Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"The Next Chapter: It's All About Love." A farewell sermon delivered at Littefield Presbyterian Church.

"The Next Chapter: It's All About Love"

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18

I love to read and write, so it makes sense to me to think of life as being divided into chapters.
In some of the earlier chapters of my life, I grew up, went to college, left the church, taught school, raised a son. Along the way I came back to church, and sensed Christ’s call to “follow him,” which led me to Princeton Seminary, and then to the first church I served, in western Pennsylvania.
In earlier chapters of Littlefield’s story, the congregation was planted and had a vital mission. When there were changes in society and the neighborhood, the church did a mission study that helped the congregation to identify new directions for mission, which was the beginning of an intentional ministry of reconciliation and an emphasis on hospitality and interfaith work.
Back in 1996, the Pastor Nominating Committee of Littlefield contacted me, and we began a discernment process that led to my moving here 22 years ago to be your pastor.

We’ve been through a lot together over the last 22 years.  When I first got here, this was a bigger congregation than it is now. Yet, there were concerns about whether the congregation had the resources to survive.  I hadn’t been here very long before somebody said to me, “Well, the church only has a couple of years before we run out of money.” That was the first I heard about that. It was explained that several of the church’s leaders with business background had analyzed the congregation’s finances maybe two years before and had predicted that—if nothing changed—the church would be closed in around 5 years. That obviously didn’t happen.
Over the years we’ve served Christ together, there have been changes in society… in the community… and in the church. When I first arrived here, society was struggling with LGBTQ issues, and the Presbyterian Church, along with all the mainline denominations, had been studying and praying and debating about homosexuality since the 1970’s. 
            When the church has struggled with difficult and divisive issues over the centuries, it can lead to greater clarity about Christ’s message and what it means to follow him.  In today’s lesson from the book of Acts, we heard how the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem criticized Peter because he had been eating with uncircumcised people. Peter told them about the vision he had and how he heard a voice saying, “Don’t call impure anything that God has made clean.”
It’s happened that way over the centuries when the church has struggled with slavery, with divorce, ordaining women and later LGBTQ persons. In recent years, we’re being challenged to discern how our faith challenges us to act in the face of systemic poverty, racism, environmental degradation, and other injustice.

Over the years, I’ve became convinced that our Christian faith is all about love.

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. 
            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—even people who are different… even 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]

In the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus tells his followers, “If you keep my commandments—the commandments to love God and love the neighbor—we will abide in his love.  He tells his disciples that he has said these things so that we may have his joy, and that our joy may be complete.”

            It’s all about love.

            Over the years, we’ve grown together in the way of love. Littlefield is a place where people are nurtured and challenged to grow in their faith. We have shared God’s love and promoted interfaith understanding in a variety of ways, including through the annual interfaith prayer service and Peace Camp. We have touched people’s lives through our Taize service and the Engage Book group. We’ve glorified God through our worship and work, and we’ve made lots of beautiful music together.  I believe we have grown in our understanding of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ and part of the Beloved Community.
            Twenty-two years is a long time. I give thanks to God for the joy and privilege of being your pastor and leader, for the relationships we have formed, for the learning and laughter and tears we’ve shared together…for the baptisms and weddings and funerals and potlucks and picnics and so much more.

            But now it’s time for a new chapter:  for Littlefield and for me.  In my next chapter, I hope to serve God in some new ways. I’ve taken the training to be a Transitional Minister, which I could do part-time or short-term in congregations that are in transition. And I hope to move to be close to my son’s family and have more time to spend with them—especially Gracie Jane!
            It’s time for a new chapter for Littlefield too. The Session is working on finding a Transitional Minister or Interim to be your next pastor, and to help you discern a faithful future for Littlefield’s next chapter.
            Our pastoral relationship will end on May 31st.  After that time, I will not be available to provide pastoral services at Littlefield. Specifically, I will not be available to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals, or provide pastoral care for the members of Littlefield.
            It’s the policy of our presbytery that a former pastor will speak and act in ways that support the ministry of your new pastoral leader, and will not meddle or comment on actions of the session or the congregation.
         The reason for these boundaries is so the congregation can move on into your next chapter.  Because I love you all, because I care about the health of the congregation, I need to not function as your pastoral leader-- so that your new pastor becomes your pastoral leader as he or she performs pastoral duties like funerals and weddings.

