Sunday, April 29, 2018

"What Is to Prevent?" A Sermon from Littleield Presbyterian Church.

"What Is to Prevent?"

Acts 8:26-39

In the beginning of the book of Acts, we hear that Jesus has promised that the apostles would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 
Now, in chapter 8, we hear that an angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to go to the road to Gaza.  So, Philip is traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza—a wilderness road—when he encounters an Ethiopian riding in a chariot. 
Luke tells us quite a lot about both of these men.  Philip is one of seven Greek-speaking Christians appointed by the Twelve to tend to the needs of others, especially widows, in the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community.  He is known as Philip the Evangelist, who eventually settled in Caesarea.[1]
Embedded in this story are a number of interesting details.  We’re told that the Ethiopian—a black African—was the treasurer of “The Candace,” the official title of the queen mother and real head of government in Ethiopia.[2] 
Since he’s traveling in a chariot, we know he’s a person of status.   That he possesses a scroll of the prophet Isaiah shows that he is wealthy, because scrolls were very expensive. 
Luke tells us that the Ethiopian is a eunuch, which was not unusual for someone in that time and culture whose life was devoted to serving in the queen’s court.  He had probably been castrated, likely as a child, so that he would be considered trustworthy around all the women in the queen’s court. It must have been important to Luke that this man was a eunuch, because he mentions it five times.
This Ethiopian man was likely a “God-worshiper” returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  God-worshipers, or God-fearers, were Gentiles who accepted the theological and ethical teachings of Judaism and worshiped with Jews in the synagogue without becoming full converts.   
Philip hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from the book of Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he’s reading.  The Ethiopian says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  Then he invites Philip to get into the chariot and ride with him.  
The passage he’s reading is one of what we may recognize as one of the “Suffering Servant” songs:
"Like a lamb led to slaughter, in humiliation justice was denied him and he was cut off from the land of the living, cut off from all progeny." 
The Ethiopian eunuch may have had his experience of rejection in mind as he was reading Isaiah: “In his humiliation, justice was denied him.”   No matter how much this man may have longed to be a full member of the Jewish community, the religious rules would have excluded him because of his physical condition.[3] If Deuteronomy 23 was being enforced in a rigid manor, he would not have been allowed in the Temple to worship—not even in the Court of the Gentiles, which was an outer court.[4] 
Here is someone else who has been denied a full life, condemned to have no generations to follow and remember him. And so, the eunuch is curious. Who is this being described in Isaiah? What has he done? What is going to happen to him? Of course, what he probably really wants to know is what is going to happen to him.  It’s as if the scripture has become a mirror, and he finds himself in it.
Now, before Philip was sent down this wilderness road, he has been preaching “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” in Samaria, and as a result, many Samaritans “were baptized, both men and women.”  By preaching in Samaria, Philip has broken through two important barriers:  religion and ethnicity.  He is convinced that God loves even the Samaritans, and that they are welcome to join this new inclusive Jewish sect—the community of the Messiah. 
Even though Jesus had commissioned his followers to be his witnesses in Samaria,[5] this breakthrough had apparently raised eyebrows among the Jewish-Christian leaders in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine them saying, “But we’ve never done that before!  We’ve always believed that the Samaritans were heretics… “
The enforcers of the religious boundaries sent Peter and John to Samaria to look into the matter of including the Samaritans, and they prayed for them, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter and John preached the gospel to many villages of Samaritans on their way back to Jerusalem.
The Spirit was on the move!  So, I think there are three main characters in this story.  The Spirit of God brought Philip to the eunuch, so that he can interpret the scripture to him.  He tells him that the suffering servant as described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus… and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.
Can you imagine how the eunuch would have responded to that news?  All people? Does Philip really mean that?  New life for all people?
As they’re traveling along that wilderness road, they come to some water. The eunuch impulsively jumps up and with great excitement, proclaims, "Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
What is to prevent him from being baptized?  A lot of people would want to say, “God says no.   God says you’re not even allowed in the Temple, because you’re a eunuch.  We’ve got a couple of Bible verses we can quote to prove it.  Like in Deuteronomy chapter 23.   It’s what we’ve always believed.  God says “no.”
But that isn’t what happened.  An angel of the Lord had sent Philip to encounter this Ethiopian eunuch.  This God-fearing eunuch who was studying the prophet Isaiah invites Philip to ride with him, to lead him in Bible study. 
I wonder if, during the course of their Bible study in the chariot, Philip and the eunuch read the next few chapters in the scroll of Isaiah.  I wonder if they got to chapter 56, where Isaiah proclaims:
“Thus says the LORD:  maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance will be revealed….
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
... and do not let the eunuch say,
   "I am just a dry tree."
   For thus says the Lord:
   To eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant,
   I will give in my house and within my walls,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons or daughters;
   I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off. “[6]

