Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 19, 2018
“A Blue Wave Won’t Fix This.
That’s Not Entirely Bad.”
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10 – NRSV
God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
A pastor, teacher, and public defender all died and went to heaven. Standing in front of the pearly gates, they looked for instructions where to line up. The pastor thought surely there must be an express line for her. The teacher and public defender similarly thought they deserved expedited service for their years of dedication to the public good. But all three had to stand in the same line as everyone else and wait their turn. When it came their time, Saint Peter came over with his clipboard and explained that everyone needed 100 points to get in. They all thought that should be easy.
The pastor proclaimed, “I was a minister of the gospel for 47 years.” The teacher proclaimed, “I taught sex ed to middle schoolers for 30 years.” The public defended proclaimed, “I saved the lives of over 200 falsely accused men and women.” Peter exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. You each get one point!” Each of the recently deceased protested. “That’s all I get for 47 years of ministry?” The teacher leaned in, “Have you ever spent even one day in a classroom with 30 boys who haven’t discovered deodorant?” Peter wasn’t amused. He reiterated: “One point.”
So, each began to list things they thought should count as points, one after another. I tutored a neighborhood child. I spent a week at church camp. I marched in Selma. One by one, Peter put checks next to each name and kept a running tab. “OK, you’re each up to four points. Just 96 more.”
The threesome looked at each other in distress. The teacher said, “I don’t think I have 96 more examples.” The pastor yelled at Peter, “This isn’t fair. I’ve given my whole life to the church.” The public defender shook her head and finally said, “I don’t stand a chance, except for the grace of God.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Peter handed her a ticket and swung the gate open wide. She smiled back as she walked in, as the other two quickly yelled at Peter, “Grace! Grace!”
Week after week this summer, the news has given us another reason to feel depressed one day, outraged the next; or “fired up and ready to resist” one day, and “I’m worn out, let’s just wait this out,” the next, each week causing more people to slowly disconnect from the news.
I reflected back on some of the sermons I’ve preached this summer, one of which, about the underserved suffering of Job and the separated families, I ended by saying we need to just sit in some old fashioned biblical lamentation. I’ve tried to encourage us with reminders that when all we can do is sigh, that is, in fact, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I’ve given rallying cries for resistance as well as encouraged breathing and making sure we take time for rest. In each sermon, I tried to listen faithfully to the text for our call as Christians during these distressing and disgusting times, last week wondering, how can some Christians just stand by all as all this happens, and not just stand by, but actually approve at rates higher than the rest of the country?
John Pavlovitz joins in wonderment. The early Christians, he wrote, the immediate followers of Jesus, joined him in welcoming the outcast and the vulnerable—they didn’t refuse to serve them or harass them at school.
Christians then, cared for the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked—they didn’t claim they were lazy and had made bad choices.
Christians then, sought to destroy social barriers between people—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. They didn’t try to make the barriers worse.
Christians then, pushed back against the powers that hoarded wealth—they didn’t admire them.
Christians then, loved their desperate neighbors as themselves—they didn’t wall them off and lock their kids in cages.
Politicians can say and do all they want, but Christians can’t hold up “John 3:16” signs at football games and proclaim “For God so loved the world” and then angrily yell “America First” at rallies.
And a blue wave in November or a red wave the next won’t fundamentally change the dynamic of division in our country. It all leaves me feeling both ready to fight and hopeless at the same time.
And then I came upon this text: God said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong. The president loves to divide people into the weak and the strong. To him, calling someone weak is the ultimate insult. That’s why he loves dictators. Because they are strong. He would have been a huge admirer of Caesar and the ruthless power of the Roman Empire. And yet, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to demonstrate the opposite.
Jesus lays out his vision at the beginning of his ministry in what we call the Beatitudes – known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. The more familiar in Matthew speaks only of blessings, though they are upside down, such as blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort; and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But the version in Luke is much more pointed:
20 Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Those are pretty strong statements! They are also examples of things for which we don’t strive. They are not achievements. We don’t try to be poor or hungry or to weep. But they are one way to illustrate Paul’s claim that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The experience of grace isn’t found in those things we can achieve, but grace is revealed each time we say, I can’t. Or, I don’t know how I can possibly do this anymore.
But first, what is the context of Paul’s statement? Earlier in same chapter, Paul says we shouldn’t boast, even if we have a right to do so, whether it is teaching middle school sex ed or being a pastor for 47 years. And yet, Paul has also just listed how he has suffered as an apostle: imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwrecks, and the danger and hardships of long journeys: from bandits, rivers, hunger, thirst, cold, to walking hundreds of miles across Asia Minor and Greece. “But I’m not bragging!”
He is, rather, likely trying to defend himself against adversaries, or an adversary, unnamed but probably in Jerusalem, who criticized Paul, for unknown reasons. Kind of vague, right? But hearing only one side of a conversation does that. If I’m listening to someone talk on the phone but I don’t know what the other person is saying, I can only guess and fill in the blanks. The comedian Bob Newhart was a genius at doing this. That’s what these letters of Paul are, whether to the Corinthians or Romans or whomever else. But further complicating matters, this book known as 2nd Corinthians is not just one letter but a combination of perhaps three letters, written at different times about different issues. We’re left to try to figure out what’s going on behind the story.
And yet, whether it’s an actual adversary or something else, in this text he called his adversity a “thorn” in his flesh. He prayed to God three times to take it away, but, he said, God would not. This thorn is the subject of much speculation. Scholars have offered lots of opinions, including, as I mentioned before, a particularly difficult, unknown critic. Others have suggested that he suffered because of a physical problem, or maybe migraines, or maybe depression. Maybe he was trying to control bouts of anger or some other torment. Some scholars have even said that perhaps he struggled with sexuality.
But by not naming his thorn, we’re invited to each name our own. Things we wish we could get rid of or change but will not go away. If I ask you, “What is your thorn in the flesh,” you could probably answer without too much trouble. The president has a new thorn named Omarosa. But with all seriousness, that which we may consider our greatest torment or fault is the source of our greatest strength. Whether it is the thing that causes us to lose sleep at night, or a chronic illness, Paul suggests, from his experience, it is a source of strength. Why? Precisely because when we feel most at our wits end, that is when we are most open to a power not of our own making.
I have some questions:
What is a reason you can’t sleep at night? What keeps you up?
Is there someone who constantly torments you or criticizes you?
Where in your body do you experience pain or anxiety?
What emotion do you find yourself unable to control at times?
What or who do you wish would just go away?
Those things are ultimately our strength because they make us most open to God. We may even come to realize we are strongest in our broken places.
For me as a young man, it was being gay. I had no conception that anything good could come from it. All I saw was limitation. Pain. Heartache. I wanted God to take it away. I got down on my knees and prayed a lot more than three times for God to relieve me of the thorn in my flesh. But when I was at my lowest, when I had nothing left with which to fight, I finally let go and let God into my greatest brokenness. I did not expect it to be a blessing. But because of it, I found a strength I would not have otherwise known. Because of my thorn, I came to understand the line from Ernest Hemingway: “Life breaks all of us, but some of us come to realize we are the strongest in our broken places.”
That reason we can’t sleep at night.
That person who is constantly tormenting and criticizing.
That very place in our body where we experience pain and anxiety.
That emotion we can’t control.
The very thing we wish would just go away but won’t.
That’s not something a blue wave can fix. And that’s not entirely bad.
We find strength in some of the oddest places. The five-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death is coming up in a few days. I was reminded how, a few months after, my sister Judy saw a tree-trimming service working at her neighbor’s house. She crossed the street and asked the foreman to come over and look at the dead tree in her backyard. It was one of many tasks her husband would have taken care of, but with his death, it was one more thing she had to deal with. My sister was worried it could fall on the house, but the man told her she didn’t need to worry. “Cottonwoods are stronger in death than they are in life.”
It was another occasion when a complete stranger said something that brought my sister to tears. He stood there, his flannel shirt covered in saw dust, and just held her. I looked on a forestry website to see if it was indeed true, and though I’m not sure that it is, regardless, it was one of those broken moments which provided her with the strength she needed to get through one more day.
When we are weak, then we are strong. Our greatest pain may be the source of our greatest strength. I wonder if our country isn’t ultimately going to be stronger because of this time of brokenness. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. To stop living from election to election as though that’s going to fix us.
Meanwhile, there are going to be times when we feel like we have nothing left to give. It is in that moment, the grace we need will be sufficient. Whether we need 96 more points or just three.
 Luke 6:20-26
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, page 103
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 12, 2018
“Chipping Away, Tweet by Tweet”
Ephesians 4:29-5:2 – NRSV
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Tasuku was a stonecutter. His job was to cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. Day after day he stood at the bottom of a mountain and chipped away at the hard rock with his little chisel. One day he saw a prince who passed by wearing beautiful, colorful clothes and Tasuku envied the prince. He wished he could have that kind of wealth and power. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku and granted his wish. He became a wealthy prince.
Tasuku was enjoying his silk clothes and happy with his powerful armies, until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished he had the kind of power the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with the power to parch fields and humble the people with their thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun, until a cloud covered him and blocked his powerful heat. With that, he made another wish, and the Spirit complied. Tasuku became a cloud with the power to cover the sun and send powerful rains and floods and storms to destroy whatever he wanted.
Tasuku was happy to be the cloud, until he realized the mountain stood solid despite all his storms and floods. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed. Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than any prince, the sun, or a cloud. And he was happy, until he felt a chisel chipping away at his feet. It was a stonecutter – cutting blocks from the foot of the mountain to sell for his daily living. What do you suppose he wished to be then?
There is an obvious moral of the story that when we wish to be something we’re not, we’ll eventually find ourselves wishing to be who we were in the first place. Being someone else just brings its own set of problems. So, accept yourself and appreciate your gifts.
But as I came across the story again this week, it made me think how every day, little by little, tweet by tweet, a stonecutter is chipping away at the foundations of decency and democracy. In his first year, by means of 2,568 tweets. Since he started tweeting, 222 that call someone dumb, 183 that call people stupid, 156 that call someone weak, and 234 that call someone a loser, which I thought was a pretty low number. Little by little, tweet by tweet, chipping away.
As you likely know already, today is the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of Heather Heyer. And the debauched claim of the Sympathizer in Chief of “very fine people on both sides” among those white supremacists, neo-nazis, and members of the KKK. Ask the 400,000 Americans who died fighting in World War 2 whether nazis aren’t such a big deal. But little equivocations like “both sides” chip away.
The Pulitzer prize winning journalist Connie Schultz was on TV the other day and someone tweeted at her, “the horizontal wrinkle between your eyes is distracting. Botox can fix that.” Connie, who by the way is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, admired the person’s ability to focus on her nose as she discussed the continuing crisis of family separations and then explained it’s not a wrinkle but a scar. When she was 8, her father put a swing set in the backyard. She peered up, hands shading the sun from her eyes, and thought how cool it would be to climb to the top. Her father, sensing this, said “Don’t even think about it.” Mom added, “You could get hurt. And even die.” Connie climbed it anyway and fell facedown into the glider, slicing open the space between her eyes. You can imagine the sight of an 8-year-old with blood seemingly streaming from her eyes. As they left the emergency room, her mother said “You’re going to have a big scar, young lady. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” “Which I was,” Connie said, as she admired the black threads of the stitches between her eyes, “but I wasn’t going to say it.” She replied to the tweeter, “This is what 61 looks like. And reminds me of a girl who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This little scar inspires me.”
