Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 6, 2021
Mark 3: 20-35 – Common English Bible
Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”
22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”
23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”
31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”
1)The friends and family of Jesus think he has lost his mind
2)The scribes, religious scholars, accuse Jesus of being Satan, but he responds back that Satan can’t bring down Satan, so how could he be Satan?
3)Once again, the family of Jesus thinks he has lost his mind. But when they asked to see him, Jesus instead told the crowd “my brothers and sisters and mother are anyone who does the will of God.”
Did you know that if you added up every UCC member, every Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and a few more mainline denominations, the combined number would still be smaller than America’s newest religion? QAnon.
That’s the finding in a poll released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core. Fifteen percent of Americans – that’s about 50 million people – say they believe that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. 50 million people said they believe that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to restore the country’s rightful order. And of those respondents, 20 percent said that they thought a “biblical-scale storm would soon sweep away these evil elites.” That’s 10 million people.
It would be easy to say, “these people are out of their minds!” Or as the legal experts said of Jesus, they’re “possessed by an evil spirit.” Except that, “these people” are our brothers and sisters, aunt, uncles, cousins, mothers and fathers, neighbors and fellow citizens.
Rachel said that she and her mother were once close, especially right before the pandemic. Now they are completely estranged. Rachel said it’s easier to be angry than to think about how much she misses her mom. Her mom is a caring and compassionate person, a cancer nurse. But, Rachel said, she’s been tricked into believing things that contradict her core values. I told her that. She doesn’t trust me anymore. I wish I had been more patient, but my mom now thinks I think she’s stupid. I wish I had been slower to react. I wish I had been less frustrated.
Virginia said that she and her dad used to be very close. We did everything together. But in the past year, he’s just changed into a different person. It’s like he’s been indoctrinated into a cult. He drank the Kool-Aid. And it’s really scary. I tried to share facts with him, but it blew up in my face. It confirmed his conspiracy theories. All I can do is wait for him, hope that one day he calls me or texts me or shows up on my door and says, “I was wrong.” Until then I hate that I have to wait. But it’s for my dad, so I will.
Angie lost her sister, her best friend, down the QAnon rabbit hole. She said, “I pray for her every day to come to a realization that this is nonsense. I can’t do much more than that, because, if I do, if I discuss it with her, it’ll only break us further apart.”
It is indeed heartbreaking. Many of us were hopeful that after the failed insurrection, disillusioned QAnon supporters would return to their normal lives, as the man suspected to be Q himself told them to do. But like preachers predicting the date of the end of the world, when it doesn’t happen, they just pick another date. So now, for example, after inauguration day passed, and the “original” inauguration day on March 4 had passed, now the defeated former president will somehow be re-installed in August. It’s lunacy. Embraced by 50 million people, seven percent of whom are Democrats. It’s heartbreaking. And frightening. And like Jesus warned, “a house torn apart by divisions will collapse.”
So, why did Jesus’ family think he had lost his mind? Why did the religion scholars and legal experts say Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul? As with all scripture, we have to look at the context.
It’s only chapter 3 in Mark but Jesus has already been very busy:
All of these things upset and alarmed the religious authorities. That’s understandable. But why would that upset his family? Is it because Jesus was challenging their core beliefs too? Were they upset because he was calling into question their long-standing traditions? Were they afraid of guilt by association; of being targeted by the religious authorities?
You know, at first, the families of Congressman John Lewis and other young civil rights activists were not supportive of their activities either, because it would likely bring retaliatory violence against them. It caused a temporary rift early in his career.
But like Congressman Lewis, why didn’t Jesus’ family completely support him early in his “career?” I honestly don’t know and couldn’t find any scholar who proposed a satisfactory answer.
What we do know is that his family thought, “He’s out of his mind.” And Jesus proclaimed that family doesn’t necessarily mean one’s biological family but whoever does “the will of God.”
So, when I first started thinking about preaching on this text, I thought, what a great way to start Pride month. This is a story that really resonates. LGBTQ people know a lot about families who think they’re possessed or lost their mind. Despite being 7 percent of the population, 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. And, sadly, often because of religion. LGBTQ people understand and appreciate what Jesus says in this text, whether they’ve run away as a result of family rejection and abuse or they’ve been literally thrown out of their homes, because Jesus affirms the families of choice we create for true experiences of belonging and love. We may have brothers and sisters and parents in our family of origin, but in this text, Jesus blesses the families we create.
If you haven’t seen the TV series Pose, you’re missing something important and groundbreaking. This series is about transgender women of color and queer men who form families of choice within New York City’s ball culture in the 1980s and ’90s. There’s never been a cast anything like it on TV. Two of the main characters, Blanca and Electra, act as the mothers of several queer and trans street kids who often survived as sex workers. Despite stories of how these kids were abused or rejected by their families, and the ravages of AIDS during that period, the show is ultimately one of the most redemptive things on TV, because it portrays the extraordinary love and sacrifice by these families of choice, in stark contrast to their, often religious, families of origin.
Blanca and Electra were truly doing the will of God. Now, that’s a loaded phrase.
Jane Vennard suggests that instead of God’s will, we think of it as God’s yearning, for example, that we create a world of compassion and justice, as opposed to the traditional understanding that God has a specific set of expectations, rules, and demands for human behavior. That’s a sermon for another day.
Families who discard their children often think they’re doing the “will of God,” but if you ask me “what is God’s will,” I will direct you to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said, all the law and prophets are summed up as the command to love – to love your neighbor as yourself. What more could the will of God mean than to love unconditionally?
And that’s what Jesus showed us. Remember that among the things that really upset the religious authorities was that Jesus ate with “sinners” and tax collectors. But do you know what’s even more remarkable? That people who had to survive as prostitutes and people labeled “sinners” would even want to hang out with him! What should that say to the church?
But back to the religion of 50 million QAnon followers and our loved ones who some might say have gone “out of their minds.” We were actually discussing this during our Zoom coffee hour a few months ago. One of our members said of his brother, I just keep telling him I love him, I love him, I love him. I don’t engage in debate. I just tell him I love him. One day it may sink in.
The founder of a Reddit group called QAnonCasualties lamented about his mom, “I’m always torn between stopping communication with her because it only seems to make me feel terrible, and feeling like it’s my responsibility to lead her back to reality.”
I wish I had more answers, but it’s like today’s text from Mark – much better at describing the situation than prescribing answers.
So, I consulted some experts who recommend empathy and engagement on a personal level with QAnon believers as a way to rebuild trust and restart communication. Focus on the person’s personal relationship to QAnon, rather than trying to unpack the latest twist and turn of any conspiracy theory. Ask how they first learned about it, what made sense to them, and also what didn't make sense to them, and ask questions about how their beliefs have shifted, especially if they've been involved over time, because QAnon keeps morphing.
But maybe the most important thing to remember is that any effort made is the beginning of a process that will take a long time to succeed. Throughout it all, family and friends need to remember that the person they knew is still in there, just hiding behind that QAnon personality.
And yet, there’s a reason Jesus said family was anyone who did the will of God. One the implications of that is freedom from abuse. Because in the end, regardless of what our families of origin may do or say, Jesus also blesses families of choice that promote true love and unconditional acceptance. Meaning, it is Mothers Blanca and Electra, two trans women of color, who represent the real will of God. At least, the God I believe in. Yours too?