            So, today, we give thanks for what we have learned together, what we have accomplished together, all the ways we have glorified God through our worship and work, all the ways we have people have known we are Christians by our love. Today, at the end of this chapter of ministry together, we release one another to move into Littlefield’s next chapter and my next chapter. 
            What comes next? Your mission statement makes it clear that Littlefield’s purpose is “to love God, one another, and all people, and to show God’s love in your work for peace and justice.”
In our broken world, in this Easter season, when old divisions and ancient evils and persistent suffering fill our news feeds and touch our daily lives, those of us who follow the Risen Christ are called to live in his light, to be salt and light and carry on his ministry of reconciliation.
            As we turn the pages on our next chapters, let us pray…and listen for the Spirit…embody God’s love…and show God’s love in our work for peace and justice.
         Let us trust in God’s promises, confident that nothing will hinder God making all things new.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 19, 2019

[1] John 13:31-35

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"Soul Restoration." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Soul Restoration"

Psalm 23

         I used to think the texts for Good Shepherd Sunday should be a fairly “easy” ones for the sermon.  After all, we have the 23rd Psalm.  I memorized it as a child, and have recited it countless times, and sung it.  
            But then I started noticing how often violence and tragedy have struck during Eastertide, in the time around Good Shepherd Sunday.  When the most recent school shooting happened in Colorado, I realized it was near the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.  How many mass shootings have happened since then?
            There have been bombings… and children killed and injured by gun violence—too many to be reported beyond the local news.
            In our nation and around the world, people suffer from the violence of extreme poverty.  
            I believe that God is weeping at our tragedies… at the mess humans have made of creation through violence.”[1]   
            So much loss.   So much suffering.   So many lives forever changed by wounds-- both physical and emotional.  Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and we might want to throw up our hands in despair.  But we never stop hoping for something different. 

            At times like these, or when we face the illness of a child or a dear old friend… or the doctor gives us a scary diagnosis…  we can turn to the witness of faith we find in the scriptures.  The 23rd Psalm has been called one of the psalms of trust, in which those who are praying proclaim their confidence in God’s goodness—despite the very real difficulties they are experiencing. 
            “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. “I trust in God to provide what I need.
            “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
            The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak devastation.  But he has adopted a resolute stance in the face of real threat: “No fear.”   Not because the police and FBI are on the scene.  Not because our military has tools to exact vengeance so that perpetrators can’t hurt anyone again.   No.  Because “God is with me.” 
            This is the core claim of our faith:  that there is one God, the God of love, and that we can place our trust in God to be with us, always.   That doesn’t mean that we will never have to face danger or hardship or sorrow.  But it does mean that we will not be alone in it, and that we will be given the strength to get through.
            “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.”
            If our first impulse in the face of terror is fear, the second impulse for a lot of people is vengeance.   Just as the Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, neither does he ignore the reality that there are people in the world who mean him harm.  But in the Psalm, the impulse to vengeance is short-circuited by the deep awareness of grace, which re-directs the energy that would have been drained to exact retribution—and channels it to gratitude and joyful thanksgiving. 
            Our Christian faith point us toward an alternative worldview that shuns reactive violence and opens up possibilities for personal and social transformation--even for enemies. 
            We are Easter people—people of the Resurrection.   In the face of violence and death, we hear our sacred texts speaking defiantly, calling us to fearlessness in the valley of the shadow of death… and revealing a vision of a God who will wipe away the tears of those who have gone through great tribulation. 

            In the Acts passage, we hear the story of a little church in Joppa, near the Mediterranean Sea.  In this church, one of the disciples, a woman named Tabitha (or, in Greek, Dorcas) has become sick and died. 

            It may seem hard to relate the death of Tabitha to the violent deaths of April and May in our time.   But, as Margaret Aymer Oget points out,[2]  Tabitha lived in a Roman-occupied world in which wealth and the control of goods were in the hands of the 2 percent, a world in which poverty, malnutrition, and illness were deadly.  Women like Tabitha would have had a life expectancy of fewer than 40 years.  So, her death was also an act of violence, in the sense that poverty caused by injustice is violent. 
            In the face of Tabitha’s death, the little church in Joppa took action.   The widows gathered, weeping and telling her story.  They tended to Tabitha’s body, and they sent for Simon Peter. 
            Tabitha—the beloved and fruitful disciple, is raised up by Simon Peter and restored to her friends.   Of course, news spreads quickly, and many people come to believe because of what happened. 
            Meanwhile, Simon Peter stays in the house of Simon the tanner, a man whose vocation of working with the bodies of animals would have made him unclean.  But apparently, he was not unclean in the eyes of Simon Peter, disciple of the Risen Lord, because God was doing a new thing and breaking down the dividing walls.
            The Easter story back then and now is a story of new life, new possibilities, boundaries being broken down, and transformation. 
            When our world is rocked by tragedy and violence and death and loss, there is great power in those who won’t let the story of a beloved one die, like the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook who have resolved to work as long as it takes for effective gun control laws… and the young survivors of the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Florida… or  the mother of Philando Castile, who has been giving money to pay off lunch debts of poor students to honoring her son, who was a caring lunch room supervisor before he was shot three years ago by a police officer.  

