Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Living the Questions." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Matthew 16:13-20.

"Living the Questions"

Matthew 16:13-20 

         “Who do you say Jesus is?” is one of the most challenging and important questions in the gospels.  Knowing that his time with his disciples will be coming to an end, Jesus periodically tests their understanding.
            Jesus asks his disciples, "Who are the people saying that the Son of Man is?"
            The disciples give four answers.  Some think of Jesus as John the Baptist, others as Elijah, still others as Jeremiah, and some say one of the prophets.  Some people are identifying Jesus with dead prophets who had been sent by God who did miraculous deeds and who had stood toe-to-toe with kings, speaking truth to power, in words of challenge, opposition, and hope from Yahweh. 
            Each of these ideas makes sense in some way.  But each of these popular understandings fails to discern the depth and fullness of Jesus’ identity.  The people look at Jesus, but they only see the reflection of religious ideas from their past.  They have a hard time imagining that God could be doing something new.

            The true identity of Jesus is at the very heart of the gospel message and the Christian movement.  Jesus has been described as a great teacher of wisdom, a social reformer, a champion of individual freedom and worth, or a revolutionary.  There are grains of truth in all of these ideas, but, as Tom Long says, in each case people have “pounded a peg labeled “Jesus” into a hole drilled to fit into their own religious preconceptions.”[1]
            When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”-- they named some of the incomplete and mistaken understandings of who Jesus is. Then Peter blurts out,  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

            Something in the way Peter says those words or some uncertainty in the disciples' voices causes Jesus to recognize that they had pronounced the truth without actually comprehending it.  So Jesus tells the disciples to be quiet and not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.  But, if they can’t tell anyone, how will they build an ekklesia-- a gathering of those called--on the truth of his identity?
            I think Mitzi Smith puts it well when she says “by the life they live, a life of love for God, a life that loves the other as much as one loves herself, and a life in pursuit of justice and peace.”  The disciples’ lives “will speak louder, more truthfully, and more effectively than their words.”[2]
            Mitzi envisions the kind of church it could be. “On this rock, thou shall not build a prison nation. On this rock, thou shall not build a nation where millions of children are homeless and hungry…. On this rock, let us build assemblies that demonstrate belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God, a God of freedom and not of oppression, a God of justice, love, and peace.”
            Who are the people saying Jesus is?  Who do we say Jesus is?  What do our lives say about who we believe Jesus is?
            Every day, our faith calls us to live in the midst of these questions. We live in the tension between the prevailing and popular pronouncements we hear and our daily confessions of who we know Jesus to be through our study of the scriptures and prayer and living in a community that encourages and challenges us.
            When people claiming to be Christian leaders support unjust policies--who are they saying Jesus is? When people say, “We are a Christian nation,” but fail to care for those who are hungry or homeless or oppressed-- who are we saying Jesus is?

            When Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say I am,” Peter comes forward and speaks up. He figures out what he needs to say, what he believes, and he says it. So I think it’s important to ask: Does Jesus say he will build his church on Peter because he got the right answer? Or because he spoke up?  (I don’t have a simple answer for you on this. I’ll just let you ponder it.)
            I believe our faith can empower us to step up--out of the crowd or in the middle of the masses, or in the face of idolatries.  We need to pay attention to what we see going on and keep asking, “Who do we say Jesus is?”
            I believe Jesus is the Son of the living God, the God of love and compassion and justice. I believe Jesus “came to live among us, full of grace and truth”[3] because Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people.  Jesus reveals to us a living and loving God who cries for Heather Heyer and for the victims of Barcelona and Cambrills in Spain, a God who cares for those in the path of the storm in the Gulf and for those who are the victims of violence or racial or ethnic profiling.
            I believe Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. Rather than giving in to disease, Jesus healed people. Rather than abandon people to their demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people go hungry because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people. Jesus refused to be limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same. In the resurrection, Jesus shows us that goodness is stronger than evil and love is stronger than hate or fear or even death. In his life and in his teachings, Jesus shows us that God’s love wins.

            There is so much going on in the world right now, in our nation and in our communities, that needs our prayers, our efforts, our work, and commitment. The living God calls us in our individual lives and in our life as the church to confess Christ-- the suffering Christ who always sides with the vulnerable, in word and deed.  With our lives, with our relationships, our bank accounts, our time, our energy, we are called to proclaim who we say Jesus is. In light of Jesus’ actions and teachings, how will our lives be different?

