Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 23, 2020
“Vote as If Someone’s Life Depended on It”
Matthew 17: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
One cold winter morning, the matriarch of a small New England church was nervous when she came to worship. Not that the sidewalks might be icy or that the boiler might not have kicked in early enough to warm the sanctuary. Betty was anxious because it was the first Sunday with their new pastor. It wasn’t a Congregational Church, so she had had no say in the pastor assigned to them. She and many others in her coffee klatch traded rumors that this pastor had been a troublemaker. Might try to shake things up. But by the end of the service, Betty was pleased. As she grasped the hand of the new pastor, Betty told her that all her fears had been relieved. “I listened carefully to your sermon and I am so happy. You were wonderful! You didn’t say a thing!” At least, nothing to make anyone uncomfortable.
In contrast, a white pastor in Alabama in the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement, began preaching about issues of race, every week, preaching from such passages as Ephesians, “in Christ’s flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” One by one, he preached the church down to a handful of people. The pastor remarked, “Good. Now we can become a Christian church.”
In seminary many of us were told we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Among your group of peers, that sounds fun and exciting. In case Peter, however, thought the idea of following Jesus would be an exciting fun-filled adventure, Jesus afflicted him with some clarity.
The text today begins by saying “six days later.” What’s the first thing we have to do? Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In return, Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church.” He promised Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But then Jesus told all of them about going to Jerusalem and how he would undergo great suffering and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter responded by “rebuking” Jesus. “God forbid it,” he said. “This must never happen to you!” To that Jesus slapped back, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” Ouch. All he said was, “I don’t want anything bad like that to happen to you.”
Then Jesus told the crowds of people hanging around him: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
That’s the context. Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and went with them up a high mountain.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew tried to link Jesus to Moses. “Up a high mountain” is an example of how, over and over, Matthew tells stories in a way that point to Jesus as the new Moses. For example, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, which only Matthew tells, is about how both Jesus and Moses escaped a tyrannical ruler who tried to murder infants, whether a king or pharaoh. There are many other examples. Moses received the commandments on a mountain, Jesus taught the Beatitudes from a mountain.
But our scripture reading this morning is especially notable. Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah on top of a high mountain where he is transfigured in a bright light. Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Transfiguration is one of those odd words only used in the church. The Common English Bible tries to simplify the word as Transform. Jesus was transformed. To me, that’s not quite enough. Eugene Peterson tries to describe the indescribable as “His appearance changed from the inside out. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.”
Of course, we are tempted to ask, did that really happen? But, what I do know is that it sounds a lot like how Moses encountered the magnificent light of God’s presence on a mountain – which, I think, is more the point Matthew is making.
In today’s reading, Elijah is added to the mix and, thereby, Matthew makes yet another linkage explicit. Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah. Matthew’s intended audience wouldn’t have needed any more explanation.
So, six days earlier, Peter declared Jesus the Son of the Living God. On top of this high mountain, God’s voice is heard saying exactly that. “Listen to my Son. My beloved.” It was the same voice heard at his baptism, the start of his ministry. This same voice is heard again, now at the start of his descent to Jerusalem and his suffering, persecution, betrayal, and death.
There’s a lot of symbolism going on in this text. Enough that we may we start to ask, “so what?” So, if I’ve lost you with all of this background and context, come back because I want to talk about what we do with this text. How does Peter respond to all of this?
How many times have you heard or thought to yourself: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” I don’t know if it’s true for you or not, but I feel like I was programmed by my parents just that way. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” In fact, isn’t there some saying like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” My strict German grandmother probably said that. In German.
So, if I had been standing there with Peter, I would have heard the voice of my parents and said, “Yeah, we should do something.” Various translations of the specific word Peter used for his “let’s build something idea” include dwellings, booths, shrines, tabernacles, shelters, and more. Whatever exactly it was, it was something. Perhaps to remember or memorialize the moment with a shrine. Or another interpretation is “let’s build something up here,” like a shelter or dwelling, so we don’t have to go to Jerusalem. Let’s just avoid all that conflict. One of my favorite things to do.
Jesus was likely annoyed with Peter’s impulsive interruption, but before he could say anything, that voice from heaven intervened and said, “Listen to him.” Or, here is my translation of this verse: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
How does that phrase make you feel? “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” For all of us ever busy, overprogrammed people, driving our children across town from a soccer game to a piano lesson, continuously checking our emails, responding to texts, too much homework, busier in retirement than ever before – that sounds good. A relief. “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
And yet as we try to keep up with the newest outrage from Washington, feeling like we have to respond to each one of those newest outrages until we fall to the ground exhausted and tempted to give up… Paralyzed. When that happens, in the vein of Peter, and my parents, I need to hear, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.”
Which is it? Either way, that voice proclaims “listen.” To listen requires us to first stop. And breathe. In fact, let’s do that. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the burned out. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the broken down. Comfort for the afflicted.
But some folks, like Betty, our matriarch from New England, not to pick on her, they don’t want that comfort interrupted, to be afflicted by hearing about the needs of the world. But what happens when “don’t just do something, stand there” becomes the mission of the church? What happens when “don’t just do something, sit there” becomes the rationale for accepting the status quo? Which, of course, is a privilege only some communities are afforded.
When someone says, “Don’t bring politics into the church,” they’re not an immigrant community fearful of a raid any minute.
Is it politics to pray for guidance? To ask of your faith:
There are more actions, of course, than voting. It’s just that our Super Tuesday ballot is sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be completed. And I need to vote as if someone’s life depended on it.
This week we saw the proof of Bryan Stevenson’s assertion – that the rich white and guilty will be treated better than innocent poor people of color. Every new day of this presidential administration is another outrageous example of corruption this and law-breaking that. We can’t keep up with it all to respond to everything. We could, but we wouldn’t last long. That’s what they count on. That’s what they laugh about on Fox “News.”
Therefore, the concern is how to avoid burnout or how to recover from burnout. Not to just to do something, but stand there. To comfort the afflicted by listening and supporting one another, knowing that each one of us is carrying a heavy cross. To listen and pray for that voice from deep inside the cloud. Then to listen to each other so that we don’t just stand there but begin to do something – as if someone’s life, including yours, depended on it.
The lesson I see from Peter is not just to react in the moment and do something. Or stay upon the mountain to avoid doing anything. First, listen. And then do the one thing you especially can do. That thing for which your gifts and your talents make you uniquely qualified.
And what is that thing? That’s what we are going to do together during Lent this year. We’re going to explore and discover our gifts and talents as we deepen our relationships and connections with God and each other. The second phase of our relational campaign from last fall starts Wednesday night during the Ash Wednesday service, continues every Sunday in March during Second Hour, will take place during more intimate meals in homes and small gatherings in April, and will end with a daylong retreat in May. Lots of listening before we start more doing.
We often think of Lent as a time when we give something up. That’s appropriate because when we listen and act accordingly, we may need to say “no” to some things, give something up, in order to say “yes,” to take something else up. Known as our own cross.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
As followers of Jesus, that’s our invitation. I’m curious whether you think that’s a comfort or an affliction.
 Story adapted from Will Willimon
 Matthew 16: 24-26 - adapted
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 2, 2020
Micah 6: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
What God Requires
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The lectionary today provides us one of the most familiar half-verses in the entire Old Testament. But what’s the rest of the story? The context.
It starts by God telling the people, if you have a problem with me, please tell me. God tells them to take their contentions to court. And then God invites in a jury. Tell it to the mountains and hills, the eternal foundations of the earth. Let them decide the verdict. That’s the setting.
Then watch as God lays out a defense. God pleads, what have I done to you? Please, how have I wearied you? It’s the not the voice of an angry God demanding an answer. It is the voice of a God who agonizes and is filled with sorrow. Notice: God doesn’t complain or say they are wrong. God doesn’t deflect and instead accuse them of unfaithfulness. God simply replies by asking the people to remember their history:
In sharp contrast, the responding party from the people explodes and blows everything out of proportion. “What do you want from us!?” And goes into a litany of the most preposterous examples he or she could imagine.
Animal sacrifice was a way to honor God. An offering, for example, of one sheep or a ram. But the lawyer for the people asks, “What do you want? Would a thousand rams be enough for you?”
Imagine that you’ve lent $10 to a friend who promises to pay you back by the end of the week. Months later, you finally ask your friend if you can have your money back. I’m sorry to ask, but could you… But, instead of being embarrassed, apologetic for having forgotten to pay you back, they respond “I suppose you want interest from me too. What do you want? Ten million dollars? Will that be enough to finally satisfy your greed?”
That’s the answer from the lawyer for the people. Will a thousand rams be enough for you? How about not just one jug of oil but rivers of oil? How about my first-born child? Will that be enough to satisfy you? You see: Rant, rave, deflect – and now you’re the bad guy. An unnecessary litany of increasingly absurd defenses.
It’s like the rants and raves and deflections of increasingly absurd defenses offered by the lawyers for the president. From “he did nothing wrong” to “everyone does it, get over it” to “anything the president does is, by definition, not wrong.” Or, the more reasonable explanation, “it’s wrong, it’s just not wrong enough.” Which I have to admit, I might agree. If sexually assaulting multiple women isn’t bad enough, this is nothing. If ripping children from their mother’s arms and placing them in cages isn’t bad enough, well, this does, in fact, pale in comparison. Another litany of increasing absurdity – absurd that any of it is OK.
