Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 8, 2020
“Thank You for Voting”
Joshua 24: 14-25 – New Revised Standard Version
“Now therefore revere the Lord and serve in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. The Lord protected us along all the way and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, our God.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, a holy God, a jealous God; who will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then God will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve God.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve and obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
You know what this election means? As Van Jones said tearfully on CNN, it’s easier being a parent this morning because I can tell my kids, being a good person matters. Telling the truth matters.
The margins may seem razor thin because of the electoral college, which, we remember, was born out of the wishes of slaveholders; yet, despite every voter suppression tactic and literally the risk of death, the margin really was 4 million. Not a few thousand but over four million more Americans voted to save the planet,
With record turnout, Americans voted to constrain white supremacists and denounce so-called “very fine” neo-nazis and stop the chaos, corruption, and greed. To save democracy.
This morning, we can finally stop holding our breath and exhale, because:
As Yascha Mounk said in The Atlantic, “Although the nation’s deep problems won’t vanish, the next president will undoubtedly work to tackle those problems rather than downplay the danger still posed by the global pandemic, to improve rather than imperil the lives of immigrants and minorities, and to unite rather than divide Americans.”
That’s because you did your part. Voting in Colorado might not quite feel like we did a lot to tip the national scales, but we will now have paid family and medical leave for everyone in the state.
I’m grateful we could support another to enact the faith of progressive Christians. Let’s be clear: Not to elect someone from one party over another, but to seek more compassion by whatever means available to us. An act of faith, a means to bring more justice. More kindness, generosity, and love.
And I’m grateful that we could support one another through our Park Hill 2.0 congregation that extends to Wisconsin and Texas and South Carolina and Florida and Alaska and Iowa and Ohio and Arizona and Montana… And the Western Slope. The first text I received on Saturday was from our member Lori Fell who lives in Pennsylvania. Perhaps you felt like a very small dot in a vast ocean, but you are an island of welcome and reprieve and for that we say, thank you. We are grateful to be on this journey together.
So, to everyone, thank you for voting. Thank you for sitting at your kitchen table and reading those voluminous blue voter guides to offer a reasoned response to every ballot question. And around the country, thank you to all who stood in long lines, insisting and resisting attempts to suppress the vote.
Thank you to members of our congregation, like Eileen McCarron who was a precinct captain in charge of motivating people to vote.
And canvassers like Sarah Johnson who spent the better part of their days knocking on doors, texting, and calling to encourage people to vote. She told everyone, I don’t care who you vote for, just vote. And had some interesting conversations along the way about exactly that.
Thank you to Laura Harris and Kat Gaskins and Sue Wofford and more of you who wrote hundreds of postcards.
Thank you to poll workers and election judges and volunteer attorney’s like Lily Alves Bane who juggled her already full plate of kids at home from school and full time employment to provide legal services to ensure fair elections.
Many more of you spent your last few days, weeks, and months doing exactly the same. Really, for four years. Remember all those Indivisible meetings? The Women’s Marches, March for Our Lives, March for Science, the march down Colfax where we were drenched in pouring rain after Charlottesville. Thank you.
Thank you to 144,963,305 voters and still counting – a remarkable increase of 16 million voters from 4 years ago. And that is thanks to heroes like Stacy Abrams, the daughter of two Methodist preachers, whose life-mission has been to enfranchise voters, one by one, until she could build a coalition large enough so that people who assumed they had little or no power could speak truth.
Stacy was walking in the shoes of Shirley Chisholm and Fannie Lou Hamer. At the time their candidacies were likened to a joke. But as one meme has captured so beautifully: Rosa sat so Ruby could walk so Kamala could run. Kamala, a black woman, graduate of Howard University, a daughter of immigrants, a daughter of the West Indies, a daughter of Tamils from India. A woman. Finally, a woman.
Heaven gained a cheering section this year that included John Lewis and C.T. Vivian and Joseph Lowery and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That great cloud of witnesses cheered on and reminds us, as John Lewis said, "Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part."
And that is the basic question of Joshua. Choose this day whom you will serve. Not just today, but with your life.
I’ll be honest, however, that earlier in the week I was really disappointed that the election hadn’t been a complete blow out. A thorough repudiation of the reckless immorality and gleeful cruelty of the past four years. And I have some residual feelings about that this morning too. But sticking to the wisdom of John Lewis, he said: “Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, hold only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won." Think of John Lewis, skull cracked crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge for the right to vote. Those are his words. Release hate, division, revenge, and bitterness.
We have been holding our breath for so long, let’s take another deep breath. And another. And shake it off. Not shake it off as in get over it, but shake away the stress of waiting. Of four years waiting for another shoe to drop. Another tweet.
What are you feeling? Relief? Perhaps still disbelief. You may still feel like crying this morning. You may felt have like shouting hallelujah yesterday. Frustrated that you couldn’t rush downtown to scream, rejoice, and dance.
Some of you may point out that there is a lot of work to be done. That there will be no easy transition. That without the Senate, little will get done. So on and so forth. True. It’s OK to be equally hopeful for the future as well as frightened for it this morning.
But first, just give yourself permission to rest, to not feel ready to engage new battles yet. One day again we will. But first rest. We will rise with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. But today, it’s OK to sit a little deeper into your chair. Relish the results of the work you did. The sacrifices you made. The money you donated. The time you spent.
To reflect on Joshua. What did you choose?
To follow the God of love, not vengeance, retribution or violence.*
To cast your lot and your vote,
with the poor in spirit, and those who mourn,
with the gentle, and those who hunger for righteousness.
To stand with the peacemakers and those who are persecuted.
To follow the one who fed all who were hungry,
who healed all who sought healing,
and welcomed all who were pushed to the margins.
To strive to speak only truth, and only lovingly.
To examine, confess and resist our own complicity in systems that harm, and surrender what we can so that our lives are a blessing for the poor.
To accept the power God gives us
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves.
To live with hope and gratitude, with courage and generosity and kindness.
Joshua said, choose this day whom you will serve.
And friends, through your civic duty, you have done so. Thank you for voting.
* Adapted from a prayer by Steve Garnaas Holmes in UnfoldingLight.net
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 1, 2020
“We’ll Get There”
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 – The Message
Moses climbed from the Plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the peak of Pisgah facing Jericho. God showed him all the land from Gilead to Dan, all Naphtali, Ephraim, and Manasseh; all Judah reaching to the Mediterranean Sea; the Negev and the plains which encircle Jericho, City of Palms, as far south as Zoar.
4 Then and there God said to him, “This is the land I promised to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the words ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I’ve let you see it with your own eyes. There it is. But you’re not going to go in.”
5-6 Moses died there in the land of Moab, Moses the servant of God, just as God said. God buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth Peor. No one knows his burial site to this very day.
7-8 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyesight was sharp; he still walked with a spring in his step. The People of Israel wept for Moses in the Plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.
9 Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. The People of Israel listened obediently to him and did the same as when God had commanded Moses.
10-12 No prophet has risen since in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face-to-face. Never since has there been anything like the signs and miracle-wonders that God sent him to do in Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land—nothing to compare with that all-powerful hand of his and all the great and terrible things Moses did as every eye in Israel watched.
On the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the hopes and dreams of striking sanitation workers in Memphis – mistreated and underpaid, working for 65 cents an hour with malfunctioning equipment that had just killed two fellow garbage collectors. The city treated these men like they were expendable. They responded by marching with signs that read “I Am a Man.” By marching with them, King was accused of muddying the waters, diluting the cause. Why are you standing with striking workers when racial justice is still such a pressing issue? He responded: what good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the cost of lunch.
On that April night in 1968 before he was killed, Dr. King ended his speech by invoking the vivid imagery of Moses standing on the mountaintop. Moses was 120 years old, looking over the land that he and the wandering Israelites had been seeking for 40 years. In Memphis that night, Dr. King wasn’t even 40 years old when he spoke these haunting words:
VIDEO – Watch clip of MLK’s Mountaintop speech on YouTube.
(Here are the words if you prefer: "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.")
“I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will” get there. It is, of course, eerie, knowing Dr. King said those words on the eve of his murder. And so fundamentally unfair. Unfair that Dr. King wouldn’t live to see more progress toward his dream. Or maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to see how much has not changed. In some ways, the issue he addressed that night, economic inequality, and the racial wealth gap, is even worse.