 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/their-loved-ones-are-obsessed-with-qanon-conspiracies-its-tearing-their-families-apart - these stories are condensed
 https://www.ajc.com/news/john-lewis-the-boy-from-troy/FPQXUXXHMZEUVCX3HORKOHCYHM/ Jon Meachum discusses this in his book His Truth is Marching On
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 30, 2021
Revelation 21: 1-4 – New Revised Standard Version
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God will be with them;
4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
Watch this short clip first: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yceK9LHFSA
(or one of many documentaries now available on YouTube)
Tulsa was the largest but far from the only city annihilated by white mobs. Neighborhoods and towns, not just in the South, were targeted. Black prosperity was particularly egregious. But perhaps worse, it was the sight of uniformed Black veterans returning home. “Many whites feared that Black soldiers who had experienced the pride of military service would resist disenfranchisement, segregation, and second-class citizenship. In fact, in 1917, US Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi warned that, once a Black soldier could see himself as an American hero, it would be a short step to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected. Bringing Black soldiers home with the expectations of equality, he predicted, would ‘inevitably lead to disaster.’”
Depending on your perspective, he was right. Many of those 380,000 Black vets had indeed been emboldened to fight back in defense of their communities against white mobs, which further infuriated them. Only months after the armistice, extreme violence in the summer of 1919 led James Weldon Johnson to call it the Red Summer, as in bloody. During the Red Summer, the Equal Justice Initiative counted as many as 97 lynchings, many with veterans wearing their uniforms. And instances of mob violence in at least 25 cities and towns across the country, including a three-day massacre in the small town of sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas that left 200 Black men, women, and children dead.
Throughout all of this, law enforcement officers either stood by and watched, offering tacit approval, or openly participated, just like the four officers who murdered or watched the murder of George Floyd one year ago on Tuesday.
Much of this was news to me. I’d never heard of the Red Summer and yet I try to understand our history. I’d vaguely heard of “race riots” in places like Rosewood in Florida, but I couldn’t tell you much about it, and especially why World War 1 veterans would play such an important role.
Tulsa was also once referred to as a race riot, too. But calling any of these atrocities “riots” is the literal attempt to “white-wash” history, to create a false equivalency – a kind of Charlottesville good-people-on-both-sides. In the immediate aftermath, newspapers were prohibited from reporting on it, as were textbooks. In fact, outside of some attention given to it in the last few days, some of you may have never even heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Such white washing is straight from the same playbook today that tries to ban the teaching of critical race theory or objects to the 1619 project. White supremacists don’t ever want to be held accountable, which is why so many senators don’t want anyone to know the truth about the January 6th Capitol insurrection.
One more story. If you think voter suppression is bad today, have you ever heard of Ocoee? Election day 1920, Ocoee in Orange County, Florida looked like the aftermath of Tulsa. Black organizations had conducted voter registration drives for a year. In response, on election day, most Black owned homes and businesses were burned to the ground. 30-35 people were killed. All to prevent residents from voting and protect the “purity of the ballot box.” Only six months later, Tulsa didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the same struggle for democracy today.
This was the period of the resurgence of the KKK, including in Denver with our own KKK mayor Benjamin Stapleton. But it was also the era of the NAACP, its membership rising from 9,000 before the war to more than 100,000, signaling a growing boldness that planted the seeds of the American Civil Rights Movement. And while 380,000 African Americans served in World War 1, more than 1.2 million served in World War 2. And yet, Black citizens were willing to fight wars for democracy around the world, but not without also having it at home. As A. Philip Randolph said, “We’d rather make Georgia safe.”
Our text from the Book of Revelation today speaks of a new heaven and a new earth; that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
That’s a lovely vision. No more tears or death. No more mourning and crying and pain. One day. On one hand, that’s like a balm in Gilead, a source of hope. On the other, that feels like a terribly unfair life-sentence for anyone suffering today. And it removes human responsibility. Jesus will make everything right in the sweet by and by, with plenty of pie in the sky when we die. But as UCC pastor Kenneth Samuel says about progressive Christianity, we’re looking for “something sound on the ground while we’re still around.” We want to know, how can we make it right?
Alexia Salvatierra is a Pentecostal Christian, a professor at Fuller Seminary, who said, in line with Revelation, “we live in a broken world that is in a long process of redemption and restoration, which will not be complete until Christ comes back.” But, she said we should “use whatever power we have to achieve justice,” except that we “should not expect to achieve justice.” I appreciate the realism, but why would anyone expend their power for something we shouldn’t expect? Just wait for Jesus.
Rabbi Noam Marans said the Jewish concepts of the afterlife are responses to the theological challenge of rewards and punishment after death. But, of course, that’s of little comfort to those who suffer in this life. But in contrast with a messianic figure such as Christ to return to redeem the world, our responsibility as people of faith is to participate in tikkun olam – literally fixing the world through social justice and lovingkindness.
But, Vahisha Hasan, a Black Baptist pastor, asks how can we make things right “if we’re not aware of how our own economic, ethnic, and social class impacts our views?” She said, “Even when someone is aware, they can become so bound in the privilege of that identity that they take a defensive position.”
And that’s where we could fall silent. Silence will save us from doing or saying the wrong thing.
But I’m guessing none of us think silence is the right answer to “How can we make it right?” And yet, we also may not be comfortable enough with silence to let it be long enough. For communities of color answer the question, and invite us to join alongside, or choose not to invite – if we’re too busy falling over ourselves to answer questions that have not been asked.
On Friday afternoon the executive director of Re-Member came by the church to pick up a trailer-load of donations. Re-Member is our mission partner on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, just a couple of miles from Wounded Knee. Like the Tulsa “riot,” Wounded Knee was once called a “battlefield.” More accurately, it was the site of a massacre of 300 mostly starving and freezing women and children.
Seven groups of Park Hill youth and adults have gone to Re-Member in the past 12 years, to stand on that sacred ground and stand alongside members of the Oglala Lakota nation. I hope we can go again next summer. But for everyone who goes, one of the most challenging things is to avoid the temptation to ask “Why don’t they…” When people of privilege want to help, it’s often as people who want to fix first and listen last.
Listening is not a lack of action. It can be, but listening is mandatory for anyone who wants to make things right.
Sharyl Peterson is one of our regulars at Lunch and Lectionary. Thanks to Park Hill 2.0, she joins us on Zoom from Grand Junction every Thursday. She asked, “What would a “new heaven” and/or a “new earth” look like to people who have suffered? Surely, it would mean having their loved one(s) back; being able to live a life of safety and dignity under all circumstances at all times in all places, which has never been true in their lifetimes or their ancestors; being “seen” in the fullest sense of what that means, and honored as beloved children of God; never having been driven away from their homes in the first place…
She asks, how on earth does one make any of that right? How do you make amends for grandmothers who were raped? How do you compensate for the torture of grandfathers? How do you reimburse a family for their children drowned in burlap bags? How do you repair homes and businesses burned to the ground 100 years ago? And restore decimated communities.
Rev. Hasan says our goal should be less about fixing than about transformation. She asks, how can communities be transformed? Communities can’t be fixed, but they can be transformed through such means as reparations. 107-year-old Mother Viola Fletcher would say that’s a long overdue response in Tulsa. It’s also not the only response. It’s not an excuse, but it won’t fix the problem of 402 years.
As equally important, how can you and I be transformed? We can’t be fixed either, but we can be changed. For example, what can you do with the knowledge you received today? More than filing it in the “that’s interesting” drawer, we can participate in the transformation of pain into promise and privilege into potential.
Christians often want a fix we call healing. An urgency for reconciliation. We’re going to hear prayer next that says, “We cannot rush to the language of healing before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.” Reconciliation without recognition of the wrong is a false peace to soothe the conscience of the oppressor, not fundamentally change the conditions of the oppressed. Reconciliation without repair is empty.