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t been able to watch the impeachment trial; barely a few minutes here or there. Just enough news coverage to feel like I had a sense of what happened that day.
This week, I read a blog post by John Pavlovitz, the author we invited to speak here last year, that felt so spot on, I feared he had entered my dreams and taken dictation.
Back in September which, emotionally, feels like ten years ago, long before the events of the past few weeks, Pavlovitz said:
There’s more, but no need to read more of the stuff we all know all too well. These must-be-a-dream real-life nightmares are exhausting. I’m trying to hang in there. How about you? Every time I think we must have reached the bottom, the bottom drops further.
Yet, as I write this I wonder if this isn’t just the depression of the privileged. I’m used to thinking that things generally work out. But how often has the notion of the Common Good been much more about the Common Good for people like me? With a good job, a good education. I can show up at the doctor’s office any time I want because I have insurance. I have a passport to go anywhere in the world I want. And a pension that benefits from a strong stock market. And I’m white. Things have generally been pretty good. Better than for most.
I have to admit, the idea that Americans have had shared values in the past and this is just an aberration reveals my privilege, and ignorance. I remember back to something I said in my first sermon after the election. DaShawn Mosley asked what was wrong with white progressives. How could you be surprised. How couldn’t you see that this would happen? “Every time African Americans get a little bit closer to equality, a wave of white resentment comes hurtling around the bend to wash all of the progress away.”
Columnist Leonard Pitts described the election as a “slap down to women and people of color and LGBTQ folks. A vicious and painful reminder so we’ll know our place.”
So, when I think our nation’s increasing diversity is a good thing, and start thinking that things will finally get better when the country becomes a minority majority, I need a dose of reality. Like that from Dr. Jennifer Richeson who told the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The Era of White Anxiety is Just Beginning.” She’s a researcher who said tolerance likely won’t increase but rather an even “more propulsive acceleration” of desperation from “a historically white majority [which] will [not] quietly cede power.” For example, the kind of actions we are seeing today from white, evangelical Christians who are both fearful and angry that their cultural dominance is passing from the scene. Willing to do literally anything to debase themselves to hold on to their power.
Black History month should remind us how this has happened over and over again throughout our country’s history. Absurd and intentional acts of cruelty. But we also remember heroes and how many people have not only survived but done such things as establish thriving businesses and colleges and so much more. Leonard Pitts added to his slap-down comments, “to those who wish to crush my spirit and the spirit of others like me, hear this – it will not work.”
And John Pavlovitz says exactly what the privileged need to hear, those for whom things have generally worked out: “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.”
I’ve always liked that line about the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” It was made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr, but it’s actually a line from a sermon from a Unitarian preacher in 1853. Pavlovitz interprets it for our time. Stop trusting that it will happen, leaving it to fate and chance, and instead “decide to be arc benders.” “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.” He said, “The only way things are going to be OK, is if good people make them OK.”
That means: 1) people of faith must stop abandoning the conversation about religion to those who are loudest about their vision of exclusion. We have to push louder and harder against Christian supremacy, male superiority, and white nationalism. Progressive Christians must learn how to speak about our deeply held religious convictions, the reasons we are passionate about the Common Good. (That’s one of the goals of our relational campaign this spring.)
2) Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and Agnostics and Hindus and Buddhists and Humanists and anyone committed to the Common Good must realize our combined power and offer a unified voice. (That’s why we support mission partners like the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado last month.)
3) Progressives and moderates must realize that one election every four years isn’t the way to make change to benefit the Common Good. It will take every person in every profession every day, from students and teachers and bankers and bus drivers and those who have retired, every person in every profession every day deliberately working for the goal of shared prosperity – using whatever skill, gift, or talent we have. (That’s another goal of our relational campaign this spring.)
And, 4) frankly, it will take the 100 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 to decide they give enough of a damn to register and show up. Question: Who is going to register them?
This may all strike you as too hyperbolic. Too exaggerated. Too pessimistic. In fact, it may start to sound like the lawyer for the people in today’s reading from Micah.
What do you want from us? A thousand rams?
What do you expect from us? Rivers of oil?
What if we give up our first-born children? Will that finally be enough?
And what does the prophet Micah then say in response? He is the last to speak. The jury has listened, God has spoken, the people replied with increasing absurdities, and now the prophet says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s the context. The rest of the story. In the 8th century BCE, under King Hezekiah.
That also happens to be the context of the 21st century, CE, under a different system, but, so OK, mortals, what does the Lord require of you? You already know what is good.
Well, then as now, it’s not as simple as we might like. It’s not as easy as one ram or even one thousand. Then as now, it’s not as simple as a jug of oil or even rivers of oil. Then as now, it’s not as extreme as child sacrifice.
But what is required is a change to the way of life for the privileged: Not to be “hopers” in arc bending. Not an observer of arc bending, or a commentator on the slowness of it. We must not let the absurdity of our country’s defenseless cruelty and the lawlessness of our leaders go unanswered.
So together, we are going to bend the arc and do justice. We’re not going to simply believe that our leaders will do what is right. Anymore, that’s irresponsible.
And we going to love kindness. At this point, trusting that everything will work out is a fool’s delusion.
Of course, to be arc benders, that also means the sacrifice of our time, skills, gifts, talents, effort, and money.
We’re not going to do it alone, however, but humbly with our God. With God and our church family learning how to be more articulate and proudly progressive Christians committed to the Common Good that is good for everyone.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 26, 2020
“Invited to Be”
Matthew 4: 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Ramones sang about the “Job That Ate My Brain.” Johnny Paycheck proclaimed, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dolly Parton sang about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen, pouring a cup of ambition, and folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
If only Simon and Andrew had to worry about working from 9 to 5, maybe the offer by the stranger walking by wouldn’t have been so enticing. But fishing wasn’t a job. It was the life into which you were born. It’s what your father did and it’s what your children will do. Even if they wanted to sing “Shove This Jay Oh Bee” how could they have simply walked away?
James and John may not have been listening to country music while cleaning their nets, but if you combine some wisdom from Kenny Rogers as Jesus stands there, maybe we can understand why they jumped. After all, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” But to what?
There seems to be no scholarly consensus whether those four brothers knew who Jesus was. Or certainly, what they would be getting themselves into.
Jesus had just moved to the area, leaving his home back in Nazareth. In the succession of Matthew’s story, Jesus, at about age 30, was baptized in the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed, “this is my son, the beloved.” Immediately, he was sent into the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days and 40 nights alone and starving, repeatedly tempted with food, power, and success. After this period of testing, the next thing we know is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested. That’s when Jesus decided to leave Nazareth and settle in Capernaum. From that time on, Jesus went around announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s the entirety of what Simon and Andrew and James and John might have known. They might have heard about some guy going around saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” But they left poor Zebedee sitting in his boat wondering what happened. His sons left him to follow one of those itinerant preachers that came by periodically. Jesus wasn’t the only one out there gathering up disciples. So, what made him different? And how did those brothers know?
But sometimes, don’t you just know? I know that not everyone has had one of those “ah ha” moments, one of those epiphanies where things all of a sudden make sense. But those who do understand, who have experienced an epiphany, maybe it was something about which you had been thinking, dreaming about a change for years, and suddenly, the door opens right in front of you.
In fact, that’s how I got here. It took a while for Art and I to finally decide we were ready for a change, but when we did, I immediately went on the UCC website that lists job openings, hoping to see something in or around Denver. There were a few along the Front Range. And then I read the two line description for Park Hill. “Oh, my God.” I felt it in my body. I called Art and said, “that’s where we’re going.” Seems pretty presumptuous, but here we are 12 years later. And I still feel as certain as ever that this is where I was meant to come and where I still feel meant to be. Although, if I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I could never have predicted what our time together would have entailed. And the process we have gone through to get from there to here. But, through it all, I may not have always been sure what to do, but I knew I was called to be your pastor.
Perhaps that was true for those four brothers too. Jesus told them, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say much about what they were supposed to do. But he did say, I want you to be my disciples. They weren’t given a clear job description, (what in the world is fishing for people?), but they were given a new identity. And it’s better to know who we are first and then what we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s been made especially clear to us as a church in the past year. Ten years ago, we adopted a strategic plan. A year ago, we commissioned a new planning team – members who help us discern what we were supposed to do next. What is God calling us to do? I suspected that one goal would be a programmatic emphasis on helping people get to know each other. Relationships don’t develop by osmosis but by intention. We were seeing the effects of that. Without relationships, people will drift in and out without notice.
The process, however, never quite came together. Feeling stuck about next steps, Dwight Meyer and I, the chair of the strategic planning team, met with Jenny Whitcher, wondering if she could help get us unstuck. Instead, she proposed a totally different approach. She proposed a relational campaign. I didn’t quite understand it, but something felt right. She met with the Governance Team and proposed it to them. They didn’t quite understand it either, but something about it might, maybe, perhaps, sort of… It was difficult because she didn’t talk about what we would be doing. She talked about being in relationship with each other and our community. Not how to do authentic relationships but how to be in authentic relationships. Some of you heard this and knew immediately, I want to be part of it. Others waited, perhaps skeptical, but heard what was happening. And by the end of the fall, 75 folks had participated. And today, Jenny is here as we begin phase two. Going deeper.
But let me take a step back first. My apologies to our visitors today, but on annual meeting Sunday, I often give a sort of State of Church Address. I thought I’d make today’s, in part, a State of the Decade report, starting with some numbers.