Little things like a scar can build us up, remind us of courage and tenacity, and little things like a tweet can chip away until the mountain has fallen. A mountain no one ever thought could be brought down. Perhaps by a missile but not with a few words typed on a screen. More disturbingly, however, the abundance of words not spoken.
The more egregious the tweet, the more united you would think the country would become as we recognize the threat to our shared existence on this land. Or at least you would think as Christians – whether liberal or conservative – we would be united against this threat. We share the same scriptures, like this one today from Ephesians. And with Muslims and Jews and Christians, we share the same God.
I have a book on my desk I’ve been meaning to read again. It’s Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, written way back in the quaint old days when life was simpler in 2011. As I look at it on my desk, I keep thinking, yes, that’s what we need to prepare ourselves for. We need to help heal our country.
And how might we begin? First, by knowing what we are, and who we are, seeking to become. Today’s text from the Book of Ephesians provides a pretty good description of an old life and a new one in Christ. It begins by providing some powerfully descriptive words for our present state: Wrangling, bitterness, wrath, slander, and malice.
Those are fascinating words. I had a little fun with a thesaurus and followed a trail of synonyms. For example, if you turn in the middle of your bulletin, you will see the word wrath, with its descriptors of rage and anger and frenzy. But then follow those words. They include the imaginative richness of words like rant and rave, blather, nonsense, irritation, obsession, and whirl. Might another word for whirl be chaos? We can certainly picture the malignancy of malicious tweets full of nastiness, cruelty, spitefulness, and vindictiveness. The Book of Ephesians vividly and remarkably describes the world in which we are living.
Obviously, the early Christians struggled with this in their day too or these words would not have been chosen. Perhaps it is cold comfort to know we are in good company, or bad company, that is. But, whether it was 60 years after the death of Jesus when Ephesians was written, or 2,000, I find the description of a new life in Christ compelling.
Healing our divided world is one thing. But must we not also address the divided church of evangelicals and conservatives vs. moderates and progressives. The divisions in the early church were often related to differences between Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were not. You know, of course, that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was prophet who loved his own. It all simply started as a reformation movement. But, Jesus had a way of drawing Jews and Gentiles together. And after his death, the question was, must Gentiles convert to Judaism first? Ephesians was a letter that circulated among many Christian communities that, among other things, addressed this conflict.
The author made unity a central theme. But also described this unity as already achieved. In chapter two it says, “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near… For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Consider our current context in these ancient words. But notice, the healing of this division is not something yet to be accomplished. It is in the past, settled, resolved.
There is another passage you’ve likely heard before from Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and through all and in all.”
If what you heard in my sermon last week is that evangelicals and progressives are divided, this text is a correction. We are united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism, even though we may disagree about its meaning and implications. Our unity exists. Though it may be easier to see the divisions among us. But, like Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eyes before noticing the speck in your neighbors.”
No one can change the ways of our Tweeter in Chief, but we can change ourselves. Plus, as Grace Aheron, a campus minister in Charlottesville, tweeted, “Jesus didn’t spend time trying to change the mind of Caesar. He was demonstrating the kind of world that could exist.”
Today’s verses are remarkably tweetable and even fall within the requirement of the number of characters Twitter allows. They also demonstrate the kind of world which stands in contrast to Caesars, then and now, whether in Rome or Washington.
With 132 characters:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up so that your words may give grace to those who hear”
And with 104 characters:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”
“be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you”
And finally, another 146 characters:
“be imitators of God, as beloved children and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”
Among these words, my favorite descriptor of a new life in Christ is “forgiving.” At first blush, not the most exciting. It seems a little bland, ordinary. But follow the synonym trail: “Merciful, magnanimous, big, generous, liberal, open-minded, unprejudiced.”
Have you ever described “forgiving” in that way? That’s our calling if we seek a life whose foundation is Christ. That, to me, is compelling. To set aside bitterness toward our neighbors and rather be magnanimous, liberal, open-minded and unprejudiced, through acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and compassion. Just as Jesus has done toward us. A mix of doing and being.
What then, however, does that say about our response to those very fine neo-nazis who went on a murderous rampage one year ago today? That’s our constant challenge. To be compassionate, but not accomplices to injustice. Gentle, but not appeasers of racists. Thoughtful, but not silent to violence, whether it’s the violence of the KKK or that which has been done to kids in cages.
We might be intimidated by the size of the mountain in front of us. But slander, malice, and wrath are not made of granite. And those tweets will eventually vanish into thin air. The mountain of their invincibility is just an illusion. It’s just a pile of sand, and that doesn’t require the skill of a stonecutter but just a bunch of us with buckets. And little by little, we can bring it down until it has fallen into the dust heap of history. And while some are tearing down, others can be rebuilding, brick by brick, stone upon stone. It’s the little efforts by all of us that will build us up and heal the heart of our democracy.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 5, 2018
“Understanding Trump and Evangelicals”
2nd Samuel 11:26 – 12:13 – Common English Bible
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27 After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.
But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.
12 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. 2 The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.
4 “Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”
5 David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! 6 He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”
7 “You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. 8 I gave your master’s house to you and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. 9 Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. 10 Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
11 “This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.”
13 “I’ve sinned against the Lord!” David said to Nathan.
How do evangelicals stick with Trump? I don’t mean it as a partisan question or even necessarily a judgment. Not even why, so much as how. I just need to know how to explain how theologians justify, not the election, but given everything that has happened since the election, how support has actually increased.
Social scientists offer a variety of explanations, such as a disciplined single-minded dedication to achieving a Supreme Court that will enact their favored policies. Some will suggest various theories about race and economics. But my interest is in the theologians, not the politicians. And I found the answers I needed. Answers that make sense.
King David is one answer. A deeply flawed individual who, despite Bathsheba-gate, yet even so, became one of the most beloved leaders of the people. They just had to stick with him. That’s one explanation.
But the one cited most often, and the one I found most persuasive, is that he is the new King Cyrus. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, and therefore pagan, who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, ending their 70 years of exile in Babylon. He restored the people to their former glory and even helped them rebuild the Temple which lay in ruins. God used Cyrus the Great to restore the people. And God will use, or is using, Trump as a modern-day Cyrus to do the same thing. They shall be restored to their former days of glory.
Cyrus didn’t need to be perfect. There’s even a term for it. “Vessel theology.” What is important is not the vessel but what it carries. Cyrus was a vessel, even though he was a pagan. Just like, it’s explained, God chose Trump to be the president. And how can we question the wisdom of God?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly made this comparison, even having minted a coin for the occasion of the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. It had the face of King Cyrus and Trump side by side. Upon the announcement and return of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the comparison was proven. And Trump fully embraced the connection and even sent greetings on the Persian New Year, complete with a quote from Cyrus the Great. A few days late, and ironically, it was a fake quote. But nonetheless, the linkage was made explicit.
I’m not saying I agree, I’ll say more later, but theologically, this holds together. It makes sense. I found it helpful in understanding. Trump returned the exiles to Jerusalem and shall end their exile in America.
Cyrus is a pretty obscure figure in the Bible, so if you’ve never heard of him, you’re in good company. He appears most extensively in the Book of Ezra, which is so obscure it doesn’t even appear in our 3-year lectionary. There are several mentions of Cyrus in the Book of Daniel, too, a book which has to do with remaining faithful during times of persecution.
Daniel is a fascinating sub-story in all of this and has even been used to explain Mike Pence’s role. It’s a stretch even by hard core evangelicals to say that Trump himself is an evangelical. He’s given a “mulligan” as a “baby Christian.” And that’s why Mike Pence is so important.
Daniel is an outsider in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court but has gained tremendous power by his proximity. He remains untainted and “shows how God’s people can survive in exile – even under the fist of the most despotic ruler – so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” Daniel used his position of proximity to establish protections for the Jews and secure appointments for his friends. I’m not sure Pence embraces this comparison, but he is consistent in expressing his belief that evangelicals face some of the worst persecution in our country. And need to be protected. When Trump’s a bully, at least he’s being their bully.
They are oppressed and in exile. That’s as important a key to understanding evangelicals and Trump as almost anything else. Arguably more than any other factor, the degree to which a Christian describes him or herself as oppressed reveals their willingness to stick with anything Trump does. In a 2017 survey, 57% of white evangelical respondents reported they face discrimination comparable to, or even higher than, Muslims.
Part of that is that they feel they are being displaced in their own country want it back, one reason so many are opposed to immigration, despite the biblical command to welcome the stranger and the foreigner. To treat an immigrant as a native-born citizen. But when Trump described Haiti and African nations as “bleep-hole” countries, defenders like the “boys will be boys” megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress agreed. “Right on target,” he said. Immigration, whether by refugees fleeing actual persecution or crossing illegally, only represents a further diminishment of their power. Why can’t we have more Norwegians?
They feel like victims. Is it true? It doesn’t matter. And I understand. Their beliefs are often met with derision. Ignorant, backward. They are not always represented well on TV or in the movies. The country is less and less “culturally-Christian.”
But sticking with Trump no matter what he says or does doesn’t help matters. Respected polling firm PRRI asked evangelicals in 2011 if they believed a politician who commits immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. Only 30% agreed. 2011. When asked again in 2016, two weeks after the infamous Access Hollywood tape when Trump bragged about groping women, 72% of white evangelicals said a politician who committed immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. 30% before Access Hollywood; 72% after.
And ever since, no reports of payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models, whether true or not, matter. While poll numbers soften occasionally among some people, support is stronger than ever among evangelicals. Now, that is, white evangelicals. African American, Latino, and Asian Americans, who make up 13% of evangelicals, want to make that clear. They’re not quite so onboard and they understand the dog-whistle of America’s greatness means to Make America White Again.
Evangelicals below age 50 are not buying it either. In fact, Baptist General News, not the New York Times, Baptist General News warns that “continuing evangelical support for a scandal-ridden president is undermining the conservative white church and could even spell the death of Christianity [among younger people] in the United States.” The country is already becoming less religious as the number of people identifying as “nones” increases. And why wouldn’t they? Something as basic and obvious as flip-flopping on the morality of public leaders makes Christianity look hypocritical. Younger evangelicals were appalled by kids in cages. They care about the environment. The majority support protections for LGBTQ people and even marriage equality.
There is another way to read the King Cyrus narrative. King Cyrus represents the end of exile, the return that makes the people Great Again after things fell apart under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. What if it was the other way around and Trump is Nebuchadnezzar? He was a cruel man whose policies were brutal, but he was also considered a vessel of God. We can keep the vessel theology, but he was a means to punish the people for their lack of concern for widows and orphans. Prophets like Micah demanded, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Daniel told the king to “break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” Instead “Nebuchadnezzar deported over 3,000 of the leading scholars, religious leaders, artisans, and political leaders. Sent them away, beginning the Babylonian exile.” Waves followed. Otherwise known as a refugee crisis. And then he boasted about his great Babylon.
