Sunday, September 30, 2018

"It's All About Love." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, on Good News Sunday.

"It's All About Love"

1 John 4:7-21; Mark 12:28-34

Today is officially Good News Sunday at Littlefield!
            Have you heard some good news today?  In the scripture lessons or in the songs?  [I hope so.  That takes a bit of the pressure off me. Though I’ll do my best.]
            I do believe we have good news to share-- important and life-changing good news.  Sometimes I think I risk sounding like a “broken record.”   Some of you have heard me say this over and over again, in various ways.   But the more I’ve studied the scriptures over the years and looked for the main themes and the big picture, the more I’ve become convinced that our Christian faith is really all about love. 
            God loves us.  We are—all of us-- God’s beloved children.  Our faith is about responding to God’s love for us and for all God’s children by loving God   and loving all the people God loves. 
            The Hebrew Scriptures include a lot of stories and verses that a lot of us find puzzling and troubling.  Yet one of the major themes is of God’s steadfast loving-kindness.
            One of my teachers at Princeton Seminary did her doctoral dissertation on the recurring theme of “hesed”, which is a Hebrew word that can be translated as “mercy,” or “steadfast loving-kindness.”  
            One of the other prominent themes in the Old Testament is how God keeps sending prophets to call people back to living in right relationship with God and neighbor…  and how those right relationships are characterized by love and justice and mercy.
             The gospel message in the New Testament proclaims in various ways how Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth, to embody God’s love for us, and to show us how to live in the way of love.   Jesus preached about the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God” and how we are called to live into it.      
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment is, he said what’s most important is two-fold:  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is anybody we encounter, anybody God puts in our path—even people who are different…  people we might even see as enemies. 
            In his last talk with his disciples, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  People will know you are my followers by the way you love one another.”[1]

            Jesus made it very clear that it’s all about love.  So, I keep wondering how so many people who call themselves “Christians” could be so confused about this.  

            So many people in our society fear and mistrust those who are different:  Muslims…  people whose skin is a different color…  immigrants… refugees.   
            There are so many people in our nation who are hungry or food insecure or lack the basic things they need to live a life of dignity. The gap between the very rich and the poor keeps widening.
            This week, in particular, there has been a national conversation on social media and elsewhere about sexual assault.  Women all around the country have been sharing their stories about being assaulted, and many others have been talking about being “triggered” by recent events and re-experiencing their assaults.
            Our nation is divided by partisan politics, and respect and trust and basic civility seem to be in very short supply. In recent weeks, there have been death threats against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Senator Flake. 
            In the midst of all this brokenness and fear and injustice, how are we-- as people of faith-- called to live?
            “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God    and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God-- for God is love.   Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.    No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us.”[2]
            I hear the scriptures saying that loving one another is a spiritual practice.  As we work at loving one another—God is living in us and working in us and perfecting love in us.

            “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love casts out fear.  Whoever fears has not reached maturity in love.”
            We love because God first loved us.   If we say, “I love God” but hate our brother or sister, we’re lying about loving God.   As we heard in First John, “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen—cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
            Fear divides us.  It leads to violence and destruction.   Hatred and fear are toxic.  They harm us-- as persons and as a society.
            But there is a way out.  It is not the way of fear, and hate and violence.  It is the way of love. 
            In Dr. Martin Luther King’s words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[3]
            If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we have a long way to go to drive hatred and fear out of our lives and out of our society.  Living in the way of love is not easy.  Living in the way of love is too hard to do on our own power alone.
            And so… we need to be in prayer-- together.   We need to open our lives to God’s call in our lives, as we live further into God’s dream for the world—the world that God so loves.   
            We need each other.  The Greek word ekklesia which we translate as “church” literally means an “assembly,” or those who are gathered together.   We need to come together as a community of faith-- not for the sake of coming to a place called church-- but for the sake of coming together as part of the Body of Christ… for the sake of gathering as disciples who need to learn and practice living in the way of love.  
            We need to love one another and encourage one another.  We need to love one another into becoming more and more the beloved children of God we were created to be.   We need to love one another into becoming the beloved community. 
            God isn’t finished with any of us yet.  Our love isn’t yet perfect, and it hasn’t yet cast out all our fears.   But God is still working in and among and through us, through the power of the Holy Spirit-- leading and empowering us to become more patient and kind and generous… and helping us to become less envious or controlling… less irritable or resentful.  
            God is still working in us, guiding us further into the truth, re-forming us, teaching us what it means to go out and be the church in the world, in this time and place.
            The good news is that as we grow more and more into God’s way of love, God’s love will cast out our fears.
            In a broken and fearful world, we can trust in the Holy Spirit to give us courage to pray without ceasing.[4]   As we work with others for justice, freedom and peace, our lives will be transformed, and together we can change the world.        
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 30, 2018

