closer to home, we have a controversy over what place a statue of former Dearborn mayor Orville Hubbard should have.
            Concerns have been raised in local cities about justice and due process in detentions deportations of undocumented immigrants and the impact of current policies on their families.
            In our nation’s capital, politicians are debating matters that include who deserves to have enough to eat and adequate, affordable medical coverage, how we will care for the environment, and much more. The litany of losses and pain and struggle is long.
            Do you want to just shout, “How long, Lord?”  “Is this the time you’re going to make things right in the world?  We want to know what the plan is. We want to know now.
            Lord, is this the time?

            Hear what Jesus says: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set byfor some time for reflection, whether at home or away. It can be an opportunity for us to renew our sense of gratitude for those who have served their country and for the freedoms we enjoy because of that service and sacrifice. It can also be a time for us to renew our sense of commitment to wohis own authority.”    It is not for us to know all the details of the big plan.
            Christ’s charge to them comes with a promise: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit...  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
            Luke tells us that the disciples worshipped the risen and ascended Christ.  They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
            In the verses following the passage we read in Acts, Luke tells how the disciples returned to Jerusalem and went to the upper room where they were staying, where they and certain women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  On the day of Pentecost, disciples were gathered together in one place when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them from on high. 

            The first disciples were called to wait during times of transition--with trust and hope…with eagerness and expectancy.
            This Memorial Day long weekend will bring a variety of parades and other celebrations and
rking for a world that is more just and peaceful.
            When the first disciples couldn’t see where the future would lead them, when they couldn’t see where the future would lead them, they remained focused on the drama of God’s salvation story, and worshiped God with great joy.  Their joyful worship as they waited helped to center themselves in God’s gracious, powerful promises

            Do we believe God can use us to transform the world?   Do we believe that we can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens us?      How many of us want to believe these things?       
            I believe God has the power to work miracles, and that God wants to use us to change people’s lives.  But it is not in God’s nature to coerce us.  We have choices.                
            In his book, God’s Politics, which a group of us read together some years ago, Jim Wallis talks about “The Critical Choice:  Hope Versus Cynicism.”[1] 
            Wallis says that one of the big struggles of our times is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope.  The prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope—that these realities can and will be changed.  This choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice—one that has enormous political consequences.  He argues for a better religion--  a prophetic faith—the religion of Jesus and the prophets.
            As Wallis says, cynicism can protect you from seeming foolish to believe that things could and will change.  It protects you from disappointment.  It protects you from insecurity, because now you are free to pursue your own security instead of sacrificing it for a social engagement, if you decide that it won’t work anyway. 
            Ultimately, cynicism protects you from commitment.  If things aren’t really going to change, why try so hard to make a difference?... Why take the risks, make the sacrifices, open yourself to the vulnerabilities?  Cynics are finally free just to look after themselves… and pursue their own agendas.
            According to Wallis, the difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power, and possibility of hope.  And that is indeed a spiritual and faith issue.  More than just a moral issue, hope is a spiritual and even a religious choice. 
            I agree with Wallis when he says that hope is not a feeling.  It is a decision.  And the decision for hope is based on what you believe at the deepest levels—what your most basic convictions about the world and what the future holds--  all based on your faith.
            We can choose hope, not as a naive wish, but as a choice, with your eyes wide open to the reality of the world.  I believe this hope is grounded in faith…and nurtured in our worship life.
            The Civil Rights movement in the United States grew out of the African-American church… and then others joined in—people who chose to hope in a society in which there is justice for all. We’re still waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of that dream. 

