Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 9, 2018
“Kinder and Gentler”
Luke 1: 68-79
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
who has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them,
69 Who has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of servant David,
70 as God spoke through the mouth of holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus has God shown mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered their holy covenant,
73 the oath swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve the Lord without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The nation reflected this week upon the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, often in ways that, even if unintentional, so sharply contrast with the current president that, although his name was never mentioned at the National Cathedral, no one could mistake the two men.
Presidential biographer Jon Meachum shared his eulogy with Bush prior to his death. Bush complained that it was “too much about me.” Meanwhile, the current president sat brooding at that service, clearly unhappy it didn’t have enough “me” in it.
Meachum described Bush’s code of life. Among other things: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Try hard. Forgive.” We were told he sought to make our lives and the lives of all nations “freer, better, warmer, and nobler.” Causes larger them himself.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney called Bush courageous, principled and honourable.
Not to draw out too many more comparisons, but when Senator Alan Simpson said “hate corrodes the container that carries it,” nothing intentional or not could have been said more clearly.
How can we help but compare them? For example, their acceptance speeches when each was nominated at the Republication National Convention?
With dark imagery and an angry tone, Trump portrayed the United States as a “diminished and humiliated nation and offered himself as an all-powerful savior” on behalf of law-abiding Americans.
By comparison, Bush said in his acceptance speech in 1988:
The contrast is almost too obvious. But, not to suggest sainthood. One has to wonder what happened to kindness and gentleness and our better angels when it came to Willie Horton and the portrayal of black men. That television attack ad remains one of the most racist things to have ever aired as part of a presidential campaign – or at least until two years ago. And then there is the regrettable fact that Bush replaced Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. On the other hand, he named Colin Powell the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When someone dies we tend to remember them in their best light; you might say, to white-wash their misdeeds, but, once again, we not only mourned the death of a decent man this week but we continue to mourn the death of decency itself in the person of our nation’s commander in chief and his enablers. But of course, as Christians we believe in redemption and resurrection. And that’s the real good news. What, however, does that call from us in between?
The bulletin cover, songs and prayers, not to mention the big letters hanging on the banner in front of us, make it clear that today is Peace Sunday.
And that’s the line that really stuck with me this week. Not that peace is possible. But that peace is the way. Put another way, we could say that kindness is the way to kindness. Compassion is the way to compassion. Love is the way to love. In a world of people who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, starved for kindness, compassion, and love, we have to ask of ourselves: are we being kind, compassionate, and loving?
John Pavlovitz, in his new book Hope and Other Superpowers, said, “I carry a heavy sadness seeing the cruelty that now seems standard issue, the sarcasm, snark, and verbal venom so regularly wielded. And I grieve the most when I notice it in the mirror.” We cherish winning an argument over cultivating humility. We’d rather celebrate the accomplishment of blasting our opponents instead of understanding them. Bitterness is the opposite of kindness and if we want kindness to win, we have to be less bitter about the current state of our country. And, note to self, about our president.
Jesus knows a little about that. He was not born into a time of peace. And he tried to teach peace during some of the darkest days while Israel was an occupied territory of Rome. Caesar did not tolerate threats to his absolute power. Any peace that may have existed was the result of violent repression. And things did not improve in the years after Jesus’ death. In fact, when the gospel of Luke was written, prophecies that the birth of the infant Jesus would bring about an era of peace would seem flat out wrong. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Rome had completely crushed any hope of rebellion and destroyed the Temple.
And yet, or maybe for that very reason, Luke used the word peace more than the other three gospel writers combined. He used peace as bookends for his gospel – from Zechariah’s words in the first chapter that God will guide our feet into the way of peace to among the last words of Jesus to his disciples: “Peace be with you.” You have to wonder why those who first read the gospel wouldn’t have thought this talk about peace was just a false hope; or worse, a lie.
There are many ways to define peace, but Luke’s purpose was clearly meant to contrast the peace of Christ with the peace of Caesar. The comparison couldn’t have been more obvious. Caesar governed violently by submission. In contrast, the peace of Christ is holistic, peace in one’s soul and in the world in a practical way.
Much like how Ralph Bunche wrote that “peace, to have meaning for many who have only known suffering, must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health, education, as well as freedom and human dignity.” Bunche was the first African American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, resulting from his work with Arabs and Israelis. Jesus, too, taught people both with his words and with loaves of bread and fish.
Archbishop Oscar Romero had been preaching against the Caesar-like repressive force of El Salvador’s right-wing military government when they assassinated him in 1980. He taught those sitting in the dark shadows that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is the generous contribution of all to the good of all.” By the way, now Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
I still sometimes wonder, is peace possible? And not just some time in the distant future but today? If you, like me, are skeptical at times, we have to remember that before Zechariah spoke his beautiful words he was mute – or at least he had been mute for the previous nine months because he did not believe the angel who told him that his wife would conceive a son. “How can this be,” he asked Gabriel? “It is not possible because we are too old.” And because he did not believe, he was made mute until the day his son was born. Similarly, Gabriel told Mary that with God, nothing is impossible. So, if the question isn’t whether peace is possible, then how? Not an emotion but the condition of wholeness for all parties.
John the Baptist called upon people to prepare the Way of the Lord by repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps we need to look in the mirror in order to repent our complicity in escalation. My own complicity. And then, as with all repentance, to turn in a new direction.
If we wonder if civility is forever dead, perhaps we need to remember that civility is the way to civility. Did decency die? Or is decency the way to decency. And kindness the means to kindness. And compassion the means to compassion. And love the only means to love.
As Dr. King said, “One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but that it is the means by which we arrive at that goal.” Of a kinder, gentler nation, a thousand points of light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
 John Pavlovitz, Hope and Other Superpowers, Simon and Schuster, 2018, Chapter 11 on Kindness
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 4, 2018
“Everything Will Be OK in the End”
Luke 21: 25-36
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
It was just a week or two ago that I said I felt a little more hopeful than I had been for a while. I was cautiously optimistic. More women elected than ever. More People of Color elected than ever. More LGBT folks elected than ever. Various ballot initiatives around the country were approved to restore and protect voting rights, limit exploitation by payday lenders, and expand health care in some unlikely places. And somehow, the imminent threat of a dangerous invading force from the South magically disappeared from its 24 hour a day coverage over at Fox News. Seeds of hope blossomed.
But then, while we were in church last Sunday, having fun hanging the greens, we went home for lunch only to turn on the TV to witness scenes of mothers with their children in diapers running from the tear gas raining down on them. Not in Yemen. Not in Syria but outside San Diego – USA. Migrants seeking asylum, forced to flee from terror in their home countries, now forced to flee from terror by ours. My cautious optimism ebbed.
So, all week I looked for signs and stories of hope to replenish my soul. I was particularly moved by a story about members of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina. They had provided sanctuary for Samuel Oliver-Bruno for 11 months. For 11 months he slept in a Sunday school classroom and tried to carry out a “normal” life while essentially being under house arrest. He taught Bible study classes, played in the church band, and did what he could to support his wife in her battle against lupus. One day U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asked him to come in for an appointment. It was a hopeful sign of progress, but church members also worried ICE could use it for a trap. So, the church that had been providing sanctuary inside decided they must provide sanctuary outside the church too. Members accompanied him and kept watch as they drove the 15-mile journey. When they arrived outside the offices, they were joined by 100 more. They stood in the parking lot singing, making sure their witness was both seen and heard from inside those offices. But two minutes into their singing, someone screamed as they watched through the window. Two plain clothed men from ICE put Samuel in handcuffs and led him to an unmarked car. 100 people sprang into action and surrounded the car and prayed and sang Amazing Grace and other hymns for three hours. Finally, as they sang We Shall Not Be Moved, police carried 30 of them off to jail. That evening Samuel was put on a plane and deported to Mexico.
So, is that a story of hope or not? John Lennon said, “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, a church has been in continuous worship for the last five weeks, 24 hours a day. You think a service that goes a few minutes over one hour is long? How about a service that, so far, has been going on for 840 hours straight?! Bethel Church in The Hague is protecting an Armenian family that has been part of the community for nine years. If deported, they fear the fulfillment of death threats for their political opposition. You may or may not know that sanctuary churches in the US, like CityWell, are only protected by a custom that says immigration officials won’t enter. It’s not by law. But a law in the Netherlands states that a raid cannot be conducted during a worship service. This small church had a creatively subversive idea, but they didn’t know how they could keep a service going 24 hours a day. When word of their plans got out, 420 religious leaders stepped up and one after another have been conducting what is essentially a filibuster service. Who knows how long it will take or whether it will ultimately succeed. But as John Lennon said, “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
Jesus said in our passage today that “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Eugene Peterson describes it as simply, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose.” Earlier in the same chapter Jesus described a time of wars and insurrections. “Nation will rise up against nation; there will be earthquakes and famines and plagues. Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all…”
Apocalyptic texts like these are terrifying and troubling. In some cases, they are quoted to cause fear because somehow the fear of hell is supposed to make you love Jesus more. I doubt that Jesus said these words in order to make his followers afraid but rather to address people who were already afraid, living in a state of fear. Afraid of what was happening. Afraid of what could happen. Because, basically, everything was not OK. And it would, in fact, get worse as Jesus himself was denied and betrayed and handed over and flogged and executed. But on the third day, he promised, the Son of Man would rise. And then return again. But in the meantime, Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.
How many times in the past week, in the last six months, in the past two years have you felt your heart weighed down – maybe by fear. Or weighed down by despair, for example, over seeing women and children tear gassed, reminiscent of kids held in cages.
Or your heart weighed down by disgust. On Thanksgiving, yet another young black man was killed by police. Army-veteran 21-year-old E.J. Bradford Jr. was helping to apprehend an active shooter when police arrived at a shopping mall in Alabama. The police saw a black man with a gun and assumed he was the problem. The same thing had just happened in Chicago to black security guard Jemel Roberson. He had just apprehended a suspect when he was shot and killed by police. Both, by the way, were legally carrying their gun. To be fair, the police can’t always tell a good guy with a gun from a bad guy with a gun, but when the good guy with a gun is black, it seems like they are always assumed to be the bad guy. And did the NRA express any outrage?
