Sunday, May 27, 2018

"The Dance of Love," a sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Trinity Sunday

"Hospitality of Abraham" ("Holy Trinity"). Hand-painted icon by Andrei Rublev.

"The Dance of Love"

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

Over the years, I’ve had a number of front porch theological conversations with Muslim neighbors, in which they’ve asked about the Trinity.  I’ve been asked, “So, about the Trinity: One God or three? These kinds of questions have led to some interesting theological conversations about the nature of God over the years
            In the Christian calendar, this is Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the church year dedicated to a doctrine of the church.  
            For centuries Christians have sung, confessed our faith, prayed, baptized, received new members into our community in the name of a Trinitarian God who is traditionally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But for many Christians in our time (and for some in earlier times) the doctrine of the Trinity has been a problem.
            How many of us have heard a conversation in a church school class or study group that goes something like this: “Do we have to believe in the Trinity-- that God is three-in-one and one-in three--to be a Christian?” “What does it mean? How can you put three persons together and get one, or divide one into three and still have one?”
            If you think about it, you can understand why our Muslim and Jewish friends have a problem with the Trinity and wonder if we really do worship one God.

            The defenders of the faith--the traditional faith--might blunder through a fuzzy explanation and then conclude: “There’s a reason we call it a mystery that no one can fully understand.” Maybe they say, “We just have to accept it by faith.”
            I agree that the Trinity is a mystery no one can fully understand.  The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that there is always more to God than we can conceive… always more of God than we can explain… always more than we can sing or preach or prove.   
            So—what do we do with the Trinity? 

            I think theology is important.  I think bad theology can hurt people…and hurts the church.  The language we use when we speak and sing of God is important.
            Apparently, some ordinary Christians in ancient times knew this.  Theologian Elizabeth Johnson observes how fascinated people of the late fourth century were with speaking rightly about God.
            She quotes a famous remark by Gregory of Nyssa that describes the situation: “Even the baker,” he said, “does not cease from discussing this.  If you ask the price of bread, he will tell you that the Father is greater and the Son is subject to him.”[1]
            It’s difficult for many people today to grasp how bitterly this conflict divided the Christian world for several centuries.  The Nicene Creed was hammered out to defend the faith tradition against the Arian claim that Christ was not eternal, but created. 
            The burning big QUESTION in the ancient church was “Who is Jesus Christ, in relation to God the Father and Creator?”
            The Nicene Creed was the ancient church’s answer to the questions of its time, using the best philosophical constructs and language available to it at that time. 
            As (the late) theology professor Shirley Guthrie wrote, the doctrine of the Trinity is “the church’s admittedly inadequate way of trying to understand the biblical and Christian understanding of who God is, what God is like, how and where God is at work in the world, what God thinks about us human beings, does for us, requires of us, promises us.”[2]
            We need to be clear with ourselves and in talking with others that we don’t “believe in” the Trinity. We believe in and trust in God, and the Trinity is a way Christians think about and speak of God.

            During times of controversy, the church has found it necessary to re-interpret the gospel for new times, in response to new situations and questions.  If you look through our Book of Confessions,[3] you’ll see that the “Scots Confession,” “the Heidelberg Catechism,” the “2nd Helvetic Confession,” and the “Westminster Confession” were worked out during the Reformation period, in response to concerns particular to that time.
            In 1934, the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany.  They “sought a common message for the need and temptation of the Church” in their day. The threat was the way the Christian church was cooperating with the Nazi regime.  The resulting confession of faith was what we know as the “Declaration of Barmen.”
            The 1960’s were turbulent times, and the “Confession of 1967” was adopted by the Presbyterian Church “to call the church to that unity in confession and mission which is required of disciples…”[4] The theme of the Confession of 1967 was the church’s ministry of reconciliation, which has been a strong theme in the mission of this congregation for several decades.
            The Presbyterian Church had split at the time of the Civil War, over the issue of slavery, and it took over a hundred years for the northern and southern Presbyterian churches to be reunited.  At the time of the reunion, the General Assembly voted to re-state the faith as a way of affirming what we believe together.  The result was “A Brief Statement of Faith of 1991,”[5]  which we often say together in worship.  The “Brief Statement of Faith” is a Trinitarian statement, which begins by stating that we trust in the one triune God, whom alone we worship and serve.
            The 2016 General Assembly made history by voting to add the “Belhar Confession” to our Book of Confessions.[6]  Belhar is a moving call for reconciliation and a condemnation of racial injustice written in South Africa during the struggle against Apartheid, to be a resource to the church during a time when racial tension, injustice and violence in the United States make headlines nearly every day.

