Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 29, 2020
“These Are Inspiring Times”
Romans 8: 5-9a – Common English Bible
People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.
9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you.
These are inspiring times. Yes, these are also difficult and exhausting times. Especially for anyone wondering how they will pay their mortgage or rent and utilities and buy food. I don’t mean to dismiss anyone’s anxiety and weeks more of uncertainty. But I will say it again, these are inspiring times.
By now we all know the evidence: Doctors and nurses running into the fire, not from it. Like members of the military, we should greet every one of them: “Thank you for your service.” And respiratory therapists, intake workers, and those who mop the floors and take out the trash, wishing those garbage cans were more full of masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment. They’re not in it for the glory, and I wish their sacrifice wasn’t necessary, but they prove, these are inspiring times. And think of all the people at home making masks to protect health care workers. Think of all the students and retired medical professionals who have answered the call to sign up for service.
Who knew that working in grocery stores and pharmacies and pot shops and liquor stores would require front-line heroism? Everyone of them deserves to hear thank you. In fact, I said that to a worker at Costco the other day. “Thank you for working for us.” She gave me a curious look, and then nodded her head. She understood what I meant.
Workers at Amazon distribution centers, shipping clerks at FedEx, UPS truck drivers, postal service workers – on the front lines of the war against the coronavirus. They didn’t sign up for this either, they don’t qualify for hazard pay, but the fact that they’re still going to work is a sign. These are inspiring times.
We are witnessing levels of heroism and sacrifice from everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes. And exemplary leadership from mayors and governors of all political persuasions around the country, Republican and Democrat, willing to do what is necessary for public health and safety. These are inspiring times.
I’m grateful for every virologist, disease specialist, lab worker. Scientists are the new rock stars. And at the top, Anthony Fauci. Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, every American should stand at the ready to offer Anthony Fauci a kidney, a liver transplant, a heart, lung…here, anything you need it, you take it. Anyone willing to stand at the podium after the president and say “No, don’t do that,” when this is over, should be honored with a statue at the center of every city and town in America. With the biggest statue reserved for in the front of the White House with a plaque: “This man saved us from the president.”
One of the readings from the lectionary assigned for today is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s surprisingly relevant to our times. It reads: “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.”
The contrast between selfish and self-less couldn’t be more stark than it is today, more life threatening or life giving.
Peter Wehner described what we need of leaders during a crisis: “calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; the capacity to think and carefully weigh competing options and conflicting needs. We need leaders who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than she or he does. We need leaders who can draw people together, people whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.”
He then added, “There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities” than our president. The good news is that there are nearly 325 million people in America willing to save the lives of their fellow citizens by sheltering at home. Well, almost that many…
Among the unwilling is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Unlike most colleges and universities around the nation, Falwell brought Liberty University students back to campus after spring break. In order to prove that liberals are hysterical, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of students in dorms. Furthermore, he ordered professors who normally teach their online classes from home to come to teach from campus instead. Faculty who question that, like Professor Marybeth Davis Baggett, are immediately terminated.
Trump has said he wants to pack churches on Easter. Why? In order to prove he is winning over the virus. To be the savior of the country. What will happen if his followers do precisely that to protect his ego?
Well, Paul told the Romans exactly what will happen: “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death.” I don’t normally interpret scripture literally. Rather, I ask about the meaning behind the text? What is the metaphor? As progressive Christians we often say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” But if Trump wants Christians to pack churches on Easter to show that he is smarter than the experts, well, I don’t fear metaphorical death but literal death.
Paul said, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death. But the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.” Like the heroes and every day citizens I mentioned above.
There are numerous lists of the gifts of the Spirit among Paul’s letters. In First Corinthians, he spoke of knowledge and wisdom. To the Romans he spoke of mercy and generosity. First Peter, not written by Paul, includes anyone who offers service and hospitality. Various lists include teachers and pastors.
These are inspiring times as we watch teachers learn overnight how to provide online instruction. But even more so, I got a little teary eyed when I saw a news clip of children and parents standing in front of their homes in Dallas holding homemade signs and pompoms. They waited along the sidewalk like sports fans. But instead of athletes, they were cheering on their favorite teachers. Teachers threw a car parade for their students who were stuck at home. A young boy on his bike yelled, “They’re coming!” as the first car turned the corner. Horns blared while children called out their teachers’ names and held up their signs. The normally quiet street was filled with people — keeping their safe distances, of course — laughing and yelling kind words to each other. The teachers blew kisses and yelled: “I miss you so much!” “Make sure you’re reading!” and “We will get through this together.” Yes, these are inspiring times.
Pastors are creating whole blooper reels of hilarious mishaps and accidents during their attempts to provide worship online. A priest in Italy didn’t realize he had enabled his filters, so as he spoke the words of the mass, googly eyes poked out and long tongues rolled out; at various times he was wearing a helmet and a space suit. A vicar in England leading his first online Bible study sat too close to some candles. As his sweater caught on fire, he calmly exclaimed, “Oh dear, I’m on fire.” If you watched our service last week on Facebook, you probably had a crook in your neck. The picture was sideways. We are all trying to learn as quickly as we can a new method for preaching the old gospel. But one of our viewers wrote, “Don’t worry, I could still hear you.” These are hilarious, and grace-filled, inspiring times.
I said it last week and will say again this week, these are inspiring times because you are willing to shelter at home in order to spare the lives of people we don’t even know. I posted a meme on our church Facebook page this week that I believe sums it all up:
“What we are experiencing is Lent. Giving up everything so that others may live.” It puts the inconvenience of sheltering at home into perspective. And reminds us to be grateful that we have a home in which to shelter.
Just as I was reflecting on this scripture about selfishness, I saw in the news how the Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save the economy for their grandchildren. Folks like Brett Hume on Fox thought it was a brilliant idea. Glenn Beck agreed, “I would rather die than kill the country” – meaning the economy. To be clear, that is NOT being self-less. And Bonnie Kristian summed up what many of us feel instead: “America without our elders isn’t the America we want to save.”
We talked about this on Thursday when we resumed our Lunch and Lectionary. Instead of Noodles and Company, we now sit in front of our computer screens on Zoom. The Lieutenant Governor’s comments, prompted by Trump’s demand to reopen the country, prompted our group to ask: what is the price of the economy? Are we really asked to pay with human life? Does the economy exist for humanity or humanity for the economy? In many ways, we are learning about core human values during this crisis.
Many people cringed at the sight of spring breakers on the beaches in Florida. We especially cringed at one young man who proclaimed “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” He was condemned on social media by millions. But his response is inspiring:
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. I can’t apologize enough to the people I’ve offended. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, or pity. I want to use this as motivation to become a better person, a better son, a better friend, and a better citizen. Like many others, I have elderly people in my life who I adore more than anything in the world. Our generation may feel invincible, but we have a responsibility to listen and follow the recommendations. Simply apologizing doesn’t justify my behavior. I’m simply owning up to my mistakes and taking full responsibility for my actions.”
Taking full responsibility!? How about this young man for president? I trust that these times are inspiring young people to consider lives of service to their fellow citizens. Back to JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
These are inspiring times. They’re also difficult and dangerous for many. Yet they remind us of the essence of the life of Jesus who demonstrated why and how to give up everything so that others may live.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 22, 2020
“I Want to Do Something”
John 9: 1-41 – Common English Bible
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
Follow the rest of the story through the sermon.
I want to do something. I feel for all of you parents with children at home – whether a toddler or a teenager or a few of each. There are only so many Steve Spangler science experiments you can do in your kitchen. All while you are supposed to also be working, too. I feel for you.
So there’s “I want to do something.” And there’s also “I want to do something!” Something meaningful. Something purposeful. Something to make a difference during this dreadful pandemic.
I’m grateful to all of you who have reached out to ask what you can do – does someone need groceries? Does someone need something. Anything? Well, I’ve got an idea for you. But first, the gospel. Let me finish telling the story.
Jesus saw a man blind since birth. His disciples asked, “who sinned, causing this man to be born blind. Him or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
What a ridiculous question, right? Disabilities are not the result of sin or some form of punishment. They are not consequences for some misbehavior in a previous life.
That’s what I wish Jesus had said to his followers. I have to tell you – I don’t like the answer Jesus gave. Or I just don’t understand it. He said, “The man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus suggests, or seems to suggest, that there is some purpose behind the man’s blindness. But what kind of terrible God would make a man live without sight for decades, consign him to live as a beggar, so he could be an object lesson?
But if that’s not bad enough, the blind man then heard Jesus spit on the ground. Gross. But imagine his shock when he felt Jesus take that spit mixed with some dirt and spread it on his eyes. Super gross. Then, Jesus told him to go wash his face in a nearby pond. Miraculously, when the man came back, he was able to see.
The neighbors didn’t believe it, though. Some said, “That’s not him.” Others said, “Yes, it is.” While they argued, the man tried to chime in, “It’s me.” Someone said, “No, it’s not.” These neighbors demanded an explanation. So, he told everyone that Jesus put some spit and mud on his eyes, gross, he went and washed his face. “And now I can see.”
They marched the man to the Pharisees and proceeded to complain that Jesus opened his eyes on the Sabbath. “Well,” the Pharisees retorted, “clearly that man is not from God because it’s not OK to do that.” But the Pharisees were divided. Some of them said, but “a sinner could never heal like that.” So, they asked the man his opinion. He said, “He’s a prophet.”
