Sunday, July 29, 2018

"Love and Life for the World." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Love and Life for the World"

2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

            Do you ever find yourself wondering what actually happened in these stories we just heard?  A man comes to Elisha bringing food from the first fruits: twenty barley loaves and some fresh ears of grain. Elisha says, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant can’t see how that will be enough.  Elisha had heard God’s promise: “Thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’
            Would you have believed Elisha?
            The Bible tells us that Elisha served the twenty barley loaves and the grain, and the hundred people ate, and there was more than enough.
            There are similar themes in the gospel lesson we just heard. 
            The gospel lesson we just heard is one of the few stories that John and the other gospel writers tell in common.  It’s the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. So, it must have been important to the early church.
            After this, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  The verses leading up to today’s gospel lesson set the context. The crowds are following because they saw Jesus perform SIGNS. Jesus has healed the official’s son and a man by the pool. The amazing things Jesus has been doing create a sense of anticipation for what is to come.
            A large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain and sat down with his disciples.
            Jesus looked around at the large crowd and asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people can eat?
            John tells us that Jesus said this to test Philip, as he already knew what he would do.
            Philip answered Jesus, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread wouldn’t be enough for each of them to get a little.”
            Then Andrew said, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish--but what are they for so many?”  Andrew sees the possibilities, but he’s still concerned that they don’t have enough.
            Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”  John mentions that there was a lot of grass in the area, which made it a comfortable place to sit down and have a picnic.
            There are four gospel stories that tell about Jesus feeding 5,000, and Matthew’s and Mark each add a similar story about Jesus feeding 4,000. In all six stories, there are lots of left-overs!

            At the center of the story is a miracle.
            Now, if I were to tell you that it happened exactly the way the story says it did, some of you might get a little cranky.   Some folk have a hard time believing that sort of thing… or would tell us that nothing like that has ever happened to you.
            The way some people get more comfortable with this story is to explain that of course many of the five thousand people had a little food tucked away in their tunics—something they planned to sneak off and eat by themselves—but that Jesus got them to share what they had, so that there was plenty for everyone, with twelve baskets left over.  According to that kind of thinking, the MIRACLE is that Jesus got them to share.
            I think that interpretation has some merit, and it’s helpful to some folk who struggle with how to interpret the miracle stories in the Bible.
            But that’s not what the Bible says.  and that when the people saw it, they knew who he was.  They understood the feeding of the five thousand as God’s divine hand in human affairs—God’s supernatural interruption of the natural order.  There was bread where there hadn’t been any bread…fish where there hadn’t been any fish.  That proved who Jesus was to them…and established their faith in him.  The miracle made people believe.  It gave them faith where there had been no faith—the same as it gave them food where there had been no food.
            I’m not going to try to tell you how it happened that Jesus was able to feed thousands of people that day in the Galilee, because I can’t explain it in a pat, rational way that would satisfy everyone.  But I believe the gospel writers when they say that something amazing and extraordinary happened, and that many hungry people got fed-- when it looked like there wouldn’t be enough.   In the midst of what looked like scarcity, there was abundance!   
            I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that a miracle is something that takes your freedom away along with your doubts… something that leaves you no choice but to believe.  You witness a miracle—or, as John the Evangelist would say, a "sign"-- and it makes you have faith.
            But I’m not so sure about that.  Without faith, there are always other explanations for even the best of miracles.  You say you heard the voice of God?  It sounded like ordinary thunder to me.  She was healed of her illness?  It was probably psychosomatic in the first place.
            Come to think of it, though, is there proof for anything that really matters in the world?   Are there homegrown, ordinary miracles you can think of—that there’s no evidence for… nothing that could prove them to anyone else…or to you—if you didn’t believe in them first.
            Could it be that we’ve gotten it all backwards somehow?  Maybe faith doesn’t come after miracles—but before them?   Perhaps what makes something holy--what makes it a glowing and life-giving wonder—isn’t something about it…but about us. 

