Sunday, February 24, 2019

"To Love as God Loves"

Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38

            Writing at the Presbyterian Mission blog, Rebecca Lister writes about how her son recently finished the requirements for the Boy Scout’s highest honor, Eagle Scout. As part of his final project, he designed and built a Little Free Pantry and a Little Free Library. He and several other Boy Scouts, family members and volunteers helped install them under some shade trees in front of the church.  The pantry has been very successful, as it is often empty. They were thrilled to see that the community was using it.
            Rebecca was surprised to discover that not everyone in their community was as pleased about the Little Free Pantry as they were. She said she talked with several people, both inside and outside of their church, who question the concept of “free.”  “Isn’t that teaching people to be dependent on others for food?” asked one person. “Why shouldn’t they have to work for their food like everybody else?”
            Another person said, “I know I’ve seen people go in and take out food who can afford it. I saw one woman talking on her cellphone as she did it. If she can afford a phone, she can afford food.”
            Rebecca says that she’s always taken aback in conversations like these. She can certainly see their arguments. But deciding who is poor enough to be really poor—really needy—is dangerous business. Someone who looks well-dressed and carrying a cellphone may have just experienced a recent job loss. Perhaps they were impacted by the recent government shut-down or some other emergency. They may have some money, but knowing they can get a few cans of soup to heat up for their family for dinner may be what their weary spirits might need. It isn’t a permanent solution, ideally. And who knows? Maybe that same person who took something out of the pantry when they needed it in rough times will put something back in the pantry in good times.[1]

            As someone said, there will always be needy people and greedy people.  It isn’t our job to decide which is which. That is up to God. It’s our job to do what God asks us to do—and leave the judging to God.
            Jesus doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—after you find out that they are really poor and deserve it.”  He doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—but only a little, because they might become dependent.  He doesn’t say, “give to everyone who begs from you—but only if they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

            The way the lectionary works, we rarely get to the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, so we don’t hear this passage from Luke very often.  In this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Jesus admonishes his hearers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Be merciful. Don’t judge. Do good to those who hate you.  Offer the other cheek to the person who strikes you in the face. If someone takes something from you, don’t ask for them to return it.
            This text is familiar—but hard!  Some people manage to embody these demanding, seemingly impossible instructions. In the Genesis text we heard Joseph extending grace and mercy and forgiveness to the brothers who betrayed him and sold him away into slavery.
            We all know the Golden Rule embedded in this passage, but how often do we truly live by it?  It can take a lot of effort to control your anger when someone cuts you off in traffic… or fails to act in the way we think they should…or wrongs us in some way.  
            We may long for the unqualified forgiveness, reconciliation, and unearned compassion Joseph shows his brothers. And yet, we struggle with Jesus’ teachings.
            These verses have been manipulated and have left those who are already vulnerable and victimized even further abused. Some preachers over the ages counseled people to stay with abusive spouses using these verses as proof of God’s will to do so. We need to be clear:  Jesus never condones abuse, and he condemns injustice. Jesus insists his followers live by his standard of love and justice, even when dealing with their enemies.
            A lot of people talk about the “Golden Rule,” as if it’s a simple, easy way to live.  But it’s hard to break the cycle of retribution and violence. It’s hard to break a habit of counting the ways someone has wronged us. It’s counter-cultural to practice mutual respect and treat each person with dignity—even those we don’t think deserve it… or those who are our enemies… or those who have wronged us.
            Keeping score of wrongs, getting even—that’s what enemies do. Some may secretly hope or plan for bad things to happen to their enemies. Maybe we just avoid and ignore them.  This is how much of the world behaves toward enemies. We go to war with them. We rejoice in their failures and mourn their successes. We try to get people to side with us against the person we believe has wronged us.