Yet, according to scripture, this was part of God’s plan, too. To use Nebuchadnezzar, as horrible as he was, to teach justice and mercy to the people with whom God had grown weary. If we want to assign a biblical character to Trump, it could just as easily be Nebuchadnezzar; filling the role of a cruel and brutal leader, an autocrat wanna-be, who brings the church to the brink of exile or even extinction for the sins of this age, with the promise of a future Cyrus still to come. The Trump-Cyrus comparison may not be as flattering as some want it to be.
The comparison of King David and Trump is also short-lived. When Nathan confronted David in our text today regarding his affair with Bathsheba and the cover-up, David immediately confessed, “I have sinned against God.” He repented and changed his ways. In contrast, when asked in 2015 whether he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump replied, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." This at the same event as he described the sacrament of communion as some wine and a “little cracker.”
I feel like I understand a little more about how evangelicals, older, white evangelicals, stick with Trump. There are other factors, but theologically and biblically, this explains how they can remain loyal. And they have been richly rewarded. Temporarily, but at what cost to the future of Christianity in America. What does it do to your soul to admire a man who scores bigly on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride. Sloth? But certainly gluttony. As David Horsey explains, not because of his affinity for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but his ravenous hunger for higher ratings and adoring crowds. He just can’t get enough.
As you heard, the story we read today ends at verse 13 with King David confessing, “I have sinned.” That’s where the lectionary ends. But the story doesn’t. In verse 14, Nathan then offers forgiveness. “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Confession and assurance of grace. The end. But curiously, that’s not the end either. Verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you and Bathsheba shall die.” The next couple of paragraphs tell about how their child does in fact die, how remorseful David is, and how they later have a son named Solomon, who after David’s 40-year reign, becomes the next king of Israel, widely considered the wisest king ever. Though David was forgiven, the text shows, he did not escape the consequences of his actions.
Which makes me wonder… What will be the long-term consequences of our present day? I don’t want to speak for what others may face, but I do want to be able to say we spoke up, we acted out, and we refused to give up. Our country deserves better than this.
With the weight of all we carry, we could feel
Not just distressed by all of this, but crushed.
Not just perplexed by it, but despairing,
Not just forgotten but forsaken,
Not simply dumb-struck but destroyed.
We could choose to respond in that way. Stay at home, close the blinds, or we could come together, as we have and will continue to do, and pray to God, proclaiming, as Paul did:
We may feel distressed but we shall never be crushed
Perplexed by all of this, but never driven to despair
Forgotten but never forsaken
And struck down, struggling to hold on to our hopes and our will to keep resisting, but never destroyed.
May God make us strong and courageous in the pursuit of the world that Jesus taught, that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. For everyone.
 Daniel 4:27
 Richard R. Loesch, All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture, Eerdmans, 2008
 2nd Corinthians 4:18, cited in a sermon by Walter Bruggemann, May 25, 2014
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 22, 2018
“Let America Be America Again”
2nd Samuel 7: 1-7 – The Message
1-2 Before long, the king made himself at home and God gave him peace from all his enemies. Then one day King David said to Nathan the prophet, “Look at this: Here I am, comfortable in a luxurious house of cedar, and the Chest of God sits in a plain tent.”
3 Nathan told the king, “Whatever is on your heart, go and do it. God is with you.”
4-7 But that night, the word of God came to Nathan saying, “Go and tell my servant David: This is God’s word on the matter: You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’
What are the signs that someone has too much time on their hands? The neighbor who puts up 100,000 Christmas lights? I did a little crowd-sourcing on Facebook for some ideas. Their replies included spending too much time on Facebook! Watching Rachel Maddow obsessively. Hey now! Shopping every day. Posting too many selfies. Keeping a white car clean. I have a white car but it is definitely not clean. By Friday morning my question had elicited more than 30 replies, including a colleague who explained, “In 12-step language, it's when someone else takes your 4th step inventory.” Lots of really thoughtful replies.
Of course, you may laugh at the idea that anyone could have too much time on their hands. But ask a student ready to go back to school. Why? To have some regular routine back in their life, and lunch. Ask someone who’s just retired. They haven’t yet discovered they’ll soon be busier than they’ve ever been. Too much time on his hands? Ask the king who has won all his battles and now has nothing better to do. That’s how my train of thought began on this passage; but more on that later.
I was at a meeting this week at which someone made the comment, “I hope things aren’t really as bad as they seem on the news.” It was a harmless statement. She didn’t mean anything more than to express hope. In my typically cheerful way, I replied, “No, they’re worse.” It kind of dropped the mic on the room! But while we’re overjoyed that the soccer team was rescued in Thailand, we can’t forget the kids locked in cages in America. They may not still be wrapped in foil blankets, but thousands are not yet wrapped in their parent’s arms. And some may never be. But the news media has moved on. It’s hard to blame them. There is too much to cover. There just isn’t enough time. Nor, perhaps, the will or even ability to pay attention to that much bad news. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically… Time is precious. And as Robin Wilkerson replied, “only worth the value we assign it.”
And yet time is also a privilege. It isn’t available in the same way for everyone, like anyone who has to take two buses to go from their first job to their second one. It isn’t available in the same way for those caring for their children one minute and their parents the next. You get the idea. Discretionary time can be just as valuable as discretionary money. Yet, supposing most of us have at least some measure of control over our time, how do we choose to spend it? Attending church is a choice you make, and I assure you, I take that into consideration every week. To try to make my sermons worth your time.
Since the election of 2016, I have been heartened by how many people have chosen to spend their time engaged in improving our communities. At the last Indivisible Denver meeting, there were more than 100 people in here on a hot, sweaty Sunday afternoon. Hot outside; sweltering inside. Just one group. How many hundreds of thousands of people have attended one march after another? Made phone calls, written letters. How many millions gathered for the Women’s Marches?
And yet, no disrespect meant, but Mexicans and Muslims and refugees and immigrants and people living paycheck to paycheck from Appalachia to the Zuni Pueblo have been asking for that same time and attention for a long time. The Rev. William Barber says, we need to “stop acting as though Trump is the first.” But then get to work because it’s still better to be late than never.
Langston Hughes is one of the poet geniuses of the Harlem Renaissance. His most famous poem asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Another poem from 1938, declares “Let America be America again” but adds, “America never was America to me.” “And yet,” he said,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Meaning, the dream of America.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
1938. He calls it “my land,” yet he reminds us, “There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” It never was America to me.
So what does it mean, then, to say, “Let America be America again?” A memory once dreamed? An unfulfilled promise? It’s a privilege to even ask. Is it a time that has already been or a time that has yet to be? It’s part of the conflict of being America in the time of Trump. It’s all of it. A few have already experienced America, yet it’s the paradox of Langston Hughes. Who are we?
So, back to King David. (It all ties together. I hope!) What caught my imagination as this story began was a man who had nothing but time on his hands. Who was he? Picture it: King David rambling around his immense mansion, wearing his robe and slippers, picking up objects, like vases and candlesticks, admiring each of them, putting them down. Walking out onto the veranda to view the scenes of his kingdom below, pacing a little, and then walking back inside his house. With too much time on his hands, he thought, let’s move God inside too. God needs a house.
His days were full of memories, the battles were done, a nation at peace. Prosperity was clearly evident as he wandered the hallways of his beautiful house made out of cedar. He might have actually preferred being in the pasture with his stinky, obstinate sheep. He might have missed the thrill of protecting them by fighting off lions and tigers and bears on moment’s notice. Or the danger of battle, starting out when he was just a boy using a simple sling shot on Goliath.
But with too much time on his hands he pondered: How about a special home for God? I live in house made of cedar. God lives in a box covered by a tent. In our text, it’s called the Chest of God, more commonly it’s known as the Ark of the Covenant. He was excited to tell Nathan his plans.
On the other hand, however, maybe, as he rambled the hallways, every time he picked up a vase or a candlestick, he was haunted by the memories of each home plundered to take those precious items. Troubled by the scenes of so many battlefields strewn with dead bodies – under his order. Perhaps he recalled the trauma of killing Goliath. We never think about what that must have been like for a young boy. Lions and tigers and bears are one thing, but that was his first human life. Maybe he was filled with regrets, like he is about to be over Bathsheba’s husband Uriah whom he sends, like a mob boss, to be killed on the front lines to cover-up David’s indiscretions. Once again, too much time on his hands.
His life may have appeared to be filled with peace and prosperity, but under it all, maybe he desperately longed to atone for his misdeeds. Forgiveness for his transgressions. So, therefore, as he rambled the hallways, he thought: I can make it up to God by building a grand house for the Almighty.
On the other hand, or I guess, now, on the other foot, maybe this was all an act of arrogance to further solidify his power. The kings of many nations surrounding Israel had built glorious temples for their gods, not out of devotion but in order to enhance their positions of power. Maybe David masterminded the idea of a grand house just like what all self-serving autocrats did, and do. Mine is bigger than yours, believe me.
Whatever the motivation, whether it was because he loved God (which he did), or because he was bored (which he probably was), or because he was tortured by his character flaws (which he definitely had)… Whether it was a power grab, an act of contrition, an act of devotion… or all three, it didn’t matter to Nathan because, as he observed, God loved David in way like no other. So, without even stopping to think about it, Nathan said to David, “If you want to, God will approve.”
What was his motivation? Boredom? Ego, regret, love… In the age of Trump, it’s probably a good idea to ask those questions of ourselves too. Who are we? And what are our motivations?
One of the positive results of the election is the number of white people who have begun to see white supremacy. Willing to understand white privilege. But it’s another paradox of our times that such motivation includes some mix of ego, regret, and love. Among writers who are grateful for this “new” awareness are some increasingly frustrated by those who are well-meaning but exhausting – people falling over themselves to prove how not racist they are; almost like a competition about who can be the most “woke.” Are they motivated by dismantling such privilege, confronting and tearing down the foundations of white supremacy, whether it be through the means of mass incarceration or Muslim bans or kids in cages? Or is it about not looking bad? What are we trying to achieve? Destruction or accommodation?
And what was King David trying to achieve? Building a house for God sounds like a nice idea. Even the Prophet Nathan thought so. Until God spoke. “What do I need this for? Have I ever asked for this?” Did David understand the implications of what he was proposing? We might think it is primitive to imagine God as living in a box. Quaint and silly. But what that meant, theologically, is that God went everywhere the people went. This represented a God who dwelt in the midst of them. Moving God’s residence to a grand permanent house meant the people now had to go to God. God would become unmovable. And soon, inaccessible but to a few.
Do you see why this matters? Who benefits from confining God to one place? The person who controls that place. The people seeking to build and impose restrictions on a once free people. Those invested in the power and wealth of an empire, a monarchy. All of these motivations were disguised by the promise of a pretty pink palace. Disguised just like how much of what passes for patriotism in America has nothing to do with respecting the flag or saluting the troops but for power and control. Just like, who dare question a beautiful palace for God? All without asking, is that really who God is? Not what God wants, but who God is. And all without asking, is that really who America is? We’re just flags and anthems?