            We are part of a living, growing tradition, and we continue to address new situations and questions by re-stating our faith.  One of the great themes of our Reformed Tradition affirms the church reformed, always being reformed, according the Word of God, as led by the Holy Spirit. 
            I believe that the controversies of our time over sexuality issues are finally being worked out after decades of conflict.  I hope this frees us to work through other important questions for living faithfully in our time. For instance, how do we confess and live our faith in Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world?  How do we speak of God in conversations with our neighbors who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious” or the “none’s” or “done's”?  If we trust in a God who creates every person in the image of God, a God who calls us to love our neighbor and to live together in Beloved Community, what does our faith require of us in our relationships with those who are different and those who are marginalized? 
            When we struggle over theology, important things often get worked out.  We often learn something—sometimes in spite of ourselves.  Even though we might want to dig in and defend what we have always believed to be true, we have the Holy Spirit nudging us, reminding us of what Jesus did and what he taught.  We learn and grow, as the Holy Spirit leads us further into the truth—just as Jesus promised
            Jesus told his disciples that he still had many things to say to them, but that they weren’t ready to hear them yet.  He promised that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, would guide his followers into all the truth.[7]
            But from the earliest centuries of the church, discerning theologians have stressed that all our language about God, including the Trinitarian symbols, are inadequate and relative. The Bible uses many images or metaphors for God, and other theologians have offered a number of possibilities for speaking of God.[8]
            I believe God continues to speak a new word to us in new times--things we weren’t ready to hear before.  We still have many things to learn, so we need to be learners--theologians. We need to listen for what God’s teaching Spirit has to say to us.

            In my study this week, I was reminded that the Western Church’s model of the Trinity has typically looked like a triangle, while the typical model in Eastern Orthodoxy is a circle.
            John of Damascus, a Greek theologian who lived in the seventh century, developed the understanding of the Trinity with a concept called perichoresis.  I don’t bring a lot of Greek words into sermons, but this one gives us such a beautiful picture of God. “Peri”-- as in perimeter--means “around.”  “Choresis literally means “dancing” -- as in choreography.
            This isn’t an approach to the Trinity that most of us in the Western part of the church are as familiar with, but some contemporary theologians, like Jürgen Moltmann and Mirosalav Volf, have written about it.
            Father Richard Rohr has written a very accessible book: “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation,” that invites us to take a closer look at the mystery of the Trinity.  He says we need a larger God than the understanding that seems to dominate our culture.  God is not what most people think.  God is not an angry, distant moral scorekeeper or a supernatural Santa Claus handing out cosmic lottery tickets to those who attend the right church or say the right prayer.  God isn’t a stern old man with a white-beard, ready and eager to assign condemnation and punishment.[9]
            I find the metaphor of a dancing God beautiful and life-giving, and I think it is more faithful to the story of God’s self-giving love we hear in the scriptures. Imagine it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer-- the three persons of the Trinity are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom.

            In today’s Gospel lesson, we heard, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God is not vengeful, not demanding of judgment or appeasement, not angry--but loving. The cross is a sign of just how far God will go to show us that God already loves us.  

            How do we proclaim the good news of God’s love in our time? To those who have been baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we need to proclaim the new, open, love-filled space of our Triune God, the space where we are to love God with all we’ve got and to love our neighbors--all our neighbors-- like ourselves.  
            Our God is a relational God, and the Trinity is all about relationship. I think the Trinity matters, because--without the Trinity, some people can make claims that justify the hatred of entire groups of people and call them animals. Without the Trinity, some churches will claim to be church but carry on with self-centered, individualistic, fear full messages, rather than a gospel of love and community.

            On this Trinity Sunday, what really matters is being led further into God’s truth and God’s way of love.
            Maybe, as Father Richard Rohr suggests, we need to push back the furniture a bit and make room to dance with the divine. Maybe that’s a better way to teach us all about God’s self-giving love and how we can be part of the dance-- God’s dance of love and life.
            The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 27, 2018

[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. 
[2] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 71.
[4] The Confession of 1967, article 9.05 in Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

[7]John 16:12

[8] See William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

[9] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation.  (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge / Whitaker House), 2016.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Becoming the Pentecost Church." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday.