Time after time, the Tutsis and then the Hutus were caught in a cycle of retribution and violence in Rwanda. In the last terrible outbreak of violence, loyalty to tribe even outweighed allegiance to religious vows for some clergy.
            In Jerusalem, sacred sites can separate rather than unite. In the land we call “Holy,” the body count grows, and the promise of peace seems impossible.
            In such a world as this, what do we make of the ethics of God’s kingdom—or “kindom”?  We know the words: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Forgive.”
            These teachings are so often ignored. But we do catch glimpses of how Jesus’ teachings could provide a new way for us to live together: in the United States’ Marshall Plan’s assistance to former enemies following World War II… in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of Apartheid…in the World Bank’s partial forgiveness of the debts of poor nations at the urging of church coalitions supporting a time of Jubilee.[2]
            Jesus asks, “What credit is it to you if you love someone who loves you, if you do good to someone who does good to you, if you lend to someone who will later lend something to you?” Jesus calls his disciples to stop keeping score, and to trust in the God who changed everything by settling the whole world’s old scores.
            When we gather to worship together, we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, so we can live into the new life God offers us. But in our individual lives, in our families and in our congregation, there are sometimes unresolved grievances and rifts of long duration. Siblings who haven’t spoken to one another in years. People who hold on to their grievances and can’t seem to get beyond them, even when they cause great pain.
            Reconciliation is always hard to come by, but nothing is impossible for God. In Genesis, we hear that Joseph “keeps score no more.” He breaks from the past and invites his brothers to put the past behind them as well.
            Jesus set the example of active non-violence when he was struck on the face and tormented during his trial. He sets the principle: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”
            As followers of Christ, we are called into a new life in which we see things in a completely different way, a life in which we want to behave differently. We are called to look at each person through the eyes of love.

Jesus calls us to love as God loves: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”
            The good news is that it is God’s very nature to be merciful and loving, even toward those who don’t deserve it. And that includes us.

            Jesus doesn’t tell people to remain victims—but to find new ways of resisting evil. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs.
            Many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they said. But the authorities and oppressors didn’t know what to do with this kind of resistance.  When people around the nation turned on their televisions and saw these acts of non-violent resistance, hearts were changed.  Victims were refusing to be victims. Victims were refusing to fight back with violence. Victims were standing up for justice.  This love is not practical—but it can change the world.
             Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 24, 2019

[1] Rebecca Lister, “The Needy and the Greedy: What makes us afraid to give freely to the needy?

[2] Phyllis Kersten, in “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"An Amazing Catch." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 5:1-11.

"An Amazing Catch"

Luke 5:1-11

            The call of the first disciples comes early in Luke’s gospel. After his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tested for forty days. After that, he preached his inaugural sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and was rejected and almost thrown off the cliff.
Then he traveled to Capernaum, where he was in the synagogue, and encountered conflict.  He healed the sick and cast out demons.
            When today’s gospel lesson opens, Jesus is standing beside Lake Genneseret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee.  The people are crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw two boats at the water’s edge, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their fishing nets.  Jesus got into one of the boats, the one that belonged to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore.
            Now, Simon must have been exhausted after fishing all night with no success, and then working on his nets. I imagine he would have been looking forward to going home and getting some sleep.  Maybe Simon was remembering how Jesus came to his home in Capernaum and healed his mother-in-law. Maybe that explains Simon’s willingness to take Jesus out in the boat, so Jesus can use it as a floating pulpit.
Out in the lake, Jesus sat and taught the people from the boat.
Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught the crowds that morning. The focus is on what happens afterward.
            When he had finished speaking, Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
            Now, I imagine Simon believes this will be a futile exercise. They’d fished all night and caught nothing, so why should they expect anything different?  Why should these professional fishermen take fishing advice from a carpenter? We can almost hear the exasperation in his voice when he responds, “Master, we have worked all night but have caught nothing. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
            So, they go out into deep water. There’s a subtle allusion here in the Greek word, bathos, that’s used in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Torah, Prophets and Writings—in connection with the primordial sea. This was a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos. Luke perceives the world as chaotic. There’s hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the oppressive system of the Empire, and conflict within the early church.[1]

“Go out into the deep water.”  They go out into the deep water, and Simon lets down the nets, and they catch so many fish that the nets began to break. They signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help, and they filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When he sees what is happening, Simon Peter is overwhelmed with fear and wonder, sensing that he is in the presence of divine power.  He’s caught by surprise.  In the midst of his ordinary daily life, after a particularly unsuccessful night at work, he is encountered by one who changes everything.  Simon sees the overwhelming disparity between God’s power manifest in Jesus and his own mortal, compromised life.
 He responds by falling down at Jesus’ feet and begs him, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!”              

            Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you will be catching people.”
            The Greek word, zogron, translated here as “catching” is rare in the New Testament, but it means “to catch alive.”
            In the Hebrew Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls, fishing is used metaphorically for gathering people for judgment.[2]  The call to judgment was a theme in the preaching of John the Baptist.[3]
            But, as New Testament scholar John Drury reminds us, the verb is also used in the Septuagint to denote “rescue,” from peril of death, not the capture of animals….” As Drury puts it, “The kingdom requires not dead fish, but human beings fully alive…people living the life of the good news in all its fullness.”[4]
            But in the Gospels, the call to become fishers of people becomes a call to gather men and women for the kingdom.  The Word has come to dwell in the midst of everyday lives and everyday fishermen.  
In today’s gospel story, Luke tells how Jesus calls Simon and his partners to a new vocation of catching people so that they might live, a life-giving vocation of being caught up in God’s mission of salvation for all.  The good news falls on the ears of Simon and James and John.
            So, they pulled their boats up on shore. They had no idea what lay ahead on that open and uncharted journey from their familiar fishing boats. But they left everything, and they followed Jesus.

