Sunday, January 28, 2018

"What Is This?" A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

"What Is This?"

Mark 1:21-28

What an exciting day it was at the Capernaum synagogue!  Mark tells us that the people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one with authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
            But Jesus rebuked him, commanding the unclean spirit to be silent and come out of him. The unclean spirit came out of the man, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice.
            The people were amazed, and kept asking, “What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

            Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never witnessed a dramatic exorcism like the ones we read about in the Bible. Talk about evil and demons and unclean spirits sounds strange to us. But when we pay attention to the daily news, it’s hard to deny that evil is pervasive. Many of us long for God to intervene, to bring light and wholeness.
            Where do you find yourself in the gospel story today? With the people who are ready to be astounded and amazed at what new things God is doing in the world?  Or with the people who are comfortable with the status quo…or who are afraid of change and want Jesus to leave the neighborhood?

            What happens in the Capernaum synagogue develops into the conflict that’s a major theme throughout Mark’s gospel.  In the 11th chapter of Mark—and also Matthew 21-- the religious establishment-- the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders come to Jesus after he cleanses the Temple, demand to know:  "By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority to do them?" What we have here is a matter of authority, in Jesus' time and, I believe, in our own time as well.  
            There has always been a danger that we will use the scriptures to confirm what we already think...  and that we will hear only what we want to hear.   
            Many Germans once found in the Bible justification for slaughtering millions of Jews or at least justification not to resist the Nazi regime’s actions.  Because they wanted to keep their human property, many American Christians once argued from the Bible that it is right to buy and sell human beings as if they were animals. 
            Mean-spirited people tend to find a mean God in the Bible.  Comfortable, privileged people usually find that the Bible supports social and political conservatism that won’t interfere with their power and privilege.  Poor, exploited people may find that the Bible supports social and political reform or revolution.
            So, what is to keep us from simply using the Bible to give authority to our own agendas and prejudices?  What is to prevent us from using the Bible as a pious excuse for refusing to face the radical claims the living God makes on every area of our lives, here and now?
            In our Reformed tradition, one of the essential beliefs of our faith is a recognition of the human tendency to make idols and to oppress those who have less power than we do.  The positive part of that belief is our belief that we are called by God to work to transform society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.
            This is a time of great turmoil in the world and in Christ's church.   During another time of turmoil, Martin Luther and John Calvin and other reformers challenged the religious establishment of their times and brought about the Protestant Reformation.   Later, abolitionists challenged the status quo in a church that tolerated or actively supported the institution of slavery.  The traditional view of women's role in the church was challenged when we were permitted to be ordained as elders, deacons, and ministers of the word and sacrament.
            None of these changes were comfortable.   Change is hard...  and painful.  Sometimes it's hard to discern God's will for us, as individuals or as the church, in the midst of complex, divisive issues.   People who advocated for the changes were seen as “fanatical"...   "immoral"... "subversive"… or heretical.

            The God we worship is not a tame God.  If we aren’t continually astounded and amazed by Jesus’ authority, we may be missing something important. We need to be praying about this.

            Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, came proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent--change-- and believe in the good news.

