Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 7, 2018
“We Were Meant for Just Such a Time as This”
Esther 4: 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Last week I shared the story of Queen Vashti. Here’s a brief synopsis. King Ahasuerus held a six-month long party all around his kingdom to celebrate his vast territory and tremendous wealth. For the final week, he gathered all the men for a seven-day drinking binge. As a final act, the king instructed his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, to parade in front of all the well-intoxicated men, wearing her crown, which according to some ancient traditions meant only her crown. But she refused causing great panic by all the men who feared that if she wasn’t punished sufficiently for her rebellion, all their wives would feel empowered to disobey their husbands too. Therefore, Queen Vashti was banished.
So, to pick a new queen, the king’s advisors suggested a beauty contest. First, gather all the most beautiful women from around the kingdom. Then, give them cosmetic treatments for an entire year – described as six months with the oil of myrrh and six months of perfumes. Lastly, each young woman would be brought before the king so that he could choose the one who pleased him the most. He chose Esther, about whom the only thing he knew was that she was beautiful. What else was there to know? But more to the point of this story, he did not know she was Jewish. As a child, Esther was an orphan who had been adopted by her uncle Mordecai. He advised her throughout the year of cosmetic treatments not to tell anyone they were Jewish.
Esther and Mordecai lived in Susa, one of the four capitals of the great Persian Empire. A hundred years before, Jews had been carried off into captivity in Babylon, the heart of Persia. 70 years later, Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem, but many like Mordecai chose to stay where they were. And yet, living as a Jew at the heart of the Persian Empire was risky. King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes, has been described as “the most powerful man in the world. A reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated character.” He was surrounded by men who knew how to use flattery to get him to enact their evil schemes. Powerful, reckless, extravagant, and easily manipulated by flattery. Ahasuerus, not who you are thinking. But the worst character of them all, the most opportunistic, was a man named Haman who plotted and schemed his way up the ladder to the position of second in command in order to carry out some extraordinarily devious acts, a character that reminds me of presidential advisor Stephen Miller, but more on that later.
Haman was a petty man with an easily bruised ego. He had an irrational hatred of a certain people he labeled a “dangerous element.” One day Mordecai failed to bow to him. He used that snub to put in motion a plan to kill Mordecai and everyone associated with him. He got the king to issue a decree. Haman personally paid to have a gallows built on which Mordecai could be hanged, followed by getting rid of his people. Jews through-out the entire Persian Empire. Which, by the way, included Jerusalem, ensuring they would be wiped from the earth.
The powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated king fell right into Haman’s trap. When Mordecai found out, he went to see Queen Esther. He told her, “You’ve got to do something about this.” But what could she do? Even she couldn’t just schedule an appointment to see her husband. That’s because if he didn’t wave his golden scepter at you, you would be put to death, queen or not. But even if did wave his golden scepter, asking him to spare her people would require an explanation, which would risk revealing her identity to him, something Mordecai had always instructed her not to do. And yet, she was their only hope. He said, “Perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this.” And she agreed. “If I perish, I perish.”
But, even if you did see the king, advocating a reversal of his policy wasn’t enough. The law stated that once a decree was declared, not even the king could reverse it. The date set for the slaughter of the Jewish people was quickly approaching. Esther had to both change the kind’s mind and figure out a way to get a new decree declared before the other one went into effect. The pressure was on.
Esther dared approach the throne, using her wit to employ her beauty and charm to get his attention. She told him all she wanted was to have dinner. And, she suggested, let’s invite Haman too. Haman was thrilled. He bragged to everyone that he had been invited to a private dinner with the king and queen. So charmed by her, at that dinner the king offered to do anything she wanted. She simply asked for another dinner, again with Haman. It was at the second dinner that Esther told the story of a group of people in his kingdom who were about to be executed by his decree, something he didn’t even remember ordering.
Then Esther boldly revealed her identity to the king and told him that if his decree was carried out, she would be killed too. He was incensed. Who would want to do this to you? She pointed to their extra special dinner guest. “Him.” And then pointed out the window. In a reversal of fortune, Haman was executed on the gallows he built to hang Mordecai. Mordecai, by the way, also replaced Haman as the king’s second in command.
But just when we think, “Justice has been served!” the king issued a decree to save the Jews – by having them murder their neighbors the day before they were to be murdered. Sure, Haman and his ten sons were killed, along with 500 more. But the next day, 75,000 more innocent people. It’s a rather dreadful way to end what is otherwise a very inspiring story.
I asked Rabbi Mo about this. Why does Esther have to end with this gruesome act? He reminded me that though Esther is set in a historical time and in a particular political context, the story is satire. It’s historical farce – over the top. After all, had the men really been drinking for seven straight days? An entire year of cosmetic treatments? Death for a wife who asked to speak with her husband? A law that can’t be reversed? 75,000 people murdered? And even, the literal execution of every living Jew? Although, that one doesn’t seem quite as impossible.
Nor, as we are living through right now, does it seem impossible to imagine a powerful, reckless, extravagant, easily manipulated world leader, susceptible to flattery to carry out the evil deeds of scheming advisors who have an irrational hatred toward a certain people labeled a “dangerous element,” creating the conditions that allow for absolute cruelty and even death. Huh. How about that. Anyone who says the Bible is irrelevant doesn’t know the Bible.
Esther was famously made queen for “just such a time as this.” Just what kind of time are we living in? As Adam Serwer in The Atlantic wrote, “The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.” You surely heard about the rally in Mississippi on Tuesday night at which a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford. That’s just his normal disgusting stuff. But did you that then the crowd started chanting “Lock her up!” Not Hillary. Dr. Ford. Deplorable.
But lost among the coverage of the supreme court, on Thursday news broke that the Trump administration lied about creating a database of children separated from their families, one of Miller’s proudest accomplishments, making it impossible to reunite all of them. On the same day the administration, once again led by Miller, announced its intention to implement his plan to revoke the temporary protected status of immigrants who have been here for as long as 20 years. Some proponents argue that “temporary means temporary.” What they won’t say out loud is that this means separation from their U.S.- born children – 192,700 children. Actions which are called ethnic cleansing in the Washington Post.
Then on Friday, Haman’s latest project, or rather, I mean, Stephen Miller’s latest project, was revealed: a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students. So, while at the same time the administration is trying to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions, deceptively claiming it discriminates against Asian-Americans, they are attempting to outright ban all students from China at US colleges and universities. Because they might spy on us; the “dangerous element” argument also used to justify Japanese internment camps. Plus, a bonus effect would be depriving income from “elite” universities who often criticize President Trump.
And then came Saturday…
For just such a week, for just such a time as this, we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to overturn injustice with acts of hospitality for 20 women every Tuesday in our fellowship hall. And acts of compassion at the Senior Support Center. And acts of solidarity on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
For just such a time as this we are a church called together by Jesus Christ to offer generosity toward organizations like the Florence Project which provides legal services for separated families. And undocumented day laborers at El Centro Humanitario. And disaster relief for victims of this administration’s neglect, or perhaps even malicious intent, against Puerto Ricans.
For just such a time as this, we teach Sunday school classes about loving our neighbors. And gather youth on Sunday evenings. And invite any group whose mission is racial justice to meet in our building for free.
For just such a time as this, when there seems to be so little to celebrate, we gather to witness the joyful baptism of children. If you missed last Sunday, one-year old Karsten reached down into the water and gleefully stirred it while I attempted to say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He was more interested in the water than the blessing.
For just such a time as this, through worship I am sustained by hearing the Word of God, not just a diet of Rachel Maddow and the Washington Post. And surrounded by people who know that these times call for resistance against biblical-level cruelty by modern-day Hamans, wondering, who is the Esther that will save us just in time this time, before realizing, Esther is every woman who is speaking up and telling her story, bravely revealing their identity in a very risky time. Women and men who won’t be silenced anymore. Dreamers who have risked their identity as undocumented. LGBTQ citizens who have come out to families or to their churches, only to be told, we don’t want you here anymore. It still happens.
This is stewardship month and sometimes when we approach this time of year to ask for pledges for the next, it can come across as somewhat of an apology. “I’m sorry we have to ask.” But I have to tell you, I’ve never been so convinced of the power of this gathered community, this gifted congregation, for exactly such a time as this. To put together our talents and our time and our money toward an endeavor of hope. To remember, God never loses hope in humanity, and neither should we. Hope can be hard, but it isn’t meant for times when it is easy. Hope is meant for just such a time as this. Hope expressed through acts of hospitality, solidarity, generosity, affirmation, support for one another, education, worship and more.
