Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 14, 2019
“Why Has the United States Lost Its Capacity for Compassion”
Luke 10: 25-37 – Common English Bible
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Last week I preached about Naaman, the foreign army commander with a skin disease. He followed the instructions of the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the River Jordan and was healed. Naaman was an outsider, an enemy. He led battles that defeated Israel. As such, he was an incredibly unlikely recipient of grace and healing. But such is the wideness of God’s mercy, grace, and love. However, as I noted, that’s only half the story. The only half told in the lectionary. The story continues that Elisha’s protégé Gehazi attempted to make a profit off of Naaman’s misery. When he got caught, Gehazi was afflicted with the very skin disease Naaman had been cured of. It’s the promise of divine justice for those who try to profit off the misery of others. For example, how corporations such as the GEO Group make enormous profits from the secretive world of migrant detention centers, or how a certain politician uses the suffering of asylum seekers, kids in cages, to increase his poll numbers… There may be divine grace. But when Gehazi tried to profit off the misery of Naaman’s suffering, we also discover divine justice.
I like obscure stories like that. How many of you had heard of Naaman before? Just a few.
I also love the story of Queen Vashti in the Book of Esther, too. How many of you have heard of Vashti? One night the Queen was summoned by her husband King Ahasuerus. He told her to parade in front of a bunch of men who had been drinking for seven days so he could proclaim that she is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Ick, right! Some would make excuses for the king that he didn’t mean to degrade her. He just wanted to make the men jealous. Therefore, she shouldn’t be angry but be delighted by his pride. But Vashti refused the “honor” of being stared at by lustful men. So, for not playing along, she lost her crown and was banished from the kingdom.
A bombshell went off this week in progressive Christian circles when the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler announced she was leaving the esteemed Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is a glorious Gothic cathedral and a beacon of social justice – we’re proud, usually, to say it’s a federated church of the UCC and American Baptists. It’s where Dr. King gave his famous Vietnam speech. Many decades ago, it was the first church in the UCC to declare itself Open and Affirming to LGBTQ people. So, when Dr. Butler was named the first woman Senior Pastor of such a prominent church, finally, it was celebrated as a big crack in the stained-glass ceiling.
She is leaving, however, because she dared call out sexual harassment against her and other female staffers by, among others, a longtime leader in the church. Instead of taking her seriously, other leaders made excuses that he’s a good person, probably a large contributor, and, you know, he’s just “old school,” so you should understand and forgive him and move on… you know the drill. Dr. Butler was supposed to be grateful for the privilege of being the pastor of such a large, revered congregation and let sexual harassment wash over her shoulders like water off a duck. Instead, she followed the example of Queen Vashti. And as one author put it, “She was thrown off a stained-glass cliff.”
I like to tell the stories of people such as Naaman and Vashti and other more obscure characters from Anna the Mother of Mary to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. More than the heroes of the Bible, I like telling the stories of people with outrageous character flaws that demonstrate the depth, length, and breadth of God’s grace and love. Because, if them, then you and me too. When I tell their stories, I feel like I’m introducing you to interesting people at a dinner party. In contrast, who wants to chat with the Good Samaritan over cocktails? We already know his story.
How many of you have heard of the Good Samaritan? Even people who have never touched a Bible know that we’re supposed to act like Good Samaritans to people in need. It’s harder to preach on a story everyone already knows. And yet, we also believe that God always “has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” It’s a story worth repeating for a reason.
So briefly, a legal expert, sometimes called the young lawyer, asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Was he just an antagonist testing Jesus or did he sincerely want to know? Well, Jesus replied to his question with a question for which the legal expert knew the right answer. What does the law command? “To love God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” To the original question, whether a trick or sincere, Jesus answered, “You want eternal life? Go do that.” He didn’t say, first you must confess your sins, then go to a class so you can learn to say the Apostle’s Creed, promise to stop cursing, and refuse to bake a cake for a same gender wedding. No, “You want eternal life? Go love your neighbor as yourself.”
But then the legal expert asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Was he being genuine or was he looking for some exceptions clause? Sure, love your neighbor, but only if they are citizens. Surely not the trans soldier. Surely not Colin Kaepernick or the US women’s soccer team. I don’t know if Jesus rolled his eyes about the question. He simply answered by way of a story about a man beaten by robbers and left for dead alongside the road, passed by on the other side by a priest and a Levite.
Levites, by the way, if you’re wondering, were temple helpers and musicians. They both walked by. Sometimes excuses are made for them that they had to stay away because touching a dead body would make them unclean for their jobs in the temple. Jesus doesn’t make note of any excuses.
He simply tells how a Samaritan stopped, not only to help bandage him up, but how he extended compassion so far out of the ordinary, we respond “no way.” The care and the cost of what he gave the man was so over the top, we’re meant to be incredulous.
But along with the incredulous actions of the man who stopped alongside the way, the “who” was meant to shock the crowd. We’re supposed to have a visceral reaction. Gut level. No!!! Not them! For example, imagine that the hero of the story is a confederate flag waving Trump supporter who listens to Rush Limbaugh and rails against flag-burning liberals ruining our white culture. That’s the hero of the story. Or, depending on the crowd, it’s like Jesus is saying, only Nancy Pelosi stopped to help. Whichever side, say the name and cue the rage.
These days we feel a lot of rage. There are a lot of people about whom we feel only outrage. It’s gotten so that frankly, if the president did something of which I approved, I doubt I would believe it. That’s the exact visceral reaction of hearing a story of a “good” Samaritan. No. There is no such thing.
It’s not hard to identify someone as a stand-in for the Samaritan. But as ICE makes it raids today, trying to distract us from the fact that kids are still being locked into cages (that doesn’t poll quite as well among the base), it’s also not difficult to recognize the immediacy of the question, “Who is my neighbor.” It’s the migrant family frightened of opening the door this morning. Or any family who might be mistaken for being undocumented. But in this complicated world, who also is my neighbor? It’s Gehazi too, making profits from his stock in private prison detention centers. It’s the men in church who harass women pastors with impunity. They are my neighbor too.
But wait a minute. I just did the classic false equivalency. The post-white supremacist Charlottesville rally at which “there were fine people on both sides.” No, Dr. Amy Butler and the man whose “apology” to her included a bottle of wine and a t-shirt, get this, both with the label “Sweet b.i.t.c.h.”, are not equally fine people. Nor those who excuse him. Those who demand kids be locked in cages, those who profit from it, and those kids and their families are not morally equal.
What does “love my neighbor” mean then? God’s mercy may be wide, but it does not offer excuses or defend abuse. To “go and love your neighbor” requires both grace and accountability. It doesn’t forget that love and justice are two sides of the same coin, but that in the end, reconciliation is always the goal.
The story of a Samaritan who did good is meant to arouse disbelief and rage. Sometimes when a story is too familiar, it loses its edge. But even then, it’s easy to remain fixated on the doubt that anyone who is a Samaritan can be good and forget the ways that he was good.
“While traveling, he came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’”
Do you hear how beautiful that is? To pause and imagine the whole thing is to tear up. He came near him. He saw him. He was moved with compassion. The tenderness of his care. It’s extraordinary. To see people suffering and care. It makes me all the more sad to wonder, why has the United States lost its capacity for compassion?
Reading this story over and over, year after year, reminds us that compassion is the ultimate vocation of Christians. I’m grateful the legal expert asked, because it invites us to keep asking, in every generation’s time and place, who is my neighbor?
So, in that vein, do you know the name of the person sitting next to you? Or two people away or three rows ahead or behind you? It might be hard to take seriously the question “who is my neighbor” out in the world if I can’t answer that question in this room.
Some of you who came today know that we have an exciting new venture to announce at our semi-annual meeting after worship. Late last year we began preparing to engage in a new strategic planning process, helping us to discern our future. To what is God calling us as a church? Along the way we learned that it is difficult to do a strategic planning process when most people say, “I like what we’re already doing.” In fact, healthy, growing churches often have a harder time doing strategic planning than a church that feels stuck. Ironically, our strategic planning process got stuck. What we have known all along, however, even before we started, is that whatever we do, we need to feel more connected – more deeply connected to God and to one another. The only way the church will remain healthy and keep growing is if we are growing together as a community. When I feel stuck in my personal life, I call a therapist. When a church feels stuck, you call a consultant for advice and guidance! And I’m sure glad we got stuck because a whole new possibility opened up. For the next six months we will be engaging in what is called a “relational campaign.”
We’ll introduce Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher a little later and she’ll better explain the how. I need as much help as you to understand how. That’s why you hire consultants. But the what and why? To know one another and our neighbors more deeply. Many of us struggle with how to talk to people whose beliefs and values differ so sharply with our own. Practicing that, preparing for that, will be powerful. The possibilities for circles of transformation beyond our walls for us as individuals and as a larger community are exciting.
But in the end, trusting the process, relying upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we will know much, much more about who we are and who are neighbors are – both down at the end of your row of chairs and down at the end of the block and around the corner. I hope you want to know more about “who is my neighbor.” Why? Because then we can work together for a world that is Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 7, 2019
“Profiting Off the Misery of Children
1st Kings 5 - see the story within the text
My sabbatical earlier this year was full of experiences that left me overflowing with joy. There was one notable exception. My friend Chris, the pastor at Sixth Avenue UCC, and I went on a mini-civil rights tour of Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. Our first stop was at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered by white supremacists who threw a bomb at the church on Youth Sunday. We remember their names: Denise, Carole, Addie, and Cynthia. Across the street there were memorials to the 4,000 nameless school children who braved police dogs and fire hoses, including a statue of children behind jail bars. In Selma, we walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
But the real reason for the trip was to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, otherwise known as the lynching memorial. It is a monument of stunning proportions including 800 coffin shaped steel boxes hanging above your head, engraved with the names of more than 4,000 documented victims – men, women, and children. Like 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi, accused of flirting with a white woman. Among that list of names there are a disturbing number of 14, 15, and 16-year olds, like Ernest, Charlie, Jesse, Willie James, and an 18-year-old pregnant Mary Turner. Accompanying the lynching memorial is the Legacy Museum, which shows the uninterrupted, ever-adaptable strategies of white supremacists to dehumanize – methods that morphed from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to the pre-school to prison pipeline of mass incarceration. One particularly brutal exhibit is a hologram of a woman crying out for her children who had been ripped from her arms and sold on the auction block.
Naturally, children are on many of our minds this weekend, this weekend of celebrations for our freedom and independence, all the while migrant children are still being locked in cages, now debating the necessity of soap (?), ripped from their parent’s arms as they flee violence and seek asylum. Didn’t I just preach about this? I looked back and found my sermon from one year ago entitled “Children Ripped and Scattered” in which I read from the poem Home, written by Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”), the British/Somali poet. Here is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore.
Those lines are so painfully poignant as we recall images of the father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande two weeks ago, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria.