[1] John 13:31-35

[2] 1 John 4:7-12
[3] Quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (1963).  I have read that he first said it in a sermon around 1957.
[4] This is an allusion to the “Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA)”, 1990.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Blessed Are the Peacemakers." A meditation for the Interfaith Prayers for Peace" at Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

Some of the leaders and participants at Interfaith Prayers for Peace at Littlefield Presbyterian Church, 2018.

"Blessed Are the Peacemakers"

Matthew 5:1-16

         The verses we just heard are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.” We heard Jesus speaking what we call the Beatitudes:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit...  the mourners...  the meek... the merciful...   Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you....  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."[1]
            Blessed are you who mourn. 
            For those of us who long for a better, more peaceful world, this is a distressing time. There are so many things to mourn.
            More than 400 children who were separated from their families at the southern border are still separated from their families.
            The mass shootings happen so often that we don’t even hear about most of them.
            People struggle to deal with the ways trauma from assault changed their lives, and the hashtag #Why I didn’t report is trending in social media.
            The list could go on and on…
            There are so many things to mourn.  Like poverty and injustice, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world.
            In the United States of America--one of the richest countries in the world. children remain the poorest age group. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, nearly one in five children--12.8 million in total-- were poor in 2017. Over 45 percent of these children lived in extreme poverty at less than half the poverty level.
            3 million children in the U.S. live in families surviving on $2 a day per person.[1]
            The federal poverty threshold is $12,140 for individuals and $25,100 for a family of four. One in seven people in the United States live below the federal poverty threshold. That’s 13.9% of the population, or 44.7 million. According to this federal threshold, a single adult making $12,141 is not poor, though they are considered “low income.”   The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country’s wealth, which is more than at any time in the past fifty years. [7]
            When we look around and see all the injustice and need, it can feel overwhelming and despairing.  But we don’t have to work alone.  I find myself mourning all this violence and need, and longing to do something. 
            So, what can we do? 
           We can begin by praying together and forging bonds of friendship and solidarity… getting to know one another better… opening our hearts and minds to one another… and finding ways to work together to change the world. 
            Sometimes, it’s a matter of seeing a need and working together to relieve suffering and let people know we care, like the time a group of interfaith friends gathered needed items for Syrian refugees and got together in somebody’s basement in this neighborhood and packed them for sending them.  People of different faiths work together with Project Dignity to feed desperately poor people in Detroit and address the needs of women and children through Zaman International.
            More than fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his famous speech “A Time to Break Silence” that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
            Last May, on the Monday after Mother’s Day, in our nation’s capital and in state capitals around the country, people who are committed to work for a fairer society gathered to launch the first phase of a new Poor People’s Campaign. This is an interfaith movement, made up of older people and younger people, Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of other faiths and people of goodwill who aren’t part of a religious community. It’s a movement that gives voice to people who are directly impacted by poverty and injustice, that brings people together in solidarity as we work together in a series of actions to try to change the conversation in our nation about systemic injustice.
            There’s hard work to be done.   But we can work together to make a difference.  There are values our faith traditions hold in common—values that have to do with love and justice and peace. 
            For all people of faith and goodwill, this is a time for us to find ways to come together and work for a better, more peaceful, merciful, and just world--for everyone.
            As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools."
            Our commitment to peace and justice and reconciliation, and our love for our own children, demands that we provide a better inheritance for them.” There’s hard work to be done.   But we can work together to make a difference.

