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
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 14, 2021
“One Year Later: Blessings and Praise”
Psalm 107: 1-9 – Common English Bible
Give thanks to the Lord because God is good,
because God’s faithful love lasts forever!
2 That’s what those who are redeemed by the Lord say,
the ones God redeemed from the power of their enemies,
3 the ones God gathered from various countries,
from east and west, north and south.
4 Some of the redeemed had wandered into the desert, into the wasteland.
They couldn’t find their way to a city or town.
5 They were hungry and thirsty;
their lives were slipping away.
6 So they cried out to the Lord in their distress,
and God delivered them from their desperate circumstances.
7 God led them straight to human habitation.
8 Let them thank the Lord for faithful love
and wondrous works for all people,
9 because God satisfied the one who was parched with thirst,
and filled up the hungry with good things!
What’s the last thing you did? You know, before all of this. The last thing you did before you didn’t know it would be the last time you did it. Before all of this.
Julie Beck said that for her it was a work trip to Florida. She didn’t know it would be the last trip she’d take. She’s grateful that while others went out to dinner, she decided to go for a swim in the ocean. When she changed into her bathing suit, she didn’t know it would be for the last time. She still remembers exactly what the water felt like. When she closes her eyes, she can still see the vivid colors of the sunset.
What was the last concert you went to? Or play, or game at Coors Field. The last hug with a grandparent or grandchild, a loved one. The last trip you took, unafraid.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of our pandemic separation, I looked back at my calendar. The last time I went out for lunch was with our conference minister, Sue Artt, on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. We talked about the UCC congregations in Washington state that had just cancelled in person worship for the rest of the month. She said, you should get ready for that too. She had just spoken with an epidemiologist who said this was much more serious than we think.
At 2 pm I met with the Pastor Parish Relations Committee to design the upcoming evaluation survey and then cautiously broached the subject of what may come. At 3:30 I had the first-ever Zoom call in my life with clergy across Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. We were told we must help “flatten the curve.” Remember when you first heard that?
At 7 pm that night I met with the Governance Team. We sat in a circle in the Common Room on a chilly night with the fireplace glowing. I remember the chair I sat in while we agonized. We decided to not to decide that night and wait for further guidance. That guidance came the next day when the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Conference asked churches to temporarily move worship online. I frantically called Mindee and said, HELP! “Now what?!”
My calendar, yes, still a paper calendar, then tells the story of the last 12 months. Lots of things crossed out. The first week: Coffee with a community leader. Coffee with a potential new member. My dentist appointment. The all-church work-day and youth group lock-in scheduled in April. Then the retreat scheduled in May. What should we do about Family Day at La Foret in July?
And a lot more things were added. Zoom calls. That next Tuesday, I had calls at 11, 2 and 6 – including our new Touchbase Tuesday. The following Tuesday I had Zoom calls at 10, 11, 12, 2, and 3. I quickly understood that new phenomenon called Zoom fatigue. And so I added a weekly Zoom call with my spiritual director for the next 8 weeks in a row.
And yet, who knew what a lifeline Zoom would become. And how much closer we could come together as a congregation during a year of physical separation. It’s far from perfect. I know we can’t wait to be together again, but who could have predicted we would be a stronger and larger congregation a year after we last met together in the sanctuary? A church whose walls have now expanded far beyond Denver – which wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic. But, of course it has come with a very high price.
Earlier this week I sent a letter to every household that articulated many markers of success from the past 12 months. For example, delivering 15,144 bottles of water to our former Women’s Homelessness Initiative guests. 1,045 meals served to guests at the Senior Support Center. And so many more countless acts of faithfulness by a generous congregation.
What I didn’t say in that letter is what I want to say today. To acknowledge that the price for such markers of “success” have been accompanied by much grief and loss. You can’t say “Look how far we’ve come” without acknowledging what it took to get here. The spiritual and emotional toll. The loneliness and isolation. As one author wrote, “It’s OK Not to Be OK.”
But the message of today’s scripture text from Psalm 107 also reminds us that we can’t say “Look how far we’ve come” without acknowledging who has delivered us.
Psalm 107 speaks of praise, but not in some generic sense – for example, thank you God for a beautiful day and for being alive. Psalm 107 is very specific.
In the first video we saw, Christine Valters Paintner said it so beautifully: Not just “Praise be the nurses and doctors,” but why. Praise be for showing up every day to offer care, whether lives were saved or lives were lost.
And not just praise for the seas and rivers, forests and stones. But praise for teaching us to endure.
Not just praise for teachers, but for finding new ways to educate children from afar. And blessings upon parents for holding it all together!
And my favorite line: Blessed is the water that flows over our hands and the soap that helps keep them clean, each time a baptism.
That kind of specificity is what Psalm 107 is like. Not the generic praise of an awesome God but specific praise for God whose invisible hand guided them through times of suffering. As they looked back, the Psalmist offers four examples:
1) Praise offered by those who wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town, hungry and thirsty. They cried for help and God led them straight through and satisfied their needs.
2) Praise from those who sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons. They cried for help and God shattered the doors that held them captive.
3) Praise from those who were sick from their own actions. They cried for help and God saved them from their distress, whether they deserved it or not.
4) Praise from people who almost drown in ships tossed about during terrible storms. But they prayed for help and God calmed the waters and hushed the waves of the sea.
They’re like case studies from people who found themselves in trouble. This is their story. They cried out to God. God delivered them. And the people responded with thanksgiving.