There is great power in those who weep with God over violence to humanity and creation    and open themselves to work with God for peace… reconciliation… and justice. 
            Unlike the little church in Joppa, we can’t summon an apostle with the power to raise the dead.  But we can still follow the example of the early church.  We can tend to the bodies and to the wounded people… we can tell the truth about the fatal toll of guns, bombs, poverty, and disease. 
            When we refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and poverty and violence and terrorism and bigotry, we break death’s ability to have the last word. 
            When we trust in the Shepherd God of love and mercy, we can live confidently.  God gives us what we need… and restores our souls… and guides us in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake. 
            We don’t need to be afraid, because the God of goodness and love is with us, as we work to restore the soul of our communities and the world. 

            Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 12, 2019

[2] Margaret Aymer, “Acts 9:36-43: Why I Pray That April Tragedies Bring May Justice,” in Huffington Post, April 17, 2013.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Do We Love Jesus?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter.

"Feed My Sheep." Photo taken at the Primacy of Peter site, in Galilee, by Fran Hayes 

"Do We Love Jesus?"

John 21:1-19; Acts 9:1-20

We’re now two weeks past Easter Sunday.  But for a lot of folk, Easter already seems long ago and far away.   For some, great joy and hope have given way to the routine of daily life:  family responsibilities…health issues…work concerns.  In the midst of it all, what does the Resurrection mean?  What difference does it make?  Has it changed anything?
            In the last chapter of John, we hear how, after the Resurrection, the disciples’ lives don’t seem to have changed.  They have seen the risen Jesus.  But they’ve gone back to the same old thing they used to do.  They’ve gone fishing. 
            The disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus.  But he’d been crucified and buried.  They’re grieving… frustrated… confused. 
            True, they knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  But what did that mean?  What difference did it make? 
            So, they go back to something familiar—what they’d been doing before Jesus came into their lives.  They go fishing.  They fish all night.  But they don’t catch anything. 
            Yet, as the disciples return to the way things used to be, the risen Jesus seeks them out once again.  At dawn, they see a stranger on the shoreline, but they don’t recognize him. But Jesus knows them. This “stranger” calls to them with a term of endearment, “children.”
Jesus comes to them in their ordinary lives, and he blesses them.  He calls out to them, “You don’t have any fish, do you?”
            Then he tells them how to fish: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.”
            The catch is so enormous that they can’t haul it in. There are fish of all kinds. The symbolic significance of the number—one hundred fifty-three—is lost on modern readers. But the meaning of the story is not: there are fish of all kinds. This is an abundance that is inclusive and diverse.
            This story reprises themes in several other traditional stories about the disciples: the work of the disciples as fishermen…the radical call for them to become fishers of people… and the reminder that Jesus told the disciples that “apart from me you can do nothing.”[1]
            John recognizes Jesus, and says, “It’s the Lord!”  Then Peter leaps into the water and swims toward Jesus.  Jesus knows how deeply Simon Peter needs to be forgiven for the three times he denied his relationship with Jesus on that awful night before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus says, three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 
            Peter responds with an affirmation of his love, saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  Three times.  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”
            Instead of praising his declarations, Jesus tells Peter that one day he will stretch out his hands    and someone will take him where he does not wish to go.   Feeding lambs and tending sheep can cost us—even cost us our lives.  It is work that will link our lives to pain and suffering.  It will lead us many places we don’t want to go.  If we love Jesus, our relationship with him will change us.
            On this third Sunday in Eastertide, the lectionary gives us two stories of transformation. The stories we heard are about two great saints of the church, Peter and Paul.  In the book of Acts, we encounter Saul, who was introduced in chapter 7, as the young man who was present when the angry mob stoned Stephen to death.  Luke tells us that Saul took care of their coats for them, that he approved of their killing Stephen, and that he was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women believers, and imprisoning them.[2]
            In the story we heard today from Acts, Saul is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He has gone to the high priest and gotten letters of authorization to the synagogues of Damascus, so he can look for followers of the Way and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
            Now, Saul was well-educated and devout.  He was someone who had his faith and values all figured out.  His mission in life was to stamp out the movement of those who followed the risen Jesus on the Way.  Saul was very certain that he was right—and they were wrong.
            So far in Acts, Saul is described almost entirely in terms of his certainty and his violence.   It is this violence that Jesus addresses when he speaks out of the heavenly light, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
            By identifying himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting, Jesus identifies with the believers in their suffering, and he makes Saul’s violence a central issue of his conversion.
