Sunday, November 26, 2017

“When Did We See You, Jesus?” A Sermon on Christ the King Sunday on Matthew 25:31-46

"When Did We See You, Jesus?"

Matthew 25:31-46

         Children on the playground pick teams. Littlefield folk sort ourselves into teams for feather bowling. Fans of the Harry Potter series can’t help thinking about the sorting hat. “Gryffindor! “Hufflepuff!” “Ravenclaw!” “Slytherin!”  A place for everyone and everyone in their place.
            As Jill Duffield points out, sorting has been part of human experience forever. “Before there were nations, there were tribes, different languages, different cultural practices, varied roles within the group, all designed to make sure people stayed in their lane.”[1]
            We may think we know all we need to know about the neighbor with the political yard sign that disagrees with our view. We sort people according to where they get their news.
            I think Jill Duffield could be right when she says we like being sorted.  It keeps things neater, less stressful. We don’t need to worry about being challenged, changed, or made uncomfortable. There have been some books written about this is recent years.  The Big Sort explores how a growing number of people have been segregating themselves, choosing to live in communities with others who share their views.[2] :  The more people confine themselves to likeminded company, the more extreme their views become, the more polarized society become.
            According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side of the spectrum see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being. Compared to the past, each side also increasingly gets its news from its own television channels and websites. And so, the divide widens.[3]

            The scriptures tell us that God sorts, too.  Jesus talks about the sorting that will come at the end of the age.   Good fish and bad fish, separating the wheat from the chaff, the wheat and the weeds…good fruit from bad fruit. And, in today’s lesson, separating the sheep from the goats.
            The passage opens with a vivid description of the Son of Man’s coming in glory, seated on his throne. The nations are gathered and sorted into two groups. Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, which is an image Matthew uses throughout his Gospel.
            In ancient Palestine, it was common to have mixed flocks. At night, the shepherd would have separated the sheep from the goats.  Sheep enjoyed the open air of the pasture, while goats had to be protected from the cold. Because sheep had more commercial value, they were preferred over goats. As shepherd, the glorious Son of Man now separates the sheep from the goats.[4]

            Today, some people sort themselves by choosing neighborhoods, churches and schools where people look like them, act like them, and don’t question their values and choices by their presence or viewpoints.     If we get to know somebody whose first language isn’t English, whose skin is a different color, who follows a different religious path, who votes differently, or who questions our church’s positions, if we form relationships and have honest and civil conversations with them, we need to acknowledge our prejudices and see the humanity in groups we have seen as “other.”  We need to learn how to talk about why we believe what we believe in a respectful and civil manner.  We need to listen when others share their experiences and beliefs. That’s hard work.

            A lot of people sort themselves to stay with people like themselves. But I don’t think God sorts like that. 
            So, what does this passage mean?  The way Matthew tells it, this is Jesus’ last formal act of teaching.  We hear that the Son of Man will separate the sheep and the goats. For the sheep, the news is good. They’re given a divine blessing and told they are the true heirs of God’s kingdom because they provided food, drink, hospitality, clothing, and care for the Son of Man. The goats were condemned because they did none of these acts of mercy.
            I wondered: is this a traditional morality tale about how those who do good deeds are rewarded    and those who don’t are punished?   Is that what this is?
            The sheep had no idea that, in their acts of compassion toward people in need, they were ministering to the Son of Man.  They were stunned and exclaimed, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and took care of you?” 
            The goats had no idea that, in their indifference, they were neglecting the Lord of all nations.  “When was it when we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t take care of you?”
            The surprising reply is that whenever they acted--or failed to act--in compassion to one of “the least”, they did so to Jesus Christ.
            So…where’s the good news in this parable?

            I was wondering about this when I read what a colleague wrote about how she visits her doctor every year for a complete physical examination. Much as she might want to avoid it, heart disease runs in her family, so she has a wellness exam. If her LDL cholesterol level is on the rise, she knows to cut down on the cookies and other treats and to add a few extra miles to her daily routine. If they would find a lump, she’d go in for more assessment and take steps needed to treat it, to regain her health, and ensure long-term wellness.
            In many ways, she says, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check. “Its purpose is not to condemn or scare, but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life.  As our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.”[5]

            As human beings, we all have a tendency to a kind of heart trouble that gets in the way of seeing the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick.
            These words of Jesus are profound and radical. They challenge us as individuals when we encounter somebody asking for money in the grocery store parking lot or on the street. After all, we can’t help everyone. Most of us don’t have either the money or the time. Anyway, how do we tell who is truly needy and who simply wants money to buy drugs or a bottle of cheap wine?  