That means we have to stay in the discomfort of this moment long enough to listen and actually hear. To hear the sounds of a new heaven and a new earth, where there are no more tears or death. No more mourning and crying and pain. Not because Jesus has returned to fix everything, but because we and our communities are actively being transformed.
Last summer was one of the most hopeful periods in our recent history. All across the globe, outraged young people of every race took to the streets to demand the transformation of law enforcement based on upholding white supremacy to a system of public safety. They may not realize they are pursuing a vision of a new earth where there are no more tears and death, no more mourning and pain, a world with no more George Floyd’s crying out to their mothers in heaven, because the earth is filled with justice.
Following their lead, that’s one way we begin to make things right.
 Ibid https://www.ajc.org/articles/noam-marans
 Ibid https://www.transformnetwork.org/movementinfaith
A Prayer from
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 25, 2021
Come Holy Spirit, we pray this morning for the family of George Floyd and for all your people who are denied the right to breathe the breath of life. Comfort communities around the country today in mourning.
Our nation is sick with white supremacy. Come Holy Spirit, we need your presence to confront this horror infecting our human spirit – manifested in Capitol insurrections, the erosion of voting rights, and every day micro-aggressions against Black, Indigenous, and people of color. This ideology of superiority is woven into the laws of our country and how they are enforced. Come Holy Spirit, break into the chambers of power in this country and in ordinary homes with the force of Pentecost - with wind and fire. And lives changed.
Prophets like Amos and Jeremiah in our midst have been calling out injustice and inequity for years and decades and centuries to stop us in this insane behavior – and our temptation to offer excuses instead of demanding change. Come Holy Spirit, show us our responsibility.
The time to act is long past. And yet, if even today we are called forward, Come Holy Spirit, let us act so that Black lives truly matter.
Grant us your wisdom, your courage, and your love to create a world where every man, woman and child can breathe freely. Come Holy Spirit.
And so, in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Amhaud Arbery and Sandra Bland and hundreds more, in the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
Artist Ed de Guzman*
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 16, 2021
“Never the Same Again: Take a Risk”
Acts 1: 1-11 – Common English Bible
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
If you lived in Germany and went to the bank last Thursday, you would have discovered it was closed. You’d say to yourself, oh, that’s right. Duh! It’s Ascension Day. Yes, Ascension Day is a public holiday in Germany. And now you have a piece of trivia to impress all your friends at your first post-Covid party.
Despite being a very secular country, Germany has a number of public holidays that are feast days in the Christian church, although not all of them are observed in every state. I would have expected Reformation Day as a more likely country-wide holiday – you know, Martin Luther and those 95 theses in Wittenberg and so forth – but perhaps Ascension Day is still observed nationally because it has evolved into something more than that. In today’s story, Jesus ascends to heaven to be reunited with his father, which may be why Ascension Day in Germany is now a kind of Father’s Day.
The Feast of the Ascension has been celebrated since at least the 4th century, but starting in the 18th century, local tradition dictated that all the men in the village would be placed in carts and trundled into the center of town. The man who had fathered the most children would then be presented with a prize by the mayor - usually a large chunk of ham.
Nowadays it’s more about beer than ham. In fact, at least according to what I read, (on the internet no less!) many Germans refer to it as the day of “boozing and brawling.” Sometimes things get a little out of hand, which is why every year Ascension Day sees a 300 percent spike in the number of alcohol-related traffic incidents.
So, I’m a little off track, but it was too fascinating not to share. Not to mention, it’s an excuse to avoid talking about the ascension of Jesus for as long as I can because among all the implausible theological concepts in Christianity, ascension is right up there along with resurrection and virgin birth. As our Lunch and Lectionary participants noted, at least the resurrection makes a point. The forces of hatred and injustice do not win. Crucifixion is not the end. Despite the worst you can do to someone, ultimately, love wins. On the other hand, what’s the point of ascension? That heaven is “up there?”
What’s the point? Well, first of all, the ascension of Jesus marks a transition point. It connects the last words of the Gospel of Luke with the first words of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. You may or may not already know that Luke wrote both the gospel and The Book of Acts. The gospel tells the story of the life of Jesus. Acts tells the story of the church. So, at his ascension, the disciples and followers of Jesus are left behind to act upon his teachings. In fact, in the Book of Acts, they are now called apostles. Disciples are ones being taught. Apostles are people who do what they’ve been taught. So, it’s a transition point.
And ascension is the literary device used to describe that transition point when Jesus is no longer physically on earth, although they are not left alone. On the Day of Pentecost, reportedly 10 days later, the promised Spirit arrives in the drama of wind and tongues of fire – as one who unites people, and who is our comforter, advocate, and guide. The Spirit will remain with them – and with us.
Ascension may be a literary device for a transition point, but that’s not its only purpose. Ascension tells a story that means something, not in all those details that can get in the way, but in the larger narrative arc that reaches all the way to us and beyond. This is where it begins to matter.
After Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his followers and told them to be his witnesses, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. It’s similar to other biblical characters like Elijah or heroic characters like Hercules. Their deaths also included an assumption into heaven.
And then here is my favorite part of the story. After Jesus is no longer visible, the disciples and followers of Jesus are still standing around, looking skyward, when two men in white robes ask, “Why are you standing around looking up?” I love that image. Imagine a frustrated teacher telling a day-dreaming student: “Get your head out of the clouds.” Or hear my father say, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” The followers of Jesus are asked, “Why are you still standing around looking up?”
One of my favorite movies of all time is Ferris Buehler’s Day Off. As I say that, I realize it’s now 35 years old, which puts it in the category of “old movies,” like Legally Blonde and Gone with the Wind. Regardless, it’s a great movie. But one of the funniest lines doesn’t happen until after all the credits have rolled and the lion has roared. Most people have left the theatre. But at that point, surprise! Ferris appears back on the screen and asks, “What are you still doing here? Go home!”
But the disciples aren’t supposed to simply go home. They are to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We might ask, “witnesses of what?” Well, one of the most dramatic examples came immediately after Pentecost. The Spirit arrived but when they did indeed go home, it was not to something resembling the old normal. They’re lives had been transformed. Listen to what it says in the next chapter of the Book of Acts:
42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. Every day, the Lord added to the community those who were being saved.
To me, the most important message in the story of the ascension is that if you and I just stand around looking up, we won’t see our neighbor. Our mothers might describe it as someone acting “So heavenly-minded, they’re of no earthly good.” And yes, if our focus is toward heaven, of what earthly good are we? Nothing more should be said about being a witness of Jesus than loving our neighbors with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, sharing our possessions with everyone in need, knocking down the walls that divide us, speaking words of truth… How else will they know we are Christians?
While the ascension may indeed be a transitional literary device, Teresa of Avila sums up perfectly the point of the ascension: “Christ has no body now but yours.”
Speaking of transition points, we’re at something of a transition in the pandemic – not yet a before and after, perhaps just a beginning to the end. And in many places around the world, the suffering is still worsening. But here we are, feeling our way, tentatively, for example, anticipating returning to the building. We can anticipate resuming some of what we used to take for granted. Except that, we’ve all been transformed by this experience. We can’t return to what we once knew because we are not the same people. The disciples were never the same again. And that’s a good thing. We should feel emboldened by the Spirit to take a risk. To keep taking risks as the followers of Jesus for the sake of love and generosity and truth telling.