Over the years, some scholars have wondered how Isaiah could have said such a thing.  Surely, he knew the holiness code as written in Deuteronomy.  A eunuch was excluded from the assembly of the LORD.[7]  Why would Isaiah have said this after the exile, when the very survival of the remnant of the people of Israel was at stake?  This was a time when having children would have been a priority… and when purity and boundaries seemed critically important.  And yet, in just such a time, Isaiah wrote that foreigners and eunuchs would be welcome in the household of God.

Could it be that the Spirit of God was hovering over the text and over the prophet, bringing forth a new word to overturn the word of exclusion?  
The Spirit of God has been on the move.  Surely it was no coincidence that the story in Acts 8 of an Ethiopian eunuch brings together the two categories of Isaiah 56 together in this one person. Philip is continuing the work the risen Jesus began on the Emmaus road, opening and interpreting the scriptures.
Through his storytelling and his actions, through his relationships with people, Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God—the gospel of love.

When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, Jesus said: “Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On this hangs the whole of the Law.” 
Jesus’ teaching and ministry were all about love and compassion and healing.  He reached out to people on the margins of society—people the good religious people of his day thought of as sinners and outcasts.
The eunuch listens to Philip as he shares the good news of Jesus.  And then with longing and excitement, he asks:  What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?
What does Philip do?   He sets aside the narrow confines of purity laws and exclusion… and throws open the wide doors of God’s love and mercy.  He embraces the spirit of the law, and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. 
This is gospel in action.  That’s what happens when we really study the Bible.  It’s transformative. It changes our minds. It changes our lives. And, like the Ethiopian eunuch, it sends us out rejoicing.
That’s a very different thing from when people pick a verse or two or three to support what they already “know” and say, “No. God says “no.”

            He went on his way rejoicing!   Tradition tells us that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first one to take the gospel to Ethiopia, and that makes sense to me.  He went on his way rejoicing—so full of joy and gratitude that he would have wanted to share the good news.
The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, for he has become a full member of the household of faith. 
Then the Spirit sends Philip on to share the good news in new places.  The Spirit is on the move.
There is good news for us and for all God’s people today.  God continues to come to us and to work in the lives of women and men who abide in Christ.   By that same Spirit, God unites us to Christ in the waters of baptism. 
 God gives us grace to abide in Christ, so that we can rejoice and grow in grace and produce the fruit of God’s reign in our lives.   We are sent forth to share the amazing wideness of God’s love…  to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God.
This is the Good News of the Gospel. 
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 29, 2018

[1] Acts 21:8-9.
[2] Paul W. Walaskay, Acts  (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 86.
[3] Walaskay, p. 86.
[4] Deuteronomy 23

[5] Acts 1:8

[6] Isaiah 56:3-5
[7] Deuteronomy 23:1.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Earth Sunday.

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

Genesis 1 & 2; Psalm 23; John 10:10b-18 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, and it’s also Earth Day. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, our Gospel lesson is always taken from the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. So, this is a good morning to listen deeply for the Good Shepherd’s voice.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:  in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.

            Back on the first Earth Day in 1970, some twenty million Americans rose up to proclaim their love for the earth. They took part in rallies, protests, and teach-ins. They demanded that our government take action to restore the environment.  Some of us are old enough to remember some of the reasons people got so energized about the environment.
            In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so fouled by industrial pollution that the river caught on fire. It had caught fire at least 13 times before. Close to home, Lake Erie was described in an article in Time magazine as a “cesspool” created by the waste of Detroit’s auto companies, Toledo’s steel mills, and the paper plants of Erie, Pennsylvania.
            Cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were enveloped by heavy smog of lethal hydrocarbon haze.
            There were companies that buried toxic industrial waste. One of these sold a chemical waste site at Love Canal to a local school board for one dollar. They built an elementary school on it. There were miscarriages and birth defects and cancers in devastating numbers in the people who lived in the Love Canal area.