Our hearts weighed down by fear, by despair or disappointment. Anne Lamott admits that even “hate has weighed me down in these past two years and muddled my thinking. It’s isolated me and caused my shoulders to hunch.” And, she asked, when our shoulders are hunched, where do our eyes look? We look down. We gaze upon the ground. We rub our feet into the dirt. What can we do? Jesus said, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When we lift our shoulders and raise our heads, what do we see?
When I raise my head, I see 100 members of CityWell United Methodist Church singing songs for 3 hours while surrounding the car of a man they had come to love. I look up and see a small Dutch church in worship for 840 hours and counting.
When I raise my head I look up and see our second floor and the offices of Knitting4Peace – housed here at Park Hill, founded by Susan McKee, and now led by Kathleen Marsh. They have delivered over 140,000 knit and crocheted hats, gloves, blankets, peace pals and more around the globe, and to the women who sleep in our fellowship hall. It’s astonishing. They may even hit 150,000 items before the end of the year. But it was a little story I read in their newsletter on Friday that made my shoulders go even higher. Kathleen and Evan were in Los Angeles and taught 15 former gang members how to knit and crochet. So that these formerly incarcerated men and women could feel good about giving away hats and gloves and blankets and peace pals and more instead of being seen as recipients in need. That’s hopeful.
One more story of hope. In a small town in southern Mexico, a volunteer from the American Friends Service Committee witnessed a group of poor women bent over an open fire, making soup for more than 2,000 Salvadoran refugees heading north. Kathryn Johnson said it was common for the migrants and refugees to receive this kind of compassion and open generosity as they journeyed through some of the most impoverished towns and villages in Mexico. While the women served noodle soup from large steaming pots to the passing strangers, others provided free medical care and advice.
That’s the kind of thing that builds a reserve of hope to carry us through times when our shoulders are hunched and our hearts are weighed down.
But what could possibly give me more hope than to look up and see you? Could I have stayed sane or stay sane for as long as it will take to live through this mess without having you and this church – a place to sing and worship and pray, a place to give back to the world by, for example, making up cots for WHI, retreats to build resilience like we had yesterday? Plus now, a labyrinth to walk when any of us need it. And the echoes of children down the hall today preparing to present the centuries-old story of Christ’s birth, complete with costumes of cows and sheep. Could anything be more hopeful?
So, back to that John Lennon quote: “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” That’s the very wisdom Jesus was trying to impart to his disciples and followers. When these things happen, don’t be distracted by wars and rumors of war. That’s not the end. Don’t be distracted by those who would hate or betray you. That’s not the end. Destruction is not the goal. If things are not OK, it’s not the end.
You may make the same mistake I do sometimes when we think of hope. We often hope for something, perhaps something too concrete. I hope I get that job. I hope she will come to visit me soon. Those aren’t wrong. After all, I hope I have a safe and good time on my sabbatical. I hope that the church does well. I especially hope you want me to come back!
And yes, I hope for more peace and I hope for an increase in kindness and love. But as people of faith, I think our hope is more deeply in redemption. Not simply for these times to end but our hope is the redemption of these terrible fear-filled, despairing and disgusting times that lead good people to rage and even hate. Or worse, to give up. Redemption is hopeful because it asks “What can change?” and believes it will.
For example, I hope we learn not to take things for granted – things like the rule of law and respect for customs and the desire for democracy itself. I hope citizens are never complacent again. That would be the redemption of these times. And a more faithful goal than simply hoping or even praying for an end to this mess. How can these times be redeemed? Used for good in the end. Like, more women elected than ever. More people of color elected than ever. More LGBT folks elected than ever. Restored voting rights, limits to payday lenders, and expanded health care.
Hope is not wishful thinking but our combined action. And for Christians this hope rises out of destruction and the death of Jesus when things were not OK. But everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end. And that is our hopeful, good news as we begin the season of Advent.
One: Let us pray: Great God, help us to remember that how things are now, is not how they’ve always been;
All: And it’s not how they will always be.
One: Help us to remember that the seeds of your kingdom are growing among us now;
All: And the time will come when love fills the world.
One: Therefore we hope.
All: Therefore we hope.
One: And we pray for your coming to a world whose poverty, pain, trauma, and grief make your promises seem like pipe dreams
All: We pray for your coming into our neighbor’s lives who long to see love and compassion expressed through your people.
One: We pray for your coming to us. May you fill more than simplistic hopes but fill our deepest longings for peace and joy and love. Today, and everyday forward,
All: We hope.
 Her new book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope quoted by Janet Hunt in Dancing with the Word
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 18, 2018
“Outrage is Not a Way of Life”
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is God that made us, and we are God’s;
we are the people and the sheep of God’s pasture.
4 Enter the gates with thanksgiving,
and God’s courts with praise.
Give thanks, bless God’s name.
5 For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
and faithfulness to all generations.
Garrison Keillor tells the story about Larry, a resident of Lake Wobegon – you know, that place where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. Larry had the all-time record for being saved at the Lutheran Church, a church that never gave altar calls and where an organ had never once played Just as I Am quietly in the background. Regardless of that, Larry Sorenson had come forward 12 times in 8 years, each time weeping buckets as he crumpled up at the communion rail. Each time it was a shock to the minister who had just delivered a dry sermon. The latest compared Jedidiah and Jehoshaphat. Or maybe it was Jerubabel. But at the end, Larry came forward crying. “Even the fundamentalists got tired of him,” said Keillor. God didn't mean for you to feel guilty all your life. There comes a time when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace or the church roof. Larry was never grateful for a 2nd or 3rd or even 9th and 12th chance. He just kept on repenting and repenting and repenting.
For Larry, it was never enough. He wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t smart enough. Even in a town where all the men are good looking, he wasn’t even handsome enough. Never enough.
In his new book, John Pavlovitz sounds like he’s worried that he isn’t thankful enough. He said, “Some days I think I’m gratitude-impaired. I have an appreciation-deficiency.” Or, like Larry, maybe he’s not thankful enough. But, John said, “it’s just that I’m often so busy being outraged” by the news or the failing state of the planet that “I get preoccupied with being, well, outraged. In the course of an ordinary day, I frequently find myself so distracted” by disgust for what isn’t and what should be that “I forget to be grateful for what already is.”
“It’s a common affliction for activists,” he said. Or just ordinary people who believe that things can, no, should, be better than this. That the world deserves, we deserve, better than this. In the face of so much discouraging news, it may feel as though if we aren’t out there every minute of every day trying to make a difference, the world may capitulate to the malevolent forces of cruelty, indecency, bigotry and pure unadulterated hate. It’s up to us or the forces of evil may win.
But people who believe it all depends on them can be pretty unhappy people. And exhausting to be around because they can worry that others aren’t outraged enough. Of course, on the other hand, people who are happy all the time may annoy the heck out of us because how can they be so happy? They must not care enough. Don’t you know how bad things are? Kids still separated from their families. Not enough affordable housing. The town of Paradise, California, burned off the map because climate change is just a “hoax invented by the Chinese.”
How do you tell the families of the 500 or maybe even 1,000 people still missing to:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.
4 Enter God’s courts with praise.
Give thanks, give thanks, give thanks… for God is good.
But it’s not just the major events of the world that concern us. Some days we just don’t feel that way. Not to mention, who cares about Washington while we are dealing with failing relationships. And Alzheimer’s is advancing. And when our recovery from addiction is faltering. And cancer is spreading. And now come the holidays when many of us may feel pressure that people won’t think we’re being cheerful enough.
We may think the author of Psalm 100 is just another one of those annoyingly, perpetually happy people. But you couldn’t say that about the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk was no less grateful, but he also did not wear rose-colored glasses. The prophet described a bleak picture:
“The fig trees have not blossomed; there are no grapes on the vines, the olive trees have failed, and the fields have yielded no food; the flocks of sheep have gone missing and there are no cattle in the stalls.”
That can only be described as an utter catastrophe. A very good reason to be depressed. Literally, “not enough.” And yet, after saying of all of that, he said, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation.” Or as Eugene Peterson colorfully describes, “though my apples are full of worms, I’m turning cartwheels of joy for God.”
Is he just deluded? Deceived? Has he been duped? No. He explained, I will rejoice through it all because God is my strength. And God is enough.
Through it all. One of the challenges of our world is constantly being updated on the latest, and usually most outrageous, breaking story on social media, alerts on our phones, or on 24 hour cable news, which needs 24 hours a day of content, the worst the better. With all that instant and constantly streaming information, we can lose perspective. Everything loses perspective when it only lasts as long as the next news cycle.
I don’t mean to demonize social media or cable news, it’s just that we have to practice a defense against its tendency toward sensationalized despair. Such a constant source of outrage could lead to an aggravated case of gratitude-deficiency or A.D.D.: Appreciation-Deficit Disorder. That doesn’t mean the treatment plan is choosing ignorance. The prescription isn’t to care a little less.
That’s why I’m grateful for Habakkuk more than Psalm 100. He doesn’t sugar coat things. In the face of trees without figs and vines without grapes, when we’re losing or everything we had is gone, Habakkuk offers these insights. I think they are really relevant for our times.
All those may be true, but they’re not all easy to practice. Yet, hopeful examples abound. In the category of injustice like a boomerang, remember Danica Roehm? I have mentioned her before. She is the transgender woman elected a year ago to the Virginia legislature, defeating the man who wrote the infamous “bathroom bill” meant to demonize transgender people. I’m grateful for the boomerang of injustice rebounding on the unjust. God is good.
