Sunday, February 25, 2018

"Cross of Resistance." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Lent.

A Christian pilgrim carries a cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem

"Cross of Resistance"

Mark 8:31-38

            If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
            This command has interpreted--or misinterpreted in a variety of ways over the years. “This is your cross to bear” has been used too often to keep those suffering persecution, oppression, domestic violence, abuse, and economic injustice from breaking free. People have been told to endure patiently, to forgive as Jesus forgave his executioners, and wait for things to be all right when we get to heaven, “in the sweet bye and bye.”
            But this is contrary to everything Jesus did during his ministry. In his inaugural speech in the synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaimed what his spirit-given mission was to be: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed. [1]   And that’s what he did. He liberated people, spiritually and physically. He took away their blindness, set them free, spoke up for the voiceless, dined with marginalized and outcast people, and fed the hungry. So, to take up our crosses like Jesus can never mean being silent in the face of oppression.[2]  
            Jesus told his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” a year before his trial and execution. His disciples at that time would have heard it very differently from the way we hear it today. To the disciples, a cross was a method of torture and execution, by the Roman empire’s occupying forces. It was an instrument of terror.  So, this isn’t an easy teaching.

            Peter hears all this talk of suffering and death, and he knows this is no way to be the Messiah or to successfully build the kind of organization he had in mind, so he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. 
            Imagine it.   Peter is trying to set Jesus straight about what it means to be the messiah.   “Suffering, rejection, and death are not on the agenda.  The Messiah is supposed to come to rule the nations with power and might. We signed on for a crown, not a cross!” 
But Jesus turns and looks at his disciples, and he rebukes Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
That’s when he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” 
            What does that mean? What does it look like?  

            Many of the leaders of the movements to abolish the slave trade and the institution of slavery in Great Britain and the United States were Christians who felt called to speak truth to power, to work for the cause of God’s justice for all.
            During the most terrible years of World War II, when the Nazi domination of Europe seemed irrevocable and unchallenged, a miraculous event took place in a small Protestant town in southern France called Le Chambon. There, quietly, peacefully, and in full view of the Vichy government and a nearby division of the Nazi SS, Le Chambon's villagers and their clergy organized to save thousands of Jewish children and adults from certain death.  The story of “how goodness happened” there is told in a beautiful book entitled “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.”[3]
            Also during World War II, ordinary Danish Christians who saw their Jewish neighbors being rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps… and responded by ferrying many of them by night to safety in Sweden.
            Sophia Scholl was a German student and anti-Nazi political activist. A Christian, she had been brought up in the Lutheran church. Sophie and her older brother Hans were part of the White Rose, a small non-violent, intellectual resistance group that conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign which called for active opposition to the Nazi regime. Their pamphlets used both Biblical and philosophical support for an intellectual argument of resistance. Sophie and her brother and another student were caught and convicted of high treason and were executed by guillotine.

            On May 2, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, the first day of the Birmingham children’s crusade, some 800 students, first graders through high schoolers, skipped classes. They gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and marched holding hand-made picket signs reading “Segregation is a sin” and “I’ll die to make this land my home.” By the end of the day, under Bull Connor’s orders, more than 500 kids were behind bars charged with parading without a permit.
            Over the next two days, young protesters hit the streets in masse, confronting police armed with snarling German shepherds and water cannons. When people around the country saw these images, it changed things. It was then that President Kennedy and the attorney general began considering a path toward comprehensive civil rights legislation.[4] 