            The public outcry and pressure worked.   Congress passed the Clean Water Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
            Forty-eight years later, I think there is a renewed concern for the environment, as at least some Americans begin to understand the reality of climate change. It’s too late to stop global warming, but there are ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” in the world.[1]
            So, what do our scriptures teach us about how to live as faithful stewards of the earth?
In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[2]   In fact, the word “good” is used seven times in this chapter. God loves what God has made. I think this passage invites us to cultivate a deep love for creation ourselves, and to nurture it in others.
God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis 2:15:  to care for the earth.  “Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Genesis 1:28 tells us that God exhorts humans to “subdue” creation and have dominion over it. Some have interpreted this to mean that God has given human beings free reign over nature to do with it whatever we want.
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls--  rather than all of creation. 
Over the years, some have allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,”    and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.   Some have used this interpretation to justify using coal, oil, gas, and all natural resources for human profit.
But having “dominion” is not the same as “domination.” God entrusted the world to human beings. That trust and power is not meant to be abused, but exercised with great care.
In Genesis 2:15, God puts Adam into the garden to “till and keep it.” In other words, God wants us to take care of the garden of earth. 

In the original Hebrew, the verb abad means “to subject oneself as a servant” to God and Earth.  As biblical theologian Carol Newsome explains, “The image that Genesis has of the original human relationship to the environment is one that involves interaction but of a very modest sort. The forest of Eden is imagined as what we would call a permaculture, where human attention is part of the ecosystem, but of a nature rather like “light pruning and raking.”[3]
            The other verb, shamar, means “to keep, guard, observe, and give heed.” Other forms of shamar mean “to protect and save life,” and connote abstaining, refraining, and restraining oneself. According to biblical scholar Leah Schade, Adam is charged with guarding and protecting the garden, watching it with a close eye, and heeding--listening--to Earth. It is the same verb used for “keeping the Sabbath.”[4]   So, it seems that humans are to regard earth as holy, just as the seventh day is to be revered and respected as holy.[5]
The language in the original Hebrew connotes restraint and being a servant of the land.  So, the relationship between humans and creation is not one of domination and hierarchy, but of interconnectedness and service. 
During Eastertide, we celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. As early as the story of the flood later in Genesis, we are invited to see that this good news is not only for humankind--but for all of creation.  
Following the great flood, as the flood waters subside, God speaks with Noah and his sons, and makes a covenant with them, saying, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”--that is, with all of humankind-- “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”[6] 
God’s special relationship with humankind now extends to all of creation. To make sure we don’t miss the point, the story in Genesis repeats the inclusiveness of God’s covenant five more times in nine verses. The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations.” God describes the covenant as being “between me and the earth.” The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature of all flesh….the everlasting covenant [is] between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Again, God speaks of “the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”[7]

Sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Sally McFague keep reminding us of the degree to which the strong sense of community and the priority of  “the common good” that was foundational in the biblical and republican traditions are no longer shaping life in our society today.   McFague says that, although we continue to live in communities, our motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is usually interpreted these days in personal, individualistic ways, as, for instance, the right to carry a gun or the right to do as you choose, rather than our responsibilities for the welfare of the community.[8]

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solution.  But there seems to be a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.

When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not naïve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global,  too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[9]  

As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
Theologian Robert Costanza states the challenge this way:  “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[10]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house is oikos, which is the root word for “economics,” for “ecology,” and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus, she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all--  if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview--  because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   If we are truly to be an Easter people--if we are truly to point toward the new life that is possible in a post-Easter world-- then we need to live into the abundant life that Jesus offers us. We need to learn to trust, with the Psalmist, that God will provide what we truly need and that we “shall not want,” even if we need to give up some of our selfish grasping and indulgences.

We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.

So, let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me. Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 22, 2018

[1] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010), p. 151.
[2] Genesis 1:1-31
[3] Newsome, Carol A., “Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 2-3”; The Earth Story in Genesis, Earth Bible, 2, ed. Habel, Norman, and Shirley Wurst (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 64-5.

