Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Saying Yes to God." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

"Saying Yes to God"

Luke 1

Angels don’t show up very often in the Scriptures.  But when they do appear, usually something BIG... strange...  and wonderful is about to happen.
            The angel Gabriel came to tell Mary that she had been chosen by God to help change the world, by bearing the Christ.
Though Gabriel called Mary "favored one,” she apparently didn't feel favored-- at least not at first.  She felt perplexed.  “How can this be?”
            And yet Mary responded to Gabriel by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word."
            In other words, Mary says, “I'm not sure what all of this means.  but nevertheless, here I am, ready to be of service in God's work.  Whatever you say, God."
            What a wonderful, faithful thing for Mary to say!   It couldn't have been an easy decision for her.  Change never is.
            There was a lot at stake for Mary.  She was a young peasant girl from a small village.  Her marriage to Joseph had been arranged. 
Mary was poor...  and vulnerable.   As a female, her economic survival depended on marriage.  Her security depended on her attractiveness as a wife and mother.         So-- what did it mean for a girl like Mary to say yes to God’s plan?
            It meant risking all that she had hoped for...   all her plans for her life.    It meant risking her security.  And it meant risking her very lir3.  The penalty for a woman caught in adultery in her day could be public stoning.  If Joseph believed that her pregnancy was a result of an illicit affair, then-- by law-- Mary could be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death. At the very least, she will be disgraced in the eyes of the people of the village. She’ll be damaged goods.
            Mary's story reminds us that to be God's servant in the world means risking radical changes in our priorities.  It means placing our very lives into God's hands.   It means trusting in God to care for us—even through dangerous times.
            Yet Mary responded in obedience and trust and courage.   "Here I am, Lord."  I'll be your servant." 
            If Mary's decision was extraordinary, her response to the decision was even more extraordinary. 
            Luke tells us-that, after the angel left, Mary hurried to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who had been unable to bear children all her life.  As proof that nothing is impossible with God, the angel Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant in her old age.
            When Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, the child leaps in her womb, and she knows that she has been especially touched by God.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls out:  "You are BLESSED among women.  Blessed is she who believed that God's promise would be fulfilled!"
            By declaring both Mary and the fruit of her womb “blessed,” Elizabeth begins a series of blessings that weave through Luke’s birth narrative and intensify its tone of joy and praise.  Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon will all add their blessings, praising God for what God is doing at this moment in history   and recognizing that those who are privileged to be instruments of God’s saving work have been richly blessed.  
            Mary starts singing a song the church is still singing today-- a song we might think of as the first Christmas carol.  Her song is a song of joy and praise.  "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed."
            Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates isn’t content merely to point people toward heaven. God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food.  God isn’t satisfied with comforting the lowly, but lifts them up, giving them dignity. This is a merciful and subversive song, that sings of how God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.

            Through the centuries, Mary has been a model of faith.   God needed Mary's freely given "YES” to God's gracious invitation to become the Mother of Jesus.  The mystery of INCARNATION could not have taken place without Mary's wholehearted "YES".  And that "YES” couldn’t have taken place without Mary's unbounded trust in God.

            Do you wonder?  How was such radical obedience and openness on Mary's part made possible?  How did she get from saying, “How can this be?”—to “Let it be, according to God’s word”?
            I think it grew out of the sense of trust that had developed in her as she heard the stories of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob...  and how God had always dealt with her people.  That long history had taught her two things about God-- that God was utterly mysterious...  and yet always good.   God's ways are almost never obvious...  but they inevitably work out better than we could imagine.   And that's some of the GOOD NEWS of God. 

            The old King James Version puts part of Mary’s song of praise this way: “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”  I think that’s an especially apt translation, for it is by our imagining, by what our hearts picture in fear or desire, that we humans are pushed and pulled in our many directions.
            Imagination can be a channel for our destruction—especially when fear and resentment prevail.  But it can also serve to gather and bless and inspire us.   

            We live in a society in which the gap between the rich and poor keeps widening…  a society in which many people of goodwill are finding it important and necessary to declare that black lives matter… where it’s important and necessary to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and with refugees.    We live in a time of fear and suspicion of people who are different… and a growing number of people believe they need guns to protect themselves against all the terrible things they imagine.   
            We live in a world in which many people lack adequate food or safe water or shelter or sanitation.   The ways of the world seem to have taken over, and mercy is in short supply.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Mary models for us a way of joyful, hopeful obedience, working with God to change the world, hoping in God’s promises.