In 2009, our average worship attendance was 82, up from 63 two years before. We had just had a Christmas Eve service attended by 128 people, 8 of those children. This year we had three Christmas Eve services attended by 293, of which 46 were children. Again, in 2009, average worship attendance was 77, up from 63. In 2019, it was 105. An increase of 42. At a time of churches in decline, when even the most faithful people attend worship less frequently, this is almost impossible. Humbling.
OK, more numbers. At the end of 2009, we had less than $9,000 in our savings and checking accounts. Plus, a loan and tons, a scary amount, of deferred maintenance. Today we have checking, savings, funds and investments of $150,000. That’s not because of a bunch of bequests but because of careful and wise stewardship. And we’ve turned all that scary deferred maintenance into $800,000 of improvements to our building and grounds in the past five years. Did you get that? Over 3/4 of a million dollars in pledges, gifts, grants, and special projects, including solar panels, the labyrinth, and more. Speaking of solar panels, ten years ago, our bill for gas and electric was $11,000. Last year, it was less than $6,000. How can utility bills be cut in half? And save the environment at the same time!
One more thing about numbers. We used to make contributions to our mission partners through our regular budget. In 2009, we budgeted $2,000, plus took the special UCC offerings. Then we started this every Sunday program in 2011. It kept growing. In 2019, our Sunday morning mission partners received a total of $24,000. Isn’t that extraordinary? And sales from the Fair Trade Gift Market for 20 non-profit groups literally doubled over the past decade.
Of course, there is always “on the other hand.” At the end of 2009, we had 183 members. Since just the 2016 election, we have received 62 new members. And at the end of this past year, we had a total of 184 members. An increase of one in ten years?! How do you explain that? Lots of deaths, relocations, and drifting away. But it’s the new cultural reality that more people participate willingly and fully in the life of the congregation without formally joining as members. Membership has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor of a congregation’s health, even though it still has a crucial function in a UCC church. It’s still important.
So, what happened in the past decade to explain our growth? One answer starts with that strategic plan ten years ago that articulated our mission and core values, such as compassion and justice.
We set seven goals, including a deepening spirituality that links head and heart, a focus on worship and youth, more effective social justice ministry, a simpler governance structure, and a decision about whether we should own our own building or sell and share with another church.
Those of you who were here for our move or stay decision know how hard it was. Painful. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and yet without actually making a choice to stay and invest, I doubt we would be where we are today: A building that is welcoming, that we are proud to make available to our neighbors, and a worship space that feels transcendent. Gone are the rigid lines of pews that separated us from one another, forcing us to look at the front instead of at each other. Gone is the pulpit that was seven steps above the congregation, 20 feet away from the first person. Now we have a sense of community with communion at the center. Worship today is simply not what worship was like a decade ago. Which is one reason for our growth. In fact, worship attendance started increasing immediately after we removed the pews. I kid you not. Up 20% that fall.
Another important factor: Five years ago in April, we began our participation in the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. That wasn’t an easy decision either. Certainly, we thought we should but the question was more about whether we could. Could we sustain the level of volunteer effort necessary? And then, just as we were struggling with having enough overnight angels, Donald Trump was elected. Immediately, people wanting to bring light and love into the world stepped through our doors and right into service. 94 different individuals this past year alone, of which one third are neighbors and friends.
I wouldn’t welcome the pain of this world, but through it, during the past three years, the religious left has been reenergized. Today we understand more than ever what Jesus was talking about. In the face of a cruel empire, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew describes it, the kingdom of heaven. Where the poor are the blessed ones, where people love their enemies, where our neighbors are fed, clothed, visited, and liberated from empires like Rome or America. We understand more than ever before how important it is to witness to a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world where Black Lives Matter, Love Wins, people take Me Too seriously, and borders are not littered with kids in cages. However, while the religious left has been energized, not every congregation has experienced the same kind of growth and vitality. Which makes all of this even more humbling.
In May 2016, we revisited our strategic plan and kept our mission statement and core values but adopted four new vision statements. Number one: “creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship.”
It was out of that first part of the statement that we began dreaming of a staff position for a Minister for Congregational Care. We started things in motion two years ago, to start last July with 10 hours per week and hope to grow it to a half time position one day – implementing the second part of the vision to connect people to their ministry. I’m happy to report that with today’s proposed budget, we will achieve this in September. In addition, among those four statements, we stated our vision to nurture individual spiritual gifts and talents. In a few weeks, as part of the second phase of our relational campaign, that is exactly what we will do.
The state of the past decade: vital worship, strong youth programs. Did you know that only 22% of UCC congregations even have a youth group? 2009 was the first of our many trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – on which 60 Park Hill youth and adults have participated. There have been lots of physical improvements to our building, thanks to your generosity, and lots of new opportunities for discipleship through the women’s homelessness initiative and racial justice ministry and other activities, thanks to the leadership of many of you. But it’s when Jenny suggested that our “task” is to be in relationship with one another, it all clicked.
Sometimes someone will come along and say exactly what you’ve been waiting to hear, even if you didn’t know it. Like when an itinerant preacher, declaring that heaven is near, comes by and says, “Come follow me.” Sometimes snap decisions are foolish impulse buys and sometimes snap decisions are easy because you know who you are and you’re ready when someone asks. No more fear. Just step out of the boat in faith.
The takeaway from the gospel for today: It’s not about what you are supposed to do. But who are you called to be? No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Jesus invites us to be his disciple. What we do will follow when the time is right.
 Matthew 4:17 Common English Bible
 Including $300 in rebates
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 19, 2020
“Questions for White Christians”
Galatians 3: 26-29 – New Revised Standard Version
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
We’re going to listen to a portion of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” I always find it inspirational to hear his soaring rhetoric in his own voice.
A little context first: Rev. King had only been a pastor for two years when he preached this sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in early November 1956 – an exhausting eleven months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King wrote this sermon in the style of Paul’s letters to Christians in such places as Corinth, Rome, and Galatia, beginning with greetings and complimentary words before getting into the heart of the message.
(On tv screen from YouTube)
I, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So, in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
Just like Paul addressed divisions in the church in Galatia in our scripture today, this sermon continues by describing various forms of division that existed nineteen hundred years later, such as the presence of 256 different Christian denominations in America. But more to the point, he called out the fact that there is a white church and a black church. He asked, “How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” He noted that sports stadiums and night clubs are more integrated than the church. Paul said clearly, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” However, Dr. King said, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America – the first time he used that phrase which later became common.
Speaking as Paul, he said, “I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. Oh, my friends, this is blasphemy.” As he continued to lay out arguments, he said: This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for, a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.
He then called upon listeners: “I urge each of you to plead patiently with your brothers and sisters and tell them that this isn’t the way. With understanding goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes. Let them know that in standing against integration, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself.”
I learned this week that when future congressman John Lewis was about 15 years old, he heard this sermon on the radio and credits it specifically for changing the trajectory of his life. Lewis said he realized “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
When he was a child, he saw signs for restrooms and drinking fountains designating white and colored. He would ask his mother, ask his father, ask his grandparents, “’Why? Why is that?’ And they’d say, ‘That’s the way it is. And don’t get in trouble. And don’t get in the way.’ But,” he said, “that day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change.”
The following year, at age 17, he enrolled in seminary (I didn’t know John Lewis graduated from seminary!). In a reverse order from today, he then went to college and received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, an historically black college established by Congregationalists. During that time, he organized lunch counter sit ins in Nashville. And was a Freedom Rider. And a few years later, was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettis bridge marching from Selma to Montgomery.
John Lewis heard: “You are obligated to seek to change the attitudes of your fellow Christians.” But Dr. King added, “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.”
But he also added, “Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.”
A few years later, on that bridge in Selma, John Lewis did indeed almost meet his Maker at age 25. It occurred to me, I wonder how old pastor King was when he preached today’s sermon? 27.
During my sabbatical I went to Montgomery and basked in the light filled sanctuary of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I stood behind his pulpit and met a woman in her 90s who knew Dr. King as her pastor. She now gives tours of the parsonage where Martin, Coretta, and their children lived, where we saw the table around which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met and the crystal bowl Mrs. King used to serve punch. Among other things, we saw the phone on which they received death threats and the hole in the front porch where someone threw a bomb.
I went to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery in order to see the lynching memorial and legacy museum created by Bryan Stevenson – the subject of the new movie Just Mercy, which I haven’t seen yet, but reading the book shaped my sense of responsibility as a Christian and a pastor during these divided and difficult times.
About two years ago a group from our church went to hear Mr. Stevenson speak at the Paramount Theater. I’ll never forget how he stepped up to the podium and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I want to change the world. I want to end the death penalty.” He explained that one way we can change the disturbing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty is to tell the truth about the unbroken chain of events – from slavery to the “War on Drugs” mass incarceration, from lynchings to police killings of black men, women, and children – a legacy of slave patrols under which every black person was presumed guilty. As Bryan said, and is clearly true from the news, “a guilty white man is treated better than an innocent black man.” All of this with Jim Crow segregation in between.
In 1956, Dr. King’s sermon laid out the sacred responsibility of Christians to end segregation and the sober consequences of following Jesus. But in 1963, feeling abandoned, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King lamented, “I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead some have been outright opponents. In the midst of blatant injustices, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard many ministers say: ‘those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
So, what might Dr. King’s updated sermon, Paul Letter’s to American Christians in 2020, address today? Here’s one thing for Christians to grapple with: following a string of black men, women, and children killed by police in 2015, 81% of black Christians said they believed those killings were part of a broader pattern. But more than 70% of white Christians believe they were all isolated incidents. 71% of white Catholics, 72% of white evangelicals, but most disturbingly to me, 73% of white mainline Christians deny the lived experiences of black Christians.