"Becoming the Pentecost Church"

Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-11

On Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem. It was 50 days after Jesus was raised from the grave., waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise-- the promise we heard last week: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
            What was it that happened on that Day of Pentecost?  Pentecost is the story of how the church came alive by the power of the Holy Spirit.  On that day, followers of Jesus Christ received the power to take the gospel to the streets there in Jerusalem...  and eventually throughout the earth.
            What happened that day was such a powerful experience that the people who were there had to turn to dramatic metaphor to describe what happened.  They said it was like a fire falling on them.
            On that day, a mighty wind from heaven blew the fire of the Holy Spirit into those followers who were gathered together.  When something like tongues of fire danced over the heads of the apostles, they seemed to be quickened by unseen forces.  They were shouting...  preaching...  speaking in a variety of languages so people from a lot of different countries could understand each other...  and generally making such a commotion that the people of the city had to stop and wonder:  what on earth was going on?
            The Spirit blew into the apostles an awareness that-- just as Jesus had promised-- the presence of the Holy Spirit was with them… and was at work in and through them.

            One way of understanding what happened at Pentecost is as a reversal of the story of the tower of Babel, as told in the book of Genesis. In the biblical memory, all the people in the world--the world known to them-- spoke a common language.
            According to the story, this unity of language and of culture was a dangerous thing. Because they could understand each other, the people gathered in one place and decided to build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens. They wanted to “make a name for themselves. They wanted power.

            Biblical scholar Robert Williamson suggests that when the people first began to make the bricks and mortar, there wasn’t really a plan to build a tower. Only after they’ve been laboring to make bricks is the decision made to build the tower.[1]
            What did they think they were making bricks for? Maybe some thought they’d be used to build houses so that everyone would have shelter. But then the plan emerged to build a tower upward toward the heavens.
            Williamson suggests--rightly, I think-- that towers are part of a hierarchical way of being in the world.  Not everyone can live at the top of the tower, in the penthouse. Not everyone can reach for the heavens. Most have to remain below. Some have to keep making bricks. Some have to grow the food to feed the privileged few at the top. Those at the bottom of the tower become the subjects of those at the top.[2]
            The story of the Tower of Babel illustrates the human tendency to build upward, for some to elevate themselves at the expense of others. It lays bare the desire of some to be like gods.

            God responds to the building of the tower--to the creation of the hierarchy--with anger.  God recognizes the capacity of human beings to construct centers of domination. “This is only the beginning of what they will do,” God says. “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
            So, God scatters the people across the face of the earth and mixes their languages so they won’t be able to understand one another. This is the way the ancient text in Genesis explains the origin of different languages and cultural differences.  

            I hear an echo of this scattering in the birth story in Luke’s gospel.
We hear the angel Gabriel say to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be holy, and he will be called Son of God.”
            In the song of praise and joy Mary sings, she proclaims that the Mighty One has done great things…. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty….”[3]

            On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit blew into the apostles an awareness that-- just as Jesus had promised-- the presence of the Holy Spirit was with them… and was at work in and through them.
            The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
            There were devout Jews from every nation staying in Jerusalem. When the crowd heard the disciples, they were bewildered, because each one heard the speaking in the native language of each. They were amazed and astonished and asked, “Aren’t they all Galileans? How can we be hearing in our own native languages?  What does this mean?

            The sound that came from heaven-- that rushing violent wind-- was the exciting sound of old barriers being broken and glass ceilings shattering.  The divisions within humanity were being overcome.   The church was empowered to take to the streets with the good news.