            If you read through the first few chapters of Luke, you’ll notice that several songs.   Mary sings the “Magnificat” in today’s story.  Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened.  The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds.  And Simeon sings his song of farewell when he has seen God’s promises fulfilled. 
            Why all these songs?  I think David Lose is right when he suggests that singing can be an act of resistance.   African slaves knew this.  When they sang their spirituals, they were praising God and also protesting the injustices of their lives and pointing the way to freedom. 
            The civil rights leaders in our nation knew this, too, as they sang their freedom songs.  
            The protesters in Leipzig in 1989 knew this as well.  For several months before the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai Church—the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas—to sing.  Over two months, their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand—over half the citizens of the city.  They sang songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. 
            Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they didn’t crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”[1]

            Today, I hope we will sing Mary’s song of praise with her...  and watch for signs of how “the world is about to turn.”
            A lot of what we do when we come together in worship is practicing this imagination of the heart, by the gift and command of God.  In the liturgy, we imagine that love rules already, that the lowly are lifted up, that death is conquered, sin cleansed away... peace triumphant...and Christ touched and seen and tasted.  On the verge of Christmas, we imagine and sing with Mary.
            Imagine with the Magnificat its dream of a justice that re-distributes wealth and privilege and power, so that everyone has what they need.   Imagine a world where the lion and the lamb can be together in peace… where those who have been proud and rich can be in solidarity with those who yearn for a turning of the socio-economic tables… imagine discovering that there can be enough for everyone in God’s realm.          
            And remember that we're invited to participate more fully in God's saving work in the world. 
            Mary was invited to bear Christ.  And so, my friends, are we. 
            We can choose to say YES to God, and open ourselves to let God use us as instruments of love and grace and mercy and justice and peace.
Today’s gospel story is about Mary.  But it’s your story and mine as well.  God has chosen each of us, favored each of us, graced each of us, and spoken God’s Word to, over, and in each of us.
By the power of God’s Spirit, God has descended upon us and conceived Christ in us.   We are called to be God-bearers, a calling that can bring with it extraordinary blessings, as well as significant hardships.  But the promise remains the same: nothing is impossible for the One we serve and bear.
We are called to bear the love of Christ out into the world...  and let it transform the world, as it transforms us.  
            " Let it be with me, according to your word.” 
            Let it be with us, according to your Word.”
            Let it be!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor

Littlefield Presbyterian Church

Dearborn, Michigan

December 24, 2017     


[1] David Lose, “Singing as An Act of Resistance, at, December 14, 2015.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Witnesses to the Light." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent

Edward Hicks, "A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners," 1829-30

"Witnesses to the Light"

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; 1 Thessalonians 3:16-24

            I love the season of Advent-- the invitation to quiet reflection and expectant waiting… the eschatological hope for justice through God’s realm on earth.
            The Third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as Joy Sunday.   That’s why we lit the rose-colored candle.  Joy is a theme in most of the scripture lessons we heard today.  In the epistle lesson we heard the apostle Paul urging the church to “Rejoice always and in everything.”
            Yet-- during the past few days, as I've meditated on the scriptures, I've been thinking about how painful a season this can be for many people. Some are lonely.  Some are grieving the loss of a loved one.  Some are depressed.  Some are too poor to be a part of the festival of extravagance the merchants would have us believe is what Christmas is all about.  Some are hungry. Some are homeless.
            In our nation, parents of millions of children are worrying about how they will pay for their children’s health care if the CHIP program isn’t re-funded.
            Every day, someone in our nation dies due to gun violence. Opioid addiction keeps claiming more victims. Forest fires continue to rage in California.
            More and more women have been breaking the silence and accusing those who have sexually assaulted or harassed them--many of them powerful men from the entertainment business, or politicians or journalists, who used their power and privilege to oppress women and to assure their silence. Many of us have our #Me Too stories. Most of us long for it to end so we can live and work together with respect and civility. But how?
            We live in a system in our culture where people have learned to see one another as less than fully human, as less than precious and valued, and we have adapted ourselves to this understanding, with our lives shaped by these values. Sometimes, for those who are privileged, it works to their advantage. Others live with this because they don’t know what else to do… or they haven’t had the power to do so… or they couldn’t survive the cost of losing a job if they spoke out.
            In the midst of so much bad news, we long for some good news.
            Today we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor, and the day of rescue of our God; to comfort all who mourn….”

            This Advent, many of us are longing for God’s justice and peace in the world.  We long for good news for the oppressed, for the brokenhearted, for the fearful, vulnerable and captive. We wonder: when will our ashes be replaced with garland?
            We could use some good news for those who mourn and those who huddle in ruined cities and devastated places. We wish that our elected officials could hear the prophet’s message from God, “For I, God, love justice. I hate robbery and sin.” 
            Surely, this is nothing new. God’s people have been yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promises for thousands of years.
            Some days, the prophet’s vision seems too good to be true, no matter how badly we want to believe that the God who loves justice is on the way. 

