Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 12, 2021
Ephesians 2: 8-10 – Common English Bible
8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
Deuteronomy 6: 10-12 – The Message
When God, your God, ushers you into the land promised to you through your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you’re going to walk into large, bustling cities you didn’t build, well-furnished houses you didn’t buy, come upon wells you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive orchards you didn’t plant. When you take it all in and settle down, pleased and content, make sure you don’t forget how you got there—God brought you out of slavery in Egypt.
Rev. Peter Raible simplifies this text:
“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.”
As I stand here today, I can see a great cloud of witnesses who built this church. Standing, as I once did in a pulpit seven steps above the congregation, I can see Gladys Harris right in front. Mrs. Peacock in the back over there. Joe and Amelia Lawrence, a few rows forward. Tom and Lucy Creighton on the other side. Sadie Connally in her pink fur coat near the front. Keith Meagher. Ann Rickert. Mick Stafford, Hal Wofford, and many more than I can name. 14 years in one place means witnessing the end of life for many good and faithful servants, our great cloud of witnesses.
14 years also means lots of births and baptisms – 28 baptisms to be exact, plus a few more baby dedications. Remember the fall of 2019, just before the pandemic? We had 8 baptisms in three months.
In addition, 19 young people have gone through confirmation. All of whom then went to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, some multiple times. If you can believe it, 60 people from Park Hill have gone to Pine Ridge at least once. I have been especially grateful for the opportunity to be with young people as their lives are shaped by these immersion trips, especially Leah Johnson and Daniel Hartman-Strawn. After multiple trips to Pine Ridge, Daniel dropped out of college, spent two years on the reservation and then changed his major to attend law school so he could focus on Native issues. There are about eight middle school students right now who are eligible for confirmation. I will miss introducing them to Pine Ridge.
Among our dearly departed saints is Guy Harris whose vision is manifested in the labyrinth. He wanted to provide a spiritual resource for neighbors who would never walk through the doors of a church but might find solace in their grief or wisdom in their discernment by walking the labyrinth. David Conger saw his vision to completion, including spending every day supervising the construction. Going to the quarry to pick the rocks. Going to the nursery to pick the plants.
Speaking of David, just to be clear not among the dearly departed, getting to work with and learn from him was like being in a master class as he oversaw capital campaign projects all over the church. Among them, think of all the walls that were removed. Standing in the narthex now means that instead of a closet wall I can see Faye Hudson and July Waldren walk up the steps to choir practice on Sunday mornings.
Before the capital campaign, a guest walking into the church during the week would have encountered a literal brick wall separating them from a friendly face, like Tammy’s, in the office. Before tearing down a wall to convert a coat closet into a kitchenette, coffee hour was served on a table in the back of the sanctuary. I can see Kate Goodspeed carrying water back and forth from the little half sink in the common room. As soon as the hospitality area was created, the number of people who stayed for fellowship after worship doubled. While some like Euell stop there before going into the sanctuary, walking straight to the coffee pot.
This sanctuary illustrates one of the most dramatic changes of the past decade. A floor that shimmers with light coming through the colored glass. A hearing loop underneath. You may not know that when we replaced the floor, the pews were supposed to go back in. But on the first Sunday after construction started, Bob Lederer sat in the temporary chairs arranged in a circle and went home that afternoon to begin convincing people we should keep the pews out. He reasoned, the feeling of worship was so much more intimate now that we could see each other’s faces. In one of the fastest significant decisions any church has ever made, five weeks later we decided to permanently remove the pews and purchase these chairs. My sister Judy donated this table to create a center for the sanctuary around which we would gather. The change had an immediate impact on growth. Worship attendance instantly increased by 20% and never stopped growing because with all those walls gone and worship now in this configuration, suddenly our space was in sync with our theology. Visitors could feel it. And Sunday School grew too.
There was one more important wall to remove. In late 2013 we were approached about becoming an overnight site for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. I knew it was exactly what we needed to do, but could we gather enough volunteers to make it work? I’ll never forget telling Karen Collier. It was a January morning, and we were walking down the street with Temple Micah as they moved to Park Hill United Methodist. It was a sad day, an ending to our 37-year relationship sharing the building. But on the day of an ending, WHI at Park Hill was born because Karen agreed to be one of the coordinators, and soon came Karen Truesdell and then Linda Siderius too. We had 77 volunteers that first year; 94 the year before the pandemic. I have many fond memories of Tuesday afternoons making up the cots with Flodie Anderson, Blake and Sheila, Nancy and Kerri and a whole crew.
So that one last wall. Between the kitchen and fellowship hall, there used to be a clear delineation between server and those served, but with that wall removed, guests were welcome to come and go into the kitchen. It also meant we could see Carol and Linda serving their roast beef every month, Marlene and Janet mixing salads, Sean and Claire serving rolls. I’m so grateful for the regular overnight angels like Beth and Pat and Bill and Eileen, without whom the whole program wouldn’t have worked. I did the overnight shift a couple of times and boy did it throw off my next day. I can’t name all 94 people but thank you, and Jayme Willie for that very memorable carnival fundraiser for WHI.
My time here began with the creation of a long-range planning team – the Long Rangers, led by Larry Ricketts and Kate. That’s when we developed our mission and core values. We simplified our governance structure. We created our mission partner program, which in 10 years has resulted in a quarter of a million dollars for 40 non-profit groups.
And we engaged in a difficult, and at times unpleasant, time of discernment about owning a building or sharing one with a neighboring congregation. The church was in serious need of some major attention. It was necessary to actually make a decision whether or not to stay because many lacked confidence that we could raise even $100,000. You realize, however, that in the end approximately $1 million has been spent on this building since 2013. In addition to gifts and pledges, Ray Allen wrote a grant to Energy Outreach Colorado that resulted in over $100,000 in efficiency upgrades throughout the building. Montessori expanded. We had special projects for the labyrinth, solar panels, sanctuary chairs, and front doors. There were special designated gifts for boiler pumps, narthex and common room furnishings, fellowship hall carpet. Most recently, of course, about $40,000 toward the equipment needed for Park Hill 2.0. And to top it off, with a hailstorm, God provided a new roof. Twice! All this money flowed in and through thanks to the diligent and meticulous record keeping of Carol Spensley and Beth Harris. And of course, everyone who so generously contributed.
It’s important to note that those projects were not done simply to improve the building for our members. We spent those dollars so our building could be used for mission. We invited Knitting 4 Peace to use offices upstairs rent free. We started welcoming any group whose mission was racial justice to use our building for free. Among them, Black Lives Matter 5280, the Denver Justice Project, and Soul 2 Soul Sisters.
Speaking of Soul to Soul, among the most important ministries of the past decade, we asked Revs. Dawn Riley Duval and Tawana Davis to lead our congregation through a six-month engagement on white privilege. 30 people’s lives were changed and prompted the creation of our Racial Justice Ministry. I’ll always remember it was 2016 because our Saturday morning session in November was immediately after the election and we spent much of our time together crying. And the next day, our sanctuary was flooded with members and neighbors frightened for our country. We prayed for the intervention of the Holy Spirit to save us from an apocalyptic nightmare. And what a roller coaster of four years we shared – a ride we’re still begging to disembark. In the end, however, as we lived into the mission and core values we set years before, we became clearer about our identity than ever before. We invited people to join us to build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. And they did join us, eventually from around the country!
14 years ago, Park Hill was in pretty tough shape financially. We had $917 in savings and a $40,000 loan for beam repairs. Sound fiscal leadership over successive governance teams means that today we have over $233,000 in the bank, including a new legacy fund named for our first pastor, David Colwell. But we weren’t just conserving. In the middle of all that, we also expanded our staff with the addition of Terri as our Minister for Congregational Care, a paid Sunday School teacher and handyman. And later added Zeke as our stream team tech and Damian with digital ministry, following more than a year with Mindee on staff. We’re among the largest contributors to the Rocky Mountain Conference and of course our many mission partners. We grew our savings even as we invested $10,000 in something called a relational campaign. It’s been wonderful to witness and walk alongside our leadership teams who embraced God’s abundance instead of fear and the myth of scarcity.
75 people participated in that relational campaign with Jenny Whitcher. It propelled us into a pandemic response that resulted in the creation of numerous groups that not only helped us stay connected but grew the congregation in the midst of our separation.
No amount of gratitude spoken will ever be sufficient for the way Billie, Jeremy, Terri, and Tammy (working remotely from Texas!) responded to the challenges of the past 18 months and counting. Last week we thanked Mindee for her outstanding role with worship and online ministry. And this week I add Bill McCarron and Mark Winkel to the list of people who have spent days on end at the church, among other things, Bill stringing wires through walls and floors to permanently equip the classrooms with Zoom, and Mark working experiments to always keep improving the quality of the online worship experience.
