Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 17, 2019
“Do All the Good You Can”
Malachi 4: 1-2 – Common English Bible
Look, the day is coming,
burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
The coming day will burn them,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
leaving them neither root nor branch.
2 But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
healing will be in its wings
so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
Cheerful, isn’t it?! “The day is coming when all the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.” Would you like to hear an even more cheerful translation? “The day is coming when all the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like wood for the stove, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash.”
With today’s baptism, I thought I would choose the most light-hearted, easy-going text in the lectionary. As happy and joyful as a baby laughing at water cascading down her forehead. Instead, we have a text about arrogant people burned to a crisp. Of course, I could have chosen the gospel text for today, but it isn’t much happier. In Luke 21, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” These are not texts for Showtime at the Apollo. These are texts for Showtime at the Apocalypse.
Writing about Malachi, renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann says these end-of-times and apocalyptic texts are “intellectually difficult and pastorally problematic…” None of us want to sound like a religious nut. We mostly avoid them because these texts are embarrassing, unconvincing, and deeply incongruent with our understanding of the world. And yet, he says, “for all our intellectual sophistication, our affluence, and confidence that technology will fix things,” there remains a “deep, unsettled feeling that things are indeed falling apart.” He called it the “terrible ungluing.” He wrote these words nearly 30 years ago. If he thought things were falling apart in 1992, what does he think about today?
These are, in fact, deeply unsettled and anxious times. This week, more death by gun violence in schools. Violence in the Holy Land. Kurds abandoned, on the run, and ISIS on the rise. DREAMers waiting on the Supreme Court. And of course, Ukraine and the impeachment inquires in Washington.
What do we do in such deeply unsettled and anxious times? What do we do when we are frightened that the very foundations of society are at risk? I believe there is no better place to seek perspective than from our faith. Religious texts take us back thousands and thousands of years – through wars and famines and plagues. Yes, we have vastly different worldviews and understandings about how the world works. We interpret the times differently. But, fear and anxiety about the world is constant for humankind. And the church should be where we expect to engage things that are deep.
Baptisms, in fact, invite us to reflect on what kind of world we are leaving our children. So, for our children, Ethan and Maxon and Sophia and Brigette and Brenna and Lucy, all baptized this year, I want to think for a moment about their future. For example, will the earth be inhabitable for them?
If you read various studies about climate change, their predictions are often very apocalyptic – collapsed ecosystems and existential threats to survival if action is not taken. It’s straight out of biblical end times. Scientists try to tell us what life will be like, for example, in 2050. But that seems impossible to imagine. Such a number sounds like it’s centuries away. Yet think about this: In the year 2100, Ethan will only be 81 years old. How many of you are close to either side of 80? Imagine if our beloved Jane Van Buskirk, who died a few months ago at age 98, would have been born this year. She would have died in the year 2117. This is not science fiction, light years and galaxies far, far away. Students like Greta Thunberg are not hysterical. They are simply trying to get our attention about what life will be like for them when they are our age.
In addition to the environment, we seriously question whether democracy can survive another five years. Or will it be the apocalypse for any institution built on truth and integrity?
And will the Church survive for our children? 85 UCCs closed last year. Ten were added. There were 6,800 churches when I was born in 1965, but only 4,800 today. At the current rate, by the time I retire, another 1,000 could be lost. By 2050, there may be fewer than 2,800 UCCs remaining – that is, if such a thing even exists anymore. That sounds like Showtime at the Apocalypse for the church. But is it better not to know? That the earth is heating up. That democracy will die with the absence of truth. That churches are closing down. I prefer to know what we can do.
Perhaps it would be helpful to know what Malachi was talking about. What were his problems?
However, he then said, for those who do right, healing will be in its wings. You will be bursting with energy, like colts frisking and frolicking in their stall. Isn’t that a fun image?
So, let’s turn for a minute to the gospel. When Luke wrote it, he already knew the Temple had been destroyed. When he wrote that Jesus said, “no stone will be left upon another, all will be demolished,” everything had, in fact, already been demolished. Why write about something that will happen when it already has? Therefore, it’s even more curious that Jesus would say, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers.” Doomsday had come. He said, “Many leaders are going to show up claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’” But Jesus said, “Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”
On one hand, that is comforting. Keep perspective. Don’t panic. Don’t be alarmed or terrified. One of the most common phrases in the New Testament, spoken by angels and humans, is “Do not fear.” Yet, on the other hand, perhaps my biggest fear is that people will do nothing. The world is coming to an end anyway. But “do not fear” and “do nothing” are not the same thing. Or an excuse. The environment is not a lost cause. Democracy is not a lost cause. The church is not a lost cause. There is too much at stake for our children.
We had a great conversation on Thursday over our noodle lunch. We discussed that there is a difference between our end and the end of time. Elders around the table told us that fears about our own mortality are meaningless. After all, what would happen if we knew our death was tomorrow? It’s simple. We wouldn’t be afraid. We’d simply mend broken relationships and tell our loved ones “I love you.”
And yet, no one knows whether the world is ending tomorrow, so therefore our task is to keep doing what we can to leave the world a better place. In the face of unknowing, during deeply unsettled and anxious times like these, we can follow the wisdom of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism:
If anything should be a creed, that’s it. This should be the conclusion to every baptism and the job description of every Christian. I don’t care what you believe so long as this is what you do. Don’t surrender to fear and terror. Don’t be paralyzed by wars and threats of war. Do not do nothing. Do good.
Speaking of Walter Brueggemann, I was in a small group with him a few weeks ago. He was in town for a lecture series and a small group of clergy were invited to have coffee with him. My claim to fame is that Walter and my uncle, also a seminary professor, were roommates during their PhD days. Nearly 90 years old now, Walter is just as fierce and feisty a social justice prophet as ever. He isn’t just a prophet, however. The most pastoral thing he said about these deeply unsettling and anxious times is that “we are never called to the task without the gift.”
As one example, he cited the 10 Commandments. Some courthouse monuments listing the 10 Commandments only state the task. For example, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” But they leave out the why. The gift. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then the task is to “have no other gods.” What we are to do only comes after we are told whose we are. The Lord is our God. The task, then, is: not lying, not killing, not wanting or taking what is not yours.
But here is Walter’s most memorable line: “Don’t just bask in the gift. And don’t despair in the task.” Gift and task go hand in hand. That’s the essence of Christian faith.
But lest we think it’s that easy – gee, just don’t be afraid – the very next line from Jesus about temple destruction and doomsday deceivers is a warning to his followers: “you will be harassed and imprisoned for your faith, handed over to the authorities, brought before kings and governors. You will be betrayed by friends and family. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name.” But, he concludes, “Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”
You’ve been given the gift to do the task of good in the world. You should know, however, that it might come with a pretty high price. But I guess it’s good to know this in advance so that we don’t fall away when the going gets hard. After all, the environment won’t be saved because of clever Facebook memes. Democracy won’t be saved through speeches and rallies. And the church won’t be saved by making things easier but by being more honest – that this is hard and totally worth it. Here me out:
To Shaun and Lindsay, and as a reminder to the rest of us: Making baptismal vows is easy. Keeping them requires your participation. “Growing with our children in the Christian life of faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation with them in the life of the church.” You teach how with your action, which won’t always be as easy – especially when he’s 2. Even worse when he’s 13 – just in time for confirmation. And don’t give up because he’s 21 and away at college.
And for all of us, these aren’t just words. This lifetime gift, in good times and bad, is our lifelong task: Do all the good you can. We can because upon our baptism we were given this blessing: “Strength for life’s journey, courage in time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love, and the hope of new life, through Jesus Christ who leads us to the Holy One.”
 The Message
 The Terrible Ungluing, The Christian Century, October 21, 1992
 The Message
 Our baptismal liturgy is based on the writings of Ruth Duck
 Ruth Duck
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 10, 2019
“It’s Just My Job”
Luke 19: 1-10 – The Message
In Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.
5-7 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Play the song “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man”
We gathered at Noodles and Company on Thursday for our lectionary lunch. When the group saw that Zacchaeus was our story today, Terri and Kat both broke out in song. I remember it, too, from Vacation Bible School and Sunday School, along with little figures of Jesus and Zacchaeus made out of felt. Some of us remember lessons that involved moving biblical characters around on a flannelgraph board. It was the technological marvel of its time. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find examples on YouTube.
Zacchaeus makes for a compelling story. First, kids identify with Zacchaeus because they have the lived experience of not being able to see over adults when something important or interesting is happening. Second, Jesus told him, “Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” As a kid I was always so excited when a guest came to the house for a meal. It was certainly more interesting than eating with the same people every day. And third: Someone who notices you. Kids are often invisible. Or told they should be. “Seen but not heard;” though often, not seen either. Jesus made it a practice to see what others didn’t. Especially outsiders. The marginalized. The ostracized. Anyone considered the “least of these” was the most in his eyes.
The song says Zacchaeus was a wee little man. A terrible insult. Why do we teach kids a song that hurts people’s feelings? So, yes, the Bible says he’s of short stature. And he wanted to see Jesus so badly, he climbed a Sycamore tree where Jesus saw him. What else do we know about him? He’s rich. Perhaps most importantly, Zacchaeus was among the head tax collectors, which makes him a collaborator with Rome. We don’t know if he’s rich and also a tax collector or he’s rich because he’s a tax collector. Plenty of tax collectors were, in fact, rich because they skimmed more than their fair share off the top of taxes owed to their occupiers in Rome. Some parables make that point explicitly, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about that here.
Either way, upon seeing Jesus and Zacchaeus together, the crowd was indignant and grumbled. As we heard: “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” Most translations say the crowd grumbled because Jesus has gone to be the “guest of a sinner.” But is Zacchaeus a crook or, as some commentators say, a “notorious” sinner? Or is that a stereotype because of his job?