A year ago, we were shocked that the intentional cruelty of this administration could descend to such an unimagined level as to lock kids in cages as a strategy. Now it doesn’t shock us at all. Just more business as usual for the administration which was forced to admit there was no registry created to reunite children with their families, despite reassurances, and that a year later, some 300 are yet to be reunited. There are fears that some may be adopted without permission of their parents. Those fears are not unfounded. Families who agree to foster migrant children are told explicitly that they may not adopt those children. That didn’t stop one family in Michigan from suing to do exactly that, claiming they feared for the girl’s safety.
They probably read the glowing reviews from Bethany Christian Services about the joy of fostering a migrant child. Like Juanita. When Juanita and her older brother were apprehended by immigration, they were separated, and Juanita was placed in detention with other minors. Her brother was sent back to Guatemala. Juanita was sent to a family in Michigan. She didn’t want to go, but the testimonial claims that “over time, Juanita realized how much her foster parents cared for her. She slowly began to trust them. And eventually, that trust turned into love.” “Now,” she said, “when I think of family, the first thing that comes to mind is my foster family.” Today Juanita is completing a college degree in social work to help others navigate their own difficult journeys.
What an absolutely lovely sentiment, an uplifting outcome. I am grateful for families willing to offer a loving home. And horrified at how absolutely normal such testimonials portray the role of organizations like Bethany Christian Services, the Betsy DeVos funded agency, well connected and extremely well-compensated for their work. It may seem necessary and justified, but one day we’ll realize it is just as complicit as all the Christian denominations that facilitated the efforts of the federal government to “kill the Indian and save the man” during in the boarding school era. Another example of black and brown children ripped from their families, including plenty of “success stories” about children who were “educated” in those nightmare schools to become doctors and other professionals, overlooking the generational trauma of forced family separation.
Today’s reading is one of those success stories too, although the Juanita-esque aspect of it can be easily overlooked. There is a detail we often miss from the story we tell of Naaman. My seminary friend Katy Hawker, however, isn’t one to miss such details.
But first, the story: Naaman was an exalted army commander who had successfully led his soldiers to win difficult strategic battles. But this valiant soldier had a skin disease – sometimes called leprosy, though this was probably not that. As the story goes, during one of his successful campaigns against Israel, he brought a young girl back to be his wife’s servant. That girl suggested to Naaman’s wife that he should go see the prophet back in Samaria, in the territory of Israel, to be healed. Naaman asked the permission of his king, who agreed to send a letter to the King in Israel. When the king received the letter, however, he thought it must be a trick. “I’m not God, I can’t heal someone.” Naturally suspicious of his enemy, the king pondered, “What does he really want?” Elisha told the king to send him over. So Naaman, with all his many horses and chariots full of jewels and gold and gifts, stopped in front of Elisha’s house. Elisha had his servant tell Naaman to simply go wash in the River Jordan seven times and he would be clean as snow.
But the valiant and exalted army commander was furious. He was insulted that a mere servant spoke to him, not Elisha directly, and that he would tell him something so ridiculous. For one thing, someone of his stature was surely capable of a regimen more demanding than dunking himself in a river seven times. For another thing, the Jordan was a mud pit. The rivers back in Syria ran fresh and clean and pure, fed by the melting snow of the mountains. He was doubly insulted and underwhelmed. In a rage, he turned to go back home. But one of his servants carefully approached Naaman and suggested that if Elisha had told him to do something difficult, he would have done it. Why not do it if it’s simple? So Naaman, the great warrior humbled himself and went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as he was told, and his flesh was restored and became as clean as a young boy.
It’s a great story with a happy ending. There are themes of humility and trust and what happens when you swallow your pride and ask for a little help. It’s a good story for fiercely self-sufficient people who proclaim, “I can do it myself, thank you very much.” It’s a story of international cooperation between enemies. It’s a story of “ask and you shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” It’s a story for anyone who has refused a simple instruction, such as, I want peace in my soul, but don’t ask me to forgive my neighbor. I want a better relationship with my spouse, but don’t ask me to go to counseling. I want better friendships, but don’t ask me to be a better friend.
It’s a great story because Naaman, though reluctant, listened. It’s an even better story, however, because it all started with a little girl suggesting it. She, with no name and no power, proclaimed faith in the God of Israel and demonstrated God’s great power – available to everyone, not just those in Israel.
But wait. The little detail Katie mentioned? That girl? She was war booty; a captive. She was kidnapped from her home and made to be a slave. The spoils of war. With news stories for the past year about children in cages, how could we miss the detail that this girl was ripped from her family, too? Perhaps it’s because we can too easily turn her into a Juanita “success story.” Thanks to the great faith of the little girl, everything is OK because the valiant soldier was healed and made whole again. But what about her? Was she set free? Allowed to go back home? All of this “success” without naming the girl’s pain and trauma from being separated. Katie notes this is a “familiar pattern – when those in power celebrate the “faith” of the little ones on whose necks they stand. Accolades from the mighty for the faith of those they disempower.”
All of this is terrible and true. So, then what? What do we do with this?
I don’t envy those who must figure out how to handle the humanitarian crisis at our border. But I can’t help but notice the familiar response to black and brown children is to remove them from their parents. And for “religious” people like James Dobson to call them such things as illiterate and unhealthy and declare them a threat to “our culture.” Another white supremacist ever-adapting strategy to dehumanize black and brown people that must be dismantled.
So, there is one last part almost always left out when this story is told. Even the lectionary leaves this last part out. After Naaman’s skin is made whole, he returned home. He had come prepared to pay for his cure, so he brought loads of jewels and gold and clothing. Elisha refused payment. Grace and healing are not commodities. They are gifts. Free. Well, Elisha’s protégé Gehazi saw an opportunity for a little profit for himself. He chased after Naaman and told him that Elisha had changed his mind and wanted payment after all. Naaman was more than happy to oblige and even doubled the amount Gehazi had requested. When Gehazi got back home, Elisha asked where he had been. Like a teenager, he responded, “Nowhere.” “What have you been doing?” “Nothing.” But Elisha knew exactly what Gehazi had been doing. And so, for using the situation of free grace and healing to make a profit, Gehazi was stricken with Naaman’s skin disease, which, Elisha proclaimed, will “now cling to you and to your descendants forever. And immediately, Gehazi’s skin became as flaky as snow.”
I don’t know which makes this ending “happier.” Whether it’s thanks to the faith of that nameless little girl so Naaman’s skin was restored or the divine justice for those like Gehazi who seek to profit off the misery of others?
Like politicians on both sides of the aisles. Like companies such as the GEO Group and CoreCiviv who earned $985 million from ICE contracts in 2017 alone. Or Southwest Key which in the past few years has amassed almost $1 billion in contracts. Just one in the lucrative, secretive world of migrant-shelters. 547 Wayfair employees had enough. They walked off the job, writing, “We believe that by selling products to contractors who enable the violation of children’s rights are complicit in furthering the inhumane actions of our government.” Now, Bethany Christian Services, which collects $700 per night per child, doesn’t seem similarly concerned, nor do they seem concerned about Gehazi’s skin disease for profiting off misery.
What can you do? Are you certain you don’t have stock in companies like the GEO Group that profit off the misery of children? Do you have social responsibility screens on your investments? You can join us on our week long border immersion experience in September. Several UCC churches in Metro Denver, including ours, are collaborating right now to create a sanctuary space for families facing deportation in the building of one of our recently closed churches. It will need funding and volunteers. Those are only a few things.
Forced separation is simply wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. And it should be understood by all to be unchristian. But if they must be in our care, temporarily, are the children well cared for? Do they have enough to eat? Do they have soap, a toothbrush? Is someone lifting them when they cry? Is someone wiping away their tears? Are the children well?
And is someone holding the adults charged with their care accountable for their crimes against humanity?
Oh Lord, we pray for your divine justice for those who profit off the misery of children. And pray for the children and their families.
"For Children at Our Borders"
By Alden Solovy
God of mothers and fathers,
God of babies and children,
Youth and teens,
The voice of agony echoes across the land,
As children are taken from their parents,
Perverting our values,
Perverting the ways of justice and peace.
So that a few may reap the political rewards of their suffering
By playing tough at our borders.
Source of grace,
Creator of kindness and goodness,
You call upon us to stand in the name of justice and fairness,
To witness against this abuse of power,
To battle the systematic assault on human beings,
To speak out against their suffering.
Bless those who rise up against this horror.
Bless those who plead on behalf of the oppressed and the subjugated before the seats of power.
Bless these children
Who wait in misery
To be reunited with their families
Bless those bondage at the hand of the U.S. government.
Grant comfort and consolation.
Release them. Free them. Heal them from trauma.
Reunite them with their families.
Hasten the day of their reunion.
Blessed are You, God of All Being,
Who summons us to oppose violence, slavery and injustice.
 https://medium.com/poem-of-the-day/warsan-shire-home-46630fcc90ab - I just used a short excerpt
 Slightly adapted - https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2018/06/19/3-prayers-children-our-borders
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 30, 2019
“If Not for the Drag Queens”
Stonewall at 50
I will hope to assume that everyone has heard of Stonewall. Who has heard of Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera?
Malcolm was born in 1945 and at the age of 5, began wearing dresses, but stopped after being teased. After graduation from high school, Marsha went to New York City with a bag of clothes and $15, landing in Greenwich Village, which, although at the time it was one of the most tolerant places for people like her, it didn’t protect them from constant police harassment. Harassment ordered for anyone who didn’t conform to gender or sexual norms. For example, individuals had to be wearing at least three items of clothing that matched your gender.
Isn’t that interestingly specific? Three items of clothing. Not two, not four. And just what would have constituted the clothing of your gender? Real men only wear cotton briefs? And can you even imagine what it would feel like to have the police checking your body for the right clothing and counting out loud? One, two… Or can you imagine being the officer assigned to carry out this particular law, which they did not pass, but for which they were responsible to enforce? By anatomical exam if necessary.
Those were small indignities, however, in the face of the reality that no one would hire someone like Marsha. So, like a lot of the others at the time, Marsha was frequently homeless and often worked as a prostitute to survive. She was religious. She loved Jesus, she said, because, “he is the only man I [can] really trust. He listens to all my problems, and he never laughed at me.”
Marsha was generous to a fault and had a jubilant and open personality. She took in anyone in need. Which is how she met Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia’s father abandoned her at birth. Her mother killed herself when she was 3. Now living with her grandmother, whenever Sylvia was caught trying on her clothing and makeup, she was beaten. By 11, she ran away and became a child prostitute. That’s when she met Marsha on the street. Marsha had a habit of taking in young people and becoming the mother they never had, offering the stability and love of a home they had never experienced.
Both were at the Stonewall Inn that night 50 years ago, on the night of June 28, 1969, when police raided at 1:20 am, the second time that week alone. Interesting side note. The mob owned most of the gay bars in New York, running them as private clubs because such bars couldn’t get liquor licenses. It was a cash cow for the mob. Some claim that’s why Stonewall was raided that night. But the patrons didn’t care what the reason was. For whatever combination of reasons, this time, they had had enough.