            In today’s gospel lesson we hear echoes of the Passover-Exodus story. Chapter five ended with complaints about a shallow, superficial understanding of Moses. But chapter six intends to show a deeper, fuller understanding of Moses and the Passover, which is now revealed in Jesus.
            When Jesus miraculously feeds the multitude in the wilderness, the people remember the promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses, and they confess that Jesus is that prophet. What they fail to realize what this sign actually reveals. Instead of seeing in Jesus the embodiment of God’s glory, love, and Word, they see a king…a political or military figure they hope will serve their desires. The crowds are missing the point of what’s happening. They see Jesus’ gracious gift--but they want him to manifest a glory that fits into their assumption and serves their goals.

            How often do we fail to see the depths of what God is doing, because we’re focused on what serves our desires? How often do we fail to realize how graciously God is acting among us, for our sake and for the sake of the whole world?  
            We only see partially and in distorted ways. We need the continuing word of Jesus and the gift of his presence, if we are to move more deeply into God’s glory.
            When the story moves to the next scene, we hear more echoes of Passover.
            Jesus, knowing that the people in the crowd wanted to make him king by force, had withdrawn again to a mountain by himself. Then, when evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake. A strong wind was blowing, and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water…and they were frightened.
            But Jesus said to them, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  Or, more accurately, we could read Jesus’ response as “I am.” “I am” and “Don’t be afraid” are the language of theophany.[1]   I think Brian Peterson is right when he suggests that, in John’s language, it’s a “sign,” a window into the glory of God present in this world through Jesus.[2]
            Like the crowds in John 6, we have been fed by God’s grace and mercy and care and steadfast love. Like them, we often fail to see what God is doing among us. We look for a Messiah or king who will serve our desires or our agendas.
            But God is up to something far greater than anything we could imagine. Jesus comes to dwell among us, full of grace and truth, to reveal to us God’s love. Jesus comes across the fearful, lonely, empty, dangerous times and places and says, “Don’t be afraid.  I am.”
            He calls us to feed the hungry--to provide food and clean water to those who lack the basic things of life. But we look around and we’re afraid that our resources aren’t sufficient to meet all the needs.  We’re afraid there won’t be enough.

            Perhaps part of the miracle of our life of faith is that we creatures are able to make use of our freedom:  to believe in spite of our doubts…to have faith without proof…and that because of those capacities in us, miraculous things do happen from time to time.  Some of them are extraordinary.   But most of them as ordinary as the voices of our fellow human beings telling us that we are loved…that we are precious in their sight and God’s…that they want to link their lives with ours…that together we can, with God’s help, change the world.
            Together, we can practice trusting in God’s abundance and grace. Together, we can receive from Jesus’ hand what he gives and go out into the world with the gifts.
            All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus keeps coming to us to open our hearts and our hands to those around us…to open our eyes to his presence. He keeps encouraging us: “I am. Don’t be afraid.”

            In the epistle lesson we heard, we hear Paul praying that the church, according to the riches of God’s glory,  “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love… that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

            As Gentile readers of the twenty-first century, do we get it?  This message is for us, no less than to the ancient church in Ephesus.  God has a plan for us, for us to be strengthened in our inner being with power through God’s Spirit…for Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith…for us to be rooted and grounded in love…for us to be filled with the fullness of God.  We come together to be fed…filled…to open our lives to God in prayer…and to be transformed by God’s power. 
            Do we believe in that kind of miracle-- the kind of miracle in which we believe enough in God’s grace and power to risk giving our lives in prayer?   
            The GOOD NEWS is that—if we give our lives in prayer—we can begin to comprehend that God is within and around us.  We’ll begin to see ourselves and everyone else differently.  When we give ourselves in prayer, we begin to see the world in terms of God’s economy of abundance.  When we give ourselves in prayer, I believe the things that break God’s heart break our hearts too…and we begin to comprehend what Jesus meant when he said, “How blessed are those who mourn!  How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!  How blessed are the peacemakers!”
            When we’re weary from responsibilities with family, work, and church, the vision of God leads us back to the way of love and LIFE. 
            When we pray, God gives us the courage to risk.  We learn to trust not in ourselves, but in something far bigger than we are.  We live with what Brett Younger calls “a muffled but persistent sense of the holy.”  [3]
            What kind of a miracle might we experience if we pray for a bigger vision of God?  What kind of a miracle might we be a part of-- if we pray that we will see our life in the center of God’s goodness…that Christ might dwell in our hearts?    What kind of a miracle might it be if God overwhelms us with grace and it overflows in our lives and makes a difference in the world?      
            So… let us pray for faith in God’s power working in our world and in our leaders.  Let us pray for God’s power in us to do everything that we can do to stop terrible hatred and violence in our world.  Let there truly be peace on earth, and let it begin with you and me.
            Now, to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