I could quote all kinds of statistics, but one line stuck out from 2014: The average employee "needs to work more than one month to earn what the average CEO makes in one hour." Legend has it that Jeff Bezos makes $150,000 a minute. Whether that’s true or not, we have certainly heard billionaires complain that unemployment benefits for minimum wage workers are too generous.
Most people only know the last two minutes of the Mountaintop speech, as it’s known. Lost in the eloquence of its ending, King’s speech was about economic justice, personified in striking workers, part of the lead up to the Poor People’s Campaign a month later – a broad coalition across races. A movement that faltered without him. Why couldn’t he have lived to keep leading the people, pursuing the dream?
The same with Moses. Why was Moses, of all people, not allowed to enter the Promised Land? This has been argued for millennia, debated by scholars for centuries. He deserved that and much, much more. A gold watch, a parade, a cake for his retirement from 40 years as a chauffeur for a complaining, rebellious people. It’s such a bewildering end to the Great Liberation Narrative.
As we heard Karla read from the Book of Deuteronomy, God told Moses, “I’ve let you see it with your own eyes. There it is. But you’re not going in.” And then, Moses died there, a place where no one knows, “just as God said.” That’s how the Message translates verse 5. Other translations say, Moses died there, “at God’s command.” Like a takedown ordered by a mob boss, Soprano’s style? Which makes it sound like just more of God’s erratic, irrational behavior as of late, to which Moses had recently told God to calm down. But, on behalf of Moses, may I just say: That’s not fair.
Many sermons have been preached about Moses’ miraculous birth and rescue from the Nile, his call from a burning bush, his demand to Pharaoh to “let my people go,” his hand causing the sea to part and water to come from a rock… Many sermons have been preached about Moses carrying the Ten Commandments down from the mountain and how he had to put up with the constant bickering and complaining of the Israelites. But then, just as he peered into the Promised Land, the end? At God’s command?
So, is it possible that we think it’s unfair because we think this is a story about Moses? The Great Liberation Narrative really started when God heard the cries of the Hebrews from their slavery. Moses was called as an instrument of their freedom, but Moses didn’t free them. It wasn’t Moses’ power that scared Pharaoh. It wasn’t Moses’ arm that caused the sea to part. It wasn’t Moses who turned bitter water sweet.
It’s easy for leaders to think their accomplishments are about them, but the best leaders know it’s not about them. It’s about participating in a dream bigger than themselves. Dreamers like Dr. King and Moses are instruments of the dream but not the dream itself.
It’s God’s dream for the people. Like the prophet Jeremiah said, The Lord declares, “I know the plans I have in mind for you; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” Plans for peace. A future filled with hope. Sit with that a minute…
God’s hopes and dreams are for a world that is more generous, loving, and kind. Or as we describe it – a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. I want to participate in that! I don’t want to be consumed with anger, frightened, filled with a desire to retaliate with bad behavior for bad behavior. I want a future filled with hope.
Dr. King said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The liberative dreams of Dr. King and Moses did not die with them. That’s part of what we celebrate when we remember our loved ones on All Saints Day. So long as we live, they too shall live. For their deeds continue in us.
Many explanations suggest that Moses died in an unknown place so that no one could set up a shrine to him, to honor his life instead of giving thanks to the giver of his life and the liberator of theirs. It still doesn’t seem fair to Moses. But the Great Liberation Narrative, which began before Moses, lives beyond Moses. And continues today. Pharaoh wasn’t a once and then. Pharaohs still try to rise and must still be confronted.
Dr. King had a lot of Pharaohs to confront. So, how could he have said, “I’m happy tonight? I’m not worried about anything.”
Not worried? Well, I know many of us are feeling a little worried this morning, worried about the outcome of Tuesday’s final day of voting. But not only the outcome. The potential for chaos and conflict. A protracted period of uncertainty and civil unrest. People taking up arms. And God forbid, violence.
Unfortunately, whether or not we can breathe a sigh of relief or we find ourselves unable to breathe, so overwhelmed by grief and terror, choking back tears… Regardless of the outcome and the aftermath, we know the forces of greed and hatred will not lay down defeated. White supremacy will not say, OK, the country voted. We concede.
No, no matter who wins, we must remain equally determined instruments of liberation, participants in the ongoing Great Liberation Narrative. We must be equally determined instruments for a future filled with hope, whether we celebrate the results or despair because of them. We must be equally determined instruments of light, no matter how dark the days get – whether it’s for the next few days or weeks or for years to come.
Just remember, however, the God who provided manna and quail and water from a rock while the people stumbled in the wilderness, that God of liberation and hope and light will stay with us as we journey onward too.
Watch VIDEO clip again
 Full text: https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 18, 2020
Exodus 33: 18-23 – The Message
Then Moses said, “Please. Let me see your Glory.”
19 God said, “I will make my Goodness pass right in front of you; I’ll call out the name, God, right before you. I’ll treat well whomever I want to treat well and I’ll be kind to whomever I want to be kind.”
20 God continued, “But you may not see my face. No one can see me and live.”
21-23 God said, “Look, here is a place right beside me. Put yourself on this rock. When my Glory passes by, I’ll put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. Then I’ll take my hand away and you’ll see my back. But you won’t see my face.”
Note: This sermon is meant to be viewed because it includes many video interviews. But I have tried to capture a brief essence of each person’s comments. If you are able, the whole service is available on YouTube. www.youtube.com/parkhillucc
Sermon Part 1
Let’s just admit this is an odd passage. Curious, at least. What’s the point of God telling Moses “you can see my backside, but not my face?” There’s very little scholarly consensus.
But, if we go back just a little, Moses and God have been having a lot of back and forth conversations, arguments really – some of them quite heated. After that golden calf debacle, God was really angry, but Moses told God to calm down. And God did. But I think it may have been one of those last straw moments that broke God’s heart. No one gets quite as angry as when they have felt betrayed. All God ever wanted was a people with whom God can dwell. All God has ever done is try to be in relationship. And all the people ever did, the ones freed from slavery in Egypt, and sometimes us, all they had ever done is disappoint God. Disappoint, complain , and betray.
In Moses and God’s most recent conversation/argument, after some back and forth about these are your people, no these are your people… God agreed, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.” But then Moses thought, why not push my luck and ask for one more thing: “Let me see your face.” But God had had enough. Enough. God refused, but would allow Moses to see God’s backside after God had passed by. Odd, right? Or curious.
To me, if you spend some more time in the back and forth of the “before story,” I think it just comes down to a heart broken one too many times. A relationship that has soured from one too many betrayals. At least, that’s one interpretation.
But another interpretation is that the glory of God is seen from behind. Glory in literal “hind-sight.” And if that’s the case, it’s one way we could frame our past year as a church, not in broken relationships but looking back at how our relationships have been affected by our separation. That was a common theme when I asked some of the people in our Touchbase Tuesday group: What’s one way the church has brought joy to your life this past year.
Larry Ricketts – there’s not been just one way, but deeper relationships. New people, new ideas. Laughter and support from a community from which I have received a deeper love.
Mindee Forman – being able to sing safely with the choral apps through submitting videos.
Kat Gaskins – Sunday services online are valuable and fulfilling, whereas some churches meeting in person cannot sing. It’s great to be able to watch the service later. And I relish the Zoom meetings throughout the week.
Joan Root – I love how the congregation has so readily adapted to online services. It feels like we are all together on Sunday.
Eydie McDaniel – the flexibility of Zoom to be together in meetings and getting to know each other better. Whatever mood we’re in that day is OK. We support each other and it’s a beautiful thing. And the daily inspirations.
Laura Harris – I’m participating in this group and Women’s Group and Lunch and Lectionary and both the gratitude and prayer groups. It gives meaning and structure to my week. (Laura had previously shared that she feels more connected to the church now than she ever did before.)
Kat Gaskins – and don’t forget the daily reflections
Larry to David and Terri: add your thoughts too. What’s your one thing?
David Bahr – I agree there isn’t just one thing, but I’m grateful for how people have adapted. It’s a joy to lead a congregation that has adapted to this new reality in joyful ways. No moaning but anticipation about what we are becoming.
