Sunday, March 31, 2019

"A God Who Never Gives Up On Us." A Sermon on Luke 15 on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.



Rembrandt, "Return of the Prodigal Son"

"A God Who Never Gives Up On Us"

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Writing in The Christian Century, Justo Gonzalez tells about a story that made him giggle when he was a boy, about a man who went to the movies. When he saw the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer roaring lion at the beginning, he decided that he’d already seen that movie and walked out of the theater. “Silly as the story may be,” Gonzalez says, “I now take it as a warning—because many of us do something similar when we hear scripture that we already know well.”
“There was a man who had two sons,” we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. We immediately recognize this as the beginning of the prodigal son, so there’s a temptation to decide that we don’t have to pay much attention, because we think we already know the story and its meaning. But when we really listen to it, scripture can surprise us. This is word of God.  When we read it afresh, God speaks to us and our circumstances, and helps us to hear a new word.[1]
The story we know as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is one of three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15. The thing the three stories have in common is the theme of being lost. The shepherd loses a sheep, a woman loses a coin, and the father loses a son.
The introduction provides the context of the stories. They’re a response to how the Pharisees and scribes have been grumbling and criticizing Jesus, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”  The parable is responding to the Pharisees and scribes—not primarily to those whom they consider sinners or outcasts.
            Jesus doesn't argue with them.  He just tells them a series of stories, about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while he went out after one stray...  about a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one lost coin...  and about a compassionate father who deals graciously with his two sons. 
Now, I want to remind us that the Pharisees and scribes were deeply religious people. They were very concerned with obeying God and all the religious laws of Judaism. From their perspective, it was those other people—the tax collectors and sinners—who were lost. They were unlikely to identify themselves with the lost sheep or the lost son. They were more likely to identify with the ninety-nine sheep or the obedient elder son. So, they probably would have been shocked to hear in the story that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one lost sheep…or to see the elder son missing the feast celebrating his brother’s return. These parables would have challenged their understanding that they were the faithful, obedient ones.
            All three stories address the Pharisees' concern that Jesus is condoning sin by keeping company with people they judge to be unacceptable.   All three parables reply that God is too busy rejoicing over found sheep, found coins, and lost children   to worry about what they did while they were lost. 
            Jesus declares: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…. I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
            I was reminded this week of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,”[2] and I spent some time meditating on that image.  I also re-read parts of Henri Nouwen’s book with the same title.[3] 
            Nouwen tells about his first encounter with the painting when he saw a poster in a friend’s office, and was deeply moved by it.  He said it made him want to cry and laugh at the same time. 
            Several years later, friends invited him to go with them on a trip to what was then the Soviet Union, and they made arrangements for him to spend a few hours at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg with the painting that been on his heart and mind for several years.
            The painting is hung in the natural light of a nearby window.  In the hours Nouwen studied it, the light kept changing, and at every change of the light, he would see a different aspect revealed.  I think Nouwen’s discovery in this painting points us to the amazing gift this parable is to us. No matter how often we hear it, there is always a new angle or perspective, a new revelation. 
            I think it would good for us to listen to the parable of the two sons, to meditate on it a few more times this Lent, and to try moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is welcomed home with open arms… and the obedient elder brother who apparently thinks he is more deserving. Lent is a good time to ponder both the grace of the God who seeks us and refuses to give up on us and welcomes us home and also the temptation that religious people face, when we think that we are better or more faithful than those other people.
            Luke the Evangelist tells the story so simply and in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s difficult to comprehend that what happens is un-heard of.  Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey says that the way the son leaves amounts to wishing his father dead.  Bailey writes:[4]
            “For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:
            “’Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?’ 
            ‘Could anyone ever make such a request?’ 
            ‘If anyone ever did, what would happen?’ 
           ‘His father would beat him, of course!’ 
            ‘The request means—he wants his father to die.’”
            Scholars tell us that the younger of two brothers would have expected to inherit a third of the father’s property when he died.  Kenneth Bailey explains that the son asks not only for the division of the inheritance, but also for the right to dispose of his part.  Even after dividing the property and signing over his possessions to his son, normally the father still would have the right to live off the proceeds…as long as he is alive. But this son lets his father know that he can’t wait for him to die, and demands his money, which would have meant his father would have needed to sell off a third of the family estate.
            The son’s leaving is a rejection of his home and the values of his family and community.  He leaves everything to go to a “distant country.”  He squanders his property in self-indulgent, immoral living.  Then there was a severe famine, and he began to be in need.  He was so desperate that he—this Jewish boy—hired himself out to take care of pigs. 
            In time, the younger son hits bottom.  Out in the pigsty, he finally comes to his senses.  “Here I am starving,” he said to himself, “when back at home my father’s hired hands have more than enough to eat.”
            As he trudges along the dusty road toward home, he rehearses what he'll say to his father:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  So, treat me like one of your hired hands."