             After worship, we invite you to stay for a time, to enjoy some refreshments and conversation.   We hope you’ll make a new friend today.  Talk with one another about your families—especially your children or grandchildren and about what kind of a world you want to leave for them.
            Talk about what teachings from our various faith traditions inspire and challenge you…and about what common ground you see in our various traditions. Talk about the people who inspire you and challenge you in your commitment.
            Let’s renew our commitment to change the world-- beginning today. 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 23, 2018

[1] Child Poverty, at Children’s Defense Fund website:


[1] Child Poverty, at Children’s Defense Fund website:

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Faith and Fear." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church. Mark 9:30-37.

"Fear and Faith"

Mark 9:30-37

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre and then to the Decapolis.[1]  In today’s text, he’s back in his home territory of Galilee, but “he did not want anyone to know it.”  The reason he didn’t want anyone to know he was there? He had some important teaching to do with his disciples.
            Some very important things have happened in the meantime.  In Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who are people saying that I am? Who do you say I am?” Then he began teaching the disciples about what awaits him in Jerusalem and about the cost of following him. Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured on a mountain.[2]  Later, Jesus cast a demon out of a boy.
            Now, as they’re passing through Galilee, Jesus is trying again to avoid being noticed while he continues to teach his disciples, saying, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Maybe they don’t want to understand. This is a hard teaching about a Messiah who suffers and dies.
            I wonder what the disciples might have asked if they had not been afraid.  Are we really very different?

            I agree with David Lose that it’s important to ask good questions. But our fears can get in the way. What fears pursue you during the day and haunt you at night? What worries weigh you down so that it’s difficult to move forward in faith?”[3] Our fears have a way of sneaking into our very being, and robbing us of the abundant life Jesus came both to announce and to share.

            Did you notice? The disciples don’t ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his crucifixion because they’re afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about who was the greatest, who was going to have a place of privilege and power in the coming kingdom.
            Fear can do that. It can paralyze you. It can motivate you to look out only for yourself.
            This isn’t the only time Mark contrasts and faith and fear. In the fourth chapter of Mark, after Jesus stills the storm that had terrified the disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” As he was restoring Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father, “Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”[4]
            The opposite of faith is not doubt--but fear.  The kind of fear that can paralyze you… distort how you perceive reality… and drive you to despair.

            The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.
            In the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way? But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
            He called the twelve and said to them, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms, and he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
            Now, in ancient times, a child was regarded as a non-person, or a not-yet-person, the possession of the father in the household.   When Jesus held up a child as an emblem of living in God’s household, and perhaps even as a stand-in for Jesus himself, he was challenging the social norms of the day.
            This child was as important to Jesus as the vision on the mountain. Jesus wanted his disciples to see the child…and welcome the child.  Not because the child is innocent or pure or perfect or cute.  No. Jesus wanted them to welcome the child because the child was at the bottom of the social heap.  In Mark’s gospel, children aren’t symbols of innocence or holiness. More often, they are the victims of poverty and disease. Jesus brings the child from the margins into the very center.

            But, surely, we want to think, we are different.  We value children in our churches and in society. And yet…