            I think this is an important and relevant word for us today.  In this time of divisiveness and polarization, this is an important and life-giving message.
            This past week, we heard some of our national leaders justifying how some immigrants had been described as “animals,” by trying to say they were only talking about gang members.  One of the best responses I heard to this was from Father James Martin, a Jesuit, who tweeted, “Calling people animals is sinful. Every human being has infinite dignity. Moreover, this is the same kind of language that led to the extermination of Jews (“vermin”) in Germany and of Tutsi (“cockroaches”) in Rwanda. This kind of language cannot be normalized. It is a grave sin.”
            The other one was a commentary from Lawrence O’Donnell that I saw on the internet, as I don’t have cable. O’Donnell explained why he believes Christians have to choose between the words that dehumanization and hatred and the words of Jesus Christ. This piece began as a commentary and ended up being more of a sermon.  He talked about what he learned in his Catholic school education. He pointed to “terrible perversions of Christianity” in history and held them up to the light to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  I won’t say more about what he said. You can follow the link I shared and watch it for yourself if you want to.[4]
            Where I’m going with this is that one of my friends on Facebook commented: “Very good commentary. Unfortunately, many won’t watch this because it’s on” a network they won’t watch.” 
            I responded by saying I’m sad that so many people close their minds to hear perspectives from people outside of their bubbles. There are times when people I respect and care about share links and perspectives from sources I may not hear frequently, and I try to listen and learn, to understand them better, even if I don’t necessarily agree. And sometimes I hear something we can claim as common ground.
            I really believe this. I believe the Holy Spirit empowers the community to embrace differences. As Robert Williamson says, “When the Holy Spirit wants to build a church, she begins by restoring the people’s capacity to understand each other. She enables people to speak across differences in language and custom.”   The Holy Spirit creates a church that respects and embraces the cultural diversity of people--all people.
            According to the prophet Joel, the Holy Spirit doesn’t believe in hierarchies. The Spirit comes upon all people-- both men and women, young and old, slave and free, from all peoples and language groups and cultures. The Holy Spirit is in the business of building diverse communities of resurrection life.
            Our mission in the church today is to radiate the gospel of Jesus Christ… the resurrection power of new and abundant life for all, beginning where we are    and reaching out to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit has been on the move, and we need to catch up with the movement of the Spirit.
            We have been promised that we will be given dreams and visions and the power to carry out God’s mission in the world.
            The book of Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, the disciples acquired a holy boldness that they’d never had before. I believe it can be so for us today. I believe it must be. The church needs us to dream God’s dreams and to live out God’s visions. The world needs it. 
            We can get discouraged if we focus on the divisiveness and injustice and meanness we see in the world around us, if we don’t hold fast to the vision of our faith--the kingdom of God--and how the world can be when we live in the way of love.
            If we pay attention, we can see glimpses.  Last Monday, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people who don’t profess any formal religious affiliation gathered at state capitols around the nation to advocate for poor and marginalized people because they believe in the dignity of all persons and that everybody in the richest nation in the world has a right clean water and adequate food and housing and a good education.  There is power and joy in working toward that vision together.
            I think there’s a real longing to live in a more merciful and just and inclusive world. Many people who didn’t think they had any interest in getting up early to watch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Merkel were drawn in by the coming together in marriage of the prince and a bi-racial American, some of whose ancestors were slaves.
            Can you think of any family system and institution that’s more privileged and traditional and resistant to change than the House of Windsor?  I really appreciated how the traditions of the Church of England were honored in the marriage service, while also honoring the bride’s African-American heritage. We heard the chapel choir singing beautiful English church music and a British gospel choir singing “Stand by Me” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
            The Archbishop led the service, and American Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached, which ended up being the most tweeted part of the service. People have been sharing his sermon through social media, and the text was printed in the New York Times and elsewhere. It reminded me of how, in another time, city newspapers would print the sermons from the major churches in town.
            Bishop Curry, a descendent of slaves, preached:  “There’s power, power in love….I am talking about some power.  Real power. Power to change the world…. power to transform….
            Bishop Curry was preaching to millions of people around the world when he reminded us all that Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and that the second is like it--Love your neighbor as yourself.
            Bishop Curry said, “Think and imagine a world where love is the way….Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all. And we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new Heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family….
            “Dr. King was right: we must discover love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world.”

The feast of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit still blows into our lives, to justify us by grace through faith, to set us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor.
            The same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles and
gave birth to the church continues to prod, cajole, and urge us forward.    It’s been this way since the beginning of the church and will be this way as we are urged forward to live into God’s vision, until no child goes to bed hungry, until all God’s people are treated with dignity and have the basic necessities like safe water to drink and decent housing and a good education.
            The Holy Spirit comes to us, to give 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,[5]
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 20, 2018

[1] Robert Williamson Jr., “The Church is Not a Tower of Power” (Acts 2:1-21)

[3] Luke 1:35; 46-55.
[5] Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA),  1990.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Waiting for the Power." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Ascension Sunday.