            Jesus said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

            As I was working on this sermon, I found a reference in my notes to the theme song from the movie “Selma,” in which the song writers John Legend and Common describe the march to Selma, Alabama, in terms of “glory.”
            When the movie “Selma” was first out three years ago, David Lose wrote, “Think about that for a moment.  That march, along with the larger struggle for civil rights, was filled with confrontation and suffering and sacrifice.  And yet they sing of glory.  Why?  Precisely because we find glory—and for that matter power and strength and security—only in those moments when we surrender our claims to power and strength and security in order to serve others.”[5]
            We know this—though sometimes we forget and need to be reminded.  I love the way David puts this hard saying of Jesus into perspective, this saying about what it means to take up his cross and follow him.   Every time we let ourselves be vulnerable to the needs of those around us… every time we give ourselves in love to another… every time we get out of our own way and seek not what we want but what the world needs, we come alive, we are lifted up, we experience the glory of God made manifest. 
            On some level, in some ways, we know this is true.  We do it most naturally as parents, sacrificing all kinds of things in the hope of providing for our children.  But we also do it as friends, partners, and neighbors. 
            But sometimes it’s hard for us to believe.  It’s counter-cultural.  So much in our culture wants to make us think that we’ll only have security and happiness if we gratify our immediate desires.  The world of advertising exists to make us feel incomplete in order to convince us to buy something that promises to make us feel better about ourselves.  But so much of what’s in those commercials and so much in the popular culture are lies. 
            Nothing that we can buy or build has the power to make us feel more complete or accepted or loved or safe.  The only thing that does is connection to others, in community, and a purpose beyond ourselves.   And this requires sacrifice.
            The good news is that—when we move beyond being preoccupied with ourselves and look to the needs around us, and others begin to do the same, we discover more life and joy and acceptance and love than we could have imagined.

            Christians from the United States and around the world go to the Holy Land as part of Ecumenical Accompaniment, to accompany Palestinian farmers to their olive groves during harvest… or to help school children get to school safely in Hebron.  Others work through organizations like Pal Craftaid and fair trade olive oil producers, to partner with Palestinians to sell their products, to help people living under occupation support their families and meet educational and humanitarian needs. 
            Closer to home, people take time out of their busy lives to stand in support of people who are being torn apart from their families and deported.  We write letters or make phone calls to elected officials to advocate for those who are hungry or oppressed or to support gun safety.
            We work to feed the hungry at home and throughout the world… we support Habitat for Humanity and Heifer Project and One Great Hour of Sharing.  We do these things because the needs are great.  But we also do these things because we need to do them, as we follow Jesus on the way of the cross… as we set our minds, not on human things, but on divine things.
            When we follow Jesus on the way of the cross, we begin to comprehend that God’s ways are not our ways:  that faith is not certainty, hope is not optimism, and love is not painless.
            On my pilgrimages to the Holy Land, we walked the Via Dolorosa-- the way of the cross.  Near the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, I saw a group of crosses propped up against a wall, where pilgrims could take up a cross and carry it as they walked the Via Dolorosa.
            Paul Shupe suggests that perhaps what we need is a multitude of crosses, one for each of us, at the doors of our sanctuaries, to be taken up as we return to the world of home and family, work and commerce, service and play—symbols of the call to discipleship that we have heard-- for us to accept anew.[6]
            We believe in a God who is powerful to overcome sin and death in the Resurrection.  We believe in a God who keeps promises.  We believe that, in the fullness of time, Christ will return.
            When we pick up the cross and follow Christ, there may be darkness and death on the road.  But we know that the darkness does not overcome the world, because we have God's promises.         
            The cost of discipleship seems high.  And it is. 
            But we have Jesus' promise:  Those who lose their lives for his sake-- will save their lives.           
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 25, 2018

[1] Luke 4:18-19
[2] Kelly Palmer, “A ‘Cross to Bear’ Means Actively Embracing the Cost of Following Jesus.”

[3] Philip Halle, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed,” 2008.
[5] David Lose, in “The Theory of Everything,” at

[6]  David L. Bartlett; Barbara Brown Taylor (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 2623-2625). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Wilderness Faith." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in Lent.

"Wilderness Faith"

Mark 1:9-15

There’s a hymn in our hymnal that we sing sometimes, “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place. And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. There are sweet expressions on each face. And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.”
            Somehow, I don’t think the “sweet holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove” adequately describes the Spirit in Marks’ account of the gospel. As Jill Duffield says, “Mark’s Holy Spirit dove does not sit cooing on a nearby branch, placidly watching.  No. Mark’s version of the Holy Spirit was an angry bird long before the video game came on the scene. The descending dove tears apart heaven to get to earthly Jesus as he comes up out of the waters of baptism… Somehow that image of a gentle bird, branch in its mouth, doesn’t do Mark’s Holy Spirit justice.”[1]

            Jesus had come from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
            And then, immediately, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.  Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.
            Now, both Matthew and Luke give us more details about those forty days. Mark’s sparse account leaves a lot more to the imagination.  We might like to fill in the gaps of Mark’s account with details from Matthew or Luke. Some of us might like to minimize the power of evil or tell ourselves there’s little we can do to resist evil. But I wonder if it isn’t more faithful to pay attention to the sparseness in the story…and spend time in the silence …and to invite the story to speak our truth to us.