            The Rev. Jill Duffield is the Editor of The Presbyterian Outlook and lives in the Charlottesville, Virginia area. She was actively involved with the interfaith group who witnessed to their faith and against hate and white supremacy a few weeks ago.
            In Jill’s posts, she talks about the chants that echoed through the campus of the University of Virginia during the “Unite the Right” rally. “They will not replace us.” “Jew will not replace us.” As Jill writes, white supremacists don’t see neighbors to love-- they see competitors to be feared.

            Jill writes that, at one point on Saturday, August 12, she found herself standing beside a young, African-American woman from “over the mountain,” about 40 miles west of Charlottesville. She’s an Episcopal priest who’d heard and heeded the call to come and support area faith leaders.
            As they talked, they could hear chants coming from the park where the Unite the Right rally was to be held at noon. The crowd grew louder and angrier, audible even above the din of the helicopters hovering overhead. The chant that wafted into the Methodist church parking lot was filled with expletives and invectives.
            Jill said her new friend shook her head and looked down. Then she looked up and said something Jill didn’t expect: “There are a lot of hurting people over there.”  The she added: “There is no joy over in that park. They are hurting.”
            Jill writes, “Her grace caught me off guard and I think my expression revealed my surprise, because she continued: “We have to remember that they are hurting, because we need to be the church for them, too. If we forget that, we’ve lost everything that really matters.”
            Jill says, “In that moment, I felt that all my faith fit into a thimble, while hers overflowed into the menacing streets outside our protected parking lot.  She was rock solid in who Jesus is and therefore who we are called to be, and no earthly power – no matter how ruthlessly oppressive – was going to make her forget it.”[4]

            When we know how much God loves us-- how beloved and irreplaceable we are to God, we don’t need to be afraid of being replaced by others, and we can know the peace that passes understanding.  The unshakeable foundation upon which Christ builds the church is this love.
            Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter and to the whole church,[5]  as a symbol of the authority of the church on earth.  What the church does--  the decisions we make, the grace we show, the truths we teach--  these all matter to God. 
            When the church reaches out to share the good news of God’s love to someone who is alienated from God, when we teach the faith to a child, when we care for someone in need, when we offer hospitality to a stranger, when we stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed or stand up for justice--  we are living into God’s future—the kingdom of heaven—here and now.  When we do that-- we are participating in the very life of God.
            Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 27, 2017

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), page 184.
[2] Mitzi Smith, “Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20, at Working Preacher.

[3] John 1:14
[4] Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary” at The Presbyterian Outlook at

[5] Matt. 18:18

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Take Heart". A sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 on the Sunday after Charlottesville.

"Alt-right" members protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.

            What a week this has been! Earlier in the week, I was reminded that on August 9, 1945 the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, killing tens of thousands of people. Three days before that, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. That week, more than 100,000 people died instantly, and tens of thousands more in the following days and weeks.
            Then we heard that our president responded to North Korea’s nuclear tests by threatening them with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”--on the day before Nagasaki Day.

            Of the roughly 15,000 nuclear bombs in the world, about half of them are owned by the U.S. We have bombs that are 80 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb.  Cumulatively, the firepower of our nuclear arsenal is equivalent to 50,000 Hiroshima bombs. It only takes 100 nuclear bombs to make the world uninhabitable — and we have an estimated 7,000.  Lord, have mercy!
            Also, this week, we heard that the Dar Al Farooq mosque near Minneapolis was bombed while worshipers were gathered for morning prayers, in an “act of terrorism.”
            Through the week, as we heard about North Korea and nuclear threats, I thought that was where this sermon was headed. But now many of us are lamenting what's been happening in Charlottesville, Virginia. I think a lot of sermons got re-written yesterday.
            In any case, I think a lot of us can relate to the fearful disciples in the boat, as they were tossed about on a stormy sea.