Well, she is joined this year by Ruth Buffalo who just became the first Native American woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature. She unseated the main sponsor of the very voter ID law meant to disenfranchise Native Americans, who by the way, turned out in massive numbers. In Sioux County, where the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is, turnout was up 105 percent from the last midterm elections. And she wasn’t elected from a reservation, but from the middle of Fargo. I’m grateful for the boomerang of injustice rebounding on the unjust. God is good.
And then there is Zach Wahls in Iowa. He became famous in 2011 when he testified in front of the Iowa State Legislature against their proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. At the time, he was the teenaged son of two moms. He testified that having lesbian parents meant that some of his classmates were forbidden to socialize with him. He was teased and bullied because of his parent’s relationship but he turned that into quite an impressive resume including as the co-founder of Scouts for Equality which worked to overturn the ban on gay boy scouts and scout leaders. Well, he was just elected to that same Iowa legislature that targeted his family.
Not to mention, an actual lesbian mom was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota, defeating a man who compared gay people to rapists. Forget Blue Wave, there was a Rainbow Wave all across the country.
God is good. And works in mysterious ways. Ruth Buffalo did not go out and run against the man who tried to disenfranchise Native Americans. She didn’t even know that he was the one responsible until she won. God is good?
I’m grateful that history is bigger than this present moment. And, that malevolence shall not forever win. But most especially, I am grateful that none of us have guarantees of happiness. Because more importantly, we have the promise that through our pain and struggle and grief, God keeps us strong. Therefore,
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.
4 Enter God’s courts with praise.
Give thanks, give thanks, give thanks… for God is good.
Outrage can be a great motivator to change the world, but it can’t be a way of life. Gratitude is a way of life that seeks the same outcome. John Pavlovitz claims that “all movements of justice, equality, and diversity are led by thankful people because they see something worth preserving or someone worth defending.”
And the more we practice a gratitude way of life, the more alive we will feel. And hopeful, because hope is cultivated in the fields of gratitude. And in turn, the more alive we feel, the more we see each other and not just ourselves, “the more prepared we are to live outwardly, making us more available to people who are suffering, not less available.” God is good.
Pavlovitz said, “Grateful people are the boldest activists and the most self-less advocates because they are the fiercest lovers of life.” That’s who I want to be. I want to change the world not because I’m outraged by it but because I’m grateful for it. I want to, but it may take some practice. How about you?
Let’s try just one example: take a news story which makes you feel outraged. Find one thing in it for which to be grateful. At first, try to do it once a day. And then maybe once an hour. Until every outrageous thing you hear has within it a reason to be grateful. Until outrage is no longer a way of life but gratitude is. It’s not a means to avoid injustice or stop caring so much but instead a way to change the world that changes us too.
 Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home
 John Pavlovitz, Hope and Other Super Powers, Simon and Schuster, 2018. John will be speaking at Park Hill UCC on May 14, 2019
 Habakkuk 3:17
 Richard Losch, All the People in the Bible
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 11, 2018
“We Need to Stop Making Heroes”
Mark 12: 41-44 – Common English Bible
Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[a] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”.
I’m glad I had a few days to process Tuesday’s election. But even more to the point, how to preach about it. After all, as a church, our concern isn’t about how one party did vs. another but how issues were impacted related to our vision of a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. I was reminded that we must still pray for the day when the right of people to vote and equity in representation, among other things, would unite us as Americans instead of divide us as parties. For now, that does not seem to be the case. Or is it? Do I perceive dawn on the horizon?
These weren’t simply the result of a blue wave but something broader, cross-partisan. They make me more hopeful today than I was just a few days ago.
Of course, the bigger story is that Congress will be more diverse than ever.
If you don’t know her story, her son was Jordan Davis. You may remember, Jordan was murdered by white man in 2012 while sitting in a parked car with friends at a gas station in Florida. Michael Dunn fired ten times at a car of unarmed black teenagers during an argument over loud music. He then drove away, went to a hotel, and ordered pizza. He cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, claiming he felt threatened by the teenagers, who never left their car. It still took two trials to convict him of first degree murder. Well, out of that tragedy, Jordan’s mother became a gun control advocate and was just elected to Congress. In Georgia. In the former district of Newt Gingrich.
That’s a lot of good news. There were plenty of disappointments too, including for the environment. But I wondered how I could tie all of this good news to today’s gospel story. The story about a widow and her two small coins wouldn’t appear to have much in common with election results.
But listen to all the things I mentioned. We celebrate the restoration of voting rights. Increased access to health care and raising the minimum wage. Limiting interest charged to the most vulnerable. Removing slavery from our state constitution. We rightfully celebrate these things. But, then again, why must we celebrate something that should already be?
But in the same way, in our gospel story, why do we celebrate that a poor widow gave away literally everything she had? That’s how this story is often told. We praise her “choice” to be generous. This is often used as an inspirational story for stewardship campaigns, with the message, go and do likewise. But it is a false interpretation to suggest that the purpose of the story is to praise the widow. Yes, she is certainly worthy of praise. But the story actually started three verses earlier, often left out of those inspirational stewardship sermons.
You didn’t hear this part earlier. It starts with Jesus outside of the Temple teaching. He observed and pointed and said, “Watch out for the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their houses, and to show off, they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
We may think it’s about her generosity but it’s only after those verses that then he pointed at the widow who put everything she had into the temple treasury. It wasn’t praise so much as a statement. Or, an indictment. What kind of system would expect her to give away literally everything she had while others put in their spare change? She should have been protected.
Which makes me think: What kind of system would celebrate the restoration of voting rights? Limiting interest to only 36%! Increased access to health care and a living wage? Why don’t people already have those things? Sitting in the Temple courtyard teaching, Jesus might have a thing or two to say about or to us.
On Wednesday morning we awoke once again to news of a mass shooting. Over breakfast, we have a standard set of questions: How many victims? What city this time? There’s really no emotion left we haven’t expressed. And then we go to work. I don’t think the NRA even bothers to offer thoughts and prayers anymore.
This time we mourn a hero. Ventura County Sheriff's Sergeant Ron Helus was killed while responding to the shooting. We thank him and all who put their lives on the line every day they show up for work. Thank goodness there are people willing to do that for our public safety. But we don’t need any more heroes. We need to stop making more heroes.
Just as Jesus did at the Temple, he would sit with his disciples and observe the Sergeant’s flag-draped coffin, pointing out how he literally gave everything he had.
Jesus would shake his head and point at all of them and say, “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off, they say long prayers.” Is it the sergeant’s heroic sacrifice that Jesus points out as much as the cowardice that creates the need for heroes? It makes for a good distraction.
On Veterans Day we celebrate heroes. Especially men and women whose lives were lost serving their country. People like the mayor of North Ogden, Utah. Major Brent Taylor was killed a few weeks ago on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan by someone he was training, leaving behind a widow and seven children. His sacrifice was indeed heroic and worthy of praise. But we don’t need any more heroes like that. We need to stop making heroes. Like the poor widow and the sergeant, he literally gave away everything he had. He shouldn’t have had to.
No disrespect for any of their sacrifice is meant, but the larger issue for Jesus in the story of the widow was the hypocrisy of the authorities desperate for places of honor in the market and at banquets. The ones responsible for cheating widows out of their homes or cheating soldiers out of their life. In turn they soothe their conscience with talk of heroes. If we want to praise heroes, we need to stop making them necessary, either from war, gun violence, or poverty. How can we redeem their sacrifice? Lucy McBath did exactly that when she won a seat in Congress on behalf of her son murdered by another racist claiming to be “standing their ground.” Instead of refusing entry to refugees we can elect them to Congress.
Among the good news is an increase of veterans elected to Congress from both parties. Neither can claim to be on the exclusive side of veterans. That’s a really good thing.
As many of you know, Veterans Day was originally observed as Armistice Day marking the end of the “war to end all wars” at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month – one hundred years ago today. In Latin, armistice means literally “arms stand still.”
Congress declared this date “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” Since it ended up not being the war that ended all wars, it seems they gave up on Armistice Day and renamed it Veterans Day in 1954. Instead of pursuing peace anymore, we turned it into a day for heroes.
But the words of the original call to Armistice Day still resonate: a day of thanksgiving for the service of veterans as well as caregivers who walk with them after bullets and bombs have stopped flying but the ravages of war continue through injuries of body, mind, and spirit.
Secondly, a day of prayer by people of all faiths for the time when arms stand still.
But not just prayer. Or thoughts and prayers. The third thing Congress declared is a day of exercises to perpetuate peace, explained in 1918, through “good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Perhaps we could expand on that and seek even good will and mutual understanding among the people of just one nation. Our nation. We proved on Tuesday that bridges can be built – across lines of difference, suspicion, and hostility. And in exchange, some voting rights were restored and protected, access to health care was increased, and some people achieved closer to a living wage.
Sure, it should already be that way. But instead of seeing what’s not there, let’s keep working toward what is possible when friends and opponents work together for a world that is at least a little more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world that doesn’t need more heroes. Or widows.
 SALT Project Collective reflection on Armistice Day
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 4, 2018
“What is Love?”
Ruth 1: 1-14 – The Message
Once upon a time—it was back in the days when judges led Israel— there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah left home to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was Elimelech; his wife’s name was Naomi; his sons were named Mahlon and Kilion—all Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They all went to the country of Moab and settled there.
3-5 Elimelech died and Naomi was left, she and her two sons. The sons took Moabite wives; the name of the first was Orpah, the second Ruth. They lived there in Moab for the next ten years. But then the two brothers, Mahlon and Kilion, died. Now the woman was left without either her young men or her husband.
6-7 One day she got herself together, she and her two daughters-in-law, to leave the country of Moab and set out for home; she had heard that God had been pleased to visit his people and give them food. And so she started out from the place she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law with her, on the road back to the land of Judah.
8-9 After a short while on the road, Naomi told her two daughters-in-law, “Go back. Go home and live with your mothers. And may God treat you as graciously as you treated your deceased husbands and me. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!” She kissed them and they cried openly.