Patrons had never fought back before. Police counted on it. But this time when police hit a black woman named Storme wearing men’s pants, she hit back. They tried three times to push her into the police car. She kept fighting her way out. Someone then yelled to turn over the car. Things escalated from there. Merely taunting the police became throwing coins, then beer cans; then cobblestones scooped out of the street to throw at the bar where police gone in to take refuge; to then pulling a parking meter out of the ground to use as a battering ram to force the door open; to setting trash cans on fire; to throwing lighter fluid and a match into the bar through broken windows. It was a riot.
Inspector Pine was within seconds of ordering his officers to use their guns, but backup finally arrived and began to haul rioters away. But not everyone. Tension remained high. Added by a growing number of people from the neighborhood and other bars who gathered around, all of them unaware that they were witnessing the birth of the modern LGBTQIA+ liberation movement. A riot by queer people. A riot, of course, as Martin Luther King, Jr, reminded us “is simply the language of the oppressed.” “Queer people,” a name now reclaimed by the descendants of those who fought back.
Stonewall wasn’t, however, the first time queer people fought back. There was the “Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot” in LA in 1959. The “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot” in San Francisco in 1966 and the “Sip-In” at Julius’s in New York City. The Cooper’s and Compton’s riots involved the same kind of crowd that gathered at the Stonewall Inn. Racially mixed, mostly poor, men who called themselves drag queens, women who dressed in shirts and trousers, and a collection of people who weren’t welcome anywhere else.
The Sip-In, however, was markedly different. A group of well-dressed gay men challenged the law against serving homosexuals by asking to be served. The bartender denied them, which ultimately led to a court case that overturned the law. One of the first gay rights groups ever formed, the Mattachine Society, in the 1950s, believed in the power of respectability. That kind of contrast over the means and method of social change has roiled in queer and other marginalized communities ever since. Is respectability inherently better?
Stonewall wasn’t a one-night event. Skirmishes continued throughout the weekend and into a sixth day. At “Gay liberation” marches and protests that followed in the days and years after, people like Marsha and Sylvia were pushed off stage. Literally. Things came to a head at the Pride March in 1973 when Sylvia was repeatedly blocked from speaking. When she finally grabbed the microphone, she shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queens, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”
Sylvia was booed and jeered, and she took the rejection hard. After the speech, she attempted suicide. Marsha found her and saved her life. Sylvia eventually gave up activism but not before she and Marsha co-founded an organization known as STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha pressed on and continued to mother kids who escaped the brutality of their homes seeking love and acceptance in New York City. In the 1980s she began caring for people with AIDS, disproportionally affecting exactly those same young black and brown people who looked up to her. Her life ended in tragedy when her body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. She had been the victim of repeated violent attacks. Police ruled her death a suicide. Friends believe she was murdered. To this day, the case is still open. There is a documentary about Marsha’s death and life on Netflix right now. Sylvia Rivera died in 2002.
New York City announced earlier this month that both will be honored with a monument. It will be among the first such dedications to transgender people in the world. The current statues outside Stonewall Inn, declared a national monument by President Obama, are rightfully criticized for not portraying real heroes like Marsha who was black, Sylvia who was Latinx, both of whom called themselves drag queens.
In the intervening 50 years, so much has changed and so little has changed. Denver’s first Pride event in 1975 was a small gathering. The first parade was the following year. Shari Wilkins was there. She said, “It wasn't much of a parade. But Purnell Steen and his band played on the back of a flatbed truck. Sweet.”
Quite unlike this year’s parade of hundreds of thousands, officially titled “The Coors Light Denver Pride Parade.” Those who have lived in Denver longer than I would testify to that unlikely alliance. Is that social progress or smart marketing? I saw a tiny little hand-printed sign along the parade route this year. “Queer Liberation or Rainbow Capitalism?” It’s nice to have “respectable” businesses show their support. There were hundreds of float entries, including from major banks, dentists, car dealers, insurance and accounting firms, Xcel Energy. But would any of them have allowed Marsha and Sylvia to ride on their elaborate and expensive floats? Indeed, how little has really changed.
Instead, trans women of color like Marsha and Sylvia are still among those most likely to experience violence and death. Rejected youth are still homeless and prostitution is still used as a means of survival. The murder rate for trans women of color is outrageous. Just as I was writing this on Friday morning, news came that Brooklyn Lindsay was found dead in Kansas City, on the same street corner where Tamara Dominguez was murdered four years ago. Last year, while President Bone-Spur was preparing to ban the proud and brave transgender soldiers already serving, 29 trans women of color were murdered.
At the same time, I have to say it feels good to have people want to support you. And for our power to have increased so exponentially. Especially in the United Church of Christ. During seminary in the late 1980s, I went out and spoke to churches who wanted to see a live homosexual. I would allow them to debate my humanity. I let them ask why they should accept me. I listened as they complained that next it will be the pedophiles asking for compassion. After guest preaching one Sunday, a woman walked around me looking me up and down. “I’ve never seen one of you in person before.” She was actually very nice and genuinely curious. If not a little creepy. But it was soon after that I decided to end being the Gay on Parade, declaring the debate over. On the national setting of the UCC, the debate has also been largely settled. At least we thought it was until a new kind of resolution was debated at General Synod this past week in Milwaukee.
Over the last 15-20 years, a significant number of the most conservative UCC churches have left, especially after General Synod declared support for marriage equality in 2005. Though to be fair, conservatives have been leaving since 1948 when they formed a separate denomination called the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. After 2005, a group remained, however, and organized themselves into the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” movement to encourage “UCC churches, pastors, and members who consider themselves ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional) to remain in the UCC rather than separating.” About 70 churches formally declare this affiliation while, on the other hand, over 1,500 churches have formally declared themselves Open and Affirming – about 1/3 of all congregations. The other 2/3 are on a range from being open and affirming in practice but not name; to ones which simply won’t talk about it for fear their churches would split; to ones who have more in common with folks who call themselves Faithful and Welcoming.
So, a resolution came to General Synod to deny the Faithful and Welcoming folks a booth in the exhibit hall. The reason? Their promotional materials said 1) marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, 2) churches should change their bylaws to disallow practicing homosexuals as clergy and same sex marriages in the church, and 3) use a litmus test in clergy interviews whether they would consent to officiate at same sex ceremonies.
The argument was that if they are banned from the exhibit hall, then attendees would be spared the trauma of encountering their “emotionally and spiritually hurtful” message. Should a denomination whose resolutions call for marriage equality and affirm LGBTQ clergy include space for a group whose values are at odds with that?
But what would that say to conservatives within the church? This is not about letting Focus on the Family have a booth. These are our siblings in the UCC. They came out with a response that included these two statements in particular: “We affirm the civil rights of and believe in an extravagant welcome for LGBTQ persons in the life of church. And we acknowledge with deep regret past and present pain inflicted on LGBTQ persons by self-identified people who are evangelical, conservative, orthodox, and traditional (ECOTs) within and beyond the UCC.” They removed the three objectional items from their website and materials and asked to remain in relationship. At a hearing before debate, the founder offered an apology. It was a stunning reversal.
In advance of formal debate, the Open and Affirming Coalition offered its own written response opposing the exclusion of Faithful and Welcoming Churches, stating that “as a movement and a church, we need to stay in relationship with non-Open and Affirming churches, because otherwise there is no possibility of transformation,” calling for “graceful engagement.”
That did not settle the matter, however. The floor debate was painful as queer youth, in particular, shared very emotional testimonies that the church should be a safe space. The counter-arguments in support of conservatives were often by other LGBT people, including one pastor whose own ordination was subject to painful delays. Ultimately, the matter was tabled and sent to the United Church Board, seeking to craft some alternative, middle ground. Naturally, that was not a satisfactory answer for some who felt that meant we were backing down from our commitments to LGBT people.
My perspective is that it is better for us to stay engaged. I am grateful for the presence of anyone in our denomination who wishes to be in graceful engagement. At this moment in our country’s history, as we struggle to speak to one another across hard lines, we can demonstrate that it is possible. That we are transformed by being in relationship. It is also a sharp contrast with the United Methodist Church right now on the brink of schism because conservatives want to force progressives and moderates out of the church. Very angrily, “just get out already.”
I was pleased that we agreed to a temporary pause. And yet, as we commemorate 50 years of Stonewall, I wonder whether Marsha and Sylvia would agree. Have they been once again sacrificed on an altar of respectability? If marginalized people tell us that they have been hurt, whose voice shall we heed? In the end, conservatives have other options. For many queer people, the UCC is one of only a few places of spiritual refuge. Even then, honestly, how many of our 1,500 Open and Affirming Churches would be comfortable having Marsha or Sylvia speak from the pulpit?
How powerful would it be to hear Marsha testify that Jesus “is the only man I [can] really trust. That he listens to all my problems,” and in particular, “he never laughed at me.”
A final word. The officer who led the police into the Stonewall Inn that night, Inspector Pine, formally apologized for his role, 15 years before the police department gave an official apology. He also said, understanding the power of redemption, the possibility of transformation, “if what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.” But, nothing would have happened that night if not for the drag queens.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 2, 2019
“Memo to Franklin Graham”
1st Timothy 2: 1-3 – Common English Bible
First of all, then, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people. 2 Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior.
Franklin Graham called for a nationwide observance of prayer for the president today, Sunday, June 2. So, in response, on Facebook I declared today a day to pray that the country be saved from the President. Or as someone else said better, to pray for the victims of the president.
A woman who follows me on Facebook sent an angry text accusing me of asking people to pray against the president. So, let me be clear. I believe we should pray for the president. That’s a clear instruction in the Book of First Timothy. The question is for what are we praying? For that, we’ll also look at First Timothy.
But first, here is what Graham wrote: “President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency. I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God. This is a critical time for America. We’re on the edge of a precipice. Time is short. We need to pray for God to intervene. We need to ask God to protect, strengthen, encourage, and guide the President.”
There are things in that statement with which I agree. God’s intervention. God’s guidance. But the not-so-subtle subtext of the declaration is for God to intervene against the president’s “enemies.” To strengthen him against his enemies, who in other settings his supporters have called “demonic.” To use the word “demonic” and “enemies” about fellow citizens is to invite people who are unstable to carry out a righteous crusade for God that includes bloodshed.
In my first sermon after the election I also prayed for intervention. The intervention of the Holy Spirit. Prayer that the “matches of the arsonists won’t light; that the paint of the spray cans malfunction. So that the tongues of bullies are tamed and the spirits of the victims are lifted.” As I said then, my prayer is not for the failure of the president but that our country be saved from the apocalyptic nightmare candidate Donald Trump promised. Promises made. Promises kept.