Jim Wallis from Sojourners said, “white Christians must start acting more Christian that white.” Which is one indication of the state of American Christianity today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great theologian imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. He stood against the perversion of German “Christians” who supported Hitler and the Third Reich. He insisted Christians take “the view from below.” From the “perspective of those who suffer.”
This week, the International Bonhoeffer Society cited his writings and sermons and make a shocking statement. They described the “ever-deepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized,” including the “dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systemic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history.” And then declared they do not believe that American democracy can “endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump.”
The International Bonhoeffer Society is simply a group of scholars who describe themselves as dedicated to advancing his theology and legacy through critical scholarship, engaged pedagogy, and constructive readings of his collected writings. But they described Bonhoeffer’s warnings about leaders who become “misleaders” interested only in their own power. How he warned in the 1930s that “when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately.” And always reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation to the victims of any societal order.”
They’re as non-partisan as it gets, so this is not the kind of statement they make easily, although it did come on the heels of the Christianity Today editorial that advocated the removal of the president from office that shook the evangelical world.
These Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, also admitted their own “complicity in the social order than has produced Donald Trump’s presidency and the many social and economic injustices that predate it.” And then pledged to actively resist policy goals that harm vulnerable people.
Paul told the Galatian church, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That would seem to imply that in Christ, there should be no distinctions such as evangelical, progressive, fundamentalist, or vanilla Christians. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But, big question: Did Paul say, there “should be” no division? Or did he say, “In Christ, there is no division?” That is something entirely different.
Back in 1949, 20 year Martin said: “We must bring Christ back to the center of the church.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but he may have been on to something important and particularly relevant today.
Of course, what it means to put Christ back at the center could be quite different depending on the church. But it is a really important point as we engage in what is going to be an even more divided electorate in 2020, in which the church is not supposed to be explicitly partisan.
With that in mind, we must always focus on what Jesus taught. What is your position on wealth inequality? What did Jesus say? What is your position on immigrants and foreigners? What did the prophets teach?
The question isn’t how you can fit some Jesus into your political views but how does Jesus inform your political views? This does not necessarily fit easily into one party, nor should it in a diverse society.
But for ourselves, as we remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we should all be asking questions with Christ in the center, such as:
Depending on your answer, you might be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical, but as Congressman John Lewis realized, “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
Bryan Stevenson suggests four ways:
1. Get proximate to those who are suffering
2. Challenge and change existing narratives
3. Be willing to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable
4. Stay hopeful
Stevenson said, "You cannot change the world if you allow yourself to become hopeless. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists, and so you've got to find a way to stay hopeful. You either are hopeful or you're the problem. I hate saying it like that but I really do believe it, because your hope is your super power. Hope will allow you sometimes to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet. When you're hopeful you can actually believe things and see things that other people can't."
Call to Confession
Dr. King once said, “Nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Truly, the work of justice begins with a proper recognition that injustice is real. Let us confess those things that distract and consume us. And let us be awakened by the movement of the Spirit that gives us and the whole world life.
Unison Prayer of Confession
God of Justice, whenever we settle for the way things are instead of the way you would have them to be, forgive us.
Whenever we are paralyzed by fear or limited in vision, increase our trust in you.
Whenever we offer charity, but fail to work for justice, show us the more excellent way that your love requires.
Whenever we tire of our struggles and tomorrow feels overwhelming, restore our hope.
Whenever we forget those who have gone before us or act is if we were the first to struggle, allow us to recognize our arrogance.
May the witness of our brother Martin encourage us to be dreamers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The Assurance of God’s Pardon
If, by reflection, analysis, and prayer, we are freed to acknowledge the wrongs around us, the pain among us, the selfishness within us, and the work before us, God’s call is constantly being revealed in us. Always remember and never forget: The liberating love of God is at work within you!
 Inspired by Paul Rauschenbusch – adapted from 7 Ways to be an MLK Christian
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 12, 2020
“Baptism: An Act of Solidarity with the Poor"
Matthew 3: 13-17 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus was just born a few weeks ago and today he’s already 30 years old. What happened in between? Well, among other things, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he was visited by the wise men from the East and then his family fled violence to live as refugees for a few years in Egypt. Then, when Mary and Joseph felt it was safe to leave, they moved the family to Nazareth. Then what?
Jesus was curious so he traveled eastward with his best friend to meet up with those three wise men – a magician, a Buddhist, and a Hindu Yogi. At least as it is recorded in The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. These three wise men taught him many things, including how to multiply food and how to become invisible. They taught him the origins of cappuccino, how rabbits became associated with Easter, and why Jews eat Chinese food on his birthday. When Jesus and Biff returned home, they shared stories of their adventures with their friends, including Maggie, who later in life became known as Mary Magdalene. These young friends shared their hopes and dreams and the occasional mischief, especially the foul-mouthed Biff, and argued over who got to play Moses in their games.
Since the Bible offers so little information, it’s stands to reason that people are left to speculate. Such speculation of the more serious kind, you know, less blasphemous and sacrilegious, often includes the suggestion that Jesus spent part of his young adulthood travelling, in particular among Eastern religions. For example, among others, the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ suggests he spent his youth travelling across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt.
Modern scholars, however, including Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus are supported by actual scholarship and that any suggestions that Jesus, in particular, came into contact with Buddhism are “without historical foundation.” In fact, Leslie Houlden states that all of these modern comparisons only emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century. Which is kind of disappointing. Jesus and the Buddha obviously never met, since they were born 500 years apart, but I still like the idea that they would have been good friends – like the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I love pictures of the two of them poking at each other and making each other giggle.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph went every year with Jesus to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. You may recall the year when he was 12 years old, he went missing. After three days of travel on the return home, his parents realized Jesus was nowhere to be found. They rushed back to Jerusalem and discovered Jesus sitting in the Temple among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. His parents, a little irritated at Jesus, asked him why he has treated them so poorly? Jesus simply responded, “where else do you think I’d be?” Or something similarly nonchalant. I’m not sure exactly what Mary or Joseph said next, but Luke 2:51 reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth with them and was “obedient to them.” Seems to me there might have been a little ear tugging involved. The last thing the Gospel of Luke reports about his childhood was that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” How? Who knows?
The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus spent his young adult years as a carpenter, the profession of his father, or rather, his step-father. The Gospel of Matthew says the same thing. When people were upset with him and asked, “who does he think he is,” the response was, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son?”
There’s not much else available to us about those 18 “unknown, missing, or lost” years. The only other writing we can draw from was called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, dated somewhere around the year 80, the same time as the Gospel of Luke. In the end, it was not chosen to be part of the canon of scripture, perhaps because it is quite bizarre. Jesus is described in the same manner as a trickster in Greek mythology. And petulant. One-year old Jesus made the neighbors blind after they complained about something to Mary and Joseph. He killed a boy who accidentally bumped into him. Later, however, it’s all good because he healed everyone he harmed. This gospel is less charming than imagining Jesus and Biff learning magic from one of the wise men. Although, among the better stories in the Infancy Gospel is how he brought a clay pigeon to life after breathing into it.
Regardless, around the time he was 30 years old, Jesus presented himself to John and asked to be baptized.
One of the questions raised at Noodles and Company on Thursday was “what was baptism at that time?” Baptism has its root in the traditional miqvah, a ritual washing.
Back in Jerusalem, before a pilgrim could enter the main sanctuary of the temple, the court of the faithful, he had to completely immerse himself in its pool of clean water as a symbol of his ritual purification. For a fee. A hefty fee. It was quite a profitable enterprise. Enter the temple. Make a sacrifice. But, go further? Pay the price. However, if wealthy people wanted an even nicer experience, away from all those common folk, they could pay for a premium upgrade at the miqvah in the home of a priest. But among those commoners, the poorest of the poor couldn’t even afford the cheap ones. And therefore, could not enter the court of the faithful.
John, however, did not require a fee. The price of baptism was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path. Metanoia. To turn around. John turned the miqvah immersion in water from a purification ritual into a symbol of forgiveness. And furthermore, John declared that God’s forgiveness was free to anyone who asked for it. But hold on there… Only priests had the authority to declare God’s forgiveness – for a fee.
Therefore, more and more, increasing numbers of people started traveling the day’s long journey from Jerusalem to John’s cave along the Jordan to be baptized. Including the religious authorities upset that he was cutting into their profits. John called them out – why are you hypocrites and broods of vipers here?
Among those who showed up in those increasing numbers was Jesus, John’s cousin. Remember John’s mom Elizabeth and Jesus’ mom Mary were cousins. They visited each other while Mary was six months pregnant – now 30 years ago.
Why would Jesus ask to be baptized if the purpose was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path? Did his best friend Biff actually lead Jesus into a brief life of sin and debauchery while they lived among the wise men?
Well, here is an explanation by Richard Losch that I hadn’t considered before. Jesus asked for baptism by John to identify with the poor who couldn’t afford the hefty fee to enter the court of the faithful. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor – his very first act of pubic ministry. Which then, as he gathered followers, was quickly made explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, the first line of which is “Blessed are the poor.”