10 They said, “No, we’re going on with you to your people.”
11-13 But Naomi was firm: “Go back, my dear daughters. Why would you come with me? Do you suppose I still have sons in my womb who can become your future husbands? Go back, dear daughters—on your way, please! I’m too old to get a husband. Why, even if I said, ‘There’s still hope!’ and this very night got a man and had sons, can you imagine being satisfied to wait until they were grown? Would you wait that long to get married again? No, dear daughters; this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.”
14 Again they cried openly. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye; but Ruth embraced her and held on.
15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is going back home to live with her own people and gods; go with her.”
16-17 But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”
18-19 When Naomi saw that Ruth had her heart set on going with her, she gave in. And so the two of them traveled on together to Bethlehem.
I have moved a fair number of times in my life; perhaps some of you have too. I lived in four different places in college; four different places during seminary in Minneapolis. Then to Washington, DC, for a year and on to Cleveland where I lived in five different homes. Then to Denver. After our first year in an apartment in Stapleton, I finally lived in the first place I ever paid a mortgage instead of rent. You should have seen my mother’s address book.
Every move was for a new opportunity. Something different, often something better. I don’t know what it’s like to move because the landlord kicked me out or because I couldn’t pay rent. I’ll never forget the story Guy Harris told about when he joined the Army. He had to provide a list of addresses for every place he had ever lived. By age 18, he had lived in 29 different homes, often because he was awakened in the middle of the night by his parents. They couldn’t pay the rent. Again.
I don’t know what it’s like to move because war has broken out or famine has descended on the land. I don’t know, can’t imagine, what desperation it would take to get into a crowded boat to cross the sea. Or join a caravan to walk 1,000 miles to a place of which all I know is that maybe it’ll be safer. I can empathize, but I cannot “know.”
Maybe some of you do. And certainly, some of our parents or grandparents or other family ancestors know. That’s why some of us are here – they left their homelands to escape war and poverty, seeking opportunity, arriving on ships that sailed past the Statue of Liberty, back when the United States welcomed immigrants and proclaimed:
”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”
All of that is to say, I don’t know what it would have taken for Elimelech and Naomi, but it couldn’t have been easy to conclude they had to move from their home in Bethlehem of Judah to Moab. Moab, of all places. More on that later.
Irony drives the story of Ruth. Names provide clues. For example, Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means House of Bread, had no bread. Elimelech, which means My God is King, believed God would provide. But all God provided was famine. No bread.
Naomi means sweet and pleasant, but later in the story she asked to be called Mara, which means bitter. And understandably. Sweet Naomi’s husband died. However, she still had two sons. They grew up and married local girls – Moabite girls. But then her oldest son died before he had children. And then her other son died, also before he had any children. Now, Naomi was a childless widow living in a foreign land with two other childless widows as daughters-in-law. Bitter would have been a good name for Naomi. She decided to move back to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah offered to go with her.
As an aside, I’m not sure why Ruth and Orpah married Naomi’s sons in the first place. Their names should have tipped them off. Ruth’s husband’s name was “Sickly.” Orpah’s husband’s name was “Caput.” “Caput,” it’s over. Just like their luck. It was caput. But there was one piece of good luck for Naomi. One of her daughters-in-law was named Ruth, whose name means Friend.
But key to understanding this story, easily overlooked among lots of obscure “who cares?” biblical names, was the name Moab. The people of Moab were hated with as deep a passion as you can imagine. Think of hearing the name Maxine Waters or Hillary Clinton at a Trump rally. Or Trump’s name at a Women’s March. Just saying the name Moab would have caused a similar reaction.
The rift started when the Moabites refused, allegedly refused, to provide hospitality to the escaping Hebrew slaves. In response, the Book of Deuteronomy states that no Moabite shall be permitted to enter the Lord’s assembly – for 10 generations! Not clear enough? The Book of Deuteronomy states, “You shall never promote the welfare or prosperity of Moabites as long as you live.” Still not clear enough? Their opinion of these people was so low that when Lot’s son was conceived as a result of incest, they named him Moab. Got it?
I’m not sure that the Moabites called themselves Moabites, but that’s what they were called in Israel and Judah. And upon hearing this story, every listener would have felt, would have known to feel, the revulsion of incest in their stomach. They moved to Moab!?! Ruth was from Moab!?! Lock her up.
So, that’s how desperate Elimelech and Naomi would have been to move there. But, on the flip side, imagine how much hatred Ruth could have anticipated by moving to Bethlehem with Naomi. Imagine Maxine Waters moving to the house next door to David Duke. Neither might like it much. But it would probably also be pretty dangerous for Maxine.
Even so, Ruth and Orpah both offered to go back with Naomi. Naomi convinced Orpah to go back to her family, but Ruth wouldn’t budge. After all, her name was Friend.
Ruth told Naomi words of such absolute life-long fidelity that they are often repeated at wedding ceremonies, without knowing the context – daughter-in-law to mother-in-law. “Wherever you go, I will go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you are buried, I will be buried.” Ruth was more concerned for the well-being of her friend than her own. That’s love.
It doesn’t feel like there is much love going around these days. Friendships ended over irreconcilable views. Family relationships strained by political differences. With hate on the rise, true and genuine love seems rare. Or perhaps hate is simply being exposed. But does it even matter which? That hate has motivated people to kill. Eleven Jews worshiping at the Tree of Life. Two African Americans shot outside a Kroger because the black church next door was locked. Fourteen, hopefully only 14, pipe bombs sent to former presidents and high-profile critics. And that’s all just in two weeks. And yet, instead of toning down the rhetoric, it’s toned up because fear-mongering is a better winning strategy.
The temptation is to ratchet up the rhetoric on all sides. To match hate with hate. Or to say nothing. More and more lately, what else can be said? And yet whenever we ask, what can we do, we can’t forget the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Hate does not drive out hate. Only love can do that.” And yet, what is love?
Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, made famous as the preacher at the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry when he gave an electrifying sermon on the power of love. He was on the Today Show this week promoting a new book. As he talked, Savannah and Hoda sat mesmerized. And I was mesmerized too. His words were so simple but so filling, as though we are starving for love. I had been working on this sermon about Ruth and his words seemed like they were tailor made for today:
“Love is about unselfish, self-less, living that seeks the good, the welfare and well-being of others, even above my own self-interest.” It was like he was describing Ruth for me, adding, “Selfless living is the only thing that has ever changed anything for the good.”
And then, as though he was speaking of All Saints Day, he told Savannah and Hoda, “Think about yourself. Who are the people who’ve made a difference in your life? They made a difference not because they were doing it for themselves, but because they were doing it for you. It was for you, not for themselves.”
Then he said, “Think of any social change in history. It has been people who have been thinking about more than self, who have been thinking of others. The truth is, no good created and done by human beings has ever been done from the motivation of selfishness.” Let that sink in. Good “has always been self-less and self-giving. That’s what love really is.”
I felt like I was sitting in church. And then he described the opposite of love. It isn’t hate, he said. I thought he would give the standard answer that instead of hate, the opposite of love is fear. But, no, Bishop Curry said, “The opposite of love is self-centeredness. Hate is a derivative of that. If love is self-giving, the opposite is self-centeredness.”
Is that why our country feels so off track right now? We’re being led by a narcissist in chief who ratchets up any fear he can to make people feel deathly afraid they will lose what is “rightfully” theirs, but really, the whole time, all he’s really trying to do is line his own pocket and feed his own desperate ego.
Bishop Curry didn’t say all that. He simply pointed out that “self-centeredness doesn’t work. If we all lived a self-centered existence, we wouldn’t have a society. Democracy depends on that. Human survival depends on that. Life on this planet depends on our capacity to be unselfish, to be self-less, and giving.”
Savannah, Hoda, and I all sat speechless, taking it in, reflecting on what it means to live in an era that feels devoid of love. Especially for people like Elimelech and Naomi. Except that it isn’t. We are, in fact, living in an era overflowing with love. Every act of resistance is an act of love because it is for someone else. By people who care what happens to other people.
When hate makes the news, love is what happens next. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh pledged to help provide funerals for the 11 victims of the synagogue shooter. Their initial goal of $25,000 was reached almost immediately. On Friday it stood at $230,000 from over 5,600 individual donations. An Iranian student at Arizona State launched a similar campaign that is now over $1.1 million from 17,000 individual donations. That’s love. One might even say, given the source, of all people a Moabite, of all people an Iranian… given the source, it’s the kind of ironic love we celebrate in the Book of Ruth.
Voting or helping people vote or ensuring one’s right to vote is an act of love when its purpose is to serve the Common Good instead of selfish purposes. Maybe all the voter suppression going on in Georgia and North Dakota and Dodge City, Kansas, isn’t about hate. It’s just people being selfish. But that’s no way to build community or ensure human survival or life at all on this planet.
And so, on this All Saints Day, I invite our reflection upon people who have gone before us, whose lives were marked by their love for humankind. Who in your life embodied, or embodies, the truth that “Love is about unselfish, self-less, living that seeks the good, the welfare and well-being of others, even above my own self-interest”? They are our role models, demonstrating the meaning of love. The opposite of which isn’t hate or even fear. The opposite of love is “me, me, me.” The opposite of love is nationalism.
Think of all the people who made a difference in your life by their self-giving. People who were or are friends like Ruth. They can guide us through these days.
I also invite us to remember today people like Naomi and Elimelech whose very survival meant having to cross the border into places like Moab. Moab, of all places.
And, as well, I invite us to remember the people of Bethlehem who welcomed Ruth and draw inspiration from them. The people of Bethlehem who ignored a direct order from Deuteronomy never to promote the welfare of a Moabite. They welcomed this Moabite woman in and, of all the great ironies of her story full of irony: how she became the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king. The greatest irony, of course, is that under that great King David, Israel was never more prosperous. Because they welcomed in their enemy whose name was friend. What is love?
Later in the Service, part of the All Saints Day liturgy: We Remember
Members of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Worst act of anti-Semitism in US history. At the time, it marked the 294th mass shooting in 2018, a number still climbing
David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59
Richard Gottfried, 65
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Irving Younger, 69
Daniel Stein, 71
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Melvin Wax, 88
Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86
Rose Mallinger, 97
We remember them.