The Pharisees didn’t like that answer. So, they marched the man to his parent’s house, with all those curious neighbors tailing behind. They demanded an answer. “Is this your son, whom you claim has been blind since birth.” They nervously replied, “Yes, this is our son, but we don’t know why he can see now. Ask him.” They were afraid to displease the Pharisees.
Their son simply reiterated, “once I was blind, but now I can see.” The Pharisees went back to complaining that Jesus is clearly a sinner and demanded answers to whole bunch of questions. The man actually dared to throw a little shade back at them. “What’s your problem? Do you want to become his disciple too?” They weren’t amused. “How dare you!” And they drove him out of the village.
Now, Jesus was absent for all this drama but when he heard what was going on, he returned to the scene. He asked the man if he believed. “Yes, Lord, I believe.” Jesus told him, and everyone standing around, “I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees were angry. “Surely you’re not suggesting we are blind.” Jesus replied, “Well…” If it talks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck. Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but you get the point.
It’s a pretty long story and a little more complex than my simplification, but you can read it for yourself in John chapter 9. There’s probably a dozen different things I could say about the story, but I want to share two connections at the very beginning that I believe relate to this bizarre world we are living in and through right now.
First, the initial question of the disciples: who can be blamed? And second, what has been revealed about our nation, ourselves, and something we can do?
Who can we blame? Sometimes we engage in blaming because there’s a certain satisfaction to it when we’re tired of other emotions. There’s plenty of it going around. Hoaxers point fingers at the liberal media and claim it’s all an excuse to make the president look bad. Trump calls it the Chinese Virus. Blame them for making him look bad. Therefore, his weakling sycophants fall into line and dutifully call it the Wuhan Virus, while Fox News doesn’t think that’s racist enough. They prefer Kung Flu. On the other hand, others gain a sense of satisfaction blaming the chickens for finally coming home to roost, calling an out of control pandemic the consequence of the president’s deadly narcissism. “I take no responsibility for my ineptitude or downplaying it as a hoax for too long.” And then can’t even be bothered to offer the country a moment of empathy. Boy, I sure do hope those who have been blind begin to see clearly what a dangerous man he is.
Fingers pointed. Blame in every direction. But notice, Jesus dismissed the talk of blame by his disciples. They asked who do we blame? But, Jesus just moved on, looking for a deeper meaning to the man’s blindness. So, on to my second question.
Jesus said the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It seems a little insensitive, but let’s ask, what is the deeper meaning he trying to reveal?
What has this pandemic revealed so far? That fear causes people hoard toilet paper. But one thing, certainly, is that our social safety net is in shreds. Advocates have been saying this for years, but the deadly consequences have never quite been so exposed. Unique among nations, we prioritize the interests of health care profits over the goal of healthy people. The coronavirus has hopefully revealed to more people what should have already been clearly obvious: not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. Not to mention, it’s simply cruel.
As our modern-day prophet, the Rev. Dr. William Barber said, “When we get a handle on this virus, we can’t return to the apathy that has for far too long ignored the moral crisis of poverty and the racial disparities that mark American inequality.” That’s one revelation.
Back to those uncomfortable words of Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That sounds like another type of cruelty. But here’s what I think he might have meant, or I hope he meant, and how that can apply today. We don’t wish for tragedy, but we can’t waste one, either. What do we learn from this?
Yet, largely, it’s still too early to know. And frankly, are we really ready for such analysis? It’s only been a few days – although, with the level of stress we’ve been under, it feels like we’ve been at this for months.
How many different emotions have you felt this week? Sadness, anger… Basically, anything related to grieving. Exhaustion. Moments of hopelessness. Lots of questions, like, will this really last for 8 weeks? Or through the summer?
In a matter of days and then hours we were forced to separate from one another. All of a sudden, we lost opportunities to gather – at school, at work, at church, and even at grandma’s house. Community was ripped away from us precisely at the time we needed it most – when things are uncertain and frightening. For all its faults, at least social media is allowing us to keep social. It reminds us that we belong to one another. We are part of a community, even when it is invisible.
And yet, that might be cold comfort with the staggering pace of loss. What stages of grief have you passed back and forth, in and through, during the past week, or sometimes in just a few hours?
And therefore, we really have to think about how to pace ourselves. Or at least I do, and remember this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And even better, to make it a relay marathon.
So, back to: I don’t just want to do something. I want to do something. Something meaningful. Something purposeful.
Well, you are doing the most important thing that anyone could ever do right now. Your practice of social distancing is saving lives. One pastor in Connecticut, said “social distancing is a profound calling – a holy task of love.” You are saving someone’s grandma. You are saving the neighbor with a compromised immune system. You are saving a child with a life-threatening disease. You are doing the most important something anyone could do.
It may not seem like enough. But again, pace yourself through this. If we don’t, the rest of it won’t matter. Once you recognize the importance of what you are doing right now, that what you are doing is an actual “thing” we are doing, then we can start talking about what else.
In addition to revealing a grossly inequitable health care system; in addition to for making it as plain as day that competent leadership can never be taken for granted, this pandemic has revealed the perhaps never fully appreciated but absolute blessing of belonging to a community. Using the awkward words of Jesus, I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But that because of the Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other. I know I appreciate you and being part of this community even more.
One Episcopal priest in DC said, “While I am limited to phone calls and video chats, I have never felt closer to my people. We have whispered our fears, laughed at our misplaced anxieties, and committed ourselves to being church, even without our beloved building and cherished traditions.”
There are lots of great memes and stories going around online. I want to end with one of the most profound by Laura Kelley Fanucci, about what this pandemic could help us see more clearly:
When this is over, may we never again take for granted:
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Sitting with a group of neighbors and friends
The mad rush to get ready for school each morning
When this ends, may we find that we have become
More like the people we wanted to be,
We were called to be
We hoped to be.
And may we stay that way – better for each other because of the worst.
What will you never take for granted again?
Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 15, 2020
“Take a Deep Breath”
2nd Timothy 1: 3-7 – Verses 1-6 from the New Revised Standard Version; verse 7 from the King James Version
(NRSV) 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands;
(King James) 7 For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
It’s not like we needed something else to be afraid about. There’s already high blood pressure. Mass shootings. Aging. Climate change. Having enough savings for retirement. Identity theft. Presidential tweets.
There’s rattlesnakes while hiking. Spiders. And roller coasters. I can think of almost nothing else as frightening and terror inducing as getting on another roller coaster ever again. But fear, it seems, is ever present in one way or another. Some real, some imagined, and some thrust upon us.
Newspapers and newscasts have often attempted to spike ratings through fear. I’ll never forget one TV station in Cleveland tried to break through its mediocre place in the ratings by turning its newscast into crime reporting – in the morning, at noon, at 5 and 6 o’clock and again at 11. Every story was about a crime, a criminal, or any possibility for the potential of crimes and criminals, all in order to drive up their ratings.
The worst example was when the city tried to provide employment for people coming out of prison as garbage collectors. Channel 19 used every scare tactic they could – ominous music, big red letters, and every day, reporters stopping people on the street asking, “Do you really want felons walking down your street? Do you really want criminals going through your garbage?” Sufficiently frightened, citizens demanded the city end the employment program.
And of course, we all remember the candidate who descended down an escalator to blame Mexico for sending us rapists and drug dealers and, he assumed, a few good people. From the oval office on Wednesday night, we all hoped for even a sliver of leadership from the president, but in a classic move, he spoke instead of a “foreign” virus and closing borders. And then, after praising himself, ended his address with his favorite xenophobic, white nationalistic, dog whistle, “America First.” Talk about a crime. Calling an emerging public health crisis a hoax is a crime against humanity.
At some point, networks and newspapers realized Covid 19 wasn’t just another story to hype and they began to get serious. I appreciated it when 9News began describing their segments with the tagline, “Facts, not Fear.”
This all became more real for the church when last Sunday all of our UCC churches in Washington state either moved their services online or cancelled worship altogether for the month of March. On Tuesday afternoon, our Rocky Mountain Conference minister and 45 pastors had a Zoom call and agonized about whether this would be wise for us too. We were told to prepare, just in case. Tuesday night our Governance Team wrestled with the question – is this hype or caution. By the next day, our governor made it clear. Anyone over the age of 60 should not go to worship. It seems like this is finally something about which we should genuinely be afraid. This and roller coasters.
But is fear really the appropriate response? If you haven’t yet already yelled at your computer screen, do it now – No! What is the appropriate response?
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
I love that. A sound mind. In other words, have common sense. What do we do in the midst of a global pandemic? Be smart. As I wrote to you earlier this week, we should practice an abundance of caution, but not fear. Hoarding at the grocery store like this is the corona-pocalyse is not common sense, but it is an understandable response to a lack of leadership and communication.
But we must remember. “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
That’s how the King James Version puts it. Listen to some of the other translations:
The Common English Bible: “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid, but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”
The New Revised Standard Version: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
But here’s a significant point not to overlook. This isn’t just about what we should do, i.e., have common sense. The text says we already have a sound mind as a gift from God. God already gave you the tools for coping: the power of love along with self-control and self-discipline. Or as Eugene Peterson says, “God gave you a spirit that is bold and loving and sensible.” Wherever and whatever fear and hype may be, it isn’t from God. Being smart about things is from God. Having common sense is from God.