When the president was first elected, some Episcopalians faced a dilemma. In the Book of Common Prayer, followed by Anglicans around the globe, among the prayers of intercession is a line to pray for the president by name every week, or the leader of the country in which a congregation is praying. That took on new meaning when I worshiped in a church in Thailand that follows the Book of Common Prayer. We prayed for the King of Thailand by name, adding a word of gratitude for the freedom to worship. But among the responses to the 2016 election was a parish in California that refused to say the name Donald because, the priest explained, his name is “literally a trauma trigger to some people.” Debate ensued.
Michael Curry is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. He made history as the first African American presiding bishop. But Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made him famous with his powerful sermon on love at their wedding. About this controversy over prayer he wrote: “I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them. And then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following in the way of Jesus whose way is of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”
He added, “Prayer is not a simplistic cheer or declaration of support. Prayers of lament [,for example,] cry out in pain and cry for justice.” When we pray for the president, we are actually praying for our nation. As another person said, “Prayer is not endorsement. It is a plea to God for change.”
And yet, the question remained, must we use his name? People have argued that we should say “45” instead of Trump. Or simply say the “Occupant of the White House.” Or, following in the form of Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
But the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, also written by Luke, refer to the ruling authorities by name all the time. The Roman Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Herod the Great – who was really awful. Herod Antipas – who was even worse. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. One commentator observed that without grounding prayer in that kind of specific reality, it is just vague piety. Names represent reality.
Whether we speak the name or not, the author of First Timothy is certainly clear: “I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people. Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority.” Another translation ups the word “ask” and says “I urge you to pray” for them. Please note, however, the prayer is not for God to intervene on behalf of the king, emperor, or president to prevail over his enemies.
So maybe in the Old Testament when religion and the governing authorities were the same thing, prayers might have included the vanquishing of one’s enemies, but we are reminded that there were also times when religion and state were not the same thing, such as when the Israelites were in Babylon and the prophet Jeremiah told the exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile, because if it prospers, you will prosper too.” Which is certainly one reason we shouldn’t pray against any one.
But for what does this text ask us to pray? “That we may live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity.” Sounds nice. I’d like some peace and quiet out of Washington. But what does that mean? Or perhaps a better question is to ask first: what did it mean then?
Because it’s important to know a little something about the rest of the first letter to Timothy. The letter itself claims to have been written by Paul, but that is highly unlikely. Scholars date it to approximately the year 125, long after the death of Paul and other first-generation followers of Jesus. By that time, the concerns of the early Christians changed from being a radical movement to an institution. First Timothy is full of concerns for the institutionalization of the church – describing the qualifications of bishops and deacons and regulating the conduct and even dress of the congregations.
It is also here that we get such problematic texts as “women must keep silence in the church” and how only “worthy” widows should receive assistance from the church. Women here are told their salvation is found in child-bearing. The author also commands the obedience of slaves to their masters. If your master is a Christian, you should want to be an even better slave.
Within this context of six short chapters, we start to get a better idea of what the author means to pray for kings and other authorities. It’s a radical departure from the early Christians who practiced an unusual form of equality among “Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free,” as written in the letter to the Galatians. Paul describes women as equals in spreading the gospel and leading the church. Women like Tabitha were disciples. Paul commended Phoebe, describing her as a leader of the church. Priscilla. Junia, an apostle. Junia landed in jail for her role as a church leader. Paul celebrated these and other women whose names I don’t want to try to pronounce in front of you.
But it seems like the farther the church got from Jesus and Paul, the more it adopted the culture around it. Or, rather, accommodated itself to patriarchal culture around it. So that men wouldn’t have to explain any more why they weren’t like “real men.”
Throughout First Timothy, the quiet and peaceful and dignified context of the church was described as a “household.” Household sounds nice, except when what that really means is that the man is back at the top of the order. Quietness through repression. Peace through hierarchical order. The way the emperors ruled the Roman Empire. Could Jesus have really wanted that to happen among his followers? Or the “real” Paul?
First Timothy speaks nothing of grace, another clue that this isn’t Paul. The word love is almost completely missing.
I had previously understood the instruction for women to keep silent in the church as simply the description of a problem that women kept yelling over at their husbands during worship to explain what was being said. I bought into the explanation that they should talk later. But the real “problem” was that men were tired of women exercising leadership and wanted it to stop. To bring about peace and quiet.
Franklin Graham cites the First Timothy text we read today in his call to pray for the president. What is the quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity that he seeks? A world of:
I totally agree with Franklin Graham on one point: “I believe the only hope for the president, and this nation, is God. This is a critical time for America. We’re on the edge of a precipice. Time is short. We need to pray for God to intervene.”
In Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi was asked whether there was a proper blessing for the Czar. The rabbi answered, “A blessing for the Czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar … far away from us!”
But seriously, for what should we pray? The Book of Common Prayer includes this Prayer for the President: “Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear.” And so as I believe we should, for our president, Donald Trump, we pray.
That’s prayer #19. Prayer #18, a prayer for our country, comes first. Dear God, “Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home…”
These words were not written yesterday, though they could have been. Although if it were written yesterday they would have hopefully clarified the words “multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.” That’s about as clear as Robert Mueller press conference. The prayer is closer to the quote by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Many kindreds and tongues? Many nations, races, and languages.
Bishop Curry said, “We got on our knees in church and prayed for [our leaders]. And then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following in the way of Jesus whose way is of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”
That’s my prayer. Can I get an Amen?
 An excellent source of information is from The Women’s Bible Commentary, section written by Joanna Dewey. Also see Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written
 The Women’s Bible Commentary
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 26, 2019
“Abortion and the Bible”
Psalm 139: 1-4, 13,14 – New Revised Standard Version
Now O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Thanks be to God!” as a response to, “The Word of the Lord.” For example, in today’s gospel, I desire the abundant life of which Jesus speaks. So, I can easily respond: “Thanks be to God.” And then there are other times. The Bible offers lots of those other times!
Listen for the Word of God in the Book of Exodus, chapter 23, verse 5: “When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it’s lying down under its load and you are not inclined to help set it free, you must help set it free.”
Exodus has a lot of those very specific instructions, some of which we might think of as trivial. “When someone leaves a pit open or digs a pit and doesn’t cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into the pit, the owner of the pit must make good on the loss. He should pay money to the ox’s owner, but he may keep the dead animal.” It’s not trivial to the owner, but to say, “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?”
But then there are instructions like, “When you buy a male Hebrew slave…” and what follows is a list of do this and don’t do that. And then chapter 21 verse 7 begins very matter-of-factly, “When a man sells his daughter as a slave…” Well, I’d just as soon keep God out of all that.
These laws all follow after the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Among them is “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry.” Thanks God! But then it continues, “I’ll hear their cry and be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.” Thanks God?
Where am I going? Well, interspersed with all these laws and very specific instructions is this one: “When people who are fighting [happen to] injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman’s husband demands, as negotiated with the judges. If there is further injury, then you will give [what it’s worth]: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, bruise for bruise, wound for wound” etc. If a woman gets injured so as to cause a miscarriage, the penalty is a fine.
What’s the point of this obscure text? Placed within a Mosaic legal context, it is one very specific answer to the question – when does life begin? Theologically we could answer the question of when life begins by quoting such passages as Psalm 139. The Psalmist beautifully and poetically proclaims of God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible.
Likewise, Jeremiah 1:5 reads “Before I created you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I set you apart.”
Theologically, what this is saying is that God knew us before we even existed. God is the Alpha and the Omega. Theologically, God existed before the beginning and will exist after the end. But when does life begin legally, in the time of Moses? The fetus was not considered a “life.” It did not equate to a life in the way that one must pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. The loss of a fetus resulting from an injury sustained during a fight required the payment of a fine.
There is one other bizarre example I want to cite from the Book of Numbers. Bizarre and horrible. If a husband suspects his wife has committed adultery, he can take her to the priests. The priests will then make her drink a potion that, if she is guilty, will cause “her womb to discharge” and her “uterus drop.” If she is not guilty, “then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” It’s right up there with burning witches. We’ll know she’s not a witch if she burns to death. The Word of the Lord? No thanks.
And yet this bizarre and horrible passage in the Book of Numbers makes the point that the life of the fetus was not to be saved under every circumstance. In this case, the circumstance of adultery – or as I suspect more likely, the result of rape. After all, how much consent could women really have? In fact, that’s an important point in all these cases. These examples fall right in the middle of a bunch of laws about saving oxs and donkeys and the treatment of slaves. All examples involving property. Men did with women’s bodies what men wanted.
In the last few weeks states like Alabama have enacted extreme bans against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. I felt it was important to look at this more deeply than all the clever memes on Facebook and chants at rallies. To recognize that even for those of us who are firmly pro-choice or pro-life, we are likely all conflicted to some extent about what is wise, moral, and ethical. I believe it is especially important to be conversant with the biblical and theological considerations so that we can talk with one another, especially those who use the Bible as their reference point. Those who say about abortion, “The Bible clearly says…” It doesn’t.
“We do affirm God as the Source of life – our life, all life, life to the fullest.” That’s how the United Church of Christ General Synod began a resolution in 1971. It said, God gave us privileges and responsibilities and freedom, freedom bound to responsibility. And then affirmed the right to legal abortion. Before Roe v. Wade. In 1971 the UCC General Synod called for the repeal of all legal prohibitions of physician-performed abortions, as well as to give protection to physicians who wish to be “conscientious objectors.” Among a long list of things, it called upon pastors, members, and local churches to support and expand programs of sex education in schools and the availability of contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies in order to achieve a “wholesome family life.” And to consider the impact of bans especially on those who are poor.
Even the Southern Baptists in 1971 called for a more nuanced view of abortion. The Convention called upon “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”,
Why have Christian conservatives since then taken such a hard turn to the right on abortion? It did not primarily arise out of a biblical and theological concern but was a cynical ploy by political operatives in search of a base of power, birthed in opposition to desegregation efforts at Bob Jones University.,, They took the name “Moral Majority.” It’s a fascinating but too long a story to tell here. However, by the framer’s own admission, hard core opposition to abortion was built directly on the framework of white supremacy and Jim Crow laws, and as a result, kept women subject to the same kinds of property laws as slaves and donkeys. Although, slaves in the Bible had many more rights and protections than they did in the American South. But like so much in our country that divides us, opposition to abortion has its roots in racism.
Support for legal access to abortion by the United Church of Christ is part of a larger framework of reproductive justice. The concept of reproductive justice was formed by a group of black women in Chicago in 1994. It asks such questions as What are the racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on women’s power? The right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.
Reproductive Justice includes the question: What happens to a child once it’s born? Not just when does life begin but how can one continue to live? Not to just barely survive but to thrive, like the Gospel reading. Jesus offers another decision-making framework when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” When we ask, when does life begin? At least one answer is: When we have it abundantly. And take a moment to notice, Jesus is talking about life here and now; not something that comes as a reward in heaven.