This church is not an institution deserving of your financial support. This church is a force for good in the world that invites your full participation. We were meant for just such a time as this, for exactly this kind of time. And so were you? Yes! So, Rise Up! Be bold.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 30, 2018
Esther 1: 10-22 – New Revised Standard Version
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. 13 Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14 and those next to him were the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the King. 17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘The King commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before the King; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22 he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
That sure seemed to reflect the fears of the advisors to King Ahasuerus in our reading today. Let me briefly recap the story of Queen Vashti, the predecessor to Queen Esther. The king held a six-month long party all around his empire to brag about his vast territory – from Ethiopia to India – and his tremendous wealth. A party that lasted six months. The festivities came to an end with a week-long binge in which he instructed his officials to have everyone drink “without restraint.” A seven-day binge.
You can only imagine a bunch of very intoxicated men laughing and telling stories and trying to one up each other, bragging about this and that. Well, the king had one last thing to display. His beautiful, very beautiful, wife, Queen Vashti. She was holding her own party for the women of the kingdom, but the King called her away and asked her to parade in front of the men so they could admire her and the men would envy the King. She was instructed to wear her crown, which according to some ancient traditions, meant she was to wear only her crown.
How many times before do you suppose she had been asked, demanded, to do something as equally humiliating? This time, however, she refused. She said no. No doubt this was embarrassing to the King. But it was all those drunken men who really got worked up. They demanded the King must punish Queen Vashti or all the women of the kingdom would be inspired to disobey their husbands too. It would be a disgrace. A sham that destroys the foundations of our society. This became a dispute not only between one man and one woman, the King and Queen, but it became a necessary action to maintain their privilege.
So, the King decreed, “Every man should be master of his own house.” Queen Vashti was banished. She was stripped of her titles and crown, her palace and her power. It was a very high price to pay. But with it, she purchased her dignity. Or, you might say, on behalf of women throughout the land, she did her civic duty.
Among male interpreters of this text, a common theme is a matter-of-fact, no questions asked, “She got what she deserved.” In other circles, however, she has become something of an icon. In fact, some consider her the first feminist in literature or recorded history. Remember, this was six centuries before Christ. Drunken men at a party and a single brave woman – 2,600 years ago.
I swear on a stack of Bibles that I did not pick this text on Friday. The Old Testament passage assigned for today is from the Book of Esther, but the lectionary does not include this story of Queen Vashti. That’s a shame. Another woman silenced. In fact, the lectionary assigns only one text from the entire Book of Esther in the whole three-year cycle so, months ago, I added the story of Queen Vashti.
I’ve always been drawn to her story, even though it is equally inspiring and depressing. She found her agency, she expressed her power despite its limitations, and by her choice, she gave the women of the kingdom the faintest idea of a different possibility. But nothing changed. She introduced the idea that a woman could say no. For which she paid a very heavy price.
Now, we must remember she was a woman of privilege. The vast majority of women would have been put out and left with no resources. They would have been abandoned by their father’s house too. Their very survival would be in question. Regardless, by her actions, Vashti told the women of the kingdom, you don’t deserve this. Vashti saw them and heard them and used her privilege. And while that may not have changed their station in life, it may have changed someone’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. And that matters. Queen Vashti bravely demonstrated to the women of her husband's empire that they were more than an object of drunken men’s pleasure.
We’ll be talking for a long time about whether Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was worth such a heavy price. Lots of “she’s getting what she deserves” for “ruining a man’s reputation and depriving him of the position he deserves on the Supreme Court.” How dare she question that, and a Yale graduate to boot? And of course, faced with questions like, “If it was really that bad, why didn’t she report it then?”
Surely, she must be asking this morning, “Was it worth it?” Hours after she testified, which even Fox News declared was credible, eleven men decided her experience wasn’t worth one minute more of delay to investigate. One senator forced a one-week delay because two incredibly brave women dared confront a man in power. But really. Can we be surprised that such an allegation would matter when our president actually bragged to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women? After that, nothing else seems quite so bad.
Why didn’t she report it when it happened? Some of you, some of us, can answer that. Perhaps you read some of hundreds of thousands of heart-wrenching tweets, such as:
You’ve heard those and many more. Why didn’t I report? To who? Tell my parents? I wasn’t out, nor did I even know what that meant, but an experienced abuser saw it. I was 15 or maybe 16, coincidentally about 36 years ago. I can’t remember what year either, but I know exactly what I was wearing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been there – although, in my case, it wasn’t a party but a church musicians conference six states away and a very long bus ride back home. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I deserved it. It was probably my fault.
I have told exactly one other person in my whole entire life, so telling you today is surreal. And now that we’re putting my sermons on YouTube, that’s a whole other level of terrifying! But please understand the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. I really don’t. I don’t want any sympathy. This is not about me – other than to say I see you. I hear you.
And to say about that whole trigger thing, it’s real and it went off big time with the hashtag “Why I didn’t report.” It brought up a depth of emotion that I didn’t expect. Maybe it did for you too. And I apologize if this sermon is difficult for you to hear. Just when I think it can’t get any harder to live in this country, it gets harder. But again, it’s easier to defeat evil in the light of day than when it hides in the shadows.
I believe her. And I will believe you too. I have heard too many stories from too many women and men to question the credibility of survivors whose memories are crystal clear and foggy at the same time. And I don’t automatically believe her because I have taken a partisan side. I hate that it’s become whether Dr. Ford is believable based on one’s party affiliation. But I believe her. I don’t pretend to understand her pain or know your suffering, but I do know that feeling pain is a step on the journey to healing.
One reason I am a follower of Jesus is that he is not unfamiliar with our pain. In the Book of Hebrews 4:15, it says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” Or, another version, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, too. He’s experienced it.” In other words, Jesus is not above it all but with us through it all. And as his life demonstrated, I believe everything can be redeemed, even though it doesn’t erase anything.
Was it worth it for Dr. Ford to testify? Watching the volcanic meltdowns of all the white men, hysterically shouting, whining, crying, what I do know is that “White patriarchal entitlement crumbled a little bit more on Thursday afternoon.” These men are afraid and won’t let go without a very mean and dirty fight. But it exposed their terror that a new day is dawning – one that is more Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate. Where Black Lives Matter. And Families Belong Together. Where Love Wins. And women are believed.
It was painful to watch, but not because we too are afraid of losing white privilege or male superiority or Christian supremacy. It was painful to watch a woman put on display in front of a bunch of men, drunk on their power, playing games with her life to prove how much they care. But then again, it’s also hard to watch a butterfly break through her cocoon, but look what ultimately emerges.
As the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
 NRSV and The Message
 Thanks to Rev. Melanie Morrison for this language and the reference to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 16, 2018
“Fifty Shades of Gray”
Song of Songs (Solomon) 2: 8-13 – Common English Bible
Listen! It’s my lover: here he comes now,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands now,
outside our wall,
peering through the windows,
peeking through the lattices.
10 My lover spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
11 Here, the winter is past;
the rains have come and gone.
12 Blossoms have appeared in the land;
the season of singing has arrived,
and the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The green fruit is on the fig tree,
and the grapevines in bloom are fragrant.
Arise, my love, my fair one, And come away.”
We’re taking a break this week from politics for a sermon I entitled Fifty Shades of Gray. And rest assured, after a sermon on sex today, I’ll have at least one next month on money, thereby covering all the topics forbidden in good company, or at least outside this good company.
The Song of Solomon – or in the Hebrew, The Song of Songs – is passionate, steamy, and scandalous. It is unlike almost anything else involving sexuality in the Bible, which more often has to do with some kind of prohibition – don’t do this, don’t do that – or some odd law like a widow required to marry a succession of her dead husband’s brothers. Or something that requires death, like stoning a woman caught in adultery or killing a man for spilling his seed on the ground or a death sentence for laying with another man. And if not death, then shame. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve saw each other’s nakedness, they became ashamed. Most sexuality in the Bible is negative and often judgmental toward women and focused on controlling women’s bodies. It’s interesting how little has changed.
Senator Kamala Harris asked an excellent question during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She asked, are there any laws that give the government the power to control male bodies? He appeared dumbfounded. Why would there be? After all, where was the man while Jesus was busy saving the woman caught in adultery?
But the Song of Songs is written in the voice of the woman and takes pleasure in the body. It is provocative and full of desire. And, I would be too embarrassed to read all of it from the pulpit. You heard the only reading from Song of Songs assigned in the lectionary – and a very PG rated reading at that. And you may have also heard a few verses read at a wedding: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (8: 6-7) (This and all texts forward are from the New Revised Standard Version.)
But those two readings are really tame. So, let’s go right back to the beginning in chapter 1, verse 2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Right away we know something is different. More Harlequin romance than scripture. And again, told with the voice of the woman who controls what is being said. Nothing else in the Bible is so devoid of “mansplaining;” no one here is filtering her thoughts. There are three voices: the woman, her suitor, and a crowd known as the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” She is the primary voice.