            Isaiah saw the injustice of the suffering of his people. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, he tells us.  And so does John, as he points to Jesus, the one yet to come.
            John comes as a witness to testify to the light, proclaiming, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

            Perhaps this is the beginning of the freedom Isaiah announced and Jesus brought and will bring in all of its fullness… a time when the brokenhearted are finally bound up and healed… and God’s powerful promises are fulfilled. Do we believe that God’s good news has the power to transform our lives?  I want to believe that.
            The message of Advent is that God in Christ is coming into the world.  In Jesus, God's Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.   What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.[1]

            In Charles Dickens' story, "A Christmas Carol,"  Ebenezer Scrooge is London's most notorious miser.  He's a mere shadow of the joyful person he was created to be, hunched up against the world...  stingy and suspicious.  When the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave, the knowledge that he will die breaks through all the defenses he’s used to try to hide his childlike soul for so long.  He's overwhelmed with a piercing sense of remorse for how he has been living. 
            Seeing the light of truth after living in the darkness for so long is painful.  But what follows his rebirth into new life is joy!

            For some time, I’ve felt drawn to the work of Edward Hicks, who was an American sign and stagecoach painter in the early nineteenth century.  He’s known almost exclusively for his many paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom. 
            One of these, entitled The Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners, was painted during a time when tension and separation had split American Quakers into two groups.  In the background is a cluster of very somber-looking people.  But in the foreground, is a depiction of the peaceable kingdom:  a leopard is lying down with a lamb.  A little child is embracing a lion. 
            Those somber-looking people in the background are connected to the peaceable kingdom by a banner that declares, “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy.”  The sinuous ribbon with its beginning in the mists of eternity weaves its way through and among them, braiding them together.
            Our Christian joy and faith aren’t based solely on the evidence we see in the present-- but on the hope of the future.  Our Christian joy comes to us in our experience of God’s presence.
            This Advent, the coming may be a present experience.  God is about to be born in the cradle of believers' hearts and lives, either for the first time or as a renewed birth, as God-with-us reaches new depths within our very souls.  And this, my friends, is reason for joy! 

            Do you remember what Ebenezer Scrooge was like when he was re-born that Christmas?  He couldn't keep his joy to himself!  He was filled with the joy of new life...   and he just had to share his joy with others!
            When we receive the JOY of Jesus Christ, we're called to proclaim the light that outshines all darkness.  Once we've been touched by the light of Christ, we're called to carry the light out into the world    and be witnesses of the light. 

            The God we know and trust because we have seen his love revealed in Jesus Christ calls us out of darkness--  into the Light that overcomes the darkness.  Our job as we wait for Christ to come again in power and glory is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, who is the light of the world and calls us to live lives that reflect Christ's light!  
            Our calling as the church of Jesus Christ is to mediate God’s promises and commands to the world.  We are called to live into hope-- of captives freed...  of sight regained...  the end of greed. 
            No matter how dark things look, we know that darkness does not have the last word.  Jesus, the Light of the world, has come and shines in the darkness.  The darkness does not and will not overcome it.
            So-- let us rejoice always.  Let us pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything…  for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.
May the God of peace make you completely holy and whole.  May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ![2]
            Come, Lord Jesus!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 17, 2017

[1] John 1
[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Waiting in the Dark." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent.

"Waiting in the Dark"

Mark 13:24-37

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, the scripture readings the lectionary gives us aren’t about angels bringing tidings of great joy.  That will come later. Today, we’re asked to consider the end times, or at least what will happen in the future.
            Over the centuries, there have been many predictions about the end of the world, but they’ve been wrong. We’re still here.
            Some of us may have taken a peek at the last pages of a book, to see how it ends. Over the centuries, many have longed to get a look at the “last page,” to know when and how the end of time will come.
            The followers of Jesus, too, wanted to know about the future. Earlier in Mark 13, the disciples ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”[1]
            Jesus told them, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” and he says that the future is not ours to know.  In today’s lesson, we hear Jesus say, “About that day or hour no one knows…. only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. Therefore, keep awake-- for you don’t know when.  Keep awake.”
            In Mark’s “little apocalypse,” there’s no mention of the end of the world…no indication of final judgment…no call to flee daily realities and responsibilities-- only the promise that the Son of Man is near.