As I wrote during the week, the Bible says “fear not” or “do not fear” 365 times. For example, despite the angel giving Mary some wonderful and absolutely terrifying news about having a baby out of wedlock, the angel told Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
The Psalmists talked about fear a lot. Let’s look at some of those:
Psalm 118: “The Lord is on my side! I shall not fear what mortals can do to me.”
Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?”
Some version of that occurs another 362 more times, including a text most of us know from memory. Say it with me, you’ll pick it up: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 23 can be a handy mantra when we feel our fear temperature rising. That and today’s text: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
In case you’re not sure you have the capacity, just a few verses before, Paul reminded Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Fun fact: Lois is the only grandmother named in the Bible. Paul told Timothy to be encouraged because their faith lives in him. And reminds him to rekindle the gift of God already within him. That gift? Not a spirit of fear but a sound mind.
Thank God for those today who are leading us with sound minds. Thank God for those who are helping us to do all the loving and sensible things we can do to protect our mothers and grandmothers and our fathers and grandfathers – the ones most at risk. We are having worship like this today because we love and value the faith of our elders. We pray for those at most risk. And for those who put themselves at risk to care for our most vulnerable members of the community. We offer a special word of gratitude for doctors and nurses and hospital workers and public health officials.
But to keep as many people safe as possible, we have to practice this most unfortunate term – social distancing. The term social distancing makes me gag every time I hear it, as though we need any more social distance. Isolation and self-quarantine are exactly the opposite of what we need when we are frightened and anxious. And yet, it is absolutely necessary.
So what can we do? I beg each of you to reach out to one another. Take the church directory that we emailed everyone this week and call people you know and call people you don’t know. One new member called me yesterday to ask the name of the older couple who lives near her and offered to call that. Yes, exactly. Do that! If you don’t think you have a directory, send us an email.
Randomly send an email to another church friend or member and say you are thinking of them. If we ever thought being a church member was about gathering for worship on Sunday morning, this moment offers a new opportunity to remember we are a community of people who gather for worship on Sunday morning, not individuals. This is the time to act like a community.
Please call Terri and me when you feel the need. And we’ll set up some Zoom meetings during the week so we can see each other face to face. The men’s group is meeting by Zoom on Thursday night. Create a group and we’ll help you move it online. And, of course, reach beyond our church community to neighbors and others who need a lift. Especially when it’s you who need a lift.
Despite our best attempts to say “do not be afraid,” these are indeed scary times. I don’t want to discount our real fears. Or any fears. And anger we may feel about the blaming finger-pointing and self-aggrandizement of the president. But I name all of this because when we name fear and anger, we take away their power to control. Because God gave you and me a spirit of power and of love and a sound mind. We have it already.
Now, to stay of a sound mind, even though we may have a little extra time on our hands, try limiting your time on social media. Limit your time on cable news. After an hour of Rachel Maddow, I need to turn on some reruns of 30 Rock or a good movie. Or read a good book. Go outside and enjoy the sunshine. Come over to the church and walk the labyrinth. Seriously, the labyrinth will help. It’s here 24 hours a day.
And breathe. Take a deep breath. Not on each other! But you get it. In and out. Breathe in the spirit of power. Breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of love. And breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of a sound mind. And breathe out fear.
Let’s do that together. Take a deep breath.
Power in. Fear out.
Love in. Fear out.
Sound mind in. Fear out.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 8, 2020
Genesis 12: 1-4a – Common English Bible
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him.
One of my favorite childhood memories, I was probably about 8 or 9 years old, was one Saturday morning when my dad walked into the house and said, “pack up the car. We’re going to Winnipeg.” We only lived about an hour from Canada, but I had never been across the border. Mom looked at him, like, “thanks, a lot, for asking me! I’ve got things to do.” But Dad was often spontaneous. Perhaps a little irritated, Mom got right on it and called my favorite grandma to come along with us. I was so excited. I imagined Winnipeg was exotic. TV commercials from Winnipeg only played late at night, like during Saturday Night Live, which I wasn’t supposed to be up to watch anyway. Winnipeg was foreign and my mind spun wonderful fantasies. And sure enough, my fantasies came true when I turned on the TV in the motel and saw Bugs Bunny speaking French.
I was reminded of that magical weekend when I read the verse following our reading from Genesis today. We heard how Abram heard the voice of God say, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land I will show you.” Then it says, “Abram took his wife Sarai,” along with all their possessions and people, and set forth for the land of Canaan. At first, I thought, why doesn’t it simply say, “And Abram and Sarai set off together for Canaan.” But I realized, Abram probably never consulted with Sarai. “What do you think? Should we?” Just like my dad didn’t ask my mom. Dad announced it and “took us” and everyone else just went along.
Perhaps Sarai was accustomed to Abram saying, let’s pick everything up and leave everything behind. After all, they were nomadic. But not nomadic in the sense of a few tents and some sheep. Abram was the ancient counterpart of a wealthy Bedouin sheik ruling over hundreds of subjects and surrounded by “retainers,” small merchants who catered to their sizable community. Plus, all their animals, a symbol of their wealth.
So, they didn’t, nor could they, just spontaneously pick up and move regularly. But Abram’s family had made an especially big move before. He and Sarai were born and raised in Ur, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, in today’s Iraq. Later, Abram’s father moved the whole clan to what is Turkey today. Not a small move – about 600 miles, the distance of Denver to Des Moines. Try doing this 4,000 years ago. This next move to Canaan would add another 400 miles or so to that. And then to Egypt. And back again.
According to rabbinic tradition, Abram’s father was a maker and seller of various gods and idols. Somehow, somewhere along the way, Abram became convinced there is only one god. The story is told that Abram took an axe to his father’s idols and smashed all except one and then put the axe in the hand of the remaining idol. Abram pointed and blamed that idol for killing all the others. His father said that’s impossible because the idol was not alive. It’s only clay. Abram asked, “then why do you worship clay and not that which is living?”
A quick aside: I hope we see this not as an excuse to destroy other people’s religious objects but rather as an origin story for Abram’s embrace of monotheism.
And so it is that Abram is considered the father of all monotheists – one God. The three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Muslims, through Hagar and their son Ishmael. Jews and Christians through Sarah and their son Isaac. There’s never an explanation why, but he believed in a living God, the living God, one God not many. And it was from that one god that he heard a voice saying, move to the land I will show you. How did he know?
How, indeed. Last Sunday during the Second Hour, Jenny invited the 30 of us to tell about our experiences of the Holy Spirit. Once the first person got the courage to speak up, stories kept coming and I was struck by what I imagine were experiences similar to Abram.
Listen to a few of these descriptions from folks here last week:
Aren’t these amazing? All from a group of progressive, liberal, social justice Christians – sometimes accused of being more in our heads than our hearts.
But imagine what would happen if we lived exclusively in one or the other. I’m grateful for combinations of all the above each time another outrageous example of cruelty pops up on our news feed. What is it now? Who’s been targeted? Who’s been blamed? What is the lie now? And why is that lie even necessary? What river or ocean is going to be filled with mining debris? Every time I open the page or turn on the TV, my brain is assaulted by ignorance. And my heart is broken by gleeful brutality against people we love and people we don’t know. And despair for the earth.
Thank God the Holy Spirit is there to intervene with sighs too deep for words. We are not left powerless. Brain dead or heartless. The question isn’t just what should we do. But, what are we being drawn toward. What gift or talent have I been given for exactly this moment, just such a time as this? What is our unique gift and contribution? After all, Abram was called and blessed to be a blessing. I believe that if we pay attention, we will know. Some tug or push. Or, as one described it last week, a dummy slap. A slap upside the head. Pay attention.
Some might call these gentle, or less than gentle experiences, intuitions, not the work of the Holy Spirit. But I call intuition a gift of the Spirit. Or instead, you might simply say this is how I experience God – because we follow a Living God, active today, not just in history. Not just an idea. Or a story from long ago.
Even so, those stories inform us and encourage us. How did our ancestors, like Abram, know what to do? How to balance trust and risk. How to move forward without knowing what’s ahead – just knowing that we must. Often without knowing why.
Like for us, I would suggest some combination of paying attention to:
And, credit to my dad, a certain amount of spontaneity.
But, back to that command, or rather, a call. As one of our lunch and lectionary participants said on Thursday at Noodles and Company, “A call is anything you do that is outside your comfort zone that comes from something inside, like “I’ve got to do this.”
And how we do respond?
I’ve done every one of those more than once.
Or, “here I am, Lord, send me.”
But even if that’s our response,” the journey for Abram and Sarai wasn’t from point A to point B. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Nor is it for us. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in all of scripture is verse 9: “And they journeyed on by stages.”
Which reminds us, our journey is never complete, because here we are 4,000 years later and, thankfully, the Living God is still speaking.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 1, 2020
“Don’t Blame the Devil”
Matthew 4: 1-11 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only God.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
“The devil made me do it.” When the excuse that “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t work, or “the wind blew my assignment out the window,” just blame the devil. Like Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine. “Why did you buy that dress? The devil made me do it.”