            The scribes and others we hear about in the gospel who resisted Jesus and his message weren't bad people.  But they didn't know what to do with Jesus when he came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, telling people to repent-- to change-- and trust in the good news.  They couldn’t imagine another way of living faithfully in the world. They had a hard time trusting in what Jesus said about how he came to bring us a life of abundance, where everyone can have enough if we all share. So, whenever Jesus challenged the status quo, they questioned his authority.  Some wanted him to go away and leave things the way they were.
            As followers of Jesus Christ, we confess that Jesus is Lord of our life.   We're called to trust in Jesus.  We're invited to continually be amazed at the truth and grace and freedom we find in his teaching...  and his power to even cast out unclean spirits.
              Over the past 2,000 plus years Christians have continually needed to ask in every new time, place, and situation, “What is the living Lord saying and doing, here and now?  What do we need to say and do in order to be faithful and obedient in our time and place?"
One of the reasons the church exists is to speak and act consistently with God’s character and purpose—like Jesus did. In today’s lesson about Jesus and the unclean spirit, Jesus doesn’t make compromises with evil.  He acts to defeat evil so people can be set free for new life.  He sets them free from what possesses them. He heals them of what ails them.
Jesus’ authority did not come from military power or wealth or social standing.  His authority is from God, who has the ability to deliver and to heal, to convict and to forgive, to cleanse and to raise from the dead.
There’s an urgency in Mark’s gospel to recognize that Jesus makes a claim on our lives. Christ calls us to work together, in partnership with him, to confront and overcome the harmful and destructive forces in our lives and in the world around us.
As you may know, our Engage Book Group read the Rev. William Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction,[1] a while ago and were challenged by it.  Some of us have gone to hear Rev. Barber speak, and some of us have been praying about how we might be part of the new Poor Peoples Campaign, which will be forty days of action from Mother’s Day to the Summer Solstice.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s death and of the Poor People’s Campaign, through which Dr. King was working to unite diverse groups impacted by poverty and injustice. The campaign was carried out that spring and summer after Dr. King’s death.[2]
            Fifty years later, the work is not done.  The four evils that the new Poor Peoples Campaign is taking on are four interlocking issues: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation. This national movement is working to bring together interfaith clergy, community leaders, and faith-based and community groups.

Can we say we believe in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world if we don’t commit ourselves to bringing it to the people for whom God’s kingdom has been denied- so far-- people who lack basics like safe water to drink, adequate shelter, good education, health care, and a chance to have a place at the table in our society?
As the people of God, we are called to share the good news of God’s love with all the people God loves. We’re called to help the world recognize the miracle of grace and abundance that is offered to all people in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to do it alone.
            The good news is that in this broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
            In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to Christ in our daily lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”[3]
            May it be so!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 28, 2018

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and William Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (Beacon Press, 2016).
[2] For more information, please see:

[3] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1990.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"A Sense of Urgency." A sermon on Mark 1:14-21 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Epiphany.

"A Sense of Urgency"

Mark 1:14-20

            What would make you drop everything and pursue a whole new life?  A great job offer? An educational opportunity? The chance to make a difference?
            Can you imagine picking up and leaving everything to follow Jesus?  I think, if we’re honest, most of us would find it really hard to leave work and family and friends and everything that’s familiar and safe to venture out into an unknown, uncertain future.
            Right after Jesus' baptism, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.  Then, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent, and believe in the good news.”
            Turn.   Change.  Come and be a part of the kingdom. 

            Jesus’ time has come, but he needs help.  He’s passing along the Sea of Galilee, and he sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting a fishing net into the sea.   He says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  Just like that. Immediately.  
            A little further on, Jesus sees James and John in their boat, mending their fishing nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father in the boat with the hired men, and they followed him.