Baptism does, in fact, have many meanings. Repentance for sin. Forgiveness. A dying and rising to new life. An initiation into the church and the Christian faith. A promise. A dedication. A rite of passage. But, I especially like the addition: baptism is an act of solidarity with the poor.
Whatever it is, and all of what it is, baptism represents the transformation of what has been to what we hope and pray will be. In word and deed. Which is not a “once and done.” Not that we have to be baptized over and over, but to return regularly to examine what we promised, or what was promised for us. And get back on the better path.
That’s why we begin every new year with a renewal of our baptism vows. And as we enter the down and dirty of what could be a very nasty 2020, I’d like to invite us to consider what it means to us to be in solidarity with the forsaken, the persecuted, the lonely, the left out – everyone left behind in this economy. Everyone left behind in this country. Yet, not just left behind, but locked up. Caged up and thrown out.
Repentance for our participation in and benefit from the systems and structures of white supremacy. And then, metanoia, our promise to turn in a new direction, to walk a better path, to build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. With every word we choose to speak and with our every deed.
Afterall, what does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. But to also remember, not just once, our baptismal vows are to keep doing justice, to keep loving kindness, and to keep walking humbly, day by day, year by year, in solidarity with God and our neighbor.
A ritual for renewing our vows continues, including the following:
Remembering Our Promises
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, following in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?
And do you promise, by the grace of God, to grow in your faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation in the life of the church?
Then individuals come forward and touch their forehead with water while singing Here I Am
 Christopher Moore, 2003
 Richard Loesch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008, pp 222-225
 Micah 6:8
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 5, 2020
“Socks on the Bathroom Floor”
Note: Today we will celebrate the Blessing of a Civil Marriage for Pat Smith and Peter Cozens following the sermon
Matthew 7: 24-27 – Common English Bible
Jesus said, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26 But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
This is a pretty familiar and relatively easy idea to understand. Build your home on bedrock and it will stand. Build it on the sand and, as the children’s song says, “when the rains came down and the floods came up, when the rains came down and the floods came up, when the rains came down and the floods came up,” down it went and terrible was its fall. Splat!
OK, cute. But what does that mean? What is bedrock and what is sand? The very first line of our reading today says, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” Obviously, we need to know what are “these words?” Therefore, today’s text about wise and foolish builders cannot be understood without what precedes it. And in this case, it’s the two chapters that follow his famous Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus came down from that mountain and told his followers, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” He then repeats over and over, again and again, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” For example, Jesus explained, you have heard that it was said “You shall not murder,” but, I say to you, murder is the same as being angry with a brother or sister. Anger, that is, without the determination to resolve your differences.
For the next two chapters, Jesus repeats this over and over, again and again, about such things as fasting, prayer, adultery, divorce, making oaths, retaliation…
On retaliation, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” He goes on to offer a brilliant lesson on civil disobedience against Roman occupation. He advocates using subversive tactics, such as turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving not only your coat but your cloak as well. He doesn’t offer wisdom on how to be a doormat but a lesson in civil disobedience. But that’s another sermon.
Jesus continues, you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In the midst of all this, Jesus said, “Do not worry. Look at the birds of the air. Can worrying add a single hour to your life? Stop worrying about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” And one of my favorite lines: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, many of these sayings are familiar. Jesus said, “Do not judge so you won’t be judged.”
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.”
Jesus concludes, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
And then, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise builder. And if you don’t – well, splat.
Eugene Peterson translates our passage today inventively:
“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. These are foundational words, words to build a life on.” But again, not just hearing these words but acting upon them.
Wisdom for living. And, importantly today, wisdom for a marriage.
Every Thursday, a group gathers for lunch at Noodles and Company to discuss the reading for Sunday. Those of us gathered on Thursday represented marriages of 57, 50, and 13 years. Imagine 120 years of lived experience upon which to draw. I asked for their wisdom. What has made your marriage work? They called out forgiveness, patience, respect, honesty, kindness, love, a shared value system, the willingness to ignore bad habits. Like socks left on the bathroom floor again. But, honestly, I was kind of disappointed that there were no big surprises.
But, in fact, this advice was so universally true, you could even exchange out the word marriage and use to explain how to be a friend or even how to live next door to your neighbor. Forgiveness, patience, respect, honesty, kindness, love, a shared value system, the willingness to ignore bad habits…
But it could also explain why we are so divided as a nation. Forgiveness? Patience? Respect? Honesty? How about kindness and a shared value system? There’s not a lot of that going around these days. But there is plenty of what Jesus called foolish: anger, desire for retaliation, enemy-making, and judgment…
Among our lunch bunch on Thursday, none of their words of wisdom for a marriage were particularly earth-shattering, but three additional lessons did stick out to me: taking time apart from each other; willingness to sacrifice for the happiness of your partner, not expecting them to make you happy. And, 57 years later, still feeling passionate for your partner.
Roslyn and Jimmy Carter have now been married more than 73 years. Roslyn, three years younger, lived down the street from Jimmy’s family and had a crush on him. One time when Jimmy was home on leave from the Navy, he was busy every night dating a beauty queen, an actual pageant winner. But on his last night in town, the beauty queen had other plans, so Jimmy, Roslyn, and his younger sister June (who had been trying to set them up) went to the movies. The next morning, Jimmy told his mother he was going to marry Roslyn. When he asked her only two months later, on President’s Day weekend, she said no. She had promised her dying father to finish college first. But after she did, they married on October 19, 1946. And 73 years later, they still walk down the street holding hands.
There are lots of lists one can google, like 8 Keys for Success or 10 Signs of a Good Marriage. One notably different article was entitled “The Three Pillars of a Successful Marriage – and Love is Not One of Them.” I was curious so I read on. The author cited Integrity, Respect, and Endurance. Endurance may be true, but it’s not the most motivational thing I can imagine. You just have to endure!? But the article ends with the postscript of inviting God into your marriage. And God is love.
Sometimes I learn more from examining an issue from the opposite side, so I googled “foolish marriage advice.” One promising article chronicled the worst advice from every decade. In 1900, it was for the wife to never be smarter than her husband. At first, these seemed funny. Or funnyish…? In the 1940s: Don’t talk about your problems. In the 1970s: Don’t be a nag. Then I realized how unfunny this whole thing was and how much damage has been done through the decades by such sexist and misogynistic “advice.” Always directed to the woman. By the time I finished reading I wasn’t just sad but angry. But, then again, what did I expect from googling “foolish marriage advice?” Makes me feel a little foolish for trying.
Barbara Essex offers the best interpretation of this passage. It’s all about the storms. “The test of a house’s strength comes only during bad weather. Although the roof looks fine, there is no way of knowing how sound it is until the rains come. Although the basement is cozy and spacious, there is no way of knowing how sealed it really is until the floods flow. Although the windows look great, there is no way of knowing how strong they are until the winds blow. The strength of the house does not appear until storms come.”
And the storms will come, won’t they? And then, where do we turn? Our friends with 120 years of lived experience made it through because of forgiveness, patience, etc. etc. You might even say they needed a good dose of endurance.
And yet, sometimes the only wise thing to do is to end the relationship.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church. On Friday a protocol for separation was agreed to by the diverse interests entangled in four decades of conflict over the place of LGBTQ people in the church and same gender marriage. The method and means for divorce have been agreed to. As anyone who has been divorced knows, it’s not what anyone wants, but sometimes it is what everyone needs for health and wholeness. For human flourishing to be restored. The document released on Friday is called “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” I was moved by the title. To imagine that grace can be the outcome of separation is profound. And a lived experience to which some of you may be able to attest.
Going forward, if this protocol is adopted by the larger body in May, those who wish to punish clergy who perform same gender weddings or prohibit LGBTQ clergy from their pulpits are free to leave and form their own denomination. Including an equitable division of the assets. Instead of this being a sad day, however, everyone can finally breathe a sigh of relief that the means for separation have been set. Perhaps an odd topic for a day celebrating a marriage, but it is a realistic assessment of the kinds of wise and foolish choices we must make sometimes. It could actually be quite foolish to stay together under the certain conditions.
Of course, that isn’t always possible. We can’t divorce our country. And it’s been raining a lot lately. There’s more rain in the forecast. Torrential rains coming down and the Noah’s Ark-sized floods coming up. Gale force winds banging on the shutters. Will we go splat? We wonder: will the foundations set by our founders hold up – the rule of law, fidelity to the constitution, representative government of the people, by the people, for the people. Something as seemingly simple as truth?
Jesus’ words about anger and retaliation and judgment – and worrying – seem particularly apt. And splat-worthy. And yet, might the lesson from the text today be not that our house won’t blow off the foundation because of laws but because in the hearts of the people, we hold open the possibility that one day we will forgive each other? And if not today, that we refuse to close the door to the hope of reconciliation one day?
That we will be patient and respect one another, be honest with each other, be kind to each other, and love our neighbor, not despite that they may be like enemies to us, but because Jesus said it is wise to love one another as much as we love ourselves.
That, and overlooking the socks left on the bathroom floor. Again!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2019 - Christmas Eve
Luke 6: 17-31 – New Revised Standard Version
(Note: order of verses altered in the form of a litany)
17 Jesus came down with a great multitude of people and stood on a level place. 20 Then he looked up them and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who hurt you.
29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
I invited some friends to join us here tonight. Do you know who they are? There’s:
You know the song:
When all the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names,
They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games.
All of my friends have been the object of ridicule. Laughed at.