What makes a life abundant here and now? At its most basic, life requires food to eat, clean water to drink, shelter, and access to health care. Seriously, what good is a heartbeat in the womb when later it can’t afford to go to the hospital so that heartbeat can stay alive? I don’t want to make light of such a serious situation, but migrant children have heartbeats too. Children shot while they are in school had heartbeats. Prisoners on death row have heartbeats.
Catholic Sister Joan Chittister says so clearly, “I think in many cases, morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. That’s not pro-life. That’s [just] pro-birth.”
As the UCC said in 1971, if we want to reduce unintended pregnancies, studies prove that comprehensive sexuality education and an abundance of options for contraception will do exactly that. Abstinence-only curriculums result in more abortions, not fewer. To deny those things is just evidence that this is the enforcement of women as property more than any concern for the unborn.
But what comes next? Abundance includes support for that life including such things as parental leave, child care options, quality education, and the list continues. Clean air to breathe… An inhabitable planet.
So, when does life begin? Some say conception. If you use Jeremiah to answer the question, it would appear that life begins before conception! Another answer is that life begins upon our first breath. The life of the first human began when God breathed life into him. In Ezekiel, dry bones came to life when God breathed the Spirit into them.
Theologically, that is a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t exactly help determine when life begins since there is clearly life in the womb at some point before the first breath. Life that does in fact deserve protection. So where do we find common ground? For one thing, doing everything we can to reduce the need for abortion, though it must remain legal. And then, support for whatever life is born for as long as that human is alive. But fundamentally, it still comes down to whether we trust women to make that decision. And if not, why not?
Rebecca Todd Peters believes it’s because people think womanhood is motherhood and “motherhood is a moral end that supersedes all others.” She also believes progressive Christians need to move from a conversation that tries to justify abortion, a place of weakness or defensiveness, to one of strength in which we are the advocates for reproductive justice. SisterSong, the framers of reproductive justice, focus more on the question not of choice but of access. Do women have access? Abortion, after all, exists within a context; it’s not an isolated event. It is a legal issue. For people of faith, it is a theological issue. And for everyone, abortion is a moral issue within the context of other moral issues like quality of life and the agency of women to make decisions. Who gets to decide?
If, theologically, we believe God created us with free will, then we must be free to practice our free will – women and men equally. And if we believe in grace, then we must live with an attitude of grace for one another on opposite sides of this and every other issue that divides us. And forgive each other when we are wrong. But most of all, have respect for life. “Not just life for the sake of survival, but rather for flourishing. Not just that we get by, but so that we all thrive. Not just that we have existence, but that we have joy. Not just life, but life in abundance.”
I’m pro-that life.
Thanks be to God.
For more resources, see http://religiousinstitute.org/issue/reproductive-justice/
 All citations are from the Common English Bible
 Exodus 22: 21-24
 Exodus 21: 22-25
 Thanks to several authors for directing me to these verses, including Cheryl B. Anderson http://www.ecclesio.com/2012/09/christians-and-reproductive-justice-hearing-new-voices-by-cheryl-anderson/
 Numbers 5: 11-31
 David Lose
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 12, 2019
“Kendrick: The Child Sacrifice”
Acts 9: 36-43 – New Revised Standard Version
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Another school shooting this week. “Another.” Let that word sink in. “School.” A school with children in kindergarten. And 1st grade. And 2nd grade. Since there have been so many times we could say “another school shooting,” lessons have been learned along the way. Among the lessons learned is that law enforcement should immediately rush in, not wait as they did at Columbine. Another is that the media should spend more time honoring the dead than repeatedly saying the name and showing the picture of the alleged killers. That’s been easier to do this time because Kendrick Castillo is, was, in every conceivable way one could possibly describe, an exceptional human being. Kendrick Castillo is the definition of a hero. Selfless. Sacrificial. Honorable. The contributions he would have made to the world are staggering. One death shouldn’t matter more than another, but it sure feels that way sometimes. Not as in suggesting it should have been someone else, but rather, why someone like him?
It occurs to me that this is a little like the question we could ask about Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. Why someone like her? There was something about her. She was compassionate. Exceptionally compassionate. She was charitable. Other widows depended on her. That’s why people rushed to find Peter when Tabitha died. And that’s why Peter rushed to her bedside. Notably, she was also a disciple. She was not described as one of the women who followed Jesus. She was a disciple. You know, like Peter, and James, Thomas and the rest. Tabitha, the exceptionally compassionate disciple.
Kendrick and Tabitha were both really good people. Why was one of them brought back from the dead and not the other? Whether it’s healing from blindness and hemorrhages, or the resurrection of the dead to feeding 5,000 people, that’s a basic, fundamental question of miracle stories. Why some and not others? It’s a fundamental question to the concept known as theodicy. A question of suffering and divine justice. If God is good, then why is there evil? Rabbi Kushner famously asked, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or rather, more to the point today, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In the same way, what about the other students who rushed to subdue the shooter. God forbid, but why didn’t they die? Thank God they didn’t, but they are going to suffer from survivor’s guilt for the rest of their lives. They will forever ask, Why him and not me? Their survival will no doubt be described as a miracle. It’s a miracle it wasn’t me or a member of my family. That’s how I would describe it for myself. With the inevitable struggle, but why not me? Perhaps it’s something you’ve had to ask yourself over the course of your lifetime.
It is honorable to honor the heroes. It also happens, in this case, to be a handy deflection. Lesson learned, it’s a new strategy since we know that “Now is not the time” was always just means of saying it is never the time to talk about guns. And claiming “It’s all about mental health” was revealed as a lie the minute legislators went apocalyptic over the idea that a judge could rule that someone who is dangerous should not have a gun. Of course, we all know that offering someone “thoughts and prayers” has been spoiled with its overuse by those who are trying to deflect from the fact that beyond thoughts, actions will save lives.
I fear that “Honor the Heroes” will suffer the same fate. Kendrick Costillo was a hero, but that doesn’t make it OK that he was also just the latest child sacrificed at the altar of people who demand the “right” to arm their own militia. Thank God there weren’t more this time. “This time.” Every school child in America fears it might be them the next time, or the time after that. They are reminded of this every time they do another lock-down drill. Lock-down drills, of course, are an added lesson from so many school shootings. But that has also led students like the 6th grader who grabbed a bat and declared he would “go down fighting” and Kendrick to believe they need to take things into their own hands, no matter the consequences. Kendrick was a child sacrifice.
We don’t know the reason why Tabitha died. Clearly it wasn’t from old age. It was sudden. Unexpected. As the widows cried, they held up pieces of clothing that Tabitha had made for them. They were real people who needed her to be alive. And then she was. Peter said, “Tabitha, get up.” Just as Jesus said the same thing to the daughter of Jairus. “Daughter, get up.” And she did.
Tabitha is a miracle story. More than a few times, people have asked me about miracle stories, “Do I really have to believe this?” Among them, Tabitha’s is one of the easiest to explain away. For example, she was just in a coma and came out of it at just the right time. Logical. In a similar way, scholars have suggested, for example, that Jesus didn’t walk across water. He walked on a sandbar that no one could see. Other miracles in the Bible, however, are harder or even impossible to explain. Sometimes the explanations are more ridiculous than the miracle itself. And therefore, even more difficult to believe.
In fact, I don’t believe in miracles. But “believe” is the key word. There are miracles. It’s not our place to tell God what God can and cannot do. I just don’t think we are supposed to use our heads to believe in them. Rather, they are to inspire faith in our hearts. To have faith, not in miracles as such, but to have faith in God. Ultimately, miracles don’t make sense because that’s not what miracles are. They don’t make sense. They disrupt what makes sense. But, believe in them or not, we can recognize their purpose. More often than not, they are a sign to point to something of greater significance. I am grateful that there is more to this world than we can explain or understand. I am grateful that there are things capable of opening our eyes or minds or hearts to possibilities we are not aware of. Sometimes miracles are just seeing something that was already there.
One purpose of today’s story, among other things, was a sign to the early church that disciples, not just Jesus, were also capable of performing miracles. Or more accurately, that God was capable of working miracles through disciples. Which, we might say, means disciples can do something more than offering our thoughts and prayers.
But what that “something” is today, I don’t know. We can reason and talk and offer rational explanations until we are blue in the face – vote, protest, picket, and even pray. But if one is OK with child sacrifice, then frankly, at this point, I fear only a miracle will change people’s minds about whether we should choose kids or guns.
But one possibility is to pray for a miracle. An article I read this week in the Harvard Business Review, you know, the other Bible, opened my eyes to something else too.
A researcher in Behavioral Economics conducted a study. She gave participants difficult ethical dilemmas. In one scenario, participants imagined they were the president of a nonprofit working to end child labor in Southeast Asia. They had to decide whether to accept a significant donation by a company that is known to violate child labor laws or risk letting the nonprofit shut down completely. The researchers then divided the group and asked one, “What should you do?” They asked the other group, “What could you do?” The “could” group came up with more creative solutions to the dilemma than the “should” group.
Her conclusion: Approaching problems with a “should” mindset gets us stuck on the trade-off choices and narrows our thinking to one answer, the one that seems most obvious. But when we think in terms of “could,” we stay open-minded and the trade-offs involved inspire us to more creative solutions. That kind of blew my mind. So simple. Seeing something that was already there. Chances are you and I feel stuck about something in our lives right now. What if, no matter the issue, when I feel stuck, I asked what could I do instead of should? I already feel freer.
What was the miracle in the story of Tabitha? That someone can be raised from the dead? That the disciples are supernaturally capable? Or a sign that there is no point beyond which we should give up hope. And in the gun violence arena, maybe believing in miracles will at least make us more hopeful. That’s a start. But, more concretely, in any similar arena of competing moral interests, I find the simple idea of setting aside what we should do and instead think and strategize and collaborate on what we could do quite liberating. To free us from feeling stuck. And to free us from gridlock. Which would constitute a full-out miracle.
Where do you feel stuck in your life? There is something out there we could do that we simply haven’t seen yet. How to see starts with prayer.
Prayers in the Aftermath of Gun Violence
Leader: Giver of Life and Love, you created all people as one family and called us to live together in peace. Surround us with your love as we face again the tragedy of gun violence.
For the children and adults who have been killed, the many wounded and hospitalized, the traumatized, grieving survivors, and those known to you alone, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Righteousness, you have granted our elected and appointed leaders power and responsibility to protect us, and to uphold our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Strengthen their devotion to our common life and give them clarity of such purpose.
For all who bear responsibility, for all who struggle to discern what is right in the face of powerful political forces, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Compassion, we give you thanks for first responders: police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and all those whose duties bring them to the streets, the schools, the malls and the homes where the carnage of gun violence takes place every day. Give them courage and sound judgment in the heat of the moment and grant them compassion for the victims.
For our brothers and sisters who risk their lives and serenity as they rush to our aid, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: Merciful God, bind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence, those maimed and disfigured, those left alone and grieving, and those who struggle to get through one more day. Bless them with your presence and help them find hope.