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

[1] Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10, 25; 4`:12; Genesis 15:1; Exodus 14a;13.
[2] Brian Peterson, Commentary on John 6:1-21 at

[3] Lectionary Homiletics, July 30, 2006, p. 80.



Sunday, July 22, 2018

"Like Sheep Without a Shepherd." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Like Sheep Without a Shepherd"

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Ephesians 2:11-22; Psalm 23

Woe!  This passage begins with the cry that marks an oracle of destruction.  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”
            The shepherd is a common ancient metaphor for leaders, and for kings in particular.  Jeremiah shares with the prophet Ezekiel the conviction that leaders bear more responsibility than their people for social justice.[1]

            There’s a persistent ethical theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. God requires the community to be ruled with justice and righteousness, which is to be made manifest in how they treat the alien, the orphan, and the widow.[2]  But, as Elaine James suggests, rulers who seek their own fortune, who expand their houses and enrich their coffers at the expense of the poor are in egregious violation of God’s covenant, and will be held accountable.[3]
            Jeremiah continues proclaiming a word from the LORD:  “Therefore…concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended them. So, I will attend to you for your evil doings.”
            The prophet speaks with tenderness and compassion on behalf of the people.  Judah’s political leaders have been corrupt and have failed the people, but God is the shepherd who will ultimately redeem the people.
            In Psalm 23, which we heard earlier, we hear similar images of a divine shepherd who is a source of comfort and life.  In the scriptures, we hear assurances that, while corrupt leadership has “scattered” the sheep, God will “gather the remnant of my flock.” God will act as the good shepherd, as a model of just rule and care.
            Jesus is described in these terms in the passage we heard today from Mark’s gospel. Jesus sees that the crowd of people are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion on them.
            The imagery of shepherds and flocks of sheep would have been well-known to people in ancient times.  The shepherd--and by analogy the king--  is responsible for the well-being of the sheep:  to feed them, protect them, guide them.
            But the opening verses of Jeremiah 23 accuse the shepherds of destroying and scattering God’s sheep.  The kings have not been good shepherds. The sheep are in exile, scattered among the nations.  God’s anger is aroused by the “evil doings” of the descendants of King David who ruled Judah, who probably included Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.[4]
            Jeremiah prophesied that each king had failed to “execute justice in the morning    and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.[5]
            The chapters leading up to today’s passage from Jeremiah provide context.  The Bible tells us that King Josiah, who reigned from 640--609 BCE, “judged the cause of the poor and the needy.”[6]    In contrast, the “eyes and heart of Josiah’s heirs were set on “dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.”[7]
            Jeremiah prophesied in the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reign of the last king, Zedekiah.  These were turbulent times for the leaders of ancient Judah. The seats of power in the ancient Near East had shifted.  The Assyrian imperial dominance of the past hundred years was waning, and the Babylonian empire was on the rise. This international upheaval left the kings in the little nation of Judah with some very difficult decisions. Would they pay taxes to the new empire in Babylon, or should they side with their neighbor Egypt?  Could they be independent and refuse to pay tribute to either one? It turns out that the decision to withhold tribute--against Jeremiah’s advice-- would not end well. The shepherds of Judah made policy decisions that placed the people in jeopardy and ultimately led to their exile.[8]
             As biblical scholar Elna Solvang points out, while Zedekiah’s name means “my righteousness is the LORD,” his reign was far from righteous.[9]