I knew Hermy’s struggles because I was the boy who liked to play music instead of play football. I could relate when Hermy and Rudolph sang together:
We’re not daffy and dilly.
Seems to us kinda silly that we don’t fit in.
We’re a couple of misfits.
What’s the matter with misfits?
That’s where we fit in.
Have you ever felt like a misfit? Excluded. But haven’t we all felt like we’re unwanted in some way? Bullies are good at finding that one thing about which we have some insecurity and making it a big deal – through taunts and tweets. They shine a light on what makes us different and try to make us feel bad about ourselves.
But Jesus had something to say about people who do that:
Jesus has some pretty strong words in the Gospel of Luke:
An upside-down world turned right-side up. Jesus called that the Kingdom of God. A world where misfits rule! His birth rejoices in misfit-ness. Because did you know, the characters at the manger were misfits too?
Let’s look: Jesus was born among cows and donkeys and sheep because his family was excluded from the inn.
Who else? Shepherds. Shepherds were a very smelly, rowdy bunch, not usually welcome in polite society. And yet, the angels told good news to the shepherds, not the supposedly important people. One example of those blessings and woes. Upside-down to right-side up.
Who else was at the manger? Joseph the dreamer. Joseph, not only believed in dreams, he followed them. Even if it could bring him ridicule. Misfits are often very, very brave. What would his friends have said behind his back? Joseph could have easily dismissed Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant, but instead he took responsibility for a child not his own.
But then, of course, there is Mary. The bravest of them all. She was open and willing to do anything God asked, even though God had an absolutely ridiculous and terrifying idea for her. Yet, Mary actually believed that she had a part to play to change the world. From upside-down to right-side up, so that the poor and hungry and those who are sad now will one day laugh and be full.
There’s one more character that doesn’t show up in the manger, but who is a very important part of the story. In those days there was a very paranoid king named Herod – a frightened little man who took pleasure in cruelty. He was so afraid that someone might plot against him that, after Jesus was born, he ordered the death of all the boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. This bully forced Mary, Joseph and the baby to flee to Egypt, to live for several years as refugees. Thank God the Egyptians let this family cross the border. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Christmas!
And how did King Herod learn about Mary’s child? The last of our friends at the manger. Zoroastrian astrologers, maybe three. These were people who literally walked around with their heads in the stars, but these misfits wise enough – misfits usually are very wise – not to spill any secrets to the paranoid king.
But, back to Mary. Again, Mary believed that she had a part to play to change the world and turn it from upside-down to right side-up, so that the poor and hungry and those who are sad now will one day laugh and be full. To me, that means Mary believed the Kingdom of God ultimately belongs to the misfits.
She believed in that day when:
But here’s my final thought: The misfit toys were not satisfied with knowing that someone loved them. They weren’t looking for an island to keep them safe from cruelty or a special place of honor. They didn’t need to be wanted as much as they wanted to fill a need.
I would like that for us too. But that means we have to embrace our misfit-ness, not fear it.
Your unique and perhaps unusual strengths can be a force for good to turn our upside-down world right side-up – a world where it’s no longer acceptable to be cruel to refugees and people who are hungry. Or anyone else.
In a world where misfits rule, people are open-minded, they include everybody, are fair to everybody, and everyone acts with kindness and caring.
You know that when our hands are turned upside down, we can use them to shoo people away. But when our hands up turned right-side up, we can offer love to one another. Would you do it with me?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 22, 2019
“Missing from the Manger”
Matthew 1: 18-25 – Common English Bible
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
“When he descended into his mother’s womb, a great immeasurable light more radiant than even the light of the gods shone forth into the world. And even in the dark and gloomy spaces between the worlds, where the light of our moon and sun cannot reach, as powerful and majestic as they may be, even there, that light did shine.”
Who is that talking about? It’s the birth of the Buddha.
When I was in Sri Lanka earlier this year, I perused titles in the book store at one of the many temples I visited. One book title, in particular, caught my eye. Jesus and the Buddha: A Study of Their Commonalities and Contrasts. One notable commonality is that their followers both describe their births as miraculous and as light coming into the world – the Buddha born 500 years before Jesus. Another commonality is that there is no one single story about their births.
As you probably already know, of the four gospels, only two describe the birth of Jesus. And those two have quite different details.
For example, in Matthew, “wise men from the East,” or The Magi, or Zoroastrian astrologers followed the light of a star they had seen at its rising. When it stopped over the place where the child lay, “they were overwhelmed with joy” and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In Luke, a passage you can probably recite from memory, “In that region there were shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. Suddenly there was with them a multitude of the heavenly host.” In other words, light shined so brilliantly in the shadows of the pasture that night, it became bright as day. Eight days later, when Jesus was presented for purification in the Temple, Simeon declared that the baby was a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The story of the birth of the Buddha: Queen Maya dreamt that a pure white elephant entered the room where she was sleeping. The elephant carried a large lotus flower in its trunk and gave it to the Queen. The very moment when the Queen took the flower, though still a virgin, she conceived, and the room was filled with a heavenly light. Trees at once began to bloom with new flowers of every color.
When she awoke, she told the King. They consulted the 64 royal counselors about the meaning of the dream. The chief counselor told them she would be pregnant with a boy who will either become the King after his father or a great teacher who will teach the people of many countries to know what they now do not understand.
Before the Queen was to give birth, she traveled to the city of her parents. Along the way, the royal procession stopped at a beautiful park. Queen Maya got down out of her royal chair and walked under the trees and through the flowers. As she walked, the baby was born – not through the birth canal but from her right side. Without the pain of childbirth. Trees bent down to provide privacy and four angels appeared, holding the four corners of a golden net. The baby was laid into it as if a cradle. The angels said, “Be joyful, O Lady. A mighty son is born to you.” The baby stood and looked around in all four directions. He took seven steps and with each step a lotus flower rose up. And then he lay down and fell asleep like any other baby.
When they returned home, a hermit who lived nearby came to the palace to see the baby. He stood and paid homage to the child and proclaimed he would grow up to be a great man.
Some of the similarities are so specific it’s almost funny. Neither Joseph nor the King seem particularly necessary. There are descriptions of angels, a cradle, animals, and words like someone paying “homage” to the child because “a mighty son is born to you.” And of course, there are differences. Especially that Jesus was born of unmarried peasants and the Buddha was born of a royal family, although he ultimately rejected that life and gave up all earthly possessions.
As I read earlier, upon the Buddha’s birth, light shined into the darkness. But, the author of the book Jesus and the Buddha said, “the story was never meant to suggest that an actual light appeared when the Buddha was born. It was a way of saying that the advent of the Buddha would enable beings to become aware of each other” – to see each other – thereby making empathy and understanding more possible.
That is a similar sentiment to what scholars like Marcus Borg have said about the birth stories of Jesus. They may not be factual in an historical sense, but, Borg said, they are profoundly true. Was Jesus born at Mary and Joseph’s house where they already lived in Bethlehem or did a census require a very pregnant Mary to travel from Nazareth and give birth in a cow stall behind an inn with no rooms? Were shepherds watching their flocks by night or did wise men travel from the East? Or maybe something else entirely different. Were they chased to Egypt to live as refugees because a paranoid, tyrannical king threatened to kill the baby? Maybe yes and maybe no. Something can be true that didn’t happen. It can still be very real.
Did the Buddha stand and walk upon his birth? Did Queen Maya really have no pain in childbirth? But faith isn’t about facts. Faith is about meaning. Making sense of the world. And then, from that, how we live. Impacting our choices, priorities, values, morals, and ethics. Or so one hopes…
The Sri Lankan author of the book I referenced has been a monk for more than 40 years but was raised a Christian as a boy. He argues for mutual respect between the two religions, but he calls for more honesty about their real differences and even contradictions. Some authors, he claims, are too eager to harmonize the two into something like one religion, which, he said, only negates them both. It’s like saying you are colorblind. That means you don’t see the beautiful and distinct differences. While Jesus and the Buddha were both loving and compassionate and peaceful, they seek different ends.
However, Christians and Buddhists do agree that the births of their respective founders were miraculous in a way that brought light into the world. And that their lives revealed something of how to live in and through darkness. The Buddha through enlightenment. Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Today I want to focus on an often-overlooked detail of the birth of Jesus. Joseph. Overlooked so much so that one year at the annual children’s Christmas pageant, the boy who was to play Joseph got sick at the last minute. Instead of recruiting a new Joseph from among the shepherds and wise men, the director decided, “We don’t need him. He doesn’t do anything anyway.”
But Joseph does do something important. Foremost, he decided not to abandon Mary publicly. Either Mary would have been killed, as the law prescribed, or at the very least, she would have been disowned by her family and left to scratch out whatever living she could, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she could beg or steal. So, Joseph considered dismissing her privately to spare her reputation and/or her life. But imagine for Joseph. It must have been a very dark night of the soul as he agonized about his decision.
Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous man.” We may hear the word righteous and think that means “self-righteous.” Or “holier than thou.” But I like Scott Hoezee’s (ho-Zay) description that a righteous person is anyone who lets their actions do the talking. The opposite of “all talk, no action,” a righteous person has no need to say what they’re doing or why because their actions say it all.