Terri Bowen – for me, the groups and diving deeper into gratitude and prayer. Creating meaningful relationships with people in places like Texas and South Carolina. Deeper, stronger.
Sermon Part 2
If I had told you in March that we’re going to be apart from each other for 8 months, or longer, but you will feel closer to one another than ever before, you would have laughed out loud. Impossible. But in glorious hind-sight… And not just people who have known each other for years, but you will start meaningful new relationships with people from all over the country. So, I asked participants in the Thursday Lunch and Lectionary group a similar question. How has the church brought you joy or hope or transformation during our pandemic separation?
Susan Yarbrough – a new member who hasn’t yet been in our building, a recent transplant from Texas. 1) the serious welcome of newcomers, 2) the church has offered so many things online, proving not meeting in-person is not an impediment to connecting, 3) the forward dynamic of the church, not just in a holding pattern waiting for the doors to reopen again, but it’s moving forward with a vision of the future and what the church as a people can do.
John Evans-Klock – a new member in the past year who has returned to America after decades abroad as a global nomad. We have found a home at Park Hill where we really feel welcomed among people who affirm hopeful things for me. And especially the men’s group online. The way people know each other and support each other.
Marlene Lederer – I have been part of this church for 50 years and have known many people for a long time but on Zoom I have learned about them in a whole new way and at a deeper level.
Bob Lederer – I find I am more connected to the church since I prioritize at least three meetings a week. I am finding a different relationship with people I have known. It’s opened a lot of doors for me.
Martha Jones – a member of another UCC church on the other side of the mountains who has participated in several groups, including the gratitude and prayer groups and Lunch and Lectionary. I appreciate the fact that you are living into the future with your vision of Park Hill 2.0. This is what it means that we can come together across distances and divides.
Sermon Part 3
Yes, divides – like the literal Continental Divide – can be crossed digitally. If you are interested in participating in an online group, we have a list on our new website under the tab Online Connections. You’ve heard some of them mentioned and we’re always open to new ones.
On an average week, there are easily 50 people meeting, in such diverse forums as learning new methods of prayer, discussing racial justice, adding awareness of gratitude, studying the Bible, and all of it to help each other through these difficult times and simply be there for one another in laughter and tears.
But of course, there are those for whom this is not an advantageous way to meet. This has been an especially difficult time for families, which is why we had an in-person masked socially distant Sunday School a few weeks ago and plan another one this afternoon. In addition, we created a team of a dozen Care Connectors so we can check on each other and remain in relationship.
Yet, being physically separated has been not been the impediment one might have expected back in March or April – something we could only learn in hindsight. But also, because, as Susan said, we have chosen a forward dynamic instead of waiting to go back to Egypt.
With glorious hind-sight, we can look back now and see how the plans for this were being laid without our knowing.
Video with Pam Hennessey
About a year and a half ago we started the relational campaign where we learned how to speak to one another in deep and meaningful ways. And I wondered what would happen next. We were making great progress, but then Covid happened. But the answer unrolled out right in front of us. The church staff has been really proactive in figuring out new ways we can relate to one another. New Zoom conversations. And the 40 Day of Prayer Before the Election. We have an expanded relational importance. I’m excited for how this is going to play forward in 2021. New equipment to improve our worship and meetings. I’m very excited about all the new people participating. I’m both optimistic and full of joy.
Sermon Part 4
That was Pam Hennessey who is our Moderator Elect for 2021. Nate Schmitt has been our Moderator through this past year. And all those ambitious plans we made for 2020, like everyone else, had to change. Or at least had to quickly adapt. Yet, Nate expresses how he’s been able to remain hopeful.
Video with Nate
For me, the particular message of our church is always one of hope and fairness and equality and when the pandemic came it made me hopeful. I’m hopeful because the church’s message of hope is now reaching a far greater audience. I can’t imagine a better message to put out into the world.
Sermon Part 5
We have been blessed with a phenomenal leadership team. In addition to Pam and Nate who have been incredibly hands-on, in particular I want to give a shout out to Beth Harris and Carol Spensley who have had to embrace all kinds of new technology to make it easy for us to give. Since Tammy has been working for the church remotely from Texas, Beth has also taken on additional responsibilities – always so graciously. And Bill McCarron has been working diligently, nearly every day, to get everything ready for our Park Hill 2.0 equipment to be installed next month.
And our staff. Every single one of us has spent time attending webinars, watching training videos, learning and adapting and growing to meet the needs of our congregation. It helps, of course, that we serve a congregation eager about the future.
Many, many, thanks to you and to all.
Invitation to Stewardship
October is usually our stewardship month, but like everything else, these are unusual times. We going to take advantage of that and make our appeal for financial support in 2021 very short and sweet, focused on relationships, like everything else we’re trying to do. No mailings, no forms. So, for those who currently make an annual pledge, members of the governance team will be calling many of you in the next two weeks. They’re not going to ask you for money. That would be uncomfortable for everyone. But we’d like you to share stories with one another about how this time has been and what you look forward to in 2021. Then, after that, or before that – right now, if you’d like – simply send an email to email@example.com with a good faith estimate of your giving in 2021. If you do not currently pledge, consider becoming a recurring giver. You can go to our website to learn about how the ways that is possible.
Or, call Carol Spensley with your pledge – 303-333-2672 – THANK YOU!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 11, 2020
“Is It Karma?”
Exodus 32: 1-13, 14 – Common English Bible
The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us a god who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and formed them into a mold. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” 6 They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! 8 They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. 10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.”
Who do we want to be? To what do we aspire, especially when Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Added to all the ups and downs, twists and turns and freefalls of this election season’s emotional rollercoaster, hearing the news of the president’s Covid diagnosis may have been the most challenging turn of all to navigate. Coming just two days after a debate performance of intentionally abusive behavior and only a few days before that of dancing on the grave of a supreme court justice before her body was cold… and in between more daily assaults on decency and democracy than we can remember because something even more egregious happened an hour later… with all this chaos and flurry, who had the energy left to process one more thing. Yet, the shocking but not entirely surprising news came anyway.
I opened Facebook to scroll through a news feed filled with raw emotions ranging from sympathy to jubilation. We’re all swimming in a toxic soup, so I understood the toxic reactions. And in the end, that’s their business and not mine to judge. The question is really: Who do we want to be? To what do we aspire? And what did Jesus mean when he instructed his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
Some of you know how I responded. First, acknowledging the emotional complexity, I offered a prayer for the healing of the president and Mrs. Trump. But I also added, and “all others exposed by the careless treatment of this real disease as a hoax.” Yes, a prayer for healing doesn’t mean absolving someone from the consequences of their actions.
Many of those who responded to the president’s diagnosis called it karma. Or poetic justice. Chickens coming home to roost. But just to be clear, poetic justice and karma are not quite the same thing – at least, that’s what I learned when I spent some time trying to understand. As Barbara O’Brien explains, “karma is an action, not a result.” Karma is not the universe extracting revenge, which is what many seem to suggest with their posts. Yes, karma includes such consequences as “you reap what you sow.” If you put good into the world, then you will cultivate good. Put in bad, and you will reap bad. But karma isn’t fate, or fatalistic. It is ever evolving – an “energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words, and deeds.” It’s something we can change. Although, we can get stuck. For example, as Lachlan Brown explained, If you always react with anger, you condition your mind for anger. And if you train yourself to react to things with peace and calm, you’re conditioning your mind for peace and calm. Or, as we have talked about this fall, training yourself with cues and habits for gratitude.
My understanding of karma is extremely limited, but there was one thing I learned that I found really helpful. From Wayne Dyer: “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.” Covid 19 may well be the president’s karma – reap what you sow. But how we respond is ours. And if we exude good karma, we shall reap good. And if we offer bad karma, well… Therefore, our concern shouldn’t be how or whether “the other side” responds back with compassion to such news in reverse. That’s their karma.
I don’t want to turn this into an exercise of “us vs. them,” so perhaps instead of asking who do we want to be, who do you want to be? Just don’t expect to be perfect. As I’ve said before, sometimes Christianity strikes me as more aspirational than realistic.