What I can’t explain is why that is not the experience of everyone. This pandemic has been grossly inequitable, affecting women, Black, indigenous, and people of color much more severely. Essential workers couldn’t do their jobs from home, the majority of whom are women. And if necessary for child care or to care for elderly family members, many of them had to quit their jobs or put their careers on hold. And the staggering death toll. Where have you been God?
If you recall from a few weeks ago, I explained that Walter Brueggemann categorizes the Psalms in roughly three ways:
1) Psalms of orientation – grand praise of the creator, praise for wisdom. Lots of singing and dancing and trumpets and stuff.
2) Psalms of disorientation – when life doesn’t make sense, when life isn’t fair. “How long, O God, will you forget me.” Songs of distress. Perhaps sung by marginalized and vulnerable communities during a pandemic?
3) And psalms of reorientation – when we have experienced God as our rescuer. When we can look back and see how the hand of God has delivered us.
Where would you describe us today? One year from the beginning of the pandemic. 500,000 dead. Again, Black, indigenous and people of color disproportionately affected. Thousands of small businesses closed. Children who have missed out on education. We are clearly still in a time of disorientation. We’re still asking, God, why have you let this happen?
And yet, as more and more people are vaccinated, as the economy comes back to life, as children return to school, we are beginning to gain perspective. We can look back at both what we have lost and gained during the pandemic. It’s still too soon to understand fully, but we can feel our lives start to ever so slowly re-orient. And to acknowledge the hand of God that has and is still guiding us through. But please hear me: This is not a story we force unto others.
It’s an interesting place to be. Not so far removed that we have fully recovered from our fears and loss. Grief is not yet a distant memory but a present reality. We still remember what it felt like the last time to touch the ocean, we still have vivid memories of that last sunset, remember exactly what and where and with whom we last ate our last lunch in a restaurant.
And as excited as we are to move on, we are still limited – we’re still not going to large gatherings, still fearful of planning our first vacation. Those who have now been vaccinated are grateful to gather with family but still cautious. It’s right now, while it’s still fresh, while we still face the unknown; this is the right time to take stock of the year. And recognize how little we were able to accomplish on our own. How staggeringly vulnerable we were, and remain, in ways most of us have never felt.
Walter Brueggemann would encourage us to embrace it and learn from it, because, he said:
1) American culture measures us, values us, by how self-sufficient we are. We’re taught that we earn what we have.
2) We’re taught that we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps
3) We’re taught that wisdom is getting ahead in whatever way we can without getting caught
4) And we’re taught that our security results from careful planning, investment, and management.
Psalm 107 calls us away from the illusion of self-sufficiency. We’re taught to be self-made persons, but what has the pandemic taught us? We didn’t make it through the past year because we did it on our own. More than perhaps ever in our lives, we depended on each other to live. What we did and didn’t do for our neighbors directly impacted who lived and who died. Literally. And as Psalm 107 teaches: “there is ultimately no such thing as self-sufficiency, because human life depends on God.”
A psalm of orientation praises God with grand gestures. A psalm of disorientation cries out for help from the middle of the storm. Where are you God? Psalms of reorientation offer praise for how God answered, explains very specifically where God has been and what God did to rescue us. But it’s not a story we force unto others.
And so, thank you for being the congregation you have been during what could have been a quite disastrous year. As I said in my letter, “Our building may have been closed for a year, but thank you for keeping the church open and for widening the door of welcome even wider.” Thank you isn’t enough. But in it, hear my deepest and most sincere gratitude and appreciation for you being you.
But most especially, thank you God. Blessings and praise be upon your name. Because you kept us together and led us during the most frightening time we’ve ever experienced.
From the Benediction:
Psalm 107 ends with these beautiful images: God turned a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. God let the hungry live and established towns where they can sow fields and plant vineyards. When they were brought low through oppression, God poured contempt on princes and made the powerful wander in trackless wastes. But God raises up the needy. Let those who are wise give heed to these things.
We know these things to be true. We have experienced it! Now let us be wise not to move on so quickly that we don’t appreciate what we have learned and who we have become in the many ways we would have never known. You know, before all of this.
 Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), Cambridge Press, 2014
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 28, 2021
“Losing My Religion”
Mark 8: 31-38 – New Revised Standard Version
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Will Willimon said, “The American church often presents the gospel as the solution to our problems, a technique for better marriages and smarter kids, a way to make nice people nicer, and successful people even more successful. You hear a lot of, ‘My life was a mess but then I met Jesus and now everything’s fixed.’” That’s great! The problem is, actually meeting Jesus is messy and would probably scare the be-jesus out of us!
In today’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed. And after three days, rise again. That last part would be great if we could skip all the suffering, rejection, and death. Peter agreed, because when he heard this, he took Jesus aside privately and rebuked him, a pretty strong word. This must not happen to you – because… well, maybe because Peter loved Jesus too much to see him suffer. Maybe because Peter had just minutes before declared Jesus the Messiah, and such things do not happen to messiahs. What kind of messiah gets killed? Or…maybe because, I’m just looking to be a nicer and more successful person.
But, in response to Peter’s private scolding, Jesus turned and publicly rebuked Peter. And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, Jesus called Peter “Satan” because Jesus said he was putting human things, like avoiding pain and conflict, in front of divine things. This is the “easier” part of today’s text. The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, rejection, and death. Then, Jesus called out to the crowd, “And if any of you want to become my followers…”
Those crowds had just kept growing. Despite telling people to keep things quiet, more and more people followed Jesus. And why not? He was the best show in town. Free food and entertainment. Imagine watching demons scream as they’re called out of the possessed. Healings of one kind after another – the blind, the lame, the diseased. He walked on water. Calmed a storm. Dared to argue with Pharisees. One day, he fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. And just a couple of verses before today’s reading, he fed another 4,000 people with 7 loaves of bread, with 7 loaves leftover. And yet, after all that, Jesus said to the disciples, “And you still don’t understand?” So, Jesus made the first of three attempts to make it crystal clear. Understand this: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
I want to sit with this for a minute. He didn’t say, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must love God and love your neighbors as yourself. And love your enemies. And forgive 70 times 7. Be more compassionate, etc.” Those things are all true. And feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Those things are all true, as well. But it’s not the love thing that makes following Jesus difficult. It’s the whole “deny yourself and take up your cross” thing.