And in that way, Joseph was indeed a righteous man. People no doubt talked behind his back, wondering whether Mary and Joseph had been engaged in some pre-marital hanky panky or whether he was sticking with a woman who had been unfaithful to him. But Joseph didn’t say anything to anyone. He just did the right thing – even though the right thing could be judged as the wrong thing by some very self-righteous people. And how did Joseph know what was right? Did you catch it? Joseph finally knew what to do when he fell asleep. He could finally hear when he couldn’t argue with himself anymore. That’s when an angel told him, “Don’t be afraid to marry her.”
Now, did that literally happen? Or perhaps better, is it a true story? But, if not true, then for sure, it is real. Because this is what’s real:
Joseph had absolutely nothing to do with creating the mess that confronted him. And because of that, Joseph had every reason to walk away in search of a simpler, easier life. A more conventional wife. But he didn’t. A righteous person won’t complain that he or she didn’t cause the chaos. They will simply go and do what needs to be done.
But more importantly, he decided God was in that mess. How often do we think, we’ll finally find God, we’ll finally have time for God, when all of our messes are finally cleaned up? Have you ever thought that all the mess and chaos of your life is an obstacle? But the mess was the necessary condition for the Messiah to be born. For God to give birth to the holy and for light to break forth. Not to take anything away from Mary, but Joseph must not be overlooked. He must not go missing from the manger or in Christmas pageants because this story might not have happened. We need him for it to be true. Because he helps to make it real for us.
Because one day you too may find yourself presented with circumstances you didn’t choose, wouldn’t choose. And ask yourself, “How did I get here?” You may want nothing more than to divorce yourself from everything you see around you, from whatever your life has become. But that is the time, when we are tired enough, worn out enough, weak enough, disgusted enough, that we can finally hear the whisper of an angel saying, “Do not fear. For God is with you.”
This may be a dark time in your life right now. Ironically, the holidays sometimes bring out the worst of our feelings of loss and grief. In addition, of course, we are living through some of the very darkest days of our nation ever, feeling like it’s going to take a very long time to clean up a mess we didn’t create.
But not to fear. These are exactly the kinds of times God chooses. That is, when we are finally tired enough, worn out enough, weak enough, disgusted enough to hear the whisper of an angel: “Do not be afraid. God is with us in this mess.” It’s not an obstacle. As God has done before, God will use this time, chooses this time, to bring light into the darkest places of our world and our lives.
As was said of the Buddha, “And even in the dark and gloomy spaces between the worlds, where the light of our moon and sun cannot reach, as powerful and majestic as they may be, even there, that light did shine.”
For any religion that brings light into the world during our darkest days, that doesn’t try to take advantage of the darkness, I give thanks. For any religion that offers hope, peace, joy, and today, love, do you give thanks?
 Bhante S. Dhammika, Jesus and the Buddha: A Study of Their Commonalities and Contrasts. Published by the Buddhist Cultural Centre in Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, 2018. To obtain a copy, visit www.buddhistcc.com
 There are common elements among the stories. This version combines what is in the book and other details found at https://www.danielharper.org/blog/?p=1888
 This idea came from Martin Copenhaver
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 8, 2019
“When Nothing is Wrong, Nothing Can Be Made Right”
Isaiah 35: 1-10 – Common English Bible
The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
2 They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and support the unsteady knees.
4 Say to those who are panicking:
“Be strong! Don’t fear!
Here’s your God,
coming with vengeance;
with divine retribution
God will come to save you.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
6 Then the lame will leap like the deer,
and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway will be there.
It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
but it will be for those walking on that way.
Even fools won’t get lost on it;
9 no lion will be there,
and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
only the redeemed will walk on it.
10 The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.
Once upon a time there was a very greedy king who had lots and lots of gold. Gold covered every surface of his palace, but he wanted even more. The king called all his soldiers together and told them to attack the neighboring kingdom. He told them, “We need that gold so we can sell it to feed our own hungry countrymen.” So, off to battle, swords and shields lifted high. But the soldiers were not gone long before they began returning – not one of them carrying a sword or a shield.
“What happened!” demanded the king. “I told you to go fight a battle and bring back that gold!”
One soldier replied, “We were on our way when we came across an apple tree and the tree spoke to us. It said:
‘Be wise and lay down your shields. Let the truth be your sword and study war no more.’
It seemed to us that the tree made sense. So, we did what it said.”
The king was furious and vowed to get rid of the tree that had ruined his plans. He waited until midnight and then walked to the field until he came upon the apple tree. The king took out his axe and chopped down the tree. But he was still so mad that he stomped on the fallen tree until it was crushed down into the earth. Satisfied, the king walked back to his castle with a smile on his face.
The next day the king called his soldiers back to the courtyard. He told them the kingdom was at risk of attack by their neighbors. “We have to take their gold so they can’t attack us.” He gave them new swords and shields and told them to obey his orders to attack the neighboring kingdom. The soldiers went, but not long after, they started returning without their swords and shields.
The king was furious. He shouted, “I told you to go fight a battle and bring back that gold!”
“We were on our way,” said one of the soldiers, “but when we came to the spot where we saw the apple tree yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it. There are twenty apple trees there today. And the trees all said the same thing:
‘Be wise and lay down your shields. Let the truth be your sword and study war no more.’
“And the trees made sense to us, so we did what they said.”
The king was red with anger. “Those blasted trees!” he thought. That night he went out from his castle and chopped down every last one. But afterward he was still so mad that he jumped up and down on them until they were completely crushed into the earth.
The next day the king called all the soldiers to the courtyard and gave them new swords and new shields and ordered them once again to attack the neighboring kingdom. This time, instead of telling them that their fellow citizens were hungry, or that the kingdom was at risk of attack, he told them that they stole the gold from us first, so we have to get it back. “It’s about our honor. Do not come back until you have carried out my orders.”
But the soldiers had not been gone long when they began returning without their swords and shields.
The king screamed, “I told you to go to battle! Why do you keep disobeying me?!”
“Well,” said one of the soldiers, “you wouldn’t believe it but in the same place where there were twenty apple trees yesterday there is now an entire forest of trees and they’re all saying—”
The king didn’t wait to hear the rest. He just grabbed an axe and ran until he came upon a forest of trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. The king let out an exasperated scream because he knew there was no way he could chop down so many trees.
He finally calmed down and muttered, “Can it be that a powerful king like me can be stopped by a few trees!”
“Are you asking me?” The king was startled by the voice.
An old woman with long gray hair stepped out from behind the trees. “Well ok,” said the king. “If you have an answer, tell me.”
She agreed with him. “It seems to me that you are a very powerful king.”
“You bet I am!” he said, standing up straight, tall and proud.
“And, since you are so powerful, you can take down any tree that offends you and chop it into little pieces and crush it into the ground.”
“You bet I can,” he replied.
“But,” the woman said, “apple trees speak truth. You may be a powerful king, but there is no one on earth more powerful than the truth, for truth crushed to the earth shall rise again.”
That’s a line from poet William Cullen Bryant:
“Truth, crush’d to earth, shall rise again.
Heed not the shaft by hatred cast,
the foul and hissing bolt of scorn;
for with the right shall dwell at last,
the vict’ry of endurance born.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this line in a speech from the steps of the Alabama state capitol after Bloody Sunday and the long delayed but finally successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Listen to a few excerpts:
“Last Sunday, more than 8,000 of us started on a mighty walk from Selma. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains.”
“They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world knows that we are here, and we stand before the forces of power saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’”
I was struck by Dr. King’s description of the road to Montgomery. Desolate valleys. Trying hills. Rocky byways. Not like the vision of Isaiah’s road to Zion. By contrast, “The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”
And here it is: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society that can live with its conscience, a [nation] at peace with itself.”
He said, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take? How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme? When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
Aren’t those questions we are still asking today? Aren’t those questions we are especially asking today, with truth on trial in Congress? What is truth? At the end of April, the president had racked up 10,000 false or misleading claims during his term in office. That was the same week he lied to Sean Hannity 45 times during a 45-minute interview. To be fair, those are not 10,000 unique lies. Every time a lie is repeated, it is counted again. So, one lie repeated 190 times counts for 190 lies. By October, the count had been raised to more than 13,000. I don’t like euphemisms such as “false claims” or “inaccuracies.” These are nothing but assaults on facts and reality. Deliberate. As Peter Wehner wrote in The Atlantic magazine, the president is “not simply a serial liar; he is attempting to murder the very idea of truth.” Remember his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “What you’re seeing is not what’s happening.”
As Dr. King said, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take? How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
His answer? “How long? Not long.” Because the Bible says, “you shall reap what you sow.” How long, not long, because “no lie can live forever.” Dr. King then quoted William Cullen Bryant. Because “truth crushed to earth shall rise again.”
In my opening story about the petulant king, when he angrily chopped down the apple trees and trampled them into the ground, that only produced more trees in their place. Fortunately, in the last few months, truth crushed into the ground by our petulant president has produced new trees too: civil servants and military officers and professors of constitutional law rising up from the ground in increasing numbers to tell truth.
Why is truth so important? Rev. Daniel Smith said, “No truth means no accountability. No accountability means no justice. No justice means no healing, no mercy, no peace. No truth means no grace for any of us to face and accept our human failings.”
Why is truth so important? Because without it, we will not be at peace with ourselves. And the nation cannot be at peace with itself.
Why is truth so important? Because when nothing is wrong, nothing can be made right.
Our Thursday Noodles and Company lunch crowd was in no mood for our text from Isaiah today. Instead of finding it inspiring, many reacted negatively. This is unrealistic, they said. This is just flowery language. It’s not real. They were in no mood for optimism. I get it. These are times for healthy skepticism.