For all whose lives are forever changed and broken by the scourge of gun violence, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God Who Remembers, may we not forget those who have died, more than 30,000 in the past year, in the gun violence that we have allowed to become routine. Receive them into your heart and comfort us with your promise of eternal love and care.
For all who have died, those who die today, and those who will die tomorrow, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Tender Mercy, be with those who are overwhelmed, enraged, frustrated and demoralized by the plague of gun violence. Give them a sense of your presence and plant in them the seed of hope.
For those whose hope for life in this world is shattered and broken, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
Leader: God of Justice, help us, your church, find our voice. Turn us from the worship of power. Give us courage to confront our false gods and to protest the needless deaths caused by gun violence. Help us rise above our dread that nothing can be done and grant us the conviction to advocate for change.
For your dream of a world where children are safe and all of us live together without fear, Loving God,
All: Make us instruments of your peace.
From a vigil in 2018 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. sponsored by Bishops Against Gun Violence
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 5, 2019
“Life After Hate”
Acts 9: 1-9 – New Revised Standard Version
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”
The top story on the Today Show on Friday had a surprising resonance for me with today’s reading from the Book of Acts. The story: A man convicted of a plot in 2009 to bomb the New York City subway system will soon be released from prison.
The man is Najibullah Zazi. He was a baby in 1985 when his family was forced to flee their native Afghanistan because of war with Russia. For nine years they lived on food rations in tents in a refugee camp in Pakistan. When he was 14 his family was allowed to resettle in New York. In his senior year, he dropped out of school and began working. By 21 he had his own coffee cart in downtown Manhattan. And then, a friend gave him an audiotape of a cleric that began to radicalize him to the point that he went off to fight with Al Qaeda to uphold the honor of Islam and liberate his home country of Afghanistan from the US, which had ironically opposed Russia’s occupation in the 80s when Najibullah was born and forced to flee. During his time with Al Qaeda, he was trained to build bombs. They sent him back to the US. He and two friends planned a suicide attack on rush hour trains below Grand Central Station. He was living here, in Aurora, in 2009 when he began buying the chemicals he needed to make detonators. The FBI learned of their plot and arrested him and his two friends. After his arrest, Najibullah switched sides and began to provide years of what the government called “extraordinary cooperation” that included insight into terrorist groups and information about his friends and family members. Ten years in prison and a commitment to life-long cooperation led a judge to say he earned a “unthinkable second chance.” Judge Dearie lamented that impressionable people had been “hijacked and corrupted by the rhetoric of hate.” Najibullah replied, “Your honor, the uneducated are perfect targets for the unscrupulous.”
An unrelated story later in the broadcast declared that Facebook will be banning all content related to “white nationalism and white separatism” from its platforms. An unrelated story. But they are not unrelated. Both are stories about terrorism and about using terrorism to protect what is “sacred” and under attack. With stories about one synagogue and one mosque and one black church attacked after another, it would seem an obvious illustration that white supremacists are terrorists. Obvious to everyone except a few people in the White House who downplay domestic terrorism as a few bad apples. Right up there with the “good people on both sides” apples at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Just weeks before Heather Heyer was killed, by one of those fine citizens, government agencies dedicated to countering far-right extremism were defunded and their resources directed toward an exclusive focus on Islamic terrorism, even though white men on the far right carry out far more terrorist attacks. But what Judge Dearie lamented is equally true in both cases: “impressionable people hijacked and corrupted by the rhetoric of hate.” And the uneducated, we know well, are the “perfect targets for the unscrupulous.”
So now, according to the story, anyone who searches for words like white nationalism or white separatism on Facebook will be directed to the page of a group called Life After Hate, one of the only groups in the country whose mission is to help people escape from white supremacy and organized hate groups. A group the government stopped funding. There was an excellent essay about Life After Hate and the movement to reform white supremacists in Mother Jones last summer. I highly recommend it.
Shane Johnson is one of the “formers,” what people formerly involved in white nationalism call themselves. He was raised in a family that had been KKK for generations, in a town in Indiana where at one time half the population belonged to the Klan. When he renounced his past, complete with his own Damascus Road conversion story, his family broke nearly every bone in his body and left him along the road as close to dead as you can get. He recovered but still worse was his isolation from everything he had ever known. Leaving a movement with such social cohesion, he said, is one of the hardest parts. According to Shane, most people don’t join hate groups because they are hate-filled but because someone has invited them to belong to a purpose. In that way, Shane’s family background is an anomaly.
Last year he and another man were invited to consult with an agency working on an app that would use artificial intelligence to identify “hate tweets.” The program would reply to each hate tweet: “If you’re tired of living in the darkness of a hate-filled life, there’s a way out. No judgment. Just help.” Shane thought that was ridiculous. And that such a message would actually lead people to double down on their extremism, not leave it behind. You are “shaming them as living dark, hate-filled lives. You need to engage them.” Another “former” described needing a “helping hand, not a hand in our face.” Both argued that denunciation is a mistake. It’s like fuel on a fire, driving people who might be thinking about leaving back into the comfort of their existing social networks.
The essay said, “When it comes to changing individuals, denunciation may counteract rather than hasten deradicalization.” A sociologist from Chapman University said, “The uncomfortable truth is that the best way to reform racists may be to offer precisely what they aren’t willing to offer others, and precisely what many people in this polarized political moment feel they least deserve: empathy. One of the formers, Christian Picciolini, said that receiving empathy at a time when I least deserved it, from those I least deserved it from, was a transformative event that helped pull me out of the hate movement.”
Critics can rightly note that this another form of white privilege – expecting the oppressed to sooth their oppressors’ guilty conscience – and yet, according to a man whose father was one of the Sikhs killed by a neo-Nazi at their temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, empathy remains an effective tool. Extremists want their actions to inspire anger. “To respond with love,” he said, “is the biggest deterrent.” And certainly the farthest thing from our first response. It’s a provocative idea. And challenging.
So, to our reading from the Book of Acts today. What do Najibullah Zazi and Shane Johnson and Paul, still known here as Saul… What do they have in common? My difficulty in having empathy for them. At least, before the first two became formers. But Paul, whose words have been used to persecute LGBTQ people and silence women – even if some of his words are radically egalitarian – he’s sometimes the hardest in this group to forgive. Now, to be clear, I am not calling Saul a terrorist or a member of a hate group. He’s certainly been used by hate groups. But Saul is the one of whom the Risen Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?”
The story of Saul begins in chapter 7 when one of the 12 disciples named Stephen was put to death by a mob throwing stones. The first martyr. Before the people picked up their stones, they laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. But he wasn’t just the coat-check guy standing by. Chapter 8 begins, “And Saul approved of their killing Stephen.” The next sentence begins, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem… Saul ravaged the church by entering house after house; he dragged off both men and women and committed them to prison.” These are among verses sometimes claimed by anti-Semites to justify, in turn, their persecution of Jews. But what Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is describing here is an intra-party conflict, not a conflict between two religions. Acts must not be misused for this purpose.
But, I want to come back to the challenge for all three of them. Can I have empathy for any of them? Before they are former. Before their life after hate.
John Pavlovitz, who is coming here next week, recently wrote in one of his most powerful blog posts ever about a young woman who approached him after an event in Omaha. With her voice shaking, she said, “I’m ashamed to say this but I find myself wishing these terrible people would just… disappear. What do I do with this anger?” John said, I knew what I had to tell her. That these feelings are unhealthy. That this kind of consuming hatred toward another human being was dangerously toxic. To remind her that this level of contempt for a stranger was exactly what she abhorred in the people she feels this way toward. I wanted to steer her away from such negative energy, but I couldn’t. I understood her. Her desperation and hopelessness make total sense. Wanting it to end is a natural human response to unchecked brutality and the unrelenting cruelty of this administration. You don’t actually wish to harm people; you just wish harmful people would stop harming people.
There are things we can do, but when there isn’t, we can control how we respond. Although, just after our reading today, the story continues about a man named Ananias who expresses exactly how hard this is. In a vision of Jesus, he was asked to visit Saul in order to lay hands on him to restore his sight. Remember Saul became blind on that road to Damascus. Ananias protested, “You can’t be serious! Everyone’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s done, his reign of terror.” But in the vision, Jesus persisted. “This is the man I have chosen.” Reluctantly, Ananias went and no sooner after he spoke the words, “scales fell from Saul’s eyes – he could see again. He got to his feet, was baptized, and sat down with them to eat.”
The followers of the Way had every reason to hate Saul for persecuting them and every reason not to forgive him. So why then, of all people, was he chosen to be an instrument of God? Which means I have to ask, is this scripture even about Saul? Or us?
Eugene Peterson asks us to imagine one individual in whom we have given up hope. They will just never change. (There’re a few people I can imagine.) What would it mean to know that God has chosen her, or him, or them? Not only the people from whom I expect the worst, but who in fact, have done the worst, the most cruel, the most brutal… If I cannot have empathy, then what? Who am I?
Is this the dramatic conversion story of Paul from centuries ago or a question of conversion that we have to ask of ourselves every day? Of course, empathy is not the only response. The idea that we wouldn’t denounce every act of terror, whether foreign, domestic, or personal, makes love incomplete. Empathy an excuse. My sermon is entitled Life After Hate. But not anymore about Najibullah or Shane or Paul. Fill in the blank of the unthinkable. To bring it back home, by the grace of God, what kind of life could we have after hating them?
 Conversations with The Message and Its Translator, Navpress 2002
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 28, 2019
“Undoing the Criminalization of Homelessness”
John 20: 19-29 (Contemporary English Bible)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the Twin, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
When he was in seminary, Will Willimon commuted every weekend to preach at a little church in rural Georgia. The first Sunday he arrived at the church, he saw the Sheriff standing next to his car waiting for him. He looked over and saw a padlock and big chain wrapped around the handles of the front door. The Sheriff explained that things had gotten out of hand at the last board meeting. The meeting ended with folks ripping up the sanctuary carpet and dragging out the pews that had been given in memory of their mothers and fathers. The Sheriff said he locked up the building until a new preacher could come and calm them down. But, Willimon said, things never really calmed down. Constant arguments. Pettiness. Fights in the parking lot after board meetings. He said, “I spent a year in that church that lasted a lifetime. I tried everything. And when I left, I spun my tires a little harder in the gravel parking lot, glad to be rid of such a pitiful group calling themselves a church.”
A few years later he ran into the new seminarian driving up every weekend to serve that same little church. Poor woman, he thought; only 23 years old. The young future minister told him, “They remember you out there.” “Yeah, I remember them too.” She said, “They’re such a remarkable group of people.” Willimon wondered why she didn’t use a more sarcastic tone. “Remarkable?” “Yes, all their ministries, like their crisis center for families in trouble, free day care. And there’s not a lot of interracial congregations in rural Georgia. They are the most faithful group of disciples I’ve ever encountered.”