            In the United States of America--one of the richest countries in the world-- children remain the poorest age group. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, nearly one in five children--12.8 million in total-- were poor in 2017. Over 45 percent of these children lived in extreme poverty at less than half the poverty level.  Nearly 70 percent of poor children were children of color.  The youngest children are most likely to be poor, with 1 in 5 children under 5 living in poverty during the years of rapid brain development.
            Child poverty hurts children. Child poverty hurts our nation’s future. It creates gaps in cognitive skills for very young children, puts children at greater risk of hunger and homelessness, jeopardizes their health and ability to learn, and fuels the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
            Ponder this: 3 million children in the U.S. live in families surviving on $2 a day per person.[5]  I hope you’ll take that statistic home with you and consider what $2 a day per person would buy and what it wouldn’t.
            Something else to ponder:  More than 400 children who were separated from their families at the southern border are still separated from their families.
            These are moral issues that reflect how we are living our values in our society. When we look at the federal and state budgets and see actions to limit access to medical services for lower income Americans including children, or cut-backs in nutrition programs for children, we need to see how these actions affect children’s lives.
            Do we see the children? Do we welcome them?
            Joyce Ann Mercer suggests that Jesus’ treatment of children shows his “struggle and resistance to the purposes of empire.” The politics of empire favors relationships of power and privilege, while the politics embodied of the kingdom of God lifts up the lowly, and those with no power or privilege. [6]
            Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth.[7]  He proclaimed the reign of God, preaching good news to the poor and release to the poor and release to the captives…teaching by word and deed and blessing the children.[8]
            Do we see them? Do we welcome them?  If we don’t, what are the fears that hold us back from fully welcoming them?
            Jesus called his followers to live out gospel values. He calls us to extending hospitality to those who were considered little more than property.  He healed when he wasn’t supposed to, touched people he shouldn’t have touched.  He taught that all our ideas about greatness mean nothing if we don’t stoop down low enough to see the little ones in our midst.
            That day in Capernaum, Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth. I imagine Jesus whispering in the child’s ear, “You are God’s beloved child.”[9]
            The good news is that God has named us all as beloved children and calls us to welcome children in Christ’s name. This isn’t as simple or limited as it might seem. It means caring for children-- not only our own children and grandchildren, but children of migrant workers and asylum-seekers, children of poverty in our cities and impoverished rural areas.
            The good news is that Jesus has promised to be with us always and has given us the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.  In this broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[10]
            Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 16, 2018

[1] Mark 7:24-37
[2] Mark 9:2-8
[3] David Lose, “Faith and Fear,” at his blog In the Meantime.

[4] Mark 4:40; Mark 5:36
[5] Child Poverty, at Children’s Defense Fund website:

[6] Martha L. Moore-Keish, Theological Perspective, in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2. Location 3408.
[7] John 1:14.
[8] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1991.
[9] I’m grateful to the Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad for this image in “A Hopeful Fanatic.”
[10] “Brief Statement of Faith.”

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"Welcome Table." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 7:24-37

"Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." - Mark 7:24-37

"Welcome Table"

Mark 7:24-37; Proverbs 22:1-2, 9-9, 22-23; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17

Let’s be honest. This passage is difficult. Disturbing.
            Can you the desperate, pleading look in this woman’s eyes? The yearning in her voice? Her desperation--that she would cross over barriers, seeking healing for her sick daughter?  She literally throws herself down at Jesus’ feet.  She risks her dignity…and risks being shamed—to enter a home where she isn’t wanted, to throw herself down in front of Jesus, who didn’t want to see her.
            And how does Jesus respond?  Not in the way we might have hoped.  This woman is literally begging for help for her daughter, and Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            If Jesus' words trouble you, you're in good company.  Biblical scholars have struggled with this saying for centuries, but especially, I think, over the past few decades.
            In the parallel story in Matthew, Jesus doesn't even answer the woman.   When the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."[1] 
`           It sounds like Jesus is dismissing and insulting this woman.  Now, a few commentators have tried to soften the effect. In their interpretation, Jesus was talking about feeding cute little puppies.  But that wouldn’t really be an accurate translation.
            One interpretation softens the story by saying Jesus isn’t really insulting the woman. He’s just testing her. She passes the test, and her daughter is healed.
            I think this story is troubling for a number of reasons.  It seems that Mark wants to be sure we know who this woman is.  He tells us, “the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by descent.”  In other words, she’s not Jewish.
            Contrast how Jesus responds to this un-named Gentile woman with the named male, Jewish leader earlier in Mark.  Jesus went with Jairus and healed his daughter.  No problem. 
            But now Jesus is in Tyre, which is Gentile territory, when he says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 
            I think Mark wants to make sure what a big deal it is when Jesus ultimately performs the miraculous healing. 
            So, what do we do with this story? 
            Some scholars believe that Jesus had a long-range evangelistic plan to go to the Jews first, and then later to the Gentiles.  In their thinking, Jesus isn't so much saying no--   as he’s saying, "First things first.  One thing at a time."
            But the language Jesus used!    "Dogs?"   From what I've read, it's a racist, derogatory term commonly used at the time by some Jews who wanted to put down gentiles.  A lot of people in that culture in Jesus' time thought this Gentile woman has no business being in the company of any Jew-- much less the Messiah. So, some scholars believe Jesus was giving voice to the traditional beliefs of the time as a test of the woman's faith, while some believe he was voicing those narrow beliefs to let her make the point that needed to be made.
           Jesus has been challenging a lot of the traditional religious beliefs and breaking through a lot of the barriers that separated people.