Maybe you know what it’s like to be vilified for simply doing your job. The other day I was watching TV and scrolling through Prime, overwhelmed by the number of choices. I was pleased to see there were now reruns of one of Art and my favorite shows – Parking Wars. Parking Wars follows the lives of ticket writers and tow truck drivers. We watch as the general public disparages these civil servants for doing their jobs. Not just as they put boots on cars or discharge vehicles at the impound lot, but we watch as people yell all kinds of insults at them while they’re simply walking along the street or standing in line for lunch. They are trained to take the abuse, but it wears on them. Why all the animosity? Especially if yours is not the car being impounded? They are collaborators with the evil empire of Philadelphia. They’ll often respond, “It’s just my job.” Or, “this is how I provide for my family.” Or, “I’ve got mouths to feed and bills to pay.” You know, now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I enjoy this kind of entertainment…
But my point: Was Zacchaeus really a sinner or did the crowd simply despise him because of his job?
One of the biggest questions about how to interpret this story lies in one Greek word and whether it is present tense or future tense. Some of you who are grammar geeks will really love this. The eyes of others may glaze over while you mentally make a list of what you’re going to buy at the market after worship. But I promise this is important.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus and invited himself to dinner. Does Zacchaeus then reply to Jesus, “I will give half my possessions to the poor”? Or does he say, “I give half my possessions to the poor.” Does he say, “If I’m caught cheating, I repay them four times as much?” Or that now he will?
If it’s will give, that means Zacchaeus realized he was a sinner who needs to repent. But take away the word “will” and Zacchaeus is simply responding to the grumbling of the crowd. They’re not being fair because “I give half my possessions to the poor.” And if caught cheating, “I repay them four times as much.” By the way, the law only required restitution plus 20%. Zacchaeus pays 400%. Does he promise that he will or does he explain that this is what he does?
Here’s where it matters for interpretation. Some Christianity emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for repentance. They insist this story is about how he will give – that he met Jesus, repented, and will now give away half of his possessions. Except, here you go grammar geeks, there is no future tense for this Greek word. The only option is that this is something Zacchaeus already does, and therefore this is not a story about a repentant villain named Zacchaeus but a villainous, judgmental crowd. Any judging going on is how Jesus judges the crowd for labeling and excluding Zacchaeus. If not despised, making him feel invisible. Jesus repeats this important point by reminding the crowd that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham too. Future tense or present tense.
Someone asked, but what’s wrong with saying Zacchaeus is a sinner? Aren’t we all sinners? But, I ask, why is that label necessary? Isn’t it enough that we are all humans? Flawed. In need of grace and forgiveness. After all, we know how hard it is to be a human. Why must we go around labeling each other that way? How often is calling someone a sinner just a way to justify what you fear or hate? Perhaps I’m just sensitive about the whole “love the sinner hate the sin” thing. Which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with love but supposedly softens the prejudice. Yet, if we’re all defined as sinners, when does that happen? Does that include the baby out of the womb? When do those kids who climb trees in order to see over the adults become sinners?
There’s one more word that must be interpreted. Salvation. Jesus proclaims salvation has come to this house. Some may say, that means Zacchaeus has been saved and can now go to heaven. That’s too narrow. Salvation for Jesus is more than that. It’s wholeness and healing, on earth as it is in heaven. In many parables, healing meant they were able to return to their communities and families. The place where they can belong again. Which means, in other words, salvation has come. The healing work of Jesus restored people and their communities.
It reminds me of restorative justice. One local group is Colorado Circles for Change, formerly known as VORP, the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. It provides restorative justice programs for youth as an alternative to traditional punitive consequences in the juvenile justice system. It is a method for youth to take their actions seriously and resolve them in a way that restores the relationship. It is an intervention so these kids don’t become just another statistic in the pre-school to prison pipeline. Schools that use restorative justice instead of suspensions often prevent what becomes the inevitable next step to jail. CCFC helps youth acknowledge and heal harm, but also affirms their strengths, transforms their decision making, and reduces recidivism. And if you will indulge my pride, as some of you know that Art, after being introduced to VORP here in church, was honored on Thursday night for 10 years of volunteer service doing exactly that.
Restoring wholeness to the world includes ex-offenders too. We need robust re-entry programs to help those who have paid their debt to society so they can be fully reunited in their communities. Australia has a program called the Sycamore Tree. Embraced. Included. Instead of forever labeling people “felons,” thereby making some incapable of getting a job or renting a house.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that the kingdom of God is for the poor and the oppressed. He proclaims liberation for the captive, freedom for the prisoner, and sight for the blind. Jesus welcomes the misunderstood and reviled. And “the least of these.” The crowds who followed Jesus loved that. But, just steps from Jerusalem, counting down the days from his execution, this story takes it even further – maybe too far. The crowds liked it until Jesus proclaimed in this parable that the kingdom of God includes even Roman collaborators. That’s the scandal of this story. Even them.
But the scandal of this story won’t make sense until we place it in our context today. Who are the “even them!” for you? Sure, we can come up with a whole list of people reviled for doing their jobs. Meter maids and DMV employees and border patrol agents and hedge fund managers on Wall Street. But deeper in your gut, more viscerally, a feeling like how the crowd about Zacchaeus… How about officials in the Trump administration? Not civil servants just doing their jobs, but… well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.
As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, what is your desire? For every obstructionist to land in jail, lose their job, live their lives forever as a disgraced sinner? Unable to go out in public. Banned from restaurants. That may provide temporary satisfaction for some people. But followers of Jesus are called to the scandal of “even them.”
After accountability, our call is to work toward the beyond. To move beyond labels that exclude and denigrate to the work of restoring broken families, communities, and a nation more deeply divided than any time in our lives. That is how salvation will come. Salvation is not about “pie in the sky in the by and by when we die.” But, as UCC pastor Kenneth Samuel describes it, one of my favorite lines, “our faith is about looking for something sound on the ground while we’re still around.”
We seek truth. Accountability is absolutely necessary. But let’s never forget ultimate reconciliation with “even them.” It’s not just our job. It’s our calling as a church the follows Jesus Christ.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 3, 2019
“Our Not-Yet Reality Made Real”
Isaiah 2: 2-5 – Common English Bible
In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of the mountains.
It will be lifted above the hills;
peoples will stream to it.
3 Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
to the house of Jacob’s God
so that God may teach us God’s ways
and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
4 God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war.
5 Come, house of Jacob,
let’s walk by the Lord’s light.
I once heard the story of an architect who died before seeing her masterpiece project completed. At the grand opening, the emcee lamented, “It’s a shame she didn’t get to see this.” A wise soul in the audience replied back, “but she did see it. That’s why it’s here.”
People said about Martin Luther King, Jr., that it’s too bad he didn’t live to see the first black president. But he and other civil rights giants did see it. He even described it in a dream. “One day in this nation…” In this case, of course, the building isn’t complete, but like the Prophet Isaiah who saw a world that had abandoned war, it’s there. It’s just a not-yet reality.
The prophet said of those who walk on God’s paths, who learn God’s wisdom, “They will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.” Imagine weapons that have become the garden tools with which we can feed the world.
There is a vivid description of heaven and hell found in the folklore of a surprising number of different cultures – Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, medieval European, Chinese: Imagine it. There are two groups of people sitting around tables overflowing with food. One group of people appears fully fed. Happy, healthy. The other group looks like they are starving. Miserable. Both groups have utensils with which to eat from those piles of food – forks, spoons, etc. – but the utensils are six feet long. Too long for people to feed themselves. The one group used their six-foot-long forks to feed each other across the table. The other group… well, you get the picture. Hell is where there is plenty to eat but no one is willing to feed the other, so they all starve. Not willing, or no one has figured out how.
Guy Harris figured out how. As a church, we all want to make a positive impact and contribute to the quality of life for our neighbors in Park Hill. Yet, it’s one thing to do that by providing meeting space for groups, financial support for our mission partners, or even overnight shelter. Those of us who gather inside the church on Sunday mornings wish more people could benefit like we do from participating in the rituals and liturgy of the church, especially the rituals and liturgy of an open and affirming congregation. But Guy knew that there are walls and barriers around even the most welcoming sanctuary. That’s why he championed the idea of a labyrinth outside. Not as an amenity for our members but as a resource for our community. A way to contribute to the quality of life for our neighbors in Park Hill – spiritually.
You may not know that our playground was built before we had a school. Members raised money and built it because there are no other playgrounds close by. But a playground, just like meeting space and overnight shelter, serve external, physical needs. Guy saw how a labyrinth serves an internal, spiritual need, something we provide mostly through Sunday worship. But that doesn’t help someone unable, for whatever reason, to walk through the door. He saw something our neighbors could use 24 hours a day to help them through times of grief, a place to center our chaotic lives, or a place to encounter the divine in whatever way one is able, in whatever way one describes.
We might say it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see it become a reality. But just walk out the door and, as Guy anticipated, you are likely to see people on it all times of the day – including one morning when Kathy Blake came over to the church before dawn. A man was walking with the aid of the streetlight dappling through the leaves of the trees. You have to wonder what was on his heart and mind at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning that he would decide to use our labyrinth. Guy knew and saw this not-yet reality. That’s why it’s here and we can dedicate it today.
On this All Saints Day, we honor the lives of the three members of Park Hill UCC who died this year. They all saw and pursued their own not-yet reality.
Lucy Black Creighton died at age 91 on Christmas Day. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, she retained the best of southern hospitality as the most gracious host one has ever encountered. A staunch Democrat married for 62 years to Tom, an equally staunch Republican, they modeled a marriage that polls today indicate parents most fear for their children – not inter-racial but cross partisan. The business editor of the Rocky Mountain News in 1990 described Lucy as “perhaps the best known of Denver’s businesswomen,” a pioneering, highly revered economist. Another retired CEO described her as the Duchess of Data. She became the go-to source for economic forecasts and then vice president at First Interstate Bank, economics professor at Colorado Women’s College – the college where Johnson and Wales is now located – and the president of the State Board of Land Commissioners. Can you imagine what it would be like for a woman in the 1960s to decide to get a PhD in economics from Harvard? Who was her role model in such a male dominated field? She lived and modeled a not-yet reality. Not just for herself but for us too. For which we are grateful.