            Jesus sees some ordinary people working at their ordinary jobs, and he enlists them to help in his mission.  The way Mark tells it, they don’t seem to agonize over the decision.  Immediately, they leave their nets on the shore, say good-bye to their families, and they take off with this strangely compelling itinerant preacher who tells them of Good News and a new way of life and calls them to help him bring in the kingdom of God.
            Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of people.
            Now, that would be a different kind of fishing for them.   It would mean casting out nets to gather people in to be part of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is manifest when human beings embrace God’s rule through repentance and faithful living, about a total re-orientation of our lives. 
            When Jesus called the Galilean fishermen to discipleship, he didn’t just ask them to add one more task to their busy lives.  He calls disciples into new ways of being… a new identity… a new way of living their lives in the world.  Jesus calls each of us to repent—to open ourselves to transformation of our relationships, work situations, social commitments, and political allegiances and our church communities.  
            We may not all be called to leave our occupations and families and homes behind. But all of us are called to look at our own lives through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow them to be shaped and transformed by the values of the kingdom of heaven.
            Every Christian has a calling—a vocation to serve Christ wholeheartedly in whatever occupation, or network of family relationships or context in which we have been planted.
            Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John by name, but he didn’t call them to be individual disciples.  He called them together to form the basis of a new community.   The little band of disciples formed a community right from the very beginning – they were already becoming the church.
            The community the New Testament calls, in the Greek, ecclesia, literally means “called out.”  The church is a called-out community whose purpose is to exhibit the kingdom of God to the world."   We, the church of Jesus Christ, all of us, are the "called out" people of God.
            Peter, Andrew, James and John were not called just to hang with Jesus and enjoy his company.  The church today isn’t called together to enjoy each other’s company and be comfortable together.   A congregation that’s focused only on its inner life and on survival has forgotten why it exists. 
            You may have heard the parable of the little life-saving station, but I think it bears repeating.  On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was a once a crude little life-saving station.  The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea. With no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost.
            Many lives were saved by this little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who had been rescued, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little life-saving station grew.
            Some of the new members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped.  They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those who were rescued from the sea.
            So, they built a bigger building and replaced the emergency cots with beds and got nicer furniture.  Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they re-decorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club.
            In time, there were less of the members who were interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired life boat crews to do this work. The mission of life-saving was still given lip-service but most were too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the life-saving activities personally.
            About this time, a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had dark skin. Some of them spoke strange languages. The beautiful new club quickly showed signs of damage and wear-and-tear from all the people. So, the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
            At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's life-saving activities and focus on their comfortable club activities with each other. Some members insisted that life-saving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the life of all the various kinds of people who were being shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. And so they did.
            As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another life-saving station was founded.
            If you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore.  Shipwrecks are still frequent in those dangerous waters, only now most of the people drown.
            We have a mission in the world. As theologian Emil Brunner said, "The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning."
            For the first disciples, it was costly to follow Jesus.  Jesus and his gospel challenged a lot of their understandings about family and society--even about faith. It threatened the systems of privilege, patronage, and loyalty to the emperor.  All of the values and institutions that seemed to be fixed realities were called into question by the Christian vision of a new way of being in the world--a world in which there would no longer be "slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, because all are one in Christ Jesus."[1]
            Jesus calls us, and the call challenges our center of gravity and wants to shift it from being centered on ourselves to God’s call—God’s dream for us and God’s world. It can be a real adventure in faith.
            In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf urges the hobbit Frodo Baggins to leave behind his comfortable existence and set out on a quest.  Frodo resists, saying, “We are plain quiet folk, and I have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things.” ` If you’ve read the books or seen the movies you know that Frodo does leave his comfortable hobbit hole and goes on a great adventure, and it changes his life completely.
            Some of the financial and other challenges this congregation has faced over the past few years threw us off center for a while.  It’s easy to get so thrown off-center that we could forget why we exist, turn inward, and focus on survival.   That’s why we’ve spent time over the past few years working on our mission statement and core values.  That’s why we need to keep discerning God’s will for us.

            Jesus calls us to follow him.  So, we need to be praying for God’s guidance and power.  Pray for the courage we need to look at our context and challenges and possibilities.  Pray that we will trust in God to provide whatever it is we need, as we cast out the net of God's love and bring in those who need to know God's love and acceptance and healing. 
            Pray for our leaders, that they will be strengthened to lead the congregation with love and energy and imagination.   Pray that this community will be energized to deal with the kind of changes we need to make in order to go fishing with Jesus.         
            Have you heard the good news?  The kingdom of God is near.    Jesus calls ordinary people like you and me to help bring in those who are sick and afflicted, those who need to hear the good news. 
            Follow me, Jesus says.  Follow me.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 21, 201

[1] Galatians 3:28

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Come and See." A Sermon on John 1:43-51 on the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday before the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday.

"Come and See"

John 1:43-51

I heard a story about a woman who volunteered at an art museum as a docent.  There was a statue in the collection that this docent had walked by and even told others about countless times. 
On one particular tour, the docent was leading a group of blind guests.  A young girl was among those invited to touch the statue that she couldn’t see. 
The docent remembers, “She ran her hands down the body of this female figure, and her first remark was: ‘Oh, she’s pregnant.’
The docent recalls, ‘And I had never thought about that.  But in fact, the figure does look like a pregnant woman.  Here was a kid really showing me something that I had been looking at for thirty-five years and had never noticed.’”[1]

The gospel story we heard today about Nathanael is about seeing…and being seen.  It’s a story about seeing what’s in front of you, and how hard that reality is.   It’s about learning to see in a whole new way, because of how Jesus sees him.
This is the second part of a story about Jesus calling the disciples.   As John the Evangelist tells it, these are disciples of John the Baptist.  When Jesus walks by, John the Baptist tells them that Jesus is the one they have all been waiting for.  Then Simon Peter and Andrew go with Jesus.
That’s where today’s gospel lesson picks up.  Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me.”  Philip goes and finds Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the laws and also the prophets wrote—Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathanael isn’t impressed.   He asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip doesn’t try to argue with him.  He simply repeats the invitation that Jesus gave the day before: “Come and see.”