            Some scholars believe that this desperate, emboldened woman changed Jesus' mind about his mission and who he was called to save. I lean toward that understanding myself, as I remember the context.   In Mark’s narrative, this story is sandwiched in between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand.  Is the bread of life that Jesus offers intended only for the children of Israel?  Or is there enough for everyone? 
            I know there are people who are troubled by the idea that Jesus would change his mind. I think we need to keep chewing on this for now.  Like Jacob at the River Jabbok—we need to keep wrestling with it until we receive a blessing. 
            Consider this: Maybe Jesus hasn’t quite fully realized the implications of his kingdom at this point. The religious tradition of his time was concerned with dichotomies of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy, who’s inside God’s salvation plan and who’s out.
            Maybe at this point, he really believes he has come for the Israelites--until he has this encounter with this Syrophoenician woman who tests him, stretches his imagination and reminds him that God’s kingdom includes all people-- Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans-- everyone.
            Could it be that God’s kingdom is so big, so gracious and wildly inclusive that it even takes Jesus a little while to really comprehend it?
            In any case, this woman doesn't back down.  I love the way one of my colleagues puts it:  "Dog indeed!  She keeps right on nipping at Jesus' heels."[2]   The woman dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him.  Even on these terms, there still should be something from him-- some scrap of grace-- for someone like her, someone who comes to him in faith.   The woman seems to trust in the abundance Jesus keeps teaching about.  She seems to be challenging him to judge her by what's in her heart. 
            Where the religious establishment and their traditions could only see an outsider-- Jesus sees the woman's heart of faith, and her persistence, and he heals her child.  From this point on, Jesus continues to expand the circle of God's mercy to include those others consider outsiders.  He welcomes all who put their faith in him.  So, when you look at the big-picture story, it does look like Jesus changes his mind and his plan.
            That's good news for us.     We are all welcome.   We are all included in the circle of God’s mercy.   When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, it meant his church would be open to the world.  In response, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be open to those whom some people see as outsiders, outcasts, and sinners.  We are called to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.  
            So, what does all this mean for us today?      
            The Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf and mute man refused to believe that God’s mercy and healing are limited to insiders and people like us.  They believed that Jesus could immediately meet their needs.  They embodied a faith that trusts in God’s goodness and abundance—a faith that pushes past legalism and exclusivity. 
            When we allow our ears and our hearts to be open—the Syrophoenician woman can teach us that, in God’s abundant economy, there is enough for everybody.  There is enough--if we reach out and share.
            As Jill Duffield points out, the lectionary texts for this Sunday are Christianity 101 or perhaps basic instructions for being a decent human being. Taken all together, Jill suggests a list of ten basics:
  1. God created everyone. Every. Single. Person. We have that in common no matter our other myriad differences.
  2. Integrity is more valuable than material wealth in the eyes of God. Therefore, always choose a good name over great riches. (Um, that might be a timely word, friends.)
  3. The Lord pleads the case of the poor. Ergo, so should we.
  4. Generosity is a blessing all around, for the giver and the receiver.
  5. Don’t exploit the poor. (There are too many examples to list how the poor are exploited: title loans, cash bail, prison labor, subprime loans, higher prices on groceries in food deserts. The list is very, very long. Do a little digging into the policies and systems in your community, pick a few and hold them up in contrast to Christianity 101 this week.)
  6. A person’s value does not equate to their monetary net worth. A person is valuable because, well, see number one on this list. God does not care how much or how little is in your bank account. See number two on this list.
  7. Love your neighbor as yourself. Really. Not in theory, but in daily, tangible practice. See number 5 for more information.
  8. Faith is visible to all. How we live reflects our deepest beliefs, revealing what and who we truly value. (Please don’t go to lunch after worship, clearly having been to church, and treat the server badly and leave a meagerly tip. Please, just don’t.)
  9. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, at the very least treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, even if you cannot do for him what he hopes you can do.
  10. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, do what you can do to alleviate her pain and suffering, no matter who she is, where she comes from or how that pain and suffering came to be.[3]
            The story about the Syrophoenician woman is a turning point in the gospel, as Jesus re-defines who is acceptable in God’s eyes. The healing in the gospels turns out to include stories about healing of divisions in our communities and society. Strangers are welcomed. Outsiders become part of the family of God. God’s law is the law of love-- the love in our hearts and the hospitality and compassion we live in our lives.
            My friends, this is GOOD NEWS!  So, like the people in the gospel story, may we be astounded and say, “He has done everything well!”
            As followers of Jesus, may we embody God’s abundant compassion, so that people will look at us. May they be astounded with us, and say, “They do everything well!
            So be it!   Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 9, 2018