Cliff Cressy died in April at age 95. He was always coming up with ideas – practical ideas while doing something, like changing his grandkids diapers. In the early '80's disposable diapers were new and if you thought the baby was wet, unwrapping the diaper to check would rip off all the plastic. He solved that problem with duct tape. But then he thought of an idea involving a little transparent window with moisture sensitive tape that would change colors when it was wet. He named it the "Wee window" and "Tinkle tester." He went to a patent attorney and found out that Kimberly Clarke already patented the idea, even though at the time they hadn’t actually yet made it work.
He was always thinking. He'd be in a restaurant and say, "I have an idea!" and start drawing it. Marilyn would say, "Oh no, not again!!" If he wasn’t inventing, then he was fixing things – inventively. Once Collette went to visit. His reading glasses had broken. He fixed it with the ink tube from a Bic pen and a pipe cleaner. Cliff did actually have a number of patents on tools and a whole business manufacturing and selling his innovations and inventions – in addition to being an insurance agent.
Always thinking of how to make the world a better place, that’s why Cliff answered the call of Martin Luther King Jr. Cliff went to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge because Dr. King said things won’t change until white people show up. He did. And lived and modeled a not-yet reality. For which we are grateful.
Jane Van Buskirk died a few months ago at age 98. She ran this church in the 1970s. She wasn’t the pastor, but from the office, she knew more about what was going on than anyone else. And was on the front lines caring for anyone in need or crisis. Roy Smith would tell you that she served as much as a pastor as anyone and helped him as a novice pastor succeed. Jane’s life may have looked more conventional, but she was hardly a conventional woman within it. When her son David came out as a gay man, many decades ago, Jane not only accepted him without question but helped this church become Open and Affirming. A not-yet reality she could see.
I last talked with Jane the week before her death. Hospice was in the other room preparing a bed for her. Clearly with little time left on earth, I asked how she felt about what was coming next. As she lay in her bed, she raised her head a little and very clearly and confidently said, “I’m optimistic.” I had never heard anyone speak that way on their death bed. Some people will say they are ready to go, as she had been for several years, never intending to live for 98 years. Or people will say that they are happy to be reunited with loved ones. But she said, “I’m optimistic.” I love that. That’s also why she beat breast cancer when she was 90. She lived and continued to model a not-yet reality. For which we are grateful.
These three otherwise ordinary but yet also so extraordinary members saw something not-yet and made it real. They are the legacy we carry for the next generation. We who are otherwise ordinary and yet also just as extraordinary have a story that will be told too.
What do you see that isn’t a reality yet? It’s easy to get bogged down in what cannot be done. It’s easy to say “I just can’t imagine it” when confronted with a problem we think has no answer. But you see something too. You carry around a something not-yet. For yourself, your family, your community, and our church. You can make it real too. Like the Prophet Isaiah said, if you walk on God’s paths, by the light of the Lord, instruction will come – wisdom by listening. As impossible as a world where weapons have become gardening tools.
That’s one gift and intention of the labyrinth we dedicate today. Like life, if we will keep with it through the seemingly endless twists and turns, if we stay on the path, we will not get lost. It’s not a maze. It’s not meant to confuse us. We won’t get lost if we stick to it. We enter with an intention to find our center and then return by the same path ready to engage. One author described three movements – entering, centering, and returning. Every time we need to, 24 hours per day.
Thank you to Guy for seeing it. To David Conger for the enormous lengths he went to make it happen and everyone who helped him. To the 52 different donors who contributed to make it happen. To our talented architect. And especially to the men who laid it out and carefully placed every brink.
Our not-yet reality is finally real! Thanks be to God!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 26, 2019
“Don’t Be Generous”
Luke 18: 9-14 – Common English Bible
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
“Thank God I’m not like you.” I don’t remember who said that to me. Or why and when. As much as I’ve forgotten about the details, however, I’ll never forget feeling hurt. Perhaps it’s good he or she didn’t say something more specific, like “Thank God I’m not as stupid as you.” Which is not to say people haven’t said it about me. Just not to my face. Perhaps that’s because people generally understand proper etiquette dictates we say such a thing about a person, not to them. Like, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.”
When we talk like that, it also often implies a desired consequence – for example, a fall from grace. We love to see bullies get their due. And if they do, to feel schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is the German word for pleasure derived by seeing someone's misfortune. Feeling joy when someone is disgraced.
The Pharisee didn’t say “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector” to his face because he was too busy praising himself. Meanwhile the other man was slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up. Just beating his chest and crying out, “God, give me mercy. Forgive me.” The Pharisee busied himself with his credentials – fasting twice a week, giving away a tenth of all his income, convinced that he was righteous and could look down on everyone else.
On the surface, this is a straightforward and bracing story about the dangers of spiritual pride. A quick glance at the story would lead to the conclusion, “don’t be like the Pharisee.” Arrogant, self-righteous. Maybe even a bully. A quick glance might convince us to be more like the tax collector. Repentant, humble. Afterall, humility is a common theme for Jesus. That, and a reversal of fortune. A reversal of expectations. This parable closely resembles Mary’s Magnificat, when Mary sang of the baby in her womb that with the birth of this child, the humble shall be lifted high and those on their thrones will be toppled; the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. That’s almost exactly like the last line of this parable: “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
A hasty examination of this story might make us feel good. “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.” A deeper look, however, invites us to ask, “How am I like the Pharisee?” That’s where I find the “ouch” of this parable.
We may not think we struggle with the dangers of spiritual pride, but as I wrestled with the meaning of this parable, it occurred to me: What will happen if Donald Trump is impeached or, now increasingly likely, when. What will it feel like? What will it mean for us? Imagine the full-on potential for schadenfreude if he were to be removed from office? What would it feel like – to use the words of the Pharisee – to see the fall of the crooks, evildoers, and adulterers? I suspect, on that day there will be a lot of Pharisees tempted to say, “Thank God I’m not like those other people, those poor gullible fools.”
Ouch, right? How am I like the Pharisee? Well, here’s the Word of the Lord for out-of-touch, urban elites, who look down their noses on baskets full of deplorables. Am I making sense? Jesus told a parable to people who had trusted in themselves that they were the righteous ones. Or as Eugene Peterson translates in The Message, Jesus told this parable to people “who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance.”
I’m not pointing a finger. This is not an indictment on you but rather my plea for mercy from our forgiving God. Like the tax collector pleading, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” For I have, indeed, looked with contempt on those I deem to be on the wrong side of history. If not out loud, I have certainly thought, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.” Now, to fully repent, this will require that I cease this behavior. And when I inevitably fail, beg God for mercy and forgiveness again. Even if it is 70 times 7. “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.”
Yet, while this is true, we can’t let a focus on the personal failings of the insufficiently repentant turn into an opportunity for crooks, evildoers, and adulterers to deflect or distract from the pursuit of truth and justice. The corrupt demanding others to be humble.
A few weeks ago, there was a gathering of church leaders from across a wide theological spectrum, a coalition known as Red Letter Christians. They represent a long list of denominational officials, like the UCC’s Traci Blackmon, along with prominent pastors, bishops, and seminary presidents and professors.
They issued a timely proclamation: “As Christians in the United States of America, we join together to express our conviction that an impeachment inquiry is necessary to reveal the truth, hold President Donald J. Trump and other public officials accountable, and bolster democracy. We welcome the light of truth, honesty, and transparency that this moment demands, whatever may be revealed. An inquiry must shine light on this administration’s dealings behind closed doors. We petition people of faith and integrity to join us in calling forth this light.”
They added, “Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
Their statement says, “Jesus’ words and ministry highlight the connection between truth and the well-being of the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the earth. Likewise, we who follow Jesus must make visible that any President [who violates] violation of his [or her] oath of office would harm[s] the most vulnerable among us.” Adding, “this is not a matter of partisanship, but of deepest principle.”
I am immensely grateful that I serve as the pastor of a church where I can read that proclamation out loud. Thank you. And a church that expresses outrage over the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, and all who are suffering in this country and around the world. Thank you. And thank God we’re not like those other churches who won’t, don’t, or can’t. Oops. See how easy it happens? God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Again.
What does any of this have to do with the fact that today is stewardship Sunday and our theme is Making an Impact? I would not have chosen this as a stewardship text, but I’m now glad for the insight and caution it provides. Insight about humility and caution about arrogance, even though I still want to talk about the significant impact our church does have on the world and our communities. And as evidence, to read a letter to us from Genevieve Swift, the co-founder of the group Rename St*pleton for All:
“Park Hill UCC has been a great resource and respite for social justice activists. You provide free meeting space for groups like NE Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice and Rename St*pleton for All, and have allowed community members, such as me, to hold ACLU and other events in the sanctuary regardless of church membership. You always go above and beyond to accommodate our needs; and always with warmth. The main entrance to the church has a sign that says, “We serve EVERYONE ONLY.” To me, you live this and support all who are working toward a world that is an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate (she used those words!) through your fair trade gift market, monthly racial justice book club, shelter to homeless women… and by proudly displaying Black Lives Matter pins and yard signs. Rev. Bahr’s passionate sermons, straight from his heart, especially about the need to Rename St*pleton for All, provoke us all to think and love deeply, while calling us to action. The church provides us with the resources to follow through. Our community is better because of the mission and generous spirit of the Park Hill UCC, your pastor, and members.”
When I first read her letter, I felt such pride to be part of this church. The parable, however, reminds me that this letter should inspire humility, not arrogance. And more importantly, for it not to praise generosity, but for it to inspire it.
Again, our stewardship theme this year is about making an impact. I gave this theme to our talented graphic arts designer Brian Cullen and Deborah Colontonio. As they reflected on the word impact, they visualized the splash made by a stone when it hits water. It’s a brilliant, inviting image. Almost an icon drawing us in. It’s not an invitation to throw stones, but rather to illustrate the kind of impact we want to make. Brian provided several bags of stones on which to write words like love and compassion. At our staff meeting on Tuesday we had fun with markers. We added more words like kindness and joy and hope and healing. Then we dug a little deeper and added words about making an impact through silence and power and harmony. And amused ourselves about making an impact through delight and perhaps my favorite of all the words we chose – dazzle. God can use us to make an earth-shattering impact on the world through dazzle! Later in the service I’ll invite you to find the stone that speaks to you among the many here on the communion table. Or choose one at random and see what it says.