            There’s a popular Sunday school curriculum for young children called “Godly Play.”  One of the key phrases teachers use in “Godly Play” teaches “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” The children are encouraged to run their fingers through large, wooden sandboxes, and to imagine the scorched landscapes Biblical characters encountered as they sought to follow God. Fierce heat. Jagged rocks. Scarcity of water. Wild animals. Blistered feet.
            “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”[2]
            We don’t know how Jesus spent those forty days and forty nights. Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot? Where did he sleep? Did he climb up into a cave? What was the silence like, hour after hour? As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his survival? Did he question his sanity? Did he have visions?

            What we do know is that Jesus didn’t choose to go to the wilderness, and that it was dangerous.  “The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.”
            Does that ring true for you? Most of us don’t choose to enter a wilderness place. We don’t generally seek out pain or loss or danger or terror. But sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness anyway.  It may be in a hospital waiting room… a troubled relationship… a sudden death of a loved one… a crippling panic attack… loss of a job… a financial crisis.
            Can we bear to think it’s the Spirit that dries us into the wilderness among the wild beasts? When we’re suffering, we might wonder if this mean that God wills bad things to happen to us?
            Sometimes people will try to tell us things like this.
            I don’t think so.  But I do believe that God can redeem even the most parched and barren times in our lives   and that the dangerous places can also be holy.
            I hesitate to even say this, because I remember that at times Christians have suffered under the false teaching that God gives us human pain and suffering for some greater good. I’ve heard the old platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” and I don’t believe it.  I’ve had a hard time believing it for a long time, because of all the suffering I’ve seen and because I don’t believe the God I love and trust, the God who is love, goes around dispensing suffering and pain to teach us lessons.
            A few days ago, I heard part of an interview with Kate Bowler on the radio, on NPR, and I knew I needed to read her book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).[3]
            Kate is a Duke Divinity School professor with a Christian background. She was best known, until recently, as an expert on prosperity gospel teachings and author of a book on the subject. Married in her twenties, a baby in her thirties, she got a job at her alma mater straight out of graduate school. She said she felt breathless with the possibilities. She writes, “I felt that God had a worthy plan for my life, in which every setback would also be a step forward.  I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way.” She continues, “I don’t believe that anymore.”[4]
            In 2015, at the age of 35, Kate was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.  
            Kate prayed the same prayer every day: “God, save me. Save me. Save me. Oh, God, remember my baby boy. Remember my son and my husband before you return me to ashes.  Before they walk this earth alone.” She says, “I pleaded with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.”
            She had so many questions. “Why?  God, are you here?  What does this suffering mean?”  Sometimes she thought she could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what by now she’s heard a thousand times. “Everything happens for a reason” or “God is writing a better story.” Apparently, she says, God is also busy going around closing doors and opening windows.
            For Kate, THE WORLD OF CERTAINTY had ended and so many people seemed to know why. Most of their explanations were reassurances that even her cancer is a secret plan to improve her. “This is a test and it will make you stronger!” Sometimes, they’d pepper their platitudes with scripture verses.

            So, what I do believe, is that sometimes our life journeys take us to desolate and dangerous places. I don’t think this is because God takes pleasure in our pain or gives it to us to teach us something-- but because we live in a broken, fragile, dangerous world that includes wilderness places. I believe God is with us in ways and through people we might experience as angels.  I believe goodness is stronger than evil and that God can take the things of death and wring from them new life.
            I believe that there aren’t as many simple or certain answers as we might want to believe.

            So that’s what I wanted to say before we go back to the story of Jesus in the wilderness, and to wondering why God’s Beloved Son Jesus needed to be tempted and what it might mean.  