On Thursday, once again, we had a powerful conversation about this text at our Lunch and Lectionary on Zoom. By the way, you’re invited to join us. Among the things we discussed was an observation by Phil that “only those with a self can deny their self.” Wow. And with SafeHouse Denver as our mission partner this month, that’s even more obvious. For survivors of domestic violence, it’s not that they don’t have a “self,” but many have been told that they should simply accept their abuse as “their cross to bear,” tragically often by pastors or family members. If only they loved their spouses more, they would stop being abused. Let me be clear: This is outrageous, and this is false. And if that is what your religion tells you, run. Run like hell and rebuke it as you go. That is truly the logic of Satan.
Again, Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Now, what is “denying yourself?” It’s more than not having a second cookie, or a second glass of wine, or a house with a bigger back yard. It’s not a Lenten discipline. That’s too small. Jesus pairs this line with “and take up your cross.”
So, we might think of “taking up your cross” as a personal burden. Something that is uniquely your struggle. Yes, but not really. At least, not here. It is not a difficulty or a particular weight on your shoulders. That’s not to dismiss your own personal struggles and burdens. It’s just not the meaning of this text. Perhaps we should ask: When Jesus spoke of crosses, what did the crowd hear? Take up your cross?
Crosses littered the landscape. The cross wasn’t unique to Jesus. The Roman Empire crucified thousands of people. In fact, when Jesus was just a boy, Romans crucified 2,000 Galileans at once. “Romans put up crosses like billboards advertising Caesar’s supremacy and the fate of any who dared to challenge it.” In that way, the cross is very much like the lynching tree, as Dr. James Cone writes. “In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community.”
Black men, women, and children were lynched, hung from trees, for no reason at all – for looking in the “wrong” direction. The point wasn’t the infraction. It was the terror. Like confederate flags, statues of Robert E. Lee, and militarized police forces in places like Ferguson, Missouri. And the whole debacle at the US capitol. They’re all warnings meant to terrorize.
Terror was the point for Rome too. Crosses were used as instruments of a torturous death against anyone whom they deemed a threat. The cross was a weapon and a message for anyone who dared to question Rome’s occupation. Of all things, why would Jesus tell people to pick up a cross?
We sing sentimental songs about old rugged crosses, but the cross, like a lynching tree, like the executioner’s chair on death row, would have sent nice potential followers fleeing. In fact, I wonder how many followers he had at the end of that day? I can picture one person after another slipping away from the back. Running for their lives. It should make us seriously question whether we want anything to do with this Jesus movement. But, then again, what good is a religion that only asks you, politely, to be nice?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”
Jesus does give one compelling reason why they should, why we should, stay. He asks, “What good is gaining the whole world but losing your soul?” Perhaps we could say, you can have your soul or you can have your stuff. But, not really, because that’s too small, too individualistic.
Perhaps a more appropriate question (among others) is: what good is having everything you want if you’ve sold everyone out to get it? With Jesus, there’s always a collective impact to consider. For example, Jesus didn’t just heal individuals. He healed individuals so they could be reunited and heal their communities.
That part is hard to fully comprehend because Americans, white Americans, make things about the individual – almost like our civil religion. The whole mask thing baffles me. It’s my right to choose not to wear a mask. What kind of religion would go along with putting the whole community at risk of infection because it’s my “right” to do so? It’s our right to hold super-spreader events? But on behalf of 524,670 dead people, as of this morning and counting, I ask, “What good is gaining the whole world but losing your soul?” Of course, I have the same question of Jerry Falwell and company, especially as they bow at the religion of a literal golden calf Trump sculpture this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, google it.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” The cross. This thing used as an instrument of suffering and death, of terror and oppression.
Dr. Cone has been asked many times how the truth of the black experience of lynching and the cross of Christianity can be reconciled. He said, “Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.” They are transformed “symbols that represent both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope.” A religion that is real because, like today’s gospel says, there is no rising on the third day without transforming the human experience of suffering, rejection, and death.
I don’t know why Jesus said the Son of Man “must” suffer, but he certainly understands that all humans do. To be human is to know rejection. And death. And so, to be in solidarity with suffering humanity, he must experience life as we do. But Jesus shows how following him transforms it. And how the cross represents hope.
Just like Dr. Cone said, “God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine.”
And if the followers of Jesus would actually, truly and finally confront the evil and terrorism of white supremacy with repentance and reparation, we could be, we will be, a triumphantly beautiful nation. But, nice won’t do it. Nice isn’t enough. We must deny ourselves and take up our cross. And if your religion doesn’t ask that of you, lose it. And take up the cross of Jesus instead.
 Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year B, Part 1, Abingdon Press, 2017
 Mark 8:17
 W. Hulitt Gloer, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, page 73
 Learn more at eji.org
 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/ February 28, 2021
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 21, 2021
“The Future of Our Choosing”
Psalm 115 – New Revised Standard Version
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in the heavens; God does whatever God pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.
9 O Israel, trust in the Lord! Their help and their shield.
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! Their help and their shield.