When Harriet Tubman learned the slaveholder who had tortured her and many others had grown sick, she prayed: “O Lord, if you’re not going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.” Who can fault her for such a prayer? This righteous and faithful woman knew that if the slaveholder recovered with no change of heart, he would continue to perpetrate evil and cause great harm. Just to be clear, this is not my prayer for the president. But saying such things out loud doesn’t make us bad people. As Rev. Shannon Craigo-Snell said, “Saying prayers out loud is not like telling Alexa to turn on NPR but an opportunity to bring one’s thoughts and feelings to God, while letting divinity have the final say.”
But Howard Thurman, writing during the height of lynchings in 1949, feared the scars to one’s soul in the person who harbors hate. Thurman therefore cautioned his fellow African Americans to love their enemies, not because he wanted to protect white citizens, but because he wanted to “protect the souls of those who have their backs against the wall.”
Even the Bible doesn’t always do this perfectly. The author of Psalm 109 had some less than heavenly things to say about his or her enemy. We don’t know the specifics of who this is spoken of, but it’s brutal: “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.” And on and on it goes. It’s rough. It’s honest. And to be very clear, this is not my prayer for the president or anyone else. But this text does give us permission to be complex human beings.
And then, after unloading, the Psalmist says, “Help me, O Lord my God!” Help me. Yes, save me from myself. Save my soul from the scars of hatred and anger. After all, upon considering the alternatives, who do we want to be? To what do we aspire?
And so, I encourage us to aspire to empathy. But again, empathy does not absolve the guilt of an abuser, a lynch mob, slaveholders, or someone who knowingly puts people at risk. What they do, however, is their karma. How we respond is ours. It’s about what we want to put out into the world. And, if we’re not perfect at it, don’t forget grace. It was a lesson even God had to learn.
What does this have to do with the story of the golden calf? We could easily use today’s text to judge the Israelites. Moses went up on the mountain for 40 days but was delayed until the 41st. He came back one day late! Walter Brueggemann joked that there wasn’t even the space of a breath between covenant-making and covenant-breaking. But in that one day, the people panicked. They feared they had been abandoned by God, because in their minds, where Moses went, God went. But some scholars like Brueggemann implore us to give them a break. In moments of extreme stress, people reach for things that make us feel good. We even pursue gods we can manage and manipulate into our own image – like spiritual junk food to soothe anxiety. That is the sin of the prosperity gospel – God wants us to be rich. Oh really? God does? God hates who we hate. Oh really? God does?
So, how does God respond in this story of the golden calf? “Let my fury burn and devour them.” But Moses pleads, “but these are your own people. You brought them out of Egypt.” And then Moses did one of the most daring things I can imagine anyone could do. Moses dared tell God to “calm down.” Yes, Moses told God, “calm down your fierce anger.” And after a little arguing of their case, God did. Moses changed God’s mind. God had compassion, whether they deserved it or not. But that doesn’t mean God wasn’t royally ticked off at first and said some unkind things.
I really do want to call upon our better angels because, in the end, judgment is for God – but a warning. It may be a judgment we don’t like. God’s grace and mercy extend farther than people “deserve.” Ourselves included. More on that another time.
But empathy is all that is asked of you and me. Empathy for the American people and our leaders, no matter who they are. Because, who do we want to be? To what do you and I aspire? What did Jesus mean when he instructed us, his followers, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you?
But, hang on. It might get worse. The ups and downs, twists and turns and freefalls of this election season’s emotional rollercoaster are not over. And the most challenging turns to navigate may still be on the horizon. However, in the midst of all that, what does the Lord require? Always, always, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. As best as we can, asking for, praying for, pleading with God to help us put into the world what we want the world to be. What do you say?
 Great article - https://sojo.net/articles/how-pray-when-your-enemy-gets-sick
 In Kathryn Matthew’s Sermon Seeds for 10/7/2017
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 27, 2020
“Ten Ways to Love”
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20 – The Message
God spoke all these words:
I am God, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of a life of slavery.
3 No other gods, only me.
4 No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim.
7 No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.
8-11 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God..
12 Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you.
13 No murder.
14 No adultery.
15 No stealing.
16 No lies about your neighbor.
17 No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.
All the people, experiencing the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the smoking mountain, were afraid - they pulled back and stood at a distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we’ll listen, but don’t have God speak to us or we’ll die.”
20 Moses spoke to the people: “Don’t be afraid. God has come to test you and instill a deep and reverent awe within you so that you won’t sin.”
Kathleen Norris said she hated hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in church. Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not… so overwhelmingly negative. Not to mention, she said, in her small-town America, ten commandments became eleven – Thou shalt not play cards. Became twelve… Thou shalt not go dancing, and the list kept going. No makeup, no movies… Her father was raised in a very strict religious home that forbid him from going to the movies. When he left for college, on his first day of freedom, he went to three movies in a row!
He was a Methodist preacher in South Dakota in the 1920s and 30s and chewed his cigars to make sure none of his church members could smell smoke on him. He had reason to be careful. He had just been fired from a church in West Virginia for teaching hymns to the youth group on a banjo. 
Why must religion be confused with rules? Why especially Christianity when the one we follow said, all the law and prophets can be summed up in one word: Love. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
And not just Jesus, but we should never confuse the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, of being a judgmental authoritarian. Of just vengeance and punishment. Those stories certainly exist, but, for example, the Ten Commandments were not handed down as a form of punishment, but out of great love, God provided a framework for their relationship and responsibilities to one another. A way to live in the world now that they were free of Pharaoh’s commandments, in which they were his property.
The Ten Commandments were given while they were still in freedom training. Free from slavery, continuing to wander in the wilderness, their task was to still escape slavery – the one in their hearts and minds. You can take a people out of oppression and give them their freedom. But the harder task remains. Taking the oppression out of their minds.
The order of the commandments is very important. They start by establishing the relationship. I Am your God. It doesn’t say, do this and do that and then I’ll be your God. No, I am your God. I love you so much I led you out of slavery in Egypt. And this is how we are to be in relationship. The Ten Commandments is specifically a religious covenant with a particular people, which is why it makes no sense in places like courthouse lawns.
I don’t hear about it much anymore, but it once was such a big deal, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to hang a copy of the Ten Commandments in every courtroom and public classroom in the country. Congressman Lyn Westmoreland went on Steven Colbert to promote the idea. But when Colbert asked him to name them, he sat there like a deer in the headlights. Um, you want me to name them? Um, don’t steal, don’t kill… He had to admit he didn’t know the rest.
I’ll be totally honest, on an average day, I couldn’t either. In fact, I don’t even know if I could do it from memory right now, with all the pressure of trying to remember. Person, woman, man, camera, TV…
But I’ll also be honest with you and tell you, I don’t really care for the Ten Commandments. I don’t disagree with them – killing, stealing, coveting, resting. But as much as I agree that the commandments are not about punishment but a loving relationship, I still don’t find them particularly inspiring. As Kathleen Norris said, a little too much negativity. I’d prefer a list of dos.
For example, like the Prophet Micah: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
In fact, if the commandments really are about love, then spell out 10 ways to love. And, I actually found exactly that – the Ten Commandments of Love. (Unattributed source) And they’re pretty good. We could all use these. Which one applies most to you?
Listen without interrupting
Speak without accusing
Answer without arguing
Forgive without punishing
Promise without forgetting
Wow! Food for thought. The final five are:
Share without pretending
Give without sparing
Trust without wavering
Pray without ceasing
Enjoy without complaining
Another option of positivity is the banner at our front door and at the front of the sanctuary:
Be the Church
Protect the environment
Care for the poor
Fight for the powerless
Share earthly and spiritual resources
Enjoy this life
I’d never noticed before that there are ten, but there could be so many more. What would you add? But I’d also like to put footnotes on the banner to clarify: We don’t need to just reject racism but to dismantle white supremacy. And not just care for the poor but to eliminate poverty. And not just embrace diversity but make sure diverse people can vote. Thou shalt vote!
Perhaps on World Communion Sunday we could add: Always seek unity. Recognize our oneness. Or, as our song we’re about to sing to prepare for communion says:
For everyone born, a place at the table.
For everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.
And then, that’s when we will have fulfilled the Ten Commandments in their fullest and most loving form. When everyone born is free to live without fear and to simply be. And the God who first loved us, who established this relationship, will delight.
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1998
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 27, 2020
“Why Is This Happening?”
Exodus 17: 1-7 – The Message
Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?”