"The Ascension" Icon by Andrei Rublev (1408)

"Waiting for the Power"

Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11

In churches that follow the liturgical calendar, we’re coming to the end of Eastertide, the season when we focus on celebrating the Resurrection.  The third major festival of the Christian year, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, comes next Sunday.  Before we get to Pentecost, we celebrate the Ascension, and we hear the part of the story that Luke/Acts places between Easter and Pentecost. 
            One part of the story is that Jesus has ascended to glory with God.  The glory of the risen and ascended Christ is good news-- something to celebrate. But the other themes in the story invite us to look at the Ascension from a very human perspective, the disciples’ point of view, which is where we stand.   
            Up until now, Jesus has been the chief actor in the gospel drama.  From his birth to his death, it’s Jesus who keeps the story moving.  In the forty days following the resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to his followers a number of times and continued to teach them about the kingdom of God.  
            But they’re still living under Roman occupation. Things are still not right in the world.  So, when Jesus tells his followers to wait in Jerusalem, where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?”
             Jesus answers, “It isn’t for you to know these things. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Then they see Jesus lifted up and out of their sight.  
            Now what?  What are Jesus’ followers supposed to do?       
            Sometimes, do you want to just shout, “How long, Lord?”  “Is this the time you’re going to make things right in the world?  We want to know what the plan is. We want to know now.
            Lord, is this the time?
            Hear what Jesus says: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”   
            Christ’s charge to them comes with a promise: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit...  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
            Luke tells us that the disciples worshipped the risen and ascended Christ.  They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
            In the verses following the passage we read in Acts, Luke tells how the disciples returned to Jerusalem and went to the upper room where they were staying, where they and certain women were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  On the day of Pentecost, disciples were gathered together in one place when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them from on high. 

            The first disciples were called to wait during times of transition--with trust and hope…with eagerness and expectancy.
            When the first disciples couldn’t see where the future would lead them, when they couldn’t see where the future would lead them, they remained focused on the drama of God’s salvation story, and worshipped God with great joy.  Their joyful worship as they waited helped to center themselves in God’s gracious, powerful promises

            As the first disciples were called to wait with trust and hope and to live with eagerness and expectancy, so are we.  We are witnesses.
In our words and in our lives, we are witnesses of God’s love. 

            In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign. After he was assassinated, thousands of broken-hearted Americans marched from the neglected shadows of the nation and gathered in Washington, D.C. as a “freedom church of the poor.” They erected “Resurrection City,” their encampment on the National Mall, to demand that their government address bitter poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world. 
            They were there to confront fundamental questions about America’s moral and Constitutional vision for all of its people, regardless of their wealth, race, gender, or national origin. “They demanded attention to the hungry children and inadequate schools from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the devastated inner cities across America.”  They made moral witness against America’s war in Vietnam, and tried hard to be heard as they carried their testimony forward into public life….”[1]

            Fifty years later, “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” is calling our nation to see the predicaments of the most vulnerable among us.  We turn to America’s history and to the realities of our own time and seek to redeem a democratic promise enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. When thousands of people gather tomorrow in Washington, D.C. and 30-some state capitols around the country, they hope to remind our nation what values we hold dear and to make a new moral witness.

            Our faith teaches us that all persons are made in the image of God and are beloved children of God. So, as people of faith, the day-to-day struggles of the poor and dispossessed need to matter to us.  When we hear the voices of “peoples long silenced,” we become more aware of how many people are hurt by systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy. More than 40 million Americans subsist below the poverty line. Nearly half of our population cannot afford a $400 emergency. The devastation cuts across race, gender, age, and geography.[2]
            The Monday rallies around the country during the forty days are meant to hear the voices of people who are directly impacted by poverty, to focus on their stories and magnify them. The clergy and various other activists will be there to stand with poor and marginalized people, in solidarity, and to give witness that their lives matter, to draw attention to their needs, and to call our nation to a moral revival.

            Do we believe God can use us to transform the world?   Do we believe that we can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens us?      How many of us want to believe these things?       
            I believe God has the power to work miracles, and that God wants to use us to change people’s lives.
            As Jim Wallis has pointed out, the biblical prophets always begin in judgment, in a social critique of the status quo, but they end in hope—that these realities can and will be changed. 
            The Civil Rights movement in the United States grew out of the African-American church… and then others joined in—people who chose to hope in a society in which there is justice for all. We’re still waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of that dream. 
            We are called.  Christ has given us a Great Commission. He says, “You shall be my witnesses.” We have Christ’s promise:  You will receive power
            Like the first disciples, we have the promises of God to cling to, even in times of sorrow and anxiety.   These promises are ours, even at times when it seems that Christ has vanished.