            As I worked with the passage from Jeremiah for today, I realized I needed a bit of a refresher course on the context, so I could interpret the passage accurately. In my Introduction to the Old Testament class at Princeton Seminary, we were required to memorize the names and order of the kings of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and the prophets who prophesied in each of those times. But that was a long time ago.
            As I did some reading, it occurred to me that all this background might sound pretty political to a lot of people.  It sounds political-- because it is political. Jeremiah was prophesying in response to what was going on, and he was bringing a word of judgment from God to the political leaders of his time.
            Jeremiah’s prophecy is rooted in a challenge to corrupt and ineffectual government over the people, a critique of the “shepherds” who have destroyed and scattered God’s sheep. 
            After pronouncing judgment on the evil shepherds, God promises to shepherd God’s people Godself and then to raise up shepherds over them.  In this promise, we hear hope for peace, security, and prosperity, all of which are rooted in the faithfulness of God.  
            Jeremiah’s prophecy offers a vision of God’s breaking into human history, but it is clear that we aren’t yet living in the state of shalom for which we long, where justice and peace rule.  The prophecy points us to the “already” and the “not-yet” of God’s work among us.

            The gospels tell us that the people in Jesus’ day had been hoping for a Messiah who would come with armies and rule with might… a Messiah who would provide for peace through war and by defeating their worldly enemies.
            But Jesus showed us that God shepherds and protects God’s people not through violence, but by offering God’s very self, and by teaching us to love even our enemies.  Jesus revolutionizes our understanding of what God’s promise of security and prosperity mean in the kin-dom of God.  Governments are true to God’s purposes only when they rule in congruence with Christ’s self-giving and understanding of love that is at the heart of the gospel.

            Jeremiah has often been called “the weeping prophet.” We hear the prophets crying, “Woe!” and weeping over that which grieves God, calling us to lament corruption and destruction and injustice.  They speak of the grief of God that the people need to share, because--without it--there can be no newness. They point us to a vision of how God intends God’s people to live, and they make claims on us regarding “the execution of justice and rightness in the land.”   
            So, how do we live in response to the hope we have been promised?  How do we live into the new life God desires for us?

            Some of us may feel “like sheep without a shepherd.” Will there be shepherds for us who are different from former shepherds?-- shepherds who will choose to be good shepherds, who will attend to the justice, protection, mercy, and righteousness that mirror God’s shepherding?
            Just as the people of Judah could respond to bad shepherding by being cynical about their leaders, we too might be struggling with cynicism.
            We look around and we remember that children in Flint have had their lives and their potential forever changed due to lead in the water… that thousands of poor families in Detroit are living without running water… that many people in Puerto Rico live without electrical power.  We see images of children separated from their families at our southern border.  We worry about the stripping of the social safety net while the wealthiest get tax breaks.

            In Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, he tells them that, from now on... we regard no one from a human point of view....   if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation...from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.   In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.[10]
            That ministry of reconciliation is still our calling.  For Christ is our peace. In his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.
            Christ came proclaiming peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near....  No one is to be a stranger or alien, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God....  joined together and growing into a holy temple in the Lord...  built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.[11]
            In the passage from the letter to the Ephesians, we see a glimpse of the new community:      So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 
            The good news of Christian faith, according to the letter to the Ephesians, is that, in this broken world, reconciliation is no longer merely a dream, a longing for what once was, a hope for what someday might be-- but something that already is.  Into a world still torn by death, sin, and hostility, Christ came proclaiming “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who are near.”

            In a time when we hear a lot of talk about building barriers along our nation’s southern border to prevent illegal immigrants from entering,  a time when Israelis have built a wall to separate themselves from the Palestinians,  and other territories are protected by barriers and demilitarized zones to keep enemies apart.
            Now, eliminating boundaries doesn’t in itself create peace. Peace comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls. God doesn’t just tear down walls, but unites people in the One who is our peace, creating one new humanity.

            Some of us are old enough to remember the day the Berlin Wall came down. Most of us never expected it to happen in our lifetimes, and the feelings of surprise and possibility were palpable. If this wall could fall, what else?
            The end of apartheid in South Africa brought even more hope and excitement. The divisions of black, white, and colored of the Apartheid system were coming apart, and reconciliation became possible.
            Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said he believes that God’s hand was in that miracle.
            “God saw our brokenness and sought to extricate us from it-- but only with our cooperation. God will not cajole or bully us, but wants to woo us for our own sakes. We might say that the Bible is the story of God’s attempt to effect atonement, to bring us back to our intended condition of relatedness. God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to God. God sent Jesus who would fling out his arms on the cross as if to embrace us. God wants to draw us back into an intimate relationship and so bring to unity all that has become dis-united. This was God’s intention from the beginning. And each of us is called to be an ally of God in this work of justice and reconciliation.”