Willimon didn’t say anything to her about how the church had to be chained up and padlocked to keep them from dragging any more pews out the front door. But he mused to himself, “Somehow they must have met Jesus behind those locked doors.” Willimon would have never believed it had he not heard it first hand from their young new preacher. How could anything good come from out of that group?
The same thing could have been said about the 12 disciples, now 11, minus Judas. Today’s text takes place on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. Ten of the disciples were in a house behind locked doors, frightened they might be next. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side. Again, he said, “Peace be with you” and told them he was sending them out into the world – a world they feared would try to execute them next. He told them to continue sharing the vision of the Kingdom of God – good news for the poor, liberation for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and, most of all, about the love of God – adding, “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
That’s all well and good. But remember: this is Sunday. It was just Friday that he had been executed. Hung on a cross. Just after he had been put through a sham trial, lied about, spat upon, flogged – a word that doesn’t do justice to the images of him being whipped to an inch of his life. He had been mocked, he had been betrayed. Peter denied even knowing him. And then, while he hung on that cross, not one of the 12 was there. And yet, two days later he’s talking about forgiveness? Thomas might have doubted his resurrection. But I would have doubted his or anyone’s capacity to forgive that quickly. Rising from the dead is one thing. Forgiving people who were not there for you? Which one is harder to believe? Resurrection or forgiveness?
Thomas wasn’t there to witness any of that. He told the ten and the rest of the followers in the room that day, “Unless I can see it for myself, I won’t believe.” And ever since, we’ve known Thomas more for that single statement of doubt than anything else. And there isn’t really that much more to know. Other than appearing on the various lists of the 12 disciples, he is only mentioned one other time in the whole Bible – when a messenger came to tell Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus is dead, the brother of Mary and Martha. Upon hearing the news, the disciples all urged Jesus not to go their house. This could be a trap to arrest him and, by extension, the rest of them. Arrest him, and whatever else might happen. But Thomas alone insisted that they should go with Jesus, “that we may die with him.” In that moment, he was the only disciple who didn’t doubt but dared to speak up.
And then, with the disciples locked behind closed doors, if you think about it, he was the only one who dared to speak up again. The one who dared voice his question. Far from just being called Doubting Thomas, shouldn’t he be given some credit as Daring Thomas – the Brave, Bold, and Courageous Disciple. It often takes courage to be the only one to speak up and say, “I’m not so sure about that.”
In that same vein, I’m not claiming courage for speaking about it, but I’m not so sure about Initiative 300 on our Denver ballots. Why are so few people questioning the $1.5 million story told by developers? For supporters, Initiative 300 is about undoing the criminalization of homelessness, one piece of which is the urban camping ban. Opponents claim Initiative 300 will destroy the city. Both sides admit it will do little, actually nothing, to address the growing number of people with no place to live in Denver. But can’t we at least start by refraining from arresting people for not having a home?
That’s the question Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, the head of the Colorado ACLU and a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks. He says the “Vote No on 300” campaign is using false and misleading scare tactics to paint an image of homelessness as out of control and encroaching everywhere. Denver, he said, has got to get serious about creating real solutions. But in the meantime, “Human beings shouldn’t lose their human rights just because they’ve lost their home.” Whether it comes from this election or in any other form, citizens of Denver must undo the criminalization of homelessness. And of poverty.
Pieces and parts have been done. In December, Denver announced it would no longer charge defendants for GPS-tracking ankle monitors before their trial. The city also eliminated many of its pre-trial fees after settling a lawsuit in December filed on behalf of a man who sat in jail for five days because he couldn’t afford a small administrative fee. Pieces and parts.
I don’t know whether Initiative 300 is the right solution, but I do know that it is wrong, let alone inefficient, to solve such complex issues with law enforcement. Now, I don’t wish to demonize people who will vote no – the voters. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people wanting to do the right thing. But I do doubt those in charge of messaging for the opposition because they have overplayed fear in the form of exaggerations of dire consequences. Not only meant to frighten but to confuse.
William Sloane Coffin, the fiery prophet of Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, because fear seeks safety, not truth.” How might that be true in Denver? Perhaps fear seeks safety, like property values, not truth, such as that resting shouldn’t be a crime.
Thomas should not be disparaged for doubting. In fact, I can write a whole other sermon about my preference for doubt over certainty. And we shouldn’t disparage the disciples for being cowardly. I’m rather glad to know I’m in good company. Instead, I’m grateful that Jesus still saw the good in them, the possibility of transformation in them. I’m grateful that he never gave up hope in them, that his heart was full of love and understanding for them. If you notice, he didn’t chastise Thomas for doubting. He simply said, “OK, here, take a look.”
It is sometimes said that doubt is the opposite of faith. But doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Doubt is the opportunity for faith. If we never wrestled with the “whys” and “how comes” of life, we would never grow into new and deeper understandings of the world and of our self. When we wrestle in the night with the angel, we are blessed for it. Not weakened by it. Don’t be afraid of doubt.
Coffin said, “fear seeks safety.” I might add, fear seeks certainty. He continued, “A heart full of fear makes us feel weak and inadequate and small. But, on the other hand, a heart full of love has a limbering effect on the mind.”
I admit I had to look up the meaning of the word limbering. I looked for some synonyms and among the words was flexible. A flexible mind. Or, an open mind, which also just happens to mean unbolted and unlocked – like the door behind which the disciples hid.
For all the expressions of sincerity toward homeless people, I hope that the day after the election, developers will take the $1.5 million spent on TV commercials and use it as a down payment to begin building until there is enough affordable housing that there is no one left on the street to be locked up for not having a home.
And why couldn’t that happen? Remember those church members ripping up the carpet. Who would have ever thought that people taking back their family pews would end up being considered the most faithful disciples that young preacher had ever encountered? And who knows what might happen to the hearts of people involved with this ballot initiative? Look what Jesus can do behind locked doors – whether of a house on resurrection day, a church in rural Georgia, or a wood-paneled boardroom in downtown Denver. Jesus surely demonstrates we should never write people off but keep forgiving and hoping for them.
My hope is that Jesus may inspire a heart full of love to draw us out from behind our locked doors too – whether it is the door closed to a family member with whom we are estranged or a friend we have blocked or the neighbors outside our door who’ve lost their home. Good news for the poor, liberation for the captive, freedom for the oppressed, and most of all, about the love of God. Imagine what we can do together when we are motived by love instead of fear. It might seem like a cliché, but it’s still true. I have no doubt about it.
And when you vote in this election or any other, consider which choice is rooted in love and which is rooted in fear. And then, then choose love. Always choose love.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 21, 2019
“Where Shall We Look for Hope?”
Luke 24: 1-12 – The Message
At the crack of dawn on Sunday, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled back from the tomb, so they walked in. But once inside, they couldn’t find the body of the Master Jesus.
4-8 They were puzzled, wondering what to make of this. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, two men, light cascading over them, stood there. The women were awestruck and bowed down in worship. The men said, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Then they remembered Jesus’ words.
9-11 They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.
12 But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that’s all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”
My favorite line in that passage is: “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Or more traditionally: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
I really like that line because it has a ring of truth. And it seems particularly relevant in times like these of bigotry and misogyny; of lies (and lies about lies); of xenophobia that not only uses immigrants as pawns to score political points but purposely inflicts suffering on children. Those “good people on both sides” folks burning black churches and painting swastikas on synagogues, terrorizing Muslims standing in line at the supermarket. Cruelty, and the tolerance for cruelty, is shocking, except that we aren’t shocked anymore. We shake our heads and grow more cynical. But without the reflex of being shocked, we may begin to forget a little thing called hope. If you’re like me, that’s what I need today. But where do we look for hope? And hope in what?
The Book of Revelation describes the Second Coming as the event when the savior returns to earth to defeat evil and establish his reign of righteousness. Chapter 19 says, "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns."
I’m rather dubious about the “Second Coming.” That’s not my theology. But many people were disappointed on Thursday when it didn’t happen. As many had hoped and others had feared, Robert Mueller did not come riding in on a white horse, eyes like blazing fire, his head adorned with many crowns.
A lot of people pinned their hopes on the Mueller report, as though our nation could be saved by a smocking gun that would quickly lead to a change of leadership at the top. That will solve our problems. That will be our salvation.
Perhaps no one would have said such a thing out loud, but if you listened to the yearning in people’s voices, maybe even your own, that was the message. Waiting for Mueller Time. Hoping. Hoping it would be that easy to reverse course on cruelty and the tolerance, even celebration, of cruelty. But that’s like looking for the living among the dead. I’m dubious about the “Second Coming” because, to me, it’s passive. We just simply wait around for something to happen, for someone else to make something happen. But hope isn’t found in someone else or in something easy. Where do we look for hope? Ironically, I find hope in Good Friday.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed the words of our opening litany this morning, he wasn’t was offering a flowery sentiment. He was calling for people to change their lives in ways that would transform the suffering of his people in South Africa. Like Jesus, it was a message for two audiences – those who suffer and those who cause suffering. Imagine what it would have been like to hear:
“Love is stronger than hate.” Would you have been scared to hear that or encouraged? Would your heart warm or your blood cool?
“Goodness is stronger than evil.” That isn’t passive.
“Light is stronger than darkness.”
“Life is stronger than death.”
South Africa was a lot like the Roman Empire that killed Jesus on Good Friday. Ruled by cruelty, violence, and repression. God had an answer for that and has an answer today.
You know, the powers of hate and death like Good Friday. They use it to try to convince us they’re in control and will always be in control so just let them be and worry about the next life. In heaven you’ll never feel pain again. So, don’t worry about having health care in this life. In heaven you’ll be reunited with your loved ones, so don’t worry when we rip your children away today. They want us to have a Good Friday faith, which is to reduce our faith to hope in an afterlife. They don’t understand that hope springs forth from the worst Good Friday can offer.
Because from there we become Easter people – people with resurrection hope. Resurrection hope is deeply grounded in our Good Friday experiences and is how God changed and continues to change what is possible for God’s people – in this life, this morning – not in some afterlife removed from compassion and justice today.
Some may say Easter is about how God wins. Victory. But Easter isn’t about God winning but about God’s transformation of what winning means in a world full of Good Friday faith for both those who suffer and those who willfully cause suffering. And it transitions the ministry of one man to the whole Body of Christ. The women go to the tomb looking for Jesus, but he isn’t there because he is now among the living. In us. Among us.
Easter is God’s answer to a Good Friday faith – they are inextricably linked. We must remember that Easter doesn’t make sense without Good Friday. Otherwise it is just sentimentality. An affirmation that spring follows winter and flowers will bloom again. A reason for bonnets and pastel colored sun dresses and Easter egg hunts. Easter means nothing without Good Friday which is why, ironically, I find hope in cruelty of country’s Good Friday times, along with the way, the reason, the how, to be an Easter people.
What’s that how? Our Litany
One: Where hatred roars, we will sing of love.
All: Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage.
One: Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice.
All: Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort.