“Come and see.”   Peter Gomes wrote that these three simple words are “the entire sum and substance of the Gospel.    Jesus invites us to join him in the fullness of all that God has in store for all who love him.
“Come and see.”   And that’s what Nathanael did.   When Nathanael comes into view, Jesus explains approvingly, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
But Nathanael can’t see Jesus at first, because he’s looking through the clouded lens of his own prejudice.   When he looks at Jesus, he sees somebody from Nazareth.  Can anything good come from Nazareth? 
He asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” 
Jesus answers, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus tells Nathanael he has seen him and known him…recognized him.  And suddenly Nathanael sees Jesus as he really is.  For Nathanael, being seen makes the difference.   And he begins to see things differently.  When we see things through the lens of the gospel, it changes what we expect to see… and what we already know—or think we know—about what we’re looking at. 
Sometimes we can’t see because of what we think we already know— about “those people” from the wrong side of town… or the wrong part of the world…or the wrong side of the issue.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Or Ghana? Or Nigeria? Or Haiti?”
Sometimes we can’t even see ourselves, because our vision is blurred by denial and self-delusion…or by insecurity and self-hate. 
Nathanael is changed by how Jesus sees him.  Before he knew Jesus, Jesus has seen and known him.  Being seen and loved changes Nathanael, and it gives him new vision, to see greater things than he ever could have imagined. 

Over the centuries, others have been given new ways of seeing.   Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them.  He was transformed by the gospel and changed by how others saw him, and he heard God’s call.
In 1955, King was a young man, a recently installed pastor at a kind of uptown church-- a place known for being the church of the black elite.
In the mid-1950’s, he wrapped up his course work for his Ph.D. and took his first call to a church.  He had recently declined a nomination to serve as the president of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the NAACP, because he felt he needed to spend more time at his church work. 
            Then Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. A meeting was held in the African-American community to decide who was going to lead the bus boycott.  The other pastors and influential leaders in the community were smart enough to know that this looked like a risky business, so they decided to ask the new pastor in town to serve as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group that would lead the bus boycott.  
 King didn’t see himself in that job.  But others saw him that way, and their vision changed him. 
            Rev. King had every reason in the world to say, "This is not the right time for me. I have a young family.  I have a dissertation to finish writing.  I have a congregation that doesn’t know me or trust me yet.   If I start out at the head of this enterprise, what will that do to my relationship to my congregation?  It just isn’t a good time.  This isn’t the time for me to do something like this.” 
            But, as we know, this very human being was moved from “not my time” to yes.  
            A while later, there was another defining moment. It came past midnight, in the King family’s kitchen. By that time, Martin was 27 years old.  Over the past month, he had been leading the bus boycott, a decision that set off a series of death threats delivered via mail and phone to his home-- as many as 30 to 40 calls a day, often at night. Normally, King could put the phone down and go back to sleep. But one call, on the night of January 27, 1956, stood out.
            As King’s wife, Coretta, and their 10-week-old daughter slept in the bedroom nearby, the voice on the other end of the line spoke, calling him a racial epithet, and saying, “We’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”
            Shaken, King went to the kitchen, made himself a cup of coffee, but soon buried his face in his hands.
            Dr. King described it in his book, Stride Toward Freedom: “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
            “The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
            “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.1

            The fears ceased. But not the threats. Several days later, around 9:00 pm, a bomb exploded on the front steps of the house. Nobody inside was hurt. All these years later, traces of the bomb are still visible in the concrete.[2]
More than 60 years have passed since the Montgomery bus boycott. More than 50 years have passed since the March on Washington when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. 
We have had a tendency to freeze Martin Luther King in 1963, at the time of his “I have a dream” speech. But he went through a transformation in the last several years of his life before he was killed at age 39.