            In the fourteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus and the disciples have, in the face of apparent scarcity, miraculously fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people and discovered that there was enough for everyone. Then Jesus sends the disciples back across the lake and stays to pray on the mountain.
            As the disciples are crossing the lake, a storm comes along.  The disciples find themselves struggling against the wind.  The waves are battering against the side of the boat and soaking them.  They’re a long way from the safety of the shore.  They feel alone and helpless... and afraid. Their fear would have had a lot to do with how people in ancient times perceived the sea—as a place of chaos and danger.
            As the disciples anxiously scan the horizon, they see something coming closer and closer to them on top of the water.  What could this strange apparition be?  They’re terrified!  They holler at each other in fear above the roar of the storm:  “What is it?  It must be a ghost!”
            But then they hear a familiar voice speaking to them, saying, "Take heart.  It is I.  Don't be afraid."
            “Don’t be afraid” is a word of divine assurance in the midst of danger or fear, when there is cause to be afraid. There definitely was reason to be afraid out on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus doesn't calm the wind when he's walking out to his disciples in the boat. He stands in the middle of danger, on the water, with the wind blowing and commands his disciples: “Take courage. I am. Don’t be afraid.”

            Apparently, Peter takes Jesus at his word. He steps out of the boat to walk on water toward Jesus. He discovers quickly that Jesus’ words of assurance didn’t mean the dangerous wind and waves had subsided.
            Jesus doesn't calm the wind when he commands Peter to come to him.  He doesn't calm the wind when he saves Peter from drowning.
            As biblical scholar Margaret Aymer wrote yesterday on Facebook, “In the face of the storms of white supremacy and racism, the church is commanded to walk on water, crying out for rescue when we need it. In the face of “make nice” culture and fear of offending, we are still required to face into the winds with the truth that racism is sin….”
            Friday night, white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia for a public demonstration of hate. They held torches and chanted phrases such as “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”  “White lives matter!”
            Yesterday morning, there was a clear contrast between white supremacists who chanted “Blood and soil!” and faith groups gathering in churches and then walking quietly to Emancipation Park and gathering there, singing with arms locked together, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….”  [The congregation spontaneously joined with me in singing a verse of the song.]
            I know that the term “white supremacy” is unpopular, and that a lot of people are really uncomfortable talking about racism. A lot of people think it only refers to racists who wear hoods and burn crosses. They think it’s too harsh to apply to them, the people they know, or the church. But, as Jemar Tisby wrote yesterday in the Washington Post, “we can’t change the white supremacist status quo unless we name it and confront it.”[1]
            It isn’t easy. And we worry about offending or alienating people.
            Some of us have been having conversations and reading books together, books that inform and challenge us to talk honestly with one another about tough topics.  It’s hard but necessary work for those of us who are committed to working for a just and peaceful world.

            More than 50 years have passed since Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech.   Have we made progress since that time? Undoubtedly. But we need to be honest with ourselves about where we the people of the United States are and about our history.
            In the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.[6]
            I believe the gospel has the power to set us free-- as individuals, as a community, as a society-- if we have ears to hear the good news… if we have faith to trust in God’s power to transform us and bind us together in Beloved Community….if we trust in the gospel’s truth to bring us through the storms…
            I appreciate the way Jim Wallis talks about the power of the truth in his latest book:[7]
            “To become more free because of the truth.  To become more honest because of the truth.  To become more responsible because of the truth.  To become better neighbors because of the truth.   To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.  To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.  To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth.  To become better and freer human beings because of the truth.[8]
            I agree with Jim when he says, “We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.
            Our faith teaches us that there is only one race: the human race. The other “races” are things that people have made up to justify dehumanizing other human beings and using and oppressing them. Our faith teaches us that every human being is created in the image of God and is precious in God’s sight. Our faith teaches us that we are required to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
            In the Christian view, racism is a sin. We will always have sin in this world, on this side of eternity. But we are called to “speak the truth in love” and to fight against sin in all its forms.  As long as the Church is in this world, God’s Holy Spirit will be working in and among us, leading and guiding and encouraging us, reminding us that goodness is stronger than evil and that love is stronger than hate. As long as we have breath, the Church--when the Church is truly being the Church--will not stop fighting for good.
            There’s great resistance to this holy work. When a black pastor in the largest Protestant denomination in the country brought a resolution condemning the alt-right and white supremacy, a small group of mostly white pastors dismissed it out of hand, and it was initially defeated.  It took the protests of other pastors, as well as backlash on social media, for the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution condemning the alt-right and white supremacy at its annual meeting last June.
            More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote a response to white pastors after they sent a message urging restraint and gradualism in the civil rights movement. 
            In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King said, “I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
            So, here we are, in 2017. Dr. King’s words resonate prophetically today.  But in the midst of the storms of life, we are still fearful. We may be afraid that there is not enough for everyone-- that if those who are different or other have equity, there won’t be enough for us. We may fear losing the privileges we have always taken for granted. We may be afraid that the arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice. We may fear being uncomfortable. We may fear change. We may fear offending or alienating people we care about.
            As followers of Jesus, we need to speak the truth in love. We need to be very clear that racism, domestic terrorism, religious extremism, bigotry, and blind hatred don’t represent America.  They don’t speak for the majority of white Americans.  They do real harm to people who are our neighbors. But much more importantly, they are counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
            There are times when we may feel overwhelmed with various kinds of problems or with the evil we see in our world, times when we may feel like we’re drowning. We might feel weak, broken, or vulnerable, or afraid of real dangers.
            But the good news is that there is help and hope.  During the storms of life, we hear Christ’s voice, calling to us, inviting us to step out in faith...  to trust in God’s grace and power. When we do, we can accomplish what we thought was impossible--with God’s help. 
            We can hear Christ calling us, through prophetic voices, challenging us, as individuals and as the Christian church, to “take heart… and to not be afraid.”
            Jesus is with us, in the midst of the storm, reaching out to us, ready to pull us out of the depths if our fears overcome us and we start to sink.
            Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Fran Hayes                                                                                 
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 13, 2017