Therefore, I pray that we do not reestablish or start establishing new patterns and norms too quickly. Not only must we recognize that we all have been transformed by this shared experience of isolation and limitation, we are still being transformed. We hold a lot of unexamined grief. We could allow fear to tempt us to settle too quickly.
Remember, we learned to take risks - and because of that we will never be the same. We are stronger and more creative than we could have imagined before all of this. And I pray that the Holy Spirit continues to empower us to keep embracing new ways of witnessing to the love and goodness of Jesus.
But my final thought on Ascension Sunday. Remember the words of Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Ed de Guzman https://www.jmacreativegroup.com/arteddeguzman
 It was a national holiday for the 500th anniversary in 2017
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 9, 2021
“The Three Mothers”
1st John 5: 1-6
Before I read today’s text from 1st John, it’s important to recognize that all of scripture was written in a context. Years from now when we watch re-runs of old TV shows, we will see people wearing masks and say to ourselves, oh, that was shot during the pandemic of 2020. It will make sense to us. And when today’s school children are grandparents, they will show pictures to their grandchildren and tell them stories of lockdowns and going to school online. But eventually those stories will fade. Things so easily understood in 2021 won’t be in 2221.
All of that is to say, we are so far removed from the time of the Johannine community of 1st John, we don’t know exactly what the big deal was. It made sense to those who lived it; but to us?
Before I read the text, I want to share what one scholar said: “Anyone hoping to track by means of linear reasoning through these few verses in 1st John is likely to emerge seriously frustrated – the author certainly seems to be going around in circles.” And then questions whether this is a “vortex of sentimental religious jargon, sucking its audience down in a rhetorical swirl.” OK, ready? Listen for the Word of God:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey [God’s] commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey [God’s] commandments, [whose] commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Perhaps I should just leave it there and affirm that, yes, this is a “vortex of sentimental religious jargon, sucking its audience down in a rhetorical swirl.” We could approach these texts, as well as the whole Bible, literally or we could take them seriously. It sounds literally as though those who do not believe Jesus is the Christ are not born of God. To take the Bible seriously, however, means we have to question the context. What’s going on in the rest of the book? We know it’s about a divided community that needed encouragement to love one another. We also need to know, what else is going on in the rest of the world?
A major issue in the late first century was whether Jesus was real or just seemed to be real. The big word for that is Docetism (doe-SEE-tism) which comes from a Greek word that means “seems” or “appears.” As Marcus Borg said, when this is applied to Jesus, “it means that though he seemed and appeared to be human, he was not really human but divine.” But 1st John refutes this tendency among some in the Johannine community by countering with the final verse from today’s reading. Following the words “Jesus is the Son of God,” verse 6 continues:
“6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.” The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (Really?)
Yes. Because essentially, the author argues, Jesus was real – water and blood. Not water only. Which likely refers to his baptism and crucifixion. But it might also refer to what later theologians described as the idea that Jesus was both human and divine. Not just an apparition or an idea. Not merely an object of our collective consciousness but the real thing. For example, Jesus was physically on the street, among the people. Not simply preaching liberation for the captive but participating in the liberation of the captive, or alongside the captive. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and James Baldwin who didn’t just speak ideas about liberation but put their real flesh and blood bodies on the line for it.
But on this Mother’s Day, I wonder, who were the women before the men. Who first taught them to do this?
I read a fascinating book earlier this year called The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs. It’s the first and only book of its kind, but part of an emerging genre of literature that attempts to fill in the male dominated stories of the Civil Rights Movement.
Can you name these three mothers? Alberta Williams King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin. I want to tell some stories from the book about them. Each one helped their sons make ideas about liberation real with their own bodies.
Mama King filled her children’s minds with endless possibilities, especially at the family dinner table where she and Reverend King spoke truthfully with their children about the injustices of segregation and taught them the importance of doing their part to change such inequities. Martin’s big sister Christine said, “People seem to think he came fully formed from the womb, ready to change the world.” But, “we are products of a long line of activists and ministers. We come from a family of incredible men and women who served as leaders in their time and place.”
But it was also personal. When Martin was young, he would play with the children of the white family who ran the corner store. They were inseparable for years but as they grew older, his friends’ parents started to create distance between the children. And when they were of a certain age, it was no longer acceptable for them to be friends and eventually prohibited. Martin was terribly hurt. Mama King felt her son’s agony and encouraged him to feel his pain and turn it into something positive.
She did the same thing when she met Michael, her husband who later adopted the name Martin Luther after a trip to Germany. Alberta was a college graduate but when they met, Michael (Daddy King) was barely literate. And he spoke with such a terrible stutter he was barely understood. She tutored him, helped him get through college, and achieve all that he became. The figure of Daddy King was bigger than life. But not without her. And did you know that Ebenezer Baptist Church was her father’s church? Her father didn’t think that highly of Michael, yet he became the famous pastor after her father’s death.
She lived an exceptional life focused on family and church and community service, but it was tragically cut short. I’m not sure everyone knows that she was shot to death by a deranged man while playing organ during a church service, 6 years after her son.
In comparison with the other two mothers, Alberta lived a quite privileged life, afforded many opportunities, and able to provide many opportunities to her children. Louise Little, on the other hand, was committed to a mental institution for nearly 30 years, consigned there by a system of white supremacy that tried to destroy her.
Louise was born on the island of Grenada. She later moved to Canada and discovered the principles of Marcus Garvey. As a young woman, she became a fiery grassroots activist promoting Black economic independence, self-help, and unity among people of African descent around the world. She met her husband, Earl, and they dedicated themselves to the Universal Negro Improvement Association. They moved frequently while serving the cause, often forced to move. Because she was so outspoken, she was repeatedly a target. One day while they were living in Omaha, Earl was out of town when a mob of angry white men showed up at their house. They came with shotguns and rifles, shouting threats, and shattering windows. Louise stood fearless, calm in the midst of the chaos, and placed her hand on the pregnant belly holding Malcolm, comforting her other children.
When her children came home from school, Louise would reteach them what they learned from the white teachers. She refused to let her children fall victim to a mentality that told them they were inferior to anybody else. She taught them the French alphabet, made them read Black newspapers out loud, and kept a dictionary nearby. She wanted to expose her children to various religions, so they attended Catholic mass, congregated with Baptists, and learned from Hindus. And then they went home to discuss their thoughts.
When Earl died, she attempted to hold the family together, but with eleven children, she needed help from social services. A Black single mother in a predominantly white area of Michigan, she was increasingly visited by welfare workers who seemed more interested in taking her children and the land she owned than with helping her. They started planting seeds in her children’s minds that she was crazy and told Malcolm how much more he would like it if he lived with a stable family.
Louise saw a psychologist who said that “there was nothing wrong with her that rest and better nutrition could not cure.” He told this to a welfare doctor who got the psychologist to recant his statement in order to place her in the Kalamazoo Mental Hospital, where she was kept from 1939 to 1963 and not allowed to see her children but a few times a year. Despite the trauma, when she was released, she hadn’t forgotten who she was and remained strong and reconnected with her family. But without Louise Little, there wouldn’t have been Malcolm X. Not simply because of her role as his mother, but because she provided the critical thinking of his Black, Pan-Africanist worldview.
Much less is known about Berdis Baldwin. When she gave birth to James, Jimmy, in New York City, she had absolutely no family support or extended circle. They moved from apartment to apartment trying to survive. Jimmy picked up odd jobs, shining shoes, running errands. One day when he was 10 years old, Berdis sent him out to find firewood. He was walking down the street when suddenly he felt hands on him. Two white police officers pushed him into a vacant lot and searched him because he “looked like a suspect.” When they didn’t find what they were looking for, they left him lying on the ground.