There are so many more things I could share. I wonder what you would add. But I want to end with one more dearly departed saint, Jane Van Buskirk. Jane and Inez were among the very first people I met at Park Hill. We met on the Tuesday before my candidating weekend to plan worship. I asked if we could have communion and Jane responded, “oh, that sounds so lovely.” From my first hours at Park Hill, I was then privileged to be with Jane among her last hours on earth. Knowing she would soon die, I asked how she felt about what was coming next for her. With high pitched clarity she said, “I’m optimistic.”
Death is stalking congregations around the country. It is a difficult time to be optimistic about the future of churches. But for those who are not afraid, that see crisis’ as opportunities, who take risks for justice and teach unconditional love; for churches who embrace that Black Lives Matter, who believe science is real, who will fight for women to have the right to determine their own fate… Well, for Park Hill I am optimistic.
And now this bold ministry will continue with new leadership.
So, as we have, keep building on this foundation for others to come,
So they can sit in the shade of trees we planted.
Drink from wells they did not dig.
And profit from you and I; persons they did not know.
Again, as Paul told the Ephesians, these are not things to be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned this to be our way of life. And to that calling we have tried to be faithful.
Thank you for honoring me with the holy privilege and sacred responsibility of being your pastor and know that we are forever bound in a community that was, and is, and will continue to be.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 5, 2021
“What Is Our Work?”
Luke 4: 14-30 – Common English Bible
If Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 Jesus then went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue, as he normally did, and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord anointed me.
And sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”
23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’” 24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. 25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”
28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.
Here we are, gathered on Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of summer. At the beginning of the summer, we were full of hope and relief that we were finally approaching the other side of the pandemic. Just think, on Memorial Day weekend, we weren’t yet back in the sanctuary. We made plans assuming the cooperation of the general public, but instead of cooperation, bad behavior, even reprehensible behavior, has sunk as low as at any time during the pandemic.
Health care workers were once hailed with the banging of pots and pans every night. Now they’re saving people who argue about Covid even as they go on oxygen. They’re worn out and angry, questioning their choice of profession. Today, even if for one day, we honor and celebrate them. And on this Labor Day weekend, ask, what is our work?
School teachers and bus drivers have been made experimental subjects by ambitious politicians in search of poll numbers. I simply don’t understand how anyone can fight over keeping them and kids safe and legislate to guarantee infection. Different methods, yes. But a complete refusal to ensure public health? Today, even if for one day, we honor and celebrate them. And on this Labor Day weekend, ask, what is our work?
Remember the term “essential workers?” People working checkout lines, stocking shelves, who wait on us, clean, cook, harvest, repair our utilities, deliver mail and packages, stand on the line to process meat, pick up garbage… Some in unions who have rights, and many who would love a 40-hour work week, but have to string together multiple jobs to survive, few with any benefits like health insurance. The “working poor” on whose backs the country depends to avoid collapse. And migrant workers in the hot sun but who have to hide at night. Today, even if for one day, we honor and celebrate them. And on this Labor Day weekend, ask, what is our work? So, I turn to our text today.
Jesus returned home. News had spread throughout the land about his work as a healer and miracle worker. Throughout the countryside he was welcomed as a teacher in synagogues and, as it says, was praised by everyone. Naturally when he went to Nazareth, the people were excited. Everyone who had previously known him as simply Joseph’s son wanted a little taste of his fame. Do for us what you have done for them.
On the Sabbath, the synagogue assistant handed him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah to read. You realize, of course, that he wasn’t handed a Bible that he could flip through and choose a text. You don’t flip through a scroll. He read from the scroll he was handed. It was from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me.
The Lord has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the prisoners,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
As Phil Campbell said at Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday, that text includes lots of buzzwords that make progressive Christians smile, especially the liberation of the oppressed. To proclaim release to the prisoners, or as other translations say, release to the captives. That preaches well because we can write all kinds of sermons about that to which we are captive, from addiction to capitalism and white privilege.
But I don’t know if you noticed, and I don’t know if the hometown crowd at the synagogue in Nazareth noticed either; Jesus added one line to his reading that isn’t in Isaiah. What did he add? It’s right in the middle. Release of prisoners “and recovery of sight to the blind.”
Now, you might ask, what’s the big deal about that. He was a healer. Of course, if he was going to add anything, he would add healing. But that’s not the kind of blindness he was referring to. If it were, the crowd wouldn’t have ended this encounter with an attempt to throw him off a cliff.
As an aside, Sharyl Peterson reminded us on Thursday that there are no cliffs outside the town of Nazareth. Luke used that for dramatic effect. It is, in fact, useful for us to imagine the extent of their rage that they would throw off one of their own, the boy about whom they had just expressed so much hometown pride. They were about to throw him off a cliff?!
They just wanted him to do something special for them. So, he did. He accused them of being blind. And just in case they didn’t notice that line added to Isaiah, he added insults to their injury. He told them that God saved the widow from Zarephath of starvation but let the widows of Israel suffer the famine. He told them that the commander of the enemy army, Naaman the Syrian, was cured of his leprosy but not the many lepers in Israel. So, if they hadn’t noticed the line about blindness before, they saw it now.
Again, they tried not only to run him out of town, but to throw him off a cliff. But through their blinding rage, they didn’t notice him walk right through the middle and off, not a cliff, but on his way. That’s actually one of my favorite lines in scripture. While everyone was so busy with their anger and overcome with rage, he calmly passed right through.
Perhaps there’s a sermon in there for this pandemic rage we are living through. Imagine those scenes on the news of school board meetings and meetings of public health officials. Crowds so riled up, they’re frothing at the mouth. But imagine while in the middle of that, officials just get up to leave while the crowd is distracted by their rage, leaving them to look up and wonder what just happened. Yes, that’s pure fantasy, but sometimes we need to dream. And perhaps that’s the way we could deal with those who wish to get into arguments with us.
So, for today, what might be our response to the blindness of which Jesus spoke? It is certainly to examine and confess our participation in the exploitation of all who labor for our comfort and who care for our needs. It is to ask, where does Jesus push our progressive buttons or make us uncomfortable? That’s where we will find the gospel.
But here’s my other suggestion: It is to see the exhaustion of health care workers. We’re tired of all this division, but our work is to not turn a blind eye to their plight or of schoolteachers. It is to see the struggle of essential workers. And say something.
They are enduring the unjustified angry onslaught of people who refuse the Common Good of our neighbors. We can’t just roll our eyes. We must speak up to support and to challenge. Not necessarily the science, but to remind the world that there is such a thing as a public good.
How is it that we have lost sight of our role as members of a community? How is it especially that Christians choose to break the most important commandment of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, to love our neighbors as ourselves? As Jim Keck said at the beginning of pandemic, our role as Christians is to love our neighbors, not infect them.
But we’re left having to pray to Jesus, please save us. Instead, I pray, Jesus, please help us recover our sight. Give us eyes to see the suffering of our neighbors. To not turn a blind eye. And so, on this Labor Day weekend, that is our work. Despite our exhaustion with this pandemic, don’t be sightless of workers on the front lines or voiceless in their defense.
Friends and members of Park Hill, let me remind you: The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because the Lord has anointed you, as Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah:
To preach good news to the poor, (or rather with, and alongside)
To proclaim release to the prisoners and all who are captive,
To liberate the oppressed, to free those who are overburdened,
And proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor – the time when justice has come.
And yes, as Jesus added, recovery of sight to all who choose blindness to our neighbors, to neighborliness itself, and all who suffer. Look and see.
In the time of transition now upon us, the temptation is to look inward, only inward. That is very important, but see it not as your only work. I know you understand. And therefore, I look forward to continuing to hear the news spread of how you are reimagining these words of Isaiah and Jesus for the days and years to come.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 29, 2021
“Hearing Before Doing”
James 1: 19-22, 26-27
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Parent, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”
Another translation says: “Don’t deceive yourselves by only hearing what the Word says, but do it!”
And another: “Don’t, I beg you, only hear the message, but put it into practice.”
And, “Act on what you hear.”
And the classic King James, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.” I like the extra “ye!” of the King James.
This is a verse Park Hill UCC really believes in. And not merely believes it, but does it. It’s one of many reasons why the past 18 months have been so difficult. We were often left with the question – what can we do?
Prior to the pandemic, on Tuesdays we welcomed 20 overnight guests. From the first time we hosted in 2014 until we had to stop, that was over 150 nights. More importantly, that’s 3,000 nights where a woman had a nutritious meal and a safe place to sleep. Twenty doesn’t sound like a very big number until you realize the full impact of that repeated 150 times.
But the pandemic hit and we were left with the question – what can we do now? Pat Smith rallied us to become the “water church.” Since the pandemic through today, our members and neighbors in Park Hill have worked together to distribute – wait for it – 33,000 bottles of water. Plus, now, instead of Tuesday evenings, on Tuesday mornings, members drive up to the church with lunch bags. More than 1,000 meals, and bottles of water, and counting.
Prior to the pandemic, Joan Root coordinated a monthly hot meal for homeless and low-income senior citizens. Those homemade casseroles also had to become acts of love in a lunch bag – now at about 1,500 and counting.