But back to the parable. It’s easy to come down hard on the Pharisee for his “other people” comment. Wasn’t he, in fact, simply doing the things asked of him? Praying at the temple, fasting, tithing. He was decent, upstanding, faithful. The problem, however, is that although he was praying to God, he really made it all about himself. What he was doing. He used the grammar of gratitude, thank you God, but in reality, it was the grammar of superiority. Comparing himself to those other people and emphasize what he was doing for God instead of what God had done for him.
So I’ve never said this on a stewardship Sunday before, but after wrestling with this text, my conclusion is: Don’t be generous.
Don’t be generous because that makes it about us. Stewardship isn’t about us. When we give or pledge to the ministry of Christ, it shouldn’t be about what we are doing for God. Because that could lead to arrogance or complacency. It invites a comparison with those other people. We might be tempted to analyze our giving as too little or too much. We might end up judging some giving better than others.
Instead, don’t be generous. Choose first to live with love or compassion or power and gentleness. Or dazzle! And then watch the incredible impact God will make through you. You’ll find yourself more generous than if you had chosen to be, not because you were asked but because you can’t help yourself!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 13, 2019
“Hello! How Are You?”
Luke 17: 11-19 – Common English Bible
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
Hello! How are you? How many times a day do you greet someone that way? Or, how many times a day does someone ask you “How are you?” And your response? “Fine.” “Good.” Maybe on occasion, “Great!” Or the American status symbol – “Busy. So busy.” Or the cousin of busy, “Tired.” But rarely do we say more than that, nor does anyone follow up with a question about why you are either great or busy. Because an honest answer might make us feel uncomfortable.
One of the things we’ve been learning in our relational campaign gatherings after worship is how difficult it has become to speak honestly with people. We’re afraid of looking like we are prying into each other’s lives. Or we’re afraid we might be judged. Having permission to tell the truth, however, is delightfully liberating. In the simple 14-minute conversations we have been practicing, 7 minutes for each person to speak uninterrupted, it has proven how wonderful it feels to have someone actually listen to us.
What would happen if you answered, “I’m struggling.” “It’s been a hard day.” “Lots of pain today.” Most of the time we’re not prepared to either say or hear that.
There was a story on Vice News a few weeks ago about a company in the Philippines that places teachers in schools around the country – from small towns in Montana, like Miles City, to big cities like Chicago. Apparently, it’s quite common and a growing trend to recruit teachers from other countries because the pay is so low in so many of our schools. Once again, outsourcing low paying jobs. In their orientation sessions, recruiters explain American culture. One of the things these teachers will have to get used to is people asking them “How are you.” The recruiter leaned forward, “They don’t really care.” I laughed at that. And then I didn’t.
I’ve heard store clerks respond to the question “How are you” by saying, “I’m blessed,” and wondered whether store management approved. But it’s refreshing to hear. If you were to really think about it, what could you say besides, “I’m good.” “Fine.”
David Lose once had a colleague who always answered, “I’m grateful.” At first, it almost always caught him off guard and then he got used to it and then he looked forward to it. He said it always felt like an invitation for more. “Oh really! Why are you grateful?”
I’ve actually known a few people who respond, “I’m grateful.” They’re often people with serious illnesses, perhaps in remission for cancer. Individuals who are truly grateful to live another day. In fact, some of the most grateful people in the world are those who live without the guarantee of another day. Most of us take it for granted. We expect it. If we even think about it at all.
At lunch at Noodles and Company on Thursday, our conclusion to why the other nine did not return to say thank you was that they felt entitled to healing. People with so much privilege, they didn’t question why. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Whereas the Samaritan, the outsider, did not take it for granted.
There’s lots of reasons why nine ex-lepers might not have returned to give thanks. Entitlement or privilege might be one answer. One might have been frightened that this wasn’t a divine gift but the devil’s black magic. One might have been confused. Who am I now without this disease? One might have had to sit down and first figure out a logical reason why her skin was restored. One might have just been following instructions. Jesus said go show yourself to the priest, so that’s exactly what he did.
By the way, do you know why Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest? It wasn’t for absolution for sin or wrongdoing or a liturgical act. Priests were sort of like the appointed public health officials of their day. They were tasked with certifying that someone no longer had leprosy and could therefore return to their communities.
So, some may have been frightened or confused, but one of the lepers might not have returned because he was sick and tired of everyone expecting him to be grateful for their acts of reluctant mercy. Angry about piddly coins thrown toward them. Lepers had to keep their distance. They had to alert people to their presence by crying out, leper, leper. They couldn’t go to the marketplace or any other public space.
Something happens to a person who must beg for food and mercy. There is something that happens to a person who is shunned. Told she must have done something to deserve her illness or poverty. Or he must be lazy or have done something sinful or wicked. Surely there is a reason. Bad things don’t just happen to good people.
What happens when someone throws a few coins at you and says, “You better be grateful I’m giving you anything!” People with unquestioned privilege are annoyed when they don’t get the gratitude they think they deserve for their charity. Or tax break. Jesus makes the point twice that only the Samaritan, the outsider, the enemy, the alien, came back to say thank you.
Debi Thomas remembers the first time as a girl she went on a family trip to India, her parents’ homeland. As they stood at the village train station, her brother pointed to two shadowy figures huddled in a corner. After two weeks in India, she said she had grown accustomed to seeing beggars, exhausted women with babies too thin on their hips, men who were blind or lame, children with their hands out. But these two were different. Their faces distorted. Their fingers half missing. Scary looking feet. Her father explained they had leprosy.
But what really struck Debi was how alone they looked. She said, “It was otherworldly, profound and impenetrable in a way I could barely comprehend. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them absolutely untouchable. Their disease frightened me. But worse was seeing their isolation. Their not-belonging.” Not in public. Not at home.
You know, when Jesus proclaimed healing for ten lepers, not only were their bodies made clean. They were restored to their families and their community. Their full humanity. And intimacy. Once again, they were free to embrace and be embraced. Imagine. What would it be like to never touch another human being? But now they could return to eat with their families and worship in community and reclaim everything this terrible disease stole from them. They rushed off to the priest so they could race home to get and give a hug. I’m sure I would have forgotten to go back to say thank you too. Maybe a little later. But not right away.
The things Jesus did, more often than not, weren’t just about healing an individual but restoring community. To give people a place to belong again. But more than that, to expand it. He taught that in the Kingdom of God, such a place of belonging included not just Jews but Samaritans, their enemy, the other, the outsider, as well.
The lives of every one of those ten ex-lepers would have been transformed from all the limits of “what they had been” to all the possibilities of “what they could become.” But reunion or re-entry might not be as easy as it sounds. What kinds of challenges might those ex-lepers have faced now?
Bryan Stevenson told the story of Walter McMillian in his book Just Mercy. In 1987, Mr. McMillian, a black man, was charged with the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against him. Three witnesses with implausible and conflicting stories testified against him. His public defender offered no objection. Mr. McMillian had 12 alibis. He was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. But 12 black alibis were ignored by the jury that had already systematically excluded all black citizens. His trial lasted only a day and a half. And then, in minutes, the jury sentenced Walter to life without parole. But the judge, Robert E. Key, overrode the jury. He sentenced Mr. McMillian to death instead. Years of appeals trying to present evidence that the State’s witnesses admitted to lying on the stand and that the prosecution had illegally suppressed exculpatory evidence led to nothing. Finally, DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime. In the meantime, he spent six years on death row. Another outrageous detail is this story is that he was placed on death row before the trial.
But freedom from prison did not bring him freedom from judgment. Despite having no evidence tying him to the crime, white residents still believed he did it. The trauma of death row contributed to a downward spiral of paranoia, divorce, and dementia. As grateful as he might have been for the attorneys who freed him, they may have saved him from death, but he never actually regained life.
Like the ex-lepers, when granted his freedom from isolation, Walter may also have been frightened. Is this real? Or confused. Who am I now? Or angry at the idea he should be grateful. Why be grateful for being freed from death row when he shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Just like the lepers. What had they done? They didn’t do anything to deserve it either. Why be grateful now? For people with cancer, why be grateful for another day? You shouldn’t have cancer in the first place. Or any other diagnosis or disease. And yet, what better choice do we have? To waste the days we have or to cherish each one? To live with bitterness or to live with gratitude?
“How are you?” I’d like you to give some thought to possible answers to the question.
We’ve got options like: pretty good, OK, fine;
We’ve got: great, amazing, wonderful;
Lance likes to answer: “Living the American dream!”
How are you? We’ve got options like: busy, tired, exhausted;
Or we’ve got: blessed, grateful, thankful.
What else could we say?
In addition to how we answer, we should also consider how we ask it. As I was working on this on Thursday, I asked Tammy, “How are you?” She responded with a surprised look on her face, “Like, really, how am I?” And so, she told me. And later near the end of day she actually said, “Thank you for asking how I am.” Yikes! Is it really that rare that I ask in a way that invites an honest answer? Yes, really, how are you?!
The heart of the parable of ten ex-lepers is about gratitude. So, inspired by the Samaritan ex-leper, if we adopted the response “I’m grateful,” it might take some time to get used to it. But like a muscle that can be strengthened with time and exercise, it would get easier as we practiced it. But we’d also need to be ready to answer why. “Why are you grateful?” That would be a doubly good thing. And healthy. Scientifically, people who live with gratitude have longer and healthier lives.
So, Hello! How are you?
Really?! Tell me more.
 Learn more about his life https://eji.org/videos/walter-mcmillian-60-minutes
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 6, 2019
“We Need a Little Criminal Activity Here and There”
Jeremiah 7: 1-7 – Common English Bible
Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: 2 Stand near the gate of the Lord’s temple and proclaim there this message: Listen to the Lord’s word, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. 4 Don’t trust in lies: “This is the Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple!” 5 No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; 6 if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, 7 only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.