[1] Matthew 15:21-28.
[2] Heidi Husted, “When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs,” in Christian Century (Aug. 16, 2000)

[3]  Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary.”

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Where's Your Heart?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Where's Your Heart?"

Mark 7:1-23; James 1:17-27

What’s at stake here?”
            Some biblical scholars argue that the conflict in this story mirrors a similar conflict in Mark’s community. Mark was a non-Palestinian Gentile, and he was writing to a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who were arguing over whether it was necessary to keep a kosher table at church gatherings.
            “’Don’t you understand?’” Mark asks. “’Don’t you see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’”  Thus, Mark says, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
            Other commentators have a different take on what the conflict is about. They say it’s about teaching humanly constructed religious ideas as God’s law. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  These scholars say the main point is about obeying God’s commandments, rather than human traditions and rules.
            But I agree with Tom Long when he says this is about using moral posturing to sidestep the commandments, that it’s about keeping our hands ritually washed while being up to our elbows in evil.[1]
            To paraphrase Walker Percy, it’s like getting an A-plus in ethics class and flunking life.

            What might this look like in our time?   Some government officials quote a verse from Romans 13 out of context to justify separating children from their parents at our borders, saying we are to obey the laws of the government, which has been ordained by God--which is one of the verses that has been used in the past to defend slavery and other evils.  Some people twist Jesus’ statement that we will always have the poor with us to justify not working to alleviate extreme poverty. They might say we can’t afford safety net programs that address hunger or homelessness, even though the richest people have received generous tax cuts,
            Can we understand why Jesus got angry with the Pharisees and the scribes, exclaiming, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, and calling on the words of the prophet: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”[2]

            Jesus was calling out the Pharisees and scribes for passing off human ideas as God’s commandments. 
            Now, the Pharisees were people who took their religion very seriously.  I believe they sincerely wanted to serve God faithfully. They were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for not living according to the tradition of the elders.
            Let’s back up a minute and remember the context of this encounter.  Just before this, Mark has told how Jesus fed 5,000 people… and walked on the water… and healed the sick. 
            The Kingdom of God is breaking out around them, and the Pharisees don’t seem to notice.  The sick are being healed.  The hungry are being fed.  Good news is being preached to the poor.  These are the things that Isaiah had prophesied that would be signs of the coming of the Messiah, but the Pharisees and scribes want to talk about hand washing and tradition. 
            A moment of GRACE is breaking into the midst of time and space.   Not only can’t the Pharisees and scribes see it-- but they keep asking the wrong questions.  They’re asking, “How can we protect our tradition?  How can we get folk to do things our way?
            Too often in the church, we ask the wrong questions.  How do we keep everybody happy?  How do we avoid conflict?  How will we survive?  “How do we make everybody follow our rules? How do I get everybody to do what I want?
            In the meantime, there are people inside and outside the church--people with broken hearts… broken dreams… and broken lives.  People who are lonely.  People who need to be restored to community.  People who need to be fed…and healed…and loved.