James once wrote that he had no childhood. As a poor Black boy in America, he was already “born dead.” Berdis tried but could not shield her son from racism and poverty. Nor from her husband, whom she called Mr. Baldwin. Jimmy’s step-father was a preacher and terrifyingly abusive. As the oldest, Jimmy had to help raise the eight younger children of the man who beat him and his mother.
James did get one particular gift from his mother. An amazing intellect, a love for words, and the ability to write. His biographer once said, he would take care of one of his siblings with one hand and read a book with the other. Berdis was not able to pursue those skills for herself, but she did everything she could to nurture them in James. And when he decided he needed to escape America and could move to Paris on a writing fellowship, despite her needing his help to care for her children, she supported his decision and sent him on his way. That’s where he used the critical distance to come to an understanding of American racism. When he came home, he soon met Martin Luther King, Jr. who had just emerged as a leader following the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I could keep going with more stories, but I encourage you to read this very accessible, very interesting, book for yourself.
However, to return to our text from 1st John, my final word of encouragement is to not just read such books but use such books to move from the ideas on the page to a life lived in service of those ideas. The kind of life the very human Jesus taught all of us to live – to put the water and blood of our faith along with our bodies on the line for love.
 David J. Schlafer, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 2008, p. 491
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, Harper One, 2012, p. 406
 Anna Malaika Tubbs, Flatiron Books, 2021
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 2, 2021
“This Is Love”
1st John 4: 7-8, 16b-21 – New Revised Standard Version
7 Beloved, Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Bishop Carlton Pearson started preaching when he was 14, was licensed in the Pentecostal church at age 15, and ordained when he was 18. In a reverse order from our customary practice, from there he went to Oral Roberts University. His preaching was so powerful and his presence so captivating that Oral Roberts himself took Carlton under his wing and called Carlton his Black son. He started a church in Tulsa in the 1990s that grew to 6,000 almost overnight. It was a somewhat unusual church because he was the Black pastor of an intentionally multi-racial church. Among other honors and privileges, he was a spiritual advisor to President’s George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But as quickly and as high as his star had ascended, his fall from grace was even faster and farther. He lost everything. He lost his congregation, his house, his savings, and all respect from his fellow clergy. He became a pariah in the Pentecostal church. He hadn’t slept with anyone in his congregation – or anyone at all. He hadn’t stolen any money. He hadn’t bilked unsuspecting senior citizens out of their social security checks to build a Christian amusement park. No, his scandal was believing God’s love and mercy were greater than eternal punishment for those who hadn’t been saved. To explain this to his horrified congregation, he quoted from 1st John. His world collapsed when he realized God is love.
As Christians we have heard those words hundreds or even thousands of times. God is love. We’ve heard it so many times, we don’t even hear it anymore. It fails to register any more than a cookie and warm milk at bedtime. It feels good. But, one night, Bishop Pearson faced an existential crisis. If God is love, then how can God send people to hell. If we believe God’s mercy endures forever, then how can we explain eternal damnation?
He simply could not reconcile the eternal punishment of weeping and gnashing of teeth with the words “God is love.” Worse, he said, think of how twisted and destructive it is to preach the fear of hell as an incentive to love God. As he worked through this disconnect, he came up with my favorite line: “God doesn’t send people to hell. God helps people get through their hell.” Yes, there is a hell. But it is of our making, not God’s.
And so, for those sentiments, he lost everything and was brought up on charges of heresy. He paid a very high price for believing in love. Now, instead of preaching to 6,000, he occasionally preaches to a few hundred in places like All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa and City of Refuge UCC in Oakland. And he’s never been happier. His fascinating story has been made into a movie on Netflix called “Come Sunday.” I suggest you check it out.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Have you ever wondered whether God loves you? Perhaps it has never occurred to you to question it. Others of you might have that question this very minute. Some of you have in fact been told that God does not love you. And perhaps not only told but had it screamed in your face.
I was one of those kids who didn’t understand the appeal of breaking the rules. I liked the affirmation of being recognized for doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean I always did. I felt especially terrible one day in high school when my pastor and his wife, who was my piano teacher, said to my parents in front of me that I was such a good kid. Who doesn’t want to hear that? But none of them knew I had been drunk the night before. Or that here I was, 15 years old, smoking pot with the cool kids to get them to like me. Or that all of my crushes were on the boys in my class, especially the ones smoking pot, not their girlfriends.
Yet, although mixing pot and blackberry brandy may have been illegal for a 15 or 16 year old, and nauseating, it would only get me grounded and the punishing feeling of severe disappointment. Being gay was something completely different. I wouldn’t be grounded to my room but destined to eternal hell.
I remember vividly the absolute crushing horror of reading in the Bible that I was an abomination, worthy of death, in the eyes of God. I remember the room I was in when I read those words and the brown shag carpeting on the floor onto which I fell, and the tears that flowed when I prayed, pleaded, that God take this away from me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I would displease God, but not out of a fear of punishment, but because I truly loved God.
My life didn’t make sense. Some of you know what it feels like when you life doesn’t make sense. In my case, I knew I felt called to ministry. And slowly, but increasingly, I came to understand that God had also created me gay. It all felt like a cruel joke. I don’t know the struggles of gender identity, but I feel the pain of what can also feel like a cruel joke. To know you are one gender but to be in the body of a different gender.
The summer of my sophomore year in college I came home late one night and read from one of those little devotional booklets before bed. I was sitting on brown shag carpet (apparently that was a popular flooring choice in the mid-80s); I was sitting on the floor of my little basement apartment off campus in Mitchell, South Dakota, when all of a sudden the words “God is love” weren’t milk and cookies before bed, something that felt good, but the most radical, earth-shattering words ever written, something which opened a door and set me free.
God didn’t hate me. Church people might, but that’s their problem. My parents and pastor might be severely disappointed. But God loves me. That’s what really mattered. And let me add, my parents did affirm their love for me when I came out to them several years later, even if they didn’t fully understand. It’s because they knew the words of 1st John:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
As the text goes on to say, there is no and there can be no fear in that love. Fear is about punishment. But God is not about punishment. God is about love. God is love. As Bishop Pearson said, “think of how twisted and destructive it is to preach the fear of hell as an incentive to love God.”
Anyone who wants to punish, exclude, judge, or otherwise simply be a complete jerk, does not know God. To refuse to listen is to not know God. To refuse to even try to understand is to not know God.
If you’ve never questioned God’s love, we’ve certainly all faced times of self-doubt. We wonder if we are worthy, especially worthy of love – for someone we are, or something we've done, or what someone has done to us.
Our lunch and lectionary group on Thursday talked about love as a feeling developed in childhood that we continually build upon. Something that we can return to. Unless we were not loved. Abused or neglected as children. Then what? And together we grieved over the difficulties of breaking through that pattern. But, that it is possible. That’s the power of God’s love, often through just one person. One person who looked at us and saw our worth. Many times, it’s a grandparent. Or a teacher. A neighbor. Or the church.
Some of our regular worshipers at my church in Cleveland came every Sunday with their Bible. Others came with their basketball – because after worship they could play in our gymnasium. We were an inner-city church on a busy street with all the struggles of addiction and poverty one imagines. As one example, the Head Start teachers had to check the playground every morning for needles and condoms.
I was always grateful for the teenagers who came with their basketballs by themselves to worship. That was never the only reason they were there. If they wanted, they could do that on weeknights. They came on Sundays because someone would see them and talk with them and ask about their week while handing them a plate of whatever was being served at coffee hour. They felt so loved, some days they never even made it to the gym.