I agree with Langston: Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Whether it’s ever really been true before or not, out of the rack and ruin… the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies – We the People say No:
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
You know what: That’s all the Prophet Nathan is saying too. Let God be God again. Free, not confined.
So, as the text continues, after saying, “I never asked for a house built of cedar,” God told Nathan to tell David, “this is what I’m going to do instead – for you. I will build you a house. Not a house for you. But you as a house for generations to come and guarantee your kingdom’s permanent rule. And I will never take away my love. I will discipline and correct the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, but I’ll never remove my gracious love.”
That same promise lives on today in people of God. In the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, (boy o boy!) and those days when we feel bereft of optimism, and when things are not better but really much worse than we hoped, yet, the promise of God remains to make us God’s house, “a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, [like God, and] Equality is the air we breathe.”
Just let me say, worrying too much about all this is a sign that we have too much time on our hands. Better, instead, to listen to prophets like Nathan, when to stand up and show up and speak up. Instead of alphabetizing our spice rack one more time, can you spare some of your precious time, our privilege of time, so that America can be America again? Can is the wrong word. Will you?
 Paraphrased 2nd Samuel 7:11-16
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 8, 2018
“Hey Permit Patty (and all the rest).
This is Personal: Book of Job, Part 3”
Job 38: 22-30 – The Message
Have you ever traveled to where snow is made,
seen the vault where hail is stockpiled,
The arsenals of hail and snow that I keep in readiness
for times of trouble and battle and war?
Can you find your way to where lightning is launched,
or to the place from which the wind blows?
Who do you suppose carves canyons
for the downpours of rain, and charts
the route of thunderstorms
That bring water to unvisited fields,
deserts no one ever lays eyes on,
Drenching the useless wastelands
so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass?
And who do you think is the father of rain and dew,
the mother of ice and frost?
You don’t for a minute imagine
these marvels of weather just happen, do you?
It feels personal this time. I can’t help it. This feels personal. When I heard the news that Justice Kennedy was retiring from the Supreme Court, my heart sank a few extra feet. Not only my heart, but my toes felt heavy. My marriage was decided by his vote. Well, not really. We were married before the Supreme Court came to a 5-4 decision that it would be legally recognized. But, because of that decision, as an example, I have my health insurance as the spouse of a federal employee. Sloppy billing has even issued an invoice or two to Mrs. Pate. Nothing has actually changed, except the feeling of a looming threat. It had already been a tough week to read or listen to the news.
Working on this three week series, however, I eventually realized I was having a Job moment, because I had made it all about me. We often look at the Book of Job through the lens of the question: Why does a God who is just and good allow horrible things to happen to innocent people? We started two weeks ago by asking “why” about innocent kids locked in cages, ripped from their parents and scattered across the country. Rabbi Harold Kushner famously posed the question as: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But that’s not the only question or, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, even the central one. She said, Job’s essential question was “Why do bad things happen to me?” He made it personal.
She said, “For Job, there were only two alternatives: either 1) all of this terrible stuff was happening because there is something wrong with me, or 2) all of this terrible stuff was happening because there is something wrong with God. And since Job knew that number one was not true – backed up by verse one, chapter one about this decent upright man – the only alternative was number two. God is the problem, even though he wasn’t willing to say it out loud, at first. In fact, his wife tried to get him to blame God, all the way back in chapter two. “Why do you persist in your precious integrity? Curse God and be done with it.” He told her “No! We take the good days from God – why not the bad days also?” That’s a good point. Any day we wake up and think, “Why me?” is a good day to remember, “Why not me?”
Job said, “Why not me,” yet he continued to protest that it wasn’t fair because it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t deserve to be treated in such a way, especially as he had to defend himself against his three friends. They demanded that it had to be his fault. Bad things don’t just happen. They happen for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. And over and over, they said, that reason is you.
So, in the news this week, a judge ordered the administration to begin reuniting families, but they’ve discovered a clever, new twist on cruelty. Who comes up with these?! Families are reportedly being offered two choices: Leave the country with your kids or leave the country without your kids. They are dangling reunification as an incentive to get them to drop an asylum claim. A former ICE official stated, it becomes particularly difficult after a parent is no longer on American soil; in those cases, “there is a very high risk that parents and children will be permanently separated.” Immigration rights advocates say forcing parents to choose immediately between leaving with or without their kids means they are effectively prevented from seeking asylum. That’s against the law, not to mention, human decency.
Where does the fault lie? If we were to consider the two options presented by the Book of Job, according to Taylor, that would either be the parent or God. An analysis from a social justice perspective would add more options.
But first, let’s offer God an opportunity to “speak.” After more than 35 chapters of speeches and counter-speeches between Job and his three friends, chapter 38 begins: “And now, finally, God answered Job. ‘Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you are talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers.’”
It sounds like Job is about to receive a lecture. And God does, indeed, go on for the next 70 verses. Starting with, “Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you seem to know so much.” A lecture, yes, but really, it’s just a very, very long list of questions, such as, “Have you ever travelled to where snow is made?” Questions asked from a distance, by a distant God. At least, at first. The tone changes. If we stuck with only the verses assigned when Job comes up in the lectionary, we would only hear the words of a big, loud, demanding and impatient God, read in worship with a big, loud, demanding, and impatient voice: “Where were you when I created the earth?!!!” That’s one way to read it. But as God continues, the questions become less distant. Inquiries such as
Beautiful, intimate images. Can you imagine an angry God asking, “Have you ever watched a doe give birth?” Would an angry God ask, “Did you teach the eagle how to build her nest in the heights, perfectly at home on the high cliff face?” They are tender images. Inquisitive, not The Inquisition.
God made it personal. Not shouting at Job to understand but quietly, persistently, asserting that if God pays attention to such things as helping hawks learn to fly, then God is paying attention to you too.
As Job listened, he exclaimed, “I’m speechless, in awe – words fail me. I’ve talked too much, way too much.”
But his final words are the really powerful ones: “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand – from my own eyes and ears. I’m sorry – forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise. I’ll never again live on crusts of hear-say, and crumbs of rumor.”
The distance between God and Job had been bridged; God was no longer above but alongside. Now, does that prevent suffering? Maybe. Maybe not. But, regardless, it says to me, we may not be prevented from suffering, but we are not prevented from healing. And healing is as real as suffering. People of faith, remember, healing is as real as suffering. The truth is not just that we are a broken nation. The truth is that we will heal.
But, wait, this story is not over yet. God then turns to Job’s “friends.” God’s pointed question to Job – where were you when I created the earth – can be interpreted. At least the tone. Their interaction can be The Inquisition or simply inquisitive. But you can’t misinterpret God’s words to his friends: “After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, ‘I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up. You haven’t been honest either with me or about me – not the way Job, my friend, has.’” God went on to require acts of penance for the way they treated Job.
In the end, Job did not get an explanation for his suffering. Instead, God, originally only as distant as the farthest star, became as close to him as his breathing. Not a rumor. Nor some hear-say, but his friend. That’s who God is.
We often approach the Book of Job as a question of underserved suffering. Why me? In the beginning, Job asked a more mature question – why not me? But he still struggled with it. Yet in the end, perhaps this isn’t as much about why there is suffering but who is God. Yes, “the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost.” But when we keep reading, God also says, “I am the one who teaches eagles how to build their nest on high cliffs to avoid predators.” And the message is, if God will do that for them, God will do it for us too. God is Job’s friend. Yes, but God also has a message to his other so-called friends.
The election has revealed more about our country than we expected. Talk about an understatement. But, for example, how many white people have mused, “Who knew our country was this racist?” Who knew?! Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, and other people of color didn’t just discover the death grip of white supremacy. Or how, ultimately, the structures of society matter more than anyone’s personal animosity – although Barbeque Becky and Permit Patty and Pool Patrol Paula and all the others who call the police questioning whether a man, woman, or child of color “belongs” somewhere, still demonstrates the need to not just change systems but also change hearts. It’s personal. And it felt personal when the police showed up at our house because, I’ll call her, Playground Penelope complained that Lance, then 12 or 13, was talking to a white girl. Perhaps you missed the story this week about the police called out on Janelle Bynam, an African American legislator canvassing door to door among constituents in her own district. But she looked suspicious. Until such calls become punished, not on social media but behind bars, evidence will remain that people of color are still only 3/5th of a person.
Dr. King once said, “The myth is that legislation can’t solve the problem… because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation.
Certainly, if the problem is to be solved, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.
So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”
As I said at the beginning, this time the news felt personal, my body heavy from head to heart and knees to toes. And then I beat myself up a little, thinking, I shouldn’t be so selfish. How can I justify being afraid when children have been ripped from their parent’s arms and scattered around the country? This isn’t just fear but their reality. But, of course, must it be either or? Perhaps we can use the story of Job and God as a lesson in building friendships and solidarity.
Some suffering is random. But not all suffering is random. Some is gleefully intentional. With recent executive orders meant to destroy affirmative action, with judicial decrees that downplay the need to protect voting rights, with the lack of legislation to protect Dreamers, or anything else to protect the assault on decency, or democracy, we must all find that place where our deepest fears meet in the solidarity of the suffering. To start with, to find what is personal and build bridges – from distance to friendship. From privileged bystanders to accomplices in resistance and accessories to dismantle this system of oppression and restrain the heartless.
As I said last week, we aren’t all called to the same task. But we are called to the same Christ. Job affirms, God is with us in our pain. And God is outraged, “I’m fed up with you” and those whose only mission is to cause more suffering. Like instead of asking, “who are these people and what are they fleeing?” deciding, “let’s make their life so miserable, they won’t come seeking refuge and asylum.” A big fat, “Who cares?”
But, like Job’s callous friends, they shall face their day and given the opportunity to repent. And then, “we the people,” damaged, shall heal. I am just as certain about that as I am that God knows the month when mountain goats give birth. And watches as the doe bears her fawn. And knows the season of her delivery, when she crouches down and drops her offspring.
I haven’t just heard rumors of this God. At my lowest point the other day, I felt this God, my God, your God, reside in that – personal – pain.
(What to get involved? )
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “On Not Being God,” Review and Expositor, 99, Fall 2002, page 609 http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=ed77c469-2848-4398-b072-2ec2f6695b97%40sessionmgr101
 Job 2: 9-10 – The Message (MSG)
 Job 39:1-3 MSG
 Job 29:27 MSG
 Job 40: 3-5 MSG
 Job 42: 1-6 MSG
 Job 42: 7-8 MSG
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 1, 2018
“Dinner at the Red Hen with Jesus and Jeremiah: Book of Job, Part 2”
Job 28: 1-12 – The Message
“We all know how silver seams the rocks,
we’ve seen the stuff from which gold is refined,
We’re aware of how iron is dug out of the ground
and copper is smelted from rock.
Miners penetrate the earth’s darkness,
searching the roots of the mountains for ore,
digging away in the suffocating darkness.
Far from civilization, far from the traffic,
they cut a shaft,
and are lowered into it by ropes.