What can we do? That’s what we can do. That and much more. The Colorado Village Collaborative was our mission partner in June, the ones who run the safe outdoor shelter camps where some of our former WHI guests now stay. They received over $2,300 and volunteers from our congregation. Through our mission partner program, last month, $1,400 helped restock the shelves at the Greater Park Hill Food Pantry. Offerings for Safe House Denver in February, disaster relief in March, MetroCaring in April, gun violence prevention in May, and orphans in Ethiopia in August. And of course, in January, to prevent evictions we contributed almost $13,000. Plus, those piles of school supplies and backpacks last week! Look at what we can do together!
It may have been a difficult year – a year and a half to be exact – for a church that believes in doing, not merely hearing, yet it has also been a time of great creativity. I can’t even begin to count the number of times we have had to ask and answer the question “what can we do about that?” In addition to our food ministries, we adapted and adapted again and re-adapted music, worship, Sunday School, youth group, study groups and support groups. When we started meeting in person, we adapted again. Look at our fantastic Stream Team in the back of the church and imagine how much the church has grown online. Good and faithful servants, we’ve done a lot of good doing.
But then… Since I announced my call to San Diego, questions have included, “Now what do we do?” And I sympathize fully. I mean, hasn’t there already been enough change? But more importantly, hasn’t there already been enough loss? Grief added to the grief we feel at the senseless prolonging of the pandemic, fights over masking kids in school, chaos and now death in Afghanistan, apocalyptic scenes of wildfires and smokey skies, from images of suffering in Haiti to unprecedented flooding in Tennessee.
Bouncing around in our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies are the classic feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But grief, as we all know, doesn’t come in a neat and tidy order. Elizabeth Kubler Ross describes them as stages that bounce back and forth over and over, all of which multiplied can feel even more overwhelming. And now we have to add one more thing? We can find ourselves short with one another for no other apparent reason than to recognize, in our personal lives as well as a nation, we are tired of disorder and change– especially over things about which we have absolutely no control. Can’t just a few things stay the same?
A protégé of Kubler Ross added two more stages of grief: initially, there is shock, before denial and so forth, and eventually, not just acceptance, but reconstruction. I especially like those additions. Honoring all feelings, not rushing, but in the end, the hope of redemption through reconstructing our lives after the loss. That’s not just another thing we must “do.”
Therefore, as much as I love the words of James to do and not merely hear, doing and hearing cannot be disconnected. Before we do, we must hear. And while we do, we must hear. And even after we are done doing our doing, we must hear. Or in other words, to balance doing with listening. Deep listening. Take a breath.
Transitions are a good time, an important time, for breathing, and especially for listening. Take another breath.
Once again, our Governance Team jumped right into action and developed a plan – a group that already had plenty to do. But I especially ask your prayers upon them that they not only do what must be done immediately, but then they take the time needed among themselves to hear and lead the congregation to construct the future together. I trust they will. But that’s one reason why in the UCC, churches don’t just go out and get a new pastor. There is time intentionally set aside for listening before doing. I ask for the same prayer. That I take the time to stop and listen, to hear the voice of God, before jumping in too quickly to do a new thing.
At Lunch and Lectionary this week, someone suggested that I should tell you how I’m doing with this transition. The congregation, they said, wants to know how you’re feeling too. I’m afraid that if I do that, I might cry, but here it goes. But first, it is part of our vocation as pastors that we come to a church and love people and walk through their best and worst days. From days when we have been called to rush to the hospital, to days when we receive a call out of the blue from a long-ago youth group member asking us to officiate their marriage or baptize their baby. We wonder, how can they be old enough to have a child?! We invest everything into people’s lives and then leave. How do I feel?
And you do the same with us. Amazingly, you confess your biggest regrets to us and together we ponder your deepest questions; we listen as you contemplate divorce or come to grips with a fatal diagnosis. We accompany people to their death and help families cope. And then we leave you? Take a breath.
But to honor our ordination, we vow to separate in order for a new pastor to come, whom we pray loves the people as much as we did. Just as Roy Smith did when he left, just like Phil Campbell did when he left, just like the pastor after me does when she or he follows a call to their new ministry. We are chapters in a long legacy of faithful ministry.
More than a few pastors have been told, “just remember, I’m going to be here longer than you are.” I try to hear that as a promise, not a threat!
And so, how am I? I’m grieving. Some days expressed in exhaustion. Some days in irritation. And then I try to remember to breathe. Take a breath.
Even while at the same time I am excited, really excited, for new opportunities to keep learning and growing. And loving the people with whom I will now marry, bury, and baptize as a chapter in their church’s story. Just know that because of you, they will get a better minister as a result of how you shaped and formed me. The failures and successes we shared. Take a breath.
But my job right now is to do a sermon, so back to the text and my final thoughts on hearing and doing. For all the overachieving doers among us, Rev. Steven Bonsey cautions, “I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life acting on the illusion that after planting something in the ground, I could force it to grow. But in the pause between planting and harvesting, the seed must sprout and grow on its own. In those moments, what we do has absolutely no bearing on plant growth.” He said, “Progress toward the harvest is furthered as much by sleep as by rising.”
That could become a dangerous justification for doing nothing, but rather, in the interim, in this transition, I think it’s a helpful invitation to listen. By that I take his caution to mean, in any transition period, as the seed grows, if we don’t stop constantly doing, by the time the harvest comes, we may be too burned out. Or too busy to notice. And have you ever noticed how some people keep themselves too busy doing something else rather than allow themselves to feel grief. Too busy doing to hear.
As much as there is work to do, I believe it’s a word both you and I need to hear. So, take a breath.
 Complete Jewish Bible
 JB Phillips Bible
 The Message
 “The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 22, 2021
“Making Real Friends”
Psalm 84 – New Revised Standard Version
What How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise. Selah
5 Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
9 Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.
(Note: This is Blessing of the Backpacks Sunday)
Going back to school, especially those big transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle school (which we used to call Junior High) to high school is fraught with fear and anxiety. Not the more challenging classes but the bus and the lunchroom and after school. Will I have any friends? But it’s actually true of any transition – college, new job, moving to a new city, and even for those of you who have moved to a new 55+ community. It can get even harder as we age to break into existing friend groups. Even some churches make it really hard to be the new person. With all of that in mind, listen to this story.
One day a farmer decided that his donkey was fat enough to take to market to sell. He told his son to bring him two poles. He said, “We’ll carry our donkey to market on these poles so that he won’t get too thin from walking the long distance.”
So they tied the donkey to the poles, hoisted it all on their shoulders, and headed down the road to the market. Imagine a donkey hung upside down in between them, braying and heehawing his displeasure.
They came upon a group of people in the road who laughed and laughed. “Look at you stupid fellows carrying a donkey like it was a pig. That donkey should be carrying you! Why don’t you get on its back and ride it?”
The father and his son were very embarrassed at all the laughing and jeering. The father said, “I guess we must look pretty strange carrying a donkey. Maybe we should put him down and ride. But, he’s too small for both of us.” He told his son that because he’s smaller, he should ride while the father walked out front carrying their packs.
The son agreed. So they untied the donkey and the son got on. They began again down the road toward the market.
A little farther they came upon another group of people. They called out to the son, jeering, “What kind of son are you? You ride in comfort while your poor old father has to walk carrying bags? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The red-faced son dismounted. He said, “Maybe you should ride, father, and I will carry the packs.” The father agreed. “Maybe that would be best.”
So the father got up on the donkey and the son walked out in front with the packs.
They crossed the river and neared the village. They came upon a group of young women who called out, “Look at that handsome young man walking like a servant while that old goat rides like a prince. You should ride, handsome boy, and the old man should walk.”
The boy turned and said, “Father, have we made a mistake again?” The father replied, “It seems like we have made several mistakes today. First we carried the donkey and the people said it was wrong. Then you rode and people said it was wrong. They I rode and people said it was wrong. Perhaps we should ride it together.”
“Splendid,” said the boy. So they both got up on the donkey and continued on. When they reached the market, a crowd of people began pointing and staring at them. “How could you be so cruel? That donkey is barely old enough for one rider, and yet you have put two on him? It’s so little, you should be carrying it! Shame, shame,” the people cried out louder and louder.
The father and son got off at once, but the crowd wouldn’t let up. And they were so loud that it frightened the poor little donkey. It bucked and kicked until the father and his son lost grip of the rope and the donkey ran off, never to be seen again.
What a story! For any would-be people-pleaser, you might see a connection. Someone says, “You should do it this way.” So, you do. Someone else says, “You should do it that way.” So, you do. Then someone else, and on and on and on… Each time trying to please someone until everyone is upset. Your existing friends. Co-workers. Family. And especially, yourself. You know it in your stomach. Your sleep patterns…
In the story, what might they have done differently? They could have yelled “Mind your own business!” and kept moving on. Or “Thank you! I appreciate the suggestion.” And kept moving on.