Our lunch and lectionary group met on Thursday at Noodles and Company and the first response after reading the text for today was a sigh and an “ugh” about the devil. And it’s true. How can you take the idea of a devil seriously when popular culture has personified it as a red faced being holding a pitchfork? Or when the devil has so often been used as a simplistic means of condemning someone you consider evil. The idea of a devil brings out all sorts of issues for people who value science and reasoning. We’re not going to do that today.
But there is something to the whole idea of “devil” in the context of this story. Matthew is not attempting to personify evil or an evil force. It’s much simpler than that. Scholarly consensus is that the word more accurately means “the tempter.”
Following his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness where he was confronted by the tempter. He was specifically led to the wilderness to be tempted. It’s fascinating that following his baptism he wasn’t exempted from temptation. We might think, now that you’re baptized, you’ll be left alone. But rather, he was driven right into it. By the Spirit, no less. Then, 40 days and 40 nights later, at his hungriest and loneliest moment, he was offered what any of us might have thought was an angel bearing some bread and offering some help. Instead, at his lowest, here comes the tempter.
One scholar described the meaning of “the tempter” in this context as one who “misleads, deceives, diverts attention, discredits, or slanders.” Misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, slanders. And attacks.
I read that list to our lunch and lectionary group and everyone started laughing. And it could be right here that my sermon starts identifying examples of misleading, deceiving, discrediting, and attacking. For today, I’m simply going to say, “you get the idea” and move on. Except to say that once you have repeatedly misled and deceived the public, constantly attacked the media, and done everything in your power to discredit science, don’t be surprised if people don’t believe you about a public health emergency. But I’m not calling anyone the devil here nor am I blaming the devil for this mess. The devil didn’t do it.
My New Testament professor in seminary, Marilyn Salmon, translated the word here as “seducer.” She translated the Greek and argued that the devil was not just trying to tempt Jesus but to seduce him using flattery. We might think seduction is all about sexuality, but the art of seduction, she argued, is to persuade disloyalty and lead someone astray with false promises. “There’s no harm in a little bread. It’ll be our secret. There’s no harm if you’re just trying to do good things. Let me help you. There’s no harm in asking God to protect you. Look, it says so right here in scripture.” Imagine using scripture as a tool of seduction. But seduction has only one reality: for the seducer to get what they want.
I have a question for all the white evangelicals who are in lock step, offering their blessing to everything the president wants. Are you tempted by all the power and control the president has granted you? Or are you being seduced by all the power and control he wants from you?
I honestly can’t read today’s scripture without seeing the glaring parallels of Christians grabbing on to all the power they can get to control religious minorities under the false premise of religious liberty, along with a license to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and exert control over women, and demonize people of color to legitimate their incarceration, or exclude non-white immigrants, especially from s-hole countries around the world. But don’t blame the devil. This is simply cruel, wrong, unjust, and immoral. And Jesus wept.
But, wait. Have I not just played right into the temptation or seduction to consider progressive Christians more enlightened, better educated, more reasonable, more just? And ultimately, more righteous?
How many white progressives were seduced by the attraction of a black president meaning that America had truly become a post-racial society? Willing to believe, overlook, that all those confederate flags were really just about pride in one’s history? Not a symbol of hatred waiting to be seduced by right suitor. Or that a female president will make the country less sexist. How many liberals are tempted while on a trip to another country or to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to think or say out loud at some point, “Why don’t they just…” I’m quick to want to solve the issues of other cultures and countries because I believe our educational system is more evolved.
Are progressive Christians any less susceptible to conspiracy theories, especially ones that confirm our bias too? If you pander to my prejudices, no matter how educated, I’ll believe you.
Temptations. Seductions. And one more. At some point, advertisers realized consumers weren’t going to be convinced to buy their product because of cost or quality. They made it not a question of whether their product is better but whether our lives will be better… And not just better, people will think more highly about us. And our lives will be easier. But not just easier. Without it, our lives will be emptier. And who wants an empty life? Do you really want to miss out?!
Therefore, we are sold an idea:
Tide doesn’t clean our clothes. It liberates us from dirt.
Mastercard isn’t a method for payment. It brings us experiences in life that are priceless.
Almost 20 years ago, PBS Frontline did a documentary called The Persuaders about how successful advertising gives meaning to our lives. Or tries to.
Starbucks isn’t primarily about coffee. It creates community.
Nike is about transcendence, not merely shoes.
The documentary’s conclusion was that the ultimate triumph of “the persuaders,” are through “ministries,” interesting choice of words, “through ministries of data mining, focus grouping, ad-making, anxiety marketing, spin segmenting, and demo-graffiti — The ultimate triumph will be to get us to believe that they multiply and educate our choices instead of pouncing on and pandering to our prejudices and vulnerabilities.”
And then, of course, is all the fear-based political advertising. How can we resist? And how much more so if we’re lonely and haven’t eaten in 40 days.
40 days and 40 nights is simply shorthand for saying “a very long time.” Many of us feel like after 40 days of this administration, we’re at our lowest point, or at least a low point, in our democracy. If we’re not seduced to bury our head in the sand and chant “Everything is OK,” or to claim, “Everything will be OK,” then our temptation is to deflect, “I can’t do anything about it.”
Everything is OK or will be OK. For who?
I can’t do anything about it. Why not?
On Ash Wednesday, we collectively prayed:
“The truth is, we are not really sure about following the Way of Christ. We believe it is the right thing to do, but actually following Christ would turn our whole world upside down.” Things are really that bad, are they? The ultimate seduction of the privileged.
We went on: “We confess that sometimes what binds us can trick us into feeling safe and comfortable in the midst of our suffering. Divine liberation is so foreign that we fear it is unsafe and unwieldy.”
“And yet, inside of each one of us, your still-speaking voice pulls at our heart.” And with that comes the power to resist.
For Ash Wednesday, as we met to begin the journey of Lent, Jenny Whitcher re-imagined the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 58. It directly answers the challenge of the tempters, the seducers, and the persuaders of the world:
“Living out your faith will lead you forward.”
“If you remove the burdens and chains from among you,
stop pointing fingers,
and with hate-filled and hurtful words,
stop speaking of evil;
If you have the courage to open your hearts to deep and loving relationship with one another;
Minister to and heal one another,
use your God-given gifts and talents to live out the Gospel,
and seek the Spirit of God in everyone you encounter…
Then we will be in right relationship.
Then, the Holy Spirit will rise within you and guide you continually.
[God says,] I will meet your needs when you encounter times of wilderness and thirst.
I will make you strong, and I will nourish you.
You will be vibrant like a well-watered garden;
You will be full of eternal life like a fresh spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ruins will be rebuilt, and the broken places of your heart healed;
You will rise up with the power of love to implement justice and to transform everyone and everything that stands against love.
You will be the foundation of faithfulness for many generations to come;
You will be called repairers of the breach,
The restorers of the streets we live in.”
And with that I invite you to turn in your bulletin to our unison prayer:
Prayer of Confession
One: We call out to you, O God. It is not so much that we choose evil, but we often
pursue little goods and lesser gods. And we lose our way. Times when...
All: Our love becomes too narrow
Our excuses too wide
Our blaming too quick
Our forgiveness too slow
Our gratitude too rare.
By your mercy, deepen our longing into trust
Our pride into compassion
Our fear into courage
Our frustration into creativity
Our timidity into boldness
Our prayers into action, however simple and small.
Assurance of Grace
One: Hear the good news: God accepts our sincere hearts. We are forgiven!
All: Thanks be to God!
 Robert Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 47
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 23, 2020
“Vote as If Someone’s Life Depended on It”
Matthew 17: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
One cold winter morning, the matriarch of a small New England church was nervous when she came to worship. Not that the sidewalks might be icy or that the boiler might not have kicked in early enough to warm the sanctuary. Betty was anxious because it was the first Sunday with their new pastor. It wasn’t a Congregational Church, so she had had no say in the pastor assigned to them. She and many others in her coffee klatch traded rumors that this pastor had been a troublemaker. Might try to shake things up. But by the end of the service, Betty was pleased. As she grasped the hand of the new pastor, Betty told her that all her fears had been relieved. “I listened carefully to your sermon and I am so happy. You were wonderful! You didn’t say a thing!” At least, nothing to make anyone uncomfortable.
In contrast, a white pastor in Alabama in the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement, began preaching about issues of race, every week, preaching from such passages as Ephesians, “in Christ’s flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” One by one, he preached the church down to a handful of people. The pastor remarked, “Good. Now we can become a Christian church.”
In seminary many of us were told we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Among your group of peers, that sounds fun and exciting. In case Peter, however, thought the idea of following Jesus would be an exciting fun-filled adventure, Jesus afflicted him with some clarity.
The text today begins by saying “six days later.” What’s the first thing we have to do? Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In return, Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church.” He promised Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But then Jesus told all of them about going to Jerusalem and how he would undergo great suffering and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter responded by “rebuking” Jesus. “God forbid it,” he said. “This must never happen to you!” To that Jesus slapped back, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” Ouch. All he said was, “I don’t want anything bad like that to happen to you.”
Then Jesus told the crowds of people hanging around him: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
That’s the context. Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and went with them up a high mountain.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew tried to link Jesus to Moses. “Up a high mountain” is an example of how, over and over, Matthew tells stories in a way that point to Jesus as the new Moses. For example, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, which only Matthew tells, is about how both Jesus and Moses escaped a tyrannical ruler who tried to murder infants, whether a king or pharaoh. There are many other examples. Moses received the commandments on a mountain, Jesus taught the Beatitudes from a mountain.