            We need to remember that this passage tells us that the nations will be judged by how compassionately--or not-- we treat those who are in need.
            God created the world out of an abundance of love.  God is love, and repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people.   God sent Jesus to come and live among us, full of grace and truth, teaching and showing us what it means to be created in God’s image.
            In particular, we are called to love those are seem unable to give back. We are called to love our neighbors in need-- not to earn God’s love or to make sure we’re considered righteous at the time of judgment. We are called to give as a response to the love that is in us because God first loved us.
            Anne Lamott tweeted, "Who was it who said that to get into heaven, you needed a letter of recommendation from the poor? What a buzzkill."
            It may sound that way until you feed, clothe, visit, and welcome some of the least of these yourself. Then you realize they have as much dignity and humanity as anyone else. You begin to see that we are just as vulnerable to the ups and downs of life as they are, and our heart enlarges because of it.  Then you realize:  It's not really about charity-- it’s about conversion. 
            God is a God of surprises!  God came to be Immanuel--“God-with-us” -- in the form of a vulnerable infant.  God didn’t come to conquer the world with military or political might, but instead, in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross.  God continues to come where we least expect God to be-- in the plight of the homeless, of refugees, on the side of the poor, in the company of those who are imprisoned.
            “When did we see you, Lord Jesus?”
            The good news is that God is with us, here and now, revealed to us in word and sacrament and in the fellowship of broken people we call church.  God is with us when we go out to embody God’s love in the world, especially when we meet God in acts of mercy and service.
            God is with us, touching our hearts with love, saving us from obsessing about ourselves and our needs   and encouraging us to search for the face of God in the faces of those in need. God is with us, teaching us to take joy in acts of compassion and mercy.
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 26, 2017

[1] Jill Duffield, “Looking Into the Lectionary: Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017”, in The Presbyterian Outlook.
[2] Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans Is Tearing Us Apart. (Houghton Mifflin), 2008.
[3] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016).
[4] Thomas D. Stegman, SJ, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost. Kindle version, Location 12013.
[5] Lindsay P. Armstrong, in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost. Kindle version, Location 12022.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"The Life That Really Is Life." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, on November 19, 2027.

"The Life That Really Is Life"

Mark 12:38-44; Matthew 19:16-30

            We don’t know the woman’s name. We really don’t know anything about her, other than that she is an impoverished widow in first century Palestine, living on the margins of her society, with no safety net. No husband to protect or advocate for her.  No pension.  No Social security. She’s part of a poor and vulnerable class of society. 
            So, don’t you wonder what it means to point to a destitute woman who gives her last two coins to the Temple?  Should we applaud her self-sacrifice—or see her as naïve and impractical?
            Mark only uses this word for “widow” twice in his gospel, both times in the passage we just heard.  Unlike Luke, Mark doesn’t emphasize a mission to “the poor” in his narrative.  The first time Mark mentions the poor is when a wealthy man comes to Jesus asking how he can inherit eternal life.[1]  Jesus responds: “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”  The man couldn’t do it.
            But this poor widow does just that. She gives it all.
            What do we do with this?  Why would this poor widow give everything she had to live on?  Surely her small gift couldn’t make any difference to the Temple, and it wasn’t required.   In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not required to give to the Temple.[2]

            In the two parts of the story from Mark, we hear contrasting examples of discipleship.   These are teaching moments for Jesus as he calls his disciples to pay attention to the scribes, who “will receive the greater condemnation.”   Then Jesus points to the widow’s giving.
            This is one of the widows Jesus had just accused the scribes of abusing—offering her copper coins amidst the grand displays of generosity from the rest of the temple crowd.        
            The widow gives sacrificially—all she has to live on.  Her sacrifice is complete—so complete that Jesus wants his disciples to witness it.   “Truly,” Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. “That is why we know about her today, this nameless woman—because she gave all the little she had, holding nothing back.
            But don’t you wonder?  Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a religious institution?   Was it right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she did?   By ordinary human standards, what this widow did makes no sense.  Is Jesus saying we should all follow her example?  What does Jesus want us to learn from her?      
            Did you notice?  Nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing.  Nowhere in this story does he say, “Go, thou, all of you, and do likewise.”   He simply invites the disciples to contemplate the disparity between abundance and poverty, between large sums and two copper coins, between grand donations--and real sacrifice.   He doesn’t dismiss the gifts of the rich.  He simply points out that the poor widow turns out to be the major donor in the story.
            In Mark’s gospel, this is the last of Jesus’ lessons in the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last shall be first, and the great shall be the servants of all.   When Jesus leaves the Temple that day, his public ministry is over.  In four days, he will be dead, giving up the two copper coins of his life.  The widow withheld nothing from God; neither did Jesus.   
            In the scriptures, there are recurring themes of abundance and of trusting in God to provide what we need.
            In today’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, and that a widow there will feed him.  The widow is preparing to bake the last little bit of meal and oil into a last supper for her and her son—everything she had—and then they would die.  Elijah says to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Make me a little cake, and then make some for yourself and your son.  God promises you won’t run out of meal and oil as long as the drought lasts.”  And it was so.  There was enough.[3]
            Jesus, the one who gave his all for the sake of the world, for the sake of all of us, calls us to follow him… and learn from him., and he talks a lot about our relationship with money and possessions.  The gospel gives us clues about how to live joyful lives of freedom and trust. 

            Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story about a rich man who came to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life? Jesus told him to go and sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven. “Then, come, follow me.” When the rich man heard this, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
            The rich man went away grieving.  He couldn’t trust in God’s generosity and abundance.  What a contrast to the stories about the poor widows!  Friends, these stories challenge us, don’t’ they?
            Like the angels who keep showing up in the Bible, saying, “Don’t be afraid,” so Jesus uncovers our motives, those habits of the heart that keep us holding on tightly to things, to money, clinging to the things we think might keep us safe.  Then he invites us to care for the poor, and he offers us a new life of freedom from fear-- an abundant life of gratitude and contentment.
            So, how are we to love God?  With trust, instead of fear.  With gratitude, instead of demands.  With hope, instead of despair. 
            How do we comprehend the poor widow’s offering in the Temple?  I think we can see it as a statement of radical trust.  She chooses not to play it safe.  Instead, she gives her love gift first, trusting in God to provide what she needs. 
            But how does this happen?  How could she give everything?
I don’t have a simple answer for this. But I wonder if she somehow has come to feel that she has enough, and that she will continue to have enough.  I wonder if she has allowed herself to experience life as a blessing.  I wonder how this poor widow has come to trust in God as the one who blesses and provides—abundantly, predictably, faithfully. 
            I wonder if she has discovered something about the ultimate meaning of life: that when we give, we are most like God… that when we are lavish and gracious and generous, we are most like our lavish and gracious and generous God. 
            We don’t need to have a lot of money or possessions in order to trust in God to provide what we need. To the contrary, in the story about the rich man, Jesus is showing how having many possessions can keep us from a life of freedom and trust.
            Those of us who have attended presbytery meetings have worshipped together with our brothers and sisters from around the presbytery. One of the things that we’ve learned from our African-American brothers and sisters is a call-and-response affirmation from their tradition.
            “God is good--All the time.”
            “All the time--God is good.”
            Many of the congregations who say this often as an affirmation have a number of poor people in their midst. And yet, they can say in faith that, in the midst of troubles and challenges, they can find things to be grateful for and reasons to trust in God’s goodness.
            God is good--All the time.”
            “All the time--God is good.”

            During stewardship season, we are challenged to hold our relationship with money up to the light of our Christian faith.  Our faith challenges us to strive to overcome our tendency to live out of fear, guarding whatever wealth we have left-- and instead open our lives more fully to the truth we hear in this year’s stewardship theme taken from First Timothy: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”[4]
            What is the life that really is life?  It’s the life that focuses on the only true security that human beings have in this world, the completely reliable love of God.  “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you were made,” says First Timothy.
            It’s one of the many paradoxes of faith that-- at the very times when we feel most anxious about our own sufficiency-- the act of sharing and generosity can give us great joy and peace.  It changes the lenses through which we see our own situation. 
            It is an act of freedom that can replace false security with the real security of God,who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” It is an act of faith to commit ourselves to giving God the first fruits of our lives.
            “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”[5]
            The “life that really is life” is a life of contentment.  The “life that really is life” is a life of trust in our gracious God to provide what we really need.
            So-- let us be generous in our giving.  Let us open ourselves to the riches of the “life that really is life.” 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 19, 2017

[1] Mark 10:17-24
[2] Emerson Powerey, Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 at

[3] 1 Kings 17:7-16

[4] 1 Timothy 6:18-19   
[5] 1 Timothy 6:6-10

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Blessed Are Those Through Whom God's Light Shines." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on All Saints Sunday.

"Blessed Are They Through Whom God's Light Shines"