I’m going to read some highlights. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore, the maidens love you.” Did you get it? He’s a catch. And he smells good.
Then the Daughters of Jerusalem speak: “We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine.” And then she says directly to her lover: “Rightly do they love you.”
And yet, she then becomes defensive about their right to love each other. She said, “I am black and beautiful.” Yes, that is scripture, not just a phrase from the 1970s. “I am black and beautiful. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!”
She explains to the Daughters of Jerusalem that her darker skin tone was because she was made to work outside, obviously exposing the same kind of prejudice and preference related to the shades of lighter and darker skin that has existed for millennia – not just between races but among them. African Americans may immediately hear the colorism in her words. Color prejudice that tries to determine acceptable standards of beauty and assigns people their class. But she demands – I am black and beautiful and insists upon their right to love each other. It is important to know this back story to understand the Song. It’s not just sensual, as you will hear, but social commentary on an issue of justice.
Then the object of her love breaks in with his first words: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels. Ah, you are beautiful, my love; your eyes are doves.”
Clearly, he’s in to her. Then she replies, “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.” They continue this back and forth dance.
In the next chapter, she says: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.” “My beloved is mine and I am his.” These are two more subtle and important statements. Her lover’s intention is love. It says nothing of marriage or owning her or possessing her. Further, she asserts that “my beloved is mine.” She claims him first. He is mine and I am his. It’s an unusual power dynamic in scripture, and yet, here it is: it is a biblical power dynamic of interdependent, mutual and equal love.
In chapter 3, the woman speaks: “Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves…” but he is not there. So, she looks for him frantically around the city. She panics and twice she tells the Daughters of Jerusalem to stay out of her way. And when she finally finds him she says, “I held him and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.”
Chapter 4, then, is her lover speaking, describing her beauty. “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.” Yes, first, he compared her to one of Pharaoh’s horses, now her hair is like goats and her teeth are like clean sheep. Clearly, these are references from a different time, but the passion is clear. “Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.” “You have ravished my heart… with a [simple] glance of your eyes.” How’s that for romance?
But some of chapter 5 is truly too explicit for me to read here. Better for later under the covers with a flashlight. Or better yet, with your lover under the covers with a flashlight. Page 622 in your pew Bible.
But then the Daughters of Jerusalem reappear. They question, “What is your beloved more than another beloved,” that you make such an urgent appeal. They seem to go back and forth between being skeptical of their love and supportive. She responds with more descriptions of how beautiful he is. She doesn’t describe his personality or what good caretaker he is or would be. She describes his hair and eyes and cheeks and lips. “His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires. His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold.” He’s built – arms, legs, abs like ivory – and she desires him. A desire that is celebrated, not shamed. By the time she finishes describing him, we’re blushing.
In chapter 6, he begins to describe her beauty again, at length. Hair, teeth, cheeks. In chapter 7 he continues to describe her feet, thighs, navel, belly, breasts. He tells her she is delectable. Once again, it is explicit and steamy, more Fifty Shade of Gray than typical Bible.
But then she insists again, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” It’s as though she’s telling her rivals, “Step off.” But more than jealousy, I believe this is due to the pressure she feels of prejudice. This outsider has to prove herself and their love. Anyone who has ever had to defend their choice of a mate, whether of different races and classes or of the same gender, this sounds familiar.
Chapter 8 makes the point even clearer: if I looked like you, no one would object to me kissing you in public. “No one would despise me.” How many of us could say the same thing? Wishing that we could kiss, let alone hold the hands of, our lovers in public. Wishing that our love would not lead to stares and hatred or worse, harassment and death. Abandoned by our families.
These subtexts are easy to miss but so important to understand. Because only then do those familiar words at wedding ceremonies make sense. “For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Now we understand the reason for the words about death and the grave and floods. They pledge that their love will endure every challenge, every social pressure and anything else. Good stuff. And romantic, right?
It’s beautiful and provocative. It’s sensual – speaking of taste and touch and smell and sound. And in a biblical context, scandalous. So, what’s it doing in the Bible? Or better yet, how did it stay there?
For centuries, it was justified as an allegory of God’s love for Israel or of Christ’s love for the church. I get the passion, but how do you explain all the talk of six pack abs and breasts like two fawns. To me, that makes it kind of creepy. What does all this very sexually charged imagery have to do with God or Christ? I’d rather just say that the Bible makes for a surprising source of erotic poetry. Not to mention, there is nothing obviously religious nor is God ever mentioned or even alluded to once.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk and mystic in 1200s, famously wrote 86 sermons on just the first two chapters. Imagine being a celibate monk having to sit through 86 sermons on this. But his point was about a passionate spirituality and Christ’s zealous love for us. He sought to shift spiritual formation away from cool intellectual enlightenment toward warm, earthly affections. He wanted to inspire desire for God more than intellectual understanding of God. The feeling of yearning when one is absent from the other.
Yet, like the lovers demanding respect, this book simply insists on its place among the rest of God’s Holy Word, where, instead of shame, we hear the body and sexuality celebrated. A corrective to the dualism of spirit as pure and body as sinful. Not to mention, it is a corrective in our world which too easily uses bodies and sexuality to sell everything from hamburgers to cars. And a reminder in an era of MeToo and scandals surrounding the cover up of pedophile priests. None of that is about sexuality. It’s all an abuse of power. The Song of Songs is erotic, but through language that expresses feelings and longings. This woman is empowered, speaking with her own voice.
In the Song of Songs, sexuality is healthy, good, and not just for the sake of being fruitful and multiplying. It’s not about shame and not worthy of marketing. The shame is a society that does not approve of their love. But they claim each other. They praise one another, they need each other. And most importantly, they persist in the face of opposition to their love.
Some preachers are obsessed with a God who punishes our desires, but the Living, Almighty, Everlasting God, who is the source of all good things, liberates and gladdens the world and teaches us in the Song of Songs to celebrate the gift human sexuality and its expression in passionate love.
There is so much more I could highlight, but one last thing:
James B. Nelson, my mentor in seminary, authored a resource for blessing same gender marriages. He described the marks of healthy and blessed relationships. Among them: Blessed are relationships that are body-positive. This means, do not fear or despise your body because that diminishes your relationship. If we are negatively obsessed with our body, how are we to be intimate? Praise the beauty of each other and accept their compliments. They aren’t lying! If your lover says you are beautiful, but you respond back, “No, I’m not,” or “Let me lose a few pounds first,” you are telling your lover that they are wrong to love someone so repulsive. You do not have a face only a mother could love. You are not someone only God could love. You are beautiful. Amen?
Addendum not included for preaching:
The UCC formally expressed this kind of sentiment in 1977, in a General Synod pronouncement on Human Sexuality. It was a ground-breaking and controversial resolution that covered a wide ground. The statements included:
In all, there were 18 statements. 1977. We still have a long way to go. But then again, the Song of Songs is from somewhere around 500 years before Christ.
 Renita Weems, “Song of Songs,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster/John Knox, 1992
 Wm. Loyd Allen, “Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Song: Why They Matter,” Review and Expositor, 105, Summer 2008.
 James B. Nelson, “Relationships: Blessed and Blessing,” Blessing Ceremonies: Resources for Same-Gender Services of Commitment, UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, 1998
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 9, 2018
“The Power of the Tongue for Good and Evil”
James 3: 3-10 – The Message
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
A priest, a rabbi, a pastor, and an imam all walk into a bar. It’s not unusual; just a regular gathering of a foursome of friends who meet for mutual support, away from others in their congregation or denomination. Over the years, they’ve discussed all kinds of topics and one day it was the power of confession. They marveled at what their congregants confided in them.
One of the group suggested they try it with each other, to take their openness and honesty to an even deeper level. The first shared, in fact, “I’ve been wanting to tell you something. I’m really struggling. I think my drinking may have gotten out of control.” They all listened sympathetically. After a few moments, another spoke up. “Since you were so honest, I want to tell you that I’ve gotten into a little trouble with gambling. In fact, things have gotten so bad, I’ve started eyeing the money in the offering plate as perhaps an answer to prayer.” The third said, “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’ve got a crush on someone in my congregation.” They all looked at the fourth who sat in silence. “Come on,” they said, “you can tell us.” He stammered, “Well, um, ah… you’re not going to like it. I am an incurable gossip.”
Sermon after sermon has been preached on this passage from James about the destructive nature of gossip. The dangers of the tongue. A restless evil, full of deadly poison. A big horse can be directed by a little bridle, an entire ship is directed by a little rudder. They can be controlled. But not the tongue. Just like a small flame, an ember even, can set a whole forest on fire, the tongue, one of the smallest of our body parts, can destroy communities and reputations and more. Being the victim can leave us feeling helpless.