But our scripture reading this morning is especially notable. Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah on top of a high mountain where he is transfigured in a bright light. Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Transfiguration is one of those odd words only used in the church. The Common English Bible tries to simplify the word as Transform. Jesus was transformed. To me, that’s not quite enough. Eugene Peterson tries to describe the indescribable as “His appearance changed from the inside out. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.”
Of course, we are tempted to ask, did that really happen? But, what I do know is that it sounds a lot like how Moses encountered the magnificent light of God’s presence on a mountain – which, I think, is more the point Matthew is making.
In today’s reading, Elijah is added to the mix and, thereby, Matthew makes yet another linkage explicit. Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah. Matthew’s intended audience wouldn’t have needed any more explanation.
So, six days earlier, Peter declared Jesus the Son of the Living God. On top of this high mountain, God’s voice is heard saying exactly that. “Listen to my Son. My beloved.” It was the same voice heard at his baptism, the start of his ministry. This same voice is heard again, now at the start of his descent to Jerusalem and his suffering, persecution, betrayal, and death.
There’s a lot of symbolism going on in this text. Enough that we may we start to ask, “so what?” So, if I’ve lost you with all of this background and context, come back because I want to talk about what we do with this text. How does Peter respond to all of this?
How many times have you heard or thought to yourself: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” I don’t know if it’s true for you or not, but I feel like I was programmed by my parents just that way. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” In fact, isn’t there some saying like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” My strict German grandmother probably said that. In German.
So, if I had been standing there with Peter, I would have heard the voice of my parents and said, “Yeah, we should do something.” Various translations of the specific word Peter used for his “let’s build something idea” include dwellings, booths, shrines, tabernacles, shelters, and more. Whatever exactly it was, it was something. Perhaps to remember or memorialize the moment with a shrine. Or another interpretation is “let’s build something up here,” like a shelter or dwelling, so we don’t have to go to Jerusalem. Let’s just avoid all that conflict. One of my favorite things to do.
Jesus was likely annoyed with Peter’s impulsive interruption, but before he could say anything, that voice from heaven intervened and said, “Listen to him.” Or, here is my translation of this verse: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
How does that phrase make you feel? “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” For all of us ever busy, overprogrammed people, driving our children across town from a soccer game to a piano lesson, continuously checking our emails, responding to texts, too much homework, busier in retirement than ever before – that sounds good. A relief. “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
And yet as we try to keep up with the newest outrage from Washington, feeling like we have to respond to each one of those newest outrages until we fall to the ground exhausted and tempted to give up… Paralyzed. When that happens, in the vein of Peter, and my parents, I need to hear, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.”
Which is it? Either way, that voice proclaims “listen.” To listen requires us to first stop. And breathe. In fact, let’s do that. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the burned out. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the broken down. Comfort for the afflicted.
But some folks, like Betty, our matriarch from New England, not to pick on her, they don’t want that comfort interrupted, to be afflicted by hearing about the needs of the world. But what happens when “don’t just do something, stand there” becomes the mission of the church? What happens when “don’t just do something, sit there” becomes the rationale for accepting the status quo? Which, of course, is a privilege only some communities are afforded.
When someone says, “Don’t bring politics into the church,” they’re not an immigrant community fearful of a raid any minute.
Is it politics to pray for guidance? To ask of your faith:
There are more actions, of course, than voting. It’s just that our Super Tuesday ballot is sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be completed. And I need to vote as if someone’s life depended on it.
This week we saw the proof of Bryan Stevenson’s assertion – that the rich white and guilty will be treated better than innocent poor people of color. Every new day of this presidential administration is another outrageous example of corruption this and law-breaking that. We can’t keep up with it all to respond to everything. We could, but we wouldn’t last long. That’s what they count on. That’s what they laugh about on Fox “News.”
Therefore, the concern is how to avoid burnout or how to recover from burnout. Not to just to do something, but stand there. To comfort the afflicted by listening and supporting one another, knowing that each one of us is carrying a heavy cross. To listen and pray for that voice from deep inside the cloud. Then to listen to each other so that we don’t just stand there but begin to do something – as if someone’s life, including yours, depended on it.
The lesson I see from Peter is not just to react in the moment and do something. Or stay upon the mountain to avoid doing anything. First, listen. And then do the one thing you especially can do. That thing for which your gifts and your talents make you uniquely qualified.
And what is that thing? That’s what we are going to do together during Lent this year. We’re going to explore and discover our gifts and talents as we deepen our relationships and connections with God and each other. The second phase of our relational campaign from last fall starts Wednesday night during the Ash Wednesday service, continues every Sunday in March during Second Hour, will take place during more intimate meals in homes and small gatherings in April, and will end with a daylong retreat in May. Lots of listening before we start more doing.
We often think of Lent as a time when we give something up. That’s appropriate because when we listen and act accordingly, we may need to say “no” to some things, give something up, in order to say “yes,” to take something else up. Known as our own cross.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
As followers of Jesus, that’s our invitation. I’m curious whether you think that’s a comfort or an affliction.
 Story adapted from Will Willimon
 Matthew 16: 24-26 - adapted
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 2, 2020
Micah 6: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
What God Requires
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The lectionary today provides us one of the most familiar half-verses in the entire Old Testament. But what’s the rest of the story? The context.
It starts by God telling the people, if you have a problem with me, please tell me. God tells them to take their contentions to court. And then God invites in a jury. Tell it to the mountains and hills, the eternal foundations of the earth. Let them decide the verdict. That’s the setting.
Then watch as God lays out a defense. God pleads, what have I done to you? Please, how have I wearied you? It’s the not the voice of an angry God demanding an answer. It is the voice of a God who agonizes and is filled with sorrow. Notice: God doesn’t complain or say they are wrong. God doesn’t deflect and instead accuse them of unfaithfulness. God simply replies by asking the people to remember their history:
In sharp contrast, the responding party from the people explodes and blows everything out of proportion. “What do you want from us!?” And goes into a litany of the most preposterous examples he or she could imagine.
Animal sacrifice was a way to honor God. An offering, for example, of one sheep or a ram. But the lawyer for the people asks, “What do you want? Would a thousand rams be enough for you?”
Imagine that you’ve lent $10 to a friend who promises to pay you back by the end of the week. Months later, you finally ask your friend if you can have your money back. I’m sorry to ask, but could you… But, instead of being embarrassed, apologetic for having forgotten to pay you back, they respond “I suppose you want interest from me too. What do you want? Ten million dollars? Will that be enough to finally satisfy your greed?”
That’s the answer from the lawyer for the people. Will a thousand rams be enough for you? How about not just one jug of oil but rivers of oil? How about my first-born child? Will that be enough to satisfy you? You see: Rant, rave, deflect – and now you’re the bad guy. An unnecessary litany of increasingly absurd defenses.
It’s like the rants and raves and deflections of increasingly absurd defenses offered by the lawyers for the president. From “he did nothing wrong” to “everyone does it, get over it” to “anything the president does is, by definition, not wrong.” Or, the more reasonable explanation, “it’s wrong, it’s just not wrong enough.” Which I have to admit, I might agree. If sexually assaulting multiple women isn’t bad enough, this is nothing. If ripping children from their mother’s arms and placing them in cages isn’t bad enough, well, this does, in fact, pale in comparison. Another litany of increasing absurdity – absurd that any of it is OK.
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t been able to watch the impeachment trial; barely a few minutes here or there. Just enough news coverage to feel like I had a sense of what happened that day.
This week, I read a blog post by John Pavlovitz, the author we invited to speak here last year, that felt so spot on, I feared he had entered my dreams and taken dictation.
Back in September which, emotionally, feels like ten years ago, long before the events of the past few weeks, Pavlovitz said:
There’s more, but no need to read more of the stuff we all know all too well. These must-be-a-dream real-life nightmares are exhausting. I’m trying to hang in there. How about you? Every time I think we must have reached the bottom, the bottom drops further.
Yet, as I write this I wonder if this isn’t just the depression of the privileged. I’m used to thinking that things generally work out. But how often has the notion of the Common Good been much more about the Common Good for people like me? With a good job, a good education. I can show up at the doctor’s office any time I want because I have insurance. I have a passport to go anywhere in the world I want. And a pension that benefits from a strong stock market. And I’m white. Things have generally been pretty good. Better than for most.
I have to admit, the idea that Americans have had shared values in the past and this is just an aberration reveals my privilege, and ignorance. I remember back to something I said in my first sermon after the election. DaShawn Mosley asked what was wrong with white progressives. How could you be surprised. How couldn’t you see that this would happen? “Every time African Americans get a little bit closer to equality, a wave of white resentment comes hurtling around the bend to wash all of the progress away.”
Columnist Leonard Pitts described the election as a “slap down to women and people of color and LGBTQ folks. A vicious and painful reminder so we’ll know our place.”
So, when I think our nation’s increasing diversity is a good thing, and start thinking that things will finally get better when the country becomes a minority majority, I need a dose of reality. Like that from Dr. Jennifer Richeson who told the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The Era of White Anxiety is Just Beginning.” She’s a researcher who said tolerance likely won’t increase but rather an even “more propulsive acceleration” of desperation from “a historically white majority [which] will [not] quietly cede power.” For example, the kind of actions we are seeing today from white, evangelical Christians who are both fearful and angry that their cultural dominance is passing from the scene. Willing to do literally anything to debase themselves to hold on to their power.