4 Moses cried out in prayer to God, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!”
5-6 God said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel. Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. And go. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.”
6-7 Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. He named the place Massah (Testing-Place) and Meribah (Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of God when they said, “Is God here with us, or not?”
Yup. They’re still in the wilderness. Still complaining – still griping and grousing and groaning. Moses is still exasperated. And God is still providing exactly enough for their needs every day.
Today’s reading is part of the Great Liberation Narrative. From the birth of Moses through his death, this foundational story of the Israelites of the exodus from slavery to freedom gets only 10 weeks of attention during our three year cycle of assigned readings, called the lectionary. And two of the 10 involve complaining – last week food, this week water. I was tempted to look at other options in the lectionary for today. Who needs another story about complaining and being stuck in the wilderness? And then I thought of our own.
And yup. We’re still in the wilderness, too. We have food and water, but the isolation. Separation. Church from home. Some still work from home. Some still go to school from home or some combination. And the complaining. People are still griping, grousing, groaning about masks and social distancing instead of realizing what a wonderfully simple way it is to save lives. I don’t mean to shame the Israelites for their complaining. And I don’t mean to shame any of us for feeling tired and frustrated. All of us just want this to end.
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? Not in the sense of some conspiracy theory, but a deeper “why”? Why is this happening?
One of the commentaries I read asked a really good, very basic, question: why not lead the people straight from slavery to the Promised Land? Hadn’t they suffered enough? Yes, still stop in Palm Springs for six weeks, but then get on with it.
Among the explanations for why it took 40 years in the wilderness is that it takes a long time to unlearn being enslaved. It takes a long time to learn freedom. So, they underwent a series of trials meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people with a shared story and experience of what it takes, how hard it is, to live with freedom. Matthew Myer Boulton said, “They had to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.” I like that.
We have been following the narrative in the Book of Exodus, but this story of liberation is also told in the Book of Deuteronomy which gives an explicit reason for their 40 year sojourn: “by letting you hunger, then by feeding you manna,” the people would understand personally, viscerally, that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cites this exact verse during his own 40 days of testing in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
So, I get this. I understand this explanation – sort of – that their trials and testing were meant to train them for a life as free people, to turn their longing into trust, to turn their doubts into faith, to turn their complaints into food and water.
I get it, but it makes me uncomfortable. And that’s because I’ve seen it lead to people making hurtful and ridiculous claims to people who are suffering. For example, You were given cancer so that you come to value life.
Kate Bowler writes about being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 35, mother of a young child, and in the midst of a promising academic career. She’s heard it all, including a neighbor who came to the door and told her husband, “everything happens for a reason.” He said, “OK. What is it?” The neighbor looked stunned as he waited. “What’s the reason my wife is dying?” Kate wrote a book about it. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Christians were particularly insistent that God had a plan for her – abbreviated – life.
A month into our pandemic separation, she was interviewed by the New York Times and asked about the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this.
She replied, “The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. The good part is: It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — it expects that people are always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances. The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering, by requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful.”
But the most poignant statement of the entire interview is this: A pandemic is not a judgment. “The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson.”
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? The explanation: we were given the pandemic so that… fill in the blank. I get the attempt at explanation. To be honest, I’ve also tried to rationalize, to redeem it. But, again, it negates the suffering of people in the wilderness, whether 40 years then or 6 months and counting now. Can you believe it? Six months and counting…
I was curious so I went back and looked at some of the sermons I wrote at the beginning of our pandemic separation. In the beginning we thought it would only last a few weeks. Take a break, flatten the curve, and we’ll be back in the sanctuary by Easter.
On our first Sunday apart, I said, “If we ever thought being a church member was just coming to church on Sunday, this moment is teaching us the value of community. So, reach out to one another.” We created Zoom meetings to stay connected.
The next Sunday I asked, “what has this pandemic revealed so far?” For one, not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. But, I said, it has also revealed the blessing of belonging to a community. I said, “I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But, because of Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other.”
I asked what things we will never take for granted again. Like a handshake. Full shelves at the store and enough toilet paper at home. The mad rush to school in the morning. Dinner with friends. And finally, the question: Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become? Looking back, it’s funny we thought we could answer that yet. We had no clue what was still coming.
The third week I spoke of these being inspiring times, praising the heroism and sacrifice of everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes.
On Palm Sunday I asked us to choose vulnerability, like Jesus. To be awkward, brave, and kind. And on Easter, to be real with one another. It’s OK to be sad and long for normal.
Six months ago we had no clue we would still be worshiping like this. Nor do we know when it will end. And neither did the Israelites. Why did they spend 40 years in the wilderness? We are told it was meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people who live with freedom. And part of that is to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.
Perhaps that’s why freedom feels so fragile for us right now. For freedom to work, we must trust in institutions to work, we must trust in the constraint of laws, and we must trust in our fellow citizens and neighbors. The real or imagined threat of tyranny in the land of the free right now is not only frightening, the destabilizing power of mistrust makes some fear our democracy could topple over. Can the republic survive?
How do we explain the wilderness of the past 4 years? Perhaps historians will suggest: you were given Donald Trump so that you would come to understand the value of democracy and the rule of law – not the kind of dog whistle slogan of law and order, which is to uphold the order of white supremacy, but how the rule of law is meant to constrain wanna-be dictators. The explanation is that without this disruption of norms, you wouldn’t appreciate them and guard them, protect them.
So, I get this. Like scripture attempts to do with the Israelites, I understand this explanation – sort of – that the trials and testing of today are meant to train us and form us into a people with a shared story and purpose. But it still makes me uncomfortable. Again, the terrible suffering of so many already vulnerable people.
Therefore, I risk suggesting, perhaps there is no lesson to be learned. Instead, however, I embrace what Kate Bowler said: “The trick is to find meaning without being ‘taught a lesson.’”
And not worrying about whether we can redeem this suffering. But rather, as the Israelites finally learned: to trust and let God redeem this suffering. And leave our task to keep caring for each other and remain present in this moment, as the song we’ll now sing says:
“You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”
Thank you for meeting us in our anxiety, dear God.
Thank you for always walking alongside us.
Thank you for welcoming our questions - like why is this happening.
And it's not only the pandemic, God -
the 200,000 of your precious souls in our county,
but also the 76,000 people in Mexico,
93,000 in India,
and 13 people in Sri Lanka - each with families devastated by their loss.
And only the pandemic of Covid 19,
but the pandemic of racism,
and not just 6 months of deaths like George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks captured on cell phones,
but 401 years of enslavement,
and lack of justice for Breonna Taylor who can't even sleep in their own homes,
for whom on one will take responsibility.
For families still separated at the border.
Why is this happening?
We have questions, like
where is the integrity among our elected leaders
Where is the sense of fair play and civility
Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will fight for our rights?
The wandering Israelites asked, is God here with us, or not?
Yet, when they cried out,
you opened the sea for them to pass.
When they cried out,
you provided manna in the wilderness.
When they cried out, water gushed forth from a rock.
And if you can produce water from a ROCK!,
you will quench our thirst for justice,
our hunger for righteousness,
our demand for the liberation of all who are enslaved today.
You will, despite our question - WHEN!?
When, O Lord?
But in between, you never leave us alone.
You walk with us through our illnesses and death.
You walk alongside us when we lose patience,
when anger threatens to overwhelm.
You walk alongside those today who pray,
who ask our community to pray,
and you give us sighs to deep for words
when we don't know what to say.
And you invite us to prayer the words Jesus taught...
 Deuteronomy 3:8
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 20, 2020
“Exactly Enough. Every Day.”
Exodus 16: 2-16 – The Message
The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness. The Israelites said, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!”
4-5 God said to Moses, “I’m going to rain bread down from the skies for you. The people will go out and gather each day’s ration. I’m going to test them to see if they’ll live according to my Teaching or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they have gathered, it will turn out to be twice as much as their daily ration.”
6-7 Moses and Aaron told the People of Israel, “This evening you will know that it is God who brought you out of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the Glory of God. Yes, he’s listened to your complaints against him. You haven’t been complaining against us, you know, but against God.”
8 Moses said, “Since it will be God who gives you meat for your meal in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, it’s God who will have listened to your complaints against him. Who are we in all this? You haven’t been complaining to us—you’ve been complaining to God!”