Greg’s car broke down in front of the bar in his small Texas town. It sat there all-night long. In the morning, Betty, the local Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched, started telling the story. By noon, the story had become that Greg was a raging alcoholic who had left his wife and abandoned his children and refused to pay child support. No amount of explanation that his car had simply broken down could change the story, so Greg had an idea. That night he parked his car in front of Betty’s house and walked home. By noon the next day, the story changed. Greg had left his wife because he was having an affair with Betty. That’s one way to deal with an incurable gossip.
As I said last week, though it is considered one of the New Testament letters, James has more in common with scriptures from the wisdom genre like the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, with such gems as Proverbs 10:19 – “The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words.”
Yes, gossip can destroy trust. Churches, families, organizations can all be destroyed by rumor. It’s a problem. But gossip is hardly the worst of our problems. It’s puny in the face of daily news.
Decent people don’t know what to do with what falls so easily off the tongue of this president. Media outlets have done everything in their power to call lies “stretching the truth, massaging the truth, misleading claims, falsehoods, mis-representations, untruths, fictions, fabrications,” all in the attempt to avoid the over-use of the word “liar” about the Occupant of the White House. One argument for not using the word is that if it is used too often, the power of it decreases. It’s so normal for the president to lie, it’s not newsworthy. To be fair, sometimes he doesn’t lie. He doesn’t always understand what he’s talking about. But with the power of his tongue and tweet, America is diminished every day. There seems to be no bottom to the bottom. And no end to the excuses for his behavior, for one very important reason, which I’ll get to later.
But lies, slander, gossip… They’re all small potatoes. Walter Brueggemann, the fierce social prophet and best biblical scholar alive today, has some other suggestions for the most destructive deceptions of the tongue, ideas he articulated long before this era we are living in today.
The first deception is false advertising. Words that make our lives feel incomplete if we don’t… Name it. Obtain whatever it is that is being sold. The problem isn’t with simple claims like brighter, whiter, bigger, and better. It’s those words that make us feel like we are not enough as we are.
But while false advertising makes false claims, propaganda, Brueggemann says, creates false policy from false facts (alternative facts?). Propaganda is his second deception. Building a Wall is supposed to keep the hordes of Mexicans from crossing the border – who, we’ve heard many times, must be stopped because they are rapists, drug dealers, and we can assume, some good people too. But one needs “false facts” for propaganda. Describing the horrors of hordes of Mexicans makes it possible to justify ripping children from the arms of their parents and locking them in cages, though fact-check, most of the victims were not Mexican.
But facts don’t matter, and propaganda is simply a means to an ideology, Brueggemann’s third deception, which is fundamental to our nation’s conflict. The ideology of America, to me, at its best, is liberty and justice for all. A democratic system that welcomes the participation of every citizen. Competing against that, however, is a different interpretation of America. Not the philosophy “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Instead this is the ideology “of the right people, by a few people, for the people who earned it or deserve it because they’re ‘real Americans.’” An ideology built on a three-legged stool of white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy.
America has never been perfect, but each generation has made progress toward a more perfect union. But again and again it has come into conflict with that three-legged stool, cleverly, or not so cleverly, hidden in little words that sound as soothing as mom and apple pie as they fall off our tongue: Some of which include safe streets, family values, patriotism.
But safe streets, as you know, is just code for locking up people who aren’t real Americans, creating a crisis of mass incarceration. Mixing racism with greed has proven quite profitable, allowing prisons to become a source of wealth, not to mention the bonus effect of disenfranchising large numbers of the wrong voters. And then turn that money into free speech. And turn corporations into people. Add to it religious freedom to discriminate. Call birth control an “abortion inducing drug” and voila! White privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy. Exactly what makes Russia so great.
What is the ideology behind the Wall Street Journal headline this week about Nike and Colin Kaepernick? It described him as the man who kneels against the national anthem. How dare this Black man be so unpatriotic? Why wasn’t the headline about the man who kneels to protest the epidemic of police killing unarmed Black men, women, and children.
Little words reveal the bigger story. “Secure borders” rationalizes Islamophobia. How can you be against secure borders? There’s an immigration crisis, but only because more of them aren’t Norwegians. Xenophobia is the immigration crisis.
And on and on we could go, until we are exhausted, angry at all the people willing to excuse bad behavior, feeling insane as we try to make rational what is utterly irrational. Except that it’s not. This is all terribly rational for those willing to do anything to achieve “again” the ideology of white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy. The president is its greatest cheerleader and willing to act by any means necessary. Why would anyone object?
James said, a bridle in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder on a large ship, or an ember from a raging fire – the smallest of objects – can change the course of their direction. All along I was thinking, “That darn tongue.” Source of all our problems. Evil. Deadly poison.
What if instead we considered the wisdom of this passage that something as small and simple as a bridle in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder on an ocean liner, or a single ember from a raging fire – the smallest of objects – is all we need? Curses and blessings come out of the same mouth.
The tiniest of minorities turned the course of history for a billion people this week. India is culturally a deeply conservative country. A law put in place 100 years ago by their colonial oppressors criminalized same gender relations. This week the Indian Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, which had been done and undone before, because the majority didn’t want it. But a tiny, tireless group kept up the pressure, enduring harassment, beatings and imprisonments. Imagine a few hundred or a couple of thousand people in a population of one billion. Chief Justice Misra said, "The LGBT community possesses rights like others, and majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights. Veils of social morality can't be allowed to curtail the rights of others.”
So, what can something as small as this congregation do to change the course of history in America? If you laugh and answer was “nothing,” I’ll go get a job at Starbucks instead. If all we did when we got together was try to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, I’d give up the ministry. But faith as small as a mustard seed. That’s all we need. That’s why we came back home today. For the inspiration to keep using our tongues for good, not evil. To keep proclaiming the ideology of an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate world. I don’t care so much for the word ideology. To me it just means following the teachings of Jesus – in words and actions – and working together with people of all faiths for human privilege, gender equality, and the supremacy of nothing but love.
That means we must present whenever hatred roars, to sing of love;
And wherever fear stalks, to stand with courage;
Whenever bigotry rages, to call for justice;
Wherever pain overwhelms, to extend comfort;
Whenever systems oppress, to work for change.
After I finished my sermon, I went home and realized President Obama gave me the perfect last line. And when a bully attacks, to call it out, not follow him.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 2, 2018
“Wages and a Fatter Than Usual Corpse”
James 5: 1-6 – NRSV
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Hear verse 4 again. “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Or as the Common English Bible translates it: “Listen! These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields.” And in simpler terms: God knows what you have done. And is not happy.
The next verse, as Eugene Peterson translates it: “But [after all that] all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. (That’s an image!) In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good people, who stand there and take it.”
This Labor Sunday reminds us that the scriptures are full of texts that are very explicit not only about the treatment of the poor, of widows and orphans, but specifically of workers.
Texts such as: Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Do not take advantage of a hired worker, …whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing among you. And pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” New International Version (NIV)
“Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.” Common English Bible (CEB)
I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against sorcerers, liars, adulterers, (and then, right up there with adultery) against those who oppress hired workers in their wages, and against those who mistreat aliens, …says the Lord of Hosts.” New Revised Standard Version, alt (NRSV)
Nothing is quite as clear, however, as Sirach 34:22 in the Good News Translation: It is murder to deprive someone of his living or to cheat an employee of her wages.”
Epifania (E-pee-faa-nee-aa) Hinchez is a home care aide in New York City. New York has an admirable $15 minimum wage, but an exception was carved into the legislation for home health care workers, 93% of whom are women and 79% immigrants. Epifania is among the many who work mandatory 24 hour shifts in their client’s homes but are paid for only 13 hours. That’s because supposedly they sleep for 8 hours. I guess the rest is for “breaks.” But as she explains, how can I sleep when “I have to flip my patient’s body every two hours and change her diaper at 9 pm, midnight, and 3 am? Not to mention, besides providing care all day long, responding to any other cries for help 24 hours a day. Her last patient weighed 290 pounds and couldn’t walk. The heavy lifting led to injuries and nerve damage that required surgery. Again, Epifania is only paid for 13 of those 24 hours. Yet, she does it anyway because, she said, she loves her patients and considers them family; and needs the job to take care of her own family.
Might this not lead to a shortening of her own life? All of that so company shareholders, in the very graphic words of the Book of James, might have a “fatter than usual corpse” when they die.
The Book of James very clearly describes wage theft. People had to be told, don’t do it! Which is true then and now, whether they are workers who harvest your fields or who worked for a certain former Atlantic City casino owner and are among the 3,500 who filed official complaints: un or underpaid painters, glass installers, cabinet makers, drapery installers, marble installers… some of whom lost their businesses. Dishwashers, bartenders, even architects, real-estate brokers, and ironically, his own lawyers. All so he can have a fatter than usual corpse. That’s the Book of James, not me.