            During the days of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu used to say, “We are prisoners of hope.”  
            I know I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s powerful and inspiring.  During Apartheid, the South African Security Police came  into the Cathedral of St. George’s during Tutu’s sermon at an ecumenical service.
            Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of the cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said   and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances.
            They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make a statement and a point:  religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid would be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime.
            After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, Tutu acknowledged their power, saying, “You are powerful,  very powerful.”  But then he reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority:  “I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”
            Then in an extraordinary challenge to political tyranny, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”  He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. 
            The congregation’s response was electric.  The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power.  The heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers.  Yet the congregation was moved—empowered—to literally leap to their feet, shouting the praises of God.            They began dancing.  They danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid, who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers.  Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
            Some time later, a few days before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa, Wallis remembers wondering, “Who would have ever believed?  And that’s just the point, he says.  We have to believe.
            I know…   I know…   What we see going on in our nation and in the world seems overwhelming.
            And yet, we are called.  Christ has given us a Great Commission:   You shall be my witnesses.
            We have Christ’s promise:  You will receive power…
            Like the first disciples, we have the promises of God to cling to, even in times of sorrow and anxiety.   These promises are ours, even at times when it seems that Christ has vanished and the Holy Spirit is not breathing down our necks or in our lives.[2][1]  
            So let us cling to God’s promises and rejoice in them. There will be accomplishments and setbacks, joys and sorrows. In the midst of it, we can trust that God is with us, comforting, celebrating with us, accompanying and strengthening us, even when we can’t see it. We can give thanks that God is preparing us to live with less fear and more generosity, preparing us to look out for the rights of others, and to work for a more merciful and just world.
            Thanks be to God!

[1] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

[1]I am grateful to Marjorie Menaul for this phrase, which really resonated with me.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Power to Love". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 14:15-21

"Power to Love"

John 14:15-21

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." 
Do you remember the setting in which Jesus said those words?  It was the night before he would die, when the darkness of the world was closing in.  Jesus had gathered his closest friends to share a final meal. Rising from the table, he took a towel, wrapped it around him, and washed his disciples’ feet.
Then, after telling his disciples that one of them would betray him, he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you….By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We have in this section of John, in a nutshell, Jesus’ own definition of what it means to be his disciple. 
In today’s gospel lesson we hear Jesus say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We need to remember what Jesus said earlier that evening about his commandments: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you….This I command you, that you love one another.”  We need to remember that, in the gospel of John, Jesus only gives his disciples one commandment: “Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you.”
So that’s it:  that’s the commandment Jesus is talking about.  Love one another.  All of Jesus’ other teachings about how to live are a fleshing out of this commandment… and showing his disciples then and now how the commandment to love is worked out in our day to day living.
John wrote his gospel long after Jesus was gone.  The gospel is written looking backwards, in the midst of a community for whom Jesus was only a memory.  Most of the people in John’s community had never met Jesus.  Most—if not all—of the disciples were dead.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed—which a lot of folk thought was a sign that the end-time would come son. 
But the end-time didn’t come.  Life went on, and that was, in some ways, the hardest part of all.  Even when all the signs seemed right, Jesus hadn’t come back.  This community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair and defeat. 
So, John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel we know as “The Farewell Discourse.”  Here at the table, we hear Jesus say some of the same things over and over, in different ways, to make sure the disciples get it.   The central word is love.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”  “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”    The word used here for love—agape—describes the kind of love that Jesus showed us: self-giving love that seeks the good of the other, generous, sacrificial love.
I imagine the disciples must have wondered, “But how can we do that?”  They knew they had a hard time loving each other even while Jesus was with them.  Jesus has been telling them that he is going to leave them.  How could they love in the Jesus loves-- if he’s gone?
That night, the disciples haven’t yet seen the depths of Jesus’ love for them—a love that would lead to the cross and the tomb, that would tear him away from them. That night, they couldn’t have guessed that they would lose him twice: that after his death, he would return in the glory of resurrection, and then be taken from their sight in the ascension. That night, they were still basking in his physical presence as he began the long farewell talk that we hear continued in today’s gospel.
Knowing that they have come to depend on his presence, Jesus wants to reassure his disciples. Before he goes away, he tells them, "I will not leave you orphaned."
If that seems an odd phrase to use with these adults, consider that the word John’s gospel uses for "orphan" means "torn away from."
Of course, they would have each other.  Jesus had told them to love each other—but I wonder just how comforting that was. Each of the disciples must have known in his heart how hard it is to love the way Jesus loves.   
If we could just love God and love one another as Jesus loves, there wouldn’t be any need for any other commandments or laws or rules.  But that commandment to love is a tall order. 
Given the realities of our lives and the realities of the people we live and work with—how do we find it possible to obey this commandment to love?  In this world we live in, given all the people we encounter who are different from us, and who don’t value the same things we do, how do we love as Jesus loves?
God knows—it isn’t easy.  The truth that Jesus wants us to live by—the truth of love—is a love that the rest of the world can’t understand or make sense of.  It’s a love that makes us different.
We don’t always live up to this truth. We sometimes fall short of the kind of love that Jesus wants us to show in our lives. Throughout history, we see examples of how Christians have failed to live up to the love to which Jesus calls us.
            Love is at the heart of what Jesus commands us to do.  Love. That’s what the Holy Spirit works to make possible in each of our lives.  Love not just for our families, not just for our friends, not just for people that we like.  No, love even for our enemies. That’s the kind of love that God is calling us toward.
This kind of love to which Jesus calls us is hard.  We can’t do it alone.  It’s humanly impossible.  But Jesus promises that we won’t be alone.  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
The Greek word translated as "advocate" — "paracletos", or Paraclete —means "one called alongside, to help."
I like the way David Lose puts it: “You have an advocate! Someone who is looking out for you. Someone who is on your side. Someone who encourages you and supports you. Someone who speaks up for you and is willing to hang in there with you through thick and thin.”[1]
Friends, it’s hard to love one another, in the way Jesus loves. It’s hard to be generous and brave and compassionate--especially when you’re afraid or you feel like nobody hears you or you feel alone or abandoned or left out.
But the good news is that God is with us and has come to us in Christ to show us what God wants for us: health and healing…love and belonging and community… justice and peace…and a life of abundance. 
God came in Christ to show us how far God is willing to go to show us how much God loves us. God raised Jesus from the dead to show us that goodness is stronger than evil and love is stronger than death.
God keeps coming to us in the Holy Spirit to encourage us and guide us and care for us and walk with us, to be our Advocate. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come to us with truth, with gifts, and the power to be faithful disciples.  The Spirit will be with us, helping us, giving us the power to love.
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 21, 2017