Earth’s surface is a field for grain,
but its depths are a forge
Firing sapphires from stones
and chiseling gold from rocks.
Vultures are blind to its riches,
hawks never lay eyes on it.
Wild animals are oblivious to it,
lions don’t know it’s there.
Miners hammer away at the rock,
they uproot the mountains.
They tunnel through the rock
and find all kinds of beautiful gems.
They discover the origins of rivers,
and bring earth’s secrets to light.
12 “But where, oh where, will they find Wisdom?
Last week I started a three-week series on the Book of Job with a sermon some described as “gut wrenching” as they were leaving. As I preached, I did, in fact, look out onto a congregation of people with tears and red eyes. I reflected on the main question of Job: Why would a God who is just and good allow horrible things to happen to innocent people? Innocent people, such as children from toddlers to teens ripped from the arms of their parents seeking asylum, held in cages, and then scattered around the country.
It’s a question of undeserved suffering. I explained that the response of Job’s friends was to sit on the ground with him for seven days and nights. They cried together in lamentation, ripped their clothes, and poured dirt over their heads. They sat on the ground with him and didn’t say a word. If only they had stopped there. Packed up their things and returned home. But instead they began to speak.
His friends tried out every excuse they could think of to find blame. Each of his three friends made three long, extended arguments. Speeches, really. Including, speaking of his loss, “think of it as a blessing that God wants to teach you.” On the other hand, they also insisted that sin is the source of all suffering. “Explore the depths of your soul, my friend. Surely, you have sinned to deserve this.”
The speeches of Job’s friends are another way this remains a universal story thousands of years later. They offered the modern equivalent of such wisdom as “You’re better off without that job.” Or, “Better off without him.” Or, “Well, at least she didn’t suffer.” Or, “Well, it could have been worse,” except that the story of Job is about how, no, nothing could have been worse.
But as Eugene Peterson explains, “Sufferers attract fixers the way roadkill attracts vultures.” At my 2-year-old nephew’s funeral, the pastor comforted us with the vulture-like words, “God needed another flower in his garden.” Sure, we say things like that because we don’t want to see people suffer, we struggle to find words of empathy and understanding for our friends, yet saying nothing is often better than “Are you sure you didn’t do something to do deserve this? Really sure? Really, really sure, cross your fingers and hope to die?”
Each time, Job replied back, including some very understandable self-pity: “Let God squash me like a bug, and be done with me for good. Where’s the strength to keep my hopes up? What future do I have to keep me going? Do you think I have nerves of steel? Do you think I can pull myself up by my bootstraps? I don’t have any boots!”
Sprinkled among Job’s responses are such wistful sentiments as “Oh, how I long for the good old days” to an even more bleak, “Why didn’t I just die at birth, my first breath out of the womb my last.” To which his good friend Eliphaz responded, “It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble. Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?” Yeah, thanks for being so understanding.
But Job also made some very eloquent counter-arguments, like the today’s reading. I really resonated with Job’s statement: “Earth’s surface is a field of grain, but its depths are a forge.”
As I read through Job, that caught my eye. It might have been a dig at his friends for their shallow understanding of his suffering. If they looked deeper, they might better understand. But I also took it to mean that what’s on the surface is pretty. But what’s under the surface is beautiful. Job said, underground you can find sapphires and gold. Birds flying overhead will never see it. Wild animals will walk over the top of it but never know it’s there. Most humans too. But miners who hammer away at rock, who tunnel through the rock, will find all kinds of beautiful gems. They will discover the origins of rivers, and bring earth’s secrets to light. Yes, but where you will find wisdom?
You may find it amusing that these verses brought to mind how Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Wow, that’s a stretch, you might say! But, here’s how.
When I first heard the story, I found fault with the owner asking Sanders to leave. That’s too far. We can’t stoop to that level, I thought. If we want civility in our world, we can’t practice incivility, no matter how sincere the intentions. More to the point, our Christian faith teaches: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Taking our cues from Jesus – we are called to love our enemies, although I don’t want to get into calling someone with whom we disagree an enemy. But you get the idea. Ultimately, what our world needs is for people to act better, not more people to act worse.
It took me a minute to realize, however, that my response was only surface level Christianity. Pretty. Nice, polite. Might we not need something deeper? And might not even Jesus suggest something more than “Do unto others” at this moment in history? Perhaps it depends on whether you think our country is inching closer to… I’m not sure exactly what.
Back to the Red Hen. I was intrigued by a person who suggested an alternative response: “tell Sarah we will treat you tonight the way everyone who comes to America’s door should be treated.” Another person suggested an even more subversive statement: “If you want to eat here, we will feed you. We will treat you with dignity. We will offer you hospitality. But know this. Any money you spend here tonight will be given to a legal defense fund for kids in cages.”
That’s the kind of thing Jesus taught when he told his followers to go a second mile or turn the other cheek. As I’ve said many times in the past two years, Jesus wasn’t talking about how to be a doormat but how to confound the Empire.
This second set of responses begins to open our moral imagination, offering something between resignation and rage. And deeper, more beautiful, than “be nice.”
But is even that enough? A number of people I respect began questioning, tentatively, at first. For example, Diana Butler Bass shared on Twitter: “I’m going to say something controversial. I don’t believe in public shaming. But I also don’t believe in false civility.” I held my breath before beginning to read the responses, expecting the worst. Instead, I heard some very thoughtful comments. And by going below the surface, I learned that the restaurant owner actually didn’t publicly shame Sanders. She quietly pulled her aside and even paid for the food and drink already consumed. Sanders made it public and shamed the owner, demanding to be treated with civility.
Yes. Because ripping and scattering the children of asylum seekers is model behavior for civility. And trashing Muslims and Mexicans and transgender soldiers. If mocking a reporter with a disability is the definition of civility, we have a problem. But false civility is routinely demanded by those trying to disguise grotesque acts of violence.
I take seriously Dr. King’s admonition that we cannot return hate for hate. Hate won’t change things, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. But let’s look below the surface.
What did he say from Birmingham Jail that’s worth remembering today? "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Perhaps otherwise known as fake civility.
He continued his frustration with the white moderate who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Dr. King laments, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
Shallow understanding. So, to go under the surface and mine for some sapphires and gold, I’d like to invite Jesus to the Red Hen for dinner and ask, what would you do? And maybe a few of the other prophets too, like Jeremiah, or Amos or Micah. What would they do?
But we’ll have wait until the Red Hen reopens, hopefully sometime in July, because right now the street in front of it is full of good people carrying Confederate flags, and another guy handing out business cards for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a guy whose license plate reads “vigilante,” and a couple from Michigan holding signs that read “LGBT – Let God Burn Them,” a message to the restaurant’s gay employees. The Confederate flaggers, however, don’t want to be associated with the anti-gay people. “We don’t want anything to do with that crazy religious bigot stuff.” And here I didn’t think there really were good people on both sides!
What would Jesus do? Well, first it might help to ask what did Jesus do? Just look to his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. What did he say to them? Over and over, very publicly and to their faces he called them hypocrites and broods of vipers. Not as denigration to their religion but of their callousness to those who suffer. For example, they denounced Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. To which Jesus replied, as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, doing good is not against the law. It embarrassed them. Mark chapter 3 is one of the many times the Pharisees left such an encounter to go conspire against him.
I don’t think every occasion is one right for confrontation. Effectiveness is lost in constancy. That was a point made by Washington Gladden in the late 1800s, a Congregational minister credited as one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement. Among other things, Gladden fought for labor’s right to unionize and use its power of organization for the purpose of collective bargaining, a timely reminder this week. He also fought for such things as factory inspections, the regulation of work hours, the abolition of child labor, and the control of monopolies. This was 1886. He deplored violence in strikes, but he continued to uphold the right to strike, though he urged them to be “employed sparingly, lest in its overuse it lessen its own effectiveness as an instrument of justice.”
I’ve told the story before of how he went to the home of Mr. Jeffrey, a mine owner who was a member of his First Congregational Church in Columbus. It was the night before Rev. Gladden was going to give a sermon supporting the strikers at his mine. Mr. Jeffrey came to church the next morning as usual, listened to the sermon, and was moved to settle the strike that week. What if Gladden had said “Christianity is about being nice and polite to each other?” Of course, another lesson is, we have to be in relationship with people from all walks of life and points of view. And we can’t do that by indiscriminately being in everyone’s face all the time.
But again, I’m convinced we have to keep asking, what kind of time are we living in? Two writers from Sojourners Magazine put it well. We are living in a moment of “moral obscurity.” They asked, “Is this a Bonhoeffer Moment?” Pastor Bonhoeffer was one of the first to question what the new chancellor of Germany was really up to in February 1933, two days after Hitler took office. We have to be very careful about making comparisons, but we can cautiously observe Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the time and place in which he was living. He described the “huge masquerade of evil that has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion,” and in which “evil appears in the form of light and good deeds.” It was a time he described as requiring “a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state.”
Such as a time like this? Scapegoating minorities and refugees, calling the press enemies of the people, taking away worker’s rights, openly admiring dictators and wishing for more authoritarian powers. Should I keep going? Calling for limits on free speech? Showing preference for one religion, and only a narrow version of it?
We have a decision to make. Which Jesus do we follow?
The one who says, “be nice and polite?” Yes.
The one who is confrontational? Yes.
The one who heals the sick and comforts the wounded? Yes.
The one who went off to be alone? Yes.
The one who overturned the tables of the money-changers? Yes.
The one who was crucified? Yes.
The one whose death transformed the meaning of suffering, underserved as it was? Yes.
We aren’t all called to the same task but to the same Christ. Paul told us some are teachers, some are healers, some are bearers of good news. That’s why we are the Body of Christ and not just his hands or feet or liver, kidneys and gall-bladder.
At this moment in time, requiring ethical discernment, concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state, if you are called to public confrontation, we stand behind you as a living embodiment of Christian faith. If that is not your calling, we stand together offering a vision of love and hope to those undergoing great suffering, undeserved suffering, during these dangerous, morally obscure, times.
Job asked and then answered his own question: Where can wisdom be found? He said, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” I don’t love the use of the word fear. On the other hand, I appreciate the use of the word in 2nd Timothy: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
And with the power of God’s love, this world will be transformed. Although, it will take some time. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we listen to Jesus and ask, “What should I do?”
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Job 2: 11-13 The Message (MSG)
 Job 5:17 MSG
 Job 4:7-11 MSG
 Commentary on Job in Conversations: The Message with Its Translator, page 714
 Job 6:8-13 MSG
 Job 3:11 MSG
 Statements on Twitter in response to Diana Butler Bass
 John von Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, Pilgrim Press, 1992, page 377
 Told by current pastor Tim Ahrens, friend and colleague from my time in Cleveland
 1 Corinthians 12:28
 Job 28:28 NRSV
 2nd Timothy 1:7 KJV
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 24, 2018
“Children Ripped and Scattered: Book of Job, Part 1”
Job 1: 1, 11-19 – The Message
Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.