While Epifania is a good illustration, I assume you realize this doesn’t just take place in faraway states or countries overseas. Workers in the State of Colorado are subject to as much as $750 million in wage theft. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable. And other under reporting makes it difficult to determine, but the Economic Policy Institute estimates that nationwide wage theft could be as high as $50 billion each year. While the general public understandably decries burglaries and armed robberies and stolen cars, the affect of wage theft is three times higher, yet is not considered as serious a crime as a stolen car. But scripture thinks it’s pretty serious, especially in Sirach: “It is murder to deprive someone of his living or to cheat an employee of her wages.”
Here in Denver, Eduardo was hired to complete an exterior stucco job. He warned his employer not to use a certain material because it would not pass city inspection. His employer dismissed his concern and when the job did not, in fact, pass inspection, the employer refused to pay him. Eduardo agreed to do the job again. He obtained the correct materials, expecting to be reimbursed, not to mention, get paid for his labor, let alone doing it twice. The employer refused both his $500 wage as well as the $1,000 he spent for new materials. El Centro Humanitario, our mission partner in June, directed him to Towards Justice, which helped him recuperate his wages. But not before he incurred overdraft fees because he didn’t get paid in a timely fashion. If he had sought temporary assistance from one of those pay day lenders, it might have been much worse.
Speaking of those lenders, The Interfaith Alliance, which is here today as our September mission partner, has been involved in a successful effort to get a measure on the upcoming mid-term ballot to put limits on pay day lenders. If voters agree, the interest rate they can charge will be capped at a measly 36%, which may sound unfair, but is much better than the current rate of 500% allowed by our elected legislature. I always thought pay day lenders preyed on those without bank accounts, but who are their most frequent victims? The fact that the largest number of pay day lenders are in Colorado Springs might give you a clue: people in the military and veterans. Plus, senior citizens. Getting trapped in their debt hell, where a short-term $500 loan for an emergency can rack up fees and interest well into thousands of dollars, is sometimes a side effect of withheld or delayed wages.
During this time of increasingly obscene wealth inequality, it’s good to remember churches began observing Labor Sunday during the same kind of gilded age in 1890. Although, clergy often had to be embarrassed into addressing the issue of worker justice by labor advocates who quoted scriptures like today’s reading from the Book of James. On the other hand, worker justice was often the heart of the Social Gospel, with powerful preaching from folks like Washington Gladden of First Congregational Church in Columbus and Myron Reed, of First Congregational here in Denver. But they were often preaching into the wind. So many people prefer a message of charity, at the time highlighting the pious good will of such industrialists and monopolists as the Carnegies and Rockefellers. Labor advocates described this as “pouring a little balm on the surface, while cancer eats away at the heart.”
We are still challenged by such attitudes toward charity. That’s why we support groups like the Interfaith Alliance. They help us hold compassion and justice in balance. While we provide shelter to 20 women on Tuesday nights, our support of advocacy and action with groups like the Interfaith Alliance help us address the structural injustices that create and perpetuate homelessness.
So, a little about the Book of James. Outside the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, no other book in the New Testament describes Christian faith more clearly and forcefully. It asks, for example, what good is the gospel if you don’t do anything with it? AKA “Don’t be hearers only, but doers of the Word.”
Scholars believe James was written before all the other gospels except Mark. But the intent was not a recitation of the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but more like a summary of his teachings. More than half of James teaches us, in the style of wisdom literature, to “do this” and “do that” because “faith without works is dead.”
James isn’t exactly a letter like we think of the other New Testament books, though it was meant to circulate. It wasn’t written to a specific community to address a particular problem, like for example, Paul’s letters were. James is also unusual in that it does not address issues of conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Which also suggests that the instruction to pay your workers was not necessarily directed at the Christian community itself but another indication of its place in the genre of wisdom literature. There is no evidence that the earliest Christians were not taking care of the poor. The Book of Acts, for example, spoke very concretely about how communities organized themselves to do so. Therefore again, James may be more about the wisdom of right action than an admonition for bad behavior. If we read it as finger-pointing, we may miss its point, though that does not let us off the hook.
So, what, then, is our call to action? If we don’t own companies, if we don’t have employees, does this text have any practical applications for us this Labor Sunday or is it just about someone else? I suggest three actions we can take to enact the Good News: First, vote “yes” to cap the interest rate lenders can charge. And educate your neighbors and friends. Secondly, there’s another measure on the ballot: vote “yes” to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude still enshrined in the Colorado Constitution, a measure which failed last time, perhaps for confusing language. It doesn’t address prisoner wages, yet, but this is the first step. Tell your neighbors to vote yes on both. My third suggestion will require more long-term engagement: Tipping.
The syndicated columnist Connie Schultz wrote a piece 14 years ago that she keeps updating from time to time. Connie is the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.
Her original story is entitled “A little tip about gratuities.”
If you've ever used a coat check, you probably noticed a tip jar. You might stick a dollar or two into that jar and assume the person behind the counter, usually a woman, will get the money.
That's certainly what I always assumed. From now on, however, I learned I have to ask. I recently attended an event at Windows on the River. At the end, I picked up my wrap at the coat-check counter. I pointed to the large tip jar bulging with bills and said to the weary clerk, "Well, at least you’ve got some decent tips for tonight."
She shook her head and said, "Oh, we don't get to keep those."
I thought I misheard her. "What?"
"We don't keep the tips."
"Who does?" I asked.
When I asked her how that made her feel, she sighed. "They say they use it to give us a Christmas party."
Nowhere was there a sign indicating that the pile of bills in the tip jar was not going to the clerk but to management.
At another event, I watched one person after another shove bills into the slot on the top of a box marked “tips.”
"Who gets these tips?" I asked the coat-check clerk.
She resisted telling me, but I pressed.
"Management," she said softly.
"How does that make you feel?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Life isn't fair, right?"
So, I called the general manager of that fancy event center. She said, "Why are you asking about this? Why do you care?" The "girls," she insisted, are happy with the current arrangement. “And they're already paid an hourly wage."
Word that I was “asking questions” went up the chain to two corporate vice presidents who called me. "We're confused. This is newsworthy?" They went on to praise their workers as some of the kindest, most professional servers in the business. And they get a free meal.
Besides, they defended themselves, those tip jars only collect about $800 a year. Hard to believe, judging from the amount I saw stuffed into that jar last Friday night.
They said, "We match it for their Christmas party." When I asked if they'd ever let their employees decide between keeping the tips and having a party, they fell silent. "Why does this matter?" they asked.
The original general manager remained unrepentant. She said, "I don't ever think about who's getting the tip when I use a coat check. I don't care."
Connie asked her readers: Do you care? If you do, then ask and complain and make a big deal and embarrass companies that withhold those tips, like those who withhold wages. Ask when you see a tip jar at a bar. Who gets these? Connie has added subsequent columns, noting that if you are charged a “service fee” for a party of more than six people, ask the server, how much of this do you get? And if you leave a tip on your credit card, ask whether they get the full amount or minus the transaction fee.
Tipping isn’t worker justice. In fact, one person wisely described the tip jar as the "Trickle Down Economy Jar." Yet it might just be one way we are engaged in stealing the wages of the workers whose cries are heard by the Lord of Hosts. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any help having "a fatter than usual corpse."
 The Message
 https://www.stoppredatorypaydayloans.org/our-fight/ Vote YES!
 Per Amanda Henderson of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, HarperOne, 2012
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 26, 2018
“Choose Ye This Day: Faith or Party”
Joshua 24: 1-2a-14-18 – NRSV
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:
14 “Revere the Lord, and serve in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. And protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, who is our God.”
Joshua is a pretty significant biblical character about whom most people know very little. He was, among other things, the successor of Moses. After 40 years in the wilderness, he and Moses looked down from the mountain, but it was Joshua who finally led the people into the Promised Land. Joshua was also a military general. But, he was only successful when Moses was there holding up his hands. When Moses’ hands were up, Joshua was victorious. When his hands fell, Joshua’s army suffered defeat. So, to remedy this problem, on at least one occasion, when Moses grew tired, two men held his arms up until sunset, so Joshua could prevail over the Amalekites.
Joshua was also with Moses when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Six weeks later when they came back down the mountain, he was at Moses’ side when they discovered the people had built a golden calf in their absence. That’s when Joshua learned how quickly the people could abandon their god for something shiny and covered in gold. And because they chose a tacky idol instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, no one who had been alive when they were slaves in Egypt was allowed to enter the Promised Land, hence the length of a 40-year generation; not even Moses entered. Poor Moses, who had suffered through their constant whining and complaining. Only Joshua and two others.