            So, let us cling to God’s promises and rejoice in them. There will be accomplishments and setbacks, joys and sorrows. In the midst of it, we can trust that God is with us, comforting, celebrating with us, accompanying and strengthening us, even when we can’t see it. We can give thanks that God is preparing us to live with less fear and more generosity, preparing us to look out for the rights of others, and to work for a more merciful and just world.
            Thanks be to God!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 13, 2018


Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Love One Another." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

"Love One Another"

John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48

            In the verses we heard this morning from the book of Acts, we hear Jewish Christians in the early church wondering, “Could the gift of the Holy Spirit be poured out even on the Gentiles? “Could it be God’s will for them to be baptized into our community?”   “Could even they be our friends in Christ?”
            In the gospel lesson, we hear Jesus talking with his disciples on the eve of his execution: “As God the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love….  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.”

            What does this mean? -- to abide in God’s love? What does it mean to keep God’s commandments? What does it look like?
            It sounds simple enough. But, obviously, it isn’t, or we would be living in a much more loving, compassionate world.

            Over the past couple of days, some of us have been following the story of two Native American teen brothers who saved their money to visit Colorado State University to see if it would be a good fit for the older brother to transfer from community college. A mother on the campus tour called police to tell them the two young men made her “nervous.” Campus police responded and pulled the boys aside and patted them down and let the boys go when they showed them their invitation letter for the tour.

            An African-American teen missed the school bus in Rochester Hills and got lost walking the four miles to school.  He saw a Neighborhood Watch sign and thought that would be a safe place to ask directions.  The woman who answered the door assumed the 14-year-old was attempting to break into their home   and started yelling at him. Her husband came downstairs and grabbed the gun     and shot at the kid as he ran away.

            A group of five African-American women were accused of playing too slowly by a Pennsylvania golf club’s employees and co-owner and were kicked out after the police were called.

            A Starbucks manager called the police to remove two young African-American men who were waiting for their business associate to arrive for a meeting.
            The list could go on…
            Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve used the restroom or WIFI in a fast food restaurant or coffee shop before I bought anything, and I’ve never worried about getting in trouble for it, much less getting arrested.  I’m aware that I’m generally protected by privilege-- privilege I never asked for, but which I have.
            I can’t fathom looking at those two teenage boys on a college tour and thinking they’re too quiet   or I don’t like how they’re dressed, so I’ll call the police and tell them I’m feeling nervous.
            Now, these things haven’t happened as isolated incidents. There is a context and a history that helps us to understand how we got here.  There were people who hated and oppressed people who were different, people who were “other” in Jesus’ time and throughout history.
            We have dehumanized people-- treated them as less than human-- to justify genocides and enslavement and to maintain a system of white supremacy.
            We live in a broken and fearful world.
            But the good news is that Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth,[1]  teaching in word and deed God’s way of self-giving, sacrificial love, and inviting us to live into the kingdom of God-- the beloved community.
            I appreciate how David Lose challenges us to imagine God differently, because too often people have their image of God shaped by things that have gone wrong-- a neglectful or abusive parent, an early loss, a terrible disease that took a loved one. Or, as David Lose suggests, perhaps our image of God is shaped by popular theology:
            There’s a lot of bad theology about the cross: that it was the instrument by which God’s sense of justice had to be satisfied…that Jesus was punished on the cross in our place, taking the punishment we deserved…that the blood of Jesus was payment for our sin.  I struggle with these images, because I think they paint a picture of an angry and punishing God, rather than a God who loves us unconditionally and desires to love and forgive us.
            So, I invite you to ponder what Jesus showed us about how much God loves us.  When we see Jesus on the cross, we see God’s willingness to enter into the confusion and violence and heartache of humanity. In the resurrection that follows is the promise and sign that when we’ve fallen tragically short of God’s hopes for us, God’s love enfleshed in Jesus endures and is victorious.
            As David Lose puts it: “There is no length to which God would not go to embrace us in love. There is nothing that God wouldn’t do to save us through love. And there is nothing God will permit to remain between us and God’s love. Love will conquer. Love will prevail. Love will win.”[2]

            “As God the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love,” says Jesus. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.”
            Jesus is saying this to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He is about to embody the love he describes when he says this, “No one has greater love than this, that you lay down your life for your friends.” And that’s what Jesus does.
            “Abide in my love,” Jesus says. “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you….I am giving you these commands that you may love one another.”
            If we are serious about being friends of Jesus, we need to do what he commands us. We have been chosen to go and bear fruit-- the fruit of love.
            What might that look like?