Vickie Jones, dead because another massacre like Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church failed.
We remember them.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, by October 4, a total of 65 shootings had occurred on school campuses across the US. By June, there had been 41 deaths, including 17 from Parkland, Florida. We remember them.
Data from Gun Violence Archive shows that so far this year, more than 12,000 people have died from gun-related violence, including suicides, and 23,506 others, and counting, were injured. We remember them.
10,000 have died in Yemen, a low number because it is too dangerous to count the dead. We remember them.
And then, yesterday we learned of two dead at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida. We remember Dr. Nancy Van Vessem, 61, and Maura Binkley, 21.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 28, 2018
“On a Roller Coaster Without a Restraint”
2nd Corinthians 4: 8-9 – NRSV
We are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
I planned ahead this week and finished my sermon early so I could take my birthday off. After I heard the news that the MAGAbomber had been caught, I thought, I’ll need to go in a little early on Sunday and make a few changes. Then, Saturday morning Art and I went hiking at Brainard Lake. The views were absolutely glorious. A perfect day – freezing cold hurricane force winds – but absolutely glorious, snow-capped peaks and clear blue skies dancing right in front of our eyes. We got back to Denver late in the afternoon and I heard the news. Eleven people dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter was a rampant anti-Semite and, according to some news, particularly angry about refugees. This time I knew I couldn’t make a few changes to my sermon. I knew I had to start over.
But where does one begin? I haven’t had time to process my own feelings let alone try to say something helpful or inspirational. But the truth is, I don’t even know any more what my feelings are. Am I angry? Am I sad? Am I ready to fight or ready to give up? Sometimes it’s both at the same time. God, what do you want from us?
Struggling for answers, I thought of the words of Psalm 4:
Answer us when we call to you,
our righteous God.
Give us relief from our distress;
have mercy on us and hear our prayer.
I thought of some scriptures that bring comfort, like Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, it’s like a nurse has filled an IV bag full of medication for our heart. We let out a big exhale, our breathing slows, we listen…
2 You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters;
3 You restore my soul and lead me in right paths.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
But wait. Evil is exactly what I fear. I fear the evil that stalks our country. I fear the men who think evil is a winning strategy. Who compare women and children fleeing violence in their country like they are an invading force, preparing our military as though we were facing modern day Crusaders. Who use racism and anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a rallying cry. I fear that evil. Sometimes I find myself angry and sometimes just helpless and numb.
Psalm 69 says this so beautifully:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
4 There are more who hate me without cause than there are the number of hairs on my head.
Can you hear the crushing despair? I understand it. I understand it as an emotion I feel in between cycles of rage. Rage to rage we fly, faster and faster, like we’re strapped into a roller coaster without a restraint. Peaks and valleys of Halloween horrors. The Psalmists often felt the same way. The one in Psalm 69 who just spoke of being weary with crying, throat parched, eyes growing dim… Listen to what they ask of God now:
24 Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation;
let no one live in their tents.
27 Add guilt to their guilt;
may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
And that’s only 4 of the dozens of verses in a row; pow, pow, pow. There are other psalms, too, that don’t let up. Imprecatory psalms, they are called. Psalm 109, in particular, shows absolutely no mercy and says of the wicked:
8 May his days be few;
9 May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off…
may his memory be cut off from the earth.
So, OK, maybe that’s going a little too far. But the Bible knows well our roller coaster of emotions. Why did the psalmist wish all those things? Here is the explanation for their rage:
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death.
Sometimes scripture knows exactly what to say. And sometimes it helps to just let go and ride the roller coaster and speak aloud to God some of what we probably shouldn’t tell other people. But God can take it.
And then we are drawn back to Psalm 23,
4 Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we will fear no evil;
for you, O God, are with us;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort us.
5 You prepare a table before us
in the presence of our enemies;
you anoint our heads with oil;
our cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
all the days of our life,
and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And yet another House of the Lord was attacked yesterday. Another man enacting evil. But not in isolation. We have to stop calling these lone killers. We have to stop questioning their motives. We know his motive. To kill Jews. To express rage at the loss of what he perceives to be his right – along with the rest of them whose motivation is to Make America Great Again with a return to white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy.
As I grieve with the members of Tree of Life, I was reminded of the six Sikhs killed while their community worshiped in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. I remember the nine members of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, targets of hate and violence in their House of the Lord in 2015.
Among with names like the Rev. Clementa Pinkney, you may remember Ethel Nance, one of the nine. You’ll remember her daughter, Nadine, who shockingly told the killer two days later, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.” On the spot, perhaps ready or not, members of the other 8 families followed her example. We all listened, stunned. Some, however, not yet ready.
Like even a year later when Nadine’s sister, the Rev. Sharon Risher, said she still wasn’t ready to forgive. “I’m not bitter, but I can’t.” The shooter doesn’t act like he even wants to be forgiven. Risher had to leave her job, finding the demands of her employment as a hospital chaplain too emotionally draining as she still grieves her mother.
However, then there’s Rev. Anthony Thompson whose wife Myra was killed, but he said he wouldn’t let the shooter control his life. He said he began to heal the moment he spoke those words of forgiveness.
Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was among those murdered, gave up her job as a middle school music teacher to run a non-profit called the Hate Won’t Win Movement. That’s the way she copes – focusing on the potential for good. She said, “I couldn’t harbor hate in my heart and then go out and preach love.”
But Arthur Hurd, whose wife Cynthia died, said that the only thing that will bring him joy again is to be the one who pulls the switch that ends Dylann Roof’s life.
If you aren’t sure how you feel today, I don’t really either. Maybe one of the above and maybe none of the above. I know I am tired. And one more thing. And this is what I will continue to hold on to.
Park read the scripture today as this: We are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
But that’s only part of what Paul told the Corinthians. He said:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
9 persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed. New Revised Standard Version
Let me say it again in a different way:
We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed.
We are confused, but we aren’t hopeless.
9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned.
We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. Common English Bible
One more time, this time by Eugene Peterson, who died this week at the age of 85, in his translation The Message:
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;
we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do;
we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side;
we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. The Message
That’s what I know. That’s what holds me together on days like these. When I feel like I’m on a roller without a restraint, God is what holds me in. Holds us in. We don’t have to hold on. We have to let go.
Sometimes when things don’t feel well, we have to turn to God in faith and proclaim, “It is well with my soul” remembering the God who gives us, as Psalm 69 said, relief from our distress, who has mercy on us and hears our prayers. For ours is a healing God. And ours is a healing community. As Mary Luti said, “The truth about human beings is that we’re all broken. The larger truth is that we heal. And we heal each other. We have the power, often in the simplest acts, to help each other heal.”
Sing “It is Well with My Soul”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 21, 2018
Mark 10: 35-45 – The Message
James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
36 “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
37 “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”
38 Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”
39-40 “Sure,” they said. “Why not?”
Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”
41-45 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
James and John asked Jesus for the privilege of sitting at the highest places of honor in his glory, “one of us on the right, one of us on the left.” It’s seems like a pretty-obvious self-serving idea. Can you imagine anything more arrogant?
Well, I suppose I can. Asking the Supreme Court to maintain the highest places of honor for white people. Legislators in North Dakota, my home state, took away the right to vote for American Indians and the Supreme Court said, “OK.” They did this not by tricking them in some back-room deal, but by stating very clearly, this land is our land. They didn’t want to do something that’s simply “pretty obvious” but so obviously outrageous there is no doubt as to their intention. Stop Native people from voting.
One of the things many of us who have gone on our trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have learned is that the postal service doesn’t deliver mail to the homes of Native American families. Larry Swallow told us his white neighbor across the road gets home-delivered mail but he does not. Something about sovereign nation stuff, which doesn’t make sense to me. But for good reasons or not, many, maybe most, American Indians living on reservations do not have street addresses but post office box numbers. A light went off in the head of some gleeful white supremacist. To vote, require an ID with a street address! Now, it’s not that you can’t get one, but it is an impediment that will discourage and possibly delay voting in this election.
It’s another in quite an arsenal of disenfranchisement. When gerrymandering isn’t enough, limit voting by making charges of rampant fraud, even if there is no evidence. Shorten early voting or consolidate polling stations to “save money.” If that doesn’t discourage voters, slow down on processing registrations and let them sit on the desk of the Georgia Secretary of State… If all that is not enough, as they did this week, then just go out and pull elderly African American nursing home residents off buses on their way to vote. Sounds like a story Terri told last week about Fannie Lou Hamer. In 1963, a busload of African Americans trying to register to vote was pulled over because the bus was too yellow. Poll taxes, literacy tests… Can’t get away with those anymore. So, Georgia enacted “exact match” voter IDs, affecting 909,000 potential voters. Or require a street address for people who don’t have street addresses, affecting just enough votes to swing the election.
So, back to James and John. Familiar names, but I thought, now who were they again? The sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, James and John were the first two of the 12 disciples to answer yes when Jesus said, “Come, follow me;” brothers who then walked away leaving their father sitting in his boat mending nets.
But I had forgotten that their mother was Salome. You might recognize her name as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Salome also provided financial support to Jesus and the disciples as he traveled the countryside teaching – lessons that didn’t sink in too deeply for her two sons. I wonder how she felt about that.
Some scholars suggest Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Somehow, I never got that before. Obviously, that would mean that Jesus, James and John were cousins, suggesting a different dynamic between them when they came bounding forward and asked Jesus to give them special places of honor. And could be why Uncle Zebedee didn’t object to being left behind to carry on the family business.
But in the middle of all that, there are two little details we can’t overlook: Salome had money to buy spices and support Jesus. And Zebedee was a fisherman who owned his own fleet of boats. This was not a peasant family. James and John were not leaving their family destitute to go off and follow Jesus. That’s not to say they were any less courageous in leaving everything behind. I can’t say they weren’t any less dedicated; after all, James was ultimately executed by Herod Agrippa, the only one of the 12 to become a martyr.