What do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”
12 God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.” Then Satan left the presence of God.
13-15 Sometime later, while Job’s children were having one of their parties at the home of the oldest son, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing in the field next to us when Sabeans attacked. They stole the animals and killed the field hands. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
16 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned them to a crisp. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
17 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Chaldeans coming from three directions raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
18-19 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed on the young people and they died. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
“What do you think would happen if you took everything away from him?” And, in this case, everything was a lot. The Book of Job begins by describing that he had 7 sons and 3 daughters; 7,000 head of sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, 500 donkeys; servants. His wealth was extraordinary. But he wasn’t just wealthy. He was always trying to do the right thing, going above and beyond. For example, any time his sons hosted a party, Job would get up early the next morning and sacrifice a burnt offering for each of his children, thinking, “Maybe one of them sinned by defying God inwardly.” Job did this “just in case.” He wasn’t simply rich. He was a really good guy. You might even say he’s one of the few who actually deserved what he had.
“What do you think would happen?” But that’s just one question in search of wisdom asked in Job. The overarching question is “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?” Rabbi Harold Kushner famously asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”
In chapter one, as you heard Vanessa read, Job lost everything. In chapter two, his misery is compounded. After another “I wonder what would happen…” he is then covered with terrible sores; ulcers and scabs from head to foot. So miserable, he tried to scrape himself with broken pieces of pottery. If that makes you want to gag, that’s the point. And if not gag, then cry and look away.
Like Rachel Maddow did on live TV when she had to deliver breaking news that, yes, in fact, even infants and toddlers were being ripped from their mother’s chest, from their father’s hands, and scattered into “tender age shelters,” a euphemism Chairman Mao would like. Rachel tried but could not regain composure. She looked away and told them to go on to the next program.
Administration officials defended this practice by, among lots of conflicting excuses, blaming the parents. And, I’ll be honest, people could be forgiven for asking, “What is wrong with a parent who would put their children through such an ordeal?”
Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”) is a Somali-British writer and poet in her 20s. She wrote a poem called Home that provides a compelling answer to the question “why would you do that.” This is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
“go home” blacks
sucking our country dry
[beggars] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child’s body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
Guadalupe could flee El Salvador or stay and be murdered by the same people who killed her husband. When her husband started a small electrical company, gang members showed up demanding “rent.” He didn’t have that kind of money, so they shot him 20 times. They said they’d come back and get it from her. She couldn’t tell the police. So, she paid a coyote and took a 23-day journey north with her two children. I had no other choice, she said.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Like Yessenia, she didn’t want to leave either. She’s a grade school teacher in the capital of Honduras. She rounded the corner one afternoon and saw a group of four boys beating another boy. They saw her too. “It’s the teacher!” one yelled before scattering. The boy they left behind was beaten so badly that at first Yessenia didn’t recognize him as one of her students.
“If I hadn’t showed up they would have killed him,” she said. But any consolation that she saved the boy’s life would be short lived. Two days later, she saw another group of young men she did not recognize near the school. Unable to avoid them on the street, she said, “Good morning,” and kept her eyes down.
Gangs frequently murder witnesses to their crimes. Yessenia had witnessed two crimes in as many days and knew she would be pegged as a police informer if anyone ever filed charges.
Racked with fear and anxiety, she stopped eating and sleeping. Finally, she simply fled the school where she had taught for 12 years without telling anyone. The 56-year-old is now one of tens of thousands of Hondurans who have become displaced from their homeland.
Everyone, she said, has a story about a family whose home has been burned down or a son recruited by gangs. Or murdered. The countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have the highest death rates in the world for any country not at war. 81 murders per 100,000 in El Salvador in 2016, compared to 5 in the U.S. Women are not spared. LGBT people are particularly at risk. But these are also the most dangerous countries in the world for children. 540 children were murdered in 2016 in El Salvador; that is 67 per 100,000 compared to 4 in the U.S.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
They aren’t just seeking asylum in the United States. Applications to the U.S. are up 1,000% from 2011 to 2017. But applications are up 2,000% to Mexico. And 1,500% to other Central American countries like Costa Rica and Panama.
Guadalupe and Yessinia didn’t have 7,000 head of sheep and 3,000 camels like Job (perhaps that’s the problem), but the question remains, universal through the ages, “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?”
I visited El Salvador 9 years ago for the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was surreal then to see homes and businesses covered with barbed wire and the presence of armed guards everywhere. But they spoke of hope. They were healing. Yet, I now remember their complaints that planeloads of American-born Salvadorans had begun arriving every week, full of young men stripped of their citizenship, sent to a country where many had never lived. The influx of these men was destabilizing their country, they told us, which was still recovering from the effects of a U.S. backed civil war. The U.S. is not innocent of these crimes today. But even if we were totally guiltless, the exhortations of scripture would still apply – to treat aliens as you would a citizen.
And yet, today, I am not interested in repeating the admonition to Christians to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, free the captive… We’ve been saying that for years. Or even recite the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.”
Instead, today, I want to tell the story of Job’s three friends who each travelled from their own country to keep Job company in his misery and comfort him. Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, and Zophar from Naamath. The text says in chapter two: “When his friends first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how deeply he was suffering.” They sat there in lament for seven days and nights.
That speaks to me today. I lament, you lament, we cry in lamentation. Powerless, or at least feeling relatively powerless, that our country has somehow again returned to its past of ripping children from their mother’s arms. From black women on the slave auction block. From Native women forced to give their children to government agents to place in boarding schools – to “civilize” and “Christianize.” Mass incarceration of children in the name of education, complete with miniature handcuffs. All of it “legal,” defended and enabled by a warped distortion of scripture, some unwittingly, some not. Congregationalists were among many denominations who operated boarding schools. Many thought they were doing the right thing.
I fear the same for agencies today that are caught trying to serve children but are enabling their separation from parents, places like Lutheran Social Services visited by Mrs. Trump on Thursday. Can you imagine what this is doing to the souls of agency staff, not to mention government employees carrying out their directives? I weep for them too. We were once champions of human rights. The U.S. led the way to the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, although notably, incongruously, during the worst of brutal Jim Crow laws.
And, I can’t ignore, it’s hard not to notice the commonality of non-white skin tones of all these targets, as well as remember the Japanese, citizens no less, forced into concentration camps bounded by barbed wire in the desert.
All of these actions forever alter the bonds of parents and children. The legacy of children ripped and scattered has played out in multi-generational trauma. It will this time too.
Five-year-old Jose won’t forget being separated from his father, flown to Michigan, and placed with a foster family by a Christian agency that is trying to help. Janice and her family had provided a temporary home – transitional foster care – to minors fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala before. In fact, twelve in the last two years. But this time was different. All the others had access to their parents on a daily basis. Janice said, “They talked to them on the phone. We’ve done video chats with Mom and Dad and siblings with every placement – except now.” Jose is the first to be forcibly separated and left with no ability to contact them. Every day he asks, “When will I see my papa?” They tell him the truth. We don’t know. He finally did get a call, but with no promise of when they would see each other again. That’s when a whole new trauma ensued. He erupted in anger, screaming, and crying at the table for an hour. When his fury subsided, he collapsed on the floor, still sobbing, crying “Mama, Papa” over and over. Janice just sat there on the floor with him. “It was really hard to watch,” she said, her voice breaking. “The look on his face was anguish.”
When I decided to do a three-week series on the Book of Job earlier this spring, I had no idea this would be our context. The news in the past two years, of course, has left us with no lack of sermon material, but I assumed I would end this first part in the series with what Job told his wife. Sitting with his body covered in scabs and sores, Job said, “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days too?”
And it’s true. That is another way this is a universal story as old as the Book of Job and beyond. When we lose something, maybe not 7,000 sheep or 3,000 camels, but more likely a job, or a home, or our health, we hadn’t previously asked “why do I have a home, a job, or my health?” We don’t generally ask what did I do to deserve all these things. We ask “why” when it’s gone. It’s a story as old as Job.
But most of us also want those stories to have a good ending. The moral of the story. A nugget of wisdom. Job’s very words: “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days?” A good sermon, too, should end on a high and hopeful note. And for the next two weeks we will continue to explore the meanings within Job’s story. But today I can’t offer a neat and tidy, uplifting answer to the mystery of suffering and redemption.
Because I feel like, first, we need seven days and nights to sit like a friend with Job in lamentation, rip our clothes, throw some dirt, and declare, this is what undeserved suffering looks like. We can give value to our tears. In addition, there are many faithful responses, which include speaking out; giving money to organizations trying to help; showing up at rallies; continuing to make phone calls; not being distracted from all the other egregious actions continuing to unfold while our attention is elsewhere. But as Christians and people of faith, we have another outlet for our grief and anger. Arguing with God. It’s healthy.
I’ll never forget the Holocaust story of the Jews at Auschwitz who decided to put God on trial. (Jews, of course, the “infestation” decried by Nazis). They created a court with a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, and jury. Witnesses testified for and against. In the end, God was found guilty. When the verdict was read, everyone sat in stunned silence. Someone asked, what do we do now? They stared at each other and said, “now we pray.”
Everyone wants someone to blame for children ripped from their parents and scattered across the country. Or soon, perhaps, their unlimited detention together. Trump blames Barack Obama and Democrats. Before blaming the parents, Jeff Sessions blamed the Bible. “For the Bible tells me so.” Some may blame gangs. Some may blame God for not intervening. Or Satan. Next week we’ll hear arguments from his friends that surely Job is somehow to blame for his suffering. All I know is that parents are not to blame. After all,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Lord, have mercy (tear cloth)
Christ, have mercy (dump dirt on the table)
Lord, have mercy
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Eugene Peterson
 The whole poem https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/no-one-puts-their-children-in-a-boat-unless-the-wa/
 Listen to the whole poem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI9D92Xiygo
 up from 60 in 2012
 Leviticus 19:34 among many others
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 10, 2018
1st Samuel 17: 4-11, 49 – The Message
A giant nearly ten feet tall stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath from Gath. He had a bronze helmet on his head and was dressed in armor—126 pounds of it! He wore bronze shin guards and carried a bronze sword. His spear was like a fence rail—the spear tip alone weighed over fifteen pounds. His shield bearer walked ahead of him.
8-10 Goliath stood there and called out to the Israelite troops, “Why bother using your whole army? Am I not Philistine enough for you? And you’re all committed to Saul, aren’t you? So pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he gets the upper hand and kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if I get the upper hand and kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!”
11 When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine’s challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope.
David reached into his pocket for a stone, slung it, and hit the Philistine hard in the forehead, embedding the stone deeply. The Philistine crashed, facedown in the dirt.
David and Goliath is such a familiar, iconic, story that I could almost say “David and Goliath,” let you fill in your own examples of victories for the little guy, and say “Amen.” But who is who?
For example, this morning, in a number of churches, preachers are talking about a Colorado cake-baker as a David figure, taking down the Goliath of a secular society on the rise, threatening the deeply held convictions of religious people. At least, the deeply held religious convictions of those who tell everyone their convictions are the only ones. It’s not about tolerance for all beliefs, all religions, but power for a few.