            Meanwhile, back at home, the father has been scanning the horizon, longing to see his son and welcome him home.   When he sees his beloved lost son trudging home, the father is filled with compassion.   He does a very un-dignified thing.  He hikes up his robes and runs to meet him. 
            When he reaches his son, he throws his arms around him and kisses him, before the son has a chance to say anything.  The son starts to apologize:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
            Before he can say any more, the father says to his servants, "Hurry-- bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet." 
            In doing this, he shows that he's welcoming his son back as a son, rather than as a servant.   The son must have been speechless with astonishment.
            But the father isn't through yet.  "Kill the fatted calf," he orders. "We're going to have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was lost-- and now he's found!" 
            The household bursts into activity, and soon a joyous feast is underway. 
            The younger son never dreamed that his father loved him so deeply.  There were no "I told you so's."  This son's life was far more precious to the father than being right, or putting his son in his place.  The younger son finally saw deep into his father's heart that day--   and what he saw was pure love.                       

            When the elder son gets back from work, he’s surprised to hear music and dancing.  "What's going on?"  he asks one of the servants. 
            The servant tells him, "Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound."
            The elder brother refuses to go in to the party.  Luke doesn't tell us why, but my hunch is that he wasn't angry because his younger brother came back.  Maybe he wasn't even angry because his father forgave him.  But the party-- that was another matter.
            Let the sinners come home, by all means.  But what about facing the consequences of your actions?  Where's the moral instruction in that kind of welcome? What kind of a world would this be, if we all made a practice of having a party for sinners, while the dutiful, obedient folk are still working in the fields?
            His father comes out and begins to plead with him.  "Your brother has come home, son.  He was lost and now he is found.  Come in to the party and celebrate with us!"
            Do you hear how he answers his father?   "Listen!"  he says.  "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command!  I've done my duty and followed all your rules.  Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
            God help him, the elder son.  God help all of us who understand his hurt and resentment that run so deep that we cut ourselves off from the very ones whose love and acceptance we so desperately need.
            "This son of yours,” the elder brother says, excluding himself from the family in those words.   This son of yours, who is no kin to me.  The older son believes his father has chosen the younger brother over him.
            The father knows that he has lost this son to a life of self-righteousness and resentment that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be away in a far country.
            The elder son wants his father to love him as he thinks he deserves to be loved-- because he has stayed home and done the right thing-- the dutiful thing.  He wants his father to love him for all of that. 
His father does love him, but not for any of that-- any more than he loves the younger brother for what he has done.  He doesn't love either of his sons according to what they deserve.  He just loves them.
But the dutiful older brother can't comprehend a love that transcends right and wrong... a love that throws homecoming parties for sinners and expects the hard-working righteous people to rejoice.
            He can't stand it, and so he stands outside.  Outside his father's house and his father's love-- refusing his invitation to come inside to the party.
                But his father turns out to be a prodigal, too-- at least as far as his love is concerned.  He never seems to tire of giving it away.  "Son," he says, “you are always with me.  All that is mine is yours."
            "It was necessary that we celebrate and be glad," the loving father says to his older son, “for this your brother"-- not just my son, but your brother--” was dead, and is alive.  He was lost and is found."
            In other words, the father is saying, “I’m welcoming my son back because it makes me happy to do it.  I love him as I love you—not because of what either of you deserves…but because you are my children.  I’m thrilled and relieved to have him back home.  The only thing that could make me happier right now would be to have you with me too…to have the whole family at the table together.”
            I don’t think Jesus is telling us that we shouldn’t take sin seriously.  Our Reformed faith teaches us that we are all sinners.  But I believe Jesus is showing us that we need to take GRACE seriously.
            It is by God’s grace that we are all beloved children of God.  It is by grace that each one of us receives not the love we deserve—but the love God wants to give us.  Whether we see ourselves more like the older brother or the younger brother, we can rejoice because God loves us all abundantly, out of God’s grace.
            The parable doesn't tell us how it all turned out.  The story ends with the elder brother standing outside the house in the yard with his father, listening to the party going on inside.
            Jesus leaves it that way, I think, because it's up to each of us to finish the story.  It's up to you and to me to decide.  Will we stand outside the celebration of love and grace?  Or will our yearning for love win us over?
            We're invited to go inside and join the party.  Like the loving father in the story, God refuses to give us the love we deserve...  but persists in giving us the love we need… and rejoices over the return of every lost child.
            Thanks be to God for God’s amazing grace!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 31, 2019


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, “What if we are the Pharisees?” in The Christian Century, February 26, 2019.