            Now, the process of spiritual growth is hard.  Sometimes it can be downright scary.  So, it’s no wonder that sometimes we, like the Pharisees, feel safer clinging to rules or traditions or familiar ways of doing things, rather than look for ways God is trying to use us to bring the kingdom of love and justice into the world.
            Jesus accused the religious authorities of being “hypocrites.”     The Greek word Mark uses for hypocrite has a revealing history.  It literally means an actor—a person who acts out a set dialog or script.
            In accusing the Pharisees of being hypocrites, Jesus was inviting them to put down the mask of outward appearances.  In giving them a list of things that can defile people, things which come from within, Jesus was challenging them to examine their own hearts honestly, and to pay attention to what’s really important.   We have been set apart as a holy people for a holy purpose:  to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
            It’s much easier to point a finger at the sins of others than to look inward at the things that can defile.    Yet today’s gospel lesson makes it clear that we need to pay attention to where our hearts are.  
            But what does that look like?
            In the epistle lesson we heard today, James fleshes out Jesus’ summary of the Law and giving some specific ways we need to live into “the perfect law of liberty.”
            If we are to love our neighbors, then we need to be engaged with them, relating to them, and caring for them. That long list of vices Jesus quotes defile us because they all divide us-- from God and from each other, our neighbors.
            What does it mean for us to be holy, and "undefiled"? James offers an interesting definition in his letter:  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."[3] James teaches that religious practice is judged on what we do.  Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of ancient societies; they had no means of support, no means of getting any, and no one to look out for them.  Caring for them means to attend to the needs of the poorest of the poor, those whom nobody else cares about or feels responsible for.  That is true religion, true holy conduct.  That is what we have been set apart to do.
            We know God partly through our traditions.  But we worship the one true God, the God of ever-ongoing creation… and new possibilities.   God overcomes sin and death with new life.
            Jesus came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, calling people to repent, to change.
            In Jesus Christ, we have the perfect example of a person who is holy and whole.  The gospels tell us that Jesus went about preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives.  He taught by word and deed.  He blessed the children.  He healed the sick and ministered to the brokenhearted.  He ate with outcasts…forgave sinners…and called all to repent and believe the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
            The world tries to set limits on what we believe is possible and sets boundaries that set us apart from “them.”   But Christ came breaking down the dividing walls and showing us that there is no such thing as a hopeless case.  There is nobody outside the circle of God’s love.   In Christ, there are no “others”—only neighbors.   Because God loves our neighbors, we are commanded to love them too.
            I like the way one of my colleagues puts it, in a sermon entitled, “Dirtiness is next to Godliness:” 
            Our hands are made clean and holy, not by washing them, but by getting them dirty.  Our hands have been set apart to reach out into the dirtiness of the world’s injustices and impurities on Christ’s behalf, to touch with compassion those considered untouchable or unclean by our social mores, cultural divisions, or political commitments. [4]
            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."
            God has fully revealed God’s love for us in Jesus.  In response to that love, God wants us our love in return.  We are called to worship God through our total devotion…and through our ministry to all God’s children in need, as we love as Christ loves.  God’s way is a tradition of self-giving love.
            So, in the midst of the daily struggles and questions we face every day, may our hearts be in the right place.  May our hearts become more and more open to God’s love and life.  

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 2, 2018

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Moral Words, Evil Deeds”, in The Christian Century.

[2] Isaiah 29:13, according to the Septuagint.
[3] James 1:27

[4] I’m indebted here to the Rev. J. C. Austin, in “Dirtiness is next to Godliness,” (Madison Avenue Pulpit, 2003), a sermon posted in the past at website that no longer exists.