            In the midst of all the brokenness and fearfulness and busy-ness and weariness and cynicism and hopelessness in our world, our Shepherd God keeps calling us into beloved, Sabbath community, where we can be fed and find rest,  a community where we can encourage, console and celebrate with each other, renew our vision… and remind one another that we were put in this world for Gods good purposes. 
            Thanks be to God! Amen!

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

[1] Ezekiel uses this same metaphor to speak of the exile of Judah in Babylon in Ezekiel 34.
[2] Jeremiah 22:3-4
[3] Elaine James also cites Jeremiah 22:13-17 in her  “Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6,” in Working Preacher blog, at

[4] Jeremiah 22:11-12, Jeremiah 22:18, Jeremiah 22:24-30, Jeremiah 21:3-7.
[5] Jeremiah 21:12a
[6] Jeremiah 22:16
[7] Jeremiah 22:17
[8] Jeremiah 27:4-8
[9] Elna K. Solvang, in Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6 at Working Preacher blog, at

[10]2 Corinthians 5:16-19
1 [11]Ephesians 2:13-22

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Hard to Hear." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"St John Reproaching Herod", Artist: Il Cavaliere (1662-1666)

"Hard to Hear"

Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29

The prophets Amos and John the Baptist spoke truth to power in these hard-to-hear texts... and how that turned out. 

            Prophets are unpopular, and Amos is no exception.
            Amos prophesies to the Northern Kingdom-- Israel-- during the long and expansive reign of Jeroboam. This was a time of prosperity for the North. Amos is concerned about the concentration of wealth among the urban elites, and he repeatedly talks about their luxury goods as signs of their moral decay. He openly mocks their luxuries and calls them out for their failure to act justly.[1]
            This material prosperity seems to have come at the expense of the poor, and points to the growing gap between the rural poor and wealthier landowners:  “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.”[2]  
            God’s deep concern for human justice is a theme throughout Amos’ prophecy. As Amos kept proclaiming, God is not indifferent to human suffering, oppression, and injustice. In Amos chapter 3, we hear the prophet proclaim, “The lion has roared; who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”   
            Amos and other prophets tell us that God’s love demands righteousness. Breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.
            In today’s lesson, Amos sees a vision of a “plumb line” beside a wall.  This “plumb line” is a symbol for God’s judgment for Israel’s failure to fulfill their call to justice and love.
            Amos preaches that King Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will go into exile. He anticipates the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria.
            Amaziah, the high priest, is a religious authority who speaks on behalf of his temple as well as his King.  Amaziah is an insider, and he has a vested interest in institutional stability.  He’s outraged by how Amos is threatening the status quo.
            This is a king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom,” Amaziah says. Amaziah is supported by the king, so Amos’ prophecy is a threat to position and his way of life. Amaziah tells Amos to go away and make his living as a professional prophet somewhere else.
            But Amos insists that he isn’t a professional prophet. He’s an outsider-- “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” whom God called to prophesy to the people of Israel.