[1] David Lose, “You have an advocate.” Posted at his blog, In the Meantime, at

Monday, May 8, 2017

"What Does Love Look Like?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Good Shepherd Sunday.

"What Does Love Look Like?"

Acts 2:41-47; Psalm 23: John 10:1-10

On Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the lectionary always gives us the Twenty-Third Psalm.  In times of loss or suffering—in times when we face the illness of a child or a dear old friend, or the doctor gives us a scary diagnosis, we can turn to the witness of faith we find in the scriptures.  The 23rd Psalm has been called one of the psalms of trust, in which those who are praying proclaim their confidence in God’s goodness—despite the very real difficulties they are experiencing. 
            “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. “I trust in God to provide what I need.
            “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
            The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak devastation.  But he has adopted a resolute stance in the face of real threat: “No fear.”   Not because the police and FBI are on the scene.  Not because our military has tools to exact vengeance so that perpetrators can’t hurt anyone again.   No.  Because “God is with me.” 
            This is a core claim of our faith:  that there is one God, the God of love, and that we can place our trust in God to be with us, always.   That doesn’t mean that we will never have to face danger or hardship or sorrow.  But it does mean that we will not be alone in it, and that we will be given the strength to get through.
            “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.”
            If our first impulse is fear in the face of terror, the second impulse for a lot of people is vengeance.   Just as the Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, neither does he ignore the reality
            that there are people in the world who mean him harm.  But in the Psalm, the impulse to vengeance is short-circuited by the deep awareness of grace, which re-directs the energy that would have been drained to exact retribution—and channels it to gratitude and joyful thanksgiving. 
            Our Christian faith points us toward an alternative worldview that shuns reactive violence and opens up possibilities for personal and social transformation. 