A week ago, Amy Forte and I went to Tucson for a border education and immersion experience, along with Jenny and 7 others from Denver area UCC churches. I expected it to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting and ding, ding, ding, it was. Except that it wasn’t really. Those words, and much worse, must be reserved for those whose home country is so dangerous and desperate they would mortgage their house to pay the cost of a coyote to guide them across the most inhospitable stretch of the border possible. As many times as necessary.
Those words – emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion – must be reserved for Alisha who told us about her life as a volunteer for No More Deaths. No More Deaths is a ministry of First Unitarian Church in Tucson that places water, food, socks, and blankets along trails in the desert used by migrants. These volunteers are criminals for providing such humanitarian aid. Our group walked a few miles on those trails, carrying gallon jugs of water and cans of food with a pop-top, listening to helicopters fly menacingly overhead. My image of walking in the desert is like a dry sandy flat plain. But the Sonoran Desert is mountainous, sending people through winding, narrow canyon washes, past bushes with stickers and thorns an inch long, mostly at night to avoid detection.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for people like Lizzy from the Florence Project and other advocates and attorneys who provide free legal services.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Josh, a US citizen and member of the Tohono O’doham tribe; a tribe whose land is a vast stretch of the border – actually, families were divided by the border when it was imposed on them. Josh told us about being stopped at interior roadside checkpoints, not the border, for lengthy and sometimes physically abusive inquiries of his citizenship. This happens to him 50% of the time he travels to and from work or to pick up his children from school. Children who have to watch as men with guns rough up their father.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Manuel who spoke to us on the Mexican side of the border. First, however, we walked along the US side, a tall, see-through steel fence covered with 5 thick roles of razor wire. Surveillance towers high above. I can report that the rolling terrain would not allow for an alligator and snake-filled moat. But unfortunately, Manuel did show the spot on the Mexican side where Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy, was indeed shot and killed in 2012; shot 10 times by a border patrol agent for throwing a rock at the wall – an impossible distance for a rock of any size to fly. The agent was not held responsible.
Manuel’s daughter Maria welcomed us into her home in Nogales, fed us a delicious meal, and told us about working 10 hours a day in a NAFTA inspired maquiladora making medical equipment for $9 a day. The cost of living in Nogales is so high that if we lived on an equivalent of her salary, a carton of eggs here would cost us $14. A liter of milk, $29. And a box of 36 diapers, $136. Yet, when migrants are pushed across the border, Manuel is among the first to offer help to a hungry fellow human being.
We listened to Karolina tell her frightening story. She is a transgender woman placed for months in a detention center with men, despite her pleas. I can only describe her life as a series of unspeakable horrors, yet she used them to help others. She started an organization called Mariposas sin Fronterres, Butterflies without Borders, to provide housing to other LGBTQ detainees when they are released.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Eden and Oscar and Guadalupe who shuffled into the courtroom in shackles. We watched more than 70 men and women stand before an Operation Streamline judge for 30 seconds each, in groups of 10, most charged with a misdemeanor – a 1325. But Ramon and Angel and Juan Carlos and a dozen more were charged with a “1326.” A felony for crossing a second time. When we hear about catching a group of felons trying to cross the border, it sounds ominous. They are felons for simply trying twice.
In Iliff professor Miguel de la Torre’s book Trails of Hope and Terror, one young migrant told him, “Please tell the Americans that I am sorry for entering the country like this. Please forgive us, but we are simply desperate.”
We often hear the question, what kind of person would put their family through this. I wonder, what kind of person thinks placing water in the desert to prevent more deaths should be a criminal act? I went to Tucson with the question, “How many should we allow to cross,” realizing, we must first address, “how do we treat those who do?”
Volunteers from End Operation Streamline sit in the courtroom every day to watch the daily docket and note whenever there is an irregularity, or someone asks for asylum. Then they alert a legal defense group like the Florence Project. Someone like Crystal, whose horrific description of her life of abuse should qualify her for asylum. The judge in this court offered genuine sympathy but has no jurisdiction over that. Domestic abuse used to be a factor in asylum cases. It’s just as likely now that she will be put on a bus and never given the opportunity to present her case.
This devastating experience for Crystal and dozens more shuffling through the court every day is so “normal” that we could watch one attorney play Candy Crush on his phone between groups of ten. And a court interpreter read a novel on the side while the other interpreter worked. I can’t blame them for trying to “normalize” their work; after all it must be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting for them too. But it was disturbing to watch the effects first hand. The criminalization of desperation. The militarization of the border. Agents are sometimes caught in the middle too. For example, they used to be able to call people from No More Deaths to help them with an injured migrant. They are not allowed anymore.
We learned a lot about the factors that contributed to this humanitarian crisis and much of it was anticipated as a result of NAFTA. Because the government knew that local economies would be devastated, they created a strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence that pushed desperate migrants further into dangerous territory. A policy designed to make migration “more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.”
de la Torre told of Ignacio who said he knew the danger. He said that’s why migrants sometimes pin their names and pictures to their clothes in the event their bodies would have to be identified. He described it being so hot, it felt like his brain was boiling. If they didn’t die from the heat, or from an untended injury or infected blisters, they could die in the desert from drowning during the monsoon season. The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is not mine to make.
As much as I wanted to blame the current administration, to assign it the status of villain, our country through both parties has a long history of cruel abuses against immigrants, much of it driven by racism, through such explicit measures as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or the law in the 1920s that required immigrants to know English. The law exempted Mexicans, however, because we needed their labor. Until we didn’t need them anymore and new laws were passed to target them.
Ranchers are tired of finding bodies on their land. Some resent them. Others like Joseph, who still referred to migrants as illegals, said he’s a patriot, veteran, and a proud American, but the Bible is clear. Therefore, he’s always welcomed whoever knocked on his door looking for food and water. His house is very close to the border. When the lights are on, it stands like a lighthouse. But, he said, the law now says I cannot bring them into my house because I could be charged with harboring illegals.
That was a dilemma faced by Rev. Daniel Groody. He passed a man on the side of the road waving empty water jugs in his hand, obviously in need of help. The good Reverend did not stop. If Border Patrol pulled him over, he reasoned, he could be charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry into the US and face 1 to 10 years in prison. As he kept driving, the story of the Good Samaritan came to mind. And then he remembered Jesus told his followers that when you don’t help someone who is hungry, thirsty, in prison, sick and in need, you are not helping Jesus himself. Rev. Groody didn’t turn the car back around, however, until he remembered an elderly priest who told him that he saw Christ in the immigrants – the crucified peoples of today.
He asked, in the form of Matthew 25, what is our response to Jesus who is
There are many texts in scripture that speak about how one should treat immigrants and strangers. The prophet Jeremiah said, “If you truly reform your ways and your actions; it you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in the place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.”
I can’t read this text without thinking of the blood of innocent migrants shed on the deserts of our borderlands. Or the gods of free trade and stockholder shares that have ruined local communities and turned children into orphans and women into widows.
When Jeremiah stands at the gate mocking, “This is God’s temple, this is God’s temple, this is God’s temple,” he is talking about a false security. We’re OK. God is with us no matter what if we’re in God’s temple.
But Jeremiah said, true worship is not about being in the right place. It is loving God through acts of kindness and generosity to others. True worship is a changed life and love for one’s neighbor, particularly, as Jeremiah makes clear, the immigrant. For those who claim that the temple is the dwelling place of God, Jeremiah sets the record straight. God will not dwell in the hearts of believers if the hearts of believers do not change.
Jeremiah can be a very harsh critic. But that is also the way he speaks of hope. If we change our ways, God will dwell among us. Nothing is hopeless. It is not a sentence of death. It is an invitation to life. Simply live a life of justice and compassion.
Like Alisha, Lizzy, Josh, Karolina, Manuel, Maria, Joseph, and Rev. Groody. They may not describe the presence of God in their lives as that which keeps them from succumbing to emotional, spiritual, or physical exhaustion, but it can be the way we keep ourselves going when it all seems too much and we want to give up caring.
The opportunity to actually see Christ with our own eyes in Eden and Guadalupe, in Ramon and Juan Carlos, in Crystal and Ignacio is a blessing we may not fully appreciate. To see Christ with our own eyes. But that is not an excuse to keep them on the cross or crucifying others so that we may benefit from their sacrifice. To glorify their sacrifices, oh they’re so brave, is a perversion of the gospel of good news for the poor, liberation for the captive, and freedom for the prisoner.
And yet, even so, it is hopeful. The antidote to a life of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is to experience the indwelling of God. And how? A little criminal activity here and there, such as providing water in the desert, so that there are no more deaths. That, and a changed life that stops taking advantage of the immigrant. Then God will dwell within. Only then. And that’s good news.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 22, 2019
“What to Do with Dishonest Wealth”
Luke 16: 1-13 – Common English Bible
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. 2 He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
3 “The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
5 “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ 7 Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Almost every scholar I consulted to help make sense of this story started by saying “This is the strangest, most confounding and perplexing, and most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand. Good luck.” Phyllis Tickle, a highly respected scholar said, “Oh no! Is it really time for that parable again?” It comes around every three years. Most years I look to see what other options I have in the lectionary.
Many parables are repeated in other gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often contain the same parables, sometimes told in slightly different ways, depending on their audience and purpose. But what does it say that Matthew and Mark took a pass on this parable too!?
Six of us gathered to eat noodles for lunch on Thursday. Our practice is to read three different translations to ourselves as we eat and then discuss. This week, I watched each person finish reading with a “what?!” look on their face. This text raises a lot more questions than answers.
It starts by Jesus telling his disciples that an accusation was made against the household manager of a certain rich man. His income came from a cut of his boss’s income. Not an unusual practice. Perhaps someone thought he was taking too much and tried to get him in trouble by telling the rich man he was squandering his property. Most focus on his alleged dishonesty. But I want to go back to first ask, how did this rich man get so rich? And what had he done to stay so rich.