9 Moses instructed Aaron: “Tell the whole company of Israel: ‘Come near to God. He’s heard your complaints.’”
10 When Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud.
11-12 God spoke to Moses, “I’ve listened to the complaints of the Israelites. Now tell them: ‘At dusk you will eat meat and at dawn you’ll eat your fill of bread; and you’ll realize that I am God, your God.’”
13-15 That evening quail flew in and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, man-hu (What is it?). They had no idea what it was.
15-16 So Moses told them, “It’s the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God’s instructions: ‘Gather enough for each person, about two quarts per person; gather enough for everyone in your tent.’”
“The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness.” Temple Beth Shalom developed a voice mail system for dealing with this kind of thing. “Thank you for calling. If you’re calling from a touch tone phone and would like our service schedule, please press one. For membership information, press two. To complain to the rabbi, press three. To complain about the rabbi, press four, five, or six.”
“The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron out there in the wilderness.” After all, what had Moses done for them lately? He had only left his comfortable and obscure life as a sheepherder in Midian, followed a voice he heard from a burning bush to confront the most powerful man in the world, usher his people across the Red Sea, turn bitter water into sweet, and even gave them a vacation to the original Palm Springs. Yes, soon after crossing into freedom-land, they came to a place with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees, where they “vacationed” for six weeks. “Yes, we’ve been there and done that. But, what have you done for us lately?”
Moses took their complaints to God, added a few of his own about ungrateful people, and retorted back, “You know, when you complain against me, you’re really complaining against God. And you don’t want to do that, do you?” Moses clearly hadn’t been to customer management school, because if he had:
And he did. In addition to God’s promise to provide manna, God promised quail every day. But couldn’t we have chicken instead?
And yet, it really isn’t my place to criticize people for being hungry and thirsty and frightened. Or ungrateful. They were truly at the mercy of God. It’s hard to know what that feels like. The bigger question is why I do it every day? How many days go by that I don’t find something about which to grumble, gripe, groan, murmur – or down right complain about? Even though I have everything I need – every day.
I shouldn’t blame and point fingers at the Israelites and say they shouldn’t complain. Think of their existence under Pharaoh, hundreds of years of Pharaohs. Naturally, they picked up his habits. They existed as an example that even when the Pharaohs had more than enough, they wanted more, or rather, demanded more. Walter Brueggemann describes this is how the Israelites became slaves in the first place.
Because Joseph foresaw a great famine, Egypt built barns and storehouses, so much so that they became the great superpower of its time. As a result, Egypt had more than enough and saved their neighbors from starvation. We might hear that and think they had mercy upon their neighbors. But Egypt didn’t have mercy on their neighbors, they bankrupted them. Pharaoh demanded that Joseph ask hungry people, “Where’s your collateral?” The first year they gave up their cattle. The second year they gave up their land. The third year, they had no collateral left but themselves. They descended into slavery as the result of debt, a trade deal for survival from which there was no escape, an economic transaction to avoid starvation with someone who never believed he had enough. Brueggemann said, “by the end of Genesis 47, Pharaoh owned all the land except that belonging to the priests,” because, after all, “he needed somebody to bless” what he was doing.
So now, after 500 years, thanks to Moses, the children of Israel are free, and out in the wilderness with too much time on their hands, looking back and thinking, “Should we have really left? All of the world’s riches are in Egypt and with the Pharaoh.” Fish, cucumber, leeks, onions…
How many people falsely equate wealth with divine blessing? In Egypt they could see all the ostentatious displays, even if it wasn’t theirs. But now, they look out into the emptiness of the wilderness and think there can’t be enough for them. Let’s go back, not realizing that if they went back, it would have been to Make Egypt Great Again. The Israelites would see no economic benefit for themselves, only to continue to further enrich the Pharaoh. But they might have gotten an overpriced red MEGA hat (Make Egypt Great Again).
Out there in the vast wilderness, God heard their cries and began providing the Israelites with manna every day. It addition to their complaining, it’s not surprising that some people tried to take more than they needed. That’s what Pharaoh would have taught them to do. But two things happened. When people tried to hoard manna, they discovered in the morning that their excess was rotten and had a terrible sour smell. But those who hadn’t taken enough found themselves with exactly enough. Both had exactly enough. Every day. Just like today. God provides. Exactly enough. Every day. Which sounds like a good place to say, Amen.
Except, something’s not quite right. It’s one thing for me as a white, English-speaking man in America to say God provides exactly enough every day because I do have exactly enough every day. Well, let’s be honest. Most of us have more than enough.
So then, tell me, what am I to say to the family living behind the fence of a refugee camp for years? What about countries suffering from famine and starvation today? What are we to say to those who don’t have enough to feed their families, so they risk their lives to cross into our country in order to pick the cucumbers, leeks and onions that grace our dinner table every night?
God provides enough? It makes God sound like a fraud. It sounds like God makes promises that God doesn’t keep. But if God does provide enough, which I believe, then what’s going on?
There’s a line in our communion liturgy that says, “We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.” There is enough. There’s just not enough sharing. Or, rather, a system of justice and equity. That lifts the poor and constrains the greedy.
It’s not surprising that the Israelites didn’t understand what “enough” meant. After all, do we? Were they ungrateful complainers? Are we? They are both difficult lessons to unlearn habits we aren’t even aware of, just like white privilege.
But this pandemic is teaching us some even more difficult lessons. During this time of uncertainty, of fear, of wishing we could go back even though “back” wasn’t so great, but at least it was normal. A time of stock market highs and record unemployment – and the rich complaining about people making too much money on unemployment… And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s too much. We have enough on our plate.
All of it is like wandering in a wilderness of in between spaces – 40 days to the election, in between the election and how many more days to the election results, anticipating chaos or calm, and imagining 79 more days to inauguration, or 4 more years of hell, all the while waiting for a vaccine, or hoping there is one. That’s a lot of lessons! You know what, perhaps we do understand what it means to be completely at the mercy of God.
And if that’s true, does God still provide manna today? Perhaps not some flaky white substance on the grass every morning, but I do believe that:
This day and every one of the next 44 days. And 79 more days. And 365 after that. Exactly enough and even enough to share.
Photo is from Death Valley, December 2019, by David Bahr
 Walter Brueggemann, “The Litany of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” The Christian Century, 1999
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 13, 2020
“Go Forward and Live or Turn Back and Die”
Exodus 14: 19-31 – The Message
19-20 The angel of God that had been leading the camp of Israel now shifted and got behind them. And the Pillar of Cloud that had been in front also shifted to the rear. The Cloud was now between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. The Cloud enshrouded one camp in darkness and flooded the other with light. The two camps didn’t come near each other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and God, with a terrific east wind all night long, made the sea go back. He made the sea dry ground. The seawaters split.
22-25 The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground with the waters a wall to the right and to the left. The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit, every horse and chariot and driver of Pharaoh racing into the middle of the sea. It was now the morning watch. God looked down from the Pillar of Fire and Cloud on the Egyptian army and threw them into a panic. He clogged the wheels of their chariots; they were stuck in the mud.
The Egyptians said, “Run from Israel! God is fighting on their side and against Egypt!”
26 God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots, over their horsemen.”
27-28 Moses stretched his hand out over the sea: As the day broke and the Egyptians were running, the sea returned to its place as before. God dumped the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. The waters returned, drowning the chariots and riders of Pharaoh’s army that had chased after Israel into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29-31 But the Israelites walked right through the middle of the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall to the right and to the left. God delivered Israel that day from the oppression of the Egyptians. And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses.
(After watching a clip from the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments.) I couldn’t resist showing the scene of Charlton Heston raising his hand over his head to part the Red Sea. It’s a little kitschy and over the top, but it certainly makes the point about the miraculous nature of their escape from slavery. In fact, I find it more compelling than such rational explanations that a stiff wind all night dried marshy land making it possible for people to walk across while the heavy chariots got caught up in the underlying mud. Sure, it may have been possible, but I root for the triumph of the impossible. But how they got across isn’t as important as the fundamental message: “Once you were slaves in Egypt, and now you are free.” That’s more than walking with wet shoes. It takes God for that to happen.