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"More Than Enough": A sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

This Byzantine mosaic is preserved in the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, in Galilee, in the area which has traditionally been understood as the place where Jesus fed the 5,000.

"More Than Enough"

Matthew 14:13-21

         It had been a long day for Jesus and the disciples. After hearing that his cousin, John the Baptizer, has been beheaded by order of King Herod, Jesus is in distress and wants to be alone, so he goes off by boat to be alone to grieve in a deserted place.   But by the time he gets there, word has spread and a great crowd has hurried around the lake on foot and is gathered there.
            Jesus’ compassion for the needs of others overcomes his personal grief and weariness, and he responds to the people in compassion, curing those who were sick.
            It gets late, and people are hungry.  So, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “This is a deserted place, and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
            That sounds like a sensible, thoughtful suggestion. But Jesus has a different idea. He turns to the disciples and says, “We don’t need to send them away. You give them something to eat!” 
            Can you see those disciples, looking at each other, with the question on their faces?  “Are you kidding?  How could we feed all these people? Out here in this deserted place, with these scant resources—where are we supposed to find food for all these people?  There were 5,000 men, plus women and children! We don’t have anything here but five loaves and two fishes!”
            Jesus says, “Bring what you have to me.”  Then he commands the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looks up to heaven, and blesses, and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples, and the disciples give them to the crowds.” 
            The gospel tells us that everybody ate and were filled.  But it doesn’t end there.  They gathered up what was left over of the broken pieces, and there were twelve baskets full of leftovers!   
            Imagine it!  As many as ten or twelve thousand people, and they all were fed and filled, and there were twelve baskets left over?   It seems impossible.  How can we explain it?  Can we explain it?
            Not surprisingly, modern thinkers have come up with all sorts of interpretations of this meal.   Those who are more literal in their reading of the Bible say we have to take the story at face value.  They argue that some kind of miracle happened, that Jesus created new food where there was almost none before, and that we don’t have to understand how he did it.  We just need to know that he did it—that somehow God’s power moved through Jesus to provide an abundant meal for everybody.
            Other folk, the ones who have trouble believing in miracles but are quite willing to believe in human goodness, offer another view.  They suggest that instead of the abundance of food resulting from Jesus performing a miracle, the people in the crowd were so inspired by his teaching and healing that their hearts were opened, and they reached into their pockets and travel sacks and pulled out the bits of food that they’d brought—but were planning to keep for themselves—and they shared the food with each other, so that everyone ended up with something to eat.  Some might go on to say that God’s power moved them so there was an abundant meal for all, and some might call that a kind of miracle.
            Some others interpret the feeding story sacramentally.  They say that the people there only received a tiny morsel of food, but because of Christ’s presence, they received the spiritual sustenance and strength that they needed from the meal. [1]
            So…what did Jesus really do that day?  What happened?  We can’t really know.  But I think the important thing in this story is not how it happened, but why it happened.   Somehow—whether we understand it or not—the God of love provided an abundant meal for all.  No matter how things may seem, no matter how scarce our resources seem, God is able to provide enough.
            The first disciples didn’t get it, at least initially.  And often we don’t get it.  We look around and we’re certain there isn’t enough.  Enough people…enough energy…enough creativity…enough resources…enough whatever—to meet some need, to do some task.  And yet when we go ahead and give it our best shot, we often find that there was enough after all—and maybe even a basketful or so left over.
            Jesus came so that we may have life—abundant life.  Looking to heaven and blessing the bread, Jesus reveals abundance where we see scarcity.  What seems not enough is blessed, broken, and given back to the disciples for distribution.  They give the crowd something to eat, and it ends up being more than enough.       
            So, I think if we get hung up on the “how” of what happened, we risk what we disciples need to learn as we follow Jesus.