[2] Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669.  “Return of the Prodigal Son,” and oil painting likely completed within two years of the artist’s death in 1669.  The original is in the Hermitage, Museum in Saint Petersburg.
[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.  Doubleday, 1992.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, quoted in Nouwen, Location 449 in Kindle Edition.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

"God of Second Chances." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 13:1-9

"God of Second Chances"

Luke 1:1-9

            When the headlines are grim, when things go terribly wrong, we try to make sense of things.  Eventually, pretty much anyone who thinks about God eventually asks: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” They wonder if God causes calamity. Or if tragedy—either on a large scale or small—is a punishment for sin?
            I think we may ask these kinds of questions because tragedy or disasters—whether caused by nature, like the devastation we’re seeing in parts of our nation’s Midwest or in southern Africa, or caused by humans, like the terrorist attack at the mosques in New Zealand—confront us with chaos and violence and challenge our sense of order or stability.
            We try to make sense out of what happens. We struggle to figure out where God is in the midst of it. We think: there must be a reason.
            “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
            “Or:  Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
            Jesus points to two calamities that may have been subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole-- one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, and one a random accident. Both saw people snuffed out with little warning and for no clearly apparent reason. Both kinds of events remind us to how precarious our existence is.
            Do bad things happen because people are bad?  The victims of the severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in the United States…or the flooding from the cyclone in southern Africa—have they been suffering because they’re worse sinners than people who haven’t been affected by disasters? The victims of the latest terrorist attack in New Zealand—did they do something to deserve to be shot?
            When bad things happen, we may long for a cause-and-effect scenario, so we can explain away suffering as a way of distancing ourselves from it.  We might even wish sometimes that God would give people we think are evil or wrong the punishment we think they deserve.  The problem with that is that isn’t the way God works. 
            As Jill Duffield once pointed out, “The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one, rather than a covenantal one—is that, at some point, the math just won’t add up.  We will be persecuted by Pilate for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or the tower will fall on us because we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We might seek a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we bad people?  God forsaken?”[1]

            Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke who has researched and written about the “prosperity gospel” for some time. She’s been wrestling with how a prosperity gospel theology that claims the righteous are blessed impacts her understanding of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.  In a piece in the New York Times a few years ago, she wrote:[2]
            “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith… and that “tragedies are simply tests of character.”
            Kate wrote, “It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
            “I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
            “Pardon?” she said, startled.
            “’I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,’ he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.”
            As Kate writes, “My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee.  But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns.  She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos.  Because the opposite of “# blessed” is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: ‘Wow. That’s awful.’  There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”
            Kate thinks the “prosperity gospel” people may wonder: is she a worse sinner?  Did she smoke?  Did she eat poorly?  Not exercise enough?  Bad genes?  We hope for an answer that will explain why she has cancer—an answer that will help us feel safe from getting it.
            I think questions about who sinned or who is the worst sinner are irrelevant here. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gets pulled into a worried conversation about the latest news cycle.  Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise.
            It's such a tempting equation.  But Jesus won't go there.  He denies that there is a simple connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.
            Does this mean that God never punishes us for our sins?   Not necessarily.  But there are natural consequences for things we do. If we build houses on flood plains, we’ll be flooded out at some point.   If we insist on fighting wars, people will suffer and die.  If we drink heavily, if we smoke, if we have poor eating habits, there will be health consequences. If we pollute the environment, there will be all kinds of negative consequences.   
            But Jesus doesn’t get into all of that.  He simply denies that there’s a simple connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.   
            What Jesus does say in today’s gospel lesson is, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  The issue is not why the tornado hit that particular town or why the hurricane did so much damage.  God didn’t single out these people for punishment.  The issue is whether or not you and I will repent.
            For the entire previous chapter in Luke, Jesus has been calling for repentance—for lives turned around to embrace God’s mercy and gift of new life.   But people think he is talking about someone else—the Galileans Pilate had slaughtered as they worshiped, or the eighteen killed in Siloam when that tower fell on them.
            Like most of us, they try to deflect Jesus’ challenging words about repentance or avoid responsibility by comparing themselves and saying, “We’re not bad as they are." But Jesus will have none of it and makes the point that this is not about comparing ourselves with others.
            Unless you repent--you will all perish.  Unless you repent.
            Jesus follows this cheery thought with a story about an un-productive fig tree that gets one more chance.  The parable clarifies Jesus’ motivations for previously exhorting people to “repent.”
 “Give it another year.  Cultivate the soil some more, and add some more manure, and give it another chance to bear fruit.”
            A lot of people hear “repentance” and think of behavior and guilt, as if Jesus’ primary goal was to reform personal morality.  But I think this is a misunderstanding.
            To repent is not so much a matter of giving up certain habits or practices… or about being sorry—turning toward God’s way.  The Greek word that we translate as repentance—metanoia—means “to turn.”  
            When we repent, we see things differently, and we come to new understandings of what God makes possible…  about how God wants us to live… and about what the world is like when God’s will is done.
            When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” he isn’t saying that repenting will extend our lives or offer some kind of miraculous shield against super-storms or disease or catastrophe.  Rather, our repentance will lead to bearing fruit.  If we turn toward God’s ways and see things as God wants us to see them, we will live further into God’s intentions for us.
            When Jesus calls us to repent, he’s inviting us to discover God as the source of our sustenance… belonging… meaning… and hope in this difficult life-- and into the future.  Repentance is the change that occurs within us when God meets us and re-shapes the way we see everything.
            As a gardener and someone who grew up in farm country, I love the parable of the fig tree-- especially the image of manure being spread over the roots of our lives, to help us grow into who we are created and called to be.   God is willing to give us another chance… and can use anything and everything in our lives to help us grow, rooted and grounded in Christ, to produce good fruit.
            So, I wonder:  What does it take to turn us around?  How much manure does it take to bend our imaginations to trust in God and to live hopeful, faithful lives?
            I believe God uses various kinds of spiritual disciplines to cultivate and fertilize our souls.  This cultivation can break up the hard soil that forms around our hearts.  Then, with the help of the good Gardener, we will bear sweet juicy fruit-- the fruits of the Spirit.
            The good news in the story we heard today is that we worship a God who doesn't want to give up on us.  In Jesus, God calls us to live transformed lives. If we will turn to the God who created us and loves us, we will have life and we will have it abundantly.
            Thanks be to God!  Amen!

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

[1] Jill Duffield, “3rd Sunday of Lent-February 28, 2016”, posted at The Presbyterian Outlook at

Sunday, March 17, 2019

"What Makes Jesus Weep?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyteria Church on Luke 13:31-35

Mosaic on altar in Dominus Flevit chapel on Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"   

"What Makes Jesus Weep?"