Do you wonder?  Why did Jesus choose Simon Peter and his fishing partners as his first disciples? They’re simple fishermen—middle class business owners of their time.  They were typical representatives of the broken old age, living under Roman oppression, burdened by high taxes, and beset by other forms of social conflict and economic stress. They didn’t have any particular religious credentials to commend them. They’re simply doing what they do every day.  They’re minding their own business, tending their nets, when Jesus comes along, enters into their normal, ordinary lives and changes everything.
            Throughout the scriptures, we see that human sinfulness and failure and inadequacy are no obstacles to God’s call. God calls ordinary, imperfect people to do God’s work.[5]  God doesn’t wait for us to shape up. God calls us as we are and then works on shaping us into faithful servants.
How often do we resist Jesus’ claim on our lives because what he’s calling us to do seems to impractical or impossible? How often do we avoid putting out into the deep waters of following and bearing witness to Jesus because we’re convinced that we won’t see any results?  What might it mean for us to go deep-seeing fishing with Jesus—to trust and follow him outside our comfort zones…to let go of our certainties…to have our lives radically reoriented?

            In our baptism we are called to be a part of God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. We are called to re-orient our priorities to align with God’s priorities, to use the gifts God has given us in the service to others, to share the good news of God’s love in our words and deeds.[6]

            Jesus’ mission doesn’t wait until we think we’re ready. It doesn’t wait for us to feel comfortable or certain about how everything will turn out. We live in a broken and hurting world, and the need for the gospel is too urgent.

            In the midst of our ordinary, busy lives, in spite of our failures, or our doubts or frailty, we are called to embody God’s love and justice and peace in our lives, in our communities, in our world. Jesus’ word to Simon Peter is also a word to us: “Don’t be afraid.”

            We can trust that Jesus will be working with us and through us, “catching” others as he has caught us—in the deep, wide net of God’s mercy and love. We can trust that the mission is in God’s hands, and that God’s desire is for the nets to be bursting and the boats full. 
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 10, 2019

[1] Ronald Allen, “Commentary on Luke 5:1-11,” at Working Preacher.
[2] Amos 4:2; Hab. 1:14-15; Jer. 16:16; 1 QH 5:7-9.
[3] Luke 3:7-9
[4] John Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976), p. 67, cited by Peter Eaton in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent Through Transfiguration, 2009.
[5] Some examples: Exodus 3:10-12; Isaiah 6:1-6; Jeremiah 1:6-8.
[6] I am indebted to Dr. Elizabeth Johnson for some of the ideas here, which she contributed in a commentary in 2013 at Working Preacher.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

"Disturbingly Good News." A Sermon on Luke 4:21-30 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

Mount Precipice in Nazareth

"Disturbingly Good News"