They were trapped. On one side, water prevented their escape, and on the other side, 600 rapidly approaching Egyptian army chariots. Imagine hearing the sound, seeing the dust rise from miles away, feeling the rumbling of the ground as those chariots advanced. Just before our passage today, verse 10 says, “They were totally afraid. They cried out in terror to God. They told Moses, “Weren’t the cemeteries in Egypt large enough? Did you have to take us out here in the wilderness to die? What have you done to us? Back in Egypt we told you, ‘Leave us alone—we’re better off as slaves than as corpses in the wilderness.’”
But, of what were they really afraid? Was it death or freedom? For those who had never experienced it before, what is that thing called freedom?
In 1937, 2,300 formerly enslaved African Americans were interviewed as part of the depression-era Federal Writer’s Project. 88-year-old Mary Crane said she was 14 years old “when President Lincoln set us all free.” She said, “I’m telling you right when I say that my folks and friends did not regard freedom as an ‘unmixed blessing.’”
Ezra Adams said, “I don’t remember when I first regarded myself as ‘free.’ Many of us just “didn’t understand what it was all about.”
Daniel Waring said, “The former slaves where I lived knew they had an abundance of freedom, but they could not eat, wear, or sleep in it. They soon learned that freedom is nothing unless you have something to live in and a place to call home.”
Most of us know that Harriet Tubman was known as the Moses of her people. And you may recall she carried a gun with her as she led groups along the Underground Railroad. Not just to protect from slave patrols but to keep those who were afraid from turning back. Sometimes she threatened, “If you don’t follow me, I’m going to kill you. Go forward and live or turn back and die.”
Standing at the water’s edge, the escaping Hebrews cried out to return to what was familiar, even though it was bondage. Then the sea parted. They crossed and “The prophet Miriam took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her dancing. Miriam sang: ‘horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” It’s the earliest recorded song in the Bible.
But their first day of freedom wasn’t even over yet before they began to reminisce, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing? The cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic… but now?” Again, that was the same day as their miraculous crossing over. But of course, as Daniel Waring testified from personal experience, you can’t eat, wear, or sleep in freedom.
Freedom is center stage in many of our lives right now. Some people are demanding freedom from the tyranny of wearing masks. Some people are demanding freedom from getting shot by police. Some people just want freedom from quarantine to hug, to gather with friends. And, of course, to return to such normal routines as coming home on Homecoming Sunday. I recognize not all of these examples are equal. But it’s also not right to judge some grieving as worse than others. Grief is grief. Just like fear.
The Hebrews were now free. From slavery. From Egypt. Now the question is, for what? In their fears, freedom meant hunger, even though the promise was a land flowing with milk and honey. But of course, they didn’t know it would take 40 years to get there because it would take them 40 years to unlearn a lifetime of bondage.
Ask someone released from prison. Freedom from addiction. Freedom from an abuser can be hard if it’s all you’ve ever known. Oppression. Cruelty. Tyranny. How long does it take for a society finally free from a tyrant to recover? And not do it again.
Note that God’s great liberation narrative is always freedom from oppression, not accommodation to it. We don’t need tips and tricks for surviving. God’s great liberation narrative, “the primal, most simple, most elemental, and non-negotiable story at the heart of biblical faith,” as Walter Brueggemann describes the Exodus; God’s great liberation narrative is freedom from cruelty, not a series of lessons in how to live with it. But freedom from means freedom for something. And that’s hard. Harder than going back. It’s sacrificial. It’s for a purpose. What was God’s liberative purpose in opening the sea for them? And what liberation is God seeking for our world today?
Out in the wilderness, the former slaves had to learn to turn away from the tyranny of Pharaoh and resist the temptation to recreate it among themselves. In the place of Pharaoh’s wealth and absolute power, God gave them “some of the most radical socioeconomic laws in human history.” As Marcus Borg describes it, “no interest was to be charged on loans to each other. Every Sabbath year, every seventh year, all debts owed to each other were to be forgiven and any slaves they collected were to be released. Every Jubilee year, every 50th year, all agricultural land was to be returned at no cost to the original family of ownership. When they settled the land, every family was given a plot. Over time, families that ran into difficulties sometimes lost their land because of debt. In the Jubilee year, the land was to be restored to its original owner.”
In other words, they were freed from ancient systems built on injustice and domination. And with their freedom they were to create shalom – a world of wellbeing, peace, and wholeness. A world Jesus would describe as the Kingdom of God. A world we describe as open, inclusive, just, and compassionate.
What does all of this say to the church on Homecoming Sunday? In its best sense, Homecoming means going back, telling stories, laughing, reminiscing… and at Park Hill, the youth group cooking hot dogs. Lance in his Black Panther costume. It’s a regrouping and regathering in one place to be sent back into the world in courage and peace. Of course, not everyone’s home or childhood was peaceful and loving, so returning home isn’t equally nostalgic for everyone.
In its idealized sense, Homecoming may be a reminder of better times. It’s not unusual for some churches that after years of decline, its forward mission is actually a retreat, trying to recreate what worked well decades ago instead crossing the sea to freedom-land. Remember when the youth group sold those cucumbers and leeks and onions…
As we worship from home today, it may feel like the momentum of our church’s steady forward mission has been put on forced retreat. But, in contrast, instead of looking back and hoping for a return to what we once were, God is leading us to become something we’ve never been before, something more than we could imagine. Going forward, our congregation will be more than those who get in their car to drive to church, or did so when they lived here. Not one place, but one people. As of today, we are the church home of people no matter where their home is located. That’s a new concept. One that liberates us from location to our shared vocation as people who seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. Still in Park Hill, but now also everywhere that Park Hill lives.
It’ll take some time to get used to this new identity. But God will make a way for us. It may not take the power of Charlton Heston raising his hand, but it will require more of us than a dry-cleaning bill for our shoes if we are to fully include more than just those we can wave at in the next pew. We certainly didn’t know it then, but the intentionality we gave to building relationships last fall has prepared us for this grand experiment in being church – before, during, and long after the pandemic. And I believe that building relationships is that which will heal our nation when we’ve escaped the latest tyrant named Pharaoh.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 30, 2020
“I Hear Their Cries in Kenosha”
Exodus 3: 1-15 – Common English Bible
A Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro,[a] Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.[b] So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Last week we began the Great Liberation narrative with the story of the birth of Moses, and before that, the reason why the Hebrew people were living in Egypt in the first place – to escape starvation in their homeland. We heard about the rebellion of the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who tricked Pharaoh and refused to cooperate with his order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys – because he was paranoid that there were too many of them. We heard about the clever plans of his mother Jacoybed and sister Miriam to put him in a basket on the Nile so he could be discovered. And we learned about the rebellious compassion of the Pharaoh’s own daughter who, despite her father’s orders, rescued Moses from the Nile and raised him as her own. And today, we heard his encounter with a burning bush. But what happened in between?
Like Jesus, we can only speculate on his childhood upbringing. But I do wonder, what was that moment like when he realized he was a Hebrew but living the privileged life of Egyptian royalty? Like anyone adopted, he must have had so many questions, such as, who did he really belong to? Where did he fit in?
Well, one day, Moses did indeed face a choice. He looked down from his palace and saw the cruel labor that was forced on the Hebrews. He saw an Egyptian slave master beating a slave. In that moment he realized that these were his people. In that moment he was seized by outrage. And in that moment, he looked around to make sure no one saw what he was about to do. He killed that slave master and buried him in the sand. But someone did see him, and word spread, even to the Pharaoh. So, Moses fled as far as he could to save his life.
Moses kept running until he eventually settled in the land of Midian. He married Zipporah and became a shepherd for her father. He settled into a peaceful, obscure life – but always with a dark secret no one else knew. Moses might have always worried that one night there would be a knock at the door, dragging him back to Egypt to face the consequences of his crime. When word came years later that the Pharaoh had died, he was relieved. He was free from his past and he could die in peace.
That’s when today’s story interrupts Moses’ plan for comfortable obscurity. He was tending his sheep, far from home beyond the wilderness, when he saw that infamous “burning bush.” When he stepped toward the curious sight, a voice called Moses, Moses.
The voice from the burning bush proclaimed, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Yes, it was that Jacob, the dirty-trickster scoundrel who cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. It was that same God now talking to Moses.