            The voice of the risen Christ intrudes and devastates Saul’s self-confident journey.  He opens his eyes, but he can’t see.  He has to be led around by the hand, and he doesn’t eat or drink for three days.   Saul, who knows so much about religion, who could quote chapter and verse of the scriptures, is rendered helpless by the blinding light on the road to Damascus.  He needs to be led by the hand, healed, and instructed by the very ones he’d planned to round up and bind and drag back to Jerusalem to face the religious authorities.
            What happens to Saul on the road to Damascus becomes a transformative moment.  When Paul encountered the risen Christ, he was blinded by the brightness of the light of Christ and transformed-- from a man committed to aggression and persecution of those who were different, those who challenged what he believed— to one who was lost and struggling.  In the process of his conversion, Paul learns that the agenda he set for himself was futile, and that God’s plan is the only plan that matters. 
            Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ helped to transform him from someone who was afraid to admit he even knew Jesus—into an apostle who was empowered to jump out of his familiar boat into waters that were over his head     and walk bravely into the world with resurrection power and hope. 
            In this third resurrection appearance, we hear Peter getting a new chance, as he experiences Jesus’ resurrection power in a quiet way over breakfast.
           The Risen Christ appears to the disciples, makes them breakfast, and then dialogues with Peter on the nature of discipleship. Loving Jesus leads to feeding God’s sheep, providing for their physical and spiritual hungers.
            Those who encounter Christ are called to reach out to the world sharing good news for body, mind, and spirit.
In an ordinary place and meal, the disciples receive a kind of re-commissioning.  They are reminded who they are and what they were called to be and do. 
            Easter is about living out our identity and calling as if we truly believe that Jesus has overcome sin and death.  It’s about living as if we trust in his gift of abundant, eternal life.    It means following Jesus, embodying Jesus’ love. It means being with Jesus as we gather together to hear the good news… and in the places we are led to serve.
            “Do you love me?”  Jesus asks us. Then, feed my lambs.
            Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.  Yet, we know all too well that the compelling call of human need often feels like it is taking us to places we don’t want to go.  Our ability and willingness to go there will be a testimony to the clarity and passion of our Christian discipleship.  Our ability and willingness to follow Jesus is a sign of how we are being transformed.
            The first disciples huddled behind locked doors, or went back to their old familiar routines.  They struggled with fear about how Jesus calls his followers to go places where they don’t want to go.
            When I get impatient with myself for my lack of courage, or my reluctance to go some of the places Jesus might call me to go in his name, I find comfort and hope in the conviction that God isn’t finished with me yet.  God isn’t finished with any of us yet.
            We have Christ’s promise that he will not leave us alone.  He will be with us, to help and to guide us…to provide for our needs…and to comfort and care for us.   The One who commands us to embody his love and light in the world   promises us that we will be given the power we need through the Holy Spirit.
           Again and again, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”   This is no cheap grace Christ offers us.  Again and again, Jesus calls us: “Follow me.”
            Do you love me?  Jesus asks.
            Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.
            Just as Jesus met with his first disciples at dawn on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes to us.  Jesus keeps coming to us to teach us and to lead us to places where we’d never have thought to go.  
            The gospel reminds us that God can make a way where there is no way, bringing abundance where there is scarcity, and joy where there has been sorrow.  Jesus’ resurrection gives us the promise of life after death, and the assurance of God’s healing and restoration in this life.
Today, in this time and place, as long ago, Jesus does many signs in the presence of his disciples.   We have the witness of the gospel, which was written “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…and that through believing, we may have life in his name.”
Jesus meets us where we work, where we despair, or where we question or doubt. Whether we’re still feeling “up” from Easter or feeling let down, Jesus keeps coming to us.
            Jesus meets us in in our friends or in strangers.  He challenges us with a task to do—caring for his people.  He gives us work that truly satisfies us, and invites us to make him more and more the center of our lives.  One way or another, Jesus comes back and calls us to himself and to his new life. 
            Do you love me?  Then feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.
            As individuals and as a congregation, we often fall short of being the loving, compassionate, generous, welcoming people God created us to be.  We don’t always follow through.  Sometimes we even fall away for a while and go back to whatever felt familiar before we recognized the Risen Christ. 
            But Jesus doesn’t give up on us.  After each time we fail…or forget… or are overcome by our fears, Jesus comes to us again and invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment, and calls us to put our love into action, caring for the world God loves.  If you love me, show it through your actions.   “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus comes to us today, this morning, inviting us to start again Easter-fresh, saying, “Follow me.”
            Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
May 5, 2019

[1] John 15:5
[2] Acts 7:58-8:1