People pleasing is so common it has been studied as research in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. The Harvard Business Review wrote about the problem of people-pleasers in the workplace. It’s an ancient problem. Two thousand years ago, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus warned: "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them." (Luke 6:26, The Message)
But is people-pleasing the problem? Maybe it’s a need for approval. Not doing the right thing but what most people will be happy with or approve of. Then we will have peace. And we will have friends, my point today. Maybe not real friends, but friends, nonetheless.
So, if we wanted to evaluate our level of people-pleasing or approval-seeking, what are some questions we might ask?
But then again, what’s wrong with being agreeable? Being easy to get along with. What’s wrong with seeking the peace?
And here’s one more question: Deep inside, do you believe you can get most everyone to like you? And therefore, be your friend.
Do I believe, deep inside, that I can get most everyone to like me? Absolutely! But be careful. That’s why I made some of the choices I did in high school. Maybe even today.
This may also explain why some people avoid getting involved in social change or justice movements. Someone won’t approve. Or worse, they might not like me! Expressing an opposing view might lower someone’s opinion of us. What’s a frequent criticism of activists? Why must they be so disagreeable? Disturbing “the peace.”
My dad was far from what anyone would consider a radical for social change. Among many other things, he was a Gideon – the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms and try to hand out little New Testaments at schools. He was a Gideon because my dad loved the Bible. He read it every day and simply wanted others to encounter it and love it too. One of my prized possessions is the Bible my mother gave him while they were dating in 1944. It’s so well worn; it barely stays together. And so full of notes, the pages couldn’t hold anymore. You get the picture.
But one day he got in trouble with the head Gideon in Montana. The topic of homosexuality had come up. Apparently, everyone believed they were on the same page of condemnation. My father very calmly and clearly said his son was gay and that he loved him. That was it. That night he got a call asking “What kind of trouble are you trying to stir up in Miles City?” From a man whose son was also gay, but of whom he had a starkly different opinion about his son’s eternal soul. All of a sudden, in his 80s, my dad was an “agitator” with a gay agenda. He never went back to another meeting.
My dad knew the Bible better than most people. He lived his life to please God. That didn’t always please everyone, which can be hard. We might think that pleasing God means we should please other people. But Jesus surely didn’t spend all his time trying to please people. You don’t eat dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors to win brownie points. You don’t invite yourself to the home of Zacchaeus or allow Mary to listen in on conversations between men. You don’t stop men from stoning a woman caught in adultery. You don’t pardon criminals or call religious people snakes, broods of vipers, and hypocrites – not just once but over and over.
Being true to yourself and to your God, standing up and speaking out for justice and disturbing the peace, might not win a lot of friends, but it will attract real friends. And a few real friends is much better than being liked by everyone. There’s nothing radical about that. I’m just making sense, right?
But it came to mind in what the Psalm for today says. Verse 10: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” What that’s really saying is, “I would rather just stand at the door than to have a comfortable home with what is wrong.” Or, as you return to school, or contemplate a move or a change in your life, the Psalmist might say, I’d rather be true to myself and to God than to have a lot of people who like me.
This Psalm expresses a longing for home. It speaks of weeping and walking through a lonely valley. In times of transition, whether it is at school, work, or anywhere else, we often feel lonely, hoping and praying for a place where we can belong. The Psalmist’s ultimate hope, I believe, is to welcome God inside of us, and then, “Oh my goodness, how lovely is your dwelling place.”
So, good luck and God bless on your new adventures and journeys! I pray you find real friends along the way with whom you can share with bold confidence such values as Black Lives Matter, that science is real, that no human being is illegal, and that love is love is love. Not everyone will be pleased, but that won’t matter if what you simply want are real friends. And to be a real friend.
 “The Father, the Son, and the Donkey” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.
Park Hill UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 15, 2021
“There is a Time”
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
There is a time for every matter under heaven; a season for everything. Planting and plucking. Breaking down and building up. Times to weep, laugh, mourn and dance. Early in the pandemic, someone brilliantly noted that we had entered a season to refrain from embracing. And yes, the time to embrace again can’t come soon enough.
Much of the wisdom by the quester, the author of Ecclesiastes, is common sense. Of course there is a time for birth and a time for death, although death often seems to come before its time. A few other lines, however, don’t make sense. For example, when is there an appropriate time for hate?
One common error in interpreting this text is to think of this passage as prescriptive instead of descriptive. Looking back on his or her life, the author, perhaps an elderly king, is describing the truth that there are indeed times of hate and war in our lives. This is wisdom born of experience. They weren’t looking forward, like prophets, and suggesting, prescribing, that we should hate or declare war. Wisdom exposes that hate and war, as well as love and peace, simply exist as the ying and yang of life. Life is the constant search, the quest, for balance. And then things change again.
As most of you now know, we have entered a transition time. In fact, upon hearing the news that I have accepted a call to a new church in San Diego, you may have felt a little knocked off balance. But there is indeed a season to come together and a time to part. A time to say hello and a right time to say farewell. When is that right time?
I had no idea on April 12. When I drove to San Diego, I had no other intention than to be restored by ocean waves and return to Denver refreshed for a new season, getting ready to regather for worship in person.
I was certain I wasn’t ready to leave, but yet, when I actually asked myself, “Am I ready,” I heard as clear as day, “Yes.” A little stunned by the immediacy of the answer, from that point on, I knew my responsibility was to be ready and get ready for a change. God may be calling, but I had to do my part.
As we discussed in Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday, our decision to pursue change comes as a partnership. It is in relationship with God that we choose to participate in co-creating our future. It is not ours alone to make. Nor is our future imposed by God. Not to mention, circumstances often disrupt our carefully developed plans. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
But again, as our Lunch group agreed, God does not impose the future upon us. God invites us to participate in creating it. Things like anger and fear often stand in the way, yet we are always invited to take the next best step from wherever we are, no matter where that is.
Most of you have heard or read my call story by now, but a quick recap: In March I kept sensing a need to sit by ocean waves. I had never felt called to water before, so I thought it was important to pay attention. Many of you have spoken of the Oregon coast, so I looked into it. The cost was exorbitant. Besides, I wanted to visit my sister in Phoenix before it got even hotter, so once they were fully vaccinated, I bought a ticket. The ocean could wait.
A couple of weeks before my trip, Mona announced she needed surgery that would require 12 weeks in bed with her foot elevated. She didn’t want me to simply sit next to her bed for a week, so she suggested I spend one night and then drive to San Diego. I found an Airbnb a mile from the beach for $60 a night. Talk about timing. There’s never been anything remotely that affordable since or will be ever again!
I walked the beach every day and one evening surfed the web for UCC churches in the area. I discovered one was searching for a new pastor, so I read their profile. A profile is a massive 40 page document describing the church in every possible detail and articulating what they seek in a new pastor. Not very many churches put their profile directly on their webpage. Usually, you have to go through official channels, which you can’t do unless you have a profile and are officially searching. I wasn’t looking so I didn’t have a profile.
Out of curiosity I read about the church and thought it sounded great, not that different in mission and theology than Park Hill. But that was it. Interesting church. Until two nights later I said, let me read that again and thought, I could do that. But I was certain I was not ready for a change. And God laughed.
Meanwhile, after 15 years, the pastor of Mission Hills retired in January 2020. And then the pandemic hit. After several months, an interim was in place and a search committee was formed in October. They met weekly on Zoom and finished their profile and posted it at the end of December. They started to receive profiles in January and interview candidates. At first many on the committee thought their job was to hire a new pastor. But a search committee is not a hiring committee. It is a discernment group. In fact, many people who have served on good search committees have come to discover it is one of the most spiritually rich and fruitful times in their faith lives. A lot of work, but worth it. And they discover that discernment takes time.
Even so, there comes a time when a decision must finally be made. Congregations are known to become impatient. So, after reading 32 profiles, interviewing a dozen, they narrowed it down to a few and finally to one. But they hit a plateau. Something wasn’t right. The committee wasn’t in full agreement. The committee co-chairs emailed the group advising them, if it doesn’t feel right, not to rush, to trust the process, and most importantly, to pray. It was more important to discern the right candidate than to finish hiring a new pastor. That email was dated Thursday, May 6th. On Friday, May 7th, their conference minister reached out to ask if they would consider one more candidate.
That’s because, though shocked that I was ready, on Tuesday, May 4th, I decided that my responsibility was to participate with God in co-creating my future. That required me to write my profile. Art and I had concluded I would regret it if I didn’t at least try to apply. I initiated my background check, which can take a while, and then I went to their website to print out the profile. It wasn’t there. I went to the official UCC website, and it said they weren’t accepting more profiles. Officially, “on hold.” That can mean they have found their candidate and it was too late. Or maybe not. So, I contacted our conference minister to inquire for me. She did, adding a good word.