Luke 13:31-35

The first time I visited the Holy Land in 2006, I felt very moved by the sight of the Dominus Flevit chapel every time we drove near it on the bus. So, I made sure that, when I led a small group on a pilgrimage in 2009, we took the time to walk down the Mount of Olives and visit Dominus Flevit. The chapel was built near the spot traditionally said to be where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The church’s name, in Latin, means “the Lord wept.”  The shape of the church is in the form of a tear drop.
            The church features a beautiful picture window that faces west, overlooking Jerusalem, in the direction Jesus was looking as he wept over the city.[1]
         Below the window, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city.  It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head, which reminds us that Jesus compared himself to a chicken.  The mother hen’s wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. The hen looks ready to protect her beloved chicks.
        The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin.  Translated into English it reads, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"   The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: “You were not willing.”
            How often have I desired. As John Wurster wrote in his recent blog post, this phrase points us to something significant about who Jesus is. Jesus yearns to gather us to himself, to shelter us, to be in relationship with us. How often have I desired to gather you, and you were not willing?  Too often, we hide. We resist. We follow our own way, try to live by our own version of the truth. And yet God keeps longs to be in relationship with us and keeps seeking us out.[2]
            It’s a very vulnerable stance when there are foxes or other predators around and you're the mother hen. When told that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'"   
Jesus is in very clear and present danger as he faces Jerusalem.  He knows this. The prophet’s job is to speak truth to power, tell hard truths that people don’t want to hear. We know the prophet is right when the point to a sin that entangles us—when they name those fragilities we most fear.
As Eric Baretto says, if we know how and where to look, we find prophets today in all kinds of places. “Prophets don’t predict what is next. They look at the world as it is and, through their God-suffused imagination, see it transformed. What if violence and death were not the order of the day? What if compassion, not selfishness, reigned in our midst? What if we could all see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us?
Baretto continues: “The prophet plants herself in the present, in all its blessedness and mire, and says God is present here. She declares a new world, and in this bold, courageous declaration, God acts. In the very act of speaking a God-inspired word of consolation and hope, prophecy comes to life in our midst—as we lift our hands to serve our neighbor and move our feet to go to the most desolate places and discover there that God and God’s servants are very much alive, very much present. We find that such places are not so desolate after all.[3]
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and certain death. He uses the image of a mother hen who shields her chicks with her own body—and her very life, to express the wondrous love of God.  
         "I must be on my way,” Jesus said. Must.  Jesus uses that word over and over to indicate the divine necessity to which he must be obedient.   Jesus had already announced to his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."[4]  This is what Jesus is about-- delivering God's grace because it is his divine calling.   It is what he must do.  
            Jesus went to Jerusalem to gather that city and the whole world under the protective wings of God’s grace.  Isn’t this a wonderful guiding image for the church’s ministry?  When we see the protective mother hen as an image of strength and God’s protecting grace in Jesus Christ, it can be the pattern for our life together as the church. Acting as a caring hen, the church needs to seek out God’s children everywhere to bring them under the protective wing of God’s grace.
That’s a tall order. Where in the world do we start? 
         I think we start by looking around our world and asking ourselves, “What makes Jesus weep?”    
            I see things that I believe surely make Jesus weep: the violation of basic human rights of so many of God’s beloved children… people in one of the richest nations of the world who lack adequate shelter or don’t know where their next meal will come from… so many of God’s beloved children being killed by gun violence… systemic racism and poverty…Islamaphobia…ethnic cleansing in the land we call “Holy”… God’s good creation being ravaged so carelessly… warfare… children in Yemen dying of hunger…children around the world dying of malaria and AIDS… families separated at our nation’s borders. The list could go on and on.
            When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, he very clearly said it is to love God completely and to love one another as ourselves. In his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he declared that the spirit had anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to free those who are oppressed. In word and deed, Jesus called his followers live as God’s beloved and loving people, to see all of God’s children as beloved, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
            So, I believe that the hatred and injustice we see around us in the world, the neglect and outright contempt for the poor, the idolatries in Church and culture, the fearfulness and violence surely make Jesus weep.
            This past Friday we woke up to hear that at least 49 Muslims whomassa were gathered for Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in a brutal act of terrorism. (The death count now is at least 50.)  A gunman mercilessly shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition with a weapon that was scrawled with neo-Nazi symbols and the names of white right-wing extremists who had killed others because of their ethnicity or faith. A manifesto released online laid his motivations out to bare: to kill Muslim immigrants. He cited white nationalist extremists in the United States and France and elsewhere as his inspiration.
            When we look around and consider all the things we think make Jesus weep, it can be overwhelming. It may seem impossible. But because we can’t do everything is not a reason to do nothing. We are called to do what we can.
As a congregation and in our personal lives, we need to look for the things in our world that make Jesus weep. And then—because we can’t do everything—we need to focus on where the world’s pain and need meet our deepest passions and our gifts and what we have to offer in service. We need to do what we can do.          
            I think we can learn a lot from history, from prophets and activists who saw something that was wrong and did what they could. In his book Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild tells the story of a mass movement in Britain swayed first public opinion, and finally Parliament, to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.[5]  I  think that any of you who have a passion for peace and justice and interfaith could learn from them and would enjoy the book.
I’m sure it seemed like a hopeless cause to a lot of folk. But activists formed a broad coalition, energized by Quakers and evangelical Christians, but reaching across the political and social spectrum, including people of prophetic faith and shrewd politicians, progressives and conservatives, elites and outsiders.
            William Wilberforce introduced his first anti-slavery motion into Parliament in 1788.   It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807.  They kept working until slavery was abolished altogether, in 1833.