            I think Nadia Bolz-Weber is right when she suggests that temptation--Jesus’ and ours-- is always about identity. It’s about who we are and whose we are.  “Identity,” Nadia says, “is always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.”[5]
            But almost immediately, other forces try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong.  Forces within capitalism tell us we need to buy certain kinds of cars or houses or clothing to show we have worth.  If we’re poor, parts of society tell us we’ve made bad choices or are lazy or just haven’t tried hard enough. “The weight-loss industrial complex”[6], our parents, teachers, the kids at school all have a go at telling us who we are.
            But only God can tell us who we are.  Everything else is temptation. If we’re out in the wilderness and we hear a voice on the wind telling us that we don’t have enough, that we aren’t good enough, that we can’t keep ourselves or our loved ones safe without gates and walls and bombs and assault weapons-- that’s temptation.
            If God’s first move is to give us our identity and tell us we are Beloved, Satan’s first move is to make us doubt our identity.  As we wander in the wilderness, in dangerous and desolate places, we are tempted to doubt that we are God’s own--beloved.
            The gospel story we heard today reminds us that we will have times of doubt and temptation. The wilderness experience is not unique to Jesus.
            Our times in the wilderness can teach us more about who we really are.
            As Mark tells us, there were angels in the wilderness. They might not have glistening wings and golden halos. Our angels might not come in the form we might prefer.  And yet, somehow, help comes.  Rest comes.  Comfort comes.  Angels come and minister to us. And sometimes we are angels to others.         
            That’s we do in the church, when we are out in the wilderness.  We minister to each other. We minister to each other. We whisper “beloved” …” child of God” into each other’s ears.
            I hope and pray that when angels in various forms whisper “beloved” into our ears, that we will listen and trust in the good news.
            When we’re in the wilderness, we can trust that God is with us, and that we are not alone.  We can trust that we belong to God and that God has named us and claimed us as God’s own.  We can trust that evil will never have the last word. We can know that love wins.
            Thanks be to God!   Amen.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 18, 2018

[3] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).  Random House, 2018.
[4] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason, Kindle location 69.
[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.” (Jericho Books, 2013), page 139.
[6] I like Nadia’s description of this, on page 139.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

"And There He Prayed." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 1:29-39 on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany.

"And There He Prayed"

Mark 1:29-39

Mark’s Gospel moves at a breathless pace. One scene fades quickly into another and then another.  Over the past few weeks, In the sweep of a few verses, we’ve heard how John the Baptist gathers the crowds, preaches “the forgiveness of sins”, and announces the good news. Jesus arrives and is baptized and the heavens split and a voice announces “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
            Jesus announces that the “good news” of God’s reign has already arrived and calls people to repent and believe the good news. Then Jesus calls people to follow him and fish for people, and immediately they followed him.  Then they go to the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, where the crowds were astounded at the authority of his teaching and his power to cast out demonic powers.
Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the region of Galilee. 
            That’s where we pick up the story today. Today’s gospel lesson can be divided up into four scenes, in two settings.
            Scene 1. As soon as they leave the synagogue, they go to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew, with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever. Jesus heals her, and she’s restored and able to serve.  
            Scene 2.  That evening, they brought all who were sick or possessed with demons to Jesus.  Mark tells us the whole city was gathered around the door.  Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.
            Scene 3. In the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and “there he prayed.”
            Scene 4.  Simon and his companions found Jesus and said, “Everyone is searching for you.” And Jesus answered, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”   And Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

            Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the gospel and cast out demons and bring healing, and that’s what he was doing. People who were sick, hopeless, and desperate came to him because he offered a glimmer of hope in a hopeless and dismal world.
            The demanding crowds came because they wanted something...  because Jesus had what they wanted most...   what they couldn’t find anywhere else-- health of mind and body.  Wholeness.  They came for his healing touch.
            The demand of the crowd upon Jesus' life was great.  So much so that "in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place to pray.
            Jesus realized he couldn't give out to others anymore.  As I was working on this passage, I remembered the instructions you get when you fly, about the oxygen masks that drop down in emergency situations.  If I were flying with a child or an elderly relative or anyone needing assistance, my first instinct would be to take care of them first.  But the flight attendants caution you to put on your own oxygen mask first.  Otherwise, you could pass out before you have a chance to help anybody else.

            The whole city had been pressing in around the door-- people who were sick or possessed with demons.  Jesus must have been exhausted from ministering to those who were so desperate...  so needy.
            So, Jesus went someplace where he could be alone, away from the cries of the needy, the demands of people, the insistence that he do something. It wasn't that he didn't care about the needs of the people who sought him.  Rather it was a matter of staying connected with God, so that he could maintain a clear sense of purpose.