11 You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! Their help and their shield.
12 The Lord has been mindful of us; and will bless us;
bless the house of Israel; bless the house of Aaron;
13 bless those who fear the Lord, both small and great.
14 May the Lord give you increase, both you and your children.
15 May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
16 The heavens are the Lord’s heavens,
but the earth he has given to human beings.
17 The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.
18 But we will bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
Praise the Lord!
When Terri and I discussed a theme for Lent, we decided to focus on the Psalms. We’re especially interested in exploring the Psalms through the eyes of artists and the words of poets. That’s exactly what the videos from The Work of the People do. In fact, I wouldn’t have chosen Psalm 115 without the accompanying video. (go to www.theworkofthepeople.com and search for Psalm 115.
First of all, I love hearing Walter Brueggemann speak. He’s 90 years old, still writing books, articles, and until the pandemic, still lecturing around the country. I saw him just last year at Montview, about this time in February. Walter is ordained in the UCC but is internationally renowned as the premier scholar of the Psalms and Old Testament – and known for his cutting-edge interpretation in the best prophetic social justice tradition of Jeremiah and Amos – all based on our covenantal relationship with God and one another. A classic Brueggemann quote: Hunger for God minus love for neighbor is an oxymoron.
So, to prepare for this Lent, I’ve been brushing up on my Psalm studies. Phil Campbell reminded us at our Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday that Brueggemann categorizes the Psalms as psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of re-orientation. Or, a new orientation. So, as we move forward in Lent, I thought it might be helpful to lay out this model.
Briefly, psalms of orientation are ones we often read in church about praising God with cymbals and dancing. "Let everything with breath praise the Lord. The Lord is my shepherd. My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth." They tell us who we are, give us our identity. But, Brueggemann says, praise songs are “not the most interesting.” Laura Jean Truman, however, calls them, “Psalms for people whose lives are going just spiffy, thanks very much; for people that don’t have much to report but thankfulness for a good harvest and a recitation of old sayings like “the early bird gets the worm!” and “God helps those who help themselves!” Well, not exactly.
But, she asks, what happens when a collection of cliches falls apart? As they always do. What happens when the façade has at last been penetrated and the perfect world folds in on itself? These psalms of collapse are the psalms of disorientation.
We may not be as familiar with these Psalms, but we know them deep in our hearts. These are lived experiences of anger and despair. Psalm 13: “How long will you hide your face from me?” We may politely call them psalms of lament, but more deeply, they are the anguish that arises out of the experience of suffering, or seeing suffering, while the wicked walk around happy and free.
Laura Jean said these Psalms exist because someone asked, ”But why are you so angry?” Sometimes, when someone says that to you, doesn't it make you want to scream! Or explode? Moreover, sometimes we have experiences of such radical dissonance we find ourselves praying for revenge and retribution. Like Psalm 35: “Let disaster come to them when they don’t expect it.” Psalm 35 is a trip. For times when we feel God has betrayed us. “How long are you going to let this happen?” This isn’t supposed to happen to me.
The wonderful thing about such Psalms is that they are full of the stuff that good Christians aren’t supposed to think, let alone say out loud. With the Psalms, however, "Israel insists that communion with God must be real and honest, open to criticism, argumentative, and thereby capable of transformation."
Naturally then, we move along to re-orientation. But not so fast. This isn’t a workout program. The psalms of reorientation, Laura Jean Truman says, aren’t about self-help. “They are the words of people who have experienced a miracle, against all odds.” Listen to her beautiful descriptions: “Gasps of thankfulness when the impossible breaks through. Whispers of delight when the unimaginable has happened. When God has broken into time and space and done something with our efforts that we could not have anticipated and certainly could not have created alone. The psalms of reorientation speak of surprise and wonder, miracle and amazement, when a new orientation has been granted to the disoriented, especially when there was no reason to expect it.” 
She advises, we don’t “get out of” disorientation by our achievements or on our own timetable. These psalms aren’t something we’ve built out of the rubble of our deconstructed house. It’s looking back and realizing what God has done for us. Although, it’s not a return to something we once knew. It’s the gift of a brand-new thing – a new heaven and a new earth. God says, “See! I am making all things new!”
Of course, not surprisingly, all 150 psalms do not fit into such neatly defined categories. Psalm 115 fits, at least in part, as a psalm of orientation that explains their identity as a monotheistic people. A celebration of God also intended as a defense of monotheism – one god, the God of Israel, a god who cannot be seen. A God who does what she pleases. Quirky line, right! They were surrounded by polytheistic cultures – nations with many gods – whom the Psalmist memorably describes:
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
On the one hand, that’s really funny to imagine. On the other hand, this is highly offensive. It smacks of smug, self-righteousness. Religious exceptionalism. In fact, the word idol itself is what we say about someone else. We are smarter or more faithful or more righteous than those “other people” who… So, it’s important to identify this temptation to create idols out of things other people do.
Therefore, perhaps we should just get rid of the concept of idol worship altogether. And yet, the video images of ecological destruction and people behind fences helps us see – there are real idols made of silver and gold. That have real consequences.
For example, who has a mouth that doesn’t speak? Like the image in the video, politicians in front of a microphone.
Who has ears but cannot hear? Anyone who can ignore the cries of kids in cages.
Who has eyes but can’t see? The video shows people walking past a hungry man. It’s also anyone who hears the cacophony of cries from across the country “I can’t breathe” but refuses to see systemic racism. What idol is being worshiped? Right alongside white supremacy, the idol of complicit silence.