I too have deeply held religious convictions but I hail Edith Windsor as the David in the battle with Goliath. This Pride month, I hail the black and latinx drag queens of Stonewall who fought back against another humiliating raid. I celebrate the David-ness of Richard and Mildred Loving who slayed the last giant of legal prejudice against interracial marriage 51 years ago on Tuesday. People had deeply held religious convictions about that too, not to mention slavery and segregation as well. Hard to believe, but that Goliath was slain.
But, perhaps let’s not focus on dividing ourselves into another battle of the Israelites and Philistines, though I fear we are in for another 40 years of “religious liberty” battles. But first, let’s go back to the original story.
As the story goes, David was a young boy, a musician, a shepherd, who came to the battlefield to bring his three older brothers some lunch. The Philistines had been trying to destroy Israel for years. It had come down to one last battle, but as it turns out, this last battle would be between just two warriors. Goliath and whomever Israel sent to take him on. Whichever lost, their whole nation would become the slave of the other. But no one would come forward. The stalemate had lasted 40 days.
David was astounded. Why are you just standing around? It was unthinkable that no one would stand up to this guy, even though Goliath was two or three or even four feet taller than the rest. Even today, the way the text tells it, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neill would have to look up to him. Like these players, Goliath was built. To make the point, the text tells us his armor weighed 126 pounds, perhaps the same as David.
No one would even try to slay that Goliath. So, seeing no one else step up, David insisted he could do it because as a shepherd, he had the experience of taking down the lions and bears that tried to kill his sheep. Everyone thought he was foolish, but no one else was willing, so King Saul reluctantly agreed.
But first, Saul wanted to cover David in armor. Of course, he would have looked silly. But more to the point, he would have been hardly able to move. He refused. Then unencumbered, David approached Goliath. David called out, in his pubescent voice, “You come after me with swords and spears and ax, but I come at you in the name of God Almighty.”
Do you remember Bree Newsome? She was the woman in South Carolina who climbed the flagpole on the state capitol grounds to take down the confederate flag. When Bree climbed that flagpole, she yelled to those waiting to arrest her: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence.” As she removed the flag, she yelled, “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” On her ascent up the flagpole, she also quoted David’s most famous Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not fear.”
David called out, think of the voice of the Peanuts character Linus, “You come after me with swords and spears and ax, but I come at you in the name of God Almighty,” but Goliath just laughed and snorted. Imagine James Earl Jones. “This is who you send?!! An apple-cheeked, peach-fuzzed little boy?” Goliath threatened to grind David into roadkill. But David just calmly searched the ground, picking up one stone after another, feeling for just the right five stones to put in his pouch.
Now if this were a Hollywood movie, he would have missed his target the first four times. The first stone would have gone off wildly into the river. The second stone might have almost struck a bird. Each time a little closer. But scripture says it took just one shot. Placed perfectly on Goliath’s temple, on his body otherwise covered in 126 pounds of metal. And the giant lay slain on the ground. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Israel prevailed. The young shepherd boy musician was a hero.
No wonder everyone knows this. It’s a great story. So many of us can relate. In fact, as one writer said, “In a country of more than 300 million people, we all have one thing in common. We all think we’re that little guy. Ninety-nine out of 100 people identify with David. Yet it’s funny how many of us still spend our lives trying to become as powerful as Goliath.”
There are a lot of Goliaths in our world. Although, we should also ask, how are we like Goliath? But that’s another sermon.
My question today is: who is your Goliath? But first, maybe we need to ask: what is a Goliath? Maybe a bully. Maybe a fear that is 10 feet tall. The tyrant on Pennsylvania Avenue? I suggest Goliath is anything or anyone we can’t get out of our mind and becomes the only thing we see. Maybe bellowing and taunting. (tweeting)
But what else keeps us awake at night? Big hairy giants. Like debt. Can I ever climb out of debt? Or cancer. Will she get through it – all the treatments, all the side effects? Or, will it come back again? Will I get it? Which is naturally about grief, and death – fear of our own or of someone we love. Sometimes it’s the only thing we can see. Yet, every minute spent worrying about death has already cut our lives shorter by that very worrying. How do we slay that Goliath?
And relationships. Sometimes they tower over us 10-feet tall. Problems with friends; all those dysfunctional work relationship dynamics; and the strain put on our relationships when the needs of our children, spouses and parents are all sandwiched together.
They can become larger than life, like David’s Goliath. And yet, how many of our Goliath’s are actually small, and often quite petty? What would happen if we discovered the Wizard, our Goliath, is just a little man behind a curtain?
Our 10-foot Goliath may be a bunch of little issues magnified out of proportion. Or it may be that one great big giant of an obstacle that seems unbeatable and impossible to defeat. Or maybe we’re so intimidated, we never even try to slay our Goliath.
So, as I thought about what to say today, I imagined searching the ground, picking up different stones, getting a feel for them, and asking - what five stones could we use to bring down our Goliath? Any one of which could do the job.
The first stone could be Reality. Just what are we really facing? To look at our reality instead of our fear. And not letting someone else’s fear become my fear.
Maybe David just had fresh eyes. He hadn’t been staring at Goliath for 40 days. When he walked up, he saw a big man slathered in metal who couldn’t run as fast as him. All that stood in front of him was a big bully with a hole in his armor, not a lion or a bear. Reality wasn’t as bad as the fear. Might that be true for us too? How bad is it really? Have you tried asking a friend?
It might have been logical that David could take out Goliath. He could have measured their relative heights, studied just the right angle for the sling, tested the strength of the leather… But he still had to do it, all while people stood around him saying he was foolish to try. Perhaps it is trite, but the second stone I suggest we pick up is Courage. It takes courage to stand up to our Goliaths. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
The counterpart to courage, our third stone could be Foolishness. We absolutely need a certain measure of wisdom and discernment. But sometimes all we need is a little foolishness. Instead of permission, to ask for forgiveness…
But did David even need a stone? He told Goliath, “you come at me with hatred and violence, with your threats and empty words. I come at you in the name of God – who protects my mind, body, spirit, and strength.” Perhaps the fourth stone is a non-stone. A non-violent response.
For example, who demonstrated more power to slay Goliath than those who marched in Selma and Washington? Those who sat at lunch counters and rode buses across state lines? What they faced down, however, wasn’t simply their fear. Those dogs were real, biting into children. Those fire hoses were real, slamming bodies against the wall. The ropes slung over trees were real. Black men and women and children were literally hung as forms of entertainment and intimidation. To expose this evil, everyday citizens exhibited unbelievable courage (some may have thought foolishly). All without the use of a stone. And what continues to inspire me was how many simply said, “It was just God.” God is what made the civil rights movement so powerful. God is the David at work slaying the Goliaths of white supremacy, nationalism, and fake appeals to God and country; sometimes disguised as religious liberty.
So, we have stones for Reality instead of fear; Courage and Foolishness. A non-stone for God. What’s our fifth stone?
That’s when the cursor on my screen sat unmoving. Blinking. Taunting me. No ideas were coming and I didn’t want to finish with a cliché. Then ideas did come, but the words were odd. I finally made a list of them. A fifth stone for Discouragement? A stone to remind us of our Disadvantages. Our Difficulties, Shortcomings and Weaknesses. I had this unusual array of choices for the fifth stone. Until it finally dawned on me. All those words were pointing to the greatest power we have. The strength that comes to us in our Vulnerability. It was his vulnerability, the lack of armor to weigh him down, for example, that made David invincible.
After all, the greatest power we have is not our acts of faith and courage. David didn’t make the mistake of thinking it was about him. David said to Goliath, “This very day God is handing you over to me. Then the whole earth will know that there’s an extraordinary God in Israel. And everyone gathered here will learn that God does not save by means of sword or spear. The battle belongs to God.” David’s victory was not meant to bring him glory. It was to show the world that the work of slaying Goliath is God’s to do, alongside the vulnerable.
Maybe we shouldn’t be picking up stones at all but finding ways to put them down. Perhaps the challenge is not to become well balanced and free of fear, but to lay down our swords, spears, and stones to show the world the power of God in our vulnerability.
This sounds very much like something the guru of vulnerability, Brené Brown, would say. She contends that vulnerability makes our lives better. She said, “I was raised in a ‘get ‘er done’ and ‘suck it up’ family and culture. Very Texan, [she said,] German-American. [I recognize that part.] The tenacity and grit of my upbringing has served me, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty.”
For example, there is no certainty the first time we walk through the doors of a church. We have to risk to belong. What a blessing, but we must first become vulnerable to walk through the door. There is no certainty that we will feel welcome, no matter how diligent we are with our web searches. We must be vulnerable to belong.
And creativity. Creativity doesn’t come from certainty. Creativity comes from being open to what comes, including blank screens and blinking cursors. We must be vulnerable to create.
And certainty kills religion. A black and white faith is not faith. It places us into categories for who is in and who is out. And after all, in the end, even love is a risk. Giving love and being loved. What does it mean to say, “God is love?” A risk? We must be vulnerable to love and be loved.
Goliath was slain when David made himself vulnerable. He took off the armor others thought he needed and stood there by himself and used the skills he had learned in times of danger. And then let God work through him. He leaned into that place where the foolishness of God is more than our wisdom. And the weakness of God is more than our strength. That's always been the strength, the power, of coming out.
Facing reality instead of fear (although some reality is really dangerous), courage, foolishness, non-violence, and vulnerability. What do you think? Maybe the story of David and Goliath is more than just a story of victory for the little guy. Even though, I really like that part too.
 1st Corinthians 1:25
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 3, 2018
“The Criminalization of Compassion and Survival”
Mark 2:23-3:6 – New Revised Standard Version
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The arrests of nine members of No More Deaths raises the question: Is it wrong to do good?
Today’s short readings on plucking grain and healing a man’s withered hand can be found not only in Mark but Matthew and Luke as well. Which means, this is an important story. Mark was the first gospel written. Scholars believe Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark when they wrote their gospels, so it’s always interesting to see which stories they picked to repeat, as well as, how those later writers interpreted the same story. In this case, all three are remarkably similar, except a few details and one very important addition in Matthew, which I’ll talk about later.
So, the first issue is about the disciples walking through a field plucking grain to eat. The Law says no work is to be done on the sabbath, including cooking. Anything you ate that day had to be prepared the day before. You’d think that rubbing some grain between your hands wouldn’t quite be “work,” but it drew the attention of the Pharisees who were looking for a way to engage – and discredit – this upstart preacher and healer.
Jesus had been drawing attention around the whole region. His fame was spreading as quickly as wildfire, creating concern among the authorities. But if the Pharisees could prove he was promoting blasphemy, Jesus would be discredited and like all the many preachers and healers before, he would simply disappear. Problem solved.
But Jesus proved adept. He knew the Law and the scripture better than they expected and was able to refute the accusations against his disciples by citing how David ate the Bread of the Presence, which was unlawful because it was reserved for priests. Clearly there were exceptions to preserve life, and as Jesus noted, “The sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the sabbath.”
Jesus’ saying was in line with other Rabbinic traditions. We may be more familiar with the origins of sabbath related to creation – “And on the seventh day God rested.” But among other origin stories, in Deuteronomy, God “instituted a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” Another rabbinic saying: “Profane one sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many sabbaths.” In other words, it would be better if someone didn’t die of hunger before making it to the next sabbath. Life is more important. Which would have applied to David fleeing persecution. That’s why it was OK that they stopped to eat.