Black History month should remind us how this has happened over and over again throughout our country’s history. Absurd and intentional acts of cruelty. But we also remember heroes and how many people have not only survived but done such things as establish thriving businesses and colleges and so much more. Leonard Pitts added to his slap-down comments, “to those who wish to crush my spirit and the spirit of others like me, hear this – it will not work.”
And John Pavlovitz says exactly what the privileged need to hear, those for whom things have generally worked out: “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.”
I’ve always liked that line about the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” It was made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr, but it’s actually a line from a sermon from a Unitarian preacher in 1853. Pavlovitz interprets it for our time. Stop trusting that it will happen, leaving it to fate and chance, and instead “decide to be arc benders.” “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.” He said, “The only way things are going to be OK, is if good people make them OK.”
That means: 1) people of faith must stop abandoning the conversation about religion to those who are loudest about their vision of exclusion. We have to push louder and harder against Christian supremacy, male superiority, and white nationalism. Progressive Christians must learn how to speak about our deeply held religious convictions, the reasons we are passionate about the Common Good. (That’s one of the goals of our relational campaign this spring.)
2) Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and Agnostics and Hindus and Buddhists and Humanists and anyone committed to the Common Good must realize our combined power and offer a unified voice. (That’s why we support mission partners like the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado last month.)
3) Progressives and moderates must realize that one election every four years isn’t the way to make change to benefit the Common Good. It will take every person in every profession every day, from students and teachers and bankers and bus drivers and those who have retired, every person in every profession every day deliberately working for the goal of shared prosperity – using whatever skill, gift, or talent we have. (That’s another goal of our relational campaign this spring.)
And, 4) frankly, it will take the 100 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 to decide they give enough of a damn to register and show up. Question: Who is going to register them?
This may all strike you as too hyperbolic. Too exaggerated. Too pessimistic. In fact, it may start to sound like the lawyer for the people in today’s reading from Micah.
What do you want from us? A thousand rams?
What do you expect from us? Rivers of oil?
What if we give up our first-born children? Will that finally be enough?
And what does the prophet Micah then say in response? He is the last to speak. The jury has listened, God has spoken, the people replied with increasing absurdities, and now the prophet says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s the context. The rest of the story. In the 8th century BCE, under King Hezekiah.
That also happens to be the context of the 21st century, CE, under a different system, but, so OK, mortals, what does the Lord require of you? You already know what is good.
Well, then as now, it’s not as simple as we might like. It’s not as easy as one ram or even one thousand. Then as now, it’s not as simple as a jug of oil or even rivers of oil. Then as now, it’s not as extreme as child sacrifice.
But what is required is a change to the way of life for the privileged: Not to be “hopers” in arc bending. Not an observer of arc bending, or a commentator on the slowness of it. We must not let the absurdity of our country’s defenseless cruelty and the lawlessness of our leaders go unanswered.
So together, we are going to bend the arc and do justice. We’re not going to simply believe that our leaders will do what is right. Anymore, that’s irresponsible.
And we going to love kindness. At this point, trusting that everything will work out is a fool’s delusion.
Of course, to be arc benders, that also means the sacrifice of our time, skills, gifts, talents, effort, and money.
We’re not going to do it alone, however, but humbly with our God. With God and our church family learning how to be more articulate and proudly progressive Christians committed to the Common Good that is good for everyone.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 26, 2020
“Invited to Be”
Matthew 4: 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Ramones sang about the “Job That Ate My Brain.” Johnny Paycheck proclaimed, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dolly Parton sang about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen, pouring a cup of ambition, and folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
If only Simon and Andrew had to worry about working from 9 to 5, maybe the offer by the stranger walking by wouldn’t have been so enticing. But fishing wasn’t a job. It was the life into which you were born. It’s what your father did and it’s what your children will do. Even if they wanted to sing “Shove This Jay Oh Bee” how could they have simply walked away?
James and John may not have been listening to country music while cleaning their nets, but if you combine some wisdom from Kenny Rogers as Jesus stands there, maybe we can understand why they jumped. After all, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” But to what?
There seems to be no scholarly consensus whether those four brothers knew who Jesus was. Or certainly, what they would be getting themselves into.
Jesus had just moved to the area, leaving his home back in Nazareth. In the succession of Matthew’s story, Jesus, at about age 30, was baptized in the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed, “this is my son, the beloved.” Immediately, he was sent into the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days and 40 nights alone and starving, repeatedly tempted with food, power, and success. After this period of testing, the next thing we know is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested. That’s when Jesus decided to leave Nazareth and settle in Capernaum. From that time on, Jesus went around announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s the entirety of what Simon and Andrew and James and John might have known. They might have heard about some guy going around saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” But they left poor Zebedee sitting in his boat wondering what happened. His sons left him to follow one of those itinerant preachers that came by periodically. Jesus wasn’t the only one out there gathering up disciples. So, what made him different? And how did those brothers know?
But sometimes, don’t you just know? I know that not everyone has had one of those “ah ha” moments, one of those epiphanies where things all of a sudden make sense. But those who do understand, who have experienced an epiphany, maybe it was something about which you had been thinking, dreaming about a change for years, and suddenly, the door opens right in front of you.
In fact, that’s how I got here. It took a while for Art and I to finally decide we were ready for a change, but when we did, I immediately went on the UCC website that lists job openings, hoping to see something in or around Denver. There were a few along the Front Range. And then I read the two line description for Park Hill. “Oh, my God.” I felt it in my body. I called Art and said, “that’s where we’re going.” Seems pretty presumptuous, but here we are 12 years later. And I still feel as certain as ever that this is where I was meant to come and where I still feel meant to be. Although, if I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I could never have predicted what our time together would have entailed. And the process we have gone through to get from there to here. But, through it all, I may not have always been sure what to do, but I knew I was called to be your pastor.
Perhaps that was true for those four brothers too. Jesus told them, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say much about what they were supposed to do. But he did say, I want you to be my disciples. They weren’t given a clear job description, (what in the world is fishing for people?), but they were given a new identity. And it’s better to know who we are first and then what we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s been made especially clear to us as a church in the past year. Ten years ago, we adopted a strategic plan. A year ago, we commissioned a new planning team – members who help us discern what we were supposed to do next. What is God calling us to do? I suspected that one goal would be a programmatic emphasis on helping people get to know each other. Relationships don’t develop by osmosis but by intention. We were seeing the effects of that. Without relationships, people will drift in and out without notice.
The process, however, never quite came together. Feeling stuck about next steps, Dwight Meyer and I, the chair of the strategic planning team, met with Jenny Whitcher, wondering if she could help get us unstuck. Instead, she proposed a totally different approach. She proposed a relational campaign. I didn’t quite understand it, but something felt right. She met with the Governance Team and proposed it to them. They didn’t quite understand it either, but something about it might, maybe, perhaps, sort of… It was difficult because she didn’t talk about what we would be doing. She talked about being in relationship with each other and our community. Not how to do authentic relationships but how to be in authentic relationships. Some of you heard this and knew immediately, I want to be part of it. Others waited, perhaps skeptical, but heard what was happening. And by the end of the fall, 75 folks had participated. And today, Jenny is here as we begin phase two. Going deeper.
But let me take a step back first. My apologies to our visitors today, but on annual meeting Sunday, I often give a sort of State of Church Address. I thought I’d make today’s, in part, a State of the Decade report, starting with some numbers.
In 2009, our average worship attendance was 82, up from 63 two years before. We had just had a Christmas Eve service attended by 128 people, 8 of those children. This year we had three Christmas Eve services attended by 293, of which 46 were children. Again, in 2009, average worship attendance was 77, up from 63. In 2019, it was 105. An increase of 42. At a time of churches in decline, when even the most faithful people attend worship less frequently, this is almost impossible. Humbling.
OK, more numbers. At the end of 2009, we had less than $9,000 in our savings and checking accounts. Plus, a loan and tons, a scary amount, of deferred maintenance. Today we have checking, savings, funds and investments of $150,000. That’s not because of a bunch of bequests but because of careful and wise stewardship. And we’ve turned all that scary deferred maintenance into $800,000 of improvements to our building and grounds in the past five years. Did you get that? Over 3/4 of a million dollars in pledges, gifts, grants, and special projects, including solar panels, the labyrinth, and more. Speaking of solar panels, ten years ago, our bill for gas and electric was $11,000. Last year, it was less than $6,000. How can utility bills be cut in half? And save the environment at the same time!
One more thing about numbers. We used to make contributions to our mission partners through our regular budget. In 2009, we budgeted $2,000, plus took the special UCC offerings. Then we started this every Sunday program in 2011. It kept growing. In 2019, our Sunday morning mission partners received a total of $24,000. Isn’t that extraordinary? And sales from the Fair Trade Gift Market for 20 non-profit groups literally doubled over the past decade.
Of course, there is always “on the other hand.” At the end of 2009, we had 183 members. Since just the 2016 election, we have received 62 new members. And at the end of this past year, we had a total of 184 members. An increase of one in ten years?! How do you explain that? Lots of deaths, relocations, and drifting away. But it’s the new cultural reality that more people participate willingly and fully in the life of the congregation without formally joining as members. Membership has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor of a congregation’s health, even though it still has a crucial function in a UCC church. It’s still important.