[6] The story of the flood is in Genesis, chapters 6-8.  See Genesis 9:9-10 for the covenant.
[7] Genesis 9:12-17.
[8] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001).

[9] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in

[10] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Resurrection Doubt, Resurrection Hope." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 24:36-48

"Supper at Emmaus." Artist: He Qi

"Resurrection Doubt, Resurrection Hope"

Luke 24:36-48

“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

            New Testament scholar David Lose says, “If you don’t have serious doubts about the Easter story, you’re not paying attention.”[1]
            Think about it. The different gospel accounts have some interesting variations, but they’re consistent about one thing: nobody believes the good news of Jesus’ resurrection when they first hear it. And that includes Jesus’ own inner circles of disciples, who were closest to him and spent the most time with him.
            Easter Sunday was only two weeks ago, but it feels like longer to me. But the verses we just heard are a continuation of Luke’s account of the first Easter day.
            In the first story, the women went to the tomb, they found the tomb was empty. Heavenly messengers opened the scriptures to them, explaining that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But when the women returned to the Eleven disciples and the others, they dismissed what the women said, calling it “an idle tale.”
            Actually, the word Luke used-- leros-- is the root of our word “delirious.” So, the disciples may have been saying the women were extremely excited and joyful, but also incoherent…irrational…or mentally confused. Delirious.
            Well, is it so surprising that the disciples had their doubts? Jesus had died on the cross and been buried. The testimony they heard from the women that Jesus who died has been raised upsets the natural order of things and everything they’ve always believed about how things work in the world.
            The story continues. Peter gets up and runs to the tomb to see for himself and he’s amazed.
            In the second story, on the same day, Cleopas and another disciple were walking toward Emmaus and talking about what had been happening. Jesus came and started walking with them, but they didn’t recognize him, even as Jesus interprets the scriptures for them. When they invite Jesus to dinner and he took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and Jesus vanished from their sight.
            That same hour, the two got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and other disciples, who were talking about how Jesus was risen and had appeared to Simon Peter. Then Clopas and his companion told about their encounter on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
            The story continues in the verses we heard this morning. While they were all talking, all of a sudden Jesus was standing among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.
            Imagine having to explain to your closest friends, over and over again, that you’re not a ghost or a figment of their imagination, that you are real and alive, approachable, and trustworthy.  What would you say or do to calm their fears?
            Jesus doesn’t scold them or reprove them or shame them. He sees that they’re still struggling, even though he’d predicted all these things three times, and they’ve already heard the testimony of the women, and Cleopas and his companion, and Peter.
            Jesus meets them where they are.  He asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. See that it is I myself. Touch me and see--for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  Jesus showed them his hands and feet, which bear unmistakable signs of his crucifixion and vulnerability.
            But that isn’t enough. “In their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering…”
            So, Jesus says, “Do you have anything to eat? They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
            Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Jesus’ whole life, death, and rising were about what God is doing in the world--reconciling the world to God’s self. It has always been about God and God’s purposes and agenda for creation-- repentance that leads to forgiveness and the wholeness of creation.[2]

            Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
            He opened their minds to begin to see that death is not the final word. He sets them free from those bonds and commissions them: “You are witnesses of these things.”
            I love how Luke’s account of the resurrection story shows us that joy and disbelief, wonder and understanding, fear and courage are all part of our experience. Apparently, we don’t have to have it all together to be a witness to “all of these things.” Our Christian faith takes root in the tension.  Jesus meets us--all of us-- where we are in order to embrace our wonder, disbelief, and joy and gather us into the amazing, surprising grace and newness of God.

            Today’s gospel lesson brings the work and ministry and teaching of Jesus full circle. At the very beginning of his gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem all of creation.
            The power of the resurrection is the power to plant the seeds of transformation and new life. The hope of the resurrection is grounded in the experience of those first disciples, whose closed minds were opened.
            Just when we think the story is over, God has something new to say.  It has always been about God, and it still is. 

            As witnesses, we are called to declare in our words and deeds the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy, despair, and death. They are not ultimate, because God’s goodness is stronger than evil and death.
            The good news is that we do not witness alone, as we are part of a community of fellow believers. We do not witness alone, as the Spirit is indeed coming. In a broken and fearful world, the same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles 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.[3]
            Thanks be to God!