That’s the other side of love. Not just a feeling we did or did not receive. Love is a flow that is built upon and embodied in actions, ones that are often so simple that no one would ever notice, except the person being listened to and looked in the eye for the first time. Or the first time in a long time. Or at just the right time before something drastic they might feel compelled to do.
I told our lunch and lectionary group that this would be a difficult sermon to write because what else needs to be said after the very first line:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
I never screamed that back into the faces of Christians who dared to contradict God. Yes, that's another story, stories, for another time. But if I had wanted to respond, I would have needed nothing more than the last line of today’s text. Imagine hearing someone yell: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
It’s just Christianity 101. Amen?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 25, 2021
“Love and Accountability”
1st John 3: 16-24 – Common English Bible
This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help—how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?
18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 Those who keep his commandments dwell in God and God dwells in them. This is how we know that he dwells in us, because of the Spirit he has given us.
“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.”
I want to begin by sharing a few things about the epistle of 1st John – not really a letter in the traditional biblical sense, and not likely written by anyone named John. It’s part of a collection of writings from the Johannine community that include the Gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, and the Book of Revelation. The Gospel of John addresses the conflict between the emerging church and the synagogue, but the epistles of 1st and 2nd John address two major internal, intra-church, conflicts. 3rd John – only 15 verses long – is about one particularly disruptive member of the community.
So, the conflict in 1st John is this: some members denied the full humanity of Jesus; and some members were not being as loving toward one another as they should. The words lying, hatred, refusal to love, and self-deceit are used frequently throughout 1st John. But if they truly embraced the full humanity of Jesus, they would love one another.
Love is the central theme of 1st John. In fact, in it’s 5 short chapters, it uses the word love or loving or beloved 50 times. That’s more than all of Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined in 68 chapters.
As it says in our text for today, “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and [therefore] we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” And then the author makes it crystal clear what that means, not in mere words but action: “If someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”
Our Lunch and Lectionary group spent a significant amount of time on Thursday talking about the SOS camp coming to our Park Hill neighborhood in June. SOS stands for Safe Outdoor Shelter. It’s an innovative way to provide shelter and a multitude of social services for 50 unhoused people in a mini tent city for six months. It has generated a lot of reaction in our relatively wealthy neighborhood and plenty of anger and division, with words that resonate with the “we can do better” sentiment of those opposed to the last attempt to address homelessness. Words that didn’t materialize into anything better.
But, instead of just talking about it, I want to show this short news clip about the camp and neighborhood reaction.
First John is written as if the author had submitted a letter to the editor in Greater Park Hill News: “If someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?” Those are pretty strong words and some might even hear them as accusatory, but it comes down to this:
“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.” The use of the words “little children” is not meant as a put down, as in “stop acting like children,” but a term of endearment, closeness and intimacy. Of a tight knit community caught up in conflict.
But loving with actions and truth and not mere words or speech struck me in another way this week. On Tuesday, the officer who murdered George Floyd was found guilty on all counts. A murder that the whole world witnessed. And then the whole world waited, nervously, to see what would happen in response. We were right to disbelieve justice would come to the Floyd family. Remember Rodney King? The whole world watched that too. Where is justice for Breonna Taylor? Where is justice for fellow Minnesotan Philando Castile? Or Eric Garner or Michael Brown or…? None of those officers, and dozens more, have been brought to justice.
So, when the verdict was read, people could finally exhale. A whole range of emotions spilled forth – shouts of joy, expressions of disbelief, sobs of release, and tears – just tears without emotion. Some just felt numb. How are we supposed to feel? Was this supposed to bring some sense of satisfaction?
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison quickly reminded us that a guilty verdict was not enough for justice. As he said, "I would not call today's verdict justice, because that implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice, and now the cause of justice is in your hands."
I really resonated with that sentiment. That sounds like love in truth and action and not mere words or speech. Accountability.
But then a wise young man named Roshan Bliss made me question even that. Some of you know Roshan. He has spoken here during worship as part of the Denver Justice Project, one of our mission partners. Like many others, he also wrestled with questions about how he was supposed to feel and said, “I don’t think we’re even getting accountability. [Because,] in a deep sense, I don’t think our adversarial, punitive ‘justice’ system is even capable of that.”
And then he lays out the most beautiful description I’ve ever heard of what accountability could look like. He speaks with an incredible prophetic imagination just like the best of the biblical prophets. I told him I should start calling him Reverend Bliss.
Roshan said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin having to look George Floyd's family in the eyes - individually, one at a time - and tell them that he was wrong and that he's so, so sorry he took their loved one... and mean it.”
He said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin financially supporting George Floyd's 7-year-old daughter until she gets through college, at the least.” That’s prophetic imagination.
He said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin, for the rest of his life, having to stop whatever he was doing and listen, deeply listen, to family members whenever they were reminded of George or missing him and wanted to tell a story about him.” That’s prophetic imagination.
Roshan’s prophetic imagination draws upon the writings of Danielle Sered, founder of the group Common Justice. She said this: “In our culture, when we say accountability, we usually mean punishment. But the two are not only different, I actually believe that they’re not compatible… All we have to do to be punished is to not escape it. It’s doesn’t require anything in terms of our agency. It doesn’t require us to work at it. It doesn’t require us to acknowledge anything. It is something that is inflicted upon us by somebody else.”
“Accountability is different. Accountability is active. It requires that you acknowledge what you have done, that you acknowledge its impact on others, that you express genuine remorse, that you make things right to the degree possible, ideally in a way defined by those who were harmed, and that you do the extraordinary, hard labor of becoming someone who will never cause that kind of harm again.”
Therefore, Roshan said, in addition to looking each of George Floyd’s family members in the eyes with true remorse, paying for his daughter’s education, and stopping to listen any time he is asked, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin having to go around the country telling other police officers about what he should have done differently, sharing the story of how he came to realize what he did was wrong, and supporting other officers to similarly take ownership of the harm they've caused, walking with them as they face the consequences and seek to make their own amends and personal transformations.” That’s prophetic imagination.
Roshan said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin doing hard, life-long work to make his name synonymous with the movement to end police violence or the fight to end the dominance of police unions that resist and thwart efforts to hold officers accountable.”
That’s prophetic imagination. And doesn’t that strike you as more like love in action and truth than merely speech or words? It’s incredibly hopeful, in a time that can feel hopeless. It's not to suggest that he not face time in prison, but that there are other remarkably redemptive ways to address crime and punishment.
However, he said, “that kind of accountability can't be forced on someone or handed down by a judge. Accountability is a decision that a person has to make for themselves. I don't think our system can support the real accountability I'm imagining because it's so structurally oriented toward punishment.”
Or as Ibram X Kendi says, so focused on compliance. He said he keeps having to confront the narrative that “If you comply with police orders, you won’t get shot.” Except if you’re sleeping or eating ice cream in your own apartment or sitting in a park or reading a book. A system that is not color blind but associates Black lives with guilt, danger, and criminality. Overly militarized. Ill equipped to address public health and safety issues, addiction crises, and other mental health issues. Frankly, called upon to do too much.
And yet this morning, may we not dare hope that this verdict will be the first conviction, not the last, the beginning that forces a reckoning and opens the door to the kind of prophetic and hopeful imagination that could lead from punishment to accountability to true justice. I hold onto hope that step by step there is a way to move from words about love into love found in action and in truth.
As we hear in 1st John, if we follow Jesus, the Jesus whose love for humanity was ultimately expressed in his sacrifice; this fully human Jesus shows us the way to love one another.