On Christmas Eve 1967, a few months before he died, he spoke with his congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church and said, “I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream, I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. “
Dr. King comforted the families of those little girls and preached their funerals, and struggled with the fact that the church was bombed partly because it had been a focal point for Birmingham’s community in the struggle he had led just months before.[3]
If we are to remember Dr. King with honesty, we need to remember the events of those several years and how they impacted him:  the assassination of President Kennedy, the disappearance of the three young SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) volunteers in 1964.
King was going through a rapid transformation from a civil rights leader to a human rights activist. He came to see himself as an advocate for the poor and oppressed wherever they were.  He began working to bring together people of all races and parts of the country, anyone who was impacted by poverty and injustice.  In December 1967, he announced organizing a Poor People’s March on Washington to demand better jobs, better homes, better education--better lives than the ones they were living.
In the eyes of many, Dr. King was seen as a “communist dupe,” “troublemaker,” ‘traitor,” or “na├»ve, because he was challenging the status quo and speaking out against the triple evils of materialism and systemic poverty, of militarism, and racism.
Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. (Some of us who are old enough remember exactly where we were when we heard the news.)   The Poor People’s Campaign went forward, climaxing in the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom on June 19.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Dr. King’s death and the Poor People’s Campaign. The day after Mother’s Day is the beginning of a New Poor People’s Campaign, under the leadership of Bishop William Barber, Rev. Liz Theoharis, and others. 

In his last speech, Dr. King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop…. I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land…  Mine eyes have seen the promised land…. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Martin Luther King’s prophetic witness helped black and white Americans to have visions and dream dreams.  What he saw helped other people to see themselves differently.  He saw African Americans and white Americans as children of God, who needed to be set free from hate.    He helped us to see one another more clearly. 
We’re not in the promised land yet.  But God’s love gives us new vision.
            Change is coming.  So, it seems to me that we can choose how we will face the changes.   We could approach them fearfully…grudgingly… and imagine all the worst possible scenarios about how terrible things will be.  Or we could trust in God to be with us as we cross over a bridge to becoming a more diverse and inclusive, just and righteous nation.  We could pray for God to use us as people of faith, to model what it means to live as Beloved Community and to be part of a transformation of our country that is more and more fully a nation of abundance, where there is truly liberty and justice for all. 
            In our time and place, God calls us to be people who “come and see” and are so transformed in the grace and abundance and freedom of Jesus Christ that we embody it as we live together in Beloved Community with all of God’s children.  
Martin Luther King’s prophetic witness helped black and white Americans to have visions and dream dreams.  What he saw helped some people to see themselves and other people differently-- as beloved children of God, created in the very image of God, who need to be set free from hatred and fear.
            We’re not in the promised land yet.  But God’s love can give us new vision.  Can we imagine it?  Is anything impossible for God? 
In the words of our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith: “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing…to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior…to unmask idolatries in church and culture…to hear the voices of people long silenced…and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

God’s love gives us new life and new vision.  So, come and see.  See the face of Christ in your neighbor.  Get a glimpse of who God has made us to be.  Come and see.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 14, 2018

Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Jesus' Baptism and Ours." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Baptism of Jesus Sunday.

"Jesus' Baptism and Ours"

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

         The scripture passages we heard today have to do with beginnings.  The Genesis text is the beginning of the creation story and tells how the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters and was part of the creation process.
            The gospel according to Mark begins with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  There’s no birth story here.  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is about his baptism.
            John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness    Then Jesus comes to the Jordan and asks John to baptize him.   As Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice comes down from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

            Without the rest of Jesus’ life, his baptism isn’t something we can comprehend.  We can only comprehend the purpose of Jesus’ baptism when we look at the days and years that followed that day in the Jordan.  It’s when we see Jesus taking his place with hurting people that his baptism starts to make sense.  Baptism was Jesus’ commissioning for ministry.
            During the week before his death, Jesus was challenged by the leaders of the temple: “By what authority do you do these things?”
            Jesus answers by referring to his baptism: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not?”    In other words, I was baptized.  That’s how all this started.”  It was in the waters of baptism that Jesus began hearing the Spirit calling him to speak the truth     and to live with grace.
            Baptisms, like all beginnings, find their meaning after the event.  Beginning is usually fairly easy.  Finishing is usually harder.
             Starry-eyed young couples who are in love come to the pastor, and very often, they’re focused on having the perfect wedding.  It’s part of the pastor’s job to remind them that the wedding is just the beginning.  It’s the living out of the promises they make that’s the hard part...  the part that will make all the difference ten or fifty years from that day.
            Baptism is the beginning of a journey.  We’re handed a map, but we have to take the trip.  It takes our whole life to finish our baptisms...  to fulfill what was started when we were baptized. 