So, what happened in the past decade to explain our growth? One answer starts with that strategic plan ten years ago that articulated our mission and core values, such as compassion and justice.
We set seven goals, including a deepening spirituality that links head and heart, a focus on worship and youth, more effective social justice ministry, a simpler governance structure, and a decision about whether we should own our own building or sell and share with another church.
Those of you who were here for our move or stay decision know how hard it was. Painful. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and yet without actually making a choice to stay and invest, I doubt we would be where we are today: A building that is welcoming, that we are proud to make available to our neighbors, and a worship space that feels transcendent. Gone are the rigid lines of pews that separated us from one another, forcing us to look at the front instead of at each other. Gone is the pulpit that was seven steps above the congregation, 20 feet away from the first person. Now we have a sense of community with communion at the center. Worship today is simply not what worship was like a decade ago. Which is one reason for our growth. In fact, worship attendance started increasing immediately after we removed the pews. I kid you not. Up 20% that fall.
Another important factor: Five years ago in April, we began our participation in the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. That wasn’t an easy decision either. Certainly, we thought we should but the question was more about whether we could. Could we sustain the level of volunteer effort necessary? And then, just as we were struggling with having enough overnight angels, Donald Trump was elected. Immediately, people wanting to bring light and love into the world stepped through our doors and right into service. 94 different individuals this past year alone, of which one third are neighbors and friends.
I wouldn’t welcome the pain of this world, but through it, during the past three years, the religious left has been reenergized. Today we understand more than ever what Jesus was talking about. In the face of a cruel empire, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew describes it, the kingdom of heaven. Where the poor are the blessed ones, where people love their enemies, where our neighbors are fed, clothed, visited, and liberated from empires like Rome or America. We understand more than ever before how important it is to witness to a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world where Black Lives Matter, Love Wins, people take Me Too seriously, and borders are not littered with kids in cages. However, while the religious left has been energized, not every congregation has experienced the same kind of growth and vitality. Which makes all of this even more humbling.
In May 2016, we revisited our strategic plan and kept our mission statement and core values but adopted four new vision statements. Number one: “creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship.”
It was out of that first part of the statement that we began dreaming of a staff position for a Minister for Congregational Care. We started things in motion two years ago, to start last July with 10 hours per week and hope to grow it to a half time position one day – implementing the second part of the vision to connect people to their ministry. I’m happy to report that with today’s proposed budget, we will achieve this in September. In addition, among those four statements, we stated our vision to nurture individual spiritual gifts and talents. In a few weeks, as part of the second phase of our relational campaign, that is exactly what we will do.
The state of the past decade: vital worship, strong youth programs. Did you know that only 22% of UCC congregations even have a youth group? 2009 was the first of our many trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – on which 60 Park Hill youth and adults have participated. There have been lots of physical improvements to our building, thanks to your generosity, and lots of new opportunities for discipleship through the women’s homelessness initiative and racial justice ministry and other activities, thanks to the leadership of many of you. But it’s when Jenny suggested that our “task” is to be in relationship with one another, it all clicked.
Sometimes someone will come along and say exactly what you’ve been waiting to hear, even if you didn’t know it. Like when an itinerant preacher, declaring that heaven is near, comes by and says, “Come follow me.” Sometimes snap decisions are foolish impulse buys and sometimes snap decisions are easy because you know who you are and you’re ready when someone asks. No more fear. Just step out of the boat in faith.
The takeaway from the gospel for today: It’s not about what you are supposed to do. But who are you called to be? No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Jesus invites us to be his disciple. What we do will follow when the time is right.
 Matthew 4:17 Common English Bible
 Including $300 in rebates
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 19, 2020
“Questions for White Christians”
Galatians 3: 26-29 – New Revised Standard Version
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
We’re going to listen to a portion of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” I always find it inspirational to hear his soaring rhetoric in his own voice.
A little context first: Rev. King had only been a pastor for two years when he preached this sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in early November 1956 – an exhausting eleven months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King wrote this sermon in the style of Paul’s letters to Christians in such places as Corinth, Rome, and Galatia, beginning with greetings and complimentary words before getting into the heart of the message.
(On tv screen from YouTube)
I, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So, in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
Just like Paul addressed divisions in the church in Galatia in our scripture today, this sermon continues by describing various forms of division that existed nineteen hundred years later, such as the presence of 256 different Christian denominations in America. But more to the point, he called out the fact that there is a white church and a black church. He asked, “How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” He noted that sports stadiums and night clubs are more integrated than the church. Paul said clearly, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” However, Dr. King said, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America – the first time he used that phrase which later became common.
Speaking as Paul, he said, “I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. Oh, my friends, this is blasphemy.” As he continued to lay out arguments, he said: This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for, a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.
He then called upon listeners: “I urge each of you to plead patiently with your brothers and sisters and tell them that this isn’t the way. With understanding goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes. Let them know that in standing against integration, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself.”
I learned this week that when future congressman John Lewis was about 15 years old, he heard this sermon on the radio and credits it specifically for changing the trajectory of his life. Lewis said he realized “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
When he was a child, he saw signs for restrooms and drinking fountains designating white and colored. He would ask his mother, ask his father, ask his grandparents, “’Why? Why is that?’ And they’d say, ‘That’s the way it is. And don’t get in trouble. And don’t get in the way.’ But,” he said, “that day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change.”
The following year, at age 17, he enrolled in seminary (I didn’t know John Lewis graduated from seminary!). In a reverse order from today, he then went to college and received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, an historically black college established by Congregationalists. During that time, he organized lunch counter sit ins in Nashville. And was a Freedom Rider. And a few years later, was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettis bridge marching from Selma to Montgomery.
John Lewis heard: “You are obligated to seek to change the attitudes of your fellow Christians.” But Dr. King added, “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.”
But he also added, “Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.”
A few years later, on that bridge in Selma, John Lewis did indeed almost meet his Maker at age 25. It occurred to me, I wonder how old pastor King was when he preached today’s sermon? 27.
During my sabbatical I went to Montgomery and basked in the light filled sanctuary of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I stood behind his pulpit and met a woman in her 90s who knew Dr. King as her pastor. She now gives tours of the parsonage where Martin, Coretta, and their children lived, where we saw the table around which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met and the crystal bowl Mrs. King used to serve punch. Among other things, we saw the phone on which they received death threats and the hole in the front porch where someone threw a bomb.
I went to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery in order to see the lynching memorial and legacy museum created by Bryan Stevenson – the subject of the new movie Just Mercy, which I haven’t seen yet, but reading the book shaped my sense of responsibility as a Christian and a pastor during these divided and difficult times.
About two years ago a group from our church went to hear Mr. Stevenson speak at the Paramount Theater. I’ll never forget how he stepped up to the podium and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I want to change the world. I want to end the death penalty.” He explained that one way we can change the disturbing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty is to tell the truth about the unbroken chain of events – from slavery to the “War on Drugs” mass incarceration, from lynchings to police killings of black men, women, and children – a legacy of slave patrols under which every black person was presumed guilty. As Bryan said, and is clearly true from the news, “a guilty white man is treated better than an innocent black man.” All of this with Jim Crow segregation in between.
In 1956, Dr. King’s sermon laid out the sacred responsibility of Christians to end segregation and the sober consequences of following Jesus. But in 1963, feeling abandoned, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King lamented, “I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead some have been outright opponents. In the midst of blatant injustices, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard many ministers say: ‘those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
So, what might Dr. King’s updated sermon, Paul Letter’s to American Christians in 2020, address today? Here’s one thing for Christians to grapple with: following a string of black men, women, and children killed by police in 2015, 81% of black Christians said they believed those killings were part of a broader pattern. But more than 70% of white Christians believe they were all isolated incidents. 71% of white Catholics, 72% of white evangelicals, but most disturbingly to me, 73% of white mainline Christians deny the lived experiences of black Christians.
Jim Wallis from Sojourners said, “white Christians must start acting more Christian that white.” Which is one indication of the state of American Christianity today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great theologian imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. He stood against the perversion of German “Christians” who supported Hitler and the Third Reich. He insisted Christians take “the view from below.” From the “perspective of those who suffer.”
This week, the International Bonhoeffer Society cited his writings and sermons and make a shocking statement. They described the “ever-deepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized,” including the “dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systemic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history.” And then declared they do not believe that American democracy can “endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump.”
The International Bonhoeffer Society is simply a group of scholars who describe themselves as dedicated to advancing his theology and legacy through critical scholarship, engaged pedagogy, and constructive readings of his collected writings. But they described Bonhoeffer’s warnings about leaders who become “misleaders” interested only in their own power. How he warned in the 1930s that “when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately.” And always reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation to the victims of any societal order.”
They’re as non-partisan as it gets, so this is not the kind of statement they make easily, although it did come on the heels of the Christianity Today editorial that advocated the removal of the president from office that shook the evangelical world.
These Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, also admitted their own “complicity in the social order than has produced Donald Trump’s presidency and the many social and economic injustices that predate it.” And then pledged to actively resist policy goals that harm vulnerable people.