Of course, we can’t forget the Promised Land wasn’t theirs to settle. It wasn’t empty land. It belonged to other people, whom they had to conquer first. It was the same kind of “in-the-name-of-God manifest destiny” that white settlers forced the original inhabitants off their tribal lands in the US and blacks off their land in places like South Africa. Colonial powers seized land around the globe for themselves not just out of greed but with the religious fervor of “civilizing and Christianizing.” So, it’s hard to “celebrate” Joshua’s victories when in reality it meant killing the Canaanites to get it.
You’ve probably heard the story of at least one of those victories at Jericho. We even sang a song about it in Vacation Bible School. Joshua’s army marched around the walls of the city of Jericho for six days in silence. On the seventh day, they blew their trumpets and the wall of Jericho fell, which, I’ll give it to them, was a brilliant strategy. The walls didn’t necessarily fall from the blast of the trumpets but the weight of all those curious people standing on the adobe walls watching an army march around their city in silence.
We may “celebrate” the Fall of Jericho, but what would the residents who lost their home call it? Just like the U.S. government called it Custer’s Last Stand – a heroic, romanticized image. Tribes, who were victorious, called it the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The U.S. government called it the Battle at Wounded Knee. Tribes call the slaughter of 300 mostly women and children without weapons the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Independence Day in Israel is called Nakba, the Catastrophe, by Palestinians.
Therefore, I always feel a sense of unease with stories like these involving Joshua taking the Promised Land. Unease, but not as sick to my stomach as I was this week when on Fox News, Tucker Carlson chose to highlight the most obscure allegation of wide-scale killing of white farmers in South Africa. As he decried the injustice of this literal “fake news,” he called the president of South Africa a “racist,” with such a look of sincerity you might even think he that he thought racism was bad or an issue with which someone should be legitimately concerned. And yet it was just one more in a string of attempts to change the narrative of corruption by this administration. All of it without any hint of irony that blacks in South Africa, 80% of the population, own 4% of the land of which they once owned 100%. Gee, how’d that happen? It’s all a bunch of white supremacy garbage, which only increased the likelihood that the president would tweet in support of a conspiracy theory without the facts to keep his base happy.
But back to Joshua. We may think of him for his roles with Moses and the Ten Commandments and the golden calf and the two of them standing overlooking the Promised Land and the fall of Jericho and all his military victories. But it is today’s story that will always stand out to me: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Growing up we had a plaque in our kitchen with the words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” alongside a picture of the Last Supper and one of those half a billion copies of Sallman’s portrait of a blonde-headed Jesus.
At 110 years old, Joshua was nearing the end of his life. No longer nomads, the people were now fully settled. The text says they were living in houses and eating fruit from trees. To be more accurate, it says living they were living in houses they didn’t build and eating fruit from trees they didn’t plant. I’ve even used the text before on such occasions as church anniversaries as a kind of tribute to the generations who sacrificed to build edifices like this sanctuary without thinking – hey, wait a minute – we’re in this church because the generations before us meant for us to inherit it, and for the next generation to inherit from us. That’s inspiring. But Joshua’s people were living in houses and eating the fruit of people from whom they took it. That’s not inspiring. That’s theft.
And yet, the point is, the people were settled and ready for new leadership. It was time for a kind of rite of passage. Sort of like, you’re an adult now so you get to decide. He had them gather at Shechem, which is a narrow passage between two mountains. Choose this day whom you will serve. It is a decision we are faced with nearly every day.
Michael Cohen told George Stephanopoulos, "My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first.” And with that he flipped on a man for whom he had once pledged to take a bullet.
Under different circumstances, such a statement would have been lauded by faith leaders for its expression of family values. But some faith leaders today need a “Joshua moment” to decide whether family values include:
Are those the positions of your faith or your party?
Some “whom shall we serve” questions might include:
Perhaps we can be criticized for only accentuating the negative aspects of the times in which we are living. Can’t you find anything good to say? Perhaps we can just as easily find ourselves parroting the positions of only one party too. So what, then, do we stand for? But more important than what we stand for, who do we choose to serve?
It doesn’t matter what party we belong to, or what country we live in, the basics of our faith are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. As it says in the Book of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It doesn’t matter whether Trump is president or Obama or Warren G. Harding. The question is always to choose this day: faith or party. When one conflicts with the other, which shall you choose? If you don’t know, ask “Where is the love?” What makes our world more like the Kingdom of God about which Jesus was constantly talking; more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate? One party doesn’t have a monopoly on that.
Now interestingly, after the people shouted, all pumped up and inspired, “We choose the Lord!” Joshua yelled back at them, “No you won’t. You’re incapable. You can’t do it.” They protested back, “Yes we can.”
And at times throughout their history, they were faithful. Wonderfully. And at other times they failed. Spectacularly. As spectacular as that gold covered calf or a gold-plated toilet.
And that’s when we realize, the issue isn’t whom we choose but that God keeps choosing us despite our failure to make the right choice. And offers grace that we might begin again. And again. And again. And, I’m sorry God, it looks like we’re gonna need it again. I’m sorry. And thank you.
 Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008
 James 1:27
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 19, 2018
“A Blue Wave Won’t Fix This.
That’s Not Entirely Bad.”
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10 – NRSV
God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
A pastor, teacher, and public defender all died and went to heaven. Standing in front of the pearly gates, they looked for instructions where to line up. The pastor thought surely there must be an express line for her. The teacher and public defender similarly thought they deserved expedited service for their years of dedication to the public good. But all three had to stand in the same line as everyone else and wait their turn. When it came their time, Saint Peter came over with his clipboard and explained that everyone needed 100 points to get in. They all thought that should be easy.
The pastor proclaimed, “I was a minister of the gospel for 47 years.” The teacher proclaimed, “I taught sex ed to middle schoolers for 30 years.” The public defended proclaimed, “I saved the lives of over 200 falsely accused men and women.” Peter exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. You each get one point!” Each of the recently deceased protested. “That’s all I get for 47 years of ministry?” The teacher leaned in, “Have you ever spent even one day in a classroom with 30 boys who haven’t discovered deodorant?” Peter wasn’t amused. He reiterated: “One point.”
So, each began to list things they thought should count as points, one after another. I tutored a neighborhood child. I spent a week at church camp. I marched in Selma. One by one, Peter put checks next to each name and kept a running tab. “OK, you’re each up to four points. Just 96 more.”
The threesome looked at each other in distress. The teacher said, “I don’t think I have 96 more examples.” The pastor yelled at Peter, “This isn’t fair. I’ve given my whole life to the church.” The public defender shook her head and finally said, “I don’t stand a chance, except for the grace of God.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Peter handed her a ticket and swung the gate open wide. She smiled back as she walked in, as the other two quickly yelled at Peter, “Grace! Grace!”
Week after week this summer, the news has given us another reason to feel depressed one day, outraged the next; or “fired up and ready to resist” one day, and “I’m worn out, let’s just wait this out,” the next, each week causing more people to slowly disconnect from the news.
I reflected back on some of the sermons I’ve preached this summer, one of which, about the underserved suffering of Job and the separated families, I ended by saying we need to just sit in some old fashioned biblical lamentation. I’ve tried to encourage us with reminders that when all we can do is sigh, that is, in fact, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I’ve given rallying cries for resistance as well as encouraged breathing and making sure we take time for rest. In each sermon, I tried to listen faithfully to the text for our call as Christians during these distressing and disgusting times, last week wondering, how can some Christians just stand by all as all this happens, and not just stand by, but actually approve at rates higher than the rest of the country?
John Pavlovitz joins in wonderment. The early Christians, he wrote, the immediate followers of Jesus, joined him in welcoming the outcast and the vulnerable—they didn’t refuse to serve them or harass them at school.
Christians then, cared for the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked—they didn’t claim they were lazy and had made bad choices.
Christians then, sought to destroy social barriers between people—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. They didn’t try to make the barriers worse.
Christians then, pushed back against the powers that hoarded wealth—they didn’t admire them.
Christians then, loved their desperate neighbors as themselves—they didn’t wall them off and lock their kids in cages.
Politicians can say and do all they want, but Christians can’t hold up “John 3:16” signs at football games and proclaim “For God so loved the world” and then angrily yell “America First” at rallies.
And a blue wave in November or a red wave the next won’t fundamentally change the dynamic of division in our country. It all leaves me feeling both ready to fight and hopeless at the same time.
And then I came upon this text: God said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong. The president loves to divide people into the weak and the strong. To him, calling someone weak is the ultimate insult. That’s why he loves dictators. Because they are strong. He would have been a huge admirer of Caesar and the ruthless power of the Roman Empire. And yet, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to demonstrate the opposite.