            I was especially inspired this week by several stories I heard, both about men who overcame great difficulties to graduate from college this week.  One of them was about Freddie Sherrill, who had sunk to the bottom of life in the street in Charlotte, North Carolina. He guzzled cheap wine, snorted cocaine, and shot up heroin. He slept in vacant houses and in cardboard boxes under railroad bridges. He did four stretches in truancy school, five in prison, and five more in treatment centers. He even failed at suicide. And yet, this week, at age 65, this man who had barely been able to read graduated from Queens University.
            Along the way, Sherrill had plenty of help on his unlikely path to a college degree, including a forgiving wife, a minister who took a chance on a stranger, and members of Myers Park Presbyterian Church.
            After his failed suicide attempt in 1988, Sherrill landed at a rehab center in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he was befriended by a local couple who introduced him to their minister, Steve Eason, who at that time was the pastor of a local Presbyterian Church. The church needed a sexton, and Steve said he’d try him on the job, but if he ever smelled alcohol on him, he’d fire him.
            With the help of the local Literacy Council, Sherrill began to learn to read. He started classes at the local community college to earn his high school equivalency degree, passing by a single point on his sixth try. Then he went on to earn an associate’s degree in human services with a concentration in substance abuse counseling. It took him 13 years. Over the years, he became an AA leader and spoke for local meetings and was eventually invited to talk with teens imprisoned in a nearby correctional center. By 1995, he was a substance abuse counselor at the at several centers.
            Sherrill kept in touch with Rev. Eason after he left Morgantown over the years, and in 2002, after Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina called him as their pastor, Sherrill was offered a job as their sexton. In Charlotte, Sherrill worked with poor children and volunteered with a group that works to prevent youth from dropping out of school.
            Sherrill asked Myers Park Church members for help when his son was applying to colleges, and a retired bank executive nudged Sherrill to take classes himself. He enrolled at Queens University, which is a Presbyterian-related school. Professors and learning centers helped him improve his writing and study skills as he progressed. He worked very hard, and several church members served as proofreaders of his class papers. It took him seven years of taking evening classes, but he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human service studies.[3]

            And then, closer to home, there’s Byron Brooks’ story.  His story is so inspiring that he has been featured on at least two local news stations and in at least one Detroit paper.
            This 23-year-old man graduated this weekend from Henry Ford College. His mother gave birth to him in prison, and he didn’t know his biological father. His great-grandparents took him in and taught him the importance of faith, education, and music. He started taking classes at Henry Ford College, but soon became homeless. At his lowest point, he would sleep on bleachers, park benches, and under trees. He didn’t want to ask for help, but someone at his church found out he was homeless and took him in.
            Some school staff members and friends started helping Byron out. One student would bring him lunch every day. In the midst of all his challenges, Byron made the Dean’s List and became a licensed minister.
            Byron has been accepted to Harvard, Howard, University of Michigan and other prestigious schools, but he decided to attend Ferris State University this fall so he can stay close to his church and come back to Henry Ford College and mentor other students. He wants to create a music program for at-risk youth. [4]

            When we abide in love, when we are friends with Jesus, we will love one another in active ways, and we can change people’s lives. We can do beautiful things for God that can change the world.
            When we abide in love, we practice looking at each person we meet through the eyes of love, seeing them as beloved children of God. When we do that, empowered by the Spirit, we can be given the courage to do what we can to ensure the dignity of all persons.
            When people speak up when they see injustice, when they record video when someone is being treated unjustly, it makes a difference. When we use social media to challenge bias and injustice, it’s one of the ways we can show our love for all persons.
             When we stand with poor and marginalized persons in solidarity, we are following in Jesus’ way of love, which is why I will be part of the Poor People’s Campaign, along with many other persons of faith.
            Jesus calls us into his way of love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends….I appointed you to go and brear fruit, fruit that will last….”

            The good news is that Jesus says these things to us so that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete!
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 6, 2018