On Thursday, my background check was already back – which included my arrest for aggravated disorderly conduct, which I always laugh sounds like a drunken brawl. It was just an arrest for civil disobedience. Our conference minister then quickly verified my profile, the last step. It was in the committee’s hands on Friday – again, the day after they said they should pause to pray.
The committee discussed it on Monday and offered me an interview for the following Monday and the next day offered me a second interview. All of this happened within one month of returning from San Diego. I had no intention of change. Leaving was the last thing on my mind. God laughed and invited me to participate in the co-creation of my future. Our future.
The whole thing still gives me chills. I listened to the Spirit call me to ocean waves. The committee prayed to discern, not quickly hire. And we met in the middle, the doors gently opened on every obstacle, including Art who was initially opposed to even discussing the idea and is now delighted and excited for new adventures. I still don’t get why my sister needed to spend 12 weeks in bed for the story to work, but she is glad her misery at least served some greater purpose!
And I believe that will be true here as well – not 12 weeks in bed but doors will gently open on every obstacle. Change isn’t always easy, but the lack of change invites death. The world runs on movement, to quote Martha Jones. Imagine looking back and realizing you should have left a year ago. Imagine how much worse if you had said to me, you should have left a year ago!
Change embraced as a partnership with God is invigorating. You will get to experience a whole new set of gifts and skills that will build upon and enhance the ministry we have done together for 14 years. Trust that God is the process. Trust that Park Hill has the right leaders in place. And for whomever serves on the future search committee, remember to discern for the best candidate, not rush to hire the most expedient one. And if you do, I believe you will experience the same miracle I have.
That’s not just advice for a church but in our personal lives too. Discerning our future takes time because it’s a partnership. Not in prescribing, our future is found in listening to promptings. Not rushing. Not being afraid of the obstacles that appear. They’re just doors. Some are meant to open, some are not. It may not yet be time. Those that do not open simply invite us to open the door next to it. There could be nothing worse than to rush God by imposing our own will. And eventually we’ll be able to describe how things unfolded in God’s time. In partnership with God, there is indeed a time and season for everything under the sun.
I have been incredibly blessed by this season in my life. And I pray it has been a blessing for you. But this is not a farewell sermon. And I promise not to preach four more farewell sermons. I promise. The gospel must still be proclaimed for our times. But this is simply part of the process of figuring out how we got here to this place and time. And what we should do next, including exploring the stages of grief we will each experience. Grief, as well as anticipation for what God has in store for all of us next.
Because again, the world runs on movement. Avoiding change is a form of death. And we believe in a God of life. A God who is always holding out the promise of life, even as we sit here right now. And that is very good news.
Call Sermon for Mission Hills UCC
San Diego, California
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 8, 2021
“How Would You Like to Change the World”
John 10: 1-10 – New Revised Standard Version
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
My name is David Bahr. And here is how I would like to change the world.
But first, a couple of years ago, the Racial Justice Ministry at my church in Denver went to hear Bryan Stevenson speak. Bryan is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Some people know him as the force behind the creation of the national lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. He’s author of the book Just Mercy, which is now also a movie. My sister, Mona, kept insisting that I read that book. She would ask, have you read it yet? Have you read it yet? So, one day while waiting for jury duty, I finally read it and it changed my life. Thank you, sister.
Rosa Parks once asked Bryan what he does. “Yes ma’am,” he said. “We’re trying to help people on death row. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted, stop racial bias in the criminal justice system, and stop excessive punishment.” She replied, “Oooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed. Then a third woman put her finger in my face and said very seriously, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
So that Monday night, after the lights in the theatre dimmed and the requisite introductions and recitation of his biography and many degrees, Bryan stood alone on an empty stage and simply said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I would like to change the world.” His whole speech was mesmerizing. 60 minutes flew by like it was 10. I wanted so much more. And yet, still to this day, it was that very first line that has remained with me. I drove home that night full of inspiration and thought, what would I say if I stood in front of a room. But an answer didn’t come right away.
In our passage today, Jesus didn’t exactly say, “My name is Jesus, and so forth.” But he did pretty clearly state his objective: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
And what gets in the way of that? Something about thieves and bandits and gatekeepers and so forth. I’m so glad John said that the disciples did not understand, because I have to tell you, it’s not quite clear to me either. So, I thought maybe it would be better to focus on the words of Jesus describing himself as a gate. “I am the gate.” But can I be honest with you? I don’t like that much better.
This is one of seven “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John – like, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine, I am the resurrection and so on… To me, those statements seem so out of character with Jesus. “I am the gate?” What did Jesus mean?
But perhaps that’s the wrong question. What did John mean by putting those words into the mouth of Jesus? Because scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan say it’s very unlikely that Jesus would have said “I am the way, the truth, and the life about himself.” Why not?
For one, those “I am” statements only appear in the Gospel of John and John had a very different purpose than the other gospels. The theme of John’s gospel is Jesus himself, Jesus as the definitive expression of God – the ultimate I AM. But the most important distinction is, John teaches that salvation is by way of belief in Jesus as the Son of God. You know the most famous example. It’s John 3:16. “Everyone who believes in him will not perish but shall have eternal life.”
However, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus rarely spoke of himself. In fact, he often admonished people to keep his actions a secret. His works were to glorify God, not himself. His teaching focused not on belief in him but on the Kingdom of God – blessings, liberation, and solidarity with people who are poor, sick, and imprisoned.
Here’s the thing: The Gospel of John is an invitation to believe in Jesus. The other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, encourage us to become disciples of Jesus.
So, I probably shouldn’t say this in a sermon right before you’re asked to vote on a new pastor, but I think I should put my blasphemy right out in front of you. I don’t care if you believe in Jesus. (watch for thunderbolts.)
I want you to be like Jesus. Or rather, to be a disciple of the Jesus whom God anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed. To have compassion like Jesus. Beliefs often divide us. To me, the most important thing is to actually love like Jesus.
As I drove home from the Stevenson event, I thought, what would my statement be? It was 2017 and it felt like cruelty was everywhere on the rise, intentional, even gleeful. Someone on PBS NewsHour called it “gratuitous cruelty.” I don’t think I need to go into a bunch of examples. It was 2017. And then I read an article by Jonathon Schell who I thought summarized it perfectly. “America has become a culture of cruelty – a country that seems to know of no remedy for social problems but punishment.”
That’s when I knew the answer I had been seeking. My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world: I want to end the culture of cruelty. Of course, the “how” is what really matters. I want to help Christians move from merely believing in Jesus to becoming his disciples.
Now, just to be clear, I believe in Jesus. When I was 7 years old, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Those aren’t exactly words I would use today, but the sentiment is the same. I believe in Jesus. I just don’t think that’s enough.
Furthermore, abundant life isn’t a belief. The abundant life of which Jesus spoke isn’t a state of mind. Amen? And certainly, abundant life shouldn’t be something for which we have to escape to heaven to experience. Amen? It’s something to experience together, right? And it’s not just for you and me. In the words of Jesus – they. That “they” may have life. Who’s that? All for whom this present life is not abundant.
And if we want to redeem that disconcerting gate metaphor, these are the blessed people Jesus tries to protect, to stand between them and the forces of hate. In that way, I like the idea of Jesus as a gate. Jesus and his disciples, i.e., you and me.
And that’s why I’m here today. I wasn't looking for a new church. I came to San Diego to spend some time walking on beautiful beaches and listening to waves. Curious, I looked up local UCCs and saw one that was in a pastor search, so I read their profile. Just curious.
But this caught my attention: “When the Muslim Ban was initiated by the government, Mission Hills UCC members went to the Islamic Center of San Diego each Friday to show solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.” Yes! That’s exactly what a disciple of Jesus would do to show love and protect against the hate and gratuitous cruelty of thieving bandits. Oh! Now I get what today’s passage means. It finally makes sense!
As I read your profile, a list of other examples kept growing:
You, through your brilliantly chosen search committee, answered the question “who is God calling us to become?” with this compelling answer: “God is calling us to lean into the tensions we are seeing between our congregations’ many privileges and our social justice mission. We are called to leverage these privileges to bridge the gaps between our affluent congregation and a city in economic crisis. We are coalition builders.” Amen. You and the Spirit had my full attention. My curiosity turned into “I have to meet these people!”
But the thing that most touched my heart was all the money and volunteers for Just in Time for Foster Youth. That’s not a typical church outreach project. It matters to me because my best friend has fostered more children than she can count and has adopted 10. I am the godfather for 8 of them. I just haven’t yet met the most recent two.
I asked the search committee to visit Just in Time when I was here in July. The mission of the organization not only touches my heart, I fell in love with the four young people I met. I asked them to be here today as a personal favor. It’s cruel to think that when a foster child ages out of the system, they are supposed to somehow be ready to face the world on their own. It’s no surprise that a significant number of people who are homeless once were foster children. There could be nothing more Christ-like than to create an extended family of love and protection as they have done. I would like to be part of that extended family.