And yet, their request for special places of honor on his left and on his right in glory certainly smacks not only of ignorance but a certain entitlement, not as cousins but wealth then and now has a way of making people feel entitled. But, as Jesus kept saying, and what they kept missing, was that to follow him was not about power and glory. As Henri Nouwen describes it, a Jesus-life is one of downward mobility that substitutes power for love – over and over. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. The good news is that the last will be first, the first will be last. Of course, that’s not such good news for James and John, or any privileged and entitled.
These guys had been following Jesus now for almost a year, 24/7. This wasn’t their first lesson, day one at school, with him. And yet, as the Gospel of Mark keeps reiterating, they absorbed very little of his teachings. This was now the third time Jesus had told them what was coming. In the verses immediately before today’s passage, “They were on the road walking to Jerusalem. He told the 12, ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
James and John obviously only heard the last part and came bounding up, “ooo, ooo, let us sit next to you when you rise!”
The first time Jesus told the disciples about his impending suffering and death, Peter told him to stop talking like that. Jesus responded by telling him, “Satan, get behind me.” The second time, after Jesus spoke about his suffering and death, an argument broke out among the disciples about who was the greatest. What could Jesus do but shake his head? Now, after this third time, two of them ask for a place of glory. But for what else would someone who is used to places of honor and glory ask? Only the entitled think suffering is for other people.
One of the things that really struck a nerve with the Kavanagh hearings was his absolute entitlement to being confirmed. “I worked my butt off. I went to Yale. I know a lot of important people. I like beer. A lot of people like beer. Don’t you like beer?” As Jonathon Capehart described it, “The entire spectacle was one long ‘but you promised’ tantrum of a grown man denied” that to which he felt entitled.
Lisa Miller explains entitlement as “the presumption that elites are elites because they deserve to be, a false correlation between status and good character, and an intolerance of dissent. No one who doesn’t live inside is allowed to criticize those who do, and all who do, are bound by a frat boy defense – what happens here stays here. Not unlike bishops who protect child abusing priests.” Kavanagh said of Dr. Ford, “we did not travel in the same social circles.” And that matters why?
MeToo is dangerous because it is all about depriving privileged men of that to which they feel entitled. The president said this a scary time for boys and men. “Mothers, you should be worried for your sons.” Not because they might be killed for driving while black,
But none of that is of any consequence when a white man is denied what is rightfully his: women, low taxes, and the exclusive right to vote, arguing that was the original intent of the Constitution. The so-called “originalists” being packed onto the Supreme Court today still agree that voting is properly for white, property-owning, men. Preferably Christian.
But, like the entitled James and John, white Christians often have no idea who Jesus really is. When they want to impose their version of Christianity, they are not talking about the Jesus of the Gospels. Misunderstood or simply ignored when they don’t like what he said, such as, “The first will be last. And the last will be first,” challenging the thinking of the privileged and entitled like James and John and white American Christians today, myself included.
My friend Katy from seminary said, the most common reading of this text in liberal churches is to heed it as a call to charity. To “honor” the poor, the last and the least. But not to subvert the social order. It encourages misplaced compassion, which just plays into the hands of the entitled like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan who want us to get riled up and question “entitlements,” like food for senior citizens and a place of dignity to live. It’s quite rich that the entitled want to dismantle entitlements. And do so without any whiff of hypocrisy. As though they would even care.
But as Katy said, “The challenge of today’s text for white Christian America is that it is a direct affront to the systems to which we owe our allegiance. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and the greed of capitalism don’t do well here. Jesus inverts every one of these heresies. This text should have us shaking in our boots, threatening our foundations. And if it doesn’t, if it doesn’t cause us to tremble, we aren’t hearing the gospel.” (https://liturgyoutside.net/last-first-and-the-call-to-revolution/) The first shall be last. The last shall be first.
We shouldn’t mistake the Kingdom of God for American democracy or elevate democracy as the will of God, but there are at least hints within democracy to a vision of equality among citizens and the people of God. Paul said, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ.”
It’s like a vision of every vote counted. A vision where people in nursing homes don’t have to get on a bus to go the polls but poll workers are sent to seek them out in their homes; where poll workers go under bridges to look for people and travel on long, winding reservation roads so that everyone can be found, and every voice is included. Of course, in the Kingdom of God, people don’t live under bridges nor are there any reservations, but you get the idea.
Can you imagine what this country would look like if everyone voted? I guess that would be pretty scary. And can you imagine Christians as the fiercest advocates of voter rights? Because as Henri Nouwen describes it, a Jesus-life is one of downward mobility that substitutes power for love.
But, before we totally embrace powerlessness, our call is not to become doormats. That’s another misinterpretation of this text. But out of fierce love, we first have to fight like hell to get power and control out of the hands of the privileged and entitled. Our call is not to become their patsies but to take their power so that it can be shared, given away, that then, at last, we might love one another and embrace each other as members of one body, one country, one earth.
Yes, that means we must get out there and vote until everyone can vote, but we must also recognize this is only one election and only one step in a thousand until we realize the vision of a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. As Dr. King said, “we must do more than register and vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with enthusiasm.”
That is something to which we are entitled.
 Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans Publishing, 2008, p 365
 Mark 8: 27-33
 Mark 9: 33-37
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 7, 2018
“We Were Meant for Just Such a Time as This”
Esther 4: 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Last week I shared the story of Queen Vashti. Here’s a brief synopsis. King Ahasuerus held a six-month long party all around his kingdom to celebrate his vast territory and tremendous wealth. For the final week, he gathered all the men for a seven-day drinking binge. As a final act, the king instructed his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, to parade in front of all the well-intoxicated men, wearing her crown, which according to some ancient traditions meant only her crown. But she refused causing great panic by all the men who feared that if she wasn’t punished sufficiently for her rebellion, all their wives would feel empowered to disobey their husbands too. Therefore, Queen Vashti was banished.
So, to pick a new queen, the king’s advisors suggested a beauty contest. First, gather all the most beautiful women from around the kingdom. Then, give them cosmetic treatments for an entire year – described as six months with the oil of myrrh and six months of perfumes. Lastly, each young woman would be brought before the king so that he could choose the one who pleased him the most. He chose Esther, about whom the only thing he knew was that she was beautiful. What else was there to know? But more to the point of this story, he did not know she was Jewish. As a child, Esther was an orphan who had been adopted by her uncle Mordecai. He advised her throughout the year of cosmetic treatments not to tell anyone they were Jewish.
Esther and Mordecai lived in Susa, one of the four capitals of the great Persian Empire. A hundred years before, Jews had been carried off into captivity in Babylon, the heart of Persia. 70 years later, Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but many like Mordecai chose to stay where they were. And yet, living as a Jew at the heart of the Persian Empire was risky. King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes, has been described as “the most powerful man in the world. A reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated character.” He was surrounded by men who knew how to use flattery to get him to enact their evil schemes. Powerful, reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated by flattery. Ahasuerus, not who you are thinking. But the worst character of them all, the most opportunistic, was a man named Haman who plotted and schemed his way up the ladder to the position of second in command in order to carry out some extraordinarily devious acts, a character that reminds me of presidential advisor Stephen Miller, but more on that later.
Haman was a petty man with an easily bruised ego. He had an irrational hatred of a certain people he labeled a “dangerous element.” One day Mordecai failed to bow to him. He used that snub to put in motion a plan to kill Mordecai and everyone associated with him. He got the king to issue a decree. Haman personally paid to have a gallows built on which Mordecai could be hanged, followed by getting rid of his people. Jews through-out the entire Persian Empire. Which, by the way, included Jerusalem, ensuring they would be wiped from the earth.
The powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated king fell right into Haman’s trap. When Mordecai found out, he went to see Queen Esther. He told her, “You’ve got to do something about this.” But what could she do? Even she couldn’t just schedule an appointment to see her husband. That’s because if he didn’t wave his golden scepter at you, you would be put to death, queen or not. But even if did wave his golden scepter, asking him to spare her people would require an explanation, which would risk revealing her identity to him, something Mordecai had always instructed her not to do. And yet, she was their only hope. He said, “Perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this.” And she agreed. “If I perish, I perish.”
But, even if you did see the king, advocating a reversal of his policy wasn’t enough. The law stated that once a decree was declared, not even the king could reverse it. The date set for the slaughter of the Jewish people was quickly approaching. Esther had to both change the kind’s mind and figure out a way to get a new decree declared before the other one went into effect. The pressure was on.
Esther dared approach the throne, using her wit to employ her beauty and charm to get his attention. She told him all she wanted was to have dinner. And, she suggested, let’s invite Haman too. Haman was thrilled. He bragged to everyone that he had been invited to a private dinner with the king and queen. So charmed by her, at that dinner the king offered to do anything she wanted. She simply asked for another dinner, again with Haman. It was at the second dinner that Esther told the story of a group of people in his kingdom who were about to be executed by his decree, something he didn’t even remember ordering.
Then Esther boldly revealed her identity to the king and told him that if his decree was carried out, she would be killed too. He was incensed. Who would want to do this to you? She pointed to their extra special dinner guest. “Him.” And then pointed out the window. In a reversal of fortune, Haman was executed on the gallows he built to hang Mordecai. Mordecai, by the way, also replaced Haman as the king’s second in command.
But just when we think, “Justice has been served!” the king issued a decree to save the Jews – by having them murder their neighbors the day before they were to be murdered. Sure, Haman and his ten sons were killed, along with 500 more. But the next day, 75,000 more innocent people. It’s a rather dreadful way to end what is otherwise a very inspiring story.
I asked Rabbi Mo about this. Why does Esther have to end with this gruesome act? He reminded me that though Esther is set in a historical time and in a particular political context, the story is satire. It’s historical farce – over the top. After all, had the men really been drinking for seven straight days? An entire year of cosmetic treatments? Death for a wife who asked to speak with her husband? A law that can’t be reversed? 75,000 people murdered? And even, the literal execution of every living Jew? Although, that one doesn’t seem quite as impossible.