            We are Easter people—people of the Resurrection.   In the face of violence and death, we hear our sacred texts speaking defiantly, calling us to fearlessness in the valley of the shadow of death.
            At the end of the gospel lesson we heard, we hear Jesus making a clear statement about his mission and ministry.  In contrast to all that would rob us of life—the thieves and bandits he mentions—Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  
            What I hear in this is that God loves us—loves the world-- so much that we are given the possibility of eternal, abundant life.  This abundant life is contextual—it looks different in different places and to different people.  But it always manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to to rob God’s beloved children of their inheritance of life… purpose… and joy.[1]
            Today’s gospel lesson from John follows the story of the healing of the man born blind.  Jesus goes right into this discourse about sheep and gates and shepherds, as an interpretation of the sign that he enacted in restoring sight to the blind man.
            The Pharisees who interrogated the blind man in John 9 are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, those who care for, protect, and nourish the people. But they refuse to believe that Jesus and his healing work come from God. They’re more concerned about guarding their power and authority than about the well-being of the people. They expel the healed blind man from their community.
            Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
            God loves us so much that God wants to be present with us… and to give us what we need.
            The Easter story in ancient times and now is a story of new life, new possibilities, boundaries being broken down, and transformation. 
            In the passage we heard earlier today from the book of Acts, we have glimpses of new life in the early church.  Following Peter’s Pentecost sermon, there were many people who had joined the Jesus movement who may never have heard Jesus’ teachings.    They were committing themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship.  The new believers were sharing their lives and anticipating a future together.
            It’s a beautiful picture of community:  they’re living together as community, eating together, praying together, doing theology together.   They are literally giving away everything that they have so that nobody will be hungry or homeless.  They’re filled with awe and gladness and joy.  And the community kept growing.
            But we know from the Bible’s accounts that life in the early church had its problems.  Over the centuries, the church did amazing and beautiful and loving things… and also terrible and violent things, in the name of God.
            The bad news is that we often fail to live into the love and unity God intends for us.  Someone will enter the congregation and they will be needy or messy in a way that we can’t cope with, or maybe beautiful and different in a way we can’t handle.  Each one of us will come face to face with someone we will refuse to love.
            Yesterday afternoon I was part of a panel discussion at a gathering of Episcopalians at the Church Cathedral of St. Paul.  My friend Rabbi Dorit was on the panel, and two Muslim women who are Syrian-American.  We were asked to address the question “Why Interfaith?” I shared some history of Littlefield’s history of interfaith work over the years, and talked about what the various traditions have in common.
            My new friend Rouzana told her story.  She told how she had attended a Catholic school in Syria, and had grown up hearing the priests pray to “Allah.” She said she’d never thought she was “doing interfaith” at the time, but she was.
            During very dangerous times, their town was bombed and there were “death squads.” Her father got a warning that he needed to move his family to safety immediately, and he crowded them all into a car and drove them to the nearest Christian village.  He knew the name of one Christian man, whom he’d never met. They found his home and knocked on the door. When the Christian man came to the door, Rouzana’s father told him where they were from.  The man said, “Say no more.” And he invited them in and gave them shelter.”
            Friends, this is what love looks like.
            I had a deadline to decide on a sermon title, and I came up with “What does love look like?”  Then I wondered how I was going to answer my own question.
            It can be different in different contexts.  It might look like a church deciding they could provide supplemental food for the weekend for the neediest children at our neighboring school, giving “blessings in a backpack.” It can look like welcoming someone into your home-- or your community or nation-- and providing safety and care.  It could look like preparing a table in the presence of enemies.
            We live in this broken and fearful world.  As we live as Christ-followers together, we weep with God over what we see--violence to humanity and creation    and, guided by the Spirit, we open ourselves to work with God for peace… reconciliation… and justice.   When we refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and poverty and violence and terrorism and bigotry, we break death’s ability to have the last word. 
            We are Easter people. The good news is that Jesus came to us that we might have life and have it abundantly.  Christ is still working in and among us through the Holy Spirit, leading us into new and abundant life, teaching us to live as loving, generous, joyful people.
            When we trust in the Shepherd God of love and mercy, we can live confidently.  God gives us what we need… and restores our souls… and guides us in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake. 
            We don’t need to be afraid, because the God of goodness and love is with us, as we embody God’s love and goodness and work toward restoration and wholeness.
            God is at work in us, in the Church, transforming us, helping us to become more truly a Beloved Community.
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 7, 2017



[1] David Lose.  Ibid.