So, my name is David Bahr and you’ve heard how I would like to change the world. But not just with disciples already on the path, such as those already in the church. I am passionate about inviting others to discover abundant life for themselves. To invite people with social justice commitments to combine those with the Christian faith – redefined, of course, not primarily concerned about belief but to work together. To join us to seek a world that is Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate. The words “Kingdom of God” do not translate outside an already Christian audience. But if you describe your desire for a world that is open-minded, inclusive of everyone, seeks justice for all, especially that Black Lives Matter, and above all encourages compassion, compassion, compassion, well, that’s a compelling invitation to learn more about the life and teachings of Jesus, whom we call the Christ. To learn about faith. Christianity provides, or can provide, the foundation, the spiritual resources, and the place of belonging, from which to extend ourselves to change the world.
Your search committee read the personal statement of its nameless candidate (now you know my name) as someone who wants to inspire love in what often feels like a culture of cruelty; to build a community of disciples who are fiercely bold about Christ’s mercy and compassion to save the soul of our country, and our own in the process.
And not just to save it for the sake of survival, but rather for flourishing.
Not just that we all get by, but so that we all thrive.
Not just that we have existence, but that we have joy.
Not just life, but life in abundance. For all God’s people.
That's who I am. Now, who are you? What is your name? Would you say it out loud for me? So I can hear it.
And don’t answer yet: How would you like to change the world? Think about it, pray on it, listen to the Spirit. And then ask, what can we do as a church full of Jesus’ disciples to provide what is necessary? So that, as Rosa Parks said to Bryan Stevenson, when you’re tired, tired, tired, together, through worship, prayer, study, outreach, fellowship, friendship, and more, we can help each other to be brave, brave, brave. Amen?
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014
 Read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Marcus Borg, Harper Collins, 1994
 Inspired by David J Lose, adapted, WorkingPreacher.com, “Abundant Life Now,” 2014
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 1, 2021
John 6: 24-35 – New Revised Standard Version
24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which[a] comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
I find today’s text a little irritating, or rather, one line of it. Right in the middle: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom God has sent.” The work of God is believing?
Whenever I see that the gospel assigned in the lectionary for the day is from John, I wince a little. Oh no, what kind of wandering labyrinth of logic will this one be? Whereas Jesus primarily spoke in parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, even though they are often enigmatic, in John he gives these long-winded, zigzagging discourses that are even more difficult to follow.
That’s not to say the entire gospel is problematic. Some of the best stories about Jesus are only in John. The wedding feast at Cana, the Samaritan woman at the well (one of my favorites), Lazarus rising from the dead, Mary Magdalene and the “gardener” at the empty tomb, and Jesus showing his wounded hands to doubting Thomas. Oh, and I love the opening prologue. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
Our official UCC motto is taken from John: “That They May All Be One.” Our unofficial motto is taken from Gracie Allen: “Never put a period when God has placed a comma.” To which my friend Ron Buford added, “God is still speaking.”
But it is from John, and only John, that we have the overused words “born again.” And John 3:16. I love John 3:16. For God so loves the world. It’s just the end of the verse: “Whoever believes in me will not perish but shall have eternal life.” Ugh… I’m sorry if I sound cynical, but John’s constant focus on belief is often an excuse to disregard the work of God to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the prisoner, and so forth. And to divide the world into believers and non-believers.
“Belief” is furthermore emphasized only in John with “I am” statements like today’s “I am the bread of life.” But, as our Lunch and Lectionary group asked, what about actual bread for people who are actually hungry? Yes, we need the bread that does not perish. Bread that endures. Bread for the soul. But people also actually need bread for life.
And that’s why I find today’s text irritating. Right in the middle: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the One whom God has sent.” The work of God is believing? Really, Jesus?
Again, to me, the work of God is feeding people who are hungry. In fact, the deeper work of God is upending a system that requires some people to live in poverty so others can live in opulence. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary talked of toppling the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. The hungry are full and the rich are sent away empty. In the Gospel of Matthew, if we don’t care for the needs of others, we don’t care for the needs of Jesus. Is that to be meant only metaphorically? However, in contrast, the last verse of today’s text from John says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Yes, but…
Marcus Borg says that John is a “remarkable testimony about what Jesus had become in early Christian milieu. It tells us how Jesus was spoken of in a Christian community near the end of the first century. It does not tell us very much about how Jesus himself spoke.”
I am the bread of life. I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the resurrection… There are 7 “I am” statements in the Gospel of John that invite us to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. After learning of the remarkable life of Jesus as a teacher and prophet of the Kingdom of God, the rabbi who invited us into a different way of living, even as the one who conquered death, why, according to John, is so little asked of us but to believe? Perhaps because John represents the beginning of institutionalizing Jesus into Christianity.
Diana Butler Bass says the basis of the institutional church has been believing, through creed and dogma, behaving, through rules and techniques, and belonging, through membership and choice. All of this results in people thinking that Christianity is about getting the answers right, living by the right rules, and passing the test to get in. If you believe right, and you behave right, you might belong.
It leads to people saying, “I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore because I just can’t believe all that stuff.” Perhaps you’ve said that too. “Can I be a Christian and not believe in…” Fill in the blank. Biblical concepts like resurrection, virgin birth, hell… Or cultural concepts claimed by certain kinds of Christians about abortion, same gender marriage, and even free market capitalism. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, if that’s what Christians believe, then count me out. Whole generations are counting themselves out.
Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity After Religion. Great title, isn’t it? If we could free the faith of Jesus from the religion of Christianity, she claimed, we would see a world-wide spiritual awakening. She reverses the order from the institutionalized church’s flow of believe, behave, and belong.
First, she said, before anything else, we belong. “We belong to God and to one another, connected to all in a web of relationships.” In her reversed flow, belonging isn’t based anymore on subscribing to a certain set of beliefs. Which would therefore mean, the work of the church shouldn’t primarily be about belonging as membership but belonging as radical hospitality. We are all one in Christ.
Then, when we feel part of the whole, we practice faith together through acts of justice and love that reflect and anticipate the reign of God. In other words, behave. I don’t like the word behave, but for the sake of this example, all of that belonging and behaving, she said, will then form the basis of belief. In addition, these beliefs are not static but grow and evolve with time and experience. But as long as we focus on belonging to one another, working together on shared values, i.e. behavior, then beliefs will stop being deal breakers in relationship.
Again, she said, over the centuries the Christian church has come to assert that to belong you must first believe in a set of theological assertions; to belong you must first behave in certain prescribed ways; and only then can you belong. But who wants to belong to that?
And I’ll add that progressive Christians have the same tendency to regulate belonging according to certain beliefs and behavior. Cancel culture is mostly a dog whistle, but it does contain some ring of truth.
When the UCC was formed in 1957, our forebears tried to move beyond the limitations of creeds, like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, with their repetitions of “I believe” or “We believe.” Repetitions which include things that people often do not believe. Or understand, such as the statement in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” Find 2 people in 100 who could tell you what they just said they believe.
The UCC Statement of Faith is not a creed. It begins “We believe in God.” That’s it. Then it goes on to say, “and to God’s deeds we testify.” The rest of the statement describes the work of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The UCC Statement of Faith is also unique from creeds because, beyond belief, it says what we are called to do, including, “to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.” And “to be your servants in the service of others.” And that we are promised “courage in the struggle for justice and peace.” I find it rather forward looking for 1959 when it was adopted by the General Synod.
So, you may ask, if this is already part of our “belief system” as the UCC, then why am I making a big deal about today’s text from the Gospel of John? Perhaps because it simply needs to be restated from time to time, to remind us about this community to which we belong – not because of formal membership but because we claim one another as spiritual companions. As well, of course, to provide education for people who are new to the UCC.
To be clear, despite what John says, the faith of Jesus, the work of God, is more than believing. In fact, Marcus Borg said, "For me, to believe a set of statements is impossible." What is possible, he argues, is to "belove" Jesus and walk in his path. The idea of beloving Jesus vs. believing in him is a fascinating concept for another day.
According to John, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Earlier I said “yes, but.” However, I want to end with “yes, and.” The work of God is to feed the hungry and it must be, we must be, sustained with soul food.
We may think of soul food only as a type of African American cuisine – fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. Getting hungry? But soul food originated in the scraps of food that no one else wanted. It was only from love and creativity that the pieces and parts no one else would eat came the banquet feast we know as soul food. Just like Jesus did and can do for us with simplicity of bread and the splendor of God's creation.
I “believe,” funny word, that Jesus does in fact sustain us, especially through the sacrament of communion, the true bread of the soul that endures, around whose table we now gather.
But to today’s point, it doesn’t matter what you believe about communion. You don’t have to understand it any more than to know this: it is an invitation to belong. In fact, it is a symbol that you already DO belong.
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, Harper One, 2012
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 18, 2021
“Relentless Need. Persistent Abundance”
Mark 6: 30-44, 53-56 – Common English Bible
“30-31The apostles returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught. 31 So many people were coming and going, there was no time to eat. He said to the apostles, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” 32 They departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place.