Nor, as we are living through right now, does it seem impossible to imagine a powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated world leader, susceptible to flattery to carry out the evil deeds of scheming advisors who have an irrational hatred toward a certain people labeled a “dangerous element,” creating the conditions that allow for absolute cruelty and even death. Huh. How about that. Anyone who says the Bible is irrelevant doesn’t know the Bible.
Esther was famously made queen for “just such a time as this.” Just what kind of time are we living in? As Adam Serwer in The Atlantic wrote, “The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.” You surely heard about the rally in Mississippi on Tuesday night at which a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford. That’s just his normal disgusting stuff. But did you that then the crowd started chanting “Lock her up!” Not Hillary. Dr. Ford. Deplorable.
But lost among the coverage of the supreme court, on Thursday news broke that the Trump administration lied about creating a database of children separated from their families, one of Miller’s proudest accomplishments, making it impossible to reunite all of them. On the same day the administration, once again led by Miller, announced its intention to implement his plan to revoke the temporary protected status of immigrants who have been here for as long as 20 years. Some proponents argue that “temporary means temporary.” What they won’t say out loud is that this means separation from their U.S.- born children – 192,700 children. Actions which are called ethnic cleansing in the Washington Post.
Then on Friday, Haman’s latest project, or rather, I mean, Stephen Miller’s latest project, was revealed: a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students. So, while at the same time the administration is trying to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions, deceptively claiming it discriminates against Asian-Americans, they are attempting to outright ban all students from China at US colleges and universities. Because they might spy on us; the “dangerous element” argument also used to justify Japanese internment camps. Plus, a bonus effect would be depriving income from “elite” universities who often criticize President Trump.
And then came Saturday…
For just such a week, for just such a time as this, we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to overturn injustice with acts of hospitality for 20 women every Tuesday in our fellowship hall. And acts of compassion at the Senior Support Center. And acts of solidarity on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
For just such a time as this we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to offer generosity toward organizations like the Florence Project which provides legal services for separated families. And undocumented day laborers at El Centro Humanitario. And disaster relief for victims of this administration’s neglect, or perhaps even malicious intent, against Puerto Ricans.
For just such a time as this, we teach Sunday school classes about loving our neighbors. And gather youth on Sunday evenings. And invite any group whose mission is racial justice to meet in our building for free.
For just such a time as this, when there seems to be so little to celebrate, we gather to witness the joyful baptism of children. If you missed last Sunday, one-year old Karsten reached down into the water and gleefully stirred it while I attempted to say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He was more interested in the water than the blessing.
For just such a time as this, through worship I am sustained by hearing the Word of God, not just a diet of Rachel Maddow and the Washington Post. And surrounded by people who know that these times call for resistance against biblical-level cruelty by modern-day Hamans, wondering, who is the Esther that will save us just in time this time, before realizing, Esther is every woman who is speaking up and telling her story, bravely revealing their identity in a very risky time. Women and men who won’t be silenced anymore. Dreamers who have risked their identity as undocumented. LGBTQ citizens who have come out to families or to their churches, only to be told, we don’t want you here anymore. It still happens.
This is stewardship month and sometimes when we approach this time of year to ask for pledges for the next, it can come across as somewhat of an apology. “I’m sorry we have to ask.” But I have to tell you, I’ve never been so convinced of the power of this gathered community, this gifted congregation, for exactly such a time as this. To put together our talents and our time and our money toward an endeavor of hope. To remember, God never loses hope in humanity, and neither should we. Hope can be hard, but it isn’t meant for times when it is easy. Hope is meant for just such a time as this. Hope expressed through acts of hospitality, solidarity, generosity, affirmation, support for one another, education, worship and more.
This church is not an institution deserving of your financial support. This church is a force for good in the world that invites your full participation. We were meant for just such a time as this, for exactly this kind of time. And so were you? Yes! So, Rise Up! Be bold.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 30, 2018
Esther 1: 10-22 – New Revised Standard Version
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. 13 Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14 and those next to him were the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the King. 17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘The King commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before the King; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22 he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
That sure seemed to reflect the fears of the advisors to King Ahasuerus in our reading today. Let me briefly recap the story of Queen Vashti, the predecessor to Queen Esther. The king held a six-month long party all around his empire to brag about his vast territory – from Ethiopia to India – and his tremendous wealth. A party that lasted six months. The festivities came to an end with a week-long binge in which he instructed his officials to have everyone drink “without restraint.” A seven-day binge.
You can only imagine a bunch of very intoxicated men laughing and telling stories and trying to one up each other, bragging about this and that. Well, the king had one last thing to display. His beautiful, very beautiful, wife, Queen Vashti. She was holding her own party for the women of the kingdom, but the King called her away and asked her to parade in front of the men so they could admire her and the men would envy the King. She was instructed to wear her crown, which according to some ancient traditions, meant she was to wear only her crown.
How many times before do you suppose she had been asked, demanded, to do something as equally humiliating? This time, however, she refused. She said no. No doubt this was embarrassing to the King. But it was all those drunken men who really got worked up. They demanded the King must punish Queen Vashti or all the women of the kingdom would be inspired to disobey their husbands too. It would be a disgrace. A sham that destroys the foundations of our society. This became a dispute not only between one man and one woman, the King and Queen, but it became a necessary action to maintain their privilege.
So, the King decreed, “Every man should be master of his own house.” Queen Vashti was banished. She was stripped of her titles and crown, her palace and her power. It was a very high price to pay. But with it, she purchased her dignity. Or, you might say, on behalf of women throughout the land, she did her civic duty.
Among male interpreters of this text, a common theme is a matter-of-fact, no questions asked, “She got what she deserved.” In other circles, however, she has become something of an icon. In fact, some consider her the first feminist in literature or recorded history. Remember, this was six centuries before Christ. Drunken men at a party and a single brave woman – 2,600 years ago.
I swear on a stack of Bibles that I did not pick this text on Friday. The Old Testament passage assigned for today is from the Book of Esther, but the lectionary does not include this story of Queen Vashti. That’s a shame. Another woman silenced. In fact, the lectionary assigns only one text from the entire Book of Esther in the whole three-year cycle so, months ago, I added the story of Queen Vashti.
I’ve always been drawn to her story, even though it is equally inspiring and depressing. She found her agency, she expressed her power despite its limitations, and by her choice, she gave the women of the kingdom the faintest idea of a different possibility. But nothing changed. She introduced the idea that a woman could say no. For which she paid a very heavy price.
Now, we must remember she was a woman of privilege. The vast majority of women would have been put out and left with no resources. They would have been abandoned by their father’s house too. Their very survival would be in question. Regardless, by her actions, Vashti told the women of the kingdom, you don’t deserve this. Vashti saw them and heard them and used her privilege. And while that may not have changed their station in life, it may have changed someone’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. And that matters. Queen Vashti bravely demonstrated to the women of her husband's empire that they were more than an object of drunken men’s pleasure.
We’ll be talking for a long time about whether Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was worth such a heavy price. Lots of “she’s getting what she deserves” for “ruining a man’s reputation and depriving him of the position he deserves on the Supreme Court.” How dare she question that, and a Yale graduate to boot? And of course, faced with questions like, “If it was really that bad, why didn’t she report it then?”
Surely, she must be asking this morning, “Was it worth it?” Hours after she testified, which even Fox News declared was credible, eleven men decided her experience wasn’t worth one minute more of delay to investigate. One senator forced a one-week delay because two incredibly brave women dared confront a man in power. But really. Can we be surprised that such an allegation would matter when our president actually bragged to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women? After that, nothing else seems quite so bad.
Why didn’t she report it when it happened? Some of you, some of us, can answer that. Perhaps you read some of hundreds of thousands of heart-wrenching tweets, such as:
You’ve heard those and many more. Why didn’t I report? To who? Tell my parents? I wasn’t out, nor did I even know what that meant, but an experienced abuser saw it. I was 15 or maybe 16, coincidentally about 36 years ago. I can’t remember what year either, but I know exactly what I was wearing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been there – although, in my case, it wasn’t a party but a church musicians conference six states away and a very long bus ride back home. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I deserved it. It was probably my fault.
I have told exactly one other person in my whole entire life, so telling you today is surreal. And now that we’re putting my sermons on YouTube, that’s a whole other level of terrifying! But please understand the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. I really don’t. I don’t want any sympathy. This is not about me – other than to say I see you. I hear you.
And to say about that whole trigger thing, it’s real and it went off big time with the hashtag “Why I didn’t report.” It brought up a depth of emotion that I didn’t expect. Maybe it did for you too. And I apologize if this sermon is difficult for you to hear. Just when I think it can’t get any harder to live in this country, it gets harder. But again, it’s easier to defeat evil in the light of day than when it hides in the shadows.
I believe her. And I will believe you too. I have heard too many stories from too many women and men to question the credibility of survivors whose memories are crystal clear and foggy at the same time. And I don’t automatically believe her because I have taken a partisan side. I hate that it’s become whether Dr. Ford is believable based on one’s party affiliation. But I believe her. I don’t pretend to understand her pain or know your suffering, but I do know that feeling pain is a step on the journey to healing.
One reason I am a follower of Jesus is that he is not unfamiliar with our pain. In the Book of Hebrews 4:15, it says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” Or, another version, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, too. He’s experienced it.” In other words, Jesus is not above it all but with us through it all. And as his life demonstrated, I believe everything can be redeemed, even though it doesn’t erase anything.
Was it worth it for Dr. Ford to testify? Watching the volcanic meltdowns of all the white men, hysterically shouting, whining, crying, what I do know is that “White patriarchal entitlement crumbled a little bit more on Thursday afternoon.” These men are afraid and won’t let go without a very mean and dirty fight. But it exposed their terror that a new day is dawning – one that is more Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate. Where Black Lives Matter. And Families Belong Together. Where Love Wins. And women are believed.