Who has a nose that doesn’t smell? Those who put toxic dumps next to low-wealth neighborhoods or dump sewage into rivers and lakes. And so on and so on.
And so, the Psalmist says, “Those who make idols are like their idols, so are all who trust in them. But, O Israel, trust in the Lord! House of Aaron, trust in the Lord. All who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord. God is your help and protector. God is mindful of us, blesses us and gives us increase.”
This Psalm is a praise song to their God, about their identity, set against what other people do -- worship idols. But a faithful interpreter of this text asks us, what idols do we worship? And might that not explain, in part, why we feel disoriented at times? And then set us on the path toward reorientation?
That’s my natural inclination. A three-step process. What can I do? What plans can we make? Let’s set goals and work toward them. But what does it mean if we can’t achieve re-orientation based on our own hard work and good efforts? Notice that my idol is "achievement?" And a few more things!
Let’s go back to that quirky line: God does what she pleases.
Walter told the story of a neighbor who won’t wear a mask. “Well, if I die, it must be my time.” He said, “It’s such a statement of despair and resignation. A refusal to take any initiative or responsibility. Utterly without hope or expectation for anything new. A passive recipient of what comes, whether what comes is from God or elsewhere.” Just like inanimate and powerless idols who can do nothing. They can’t even make a sound in their throats.
Walter said, “I don’t conclude that my neighbor is a worshiper of idols. I do conclude that she has willingly signed on for a world in which she is not expected to play any role in shaping the future that is to come upon us.” Because those who worship powerless idols become like those idols – powerless and inanimate.
No, instead, we worship a God who does what God pleases. Which sounds like a capricious God who could care less whether or not you and I get Covid 19, too busy having fun in heaven. But Walter’s point is that if we worship a God who can do anything she pleases, then we worship a living God – not an inanimate one who has no power in the world. You become like that which you worship. So, “if we worship the God who freely does what she pleases, we become free like the God of freedom.”
In this psalm of orientation, we affirm, Israel is not passive. Throughout scripture, it is repeatedly asked to “choose life so that you may live.” And neither are we passive.
Indeed, the future is of our choosing. That’s not meant to make us feel powerful. Much to the contrary, the implications are overwhelming. The freedom to choose always is.
But get ready for what is really overwhelming:
The gasps of thankfulness when the impossible breaks through. We worship a God for whom the impossible breaks through.
Get ready for whispers of delight when the unimaginable has happened. Because we worship a God from whom the unimaginable happens all the time.
Get ready for the God who breaks into time and space and does something with our efforts that we could not have anticipated and certainly could not have created alone.
Let us trust in and, through what we choose to worship, become more like this God.
Sources quoted and consulted:
Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002).
The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Walter Brueggemann. “The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function.” Ed. Patrick D. Miller.
 www.theworkofthepeople.com – search for Psalm 115
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 14, 2021
“What Love Does”
1st Corinthians 13: 1-13 – New Revised Standard Version
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
This passage suffers from familiarity. It’s heard so often at weddings that we could easily assume that chapter 13 is about two lovers. If you want something for that, go the steamy poetry of Song of Solomon, that’s where you’ll find biblical erotica.
I didn’t choose to read this passage because it’s Valentine’s Day. Well, maybe I did a few weeks ago. But I actually think this text is a fitting response to this week’s trial of the former president.
It was a hard week. Like you, I watched again with horror the images of violent mobs, incited by their commander, smashing doors and windows; crushing law enforcement between doors and beating them with pipes and flag poles; we heard them chant death to the vice-president, a gallows built and noose hung conveniently nearby; I felt something in my throat as horrified Senators scurried through the labyrinth of hallways to avoid the mobs; and I cried while house members recounted grabbing gas masks and removing their congressional pins, listening as battering rams tried to break into the chamber. This week was traumatizing for them and for all of us, the whole country, all over again.
Or it was no big deal. Boring enough to sit doodling with your feet up. Are we really so divided that we can’t even agree on this?
Paul was so concerned about what he heard regarding the bitterly divided Corinthian church, he sat down to compose a letter to them. Perhaps we might consider his words about love.
But first, we can’t skip to the words of love in chapter 13 without first going through conflict in chapter 12. Paul received word about contention among the Corinthians, arguing about whose gifts were the greatest. He wrote to them that there are a variety of gifts that all come from the same Spirit. To one person is given wisdom, to another knowledge; to one is given faith, and to another healing. Or prophecy, or discernment of spirits, miracles, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. There are lots of gifts of the Spirit. But he kept repeating, not one of them is better than another because they all come from the same Spirit. The Spirit decides who gets what. How could one thing be better? So, stop arguing.
Paul continued by describing or comparing the church to the body of Christ. No part of the body is more important than another. He explained, the eye can’t say to the hand, I don’t need you. Furthermore, no part of the body is more honorable than another. In fact, Paul said, the less “respectable” members should be treated with greater respect.
This wasn’t meant as just metaphor or rhetoric. The early church was radically egalitarian. Men and women shared leadership, often to the amazement of outsiders. In the church, people who were slaves and people who were free were to be equals. Jews and Gentiles worshiped together, although, they were still debating such questions as whether non-Jewish believers had to first become Jewish to be Christian? That was also part of the conflict Paul addressed in 1st Corinthians.
Chapter 12 is one of the most important and consequential parts of the Bible laying out, in the midst of conflict, a beautiful description of the Christian way. No part of the body is more important than another; as Paul said, honor was to be given to the least. And, of the many wonderful gifts of the spirit, not one of them is better than another, because the same Spirit gives them all.