33 Many people saw them leaving and recognized them, so they ran ahead from all the cities and arrived before them. 34 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.
35 Late in the day, his disciples came to him and said, “This is an isolated place, and it’s already late in the day. 36 Send them away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy something to eat for themselves.”
37 He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
But they said to him, “Should we go off and buy almost eight months’ wages worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 Jesus said to them, “How much bread do you have? Take a look.”
After checking, they said, “Five loaves of bread and two fish.”
39 He directed the disciples to seat all the people in groups as though they were having a banquet on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, broke the loaves into pieces, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 Everyone ate until they were full. 43 Then they filled twelve baskets with the leftover pieces of bread and fish. 44 About five thousand had eaten.
53 When Jesus and his disciples had crossed back across the lake, they landed at Gennesaret, anchored the boat, 54 and came ashore. People immediately recognized Jesus 55 and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 Wherever he went—villages, cities, or farming communities—they would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed.
A common interpretation of this story is that people simply shared the provisions they had brought with them from home. That’s how the disciples could start with five loaves of bread and two fish but end up with 12 basketfuls of leftovers. This wasn’t so much a miracle but an example of what can happen when people share. Of all the miracle stories, this might be the easiest one to explain in a rational and compelling way.
It’s a story of the vision of the Kingdom of God. A world where sharing by all will mean scarcity for none. And as Jesus kept insisting, on earth as it is in heaven. When we enact this earthly foretaste of heaven, there is enough, more than enough, for everyone.
However, in this story according to Mark, people didn’t just wander over to the lakeside with provisions for a lovely picnic while they listened to an inspiring speaker. They “literally” ran from their houses to hear Jesus. They were desperate to hear words that would give them life. They didn’t plan or prepare for a long day away from home. And if that’s so, then where did all that food come from?
Perhaps the example and “the vision of sharing by all” isn’t what Mark meant here.
Some clues: The passage begins, “The apostles rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught.” Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus commissioned the disciples and sent them off in groups of two and told them to take nothing with them, no bread, no bag, no money. They were only to live off the hospitality of the people they met. And if the people were not hospitable, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left the house. They were out there completely dependent and vulnerable.
And reportedly, the disciples did amazing things. In verse 13 it says, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” They had marvelous success at their mission. Mark’s gospel usually reports how clueless the disciples acted, a group who routinely didn’t get it, who didn’t understand who or what Jesus was about. But they got this one right, and for that, Mark calls them apostles, the only time in his entire gospel. It’s Mark’s way of giving them credit. They did it. They achieved the mission Jesus gave them. In response Jesus told them, “Let’s take a break and get a some rest.”
But, like it had happened many times before, crowds of people discovered he was there and rushed to him. All the disciples wanted was to have a break. And here was Jesus, once again, full of compassion. When the disciples told Jesus it was getting late and he should send them home for supper, instead, Jesus asked them to feed the crowd. And in an instant, they’re back to being disciples again – a group that doesn’t get it. They asked Jesus how he expected them to feed such a large crowd of hungry people. You want us to feed how many?! You want us to spend how much!? How quickly they lost faith.
What could cause them to lose faith? What changed? And does that ever happen to us?
There are times when we’re like faith machines. We’re in the zone. We put our problems and stresses and worries and struggles into perspective. We let one thing go and we let another fly by. We don’t let anything get us down. Our faith could move mountains. And then all of a sudden, we ask, why has God abandoned me? Why won’t God hear my prayers? Why has my faith been replaced by such crippling fear? What changed?
Maybe it happens when we begin to think everything depends on us. Or that we are the reason we’re succeeding, not that God is working through us. Back when Jesus sent them out two by two, when they were healing the sick and casting out demons, the disciples knew it could only be God at work in and through them. But for some reason, to feed the crowd, they thought it was all about them.
Martin Copenhaver wonders whether the 12 suffered from compassion fatigue. They were amazed by what they could do, but the need never quit. They were on their way to a break from the pressure and stress of their calling – a well-deserved retreat. But then this huge crowd showed up, wanting more, needing more from them. I’d be perturbed too. And to make it worse, Jesus, who knew they needed a rest, told them to feed the crowd. Can’t they do it for themselves?
In the movie Groundhog Day, the character played by Bill Murray lives a single day over and over again. He wakes up and it’s the same day; always beginning at 6 am with the radio blaring I’ve Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher. Each day the sequence of the same people and the same events repeats anew. But over the course of time, he realizes he can change how he deals with that same person or event. Ultimately, he grows more understanding and compassionate. He discovers that every day he can re-do his interactions with people and from that learn how to improve the situation.
But there is one curious exception. Every day he catches a boy that falls out of a tree. The first time he’s amazed. He saved the boy! But with each succeeding day, he grows more annoyed that the boy continues to need to be caught. The relentlessness of this boy’s need for help eventually wears his compassion thin.
I think of social workers who begin their careers full of confidence that they can change the world, only to see the same clients month after month, year after year, with no end in sight. My heart aches for all the doctors and nurses during the pandemic inundated every day with more and more sick people. But I can only imagine it's worse now that there is a vaccine and the numbers keep rising. Would you want to care for someone who refuses to help themselves? And keeps putting the rest of us at risk? People in all kinds of healing and helping professions can probably all relate to some extent to the relentless need. Have you ever felt compassion fatigue?
Maybe it’s the exhaustion of dealing with family members who constantly need our help. We save them from eviction only to discover they need to be saved again. For every five broken promises, we hold on to the glimpse of that one promise kept. Maybe this time it’ll be different… How often do we worry what would happen if we didn’t keep trying? It’s not an argument to stop, but to not take it all on by ourselves.
Maria is a woman with considerable power and influence in the world. Once a year she hikes through the mountains for a week – completely cut off from the world. But she always tells her husband to save all the newspapers from that week. When she returns, Maria reads every single one of them to remind herself that it all happened without her. Despite the pressure we may feel, the world will not end without us.
The belief that “If I don’t do it, nobody else will” causes more burnout than anything else. Imagine the miracles that could be accomplished if we shared the work together! This story from the gospel of Mark is a curious combination of taking responsibility for the needs of the crowd and not having to do it all by ourselves – that’s the miracle of multiplying loaves and fish.
What do you think about this story? Do you see yourself anywhere in it? What do you think the miracle was?
The feeding of the 5,000 comes right in the middle of stories about people rushing to Jesus, overwhelming the disciples to the point that they didn’t even have time to eat, let alone rest. In the face of that constant and relentless need, to me, this is a story about how abundance persists. More than enough. Not as something we have to create but live into with faith. Because God works with us to provide.
References: Martin Copenhaver, “Watching from the Boat,” Christian Century, June 29-July 6, 1994
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 11, 2021
Amos 7: 7-15 – The Message
God showed me this vision: My Master was standing beside a wall. In his hand he held a plumb line.
8-9 God said to me, “What do you see, Amos?”
I said, “A plumb line.”
Then my Master said, “Look what I’ve done. I’ve hung a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel. I’ve spared them for the last time. This is it!
“Isaac’s sex-and-religion shrines will be smashed,
Israel’s unholy shrines will be knocked to pieces.
I’m raising my sword against the royal family of Jeroboam.”
10 Amaziah, priest at the shrine at Bethel, sent a message to Jeroboam, king of Israel:
“Amos is plotting to get rid of you; and he’s doing it as an insider, working from within Israel. His talk will destroy the country. He’s got to be silenced. Do you know what Amos is saying?
11 ‘Jeroboam will be killed.
Israel is headed for exile.’”
12-13 Then Amaziah confronted Amos: “Seer, be on your way! Get out of here and go back to Judah where you came from! Hang out there. Do your preaching there. But no more preaching at Bethel! Don’t show your face here again. This is the king’s chapel. This is a royal shrine.”
14-15 But Amos stood up to Amaziah: “I never set up to be a preacher, never had plans to be a preacher. I raised cattle and I pruned trees. Then God took me off the farm and said, ‘Go preach to my people Israel.’
Amos describes his unlikely call from a farmer to a prophet: to use a plumb line to determine the faithfulness of Israel – caring for widows and orphans, welcoming the foreigner or alien, practicing a religion that isn’t about showing off but showing up for the stranger.
A plumb line is a weight suspended from a string used as a vertical reference line to ensure a structure is centered. As plumb lines always find the vertical axis pointing to the center of gravity, they ensure everything is right, justified and centered. If not, the structure will one day fall to the ground.
It makes me ask: What might our plumb line be?
How about love?
Valarie Kaur is American civil rights activist, a member of the Sikh faith, and someone who can articulate the life and ministry of Jesus better than many who call themselves Christians – myself included.
For her, the plumb line would not just be love but revolutionary love. That’s her extraordinary vision, her project, for us – as individuals and as a nation.
She asks, what's the antidote to rising nationalism, polarization and hate? Valarie asks us to claim love as a revolutionary act. But just to be clear, she prefaces this with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
A plumb line.