It was painful to watch, but not because we too are afraid of losing white privilege or male superiority or Christian supremacy. It was painful to watch a woman put on display in front of a bunch of men, drunk on their power, playing games with her life to prove how much they care. But then again, it’s also hard to watch a butterfly break through her cocoon, but look what ultimately emerges.
As the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
 NRSV and The Message
 Thanks to Rev. Melanie Morrison for this language and the reference to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 16, 2018
“Fifty Shades of Gray”
Song of Songs (Solomon) 2: 8-13 – Common English Bible
Listen! It’s my lover: here he comes now,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands now,
outside our wall,
peering through the windows,
peeking through the lattices.
10 My lover spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
11 Here, the winter is past;
the rains have come and gone.
12 Blossoms have appeared in the land;
the season of singing has arrived,
and the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The green fruit is on the fig tree,
and the grapevines in bloom are fragrant.
Arise, my love, my fair one, And come away.”
We’re taking a break this week from politics for a sermon I entitled Fifty Shades of Gray. And rest assured, after a sermon on sex today, I’ll have at least one next month on money, thereby covering all the topics forbidden in good company, or at least outside this good company.
The Song of Solomon – or in the Hebrew, The Song of Songs – is passionate, steamy, and scandalous. It is unlike almost anything else involving sexuality in the Bible, which more often has to do with some kind of prohibition – don’t do this, don’t do that – or some odd law like a widow required to marry a succession of her dead husband’s brothers. Or something that requires death, like stoning a woman caught in adultery or killing a man for spilling his seed on the ground or a death sentence for laying with another man. And if not death, then shame. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve saw each other’s nakedness, they became ashamed. Most sexuality in the Bible is negative and often judgmental toward women and focused on controlling women’s bodies. It’s interesting how little has changed.
Senator Kamala Harris asked an excellent question during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She asked, are there any laws that give the government the power to control male bodies? He appeared dumbfounded. Why would there be? After all, where was the man while Jesus was busy saving the woman caught in adultery?
But the Song of Songs is written in the voice of the woman and takes pleasure in the body. It is provocative and full of desire. And, I would be too embarrassed to read all of it from the pulpit. You heard the only reading from Song of Songs assigned in the lectionary – and a very PG rated reading at that. And you may have also heard a few verses read at a wedding: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (8: 6-7) (This and all texts forward are from the New Revised Standard Version.)
But those two readings are really tame. So, let’s go right back to the beginning in chapter 1, verse 2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Right away we know something is different. More Harlequin romance than scripture. And again, told with the voice of the woman who controls what is being said. Nothing else in the Bible is so devoid of “mansplaining;” no one here is filtering her thoughts. There are three voices: the woman, her suitor, and a crowd known as the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” She is the primary voice.
I’m going to read some highlights. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore, the maidens love you.” Did you get it? He’s a catch. And he smells good.
Then the Daughters of Jerusalem speak: “We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine.” And then she says directly to her lover: “Rightly do they love you.”
And yet, she then becomes defensive about their right to love each other. She said, “I am black and beautiful.” Yes, that is scripture, not just a phrase from the 1970s. “I am black and beautiful. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!”
She explains to the Daughters of Jerusalem that her darker skin tone was because she was made to work outside, obviously exposing the same kind of prejudice and preference related to the shades of lighter and darker skin that has existed for millennia – not just between races but among them. African Americans may immediately hear the colorism in her words. Color prejudice that tries to determine acceptable standards of beauty and assigns people their class. But she demands – I am black and beautiful and insists upon their right to love each other. It is important to know this back story to understand the Song. It’s not just sensual, as you will hear, but social commentary on an issue of justice.
Then the object of her love breaks in with his first words: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels. Ah, you are beautiful, my love; your eyes are doves.”
Clearly, he’s in to her. Then she replies, “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.” They continue this back and forth dance.
In the next chapter, she says: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.” “My beloved is mine and I am his.” These are two more subtle and important statements. Her lover’s intention is love. It says nothing of marriage or owning her or possessing her. Further, she asserts that “my beloved is mine.” She claims him first. He is mine and I am his. It’s an unusual power dynamic in scripture, and yet, here it is: it is a biblical power dynamic of interdependent, mutual and equal love.
In chapter 3, the woman speaks: “Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves…” but he is not there. So, she looks for him frantically around the city. She panics and twice she tells the Daughters of Jerusalem to stay out of her way. And when she finally finds him she says, “I held him and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.”
Chapter 4, then, is her lover speaking, describing her beauty. “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.” Yes, first, he compared her to one of Pharaoh’s horses, now her hair is like goats and her teeth are like clean sheep. Clearly, these are references from a different time, but the passion is clear. “Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.” “You have ravished my heart… with a [simple] glance of your eyes.” How’s that for romance?
But some of chapter 5 is truly too explicit for me to read here. Better for later under the covers with a flashlight. Or better yet, with your lover under the covers with a flashlight. Page 622 in your pew Bible.
But then the Daughters of Jerusalem reappear. They question, “What is your beloved more than another beloved,” that you make such an urgent appeal. They seem to go back and forth between being skeptical of their love and supportive. She responds with more descriptions of how beautiful he is. She doesn’t describe his personality or what good caretaker he is or would be. She describes his hair and eyes and cheeks and lips. “His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires. His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold.” He’s built – arms, legs, abs like ivory – and she desires him. A desire that is celebrated, not shamed. By the time she finishes describing him, we’re blushing.
In chapter 6, he begins to describe her beauty again, at length. Hair, teeth, cheeks. In chapter 7 he continues to describe her feet, thighs, navel, belly, breasts. He tells her she is delectable. Once again, it is explicit and steamy, more Fifty Shade of Gray than typical Bible.
But then she insists again, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” It’s as though she’s telling her rivals, “Step off.” But more than jealousy, I believe this is due to the pressure she feels of prejudice. This outsider has to prove herself and their love. Anyone who has ever had to defend their choice of a mate, whether of different races and classes or of the same gender, this sounds familiar.
Chapter 8 makes the point even clearer: if I looked like you, no one would object to me kissing you in public. “No one would despise me.” How many of us could say the same thing? Wishing that we could kiss, let alone hold the hands of, our lovers in public. Wishing that our love would not lead to stares and hatred or worse, harassment and death. Abandoned by our families.
These subtexts are easy to miss but so important to understand. Because only then do those familiar words at wedding ceremonies make sense. “For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Now we understand the reason for the words about death and the grave and floods. They pledge that their love will endure every challenge, every social pressure and anything else. Good stuff. And romantic, right?
It’s beautiful and provocative. It’s sensual – speaking of taste and touch and smell and sound. And in a biblical context, scandalous. So, what’s it doing in the Bible? Or better yet, how did it stay there?
For centuries, it was justified as an allegory of God’s love for Israel or of Christ’s love for the church. I get the passion, but how do you explain all the talk of six pack abs and breasts like two fawns. To me, that makes it kind of creepy. What does all this very sexually charged imagery have to do with God or Christ? I’d rather just say that the Bible makes for a surprising source of erotic poetry. Not to mention, there is nothing obviously religious nor is God ever mentioned or even alluded to once.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk and mystic in 1200s, famously wrote 86 sermons on just the first two chapters. Imagine being a celibate monk having to sit through 86 sermons on this. But his point was about a passionate spirituality and Christ’s zealous love for us. He sought to shift spiritual formation away from cool intellectual enlightenment toward warm, earthly affections. He wanted to inspire desire for God more than intellectual understanding of God. The feeling of yearning when one is absent from the other.
Yet, like the lovers demanding respect, this book simply insists on its place among the rest of God’s Holy Word, where, instead of shame, we hear the body and sexuality celebrated. A corrective to the dualism of spirit as pure and body as sinful. Not to mention, it is a corrective in our world which too easily uses bodies and sexuality to sell everything from hamburgers to cars. And a reminder in an era of MeToo and scandals surrounding the cover up of pedophile priests. None of that is about sexuality. It’s all an abuse of power. The Song of Songs is erotic, but through language that expresses feelings and longings. This woman is empowered, speaking with her own voice.
In the Song of Songs, sexuality is healthy, good, and not just for the sake of being fruitful and multiplying. It’s not about shame and not worthy of marketing. The shame is a society that does not approve of their love. But they claim each other. They praise one another, they need each other. And most importantly, they persist in the face of opposition to their love.
Some preachers are obsessed with a God who punishes our desires, but the Living, Almighty, Everlasting God, who is the source of all good things, liberates and gladdens the world and teaches us in the Song of Songs to celebrate the gift human sexuality and its expression in passionate love.
There is so much more I could highlight, but one last thing:
James B. Nelson, my mentor in seminary, authored a resource for blessing same gender marriages. He described the marks of healthy and blessed relationships. Among them: Blessed are relationships that are body-positive. This means, do not fear or despise your body because that diminishes your relationship. If we are negatively obsessed with our body, how are we to be intimate? Praise the beauty of each other and accept their compliments. They aren’t lying! If your lover says you are beautiful, but you respond back, “No, I’m not,” or “Let me lose a few pounds first,” you are telling your lover that they are wrong to love someone so repulsive. You do not have a face only a mother could love. You are not someone only God could love. You are beautiful. Amen?
Addendum not included for preaching:
The UCC formally expressed this kind of sentiment in 1977, in a General Synod pronouncement on Human Sexuality. It was a ground-breaking and controversial resolution that covered a wide ground. The statements included:
In all, there were 18 statements. 1977. We still have a long way to go. But then again, the Song of Songs is from somewhere around 500 years before Christ.
 Renita Weems, “Song of Songs,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster/John Knox, 1992
 Wm. Loyd Allen, “Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Song: Why They Matter,” Review and Expositor, 105, Summer 2008.
 James B. Nelson, “Relationships: Blessed and Blessing,” Blessing Ceremonies: Resources for Same-Gender Services of Commitment, UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, 1998
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world