            Amos’ message is hard to hear.  But he lived to keep on prophesying.
            The gospel story we heard today from Mark is also hard to hear. It’s a terrible story.  Don’t you wonder:  Why on earth does Mark include this story in his gospel?
            Overall, Mark’s gospel is very concise. And yet, Mark gives a 16-verse account of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod. This is the longest anecdote in Mark’s gospel, and the only flashback. Other than the discovery of the empty tomb, it’s the only story in which Jesus doesn’t appear.
            So, what’s so important to Mark in this gruesome story?
            When we look at this story in context, we see that it comes after the sending out of the Twelve. Jesus had been going around among the villages teaching, and he called the Twelve and began to send them out two by two. He gave them authority over the unclean spirits. The Twelve went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick, and they cured them.[3]
            Herod heard about this, and that some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” Some others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”[4]
            This is where the narrative flashes back to how Herod had beheaded John the Baptist.
            Herod remembers that he had sent men to arrest John and put him in prison on account of Herodias, because John had been telling him that it was unlawful for him to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive.
            Now, these relationships are complicated. This Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born—the Herod who ordered the killing of all the babies in and around Bethlehem when the wise men told him the Messiah had been born. 
            The son, Herod Antipas-- the Herod in today’s story-- divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, who at the time was married to his brother.  Mark calls Herod Antipas’ brother “Philip,” but the historian Josephus calls him “Herod,” which seems to be a family name.  To make things even more complicated, Herodias the daughter was also Herod Antipas’ niece.[5]
            As N.T. Wright says, if this had happened today, it would be all over the newspapers—and I think the internet and TV as well.   As Wright says, “It’s sordid, shabby and shameful—exactly the sort of thing that everybody likes to hear, however much they pretend otherwise.”[6]   You can imagine how people would react to the news of the scandalous goings-on at Herod’s birthday bash.  The lecherous Herod is so aroused by the dancing of his young step-daughter--who’s also his niece--that he promises to give her anything she wants. 
            The young girl can’t figure out what to ask for, so she leaves the banquet to ask her mother.  When she comes back, she brings her mother’s request for John’s head on a platter. 
            Mark tells us that the king was greatly distressed by this request, but he didn’t want to refuse her, out of regard to his oaths and the guests.  The guests have witnessed his oath, and he doesn’t want to lose face by reneging on his rash promise.  So, he has John executed and has his head brought in on a platter, like food for the feast.
            John, like Amos and God’s other prophets before him, spoke truth to power, at great risk to their safety.  It cost John his life.

            Mark gave all this space in his compact gospel to tell this story. So I think Jill Duffield is right that we need to sit with the ugliness and ponder where we find ourselves in the story.
            I doubt that many of us here would find ourselves identifying with Herod, or with either Herodias.
            I wonder if some might find ourselves with the guests at Herod’s party.  If you were invited, would you turn down the invitation? Even if you don’t agree with his politics or policies, he is the ruler, and it’s an honor to be invited. If you refuse to go, would Herod be insulted? What might that cost you?
            Would we have spoken up and said, “Herod, you don’t have to do what the girl is asking. You have a lot of power. You can show your strength by sticking to your principles, rather than giving in to your ego or your passions.”[7]
            That would be hard for Herod to hear.  It could cost us to speak up like that, to question Herod’s authority. 
            Maybe we find ourselves among the twelve disciples in the gospel story. We were sent out on a mission. Jesus told us to travel light, to teach and carry out a ministry of healing.  We’d hoped that following Jesus would lead to greatness--to power and influence. But, when we look around, it looks like the Herod--and Herodias-- are winning. They have the wealth. They call the shots. They even control the executioner.
            We’re not great people in our society. So, how can we believe that God is going to work through us to bring in God’s Kingdom?
            Jesus’ message is hard to hear, hard to believe:  God will bring the redemption of the world through the One crucified, dead, and buried. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will save it.
            The gospel demands our life, our all.  Speaking God’s truth has real life consequences.  As Jill Duffield puts it, “Engaging in God’s work of defeating evil doesn’t gain you worldly favor.  But rest assured, despite all the evidence to the contrary, God’s will and God’s Word will not be thwarted.”

            Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the words of a song that’s an affirmation of faith. Those of us who attend Taize probably know the words by heart, and I invite you to sing along:
Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate. 
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.  
Victory is ours, victory is ours,
Through God who loves us. 

            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
July 15, 2018

[1] Amos 6:4-6
[2] Amos 2:7
[3] Mark 6:6-13
[4] Mark 6:14-16
[5] New Interpreter’s Bible: Mark, Vol. VII, p 598.
[6] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Books, 2001), p. 75.
[7] Jill Duffield, ‘Looking into the Lectionary,” in The Presbyterian Outlook.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"Healing Faith." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 5:21-43

"Healing Faith"

Mark 5:21-43

Jesus has just returned from the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile territory, where he performed an exorcism and interfered with the local swine-based economy.
That region was known as the Decapolis-- a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.  Rome, in an effort to spread its culture and the Imperial cult to the furthest reaches of its territory, had built roads, public buildings and temples throughout the Decapolis. Worship of the emperor was the common bond that linked the ten cities together.
      The story of this exorcism and his interference with the swine-based economy is a metaphor for Roman culture and Imperial rule. Mark depicts it as violent, brutal, unclean, and wracked with fear. The local people had begged Jesus to get out of town.