Jesus lays out his vision at the beginning of his ministry in what we call the Beatitudes – known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. The more familiar in Matthew speaks only of blessings, though they are upside down, such as blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort; and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But the version in Luke is much more pointed:
20 Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Those are pretty strong statements! They are also examples of things for which we don’t strive. They are not achievements. We don’t try to be poor or hungry or to weep. But they are one way to illustrate Paul’s claim that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The experience of grace isn’t found in those things we can achieve, but grace is revealed each time we say, I can’t. Or, I don’t know how I can possibly do this anymore.
But first, what is the context of Paul’s statement? Earlier in same chapter, Paul says we shouldn’t boast, even if we have a right to do so, whether it is teaching middle school sex ed or being a pastor for 47 years. And yet, Paul has also just listed how he has suffered as an apostle: imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwrecks, and the danger and hardships of long journeys: from bandits, rivers, hunger, thirst, cold, to walking hundreds of miles across Asia Minor and Greece. “But I’m not bragging!”
He is, rather, likely trying to defend himself against adversaries, or an adversary, unnamed but probably in Jerusalem, who criticized Paul, for unknown reasons. Kind of vague, right? But hearing only one side of a conversation does that. If I’m listening to someone talk on the phone but I don’t know what the other person is saying, I can only guess and fill in the blanks. The comedian Bob Newhart was a genius at doing this. That’s what these letters of Paul are, whether to the Corinthians or Romans or whomever else. But further complicating matters, this book known as 2nd Corinthians is not just one letter but a combination of perhaps three letters, written at different times about different issues. We’re left to try to figure out what’s going on behind the story.
And yet, whether it’s an actual adversary or something else, in this text he called his adversity a “thorn” in his flesh. He prayed to God three times to take it away, but, he said, God would not. This thorn is the subject of much speculation. Scholars have offered lots of opinions, including, as I mentioned before, a particularly difficult, unknown critic. Others have suggested that he suffered because of a physical problem, or maybe migraines, or maybe depression. Maybe he was trying to control bouts of anger or some other torment. Some scholars have even said that perhaps he struggled with sexuality.
But by not naming his thorn, we’re invited to each name our own. Things we wish we could get rid of or change but will not go away. If I ask you, “What is your thorn in the flesh,” you could probably answer without too much trouble. The president has a new thorn named Omarosa. But with all seriousness, that which we may consider our greatest torment or fault is the source of our greatest strength. Whether it is the thing that causes us to lose sleep at night, or a chronic illness, Paul suggests, from his experience, it is a source of strength. Why? Precisely because when we feel most at our wits end, that is when we are most open to a power not of our own making.
I have some questions:
What is a reason you can’t sleep at night? What keeps you up?
Is there someone who constantly torments you or criticizes you?
Where in your body do you experience pain or anxiety?
What emotion do you find yourself unable to control at times?
What or who do you wish would just go away?
Those things are ultimately our strength because they make us most open to God. We may even come to realize we are strongest in our broken places.
For me as a young man, it was being gay. I had no conception that anything good could come from it. All I saw was limitation. Pain. Heartache. I wanted God to take it away. I got down on my knees and prayed a lot more than three times for God to relieve me of the thorn in my flesh. But when I was at my lowest, when I had nothing left with which to fight, I finally let go and let God into my greatest brokenness. I did not expect it to be a blessing. But because of it, I found a strength I would not have otherwise known. Because of my thorn, I came to understand the line from Ernest Hemingway: “Life breaks all of us, but some of us come to realize we are the strongest in our broken places.”
That reason we can’t sleep at night.
That person who is constantly tormenting and criticizing.
That very place in our body where we experience pain and anxiety.
That emotion we can’t control.
The very thing we wish would just go away but won’t.
That’s not something a blue wave can fix. And that’s not entirely bad.
We find strength in some of the oddest places. The five-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death is coming up in a few days. I was reminded how, a few months after, my sister Judy saw a tree-trimming service working at her neighbor’s house. She crossed the street and asked the foreman to come over and look at the dead tree in her backyard. It was one of many tasks her husband would have taken care of, but with his death, it was one more thing she had to deal with. My sister was worried it could fall on the house, but the man told her she didn’t need to worry. “Cottonwoods are stronger in death than they are in life.”
It was another occasion when a complete stranger said something that brought my sister to tears. He stood there, his flannel shirt covered in saw dust, and just held her. I looked on a forestry website to see if it was indeed true, and though I’m not sure that it is, regardless, it was one of those broken moments which provided her with the strength she needed to get through one more day.
When we are weak, then we are strong. Our greatest pain may be the source of our greatest strength. I wonder if our country isn’t ultimately going to be stronger because of this time of brokenness. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. To stop living from election to election as though that’s going to fix us.
Meanwhile, there are going to be times when we feel like we have nothing left to give. It is in that moment, the grace we need will be sufficient. Whether we need 96 more points or just three.
 Luke 6:20-26
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, page 103
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 12, 2018
“Chipping Away, Tweet by Tweet”
Ephesians 4:29-5:2 – NRSV
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Tasuku was a stonecutter. His job was to cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. Day after day he stood at the bottom of a mountain and chipped away at the hard rock with his little chisel. One day he saw a prince who passed by wearing beautiful, colorful clothes and Tasuku envied the prince. He wished he could have that kind of wealth and power. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku and granted his wish. He became a wealthy prince.
Tasuku was enjoying his silk clothes and happy with his powerful armies, until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished he had the kind of power the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with the power to parch fields and humble the people with their thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun, until a cloud covered him and blocked his powerful heat. With that, he made another wish, and the Spirit complied. Tasuku became a cloud with the power to cover the sun and send powerful rains and floods and storms to destroy whatever he wanted.
Tasuku was happy to be the cloud, until he realized the mountain stood solid despite all his storms and floods. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed. Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than any prince, the sun, or a cloud. And he was happy, until he felt a chisel chipping away at his feet. It was a stonecutter – cutting blocks from the foot of the mountain to sell for his daily living. What do you suppose he wished to be then?
There is an obvious moral of the story that when we wish to be something we’re not, we’ll eventually find ourselves wishing to be who we were in the first place. Being someone else just brings its own set of problems. So, accept yourself and appreciate your gifts.
But as I came across the story again this week, it made me think how every day, little by little, tweet by tweet, a stonecutter is chipping away at the foundations of decency and democracy. In his first year, by means of 2,568 tweets. Since he started tweeting, 222 that call someone dumb, 183 that call people stupid, 156 that call someone weak, and 234 that call someone a loser, which I thought was a pretty low number. Little by little, tweet by tweet, chipping away.
As you likely know already, today is the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of Heather Heyer. And the debauched claim of the Sympathizer in Chief of “very fine people on both sides” among those white supremacists, neo-nazis, and members of the KKK. Ask the 400,000 Americans who died fighting in World War 2 whether nazis aren’t such a big deal. But little equivocations like “both sides” chip away.
The Pulitzer prize winning journalist Connie Schultz was on TV the other day and someone tweeted at her, “the horizontal wrinkle between your eyes is distracting. Botox can fix that.” Connie, who by the way is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, admired the person’s ability to focus on her nose as she discussed the continuing crisis of family separations and then explained it’s not a wrinkle but a scar. When she was 8, her father put a swing set in the backyard. She peered up, hands shading the sun from her eyes, and thought how cool it would be to climb to the top. Her father, sensing this, said “Don’t even think about it.” Mom added, “You could get hurt. And even die.” Connie climbed it anyway and fell facedown into the glider, slicing open the space between her eyes. You can imagine the sight of an 8-year-old with blood seemingly streaming from her eyes. As they left the emergency room, her mother said “You’re going to have a big scar, young lady. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” “Which I was,” Connie said, as she admired the black threads of the stitches between her eyes, “but I wasn’t going to say it.” She replied to the tweeter, “This is what 61 looks like. And reminds me of a girl who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This little scar inspires me.”
Little things like a scar can build us up, remind us of courage and tenacity, and little things like a tweet can chip away until the mountain has fallen. A mountain no one ever thought could be brought down. Perhaps by a missile but not with a few words typed on a screen. More disturbingly, however, the abundance of words not spoken.
The more egregious the tweet, the more united you would think the country would become as we recognize the threat to our shared existence on this land. Or at least you would think as Christians – whether liberal or conservative – we would be united against this threat. We share the same scriptures, like this one today from Ephesians. And with Muslims and Jews and Christians, we share the same God.
I have a book on my desk I’ve been meaning to read again. It’s Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, written way back in the quaint old days when life was simpler in 2011. As I look at it on my desk, I keep thinking, yes, that’s what we need to prepare ourselves for. We need to help heal our country.