 Gail O’Day, The Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster/John Knox, 1992, p. 374
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 4, 2021
“Life After Crucifixion”
John 20: 14-18 – New Revised Standard Version
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[a] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her..
At a recent Lunch and Lectionary, Susan told a story that one year she visited a large church in Houston for Easter. She sat next to a friendly woman and her 6-year-old son. The boy had a remarkably good singing voice and sang each hymn with gusto, even if he didn’t exactly know all the words. When they sang “Up from the Grave He Arose,” instead of “with a mighty triumph o’er his foes,” when Jesus came up from the grave, he arose “with a lot of dirt between his toes.”
And you know what, theologically, that is a much more sound teaching. Jesus’ life had much less to do with any kind of triumph, except for love, than walking alongside suffering humanity, in the dirt, muck, and mud of our lives. Indeed, Jesus would have had very dirty toes. And that’s true both in his life as well as in his resurrection. How do we know? The scars on his back and the nail wounds in his hands and feet were not healed during his time in the tomb. When he emerged, he still had the marks of violence against him. He even offered to show them to his skeptical disciples. But even though Jesus was still marked by the violence against him, violence did not have the final say. Violence did not and does not have the final say. There is life after crucifixion.
And yet, given the amount of violence in our world today, that’s almost as hard to believe as “up from the grave he arose.” As the Apostle’s Creed says, Jesus was “crucified, dead, and buried.” We get that. Since last Easter, 550,000 people have died of Covid 19. And except for a nurse and Jesus in every room, most of them died alone. Each person had a name, starting with Stephen Schwartz in Seattle.
We are surrounded by Good Fridays. In 2020 alone, the crucifixions of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, and Breonna Taylor and way too many more with names we’ve never heard. Boulder has now been added to the long list of cities known for their mass shootings, among their names Officer Eric Talley and Suzanne Fountain. Some Americans are only now coming to understand, or even believe, the centuries-long Good Fridays of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Among their names in Atlanta: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, and Suncha Kim.
As the hashtag says, we #saytheirname because we see the power in the example of Jesus himself. When Jesus said “Mary,” when he said her name outside the tomb, she recognized him. And then, what did he say? Jesus told her, “Don’t hold me back.” From there, she began to spread the good news, that there is life after crucifixion.
Yes, we know Good Friday all too well. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. That, we certainly understand. But, “on the third day he rose again?” Of that we may not be quite so certain and struggle to wrap around our brains.
However, curiously, more people come to Easter morning worship than any other Sunday of the year. To hear a message about a concept many people find at best implausible. Or just impossible. What explains our desire to hear Christ is Risen on Easter year after year? I don’t think it’s just tradition. There’s something deeper inside that wants to hear those words and more, for example:
Bryan Stevenson has spent his life working with men, women, and children on death row. Some were unjustly accused, aided by manufactured false witness. But some did their truly heinous crimes. And of them, Bryan says, “we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If I’m being honest, that feels almost as implausible to say as Christ is Risen, but there is more to life than crucifixion. And there is life after crucifixion.
I have a yellow sticky note on my desk with a quote. I heard it on a webinar and quickly jotted it down. “Your best hopes are as likely to come true as your worst fears.” Something about that statement in the context of our global pandemics of racism and the coronavirus struck a chord. Perhaps it too is implausible, but I really want to believe this: “Our best hopes really are just as likely to come true as our worst fears.”
Or is that just wild-eyed optimism? Is that just the white male privilege of someone for whom things have generally worked out?
I don’t want to just offer a bunch of quotes, but I do want to share one more by a Unitarian minister in the 1850s named Theodore Parker. Parker was an abolitionist dedicated to ending the enslavement of human beings and died just before the Civil War. He said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; [but] I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
We know this quote more simply as the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe bends long, but it bends toward justice.” Today is not only Easter but the anniversary of his assassination. April 4, 1968.
Dr. King used this quote many times. It too is something I both believe and something I want to believe, but at times, am not so sure. “The arc of the moral universe bends long, but it bends toward justice.” Clearly Dr. King knew it is not inevitable and requires faith. He didn’t simply quote it as an optimist. He was in the midst of and scarred by a dirty, violent battle for the soul of America that still rages today.
In that battle, he was always grounded and guided by his faith in the crucified risen Christ. As well, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said, “I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of [human]mankind.” Such faith gives us courage. “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born."
The Dr. King scarred by violence was not naive. But somehow, he always believed in an America that was better than the one in which he lived – not because of inevitability, but because of faith. A real faith that knows real pain. Pain like Good Friday crucifixions and Holy Saturdays full of waiting:
But, remember, on the third day, Jesus told Mary, “Don’t hold me back.” Go and tell everyone that there is life after crucifixion. And so that’s why:
Then, unburdened by mere intellectual assent, we can put that truth into action, alongside the Jesus who when he came up from the grave, arose “with a lot of dirt between his toes.”
In his life and in his resurrection, Jesus didn’t invite us to merely believe but he invited us to get dirty walking through the muck and mud of Good Friday crucifixions alongside suffering humanity. And wait with one another through Holy Saturdays of fear and anxiety. Only then, in life after crucifixion, is our belief transformed into rejoicing that Christ is Risen. Only then is Christ Risen Indeed!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
A Maundy Thursday Reflection
April 1, 2021
“They Were Punched, Spat Upon, and Pummeled with Metal Pipes”
Matthew 26: 26-28 – New Revised Standard Version
"While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of their sins.
In the sequence of events, earlier in the week, two days before the Passover, Jesus told his disciples he would be handed over to be crucified.
At the same time, the chief priests and elders of the people were gathered in the palace of the high priest, Caiaphas. They were conspiring to arrest Jesus in secret and kill him. But, not during the festival, or they will riot. Judas Iscariot, one of the 12, went to the chief priests and offered to betray Jesus. And they paid him 30 pieces of silver.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, arrangements were made for the meal. And while they were eating, Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. All of them, including Judas, said, “Not me, Lord. Surely, not I.”
In Matthew 26:26-28 it says, "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of their sins.
Afterward, he told his disciples that all of them would desert him that night, but Jesus promised he would never desert them. Peter said, I will never do that to you, but Jesus told him that by the end of the night, he would deny him three times.
Jesus then went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, asking God to “let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but your will, be done.” Jesus asked the disciples to stay awake while he prayed, but instead the disciples kept falling asleep.
After this happened a third time, Judas arrived with a large crowd carrying swords and clubs. The disciples deserted him and all fled. Peter watched from a distance. And denied knowing Jesus three times.
From the Garden, Jesus was led away to the palace of the high priest. Many false witnesses came forward. Jesus refused to answer their charges. When the high priest said, “tell us if you are the Messiah,” Jesus replied, “You have said so.”
The high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed.” He asked the crowd, “What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
They spat in his face and struck him. All of this before they took him to the Romans. And then back and forth he went.
In recent weeks, Asian Americans riding subway cars in New York City have reported being punched, spat upon, and pummeled with metal pipes.
I read that and my heart broke. The heart of Jesus broke. Why? Another ugly consequence of the former president’s racist terms about the coronavirus. But he had just tapped into centuries of anti-Asian bias. One of many forms of white supremacy.
On Monday, a 65-year-old unidentified Asian woman walked along West 43rd Street in New York City, reportedly heading to church. An attacker yelled, “F--- you, you don’t belong here,” and began assaulting her.