            After that, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee, and he’s welcomed by a crowd.  In the crowd, Jesus faces a range of human need. As biblical scholars have pointed out, ninety percent of first century Jews lived in desperate poverty. They lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire, and were also oppressed by a cultural and religious system that valued custom and ritual over justice and mercy.
            Jesus has been proclaiming the good news of God’s love and the spirit and heart of the law, and crowds keep coming to him.

            Today’s gospel lesson is a story of two healings. One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus comes and falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him repeatedly to come home with him and heal his young daughter.  “She is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her so that she may be made well and live! 
            Jesus sets off to go with him.  A large crowd follows along and is pressing in on him. 
But then that story gets interrupted.  As Jesus is making his way through the crowd, he senses that power has gone forth from him, and he turns to find out who touched him.
            It wasn’t just the crowd pressing in on him, but a woman—a very specific woman.  This woman had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She’d gone to doctor after doctor, and had spent all her money on them, trying the treatments they prescribed.  Who knows what she’d tried?    Perhaps drinking tonics made of vile bitter things… rubbing herself with terrible smelling salves.  But none of it had done any good, and she still bled. 
            In addition to the effects on her physical health, her bleeding had other profound effects on her life.   It made her ritually unclean.  She couldn’t go to the Temple to worship.  Anyone who touched her, or lay on a bed in which she had slept, or sat on a chair where she sat would be unclean as well. 
            Imagine the kind of isolation this woman must have experienced over those twelve long years.  Imagine being unable to attend services and rituals in the Temple.  Imagine people shying away from you, being unwilling to touch you for twelve years.  This woman was an outcast.
Unlike Jairus’ daughter, she apparently has no male kinsman to plead her case.       
            But this woman has heard reports of the power at work in Jesus, and that has given birth to hope and faith.  So—in desperation and great faith—she audaciously and courageously works her way through the jostling crowd and approaches Jesus from behind and touches his garments.
            She might have thought, “I don’t need to bother him.  I don’t need to slow him down with a lot of chatter.  All I need to do is touch the edge of his garment.  Then I’ll be healed.”

            But things don’t go exactly as she planned.  No sooner does she touch his clothes than Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched me?” 
            Jesus refuses to let the woman remain invisible.  He insists on personal contact and on drawing the woman into relationship.    And so, the woman falls down before him and tells him the whole truth.
            Jesus says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”  The New RSV translates this verb in terms of healing.  But, as some scholars note, this translation of the verb fails to capture the sense in which the physical cure results in a fuller restoration.[1]  It might be a better translation to hear Jesus saying, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.”

            As we reach the conclusion of the inner story, we can discern that the miracle involves far more than physical healing.[2]  It includes entry into a ‘saving’ relationship with Jesus himself.  The woman is no longer alone.  Jesus calls her “Daughter,” claiming her as family, and restoring her to community.  She is told to “go in peace”—shalom, which involves wholeness, salvation—and healed from disease.