            How easy it is for our lives to be cluttered with the needs and demands of others.  We find ourselves going in several different directions at one time. 
            Pastors and different kinds of caregivers often deal with people who are possessed by grief or fear or terror that will not let them go.  People are struggling with addictions of various kinds, whether to alcohol or drugs or gambling or work or something else.  People are suffering from mental or physical illness.  Others are confused and agonizing over various issues. Some or desperately lonely.  People are poor...  hungry...  homeless or in woefully inadequate housing.  Everywhere we look, there is such pain...  such need. 
            In our families, our children, even if they're adults, need us.  Elderly parents and other relatives need our care.
            Such need.  Such busy-ness.
            Sometimes I wonder if we think we are the busiest people who ever lived on the face of the earth.  We end up doing a lot of things, but sometimes we wonder why we don’t have more of a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment.  We might feel overwhelmed…or find ourselves on the edge of burnout. 
            As someone pointed out, burnout isn't the result of too much activity.  It's the result of the wrong kind of activity.  Or it can be from how we approach it.  Instead of energizing and building us up, it can wear us down and sap our energy. 

            When I read the gospels, I get the impression that Jesus couldn't have been much busier if he’d had a smart phone.  Yet, in spite of his busyness and the nonstop demands on his time, Jesus knew he needed time to get away and put things in perspective...and to gain a clear understanding of God and God's purpose. 
            When we read through the gospels, we discover that there’s a pattern in Jesus’ life. He worshipped regularly with his community of faith, and he got away regularly for time alone to pray. This is how he stayed centered in God’s love and purpose and found balance in his life.

            If Jesus needed to do this, how much more do we need to do it?
            Yes, we're busy.  So busy.   But when we find ourselves feeling too busy to worship and pray, we need to ask ourselves-- are we busy doing the wrong things?  The images in the gospel story remind us that we need to do what Jesus did-- get away and spend time in prayer...  meditate...  and seek God's will.
            So often, over the years, I’ve heard myself saying, “When things calm down, then I'll have some time alone.  I'll have more time to pray and meditate."  (Although I'm happy to report that I hear myself saying it less than I used to.)
            In recent years, I’ve made it a priority to make a silent retreat. I find a time in my schedule when I can be away for a few days and call the retreat center to see if they can accommodate me. I pack up whatever work and reading I want to take, and food, and drive to Gilchrist. While I’m there, I have to walk over toward the office to get a cell signal. There’s no TV or radio. Just my playlists on my phone so I can listen to music from TaizĂ© or Iona or other meditative music. I structure my day around simple meals, work, long walks, reading, and prayer.  Sometimes I go for several days without talking to anyone.  “And there, I pray.”

            Jesus knew it would never calm down.  He couldn't wait for that to happen.  He set time aside to spend in prayer and meditation, very intentionally. 
            "In the morning while it was still very dark."  This sounds like something I learned when I had a young child:  the only quiet time parents have is after the children go to bed at night   or early in the morning before they wake up.  That's when I got in the habit of staying up late to read and have my quiet time. 
            We need to be intentional in planning our quiet time.  Some folk find quiet time in their cars-- away from telephones and interruptions-- by turning off their radios and cell phones.  One or two of you have shared with me that you pray for others while you're commuting to work.  Others find quiet time when they walk...  or in the garden, as I do.  
            Why is this time apart so important?
            Look what happens here.  Just as we are likely to get interrupted by a child running into the room or the clock striking or the telephone ringing, Jesus' followers who were hunting for him find him and say, "Everyone is looking for you!"
            Some of us are in positions--in work or family life-- where someone always has something more for us to do. If we don’t learn to stop and discern and to occasionally say “No,” we’ll always be piling on more and more things to do.
            Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we need to admit that it feels good to be so busy and sought after. We might feel a swell of pride rising:  "Look at me!  I'm important!  I'm needed!  They love me."
            We run from sunup to sundown.  Chasing and being chased by responsibilities and expectations.  Sometimes it can feel as if we're possessed by all the responsibilities and by our need to be the important caregiver and achiever.

            This morning we come to the table of our Lord.  The pace is slowed.  It can be for us a moment of withdrawal...   a time to catch your breath.  A moment to reflect upon the bread, the body of Christ...    and the cup, the blood of Christ.  A time for our spirits to be fed!   A time for us to accept Christ's healing touch in our lives.
            God's love for us at this moment becomes so visible...  so personal...  so close...  and so reassuring.  We come to the Table, and God through Christ again offers God’s very self to us.
            This is my body, broken for you...
            This is my blood-- for you...
            Let us taste, and see that the Lord is good!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 4, 2018