One: Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
All: Now and ever, now and ever, now and evermore.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That line took on a different meaning for me this morning. I was here about 4:30 practicing my sermon when Art texted a link to a news story from Sri Lanka, where only two months ago I spent 17 days on my sabbatical. Earlier today, on Easter morning, a coordinated series of eight bomb attacks on three churches and three hotels killed over 200 people, most while they were attending Easter services. 81 died at one of the churches, Saint Sebastian’s, I visited in Negombo. Over 500 more people are injured. And a country has been re-traumatized, ten years out from a bloody 30-year civil war. Who and why has not yet been answered. I am devastated and heartbroken for my friends and for the people of a country where churches and temples and mosques and Hindu kovils sit next to each other in exceptional, loving harmony. God, who resides in the in-between-ness of Good Friday and Easter, comfort the people and hear our prayer.
 Revelation 19:11-12
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday 2019
From the Gospel of Matthew
Throughout the service, there is a running commentary as well as hymns and litanies interspersed between the scripture readings from the Gospel of Matthew.
Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence complained that he is a victim of religious oppression. That’s because openly gay Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced buddha-judge) said of Pence, “If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” Pence was shocked! Fox News was shocked. How dare he? I don’t have a problem with him. “He knows me better than that.” But Mayor Pete knows him all too well. As Indiana’s governor, Pence repeatedly blocked hate crimes legislation, said that homosexuality is “incompatible with military service,” wants to ban transgender soldiers already serving honestly. Pence sought to take money away from HIV prevention in order to provide government funded gay conversion therapy. And of course, his push for religious liberty laws to create a legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The whole list is extensive and exhausting. And might tend to prove that Pence has a problem with the Creator.
Mayor Pete didn’t call Pence a bigot or a hypocrite. But you can’t do all those things and claim not to have a problem with LGBTQ people. You can’t do all that and then simply smile about porn star affairs, playmate payoffs, multiple marriages, serial adultery, and grabbing women’s genitalia. You can’t claim “family values” and then separate families. Or claim to be pro-life only until the fetus is born but not when he is hungry. You can’t decry migrants fleeing violence and then support removing any funds to make the countries they are fleeing any less violent.
Mayor Pete was pretty polite about it all. Jesus, however, didn’t seem to care about being polite. And today we’re going to hear Jesus call leaders out on their hypocrisy, with such verses as “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they [pointing to the Pharisees and scribes, they] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”
After that statement, can you imagine the conversation on Fox and Friends? Shocked spokesmen for the indignant Pharisees would call this accusation ridiculous. They would call Jesus a bully. The KKK would start planning a rally. Do things ever change…
Jesus began his ministry with a vision of a world turned upside down – or rather, set back up right: “Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich.” He taught a series of reversals: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” But just to be clear, he was not denouncing Judaism, his religion. He critiqued how it had come to be practiced – how the authorities were more concerned for the letter of the law than the law itself – The Law, based on the love of God and the liberation of humanity from greed, hate, and violence. Jesus said:
5:38 “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus wasn’t talking about charity. He stood in front of crowds of lepers and prostitutes, the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized, and taught them how to subvert the system by means of love, as the indignant religious establishment stood by watching.  And, challenged us all to love our enemies:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of our God in heaven; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as our God is perfect.
That last line is curious. Jesus wasn’t calling for “perfection” as we often think of it in modern terms. Eugene Peterson translates the meaning: “Live the way God lives toward you: generously and graciously toward others.” Perfect as in “completed.” We can get distracted by the word “perfect” and miss the point: that Jesus is calling out the hypocrisy of the religious establishment who are neither generous nor gracious toward others. He goes on concerning charity:
6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven. 2 “Whenever you give alms to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.
And concerning treasures:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus concluded these and other re-interpretations and summed it all up in The Golden Rule:
7:12 “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
So, how did the religious leaders respond to his criticism? Kind of like some have responded to a kneeling Colin Kaepernick. Not with concern for the poor or outrage over injustice but for being called out, complaining about ungrateful NFL players (those sons of … I can’t repeat our president in polite company). Their outrage was simply that someone would call out injustice, to the point that they whipped a crowd up into shouting about Jesus: “Crucify him.”
On Palm Sunday at this point we often listen the macabre stories of torture known as the Passion Narratives and sing about the “saving grace” of blood, sacrificing the Lamb. We sing of shame and blame. A familiar song for Holy Week, like many others in the hymnal, goes: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Jesus, that has slain you. And I, dear Jesus, it was I who denied you; I crucified you.”
No. You and I did not crucify Jesus. We are not the guilty. But our faith teaches that we are the responsible. Kind of like the realization a white basketball player for the Utah Jazz named Kyle Korver wrote about this week. He slowly came to that same realization about white privilege. He said, “As white people, are we guilty for the sins of our forefathers? No, I don’t think so. But, he asked, are we responsible for them? We are responsible, he said, not because we are guilty but because we have benefited from “an ugly history…not some random divide.” And therefore, I’ve come to realize the problem isn’t primarily about racist hecklers. We need deeper solutions to racism engrained in our system. Not passing blame but recognizing the need for police reform, criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and ending the death penalty, wealth inequity, school discipline practices…
That’s exactly why it’s more important to remember why Jesus was crucified than how. We need not be fascinated by the details of his crucifixion, by some sense of guilt, but rather fixated on the people whom Jesus loved so much he would sacrifice his life to show us the way – to accept our responsibility as people of faith. And that’s why today’s mission partner is so important: The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Again, we remember, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Then, concerning prayer, Jesus said
6 “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to Abba who is in secret; and Abba who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you ask.
So let us pray as Jesus taught:
Our Creator, holy is your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is…
Listen to one of many stories told about Jesus:
15:32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, plus women and children.
The crush of the crowds was often relentless. The disciples were just as often clueless. And the criticism by the authorities unyielding: “How dare you say that about us?” But Jesus replied:
12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
One: Jesus now faced the consequences of challenging those in authority. They clearly believed his teaching about the kingdom of God was subversive:
All: Break the chains of oppression;
One: Set the prisoner free;
All: Share your bread with all who are hungry; Clothe the naked.
One: Shelter the homeless and Give protection to the lost.
All: Why is this subversive? Isn’t this Good News?
One: Indeed, why do the powerful want to silence him?
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In chapter 17, Jesus again foretold his death and resurrection -- and even a third time after that
17:22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.
SONG – WHY, verse 1
The crowds following Jesus only got bigger, upsetting the authorities and making them more nervous every day. His abilities went far beyond stirring up the crowds, however. It was the power of God through his miracles and healing. It was his great love and compassion for hurting humanity. Among many stories is this one in which Jesus healed two blind men:
20:29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Imagine the constant pressure of the crowds and the expectations for Jesus to perform. Like the rest of us, he often grew tired and weary, and you can hear how it got to him when he cursed a fig tree:
21:18 In the morning, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
SONG – WHY, verse 2
As we celebrated this morning with the procession of donkeys and palms, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to welcome him like a king, but a different kind; not like the one also entering Jerusalem the same day on the other side of the city, riding on a chariot surrounded by soldiers. The power of Jesus did not come from force, but from love.
21: When they had come near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?” 11 The crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
But the celebration quickly became provocative action.
12 Immediately then, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children yelling in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; but have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
SONG – WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME, verse 1
His teaching about the sheep and the goats is one of the clearest things he ever said. His greatest sermon:
25:31-33 “When the Son of Man finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, he will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, like a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
34-36 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
37-40 “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’
41-43 “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because--
I was hungry, and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless, and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering, and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
44 “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
45 “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’
46 “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
Anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus or a Christian cannot ignore these words.
SONG – WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME, verse 2
26:1-2 Jesus told his disciples, “You know that Passover comes in two days. That’s when the Son of Man will be betrayed and handed over for crucifixion.”
3-5 At that very moment, the party of high priests and religious leaders was meeting in the chambers of the Chief Priest named Caiaphas, conspiring to seize Jesus by stealth and kill him. They agreed that it should not be done during Passover Week. “We don’t want a riot on our hands,” they said.
They waited. In the meantime, Jesus and his followers gathered for the Passover meal.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in God’s kingdom.”
INVITATION TO COMMUNION
One: We come to this table because Christ invites us. We come hungry, ready to be fed. We come thirsty, ready to drink. We come to re-member.
All: We come in remembrance, but much more: In recalling the life of Jesus, we are moved by the death of Jesus, to be Christ-like among suffering humanity.
One: Let us join here not in passive recollection, but active commitment.
SOLO/HYMN – JESUS TOOK THE BREAD
26:36 Following the meal, Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “Abba, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, here comes my betrayer.”
And so began the actions that led to the execution of Jesus upon a cross – the means and method of the Roman Empire to send a warning to other would-be prophets. It would scatter all their followers. But while early Christians may have hid behind doors for a few days, they were inspired to organize communities of love and resistance. And so shall we. When we gather back here Thursday night, we’ll hear the events that follow his betrayal. And then, on the first day of the week, gather to remember that the love of Jesus for suffering humanity means hate will not forever prevail. Cruelty is already on the way out.
That’s exactly why it’s more important to remember why Jesus was crucified than how. We need not be fascinated by the details of his crucifixion, by some sense of guilt, but rather fixated on the people whom Jesus loved so much he would sacrifice his life to show us the way – to accept our responsibility as people of faith. And part of that responsibility is to consider our own hypocrisy and take the log out of our eye before pointing out there is straw in our neighbors.
As we gather today I invite us to honor the life of Jesus and remember his love through the sacrifice he made for suffering humanity in the words of the litany in your bulletin:
LITANY OF THE PASSION
One: Christ Jesus, in agony in the garden of Olives, troubled by sadness and fear, comforted by an angel;
All: Christ Jesus, betrayed by Judas’ kiss, abandoned by your friends, delivered into the hands of the powerful;
One: Christ Jesus, accused by false witnesses, condemned to die, struck by servants, covered with spittle;
All: Christ Jesus, disowned by your disciple Peter, delivered to Pilate and Herod, condemned as a criminal;
One: Christ Jesus, carrying your own cross to Calvary, consoled by the daughters of Jerusalem, helped by Simon of Cyrene;
All: Christ Jesus, stripped of your clothes, praying for your executioners, pardoning the thief;
One: Christ Jesus, entrusting your mother to your beloved disciple, giving up your spirit into the hands of your Father/Mother, showing us how to live and how to die through the example of your sacrifice.
All: Let us remember his death, but more importantly, let us imitate his life.
One: We will remember
ALL: WITH HOPE, BECAUSE HOPELESSNESS IS THE ENEMY OF JUSTICE
One: With courage, because peace requires bravery
ALL: WITH PERSISTENCE, BECAUSE JUSTICE IS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE
One: With faith, because we shall overcome. Amen
(Benediction written by Bryan Stevenson)
 “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 is harsher than the Sermon on the Mount, aka The Beatitudes, in Matthew 5
 The Message
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world