            Not only does Jesus not seem to mind that the woman has touched him.  He also doesn’t worry about the ritual purification.  After he sends the woman on her way, healed and whole, he doesn’t stop off at the baths or send the disciples off for a water so he can wash.  It doesn’t seem to matter to him. 
            For Jesus, there is no such thing as an unclean person.  The society he lives in may try to keep certain people outside of their boundaries, but Jesus keeps reaching out to them.  He keeps welcoming people back inside the circle of God’s love and healing and community.  Time and time again, he welcomes people who have been cast out…or he moves outside the boundary himself, to meet them where they are.
            The other story in today’s gospel lesson shows a similar pattern.
            Some people come from Jairus’ house to say, “Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the teacher any further?” 
            After all, you could hardly ask Jesus to deal with a dead body.  Dead bodies were considered unclean.  Touch a dead body, and you become unclean.
            But Jesus overhears and says to Jairus, “Do not fear-- only believe.’  He takes Peter, James, and John and they go to Jairus’ house where they find a commotion.  Mourning has already started, the customary rituals of loud weeping and lamenting.
             “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” Jesus says.  “The child is not dead, but sleeping.”  When the people laugh at him, Jesus puts them all outside.  He takes the child’s parents and the three disciples and takes the child by the hand and tells her to get up.  The girl begins to walk.  Everybody is amazed!   Jesus gives them orders not to tell anybody about this, and tells them to give the girl something to eat.

            The religious community in Jesus’ day and through much of history has often gotten in the way of healing.  But the gospel story we heard today from Mark tells how God works through Jesus, who is empowered by the Holy Spirit to reach out with a healing touch.

            God’s holiness works through Jesus and his followers to spread the life-giving power of the kingdom--the kin-dom-- into the world wherever people are receptive to it.[3]
            So…when Jesus welcomes the woman who has been hemorrhaging as daughter”—a term of endearment-- and touches a dead girl, we have what Marcus Borg has summarized as “The politics of purity” being replaced by “a politics of compassion.[4]
            Jesus deliberately reaches out to the woman, welcoming her back into the human family, back into the community from which she had been isolated.  Instead of avoiding contact with the dead girl, Jesus reaches out and takes her hand and restores her to life. 
            Mark’s story points to the divisions in society between male and female, between the weak and the strong, the clean and the impure, and the rich and the poor.
            Jesus’ disciples marveled that Jesus wants to know who touched him and don’t seem to understand how responsive Jesus is to vulnerability and need.
            Perhaps we who are his disciples today have failed to understand that as well. Or maybe we do. How many of us have felt our hearts broken when we see images of families being separated at our border, and discouraged when we hear some people using their faith to justify those policies. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets around the country yesterday to make a statement that “families belong together.” Last weekend there were thousands in Washington, D.C. for the Poor People’s Campaign. I believe there is a growing movement of people with a growing understanding of how we are all family in God’s kin-dom.

            Just four days before he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preached a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington. He invited his listeners to place their struggles and calling in the context of God’s ordering of the universe.  Dr. King suggested that whatever differences we may experience, yet our mutual vulnerability and humanity unites us more deeply.
            “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made. This is the way it is structured.”[5]

            Even when we are tempted to despair, Jesus reaches out in an invitation of pure love…an invitation to bring our own bleeding bodies and spirits to the only One who can offer us true healing…the only One who can welcome us into true community when our ties with that community have been broken.
            Jesus reaches out and invites us to follow-- to look at the suffering ones in our midst, to listen to their stories, to reach out and touch them, and lift them to their feet.  By example, Jesus invites us to call them “Daughter” … “Son” … “Sister” …  “Brother” -- family.
            Just as Jesus called Jairus’ daughter to rise up, he invites us to stand up for love and justice. The Greek words used for the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter and of Jesus is God’s way of telling us to get up and stand up for God’s righteous and justice. By lifting up the lowly and providing for “the least of these,” we will strengthen and revive our communities and our nation, and we will be living more fully into God’s kin-dom.
            The good news of the gospel calls us to live out our faith in ways that invite all, not just some, to be touched and healed by God’s love… and all, not just some, can become a real part of the community. 
            The good news of the gospel calls us to become a richer, more whole community—a community that in its wholeness truly embodies the shalom that Jesus bids the woman when he says “your faith has made you well…go in peace…”
            And so… may we never be content to rest within our safe walls, but instead, may we move out beyond the boundaries to where ministry with Jesus takes place, where we receive God’s blessings, and where we can be a blessing to those who do not know that God’s love is even for them.
            May our faith make us well and whole. May we walk in the way of peace…shalom…salam.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
July 1, 2018

[1] Donald Juel, Mark.  Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Augsburg, 1990),  p. 84.
[2] James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Brock, Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook (Westminster/John Knox, 1992), p. 142.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (Harper, 1994), p. 58.