So, then, what were the times like for those to whom the Prophet Isaiah was speaking? It sounds like Isaiah is encouraging the exiles. Exiles are forced from their land, taken from their homes and all that is familiar, now living as captives in the land Babylon. The chapter before today’s reading, chapter 34, speaks of absolute desolation. A vivid description of a place full of screech owls, crows, hyenas, and snakes. A dwelling for jackals with streams dried up into sulfur dust. A frightening dystopian world.
But chapter 35 is a beautiful hope-filled vision. The prophet proclaims that one day you will return to Zion, to Jerusalem, on a highway through the desert so broad that not even fools will get lost. He speaks of the desert in glorious bloom. Burning sand that has become springs of water.
But here’s something weird. These texts were written long after they were already home. They were back in Jerusalem. I’m not sure their way back to Zion was full of people singing and everlasting joy shining upon their heads. If it was, that was long ago, and their lives now were one big disappointment. Their Temple still lay in ruin. Why prophesy something in the future that has already happened? Or rather, did not happen. All that flowery imagery was just as unrealistic as our crowd at Noodles and Company felt about the text in our times. And why not? If they weren’t in the mood for optimism either, why should we?
We have lost trust in institutions that once held us together. Many times, for good reason. For example, when religious leaders protect sexual predators instead of vulnerable children and adults, what is left of their integrity? When we read posts on social media, are they from real people or Russian trolls? When police unions protect their own instead of people of color, what happens to truth? No truth means no accountability. No accountability means no justice. No justice means no healing, no mercy, no peace, no grace. When nothing is wrong, nothing can be made right.
But what about the lies we tell? Privilege can only be maintained on a series of lies we accept as true. That somehow we have any right to be on the land we stand upon today. That after Dr. King proclaimed a dream, it actually came true. That people of color or migrants or people who are poor actually fared better than they do now. The lie that everything used to be better and that the current administration is an abnormality. And yet there can be no doubt, these are particularly egregious and terrible times.
I was struck by the vision of Dr. King from his speech of a society that “can live with its conscience.” What an image. And he wasn’t describing a world no longer at war but a nation at peace with itself. What a beautiful prophetic vision. Impossible?
But here’s my truth: I may grieve this time we live in, I may be perpetually angry, but we are people of faith. And with faith, we persist in difficult hope. I take inspiration from the words of Paul to Christians who feared death before Jesus came again. He told the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” Sometimes this is taken to mean, “You are not allowed to grieve because you’re supposed to have hope.” But grief and hope are not opposites. I grieve and I have hope.
That’s why, year after year, we keep lighting these Advent candles.
“Truth, crush’d to earth, shall rise again.
Heed not the shaft by hatred cast,
the foul and hissing bolt of scorn;
for with the right shall dwell at last,
the vict’ry of endurance born.”
Ah, yes. Endurance. Through this time that we grieve 13,000 lies and counting, the key is endurance. And instead of losing faith, Paul tells the Romans that “endurance produces character, and character produces… hope.”
So my question is: Though we may grieve, will you endure with me the beautiful – and difficult – hope of a society with a conscience, the vision of a nation at peace with itself? When that which is very wrong, is made right.
 https://www.uua.org/worship/words/story/truth-crushed-down Adapted from a story by Christopher Buice
 In the actual speech, the order is reversed
 1st Thessalonians 4:13 NRSV
 Romans 5:4
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 24, 2019
“Transcending Doing Good and Living Right”
Colossians 1: 15-20a – Common English Bible
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,[a] (of)
16 Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18 He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead[b] (over)
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him--
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
When Christina goes to worship, she only sits in the balcony. Originally, it was part of a deal to get her teenagers to go to church with her. Now they’re off at college but she still sits there because it makes her feel closer to them. It also has the best leg room in the sanctuary. But from her perch, she can also see who else is there. Not to check up on them, but to observe. From up there she can see an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck. She also sees an assortment of people who retired from that stress who are now busier than they ever thought they would be at this point in their life.
She knows that a few of those folks in the pews received bad news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse. She notices an older gentleman back in church, but now sitting alone after years of sitting next to his wife. She’s seen that more than a few times over the years.
Others down there had a wonderful week. One went to a wedding last night; another couple celebrated an anniversary. One witnessed the birth of a new child; another welcomed news of a first grandchild. A few of those folks in the pews received good news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse.
But most people neither had a particularly bad week or an especially great week. They don’t feel particularly blessed or especially broken. If so, then why were they all there? What united such a crowd on that certain Sunday morning? If they came to hear a sermon, they could have read it online later. Heck, they could probably get something even better; a 20-minute TedTalk on a more interesting subject.
Why are you here this morning? Did you have a terrible week? Did you have a great week? Or did you just have another week? Perhaps you don’t know why. My parents never quite explained why we went to church. They also didn’t explain why we ate dinner. We just did. But ever since, I know I need it. I’m hungry when I’ve missed it. Worship, that is, not dinner.
Sure, you might say this is my job. But it’s also what gives me life. Or something like that. Frankly, I can’t tell you much more than that. But I know it helps get me through another week of the Trump administration, or any other good, bad, or indifferent week. I can’t tell you how. It just does. It’s a gift. Trying to explain beyond that might ruin it.
And that’s my challenge with today’s text. There are a few lines like, “oh, that makes sense, I guess.” Such as the first half of the first verse we heard: “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” That’s one way to describe Jesus. “In Jesus we see the God who cannot be seen.” Big word alert, that’s an incarnational theology. The theology of the incarnation is that Jesus is God made flesh. You will hear a lot of that at Christmastime.
But, back to our text in Colossians, the “that makes sense” vibe is immediately ruined by the second half of the same verse – maybe not ruined but incongruent. “The Son is the one who is first over all creation,” or in a different translation, “the firstborn of all creation; for in (or by) him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…” And as it drones on, you can watch my mind drift down the hall to the smells of turkey.
I’m not a particularly deep thinker. I like to think. I love to dream and imagine. But I’m not very philosophical. Or maybe it’s that I’m not very metaphysical. See, I don’t even know the right word to say. I’m drawn to theology that is concrete. Saying that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything” isn’t the least bit inspirational to me. Nor do I think Jesus would have said anything even remotely like that about himself. Remember, he chastised his disciples and told them that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
More importantly, this text tells me nothing about how to live. Give me parables about Good Samaritans and Prodigal Children and Vineyard Workers and I’m right there with you. You describe to me the Kingdom of God as the realm in which justice and peace and compassion and kindness reign supreme and I’ll follow you. Tell me that Jesus “existed before all things” or “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and I’ll say, “So what. Who cares?” But maybe it is of interest to you. It may even be significant.
I like how Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg focus on the historical Jesus. What did he really say and do? And yet, there are many more ways than that to see him, understand him, and know him. Human. Divine. And, Borg says, in this passage, cosmic. Present at the time of creation. Present in all things of creation. Bringing all things together.
You may have heard of Matthew Fox’s most famous book The Cosmic Christ and Our Experiences of the Divine. The Cosmic Christ is one way to understand a mystical dimension within Christianity. Or as an archetype for mystical experiences. Fox says, “I see the historical Jesus as the particle that light is. And I see the Cosmic Christ as the wave that light is.” He added, light is both particle and wave. Just as Jesus, too, is both historical and cosmic. Deep stuff. Above my head.
Texts like today’s may be confounding but they have an important place in a faith, like ours, that emphasizes the practical. “What do I do to do good?” Marcus Borg says the significance of texts like these is how Jesus transcends his historical life. And when you put it that way, I agree. I appreciate critiques that western culture often domesticates Jesus into someone or something we can understand, confining him to the limits of our experience, making him agree with our economic and political instincts.
It is important that mystery is given proper respect because that which cannot be explained is vital to a faith that is alive. Sometimes too many explanations can ruin a thing. Again, that’s how this text feels to me. It tries really hard, too hard, to say something important. But, at the same time, it also reminds me that our faith is more than doing good and living right. It is an encounter with a transcendent God. A God we can’t fully understand or completely comprehend, but who we can glimpse, in Jesus, one image of the invisible God. One, not the only.
Why are you here this morning? Perhaps you wouldn’t say it like this, but the Cosmic Christ may be one reason. Perhaps you chose to come or perhaps something within you, that you can’t quite explain, compelled you to be here today. And yet, did you just come for a TedTalk or for a gathering of community, singing and praying and everything else, that transcends doing good and living right into an experience of unity? Unity in a world desperately divided. Unity that is the hope of our divided world. The unity of we who are an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck… and retirees with very busy lives.
There is something cosmic in our being here. Today. Drawn together by God, or Jesus, or the Spirit, or something bigger than ourselves that unites us and helps us get through the next great, terrible, or completely ordinary week. How? Perhaps, unlike the Letter to the Colossians, we shouldn’t ruin it with too many explanations and simply say: For this experience, I am thankful today.
Though I will admit, I’m also grateful that later in chapter 3 the author does get practical. Do this: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
As you wait in line later for our feast, talk to the people standing around you about why you are here today. Tell someone you don’t know what drew you or compelled you or brought you back here again. If you fear you might ruin the experience by trying to explain it, perhaps you can simply say, “For whatever reason we are together, I’m grateful to be here with you today.”
 Adapted from a story about World Communion Sunday by Craig Barnes in The Christian Century, “A glimpse of how heaven sees worship”
 Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word, HarperOne, 2012, p. 204
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world