[2] Barbara J. Essex, in “Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Pentecost. Kindle Edition, Loc 15076/
[3] Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1990.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Meditation on the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King

            April 4, 1968.   For those of us who are old enough to remember, that day is indelibly etched in our memories. I was a sophomore in college, at West Chester State, near Philadelphia--  a kid from rural Pennsylvania. We didn’t have the internet, and I didn’t even have a TV at school, so we didn’t have the amount of information available to us that we take for granted today.
            But I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Dr. King had been killed. A friend showed up at my part-time job at a community center and told me, and he offered me a ride back to campus.  I have vivid memories of being part of an ecumenical community memorial service a few days later. I had been inspired by what I knew about Dr. King, and I remember the despair I felt when he was assassinated.
            For a long time, a lot of people have had a tendency to freeze the memory of Martin Luther King in August of 1963, at the time of his “I have a dream speech.”  A lot of people have appropriated-- or misappropriated his words to promote their own agendas.

            If we are to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we need to recognize how the events of the last few years of his life had impacted him. On Christmas Eve 1967, a few months before he died, he told his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church that the first time he saw the dream turn into a nightmare was just a few weeks after the March on Washington, in September of 1963, “when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.” He went on, I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisers, 16,000 strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over 500,000 American boys are fighting on Asian soil.”[1]
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]
Dr. 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.  His focus had broadened to social and economic justice for all and demanding workers’ rights, environmental justice, antiwar activism.
In December 1967, Dr. King announced a Poor People’s March on Washington he was organizing to demand better jobs, better homes, better education--better lives than the ones they were living.
During this time, in the eyes of many, Dr. King was seen as a “communist dupe,” “troublemaker,” ‘traitor,” or “naïve, because he was challenging the status quo and opposing the Vietnam War and speaking out against the triple evils of materialism and systemic poverty, of militarism, and racism.  He had become unpopular and discouraged. Even some people close to him were telling him that it was wrong for him to take on economic injustice.
A few months before his death, Dr. King said, “the movement for social change has entered a time of temptation to despair.  He had his struggles and was tempted to walk away. But he stayed steadfast in his commitment to work to confront the power structure and injustice.[2]
I have to admit that off and on I struggle with discouragement.   It’s hard to stay energized and focused over the years.  
Soon after I moved to Detroit, our Detroit Presbytery formed an Anti-Racism Team, and a diverse group of around 20 of us began the hard work of becoming a team and learning and strategizing together to address systemic racism. Some of our members were old enough and engaged enough that they had marched with Dr. King. In one of our early sessions, one of the laments we heard expressed was: “Back in the sixties, we thought we would have made more progress by now!”
That was twenty years ago. Since then, we’ve gone through a time when a lot of people were talking for a while about how we were living in a post-racial society. But it’s obvious that’s not where we are. The work is not done.
This fiftieth anniversary year is bringing people together to re-focus and re-group. This is not a time for us to be satisfied with talk about being kind to one another-- although I’m certainly in favor of kindness.
I agree with the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, who often has challenging words for white people and said earlier today, “Without confession of the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free.” He said that white Christians must confess the sins of colonialism and racism, “including in the highest levels of power….”  “Confession must lead to action….[because] racism is more than individual behavior, and repentance is more than saying ‘you’re sorry.’”[3]
It gives me hope that religious activists from a wide range of faith communities have came together today in our nation’s capital and Memphis and other cities to re-commit themselves to carry on the work of dismantling systemic racism.
It gives me hope that a growing number of people from faith communities, organized labor and other activists are coming together to be part of a new Poor People’s Campaign, beginning on the day after Mother’s Day.
As the Rev. William Barber II, one of the directors of the Poor People’s Campaign, said earlier today: “We cannot be those who merely love the tombs of the prophets. We do not celebrate assassinations and killings of our prophets. We find the place they fell. We reach down in the blood. We pick up the baton, and carry it forward. And we must.”[4]
            Dr. Martin Luther King continues to inspire us today.  In his last sermon, in Memphis, on the night before he was killed, Dr. King said, “We’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.

            So let us be caught up with that which is right. Let us be willing to sacrifice for it, and work together for a moral renewal in our nation!  Let us pick up the baton and carry it forward!

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