He then ended chapter 12 by saying, “But strive for the greater gifts.” Wait. I didn’t think any gift was better than another, but some are “greater”? And still more curiously, these are not Spirit given? We have to strive for them? That’s when he told a bitterly divided people that he would show them “a still more excellent way” and said:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Those words have a context among a divided people. They aren’t the flowery words of an imaginary world but a real challenge to living, breathing people.
“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Paul explained this is the “still more excellent way.” There’s faith. And there’s hope. And there’s love. But the greatest of these is love. For which he calls us to strive.
Love is patient. Or are we to strive for love that is patient? Love is kind. Or are we to strive for love that is kind? Perhaps both. That love is and we must strive for love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Strive for love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. Strive for love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Strive for love that never ends.
On the one hand, all that striving sounds exhausting. Not exactly a gift. On the other hand, I can do that. That’s hopeful because we can strive for love when we’re not feeling it. We can strive for love that never ends, although, I have to add, in my experience, and perhaps in your experience too, some love ends. Some love is asked to bear, put up with, too many things, even becoming an excuse for abuse. Maybe that’s one way we know this passage isn’t first and foremost about two lovers or a marriage. But neither do I think a community or country should simply “put up with” anything and everything. I appreciate Paul’s clarification that love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.
But then there’s the Senate. We were not only traumatized by repeated images of violent mobs, pictures of gallows and noose, haunted by chants and screams and battering rams. Worse, the means for even a modicum of justice was offered but denied in monstrous and preposterous ways – to use the words of the indefensible. Truth was spoken, but to use the words of Paul, people rejoiced in wrongdoing.
Can we be honest? Love? I don’t love those people. I don’t want to love those people. They have no interest in loving back. I’m tired of striving for love from hateful people. But of course, to be clear, there are some good but misguided people in that mix – not in the sense of very fine nazis. But people with whom we simply share a different world view, some of whom are members of our families. Yet it’s the others that draw me dangerously close to hate. That is, if we dare be honest.
To which I hear Paul saying, keep striving for the more excellent way. Keep striving for love. And that will make a difference. Dr. King had a lot of personal experience with this, and he explained:
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.
That’s what love does.
That’s why I think 1st Corinthians 13 is just what we need today. Strive for love, love that is patient and kind and all the rest. Keep hoping for it. Praying for it. For as long as necessary. Love doesn’t give up. And because God is love, our striving for love puts us into the presence of God, and with that, we can do anything.
I know it was a hard week. But we can keep striving for love. Together.
Prayer for Victims at the U.S. Capitol and Our Nation
Holy Spirit, mighty in your mercy, give tender consolation to the victims of terrorism at the US Capitol, and be with our leaders as they relive violence and trauma. Be with all who suffer nightmares: those who frantically reached for gas masks, removed their Congressional pins, listened to the screams of insurrectionists using battering rams to break through the doors that separated them from mobs. We pray for those watching footage of their rush to safety through the labyrinth of hallways to avoid the violent mobs, grateful for those who protected them. Console the families who received afternoon phones calls saying, “I love you.” We especially pray for those who died while protecting Members of Congress, and those who took their lives afterward. Lord, in your mercy, we beseech you to touch them with healing grace.
January 6th wasn’t a day isolated from others. The fevered pitch of lies ignored, the foreshadowing violence unheeded. Not in our country, we thought. Our innocence violated, assumed of foreigners who wish to undermine democracy, not our neighbors. We also pray for people of color and religious minorities, forced to relive their trauma, the same violent acts of terror throughout history and today by white supremacists and neo-Nazis and “Christian” nationalists demanding their privilege, refusing the rest of us the simple freedom to live without fear of violence and terror. Open the eyes and ears of all in denial who say, “this is not who we are.” Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.
We also pray for those who stormed the capitol, those who erected gallows and hung nooses, who chanted death to the vice-president, who smashed doors and windows, and assaulted law enforcement with pipes and flag poles, attempting to overthrow the government. All for lies and power at all costs. Touch their hearts with the insight of their actions, with the truth that sets us free, that we may turn together toward peace and goodness, respect for all life, and appreciation for our wonderfully diverse country, a banner of hope for many around the world. Convict the conscience and awaken the minds of the Senators who refuse to acknowledge their complicity, who refuse the healing for the rest of us that comes from accepting consequences. We beseech your mercy, O God, to touch their hearts with healing grace, too. The healing that comes only through accountability, especially for the instigator in chief.
O God, Holy Spirit, consoler, tender but mighty in your mercy, let justice flow like mighty streams and righteousness like ever-flowing waters, and hear our prayers. Amen
Rev. Dr. David Bahr, Pastor
Park Hill Congregational UCC, Denver, Colorado
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 7, 2021
“The Promises of God”
Mark 1: 29-39 – New Revised Standard Version
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I grew up in a church with very traditional gender roles. More than likely, you did too. Women cooked and served. Men built and repaired. The board of elders were all men. The Sunday School teachers were all women. Similarly, boys helped fix things. Girls helped in the kitchen, which is why it was so odd and out of place that I preferred to be in the kitchen, washing and drying dishes. But I found it much more interesting to listen to their conversations than talk about fertilizer and football. By the way, I hear there’s some kind of game later today.
In rural North Dakota where I was raised, churches would often have an annual dinner for the whole community. Northwood, the town where I went to school, only had two churches: Lutheran and Lutheran. One served an annual ham dinner. The other, Swedish meatballs (although that’s kind of odd since they were all Norwegians). People drove from miles around for those meatballs, along with boiled potatoes and lefse. One year, one of the organizers had a hip replacement and couldn’t be there to guide the process. She worried they would use boxed potatoes to avoid the pain of peeling them all. The pastor went to visit Helen a few days before the event and assured her that there were people at the church that very morning peeling potatoes. He said, “You sure must love cooking.” She replied, “oh heavens no. I don’t love cooking at all, but I love Jesus, and this is what I can do for him.” Nice! I love Jesus. And this is what I can do.