The man kicked her in the stomach, knocked her to the sidewalk, and then brutally stomped on her head again and again. Video shows a man in the lobby of a building watching the whole attack, staring out the glass doors as the woman was repeatedly kicked in the head, but he made no move to assist her. Not even by calling 911. Two other men, security guards, walked toward the entrance. To close the door on the victim.
This week we are nervously watching the trial of George Floyd’s murderer. Bystanders did try to intervene, including the 17-year-old girl who recorded all 9 minutes and 20 seconds of the officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd's neck, longer than even necessary to completely choke all the life out of a breathing man.
Our hearts break over and over about incidents like this. And the 8 victims in Atlanta. 10 victims in Boulder, including an officer who tried to protect others. And 4 more last night in California. Each time, entire communities victimized and devastated.
And Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples. He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them.
Why? It is in this way, he said, that you re-member me. You become my Body in the world. My hands to offer compassion. My feet to walk for justice. This is not an empty ritual. Each time we eat this bread and drink this cup, it is our call to action.
So, let us eat and drink together, that we not stand by and watch, but actively stand alongside Jesus and suffering humanity.
And so, as Jesus said, “take and eat. This is my body.” And he said, “Drink from this, all of you.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 21, 2021
“What’s on Your Heart Today?”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 – New Revised Standard Version
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their spouse, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock gave his first speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. In it, he spoke of his father. A World War II veteran told by a white teenager to give up his seat on the bus – while wearing his uniform. His father made the world safe for democracy. Except his own. You may not know that one of the worst periods of lynching in this country was of Black veterans coming home from World War I. But somehow, Rev. Warnock said, his father maintained his faith in God and in his family and in the American promise. And handed it down to his children.
He spoke of his mother who spent her teenage years picking somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton to make money. But, Rev. Warnock said, because this is America, that 82-year-old woman whose hands used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator. That’s why he loves America.
But, as we are all aware, that right to vote is under attack. Some 250 voter suppression bills have been introduced by state legislatures all across the country. And so in response, Congress is back to debating whether one person/one vote should still be at the heart of what Rev. Warnock called the “American covenant.”
I was struck by his use of the word covenant. It’s not surprising that a preacher would use such a scriptural concept, but he appealed to the American covenant – which, he said, found in our charter documents and Jeffersonian ideals, bends toward freedom.
He spoke of the preacher and patriot named King, Warnock’s predecessor in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, as well as John Lewis, a member of Ebenezer, along with Americans of all races who followed their hearts and gave their lives pushing us closer to our ideals, “to lengthen and strengthen the cords of democracy.” That is, the fundamental right to vote. He said, “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. It is not just another issue alongside other issues. It is foundational.” I found that helpful. Voting preserves all other rights.
The American covenant. There is something both beautiful and dangerous about using a scriptural concept like covenant to describe a nation as diverse as ours. The United States is not a Christian nation.
• If it were a Christian nation, we would not have stolen the land from its inhabitants, nor time after time attempted to exterminate Indigenous people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it never would have enslaved, lynched, segregated, or mass incarcerated a race of people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it wouldn’t have turned away ships with Jews fleeing the Nazis,
• put Japanese American citizens in concentration camps,
• passed laws to specifically exclude immigration by all Chinese people,
• decreed Muslim bans,
• or allowed kids to be ripped from their parent’s arms and placed into cages on the border.
Sadly, it may have been done by Christians, but all these actions were to declare and defend America as a white nation. Or at the very least, a nation with whites wielding the power to demean, diminish, and degrade those of any other race, color, or creed. And one way to ensure and enforce this power, when racial gerrymandering and dark money are insufficient, is to suppress the votes of non-white people.
It could be dangerous to appropriate the word covenant in the service of a national goal. To claim a religious justification. But it is also beautiful. Rev. Warnock said, “democracy is a political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine, to participate in the shaping of our own destiny.” He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our UCC ancestors. “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Makes the right to vote necessary.
Despite my warning about appropriating the word covenant, there is actually good reason to consider using this word for a collective purpose, such as a nation. The prophet Jeremiah was not talking about individuals when he spoke the beautiful line: I will write a new covenant on their hearts.
What’s the context? It was a dismal time in the life of God’s people. Walter Brueggemann describes it this way: “The capital city was in ruins. The temple had been violated. The assault on Jerusalem had put faith into a free fall, with endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. Was God dead or absent or just fickle? Was Israel rejected, no longer chosen?” Was any future possible? …because they couldn’t see any way forward.
And then, right in the middle of their despair comes Jeremiah. Oh no… He’s not a stranger, a wandering prophet from out of town, but a longstanding thorn in their side. He had been a fierce critic who matched his scandalous imagination with offensive poetic images, preaching dire consequences for their behavior. Surely, they expected Jeremiah would deliver yet another verbal whack at them when he started to speak. But he did not.
He said: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant. Not like the covenant with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt, a covenant they broke. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (the nation/the collective people): I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
These folks were frightened and weary. To hear such words of hope and comfort must have soothed a lot of wounded souls. This promise of a new covenant means that God has not abandoned us. God has not rejected us. God is not dead. In fact, Jeremiah’s vision is even more inclusive. A house of prayer for all people.
I love this text. But I have a big question. If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? Words etched into our hearts should make following basic, fundamental commandments like love and loving your neighbor easier, right? More natural. It’s not in a book. It’s in our heart.
So, my big question is, then why do we still go to war? Why are refugees turned away at the border? Why would the powerful filibuster to stop non-white citizens from voting? You can’t tell me that comes from the mouth of Jesus or certainly not the heart of God.
I mean, why do we even need to worry about a filibuster? How could any of 100 senators vote to strip people of the right to vote? How could any of the 435 members of the house of representatives support any voter suppression tactic? How could any of the 50 state legislatures go along with assaulting our fundamental basic American covenant? Why do they? Well, one answer is that whiteness has a more powerful claim on the hearts of some Christians than Jesus.
If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? I asked this question of our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday. They reminded me, of course, of free will. And to strip away our right to choose, to surrender free will, even for a good cause, means we would not be free people.
And as Brueggemann said, “God’s power to make new is not like the power of a bulldozer that pushes things aside, nor like a tyrant who signs an executive order. God’s power to make new is rather like the painful love of a parent who suffers the hurt of her child, in order that the child may be restored to hope and joy.”
The good thing is that as individuals within the collective, our relationship with God is imprinted upon our hearts. What’s on your heart today? God is. We don’t have to go searching in books, take a class to understand, or rely on some complicated formula. God is in the simple impulse to generosity. God is in the heartfelt inclination to compassion. God is in the fierce passion for justice.
This assault on the American covenant is on my heart today – having to fight again despite the blood that so many humans have shed to enact and protect fundamental rights for all citizens. Of course, also on all our hearts today is the suffering of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans whose cries for justice have long been neglected and ignored.
The love of God is in the flesh of human life – ours and our neighbors. And when we collect together all that capacity for generosity and justice and compassion, we can love a new world into being. Together, we can love a new world into being.
Rev. Warnock told his Senate colleagues that he is the flesh and blood embodiment of what happens when the experiences of his parents meet the American promise. A living example of America’s “history and hope, pain and promise, brutality and possibility.” He said, “I love America because we always have a path to make it better.” Of course, we have to choose it.
In Jeremiah’s time, the capital city was in ruins. There was endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. They couldn’t see any way forward. When we look at our own nation, or at our own lives, we can be grateful for the prophet’s words.
Thanks to God’s imprint on our hearts, the right thing, the next right step, is always right there. (pointing to heart)
 Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons Volume 3, WJK, 2020
I love being the