As the text begins, it seems odd but OK. “We can work with this.” Until we come to its most perplexing line. Kathy read: “use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” A little weird. But the New Revised Standard translation of that same verse isn’t just weird. It’s offensive. It says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Surely an editorial error was made somewhere along the way. Jesus would never say something like that. And if he did, why?
What do you think of when you hear the phrase dishonest wealth? I can’t help but think of emoluments clauses and the small business people who were contracted to build and furnish casinos in Atlantic City and golf courses in Florida, and probably everywhere else too. When they went to collect their money, they were told they would have to accept less. Small businesses that couldn’t afford to join among the 60 who filed lawsuits or the 200 who placed liens were paid as little as ten, twenty, thirty cents on the dollar. And subsequently forced out of business. Some claim it was just a shrewd business practice. Sadly, we could spend the next hour sharing such stories of cabinet makers in Philadelphia, drapery installers in Las Vegas, and a toilet company in New Jersey.
Jesus, does this have anything to do with why some Christians have made friends with people of dishonest wealth? Yet, in the end, Jesus did say, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.”
This weird and offensive line about dishonest wealth is even more curious given the topic Jesus talked about more than any other in the Gospel of Luke. Despite the odd line about being welcomed into eternal homes, Jesus spoke of economic justice more than heaven and the afterlife. More than healing. What does this perplexing story have to do with justice for the poor?
The verse that immediately follows says, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” If we are perplexed and confounded by this parable, somehow the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was saying. And they didn’t like it. Jesus then told the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, which is not a super popular parable among the accused “money-lover” class either.
Does it matter how this certain rich man got so rich?
Was he like the man who promised God, “If you solve my problem, I’ll sell my house and give all the money to the poor?” One day he realized he would have to make good on his promise. He put his house on the market for $1. But anyone who bought the house would also have to take his cat, which came for the bargain price of $100,000. When the house sold, the man promptly gave everything he received from the proceeds of the house to the poor. He had said nothing about the cat in his promise.
Was he being shrewd? Was it dishonest, or worldly, wealth? Perhaps more importantly, what does any of this have to do with us?
There is not one person in this room, myself included, who doesn’t live a relative standard of wealth above most people in the world. We may not be guilty of something devious or have committed a crime to get it, but we certainly have some responsibility for all the access and advantages and privilege that comes with it.
All of us benefit to some extent from wealth gained by dishonest practices. After all, we live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples. Every time we travel to the Pine Ridge Reservation, we are reminded that the United States has never kept even one treaty in order to get wealthy from mining gold and silver and every other mineral we wanted. As the gold on the dome of the state capitol glimmers in the sun, it should serve as a reminder of the benefits we receive from dishonest wealth.
We have to ask how much of the wealth of our country was derived from slave labor? The South is rightly excoriated for their practice of owning slaves and then losing a war for the right to keep human beings enslaved. But the earnings of plantation owners filled the banks and increased the bottom line of the whole country. Unpaid labor made cheap goods possible for everyone. Wealth grew. People made rich off slave labor didn’t have to give any of that up. Inheritances grew, except for those upon whose backs this wealth was made. Given our history, I don’t know why reparations is even a controversial issue. There are debts to be paid.
The price of freedom for newly freed slaves was impossibly high. Their former owners told them to get off their land or now pay to live in the squalid quarters that had been their homes. With what were they supposed to now pay rent? Hence, a “new and improved” form of slavery began, called sharecropping. Those emancipated were supposed to start with nothing. Although, as one commentator said, “I refuse to be a victim in this scheme. I am the ancestor of those who survived the worst that could be thrown at them. My ancestors are the strongest. My ancestors are survivors. And so am I.”
It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s poem:
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Yet the legacy of an uneven playing field remains today. The gap between the net worth of the average black and white household in the United States has only continued to worsen – a greater wealth gap today by race than 1970 South Africa during apartheid.
Wealth buys access to a family home, and therefore credit, which generates wealth. Providing such things as access to higher education. The crisis of cripling student debt will have serious long-term effects on all of parts of our economy, but student debt is even worse for people of color.
This is the kind of stuff that Jesus talked about all the time. Far more than heaven, salvation, and family values, unless you define family values as food enough for children. He spoke of justice. Not retribution and retaliation but reconciliation and redistribution. Also known as reparations? Jesus didn’t say a single word about abortion or homosexuality but quite clearly, he said, “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” As Jesus said, “You will either hate one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other.”
For example, by serving wealth instead of God:
At the end of trying to understand this confounding, perplexing enigma of a parable wrapped in a riddle, I take away one thing: More than the admonition that “we can’t serve both God and wealth,” rather, I ask in the positive, “how do we use our wealth to serve God?” Why deny it. We have it.
Martin Luther King once said, “time is neutral. You can use your time for good or you can use your time for evil.” But liberation theologian Justo Gonzales said, “money is not neutral. It is either used for purposes that are just or purposes that are unjust. What we do with whatever wealth we have – however great or small – is of enormous importance. We are either servants of God seeking its wise use or servants of money, always seeking more.”
Are you a servant of God or a servant of money? An easy question. Hard to answer.
We can be wealthy in many things – in friendships, in family, in kindness and acts of compassion. But this parable is about money. It’s not an anti-wealth parable. In fact, one way to understand it is that “we should not be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Shrewd in the ways of the world. Not to forget, Jesus and his disciples depended on the wealth especially of women who financed his ministry.
But it does invite us to ask, is financial wealth the goal of our life? Or is our focus the wise, even shrewd, use of money? Again, let’s not bother denying we have it. How do we use it?
Whether obtained honestly or dishonestly, is your wealth making an impact on the people Jesus loved and talked about all the time? For some people, it is giving it all away. For others, how are you using your wealth to serve God? And if you wonder who is God, just remember that God is love. We can ask the question, how are you using your wealth to serve love?
 Luke 16: 10-12 in The Message
 A Sufi story, adapted http://bytesizesufistories.blogspot.com/2011/06/oath-man-who-was-troubled-in-mind-once.html
 Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-after-ferguson-race-deserves-more-attention-not-less.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 15, 2019
“Grumblers and People of Doubtful Reputation”
Luke 15: 1-10 – Common English Bible
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
I have a couple of more stories:
Nasrudin rode the train to work every day. One day, as usual, the train conductor came around and asked for his ticket. He began fumbling around in his coat pockets, and his pants pockets, and then in other people’s pockets. He looked in his briefcase, in his bags, and then in other people’s bags. Finally, the train conductor said, “Nasrudin, I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That’s where most men keep their tickets.” “Oh no,” said Nasrudin, “I can’t look there. Why, if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.”
Another story about Nasrudin. One day he was seen out in the street frantically looking for something. People asked him, “What are you searching for?” “I’ve lost my key.” So a bunch of helpful people joined in to search for the lost key. Someone finally asked, “Where did you lose it?” He said, “In the house.” People looked at each other and one of them asked, “Then why are you searching for it on the street?” “Because there is more light out here.”
Surely, we all have stories about losing something important. One of those frightful occasions for me was one cold winter night when I had to be at an event at Montview Presbyterian. I was in my office running late and in a rush to get there. I had my keys in my hands and then I didn’t. I retraced my steps in the areas where I had been. Lifting papers, opening drawers. You know the drill. Then I searched in areas where I hadn’t been, you know, just in case they walked off on their own. I searched and searched and finally I had to leave because I was part of the program. Joan Root gave me a ride. Afterwards, I sheepishly called Art to come and pick me up. It was cold outside, the kind of night where you can see your breath, so while standing on the corner, I put my hands in my coat pocket. I had never put my keys in my coat pocket before. I keep my keys in my right pants pocket. Always. But there they were. I was probably more embarrassed than relieved. I probably felt sillier than joyful at finding them.
But losing my office, house, and car keys are obviously just an inconvenience compared to the economic loss for the woman and the shepherd. In addition, I’ve never had to frantically search and search and search until I found a lost pet. I’ve never lost a child and had to desperately search and search and search until they were found. I’ve been a lost child. I’ve felt such panic that it’s hard to breathe. And I’m not sure which one of us was happier to be reunited. Who was more relieved? My mom or me? That’s one of the fundamental questions in the effort to understand this parable told by Jesus.
Is this a parable about being lost or being found?
Is this story about the woman who lost the coin or is this a story about the coin that is found?
Who do we identify with in the story? Are we the sheep or the shepherd?
Are we the searcher or the object of the search? The rescued or rescuer.
Most of us live relatively comfortable, privileged lives, so I think it’s likely we see ourselves in the role of searcher more than the searched. The doer of good deeds, not the recipient. Therefore, we may see this as a Dale Carnegie-type lesson to be persistent. The motivational guru said, “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” A sermon about the woman and the missing coin could be called “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
But why did Jesus tell this parable? Who was the audience for whom Jesus told this parable?
Euell read, “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So, Jesus told them this parable.” Who the “them” is here isn’t as clear as it could be.
I think the translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message draws a better picture. “A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation had started hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not pleased at all. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”
“Their grumbling triggered this story.” Hummmm…makes me wonder, who today’s grumblers might be. Like,
So, in our passage today, the people of doubtful reputation watched as Jesus told parables to the grumblers about searching for one lost sheep and one missing coin and then rejoicing when they are found. We may think that Jesus is encouraging the grumblers to be less grumbly about including people of doubtful reputation. We could read this text and then sing the song “Draw the Circle Wide.”
This story is an excellent counterpoint to the pastor who refused to serve communion to LGBTQ activists wearing a rainbow sash. To expose the hypocrisy, some folks went forward anyway. But instead of rejection, they experienced grace when an elderly man in front of them took the wafer he had been served and crumpled it up into little pieces and handed it out so everyone could receive communion. It’s a tear-jerker moment.
Jesus told a lovely parable. But it has a very weird ending. It doesn’t exactly seem to fit as a conclusion to joy over finding what was missing. What are we to make of the last verse about the joy of one sinner who changes both heart and life? “Joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Who is Jesus talking about? Is he talking about the doubtful reputation folks? The ones labeled sinners by the grumblers? But if you follow the text carefully, Jesus is still talking to the grumblers when he talks about the joy of sinners repenting. He’s not pointing over to those other folks. Jesus reverses our expectations and seems to be saying that joy will come to heaven when the Pharisees and religion scholars repent. Which would also mean that the Pharisees and the religion scholars are the lost sheep and the missing coin.