Luke 4:21-30

Today’s Gospel lesson picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has gone back to Nazareth, his hometown.  The hometown boy who’s done well has come home to preach, and the synagogue is probably packed. Luke says Jesus’ fame has spread throughout the countryside. People love a winner, and they love a spectacle. This crowd knows Jesus, and he knows them.
Jesus is asked to read the scripture at the Sabbath service at the synagogue.  He stands up to read and is handed the scroll containing the Book of Isaiah.  He reads,
            “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”
            When Jesus is done reading, he rolls up the scroll and sits down to preach, as was the custom. With the eyes of the crowd fixed on him, he says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            Today, the hopes in this passage are being realized in your hearing. Today Jesus has come to release and restore, to reach and redeem. Jesus takes this promise from the prophet Isaiah and brings it into what Cleo LaRue calls now-ness.
            As Cleo points out, “Sometimes it is dangerous to do things now. If Jesus said someday, tomorrow, after a while, by and by, or in the not-too-distant future, he could have pacified the people in their disappointment about where and to whom he has been sent to minister. But when he says today—this is my mission and my ministry—he draws a line in the sand and provokes a response.”[1]
            Martin Luther King Jr. knew the dangers inherent in doing things today. Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after southern white moderate clergy criticized his nonviolent protests as “unwise and untimely.”
            “Change,” they told Dr. King, “must come slowly.” They urged him to stop the sit-ins and marches for a while and give things time to settle down. They saw negotiation with the white power structure as the more reasonable path and advised King to be more patient in his pursuit of civil rights for all Americans.
            Dr. King explained to his critics that he had never engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well-timed.” He refused to abide by a more cautious approach, saying that waiting is too much of a burden for oppressed people to continue to bear. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  But there has always been something unsettling about those who choose to act today.
           Everything had started out so well at the synagogue. The people had been amazed and impressed at the gracious, prophetic words that came from Jesus’ mouth and spoke well of him.  But then things had turned ugly and murderous. 
            The problem, David Jacobsen suggests, is when the prophetic grace, that divine favor Jesus preaches about, meets up with privilege.[2] Jesus sees into people’s hearts, and seems to recognize in his hometown hearers how they will react even before they realize. They go from amazement to consternation quickly. When Jesus uses a proverb from about physicians and pairs it with another about the fate of prophets in their own hometowns, he knows his words of prophetic grace will meet with rejection.  They want to throw Jesus off a cliff!
           I think another thing that was unsettling to the people in the synagogue was that when Jesus makes his declaration about the nature of the gospel, the good news doesn’t protect privilege and power for the hometown people, the people like “us.”  Jesus was proclaiming that “the Lord’s favor” was extended toward everyone.   
            For people who have a certain amount of power or privilege, for those who are afraid that if there won’t be enough for them if those other people get what they need— this is unsettling.   
            Luke begins telling about Jesus’ ministry with the story of the sermon in Nazareth because--if we are going to hear the good news Jesus brings-- the way we hear good news has to change.  We can’t hear what Jesus has to say with ears attuned to “us” and “them.”  Luke wants us to understand that the gospel is good news for anyone who will receive it as good news of God’s mercy. 
            The good news is for everybody, Luke insists.  Luke begins his gospel with this conflict about “us” and “them,” but before his story is over at the end of the Acts of the Apostles, every kind of person he can think of will be brought into the embrace of the good news:  rich and poor…women and men…aristocrats and beggars…Romans and Jews, and people of every nationality under heaven.  Ethiopian eunuchs, for heaven’s sake!! 
There is no “them” in the gospel of Luke, only “us”—the family of God in Christ.  Luke underlines the point by telling us how Jesus said the most scandalous things, like “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”[3]  Even “those people.”   Those other people.
           I think it was Fred Craddock who said we have trouble reading the gospel of Luke because “We are ‘either/or’ people in the hands of a ‘both/and’ God.” That makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  The way Luke tells it, some people get mad enough to murder Jesus.

            The movie “Ruby Bridges” is based on the true story of what happened to a six-year-old African-American child when the federal government ordered the New Orleans public schools to integrate in the 1960’s.  Ruby Bridges was one of several little girls who were picked to be the first African-Americans to attend the all-white public schools. 
            The scenes in which we see Ruby enter the school, protected by federal marshals, surrounded by a screaming crowd of protesters, are a powerful reminder of how violent and ugly people can be when their idea of how things are supposed to be is threatened. 
            Probably most of the people in that crowd went to church on Sundays.  They were parents who loved their children and thought they were doing what was best for them when they told them they shouldn’t play with African-American children.
            In one scene, set in the teacher’s lounge, a teacher said a quick grace as she prepared to eat lunch, before spewing racist comments to justify her opinion that persons of color didn’t belong in their school.
            It’s hard to deal with a Christ who confronts our settled ideas about things.  Jesus the Christ is surely the one who comforts and helps us.  But the Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us and breaks down our dividing walls.
            We live in a broken world where we lock our doors and set our security systems, in a time when some will exaggerate and exploit our fears to turn us against other children of God. And yet those of us who are gathered here know that this is not God’s hope for us. We are invited and challenged to consider a different way to think of ourselves and our neighbors.
            “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This “today” signals that the age of God’s reign is here…that the time of God’s redeeming purposes has arrived, the “today” that Tom Long describes as “God’s good future hurtling toward us, bringing the finished work of God to an unfinished world.”[4]
We are here because God has invited us here, out of God’s amazing, gracious love.  We are invited to live into God’s beloved community, in which we are loved and forgiven and healed and commissioned and sent out to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Favor for all the broken-hearted: us and them and everyone, until all the dividing walls of us and them are broken down and we are all beloved children of God together.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 3, 2019

[1] Cleophus J. LaRue, in “Living By the Word,” in The Christian Century.

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 4 at Working Preacher.

[3] Luke 6:35
[4] Thomas Long, quoted by Cleophus J. LaRue, in “Living by the Word.”