            One of the places I'd like to visit someday is Ireland.  Around 500 A.D., the southwestern coast line of Ireland was the end of the known world--   which someone suggested may be why it's dotted with prehistoric stone circles and the ruins of ancient monasteries. 
            One of these monasteries was built on an impossibly steep rock island eight miles off the coast.  For 700 years, the monks there practiced a strict, ascetic way of life.  They survived the weather and raids by the Vikings.  They hauled stones to build 2700 steps up the mountain's dizzying height-- to the prayer huts on top the mountain.  They'd climb up to the mountaintop to pray...   and to watch for Christ to return in power and glory.
            In the eleventh century, a somewhat more relaxed form of monastic rule came into fashion on the mainland.  When the European orders of Benedictines and Augustinians arrived in Ireland, the local tradition of small, independent monasteries began to die out.  In the thirteenth century, the last of the monks got into their boats and rowed away from their rocky outpost.
            Nobody knows for sure why they left, but it's possible that they just got tired of waiting.  As Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, seven hundred years is a long time to watch the horizon for the second coming.   It's a long time to keep your fasts and say your prayers at prescribed times throughout the day and night.              It's a long time to live in strictly disciplined community with one another-- especially when word reaches you that the monks on the mainland have made some changes.  They're eating better and sleeping later than you are.  They've decided they can be in the world a little more without being of it--   especially since it looks like they're in for a longer wait than anyone had expected.[2]
            Centuries later, we can sympathize.  Few of us spend our days watching the horizon expectantly for Christ's second coming.

            The earliest Christians thought the Second Coming would be immediate, and they lived accordingly. But more than 2,000 years have passed since God came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus hasn't come back.
Waiting is hard.  Waiting has always been hard.  The Bible is full of stories about what faithful people did while they waited.  It’s full of promises not yet fulfilled. 
            Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets were writing and talking about waiting for one who would be like a light for the darkness.   Those who heard the prophets were weary with impatience.  They wanted the Messiah now.  They yearned for God to be on their timetable.  For years...  for centuries...  through the events of history, God's answer was, “Wait."  
            In the prologue to John's Gospel, John the Baptist said, “I am not the light, but I come to tell you about the light that is to come."   The crowds were so anxious for a Messiah that they wanted John the Baptist to be the Messiah.  Again, God's message was "Wait"...
            The Christian year begins in dark times.  The days keep getting shorter and shorter, and the darkness keeps increasing, and it looks like darkness rules-- until the earth rounds the bend on December 21. That day, the Winter Solstice, can be a sign to us that longer days are coming, that light will be increasing and darkness will be decreasing.
            The disciples were looking for certainty-- a sign.  They needed to know that the world was in God's good hands.  When the cosmos collapsed and every light in the sky was put out, they were to remember what he had told them.  They were to remember that God is Lord over darkness as well as light.   They were to watch-- even in the darkness-- for his coming.
            By the time, Mark wrote his words down years later, it seemed that the end was very near.  The stars were still in the sky, but the headlines were as bad then as they are now.  Jerusalem was in ruins.  The temple had been destroyed.  The emperor Nero was persecuting the Christians in Rome.  False messiahs were setting themselves up on every street corner, each of them claiming to be God's anointed one. 
            It felt like everything was falling apart...  and those who had believed in Jesus must have wondered if they'd been fooled.  Surely this wasn't the way things were supposed to turn out.  Not this chaos!  Not this darkness!
            That's when Mark told them the story again, writing it down so they wouldn't forget:  how Jesus himself had predicted it all...  how he had tried to tell them that they couldn't have a new world without letting go of the old one.
            It was and is the good news of the end of the world:  when the end comes, it won't be because God is absent-- but because God is very present...   because God is coming in great power and glory to make all things new.
            In the meantime, our job is to watch, Jesus says.  Not to watch out.  But to watch-- to stay alert...  pay attention...  so that we aren't snoozing when the time comes.

In the midst of all the pain… suffering… confusion… injustice…and chaos in the world, the people of God are called to proclaim the Light that out-shines all darkness. Once we’ve been touched by the Light, we’re called to be bearers of Christ’s light, to carry the light out into the world.
            The military has developed special goggles that help people see in the dark.  In a place that's totally dark, you can look through the goggles and see.  Something in the goggles picks up and concentrates the light that would be too faint to see otherwise.
            Isn't that a wonderful parable for the church?  There's always some light in all darkness, even if we can’t see it. As a community of faith, we can pick up the beacon of unseen Light and help the world to see it more clearly. 
            The God we know and trust calls us out of darkness-- into the Light that overcomes the darkness.
            The good news is that darkness does not have the last word.  Jesus, the light of the world, has come and shines in the darkness....  and the darkness does not and will not overcome it.  
            So, stay alert.  Stay awake.  When we live as if the Lord might return at any time, we have nothing to fear.
            Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Mark 13:4
[2]I'm indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor for the monastery story and this line of thinking, which appear in Journal for Preachers, Advent 1996