            It was no ordinary day when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and it’s no ordinary day when we baptize someone here in this sanctuary--whether it’s a baby or an adult.  It’s no ordinary day because Jesus’ baptism shows us how far God will go to be reconciled with us and to reconcile us to one another. God tore apart the heavens to get to us, to give us the Holy Spirit, and to join us to Christ.
            This time of year, we may have made resolutions or renewed commitments to get in shape, to get more sleep, to eat more healthfully to live the rest of our lives better in some ways.  
            We live in a time when it feels like there’s a lot to worry about--the economy, a divided government, an increasingly polarized culture… the growing gap between the rich and poor.  Closer to home, people may be concerned about their kids… their work… health challenges… a parent struggling with frailty or dementia…loneliness… or grieving the loss of a loved one.
            In the midst of all this, sometimes we forget who we are… or whose we are.  Sometimes we run away from our identity and our calling. 
            In Disney's film and play The Lion King, the young lion, Simba, is living in exile-- separated from all that reminds him of his identity.  He's away from home...  away from his family...  and away from his responsibilities.  He has forsaken his true identity as the king of the lions.  In his absence, the kingdom has been overpowered by forces of evil, and it is a very dark and wounded place.
            The baboon "priest"- figure Rafiki finds Simba in the jungle and calls Simba back to his true identity.  Rafiki leads Simba to a lake.  As Simba stares into the pool of water, it is not only his own face that he sees.  It is also the face of his father.  The father and son are inextricably
            As Simba recognizes his father within himself, the heavens open...  and his father speaks to him from heaven.  In that moment, Simba is transformed.  He understands his true identity as the Lion King.  He sees the responsibility his identity carries.  He is empowered for the mission that lies before him...  and is able to combat the evil forces of the world.  In the end, Simba is able to bring light and healing back to the kingdom.

            On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we are reminded of Jesus' baptism...   and our own.  We are reminded who we are...  and whose we are.
            At your baptism, the same Spirit came down upon you as came down upon Jesus at his baptism.   The same Father said to you, “you are my beloved son"...   or "you are my beloved daughter."  The same Father has continued ever since to hold you...   and to work to empower you for God's work.
            In baptism, God proclaims God's grace and love for us.  God claims us and marks us as God’s own.  We have a new identity as members of the body of Christ.
            Through the waters of baptism, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Repentance... conversion...  and growth are a lifelong process.  Anything in us that separates us from God has to die, so that we can be raised to new life in Christ. 

            The good news of our baptism is that God adopts us as God's own.  God reaches for us...  and claims us as God's chosen ones—God’s beloved.   We are baptized-- not because we have come to God...  but because God has first come to us.   So, we are baptized   and begin a lifelong pilgrimage with God...  a lifelong process of conversion and nurture which begins at the font...  and doesn't end until death-- until we are at last tucked safely into the everlasting arms of the God who first reached for us in baptism.
            God keeps on reaching for us throughout our lives.  God isn't finished with any of us yet.  Every day we live out our baptism.  Every day we need to respond to God's gracious gifts in our lives...  open ourselves again to God's work in our lives...  say YES in all the big and little things we do throughout the day.
            A major part of God's daily saving work in our lives is God's gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just as God's creating Spirit hovered over the waters in the very beginning, the Holy Spirit works in us...   leads us daily...  tugging at our lives to turn us more and more fully toward God. 
            How easy it is, in the midst of this life, to forget who you are...  and whose you are.  So, the church is here to remind you...  to remind each of us-- that God has named us...  and claimed us...   and seeks us and loves us unconditionally.
            What a difference it can make in our lives when we know—deep in our souls—that we are God’s beloved!  So-- remember your baptism.  Remember who you are   and whose you are.  Hear God’s blessing and let it shape and strengthen your life: “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 7, 2018