Matthew 5:1-16; Rev. 7:9-17

Jesus saw the crowds, and he went up the mountain and sat down, in the classic posture of an authoritative teacher.  He was teaching a New Law, casting a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It quickly becomes apparent that the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount turn the values of the world upside-down.
            Jesus begins this sermon with a list, but it isn’t a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”  But if the Beatitudes are a description of reality, what world do they describe?  Certainly, not the one we’re living in now.  One of my colleagues puts it this way:
            “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says. But in our world, the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding the worthless beads. “Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus, but in our world mourning may be tolerated for a while, but soon we’ll ask you to pull yourself together and move on. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus, but in our world such people are dismissed as being naïve.
            “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus, but in our world, those who pursue peace risk having their patriotism called into question.
            In the world we live in, it looks like we live by other beatitudes: “Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs. Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed. Blessed are you when you know what you want and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”   If we’re honest, we have to admit that the world Jesus proclaims is not the world we have made for ourselves.[1]
Our lives as disciples are in need of transformation.  The church and our society--the world--is in need of continuing re-forming.
            Living in the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t easy.  It doesn’t come naturally.  It’s something we have to learn over time, as disciples.  We learn the ways of heaven in Christian community, where we encourage each other and hold each other accountable.
            This morning we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day.  It’s about remembering those who have gone before us...  and who have shown us what it means to walk in the way of Jesus Christ.  It reminds us that we’re part of the “communion of the saints.” 
            So…on this All Saints Sunday--    GREETINGS to all you saints. 

            Does that make you squirm a little?   Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as being very saintly.  We might be able to relate to what Nelson Mandela said when somebody called him a saint.  Mandela said, “I’m not a saint unless you think of a sinner who keeps on trying.”   I think that’s a good way to think of it.
            In some parts of the Christian church, saints are people who have lived exceptionally holy lives.  But in the Protestant and Reformed tradition, we’ve come to understand the word “saint” in a broader sense--in the biblical sense.
            The apostle Paul began some of his letters by writing, “To all the saints at Rome…or Ephesus…or Corinth”—even if he was going to spend part of the letter telling them how they’ve been failing in the Christian life and need to do better.  Their failures don’t keep Paul from calling them “saints.” 
As Will Willimon says, “A saint is any Christian, anyone whom God has called out to be blessed… baptized… different… distinctive.  Saints are those ordinary people who have had their little lives caught, commandeered by Christ in rather extraordinary ways.  And for that, Jesus calls them “blessed.”[2]
            Jesus’ teachings about how to live as his followers were handed down to us as a community of people called to live this way together.  It’s a radically different culture than the mainstream culture around us. We are called together to be the church, which is in the business of producing and equipping saints for their ministries.
It would be too hard to live this way as individuals.  But as part of a community of people who are inter-connected with one another, who support and nurture and encourage one another in living prayerfully and generously and hospitably, we can find ways of sustaining each other in the Christian life.

            Think about it.  You may be the only word from the Lord that some people will hear this week or ever.   So, you—you all-- are blessed and sent out into the world to be God’s word in a troubled, hurting, confused world.  
            You and I are called to embody God’s love and light to the people we meet who are sad… or lonely… or hungry… or just need a friend. 
            The GOOD NEWS is that you are not alone.  On this All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints who have gone on before us, trusting in the promises of Christ and the reign of God.  We are in a long line, part of a procession of people of faith who are rooted in the past and march on toward an eternal hope.   While we who are a part of the Communion of saints here on earth labor on for the kingdom of God, the rest of the Communion of saints, past and present, are cheering us on!

            In the Revelation that was given to John, we receive a glimpse that great multitude of saints:
“The redeemed are so numerous they cannot be counted. Who is among them? There is Steven who was stoned and St. Peter who was crucified. Martin Luther. John Calvin. John Knox. John Wycliffe.
There is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, triumphant over the Nazi gallows. There is Bishop Oscar Romero with the Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving still issuing from his mouth as he was killed for his activism against poverty, social injustice, and torture.
There is Martin Luther King Jr., still praying that his dream will come true for humanity.  Sister Dorothy Stang, who was killed for advocacy for the rural poor in the rain forests of Brazil. Egyptian Copts killed on their pilgrimages.  Hildegard of Bingen.  Mother Teresa.  The list goes on and on. We see a procession of the faithful… these witnesses, through whose lives God’s light shined.
So, I hope we will ponder, with one of my colleagues:  What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors, in how we live our lives?  What would happen if we stopped aspiring to the culture’s prizes of status and power and privilege?  What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice and mercy and humility?[3] 
The Beatitudes give us glimpses of what the world looks like when the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount is answered: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done…” 
What is the world like when God’s will is done? 
            Saints, the light of God shines through your lives.  It is not our light that is shining:  it is the light of God, shining through our lives.  So, let the light of God shine through you so that others may know God’s hope and peace and joy! 

To God who is able to accomplish abundantly
            far more than all we can ask or imagine--
            to God be the glory in the church... 
            and in Christ Jesus... 
            to all GENERATIONS...
            for ever and ever!  Amen!

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

[1] Lance Pape, “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12, at Working Preacher,

[2] William Willimon, “Saints, All of You” at

[3] I am grateful to Sarah Dylan Breuer for posing these questions at Cited by Barbara Bruneau in “All the Saints and All the Hypocrites at REVGALBLOGPals.