In today’s text, Simon’s mother-in-law had such a high fever, she was confined to bed. It’s not like she could have just taken some Advil. Fevers were a serious and potentially fatal problem. It must have taken a lot out of her. Therefore, don’t you think the least Simon could have done is let her get some rest before jumping up to serve? Why didn’t he say, “Hey ma, take it easy. I’ll make the sandwiches this time.” But clearly, healing by Jesus provided full restoration. There was no time needed for recuperation. She jumped right up to offer hospitality to her guests. “To serve,” the text says.
With our modern ears and sensibilities, my first reaction is to say “there we go again. Reinforcing gender stereotypes.” But if we dig a little deeper, we’ll realize that she and Jesus were upending stereotypes.
Here’s a couple of reasons why: First of all, she got it. Throughout his gospel, Mark tells one story after another about how the men didn’t get it. For example, they argued with each other about who was the greatest. They pushed children away who wanted to approach Jesus. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
One time, Jesus actually told Simon, whom we later know as Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Later, three times he denied even knowing Jesus. “I tell you, I don’t know him!” The third time, he heard a cock crow in the distance. On the other hand, his mother-in-law? She immediately got up and served Jesus.
However, the word “serve” here doesn’t mean she went into the kitchen to fix sandwiches. It’s a specific word Jesus used for himself. One day, James and John came to Jesus and said, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Um, OK, what’s that? “We want to sit next to you in your glory, one at your right hand and one at your left.” Picture Anthony Fauci standing behind Trump. Palm to his face.
Jesus responded by telling the disciples about rulers and tyrants who try to lord over people. “But not among you; whoever wishes to be great must be your servant.” And added, “I came to serve, not to be served.” That’s not a generic word, but the same one specifically ascribed to Simon’s mother-in-law.
She is the living demonstration of faithfulness in the eyes of Jesus. She and many other women, who “followed him and provided for him (served) when he was in Galilee; and still other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.” While the men hid in fear, they all courageously stood by Jesus while he hung from the cross.
Simon’s mother-in-law got it. She understood and immediately began to serve. But there’s one more thing. Back in verse 31, it says the fever left her when “Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up.” But “lifted up” is not exactly right. Other versions more accurately translate, “raised her up.” A parallel with Jesus. This word is used only one other time in Mark. In the second to the very last verse in the Gospel of Mark, the women who came to prepare Jesus’ body for burial were told he was not there. Why? “He has been… raised up.”
Simon’s mother-in-law is definitely not a gender stereotype. She is a powerful demonstration, a model for the kind of liberation Jesus practiced, which is why it’s so upsetting to see this text misused to claim, “see, the Bible says a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” As Cynthia Briggs Kittredge said, this woman is “an icon of resurrection and a paradigm [for] Christian ministry.” Not simply a paradigm for women, but for anyone who loves and wishes to be Christ-like.
When news got out about the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the “whole city” gathered around the door. Jesus cured many and cast out many demons. Terri talked about the meaning of demon casting last week.
Well, after an exhausting night like that, he got up early and went into the wilderness so he could be alone and pray. When Simon and his companions “hunted him down,” Jesus told them that it was time to leave Capernaum and go on to neighboring towns to “proclaim the message. Because that’s what I came out to do.”
“Proclaim the message.” I was curious. I didn’t want to assume I knew the answer, so I went back to the beginning of Mark. What’s “the message?” It says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Which kind of just leads to another question: What is the good news of God?
So, I asked our group at Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday. Laura pointed to the Exodus story and said the good news of God is liberation. And the prophets who proclaim justice and mercy. Marlene said, the good news of God is that God is love. John said, and not only that, the good news of God is that “we’re loved and we don’t have to do anything to earn it.” Bob added, “no matter what we’ve done, no matter our past or history.” Sharyl agreed and added, furthermore, the good news of God is that “we’re God’s skin in the world to each other.” We’re called to pass that love on. Or, in other words, we’re called to “serve.” In whatever ways we can.
Some days we love Jesus by peeling potatoes. Other days it’s working to overturn the death penalty. Some days it’s buying socks to give to women and men living on the street. Other days it’s calling members of Congress to demand accountability for lies and incitement to violence. Repent! Every day we can love Jesus by denouncing white “christian” nationalists – who, if they picked up a Bible and read some stories of Jesus, might realize there is nothing “Christian” whatsoever about supremacy and privilege. Jesus warned against tyrants like that – those who argue about who is great and demand to sit in seats of power.
But, if you love me, serve. Raise one another up. Free the captive. Mourn with the grieving. Bless the meek. Save the earth.
What would you say is the good news of God? Yes, it’s that we are loved unconditionally. It’s also justice and mercy and liberation, which we see in real life through examples of courage like Colin Kaepernick. That’s the good news of God. And the perseverance of Bryan Stevenson, who said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The good news of God is expressions of faith like Stacy Abrams. And the brilliance of Amanda Gorman. And the promise that we can change.
From today’s text, ultimately, the good news of God is everything you do for a neighbor who can’t do anything back for you.
 Mark 9:34
 Mark 10:13
 Mark 8:33
 Mark 14:66
 Mark 10:37
 Mark 10: 41-47
 Mark 15:41
 Like the Common English Bible and many others
 Commentary on workingpreaching.com
 Mark 1:14
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 24, 2021
“To Repair Our Nation”
Mark 1: 14-20 – New Revised Standard Version
John 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
I want to read one more piece of “scripture.” You might recognize it:
“We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.”
Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration on Wednesday made me feel like I’d been to church. But then again, so did President Biden’s speech. He gave a “sermon” full of themes about love and healing. He quoted Saint Augustine. And he stopped for a moment so we could pray together in silence – actually acknowledging the deaths of 400,000 citizens, a horrible percentage among 2 million globally. And actually acknowledging systemic racism “400 years in the making.” He even quoted the Psalms, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning.” That’s Psalm 30, verse 5. Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “The nights of crying your eyes out, will give way to days of laughter.”
It’s a new day in America. Breathe! Again, to quote Biden: A day for “hope, not fear. Unity, not division. Decency and dignity. Greatness and goodness.”
Yes! Let’s Make America Good Again. Kind. Decent – with admonitions, of course, not to whitewash our history. Whenever we say, “We’re better than that, that’s not who we are,” that willfully ignores our legacy of lynching and Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration, the Trail of Tears and broken treaties, internment camps and kids in cages. Yet, I felt inspired to do better.
As Amanda Gorman said,
“And yes, we are far from polished,
far from pristine,
but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose:
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
We have waited four long years – really, more like an emotional decade; we have long waited to hear an American president say: “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.” I appreciated that very important qualifier. And then, he admonished, “Our duty is to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
And one more line from Amanda Gorman:
“Being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
Yes, that is “The Hill We Climb.” And after all our waiting, I’m ready. Are you?
Perhaps like you, I have been thinking this week about my call for this new day in America. As a Christian, or as a person of faith, or simply as a person with a moral conscience – to what are you being called today? To what is our church being called? Is it something different? That’s the essential question of our text from the Gospel of Mark.
Four men in today’s reading quickly left their nets behind to follow Jesus. You can’t encounter that reading without asking, “Why?” At our Lunch and Lectionary on Thursday, Susan Yarbrough mused on that “infectious immediacy of Jesus.” Marlene Lederer says the same thing happens all the time. You see something and change direction. But as Larry Ricketts noted from his own life, not unless someone asks you. Most of us wait until we’re asked.
Perhaps those four men had been pondering their future as they sat in their boats, day after day, casting their nets. Overfishing and Roman taxation had made their work almost worthless. Why even bother? And then along came Jesus. Was there something specifically about him? There couldn’t have been much economic enticement about fishing for people – whatever that meant – instead of catching fish to sell or even fish for the supper table.
My friend Kate Huey said, “the difference is that Jesus didn’t give the disciples something new to do. Instead, he called them into new ways of being in the world.”
That sentiment is reinforced by one scholar who translated the Greek, not to mean that Jesus called them to fish for people, but rather, Jesus called them to become fishers of people. A calling to become someone more rather than to do something different.
Let me say again: Jesus didn’t give the disciples something new to do. Instead, he called them into new ways of being in the world. I think that’s true for us today, too.
We have had a unique calling for the past four years. The operative word for many of us these last four years has been “resist.” I have the word resist above the door as I walk into my office. But, I’m ready for what’s next. How about you?
To quote Amanda Gorman again,
“Being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
That is so right. It’s time to step beyond our commitment to resist and now to restore, reestablish, reinstate, return, renew… Biblically, to repair. Perhaps we should call her Reverend Gorman because she preached to us the biblical call of the Prophet Isaiah: to be “repairers of the breach.”
Here’s a little behind the story: After decades in Babylon, the exiles returned home to Jerusalem only to find their homes destroyed and their Temple in ruins. They didn’t know what else to do, so they went back to what they had done before, holding their fasts and rituals in the ruins of the old temple. But, in their minds, nothing was happening.
With self-righteous pity, they complained to God, “Why do we fast if you don’t see? Why humble ourselves if you won’t notice?” I’m not sure what they expected, but God replied, in Isaiah 58, verses 6-8, “Is this not the fast I choose? To break the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free?”
“The fast I choose is to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” And to end verse 12, Isaiah said: “You shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Interesting coincidence: Rev. William Barber used this same text for the inaugural prayer service, which I didn’t realize until after I wrote this.
Again, Amanda Gorman:
“Being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
As I contemplate this new day in America, that has a ring of authenticity to it. And a broad enough range that all of us can find our calling within it. Repairers of the breach – whether we are artists or economists, whether we are urban or rural, whether we are age 15 or 75, whether we have empty bank accounts or a healthy stock portfolio, together as Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists – we can all become repairers of the breach.
We may not yet know how, but perhaps just thinking about it this morning will help you contemplate your call for this new day in America. I find the language of repair helpful. And then, Isaiah said, our healing shall spring up quickly, if we break the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free.
Just a quick clarification. Repair is not a return to what was normal. It too was broken. Repairing the breach reaches farther back than the previous administration. True repair establishes a justice that was yet to be.
And a note of caution: In this new era where our convictions are closer to the president and party now in power, it is important to remember that our call is not to always be in agreement with political agendas but in alignment with the gospel values. Such as, actual economic justice and real racial equity – talk about a breach to repair! We’re not called to be sycophants, but bridge builders and prophets, which is, at times to offer support and at other times to critique. Like Dr. King said: “the church is not called to be the master or servant of the state, but rather to be the conscience of the state.”
And yet, perhaps today we can simply relish that it is a new day in America. We can breathe. And remember from the not yet but certainly could be Reverend Gorman:
[when we] merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and [we’ve changed] our children’s birthright.
I love being the