We’re going to watch her famous TedTalk from 2018. In the video, she journeys from the birthing room to tragic sites of bloodshed. And shows us how the choice to love is the force for justice.
She is also clear: “I do not owe my opponents my affection, warmth, or regard. But I do owe myself a chance to live in this world without the burden of hate.”
“Forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is freedom from hate.”
“No one should be asked to feel empathy or compassion for their oppressors. I have learned that we do not need to feel anything for our opponents at all in order to practice love. But love is labor that returns us to wonder—it is seeing another person's humanity, even if they deny their own. We just have to choose to wonder about them.”
Valarie asks, what if this present darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb. Something waiting to be born. In us. And in our nation. What if this time is our great transition?
And so I ask, as she did: “Can you choose one person to practice wondering about? Can you listen to the story they have to tell? If your fists tighten, or your heart beats fast, or if shame rises to your face, it’s okay. Breathe through it. Trust that you can. The heart is a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.”
As Valarie concludes, you are brave. You are brave.
I understand you may not be ready. I may not be ready. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wasn’t sure he was ready either. So, he wrote this “prayer before the prayer”
O God, I want to be willing to let go, to forgive.
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive,
in case you give it to me. And I am not yet ready.
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften.
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again.
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes
Or that the one who hurt me may also have cried.
I am not yet ready for the journey.
I am not yet interested in the path.
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness.
Grant me the will to want to forgive.
Grant it to me, soon, but not yet.
Can I even form the words? Forgive me? Dare I even look?
Do I dare to see the hurt I have caused:
I can glimpse all the shattered pieces of that fragile thing
That soul trying to rise on the broken wings of hope
But only out of the corner of my eye. I am afraid of it.
And if I am afraid to see
How can I not be afraid to say: Forgive me?
Is there a place where we can meet? You and me
The place in the middle where we straddle the lines
Where you are right and I am right too.
And both of us are wrong and wronged. Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive.
And so let us pray together as Jesus taught:
Our Creator, holy is your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kindom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 27, 2021
“Can Grace Really Be Amazing”
Mark 5: 21-43 – New Revised Standard Version
“21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
I want to start today by reminding us of our Park Hill UCC core values.
Today’s gospel text incorporates all of these core values, but there is one in particular I want to focus on: spiritual depth and intellectual integrity.
When we were articulating our core values as part of our strategic planning process in 2009, I remember discussing this with one of our beloved saints of the church, Amelia Lawrence. She said, “I want a church where I don’t want to have to check my brains at the door.” Me too! Amen? That’s when we proposed the words intellectual integrity. Although, now that I think about it, “A church where I don’t want to have to check my brains at the door” sounds more compelling.
But that’s not enough, she said. Neither do I want a brain that must be constrained to only those things that “make sense.” We talked about the importance of connecting our heads and hearts. So that’s when we added the words spiritual depth, but maybe we should have simply said, “And neither do I want a brain that must be constrained to what can be explained.” New marketing plan, anyone?
There’s a lot in the Bible I find hard to believe – especially when it comes to the stories of healing and miracles, including our stories today. To that, the controversial Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong said, “I must reject Jesus’ miracles as not possible and therefore not true in any literal sense.”
That may help us avoid brain strain. He added that such rejection doesn’t prevent him from still believing that “Jesus offers me a doorway into the realm of transcendent otherness.” But, still, he said, miracles can’t be considered true in any “literal” sense.
One of our Lunch and Lectionary participants on Thursday said we should just sit for a moment and appreciate what the woman might have felt. To be curious about her life. To wonder what a life with a constant flow of blood for 12 long years would have been like. At one time she had enough money to spend on one physician after another, but nothing got better. In fact, it only got worse. And now, she had no more money left. But she heard about Jesus and thought, “if I just touch his clothes I will be made well.” Sit with that for a moment. Not I might be, but I will be made well.
Was that hope and faith or delusion and desperation? And would it matter? Does it matter if the only time we pray is when nothing else has worked? When the only option left is to pray for a miracle? It didn’t matter to Jesus. He praised her faith, and very clearly noted, it was her faith that healed her. He hadn’t done anything.
Think about the strength of her faith, such that in a crowd of people pressing up on him, he felt her power when she simply touched his clothes. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, think about it: he felt the power of her faith touching him. Who was this amazing woman?
After asking us to sit in wonder about the woman, our friend said, “I’ve had experiences like this. Not a miraculous healing in the same way, but experiences where I don’t know what happened, but it was healing. It was wonderful. And I won’t rationalize it and I won’t dismiss it. I put it in the miracle box.”
What if she said, “I can’t believe it? It’s not logical and therefore it’s not true.” Because, with all due respect to Bishop Spong, that’s not the only answer for progressive Christians.
Bruce Epperly is a progressive Christian theologian. He laments that we have been so scandalized by the antics and bombastic theatrics of TV evangelists that we may feel we have no other option but to reject healing by faith.
But he believes that post-modern, progressive Christians need to become more holistic. We need to be more relational, to really listen to one another’s stories – like our friend at Lunch and Lectionary. And if we listened with open hearts and minds, we would hear more of the same from many others who won’t share their experiences for fear of being seen as irrational. We need to be less dismissive and more constructive, more open minded, in our approach to healing and wholeness. Think about how the modern world separates sacred and secular. Do we want that? Think about how we compartmentalize spirituality and social justice. Is that how we want it?
A truly holistic progressive theology affirms the relationship of mind, body, and spirit as part of one whole, interdependent reality. Progressive Christians need not reject healing or miracles for the sake of intellectual integrity. Spiritual depth asks, how do we bring it all together? That’s one option for looking at today’s text.
Other progressive theologians offer a different perspective on the stories of healing in the Bible. John Dominic Crossan says that these stories were really about transforming society, about Jesus overturning social stigmas. The point wasn’t that Jesus was intervening in the physical world. The point of such stories was his criticism of hard hearted, stiff-necked, purists in the social and religious world. Jesus really meant to cure society’s heart disease: its lack of compassion. Thus, true restoration was the outcast and ritually unclean reunited with society – their families, their religious life. For example, Jesus touched a man with leprosy because if he was healed, then he could go home, go the Temple, go the market.
As we sit and wonder about the life of the woman, why was she alone? Was she abandoned? Was she considered dangerous because she was unclean? Crossan would claim that Jesus cured her social location when Jesus called her “daughter.” That means she could be reintegrated and no longer kept from her community of faith.
In addition, notice the nod to social justice in the way Jesus stopped for this unknown woman while on his way to the home of a prominent religious leader. He gave equal attention when he resurrected the girl’s unbearably short 12 years of life after he healed a woman with 12 agonizingly long years of misery.
Although, again, Jesus didn’t heal the woman. Her faith made her well. Some might say that’s just the placebo effect. If you place your trust in a pill or prayer, you can psychologically heal yourself.
But I want to stop for just one minute on the whole “you can heal yourself if you have enough faith.” Be careful of anyone who forces that expectation upon you. It comes with the option to blame you for not having enough faith. Healing and cures are not the same thing. Healing is complex and might mean coming to terms with your disease. It might include learning not to fear death. It doesn’t necessarily mean getting better, whatever that means, because sometimes even death itself is a form of healing.
As a progressive Christian, I like the implications of Crossan’s interpretations. For example:
Intellectually, in Jesus I find the ultimate fighter for social justice. Our advocate and activist role model. Does that mean he can’t also be a healer and miracle worker? Because a more holistic approach to theology means not minimizing things like the efficacy of prayer, the power of healing touch, and healing ministry done in the name of Jesus. Every time we share our prayer requests, we are praying for a miracle. We pray for God to comfort the dying and strengthen the weak. We pray for rain to end the drought and wildfires, to spare more misery for those whose homes are threatened. For the remission of cancer. We even pray for civility among politicians – because hey, miracles can happen!
We pray to God for a safe journey, but of course, we also know that the biggest factor to bring us home safely is to drive carefully. And unlike believers in a pre-scientific world, we know that germs and viruses cause illness, not sin.
But there isn’t just something called intellectual integrity. There is also spiritual integrity, which means, don’t explain away things that can’t be explained. It’s OK. We can let grace really be amazing.
And we must have more than spiritual depth, we must explore intellectual depth. To move beyond the modern world’s limiting enlightenment view of an ordered universe to a post-modern understanding of chaos. There is more to this world than the physical plane. We should not play into any false dualism that separates body and spirit, body and mind, belief and unbelief.
So, back to the stories today, it’s OK to remain skeptical, to not check our brains at the door. And yet I pray that we do not constrain our brain. That we can embrace the capacity to sit in astonishment. To wonder, have I missed something to put in my miracle box? Without explaining why, can we let grace simply be amazing?
 John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, Harper San Francisco, 2007
 Bruce Epperly, “Progressive Christianity, Mysticism, and Healing,” at www.progressivechristianity.org
 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
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