Taking note of all these traditions and sayings is important because too many preachers use this text, like many others, to falsely assert that Judaism is about law and Christianity is about grace. Legalism vs. love. This is not true. As Matt Skinner notes here, “Jesus is not assailing Judaism. He is not rejecting the law. He is not saying the sabbath is obsolete. In this case, he’s not even insulting the Pharisees. Jesus is simply illustrating that any religious value, in the wrong hands, can become oppressive.”
Speaking of that, did you hear earlier this week about the evangelist who claimed that he needed a $54 million-dollar jet, his fourth, to help him “efficiently spread the gospel to as many people as possible.” In fact, he further claimed that if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t go around on a donkey but would have a jet of his own to take the gospel into all the world. Now, Jesus did say, God wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to have a jet. Obviously! But, as you know, religion in the wrong hands can be… ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, the idea of a jet-setting preacher is just as absurd as claiming that killing the Affordable Care Act was an act of “mercy.” “Mercy?! Joe Kennedy responded back brilliantly, “With all due respect to Speaker Ryan, he and I must have read different Scripture. The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill. This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
If I may add, you are free to be cruel, just don’t act as though Jesus thinks your cruelty is a good thing. Notably, to Jesus’ comment about the sabbath, the Pharisees had nothing to say in return. Neither did Speaker Ryan.
Back to our reading, in the second half, Jesus had another encounter with the Pharisees. There was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched to see whether Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath. I love how their assumption is “He won’t be able to control himself.” And sure enough, filled with his loathsome compassion, Jesus asked the man to come forward and asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath; to save life or to kill?” But no one said anything. So, he simply told the man to stretch out his hand and it was restored.
So, here is where the Gospel of Matthew, as I mentioned earlier, differs slightly from Mark. Not, maybe, “differ” so much as it adds more material to make it more abundantly clear. After Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath,” Matthew adds a very helpful example: “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you just let it be or will you lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being, or human life, than a sheep” (no disrespect meant). Jesus then asserts: “So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Matthew makes crystal clear what Mark only implies. It is lawful to do good on the sabbath.
Once again, Jesus is not denigrating Judaism. He’s not rejecting the law. Once again, he is following a rabbinic tradition that includes: “Saving life overrules the sabbath.” Critics might argue that a withered hand is certainly not life-threatening, but the life-affirming Jesus returns the man to fullness, restores his dignity, his place in the community, and allows him to provide for his family.
The issue of these two stories – plucking grain and the restoration of a withered hand, both on the Sabbath – is about what is a lawful activity. But I believe the intent is larger than that. I contend Jesus is asserting: It is lawful to do good. Period.
That has all kinds of implications, including, for example, those members of No More Deaths arrested on the US/Mexico border. What do you do for people who are literally dying of thirst? Should it be illegal to give them something to drink? According to some, the answer is yes.
Scott Warren is among a group of volunteers arrested in January who disagree. Scott is a professor of geography at Arizona State University and on weekends (notably, on the sabbath) his group puts out jugs of water for migrants crossing 100 miles of the Sonoran Desert. One of the areas is a 20 mile stretch in the Growler Valley, a “death trap,” where summer temps soar to 115 degrees and in the winter, you can die of hypothermia. A place where, last year alone, members of the group discovered the human remains of 32 people. Scott said it’s not unusual to come across scattered rib bones. He even found a skull resting beneath a mesquite tree.
He was charged with a felony for “harboring migrants” after he was allegedly witnessed giving food and water to two people in the desert. A felony. The timing of his arrest was suspicious, however, coming just hours after a report documented the systematic destruction of their water deliveries. 3,856 gallons of water – some by pouring the contents on the ground, some cut by knives, some punctured with bullet holes. Some of it done by hunters, some by right-wing militia members who “patrol” with their rifles, but much of it by border patrol agents, though, to be fair, this is not a new development. Pictures of children in cages dates back to 2014. Yet, as we know, this has been much more enthusiastically embraced and enhanced. After all, in the past year, calling undocumented migrants “illegal aliens” is no longer sufficiently derogatory. Now they are “criminal illegals.” Or as the president has taken to insist: they’re animals.
Arresting Scott for leaving water in the desert is another in a movement toward criminalization. For example, we’ve criminalized mental illness. Where do people go for treatment? Prison. We’ve criminalized homelessness. As long as you’re moving, it’s not a crime to be homeless. But if you sit down, if you lie down, if you spend too much time in one place, it’s a crime. Denver Homeless Outloud offers a listing of Colorado Laws Against Surviving in Public. That’s descriptive! Among other things it suggests that instead of arresting people for bathing in streams, why not provide hygiene centers where people can clean up. Arresting people for being homeless is expensive.
Naturally, I guess, if these are criminal activities, why not criminalize compassion too? Remember when 90-year-old Arnold Albert was arrested for distributing sandwiches in Fort Lauderdale. Three years later he’s still doing it because people are still hungry. In January, 14-year-old Ever Parmley learned a valuable lesson when he and 12 others faced misdemeanor charges for giving away food, clothes, and toiletries in El Cajon, California. Adele MacLean was ticketed for handing out sandwiches in Atlanta. The day of her court hearing, the group Food Not Bombs planned to protest by handing out sandwiches on the court house steps, but the charges were dropped. Cities across the country are making compassion a crime and punishing do-gooders.
But the criminalization of compassion is one thing. It is a choice among people who often have the privilege to do so. It’s the criminalization of poverty, the criminalization of survival, that should concern us more. It’s simply wrong. God’s concern for such people was to “institute a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” But saving life overrules sabbath, especially in situations like David who was fleeing death and persecution.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009, “The use of the criminal justice system to punish those whose only crime is being poor and without housing is not worthy of our great nation. It is unconstitutional and only reinforces and strengthens the vicious cycle that entrap too many of our fellow citizens in poverty and homelessness. It is time – indeed, it is past time – for this to end.” His comments were in a report entitled Housing Not Handcuffs.
An instruction letter was issued in March 2016, urging chief judges and court administrators in states to abandon policies that could trap poor people in cycles of fines, debt and prison. It included examples of how police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, used the legal system as a moneymaking venture preying on poor and minority residents. But, surprise, surprise, five days before Christmas, Jeff Sessions reversed the sentiment.
Plenty of things should be against the law, such as withholding wages owed to employees. Lying and obstructing justice. Selling guns to minors. Hunting elephants for trophies. But doing good or being poor should not be a crime.
As I’ve tried to figure out, what is it with the divisions in our country, I’ve come to wonder if there aren’t two kinds of people. Ones who think we’re in this alone, and want to be left alone, and ones who think we’re in this together, and that we need each other. Are we only individuals or are we a community? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not it. It’s more than that. And, of course, trying to divide people into two groups, only serves to divide us into two groups.
But as I try to find meaning in the Gospel today, the Good News of the Gospel, two other categories come to mind. If it’s a crime to do good, call me a Christian. And if you want to make doing good a crime, at least leave Jesus out of it.
Friends, should we go do some good in the world?
 Matthew 12: 1-14, Luke 6: 1-11
 Sabbath is sometimes capitalized, other times not. I have chosen to keep it consistent and follow the NRSV
 Skinner quoting Amy Jill Levine and Joel Marcus
 We must be careful not to make this “ableist,” against persons with disabilities
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 27, 2018
“Changing Identities: Transgender Renaming Ceremony”
Mark 4: 35-41
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
In Mark chapter 4, Jesus stilled the storm, to which the stunned disciples ask, “who is this?” They will keep asking for a long time. Jesus even asks them later in chapter 8, “Who do people say I am?” Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. Who is this?
Today we are going to celebrate a name change. A rite of passage for someone who is transitioning from the identity of one gender to another. Some religious communities have begun to recognize this as an important rite of passage for which it is appropriate that we ask God’s blessing.
In light of that, Rev. Jah and I discussed having a dialogue on “identity.” Our conversation began by my musing that I don’t know who I am in the country of people celebrating cruelty. She reminded me that as a white person, I must not have noticed this is not a new reality for African Americans.
Changing names and identities, though perhaps not gender, happened in both Old and New Testaments among some of our most important ancestors, like these four:
Abram became Abraham
Sarai became Sarah
Saul became Paul
Jacob became Israel
Abram went from Exalted Father to Father of Many – after God promised 99 year old Abram that his name, his descendants, will become as numerous as the sands on the beach.
Likewise, 90 year old Sarai went from My Princess to Mother of Nations.
Saul, famously known as a particularly nasty persecutor of Christians, saw a vision Jesus, who asked “Why do you persecute me.” Saul of Tarsus was blinded and fell from his horse. He was blind for three days, after which he became Paul, meaning, small or humble.
Jacob wrestled with an angel at night, one of my favorite biblical passages, and refused to let go until he received a blessing. The angel even put out his hip. In his mother’s womb, he grabbed the heel of his twin Esau so Jacob could come out first. Jacob means to supplant, circumvent, overreach – or heel.
After wrestling for the night, he was given the name Israel, which means God Perseveres. Or, in our wrestling, May God Prevail.
So, if I may, Jah changed her name from Lorraine. Jah, spelled J-a-h, is the first half of the proper name of God – Yahweh. This first half means The Everlasting. This name change is from her given name Lorraine, which her mother explains, means she was named after the French province of Lorraine.
My name means Beloved. When I was in middle school I remember wishing my name was Christopher. I don’t know why. Christopher means Bearer of Christ, so I guess, it would have still fit. But I like the addition in the Urban Dictionary – “Christophers are usually handsome, caring, generous, and funny guys.”
Today we celebrate the changing of names from Thomas to Aimee. A,i,m,e,e. That means her name is changed from Twin to Dearly Loved. And that’s why we surround you as a church community, to recognize that you are indeed Dearly Loved.
Name changing ceremony
From Thomas Creed Davis to Aimee Melissa (meaning bee) Davis.
We affirm that this new name symbolizes who you are becoming through the grace of God.
We honor the names given by your parents.
We release them into your history and acknowledge that the time has come to declare a new name.
This name is the culmination of a long and difficult journey, including being told to leave another church, but as well, this is a time of beginning.
People of God: Will you support Aimee on this journey?
All: We promise our love, support, and care
Let us pray: Dynamic and holy God, we remember how you changed the names of Abraham and Sarah as they set out to follow you into the unknown.
We remember how you changed the name of Jacob, after a long night of wrestling with you.
And how Saul, the persecutor, became Paul, the founder of dozens of Christian communities.
We now publicly declare and affirm the name you have bestowed upon Aimee Melissa.
May Aimee walk in the spirit this day and always, knowing that God made an everlasting covenant with her from her birth, regardless of name or identity. And that covenant shall never be cut off. Amen.
Aimee: We rejoice that your name is written in heaven.
Everyone repeat after me: Your name is Aimee.
 Adapted from liturgies of the UUA and Memorial Congregational Church, Sudbury, Mass. Prayer from www.manyvoices.org
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world