And following the same logic, God is the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. And God is the woman who will not stop searching until she has found the one who was missing. It is about God that we can say “Nevertheless, She persisted.”
Somehow, over the years, I’ve missed all of that. Or just skipped over the last line because it’s confusing. This parable is just as confusing as those “simple” Nasrudin stories, which, after hearing you go, “What?” All of these stories have depths of meaning that could be explored for years.
On Thursday, six of us ate noodles and discussed today’s text from the Gospel of Luke. After making this very point that it would seem that the Pharisees are the “sinners” in need of repentance, Larry Ricketts said, “then, by us identifying today’s grumblers, we’ve just put ourselves in the position of the Pharisees.” And yikes! He’s right. I’m now the one in need of repentance.
Sure, the story is still a celebration of Jesus’ love for people of doubtful reputation. But they’re not the ones being saved here. They’re not the ones in need of salvation. The story is about the joy in heaven when a grumbler repents. When a grumbler changes both heart and life.
Long after we may have given up on people we label “the grumblers,” this is a story about how God will never stop searching for whatever or whoever is missing. Until we are all reunited. Every day, when I want to give up on “the other side,” this story speaks of joy upon our reconciliation. When we may be too quick to give up on the grumblers, God does not similarly lack patience. We are all too valuable. The “all lives matter,” “special rights,” “tax cuts for the wealthy,” “punish the asylum seeker” grumbler is never too lost for God to keep searching.
But, oops. I did it again. Notice, all of a sudden, I just turned into the grumbler about those people of doubtful reputation. And truthfully, I might be very unhappy seeing them hanging around with Jesus. But fortunately, this story also means that when we become the grumbler, God, the searcher, won’t give up on us either. And that means, we can’t give up on each other. Nasrudin was right to keep that ticket in his pocket. It’s too early to give up hope in each other.
In this story, we are not the shepherd in need of a lesson in persistence, but we are the object of the rescue. We are not the woman searching for what is missing but the one for whom she will never stop searching. Sometimes we’re the people of doubtful reputation and sometimes we’re the grumblers. Always in need of grace. Never too lost to be found.
As Bryan Stevenson said of the men he represents on death row, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 8, 2019
“The Problem of Being ‘Not-Racist’
Luke 14: 25-33 – The Message
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
In our gospel reading for today, large crowds followed along as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem where he would ultimately have to follow his own advice. Don’t start something you can’t finish. He could have added a few more inspirational quotes like “winners never quit, and quitters never win” or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The crowds of people who followed Jesus did so for lots of reasons. Some enjoyed the show. He was entertaining. Imagine being there when two demon-possessed men approached Jesus. Imagine watching as Jesus ordered the demons to leave the men and enter a herd a pigs and then watch as those pigs race off a cliff and drown in the sea. Yes, it sounds absurd. And yes, someone should have called PETA to report animal abuse. But my faith does not hang on whether Jesus actually did literally cast out demons. Just set that aside and imagine being in the crowd and watching it happen. Wouldn’t you want to see more? To watch as Jesus healed people. To watch as Jesus called out the religious authorities as hypocrites and broods of vipers.
Some people followed Jesus because they believed sincerely that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Others opposed him and followed along trying to trap him in one heresy after another. I would be willing to bet, though, that the majority just followed him for the free entertainment. When street musicians or street magicians wow us with their talents, how many people actually put money the violin case or in their hat? There is no obligation to give them anything, and so when we tire of their talents, we can simply walk away. That is, if we even bother to notice them.
I love the story about Joshua Bell, the amazing, world-renowned, violinist. He played outside a Washington, DC, subway station one cold day as hundreds of commuters, thousands of people rushed by. Seven people stood to watch for between a few seconds and a few minutes. Several children tried to stop and listen, but they were pulled away by parents with a schedule to keep. After playing for 45 minutes, the case that held his $3.5 million dollar violin contained $32 in coins and small bills. At the time, to watch him play at a symphony hall cost $100 per ticket.
Jesus turned to the large crowd that was following him and said, “If you can’t carry your own cross, you can’t be my disciple.” Later he said, “If you can’t give up your possessions, you can’t follow me.” Those are the kinds of things we expect to hear from Jesus. Words that flow in one ear and out the other. Nice. Comforting. However, there is one more thing Jesus said in this passage, that does catch our attention.
We heard Claire read “Jesus told them, ‘Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple.” That’s not quite what he said, however. I didn’t want to hear the real words spoken from the mouth of a pre-teen because what Jesus really said was, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Hate is not a word we expect to hear from Jesus. Maybe hate evil, but certainly not hate family. Especially since one of the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s father and mother.
I started a new lunch and lectionary group on Thursday. Five of us ate noodles and discussed this passage. We spent a great deal of our time on our discomfort with the word hate. We didn’t mind “refuse to let go of.” Or, as a children’s bible translates this phrase, “you can’t love others more than you love me.” That sounds better. More Jesus-y. But pretty much every other translation from the original language uses the word hate. So, if the use of that word is consistent, what did the word hate mean in his context?
One scholar suggested that hate in this context meant “were you willing to bring shame upon your family?” It’s true that being a follower of Jesus at the time wasn’t exactly something that would make your family proud. It could bring ridicule from your neighbors. And that would, in turn, bring shame upon the family. Therefore, Jesus is asking, are you still willing to follow me even with those consequences? Almost every scholar proposes that the word hate here is simply hyperbole; an exaggeration to get our attention and the attention of the large crowd of mostly spectators following Jesus.
But whether it’s meant as an exaggeration or whether hate here is more about honor and shame, those interpretations may all be true. Logical explanations. And yet, we can’t help but read the word hate and have an emotional response. Hate is meant to evoke a response. Hate speech. Hate crimes. Tacit approval with a wink and a nod. It causes us to feel.
One reason so many of us are exhausted right now is the energy it takes to hear about hatred almost every day. Every act of cruelty in the news drains us of even more energy. Sadly, one way to protect ourselves is to either ignore such stories or even deny that hatred is the intent. How often do we hear the excuse, “that’s not what they really mean”? That’s a luxury, however, that the targets of hate don’t have. The targets of hate cannot ignore hate or simply wish that it didn’t exist.
The last line of today’s passage Claire read said, “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.” I like the line about plans or people. That is thought-provoking. But, the consistent word used across translations, just like hate, is “possessions.” To the large crowds following Jesus, he turned to say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We can take that to mean our stuff. Our things. Our closets and basements and attics and storage units filled with possessions. But I wondered what would happen if we tied those two words together. The word hate and the word possessions.
What do those who proudly endorse hate possess? Fear of losing power and privilege. Who openly promotes hate? People who feel they are losing something. Surely one easy answer is white supremacists.
Theo Wilson is a black man here in Denver who went undercover online with white supremacists – the alt-right – for 8 months. As a personal experiment, he created an online identity as John Carter and joined in to question President Obama’s birthplace and bemoan why black people can be proud but white people can’t. He later told CNN that what surprised him most was how hatred backfires on the hater. He noted that none of them was happy. Theo even felt some sympathy toward them. That their emotional entanglement in white identity caused them great suffering that comes out as rage, anger, and hatred. Most alarming, and ironic, he said, was that none of these guys were living their best lives. They spent most of their time focused on blame.
I met Theo a few weeks ago at the hostility-filled meeting of the Stapleton Master Community Association that ratified the vote to keep the name. We had coffee on Tuesday and talked about how people should just start using another name. He suggested Westbrook, the black man who infiltrated Stapleton’s Klan.
I found myself at Torpedo Café three times this week unintentionally providing pastoral care to people involved in the effort to ReName Stapleton for All. All were impacted in some way for their activism; most particularly the impact of time away from family. Following their efforts and the recent vote, I suggested to each one they could choose to step away. It would be OK to at least take a break. That is not an option any would choose, so we talked about how to take care of one another and how the church could help connect a broader community of activists in Park Hill and Stapleton.
One woman spoke about people who avoided taking a position on the name to keep themselves above the fray. The myth of neutrality, she called it. It reminded me of Desmond Tutu who said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As the Archbishop said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Dr. King had much to say about speaking up when it matters, including “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Or, a phrase that sounds very much like Jesus in our passage today. Dr. King said, “If a person has not discovered something they will die for, they aren’t fit to live.” Sounds almost as strident and uncomfortable as Jesus’ use of the word hate. Is it just hyperbole? Or is he asking something more of us than we have considered before? To stop being mere spectators.
Ibram X. Kendi is a professor and director of a research and policy center at American University. He has a new book called How to Be an Antiracist. He has a problem with people who declare they are “not racist.” How many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist?” and then list black friends and causes they gave money to in the 1960s. Or claim, “I’m the least racist person in the world.” He said even alt-right leader Richard Spencer and KKK wizard David Duke insist they are not racist. I’m not sure why they would care.
So what’s the problem with being a ‘not racist’? Kendi said, it’s the neutrality. “I’m not a racist” is a term of denial. It doesn’t have any other meaning. A not-racist allows racial inequities to persevere. Doesn’t challenge them. Doesn’t try to change them.
An anti-racist does. The term has a very clear meaning. An antiracist works, for example, to eliminate mass incarceration, reform the criminal justice system, bring equity to public education and health care. And provide humane treatment of families at the border escaping violence and terror. Any way that black and brown people are disproportionately negatively affected. An antiracist believes in racial equality and works toward racial equity.
I thought this was a really powerful way to consider our own lives and our church’s approach to racial justice. It’s not good enough to be “not racist.” Not-racists are spectators who don’t want to miss the entertainment. We must also be anti-racist. Not anti-people but anti-racist power. Cruel and hateful policies. Therefore, what are some of the possessions we hate enough to get rid of them to move from spectator to follower of Jesus? Privilege and neutrality.