The voice of God made seven “I” statements before declaring God’s name is “I am who I am.” God said:
1)I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt
2)I have heard their cries for deliverance from the cruelty of their slave masters
3)I know their suffering and pain
4)I have come down to deliver them
5)And repeated, I’ve seen for myself how the Egyptians oppress them
Again, God said,
I have seen their misery
I have heard their cries
I know their pain
And I will deliver them.
Just as Moses was about to say, “Good for you, God. Go for it!” Right before Moses could say thank you to God for promising to free his kinsfolk from their suffering, God said, 6) “And so… I am sending you.” “Wait. What?”
And with that we learn how God works in the world. “I will deliver my people from slavery means you will save my people from slavery. From cruelty. From oppression.” We also learn that God doesn’t choose people for that work who declare “I alone can save you. I alone can fix the system.” We all know how badly that works out. No, God works in the world through people who say, “Wait. Who me? Why me?”
God’s seventh statement in this dialogue is meant to make Moses feel better. I am sending you. But 7) “I will be with you.” Moses, however, just continues with a list of reasons why God has chosen the wrong person. After all, Moses was a murderer who fled the scene of the crime; he was a stutterer with a stunning lack of self-confidence, claimed people won’t believe him; and, after all, at 80 years old, he was content watching sheep in a pasture until it was time to put him out to pasture.
But God doesn’t care about excuses. In fact, I think with God, the more excuses the better. Or rather, the more strikes against you the better.
You might think this is just a fairy tale about Moses. You may think, this isn’t a story that relates to my life because I’ve never seen a burning bush. Or a dancing bear. Or a talking fish or something else supernatural.
But you have, we certainly all have seen the misery of God’s people. We have watched over and over and over again, one year after another after another as if on a loop, the killing of black men, women, and children. We watched as an officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 long minutes as he cried out for his dead mama to save him. It is through my eyes and your eyes, God says, I see the misery of my people. Don’t look away.
We have certainly all heard the cries of God’s people treated with cruelty. The guttural cries of the mother of Jacob Blake’s children sitting in the back of the car watching as seven bullets discharge one by one into his back as the officer tugged on his t-shirt to keep him from leaving. But we also heard as people pointed and shouted that the 17-year-old white boy walking down the street with a rifle hanging off his neck had just shot people. But instead, in the ultimate example that “law and order” is about maintaining white supremacy, officers thanked him for being there. Asked, would you like a drink of water. And waved as he went home that night to sleep in his own bed. It is through my ears and your ears that God says, I hear their cries in Kenosha. Don’t turn away.
We certainly all know the pain and suffering of God’s people – the way our stomach ties in knots witnessing the gleeful cruelty of this administration and the silence of its enablers. 180,000 dead from Covid, each of them with a family mourning what didn’t have to be so tragic with a little common sense and some leadership from the one who brags “I alone can fix it,” but doesn’t or can’t. Can’t, won’t, or incapable of seeing or hearing or feeling anything that isn’t about himself. But it is through my body and your bodies that God says, I know their pain and suffering. Don’t walk away. The I AM will save them.
We might cheer, “Good for you, God! Because someone has got to do something about this.” What happens when we realize that God is talking directly to you? Who me? Why?
Well, it’s precisely for these reasons:
That’s all the right stuff for God:
God needed a stuttering murderer with a stunning lack of self-confidence to deliver God’s people from slavery. Who me? But we’re simply responding to that which we can see, hear, and feel in our body.
You may have heard of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
Let’s go through our list of reasons to pick someone else:
What else do you have?
But you still have eyes to see.
You still have ears to hear.
And you still have a body through which you feel.
And that’s how “I am who I am” works in the world to save God’s people from their misery. What have you done wrong that makes you exactly the right one?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 23, 2020
Exodus 2: 1-10 – Common English Bible
A man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out[a] of the water.”
Today’s story actually begins a little earlier than the birth of Moses and his rescue from a basket on the Nile. The first line in the lectionary is “A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” So, that means we have to go back even earlier than Moses – like 500 years earlier.
Remember the story I told a few weeks ago about those twin brothers named Jacob and Esau? Joseph was Jacob’s son. His favorite son. Much, much younger than his 11 brothers, he was annoying to them. In part, because Jacob made it known that Joseph was his favorite, born of his favorite wife, Rachel.
And you may have heard of the special gift: Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream-coat? To be fair, he really was a twerp and eventually his brothers grew so tired of his prancing and preening, they threw him in a hole. And they kept him there until they sold him as a slave to some folks on their way to Egypt. Then gave his shirt, covered in goat’s blood, to their father so he would think his beloved Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.
Years later, great story but too long, Joseph ascended to the role of trusted official in the Pharaoh’s government because he interpreted a dream that foresaw a great famine. He convinced the Pharaoh to build vast storage barns to prepare. Back home, that famine hit so hard that many people emigrated to Egypt, including Joseph’s brothers, to avoid starvation.
Again, long story short, Joseph saved his brothers. But more than that, he saved Egypt. Despite being a foreigner, he was a hero. Except after they forgot about him. He was a hero until they began to resent all those families who had moved to Egypt to avoid starvation. 500 years later, there were “too many” of them. This new king who didn’t know Joseph said, “We’ve got to do something because they might turn on us.”
They forgot. It’s not good when a nation loses its corporate memory because when a nation loses its memory, suspicion and prejudice can take over. Frightened or paranoid leaders conveniently turn “others” into a threat to “our” way of life. But isn’t it interesting that, even now, “our way of life” only applies to those trying to protect their privilege and power?
And so, all those outsiders were rounded up and organized into work-gangs. They tried to crush them with slave labor, making it worse and worse. But, as the story goes, the harder they worked them, the more children they produced. No matter how much they oppressed them, nothing worked to contain them, so Pharaoh told the two midwives for the Hebrew people to kill all the boys as they delivered them.
The midwives agreed but wouldn’t do it. When Pharaoh realized they were not carrying out his orders, they lied and said the Hebrew women are so “vigorous,” they have their babies before the midwives can arrive. So, Pharaoh extended the order beyond the midwives. Pharaoh ordered all of his people to participate in infanticide – to drown every infant Hebrew boy in the Nile River.
Why would anyone agree to do that? To victimize someone, you’ve got to turn them into a threat. As one liberation theologian said, that’s only possible if those in power can “skew or even obliterate the corporate memory of the people. Ordinary people do not set out to oppress and exploit, unless someone can frighten them and point to a scapegoat.” It’s a playbook that is thousands and thousands of years old. But then as now, just one person at a time can interrupt the narrative.
As we heard in the story read, the life of Moses was miraculously spared. Great heroes often have stories of miraculous births – in fact, stories of other great leaders include being placed in a basket on the Nile River. But this is not just a story about the birth of Moses. This is the beginning of the liberation narrative, the story of freedom from slavery. The escape. The wilderness. The complaining. Lots of complaining about how life was better back in Egypt. We’re going to follow this story of God and the people for several weeks going forward.
As liberation theologians declare, “The point of this story is to demonstrate how the seeds of freedom for the slaves were sown years before through simple disobedience by women – the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who tricked and defied Pharaoh, by Moses’ mother Jochebed (jo-quay-bed) and sister Miriam who carefully plotted a way for him to be rescued, and then by the daughter of the very Pharaoh who decreed his death. As the text points out, the princess, whose name we don’t know, knew she was saving a Hebrew boy. She made a fool out of her father – whether she intended to or not.
He decreed death out of his fear, and she co-opted life out of her compassion. The courageous actions of Moses later in his life cannot be divorced from these women, whose compassion defeated fear.
It inspires in me once again an appreciation for how small acts of compassion really are acts of resistance in the face of fear, which multiply into greater acts of liberation. Moses was a great leader, but he’s not the reason they escaped. Liberation is not the result of one grand gesture or one great leader but thousands of actions and millions of people that destroy dubious fear with rebellious compassion.
And I think that’s an important reminder in this presidential season. We should not aspire to elect a Moses-like leader who will deliver us and lead us out of our national crisis. That would be great, but ultimately someone else can’t heal us. We need to inspire one another. Because our acts of rebellious compassion multiplied will become the greater acts of liberation that defeat fear and fearmongers. Along with the providence of God, it is we, not someone we elect, who will save our nation.
I love being the