         In the United States, Christians were an important part of the Underground Railroad. In his book, Bound for Canaan,[6] Fergus Bordewich tells how ordinary people, black and white, slave and free, joined together to do what they believed was right, in a movement of civil disobedience that challenged prevailing social mores and local and federal law.  Bordewich estimates that the network of men and women who harbored or conducted fugitive slaves, plus those who assisted with food, clothing, and legal assistance, numbered more than 10,000, and that they carried an estimated 100,000 fugitives to the far northern states and Canada.   
            I believe our Christian faith calls us to a truly prophetic faith--- a holistic faith that is united with the struggle for peace and justice.  
            This faith informs my thinking when I ask, “What makes Jesus weep today?”
            I see Jesus weeping over our cities… over our world… over the way humankind has acted…  weeping over how we have failed to be the loving, generous, joyful people we were created to be…  weeping over the violence and oppression in our world.   I hear God lamenting over our unfaithfulness.  God grieves for us… and longs to protect us. 
            Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem follows a collection of parables that call for repentance.  I believe that Jesus’ lament over the city of Jerusalem is less a final judgment on the city and more a call to repentance.   It calls us to listen for God’s word for us today, and to respond faithfully.

Here at Littlefield, we’ve been working for several decades at practicing hospitality that welcomes people who are different into our building for English as a Second Language classes and preschool programs and interfaith programs and interfaith worship services. Some of you have attended interfaith events at local mosques and enjoyed the warm hospitality there. These are some of the ways we build bridges of understanding and nurture relationships. It’s hard to hate somebody or to be afraid of them when you’ve shared meals together and prayed together for healing and peace.
Some of you are growing in your willingness to be uncomfortable in your own spaces, even in your own families, and risk speaking up when someone says something Islamophobic or anti-Semitic or racist.  Those of us who live in Dearborn have neighbors and friends who are Muslim. I know that some of you have had relatives or acquaintances say something that shows their lack of experience or understanding, like “What’s it like to live under Sharia law?”

Now, to those of us who live in Dearborn, that’s a ludicrous question. But we have people in our lives who live elsewhere, and some of them seem to get their information from propaganda industries that promote fear and hatred.
It may seem like a small thing when you respond to their questions or remarks by saying, “I wouldn’t know. We don’t live under Sharia law in Dearborn.” Or, “I have wonderful neighbors who bring me food and help me shovel my snow,” or whatever. It may be a small thing, but it makes a difference.
There is so much misinformation and fear-mongering and hateful stuff circulating in social media. So, though it may seem like a small thing, we can commit ourselves to actively using social media for good, by sharing posts that promote respect and compassion and understanding.
Another thing we can do is to show up. As many of you know, I make it a priority to show up in the community when there’s a crisis or something that calls for a faithful, neighborly response. When the travel ban went into effect, some of you were there to represent, holding your signs that quoted scripture passages that command us to treat immigrants with hospitality and justice, and reminded us that we are commanded to love one another as ourselves, and some signs that proclaimed, “We love our Muslim neighbors.”
I’ve lost count of the number of candlelight vigils and interfaith services I’ve attended in the past few years. There have been too many terrible mass shootings. I’ve lost count.
So, Friday, when I heard about the massacre in the mosques in New Zealand, I decided it was important that I reach out in solidarity. I attended Friday prayers at one of our local mosques. And then I attended the vigil at the Islamic Center of America and was asked to offer a prayer.  Since Friday, I’ve gotten multiple emails and Facebook messages and phone calls from Muslim friends, thanking me for showing up, and telling me how much my friendship means to their communities.
It seems like a small thing, but it means more than you can imagine to people who are grieving and afraid. Just as we show up for funerals in our community, it offers comfort and shows we care when we show up when our friends and neighbors are in need. It isn’t something that only pastors can do.
It’s something any of you could do, maybe by going out two-by-two, to reach out in friendship and solidarity, to embody God’s love for all God’s beloved people by showing up.
We follow Jesus the Christ, who proclaimed the reign of God…and broke the power of sin and evil…and calls us to follow him on the way of self-giving love.  This same Jesus claims us as his own and promises to be with us always…and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us further into God’s truth and freedom, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”
Amen.  So be it!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 17, 2019

[1] Luke 19:41-44

[2] John Wurster, “Looking Into the Lectionary, 2nd Sunday in Lent,” at Presbyterian Outlook blog.

[3] Eric Baretto, “You Don’t Want to Be a Prophet (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11), at Huffington Post.

[4] Luke 9:22

[5] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Mariner Books, 2006.
[6] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. Amistad, 2005.