Paul told the Galatian church, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That would seem to imply that in Christ, there should be no distinctions such as evangelical, progressive, fundamentalist, or vanilla Christians. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But, big question: Did Paul say, there “should be” no division? Or did he say, “In Christ, there is no division?” That is something entirely different.
Back in 1949, 20 year Martin said: “We must bring Christ back to the center of the church.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but he may have been on to something important and particularly relevant today.
Of course, what it means to put Christ back at the center could be quite different depending on the church. But it is a really important point as we engage in what is going to be an even more divided electorate in 2020, in which the church is not supposed to be explicitly partisan.
With that in mind, we must always focus on what Jesus taught. What is your position on wealth inequality? What did Jesus say? What is your position on immigrants and foreigners? What did the prophets teach?
The question isn’t how you can fit some Jesus into your political views but how does Jesus inform your political views? This does not necessarily fit easily into one party, nor should it in a diverse society.
But for ourselves, as we remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we should all be asking questions with Christ in the center, such as:
Depending on your answer, you might be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical, but as Congressman John Lewis realized, “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
Bryan Stevenson suggests four ways:
1. Get proximate to those who are suffering
2. Challenge and change existing narratives
3. Be willing to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable
4. Stay hopeful
Stevenson said, "You cannot change the world if you allow yourself to become hopeless. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists, and so you've got to find a way to stay hopeful. You either are hopeful or you're the problem. I hate saying it like that but I really do believe it, because your hope is your super power. Hope will allow you sometimes to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet. When you're hopeful you can actually believe things and see things that other people can't."
Call to Confession
Dr. King once said, “Nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Truly, the work of justice begins with a proper recognition that injustice is real. Let us confess those things that distract and consume us. And let us be awakened by the movement of the Spirit that gives us and the whole world life.
Unison Prayer of Confession
God of Justice, whenever we settle for the way things are instead of the way you would have them to be, forgive us.
Whenever we are paralyzed by fear or limited in vision, increase our trust in you.
Whenever we offer charity, but fail to work for justice, show us the more excellent way that your love requires.
Whenever we tire of our struggles and tomorrow feels overwhelming, restore our hope.
Whenever we forget those who have gone before us or act is if we were the first to struggle, allow us to recognize our arrogance.
May the witness of our brother Martin encourage us to be dreamers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The Assurance of God’s Pardon
If, by reflection, analysis, and prayer, we are freed to acknowledge the wrongs around us, the pain among us, the selfishness within us, and the work before us, God’s call is constantly being revealed in us. Always remember and never forget: The liberating love of God is at work within you!
 Inspired by Paul Rauschenbusch – adapted from 7 Ways to be an MLK Christian
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 12, 2020
“Baptism: An Act of Solidarity with the Poor"
Matthew 3: 13-17 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus was just born a few weeks ago and today he’s already 30 years old. What happened in between? Well, among other things, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he was visited by the wise men from the East and then his family fled violence to live as refugees for a few years in Egypt. Then, when Mary and Joseph felt it was safe to leave, they moved the family to Nazareth. Then what?
Jesus was curious so he traveled eastward with his best friend to meet up with those three wise men – a magician, a Buddhist, and a Hindu Yogi. At least as it is recorded in The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. These three wise men taught him many things, including how to multiply food and how to become invisible. They taught him the origins of cappuccino, how rabbits became associated with Easter, and why Jews eat Chinese food on his birthday. When Jesus and Biff returned home, they shared stories of their adventures with their friends, including Maggie, who later in life became known as Mary Magdalene. These young friends shared their hopes and dreams and the occasional mischief, especially the foul-mouthed Biff, and argued over who got to play Moses in their games.
Since the Bible offers so little information, it’s stands to reason that people are left to speculate. Such speculation of the more serious kind, you know, less blasphemous and sacrilegious, often includes the suggestion that Jesus spent part of his young adulthood travelling, in particular among Eastern religions. For example, among others, the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ suggests he spent his youth travelling across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt.
Modern scholars, however, including Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus are supported by actual scholarship and that any suggestions that Jesus, in particular, came into contact with Buddhism are “without historical foundation.” In fact, Leslie Houlden states that all of these modern comparisons only emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century. Which is kind of disappointing. Jesus and the Buddha obviously never met, since they were born 500 years apart, but I still like the idea that they would have been good friends – like the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I love pictures of the two of them poking at each other and making each other giggle.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph went every year with Jesus to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. You may recall the year when he was 12 years old, he went missing. After three days of travel on the return home, his parents realized Jesus was nowhere to be found. They rushed back to Jerusalem and discovered Jesus sitting in the Temple among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. His parents, a little irritated at Jesus, asked him why he has treated them so poorly? Jesus simply responded, “where else do you think I’d be?” Or something similarly nonchalant. I’m not sure exactly what Mary or Joseph said next, but Luke 2:51 reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth with them and was “obedient to them.” Seems to me there might have been a little ear tugging involved. The last thing the Gospel of Luke reports about his childhood was that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” How? Who knows?
The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus spent his young adult years as a carpenter, the profession of his father, or rather, his step-father. The Gospel of Matthew says the same thing. When people were upset with him and asked, “who does he think he is,” the response was, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son?”
There’s not much else available to us about those 18 “unknown, missing, or lost” years. The only other writing we can draw from was called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, dated somewhere around the year 80, the same time as the Gospel of Luke. In the end, it was not chosen to be part of the canon of scripture, perhaps because it is quite bizarre. Jesus is described in the same manner as a trickster in Greek mythology. And petulant. One-year old Jesus made the neighbors blind after they complained about something to Mary and Joseph. He killed a boy who accidentally bumped into him. Later, however, it’s all good because he healed everyone he harmed. This gospel is less charming than imagining Jesus and Biff learning magic from one of the wise men. Although, among the better stories in the Infancy Gospel is how he brought a clay pigeon to life after breathing into it.
Regardless, around the time he was 30 years old, Jesus presented himself to John and asked to be baptized.
One of the questions raised at Noodles and Company on Thursday was “what was baptism at that time?” Baptism has its root in the traditional miqvah, a ritual washing.
Back in Jerusalem, before a pilgrim could enter the main sanctuary of the temple, the court of the faithful, he had to completely immerse himself in its pool of clean water as a symbol of his ritual purification. For a fee. A hefty fee. It was quite a profitable enterprise. Enter the temple. Make a sacrifice. But, go further? Pay the price. However, if wealthy people wanted an even nicer experience, away from all those common folk, they could pay for a premium upgrade at the miqvah in the home of a priest. But among those commoners, the poorest of the poor couldn’t even afford the cheap ones. And therefore, could not enter the court of the faithful.
John, however, did not require a fee. The price of baptism was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path. Metanoia. To turn around. John turned the miqvah immersion in water from a purification ritual into a symbol of forgiveness. And furthermore, John declared that God’s forgiveness was free to anyone who asked for it. But hold on there… Only priests had the authority to declare God’s forgiveness – for a fee.
Therefore, more and more, increasing numbers of people started traveling the day’s long journey from Jerusalem to John’s cave along the Jordan to be baptized. Including the religious authorities upset that he was cutting into their profits. John called them out – why are you hypocrites and broods of vipers here?
Among those who showed up in those increasing numbers was Jesus, John’s cousin. Remember John’s mom Elizabeth and Jesus’ mom Mary were cousins. They visited each other while Mary was six months pregnant – now 30 years ago.
Why would Jesus ask to be baptized if the purpose was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path? Did his best friend Biff actually lead Jesus into a brief life of sin and debauchery while they lived among the wise men?
Well, here is an explanation by Richard Losch that I hadn’t considered before. Jesus asked for baptism by John to identify with the poor who couldn’t afford the hefty fee to enter the court of the faithful. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor – his very first act of pubic ministry. Which then, as he gathered followers, was quickly made explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, the first line of which is “Blessed are the poor.”
Baptism does, in fact, have many meanings. Repentance for sin. Forgiveness. A dying and rising to new life. An initiation into the church and the Christian faith. A promise. A dedication. A rite of passage. But, I especially like the addition: baptism is an act of solidarity with the poor.
Whatever it is, and all of what it is, baptism represents the transformation of what has been to what we hope and pray will be. In word and deed. Which is not a “once and done.” Not that we have to be baptized over and over, but to return regularly to examine what we promised, or what was promised for us. And get back on the better path.
That’s why we begin every new year with a renewal of our baptism vows. And as we enter the down and dirty of what could be a very nasty 2020, I’d like to invite us to consider what it means to us to be in solidarity with the forsaken, the persecuted, the lonely, the left out – everyone left behind in this economy. Everyone left behind in this country. Yet, not just left behind, but locked up. Caged up and thrown out.
Repentance for our participation in and benefit from the systems and structures of white supremacy. And then, metanoia, our promise to turn in a new direction, to walk a better path, to build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. With every word we choose to speak and with our every deed.
Afterall, what does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. But to also remember, not just once, our baptismal vows are to keep doing justice, to keep loving kindness, and to keep walking humbly, day by day, year by year, in solidarity with God and our neighbor.
A ritual for renewing our vows continues, including the following:
Remembering Our Promises
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, following in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?
And do you promise, by the grace of God, to grow in your faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation in the life of the church?
Then individuals come forward and touch their forehead with water while singing Here I Am
 Christopher Moore, 2003
 Richard Loesch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008, pp 222-225
 Micah 6:8
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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