            Jesus didn’t lecture the thousands of hungry people gathered there on how they should have planned ahead before they hurried around the lake… how they should have packed food to take care of themselves and their family. He didn’t ask them if they were working or to prove what their income was.  He didn’t ask if they were from Galilee or if they were foreigners.   And isn’t that just like Jesus? He doesn’t seem to have any standards, except need.
            In the church, part of our life of discipleship is learning from Jesus how to trust in the abundance he promises, instead of the scarcity we fear.
            In our society, we work together as a community to do things we aren’t able to do as individuals. Our Congress is talking about the budget, which truly is an expression of our values as a society.
            Now, many members of Congress insist on standards. They want stricter work requirements for people who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutritious Assistance Program) payments. As Barbara Lundblad points out, around 91% of the members of Congress describe themselves as Christians. Some of them like to quote scripture to back up their positions, and one favorite text in recent debates about the SNAP program is from 2 Thessalonians.  A congressional representative quotes the apostle: “‘we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ So, I think it’s reasonable that we have work requirements.”[2]
            Now, Jesus hadn’t read the apostle Paul’s rule, because he hadn’t written it yet. I agree with Barbara Lundblad when she says Jesus must wonder why people like that one verse so much while they neglect most of the Bible, including Jesus’ own example and teachings….
            Almost 45% of those who receive SNAP benefits / food stamps are children. Another 30% are elderly or people with disabilities who may not be able to work. Many of the rest are working, even working full time, but don’t make enough to feed themselves or their families.
            In Jesus’ last teaching session in Matthew’s gospel, he tells how the Son of Man will divide everyone into two groups. To the blessed ones, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.” But the blessed ones asked, “When did we see you hungry and feed you?” Jesus replied, “As you did it to the least of these who are part of my family, you did it to me.”[3]
            From time to time, Christians have literally taken to heart Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat.  When we come to the Lord’s Table, we commemorate that last Upper Room meal.  We also need to remember how Jesus fed the multitudes.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we need to remember what he says to his disciples: “You give them something to eat.”
            People in our own communities and in our nation are hungry or food insecure. 
            20 million people in four countries are facing starvation: South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria. The United Nations calls this the worst humanitarian crisis since it was founded in 1945. Yet we hear very little about this tragedy.
            Seeing these huge numbers, we might feel overwhelmed. We might think, “There’s nothing I can do that will make a difference.” But, like those first disciples, we do have something, and we can give through the Presbyterian Church’s huger program or Bread for the World. We can write letters to our elected leaders.
            Working to end hunger is both personal and political. Working to end hunger is holy work.
            Did you notice? Jesus prayed that God would bless the food in his hands so it would be enough for all the hungry people. But he didn’t pray until after he said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Then, after praying, Jesus gave the broken bread and fish and gave it to the disciples, and they started passing them out. They may have been wondering how long the food would last, but they kept going until 5,000 men plus all the women and children were fed. When everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets left over.
            God is still at work in and through us today. In the face of all our concerns about not having enough, Jesus takes and blesses and breaks and gives—and transforms everything and everyone.  Jesus spread a banquet for thousands of people gathered … that day long ago, and keeps spreading a banquet before each of us.  Like that crowd gathered that day, like his own doubtful followers, Jesus invites us to trust, to accept his invitation, to come and feast bountifully.
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
August 6, 2017

[1] I am indebted to the Rev. Sharyl B. Peterson for her summary of some of the common interpretations of this feeding story, in her sermon “Feasting, Not Fasting,”  posted at 8/1/2008 in

[2] The Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, at Day1.

[3] Matthew 25