Like the privilege to think it is a neutral statement to say “it’s just history”. Which also says, “The Klan wasn’t really that bad.” Which made me think that the name Stapleton will not be removed until those who claim to be “not racist” decide to be anti-racist. Then they will understand the importance of removing a symbol of racial terror. Casting out the demons of terror.
But Jesus is right. To do so, they will have to first consider the cost – in friendships, in status, in power, and in their family. And then, if they cannot and we cannot pay the price, to admit it. We all have to do this.
To weed out the spectators from the large crowds, Jesus told any would-be followers to recognize the cost. But importantly, we also remember the joy of discipleship.
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
As we begin a new year, on Homecoming Sunday let’s embrace a deepening interplay of discipleship’s cost and joy. More important than gathering a larger crowd of spectators is that each of us become more deeply committed followers of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 1, 2019
“Don’t Invite Everyone”
Luke 14: 1, 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus[a] said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’
I love watching people prepare for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. People are genuinely happy when it’s the Sunday we “get to” go down to the Fellowship Hall and set up the cots because it’s another WHI month. I love that when the Tuesday set-up crew comes, they are concerned to set the utensils on the proper napkin on the correct side of the plate. And who gets the honor of putting chocolates on all the pillows?! Then I watch as the cooks bring in the meal for that night. Piles of homemade food, the best they can make. I love the desire to make it a banquet feast. I love that some months there are more people who want to provide the meal than there are openings. I’d love it if we had some competition for the overnight angels too. Always having two or three people to stay overnight is the most difficult and urgent of the tasks for which to recruit volunteers. And ultimately the most important since providing a place to sleep is the purpose!
But it’s those mealtimes that really touch my heart. It is our desire to make 20 women feel like they are honored guests. This year it will be our privilege to host the women overnight on Christmas Eve. If you want to have best Christmas of your life, plan to sleep here that night, or on New Year’s Eve. I’d love it if a whole group had to compete for the pleasure of being an overnight angel.
The same is true every third Thursday when we serve a meal at the Senior Support Center to low-income and homeless senior citizens. The whole idea that there are homeless senior citizens is abhorrent, but for the 50-70 who are served that night, we hope they feel the love and compassion of Jesus Christ through each casserole, salad, roll, and bowl of ice cream served.
In October we will host a group of Nicaraguan boys and young men for four nights, providing their meals every day. A dozen young men with healthy appetites. We will want them to feel like our honored guests too.
In our passage today, Jesus has two pieces of advice. One, invite those who cannot give you anything in return. And two, it’s better to start from a lower position and be invited to a place of honor than to take a place of honor and risk the shame of being asked to step down.
Despite the fact that I’m standing in front of you, I prefer relative invisibility. I don’t like it, for example, when I’ve attended funerals where all the clergy in the room, even those without any official role to play, are called up to sit on stage. It’s a cultural thing, but early on in Cleveland, I learned to arrive late and sit in the back.
Therefore, today’s gospel reading is fine with me. Be a good host and don’t seek out places of honor. Jesus as Miss Manners, Dear Abby, and Ann Landers all rolled into one. And yet, it seems quite unlikely that Jesus was simply offering wisdom about banquet protocols. What else is going on? Theologically.
First of all, there are little details to notice. He is eating at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. We may have a one-dimensional idea about Jesus and the Pharisees, but their relationship wasn’t always adversarial. More than the other gospels, Luke provides a bit of a more nuanced position. Just a few verses earlier, some Pharisees actually tried to protect Jesus from King Herod, warning him of Herod’s intentions. Some Pharisees, including Nicodemus, became his followers.
At times Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. But notice, here he is eating with those who criticized him. “Eating with” is a big deal in this culture. This passage avoids turning the Pharisees into perpetual enemies.
Theologically, what else is this passage about? I see dynamics related to charity vs. hospitality. Hospitality is harder and more complex. Providing hospitality to women who are homeless or low-income senior citizens or young men from Nicaragua is intermingled with difficult issues of privilege and unequal status that often go unexamined in acts of charity. Hospitality is not giving something away. It is being present to offer mutual respect. Or honor. Jesus isn’t talking about charity. This text is about the kind of hospitality that changes people’s lives.
I believe we miss some of that intent because he spoke in the context of a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. In contrast, we read this text and live in the context of a modern democratic society in which we claim that all persons are created equal. Reality may be different. Status and hierarchy are still very much at work. Even so, collectively, our national story is that we believe people can transcend their station in life by climbing a ladder and pulling up bootstraps. There is plenty to criticize in that. We know its limitations. But, the point is, in our cultural setting, it is not inconceivable that persons born poor can become billionaires. Think Oprah. But we must read this text recognizing that people in Jesus’ time couldn’t just change their own social status. Hospitality changed lives.
There’s another way to think about this passage. Recall Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Conservatives, liberals, moderates and everyone in between, except for a few of those “very fine” neo-nazis and white supremacists; we all love that Dr. King speech. At least the part about being judged by character instead of skin color. But, of course, that ignores any of Dr. King’s social critique. His skin color mattered. The fact is, his whole speech is or can be rather difficult to hear if you live with privilege.
And that’s true in this passage too. Sure, we like the message about not seeking places of honor. I don’t want to be the center of attention anyway. And inviting those who cannot repay you. That makes us feel good. But charity changes nothing. Hospitality transforms people because we have to see each other. In the end, Jesus is neither talking about social graces nor advocating some form of generic equality. When we generalize Jesus’ words, they can mean nothing. For example, “be nice to everyone.” Or, invite everyone. That’s not what Jesus was saying here.
The Bible is often very specific, for example, by naming strangers, foreigners, aliens, and immigrants. The Bible uses those specific words over and over. It doesn’t say welcome everyone. It says welcome them. In today’s passage, Jesus names specifically “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Culturally, they may not be words we use or like, but think of the concept behind them. Outsiders. Excluded in a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. Jesus said invite who?
Eugene Peterson describes “the people who never get invited out, and the misfits from the other side of the tracks.” Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Another commentator puts it into concrete back-to-school terms: the kid who waits at the bus stop alone, the girl who eats in the cafeteria alone, and the boy who is always picked last. Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Or put it into church terms: the person who doesn’t know anyone so they stand alone during the passing of the peace and watch friendly people be friendly to each other. Or, the guest everyone walks past without looking at them. We are too accustomed to walking past people on the sidewalk or in the mall without looking at each other. In church, everyone should look at everyone. Well yes, and not exactly. In keeping with the theme, think of changing the hierarchy: Not rushing to visit with our friends but first looking for someone you don’t know to make sure they feel welcome. To take their needs into consideration before our own. Only then will we have lived the real intent of today’s gospel. Not to welcome everyone, but to welcome our guests.
Jesus doesn’t disregard people with generic “everyones.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t say:
Blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be comforted.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will inherit the earth.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be filled.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
No. What did he say?
He said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
He said, “blessed are people who mourn, because they will be comforted.”
He said, “blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the earth.”
He said, “blessed are people who hunger and thirst for justice, because they will be filled.”
He said, “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Somehow that might not quite sound fair. Why not everyone? Or perhaps it doesn’t quite sound fair because we fear something might be taken away from us. In our passage today, Jesus said, “when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors.” I guess we could think of them as “losers” in this story. But Jesus isn’t trying to identify losers. He is showing us the meaning of the Kingdom of God: a banquet feast of those previously not invited.
Jesus isn’t saying the feast won’t be ready to serve until everyone is seated around the table. He is saying the feast won’t be ready until the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are seated at the table. And the stranger, foreigner, alien, and immigrant. And the kid at the bus stop, the girl alone at lunch, the boy picked last on the playground. And the visitor watching others pass the peace of Christ with each other. And the poor in spirit, people who mourn, the meek, people who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who are persecuted for seeking justice. And the WHI women, homeless senior citizens, and young Nicaraguans.
Somehow, when you put it that way, I feel more included than if you simply said, “everyone is welcome.” Saying everyone’s welcome means little without being challenged by Jesus to “invite them.” And challenges me to think how we can practice that in our personal lives. At work, at school, walking the neighborhood, on the playground… and church. On this Labor Day weekend, with workers at stores, restaurants, our offices, and more. Where else?
In the same vein, I don’t want to simply say “thank you to everyone” who helped with the Women’s Homelessness Initiative in August. I want to specifically name and say thank you to:
Carol and Skip Spensley
Billie and Sid Smith
Blake Chambliss and Sheila Kowal
Patty Crew and Ray Allen
David Conger and Harriet Milnes
Jayme, Susannah and Addison Willie and friends
Deborah MacNair and Shari Wilkins
And especially our overnight angels:
Karen Truesdell – our three coordinators
As well as Mark Winkel
Bill and Eileen McCarron
That’s 44 different volunteers in August alone.
And in June, in addition to many of these folks, 10 other volunteers:
Juliann Jenson and Charlie Martin
Bob and Marlene Lederer
54 people involved in providing hospitality. And these are just the folks who signed up. I think Leo and Kathy were there. And other regulars were busy this summer, like the Formans. But if I start going down that road, I will surely forget someone. I went through the directory and found at least 31 more people who have participated in WHI in the last year. The worst thing about naming specific people is the possibility of leaving one name off. So, in the end, I guess I should maybe just thank everyone! If I didn’t include you, I apologize.
But wait, one more thing. People who provided and or served dinner on the third Thursdays this summer at the Senior Support Center, coordinated by Joan Root. Many were already named above, but there are 11 more people:
Cami Learned and Karen Klein
Mary Jo Young and Matt Appleman
Nancy McDonnell and Kerri Reid
Terri and Brian Bowen
65 different people this summer alone, each demonstrating the difference, that while we can offer charity to a generic everyone, true hospitality changes both of us. And that changes the world.
And that’s also how we want to change the world this fall. Starting later this month, we will be engaging in a relational campaign. Big words to say that six times this fall, during the Second Hour, we’ll engage in one on one conversations with one another. Hearing one another’s stories. Discovering our shared experiences. Finding common ground on which to build stronger and deeper and more transforming relationships. Moving from surface level interactions to more deeply meaningful and satisfying connections. And when that happens, you and I and the world will all be changed.
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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