And how might we begin? First, by knowing what we are, and who we are, seeking to become. Today’s text from the Book of Ephesians provides a pretty good description of an old life and a new one in Christ. It begins by providing some powerfully descriptive words for our present state: Wrangling, bitterness, wrath, slander, and malice.
Those are fascinating words. I had a little fun with a thesaurus and followed a trail of synonyms. For example, if you turn in the middle of your bulletin, you will see the word wrath, with its descriptors of rage and anger and frenzy. But then follow those words. They include the imaginative richness of words like rant and rave, blather, nonsense, irritation, obsession, and whirl. Might another word for whirl be chaos? We can certainly picture the malignancy of malicious tweets full of nastiness, cruelty, spitefulness, and vindictiveness. The Book of Ephesians vividly and remarkably describes the world in which we are living.
Obviously, the early Christians struggled with this in their day too or these words would not have been chosen. Perhaps it is cold comfort to know we are in good company, or bad company, that is. But, whether it was 60 years after the death of Jesus when Ephesians was written, or 2,000, I find the description of a new life in Christ compelling.
Healing our divided world is one thing. But must we not also address the divided church of evangelicals and conservatives vs. moderates and progressives. The divisions in the early church were often related to differences between Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were not. You know, of course, that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was prophet who loved his own. It all simply started as a reformation movement. But, Jesus had a way of drawing Jews and Gentiles together. And after his death, the question was, must Gentiles convert to Judaism first? Ephesians was a letter that circulated among many Christian communities that, among other things, addressed this conflict.
The author made unity a central theme. But also described this unity as already achieved. In chapter two it says, “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near… For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Consider our current context in these ancient words. But notice, the healing of this division is not something yet to be accomplished. It is in the past, settled, resolved.
There is another passage you’ve likely heard before from Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and through all and in all.”
If what you heard in my sermon last week is that evangelicals and progressives are divided, this text is a correction. We are united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism, even though we may disagree about its meaning and implications. Our unity exists. Though it may be easier to see the divisions among us. But, like Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eyes before noticing the speck in your neighbors.”
No one can change the ways of our Tweeter in Chief, but we can change ourselves. Plus, as Grace Aheron, a campus minister in Charlottesville, tweeted, “Jesus didn’t spend time trying to change the mind of Caesar. He was demonstrating the kind of world that could exist.”
Today’s verses are remarkably tweetable and even fall within the requirement of the number of characters Twitter allows. They also demonstrate the kind of world which stands in contrast to Caesars, then and now, whether in Rome or Washington.
With 132 characters:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up so that your words may give grace to those who hear”
And with 104 characters:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”
“be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you”
And finally, another 146 characters:
“be imitators of God, as beloved children and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”
Among these words, my favorite descriptor of a new life in Christ is “forgiving.” At first blush, not the most exciting. It seems a little bland, ordinary. But follow the synonym trail: “Merciful, magnanimous, big, generous, liberal, open-minded, unprejudiced.”
Have you ever described “forgiving” in that way? That’s our calling if we seek a life whose foundation is Christ. That, to me, is compelling. To set aside bitterness toward our neighbors and rather be magnanimous, liberal, open-minded and unprejudiced, through acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and compassion. Just as Jesus has done toward us. A mix of doing and being.
What then, however, does that say about our response to those very fine neo-nazis who went on a murderous rampage one year ago today? That’s our constant challenge. To be compassionate, but not accomplices to injustice. Gentle, but not appeasers of racists. Thoughtful, but not silent to violence, whether it’s the violence of the KKK or that which has been done to kids in cages.
We might be intimidated by the size of the mountain in front of us. But slander, malice, and wrath are not made of granite. And those tweets will eventually vanish into thin air. The mountain of their invincibility is just an illusion. It’s just a pile of sand, and that doesn’t require the skill of a stonecutter but just a bunch of us with buckets. And little by little, we can bring it down until it has fallen into the dust heap of history. And while some are tearing down, others can be rebuilding, brick by brick, stone upon stone. It’s the little efforts by all of us that will build us up and heal the heart of our democracy.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 5, 2018
“Understanding Trump and Evangelicals”
2nd Samuel 11:26 – 12:13 – Common English Bible
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27 After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.
But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.
12 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. 2 The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.
4 “Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”
5 David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! 6 He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”
7 “You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. 8 I gave your master’s house to you and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. 9 Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. 10 Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
11 “This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.”
13 “I’ve sinned against the Lord!” David said to Nathan.
How do evangelicals stick with Trump? I don’t mean it as a partisan question or even necessarily a judgment. Not even why, so much as how. I just need to know how to explain how theologians justify, not the election, but given everything that has happened since the election, how support has actually increased.
Social scientists offer a variety of explanations, such as a disciplined single-minded dedication to achieving a Supreme Court that will enact their favored policies. Some will suggest various theories about race and economics. But my interest is in the theologians, not the politicians. And I found the answers I needed. Answers that make sense.
King David is one answer. A deeply flawed individual who, despite Bathsheba-gate, yet even so, became one of the most beloved leaders of the people. They just had to stick with him. That’s one explanation.
But the one cited most often, and the one I found most persuasive, is that he is the new King Cyrus. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, and therefore pagan, who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, ending their 70 years of exile in Babylon. He restored the people to their former glory and even helped them rebuild the Temple which lay in ruins. God used Cyrus the Great to restore the people. And God will use, or is using, Trump as a modern-day Cyrus to do the same thing. They shall be restored to their former days of glory.
Cyrus didn’t need to be perfect. There’s even a term for it. “Vessel theology.” What is important is not the vessel but what it carries. Cyrus was a vessel, even though he was a pagan. Just like, it’s explained, God chose Trump to be the president. And how can we question the wisdom of God?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly made this comparison, even having minted a coin for the occasion of the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. It had the face of King Cyrus and Trump side by side. Upon the announcement and return of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the comparison was proven. And Trump fully embraced the connection and even sent greetings on the Persian New Year, complete with a quote from Cyrus the Great. A few days late, and ironically, it was a fake quote. But nonetheless, the linkage was made explicit.
I’m not saying I agree, I’ll say more later, but theologically, this holds together. It makes sense. I found it helpful in understanding. Trump returned the exiles to Jerusalem and shall end their exile in America.
Cyrus is a pretty obscure figure in the Bible, so if you’ve never heard of him, you’re in good company. He appears most extensively in the Book of Ezra, which is so obscure it doesn’t even appear in our 3-year lectionary. There are several mentions of Cyrus in the Book of Daniel, too, a book which has to do with remaining faithful during times of persecution.
Daniel is a fascinating sub-story in all of this and has even been used to explain Mike Pence’s role. It’s a stretch even by hard core evangelicals to say that Trump himself is an evangelical. He’s given a “mulligan” as a “baby Christian.” And that’s why Mike Pence is so important.
Daniel is an outsider in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court but has gained tremendous power by his proximity. He remains untainted and “shows how God’s people can survive in exile – even under the fist of the most despotic ruler – so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” Daniel used his position of proximity to establish protections for the Jews and secure appointments for his friends. I’m not sure Pence embraces this comparison, but he is consistent in expressing his belief that evangelicals face some of the worst persecution in our country. And need to be protected. When Trump’s a bully, at least he’s being their bully.
They are oppressed and in exile. That’s as important a key to understanding evangelicals and Trump as almost anything else. Arguably more than any other factor, the degree to which a Christian describes him or herself as oppressed reveals their willingness to stick with anything Trump does. In a 2017 survey, 57% of white evangelical respondents reported they face discrimination comparable to, or even higher than, Muslims.
Part of that is that they feel they are being displaced in their own country want it back, one reason so many are opposed to immigration, despite the biblical command to welcome the stranger and the foreigner. To treat an immigrant as a native-born citizen. But when Trump described Haiti and African nations as “bleep-hole” countries, defenders like the “boys will be boys” megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress agreed. “Right on target,” he said. Immigration, whether by refugees fleeing actual persecution or crossing illegally, only represents a further diminishment of their power. Why can’t we have more Norwegians?
They feel like victims. Is it true? It doesn’t matter. And I understand. Their beliefs are often met with derision. Ignorant, backward. They are not always represented well on TV or in the movies. The country is less and less “culturally-Christian.”
But sticking with Trump no matter what he says or does doesn’t help matters. Respected polling firm PRRI asked evangelicals in 2011 if they believed a politician who commits immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. Only 30% agreed. 2011. When asked again in 2016, two weeks after the infamous Access Hollywood tape when Trump bragged about groping women, 72% of white evangelicals said a politician who committed immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. 30% before Access Hollywood; 72% after.
And ever since, no reports of payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models, whether true or not, matter. While poll numbers soften occasionally among some people, support is stronger than ever among evangelicals. Now, that is, white evangelicals. African American, Latino, and Asian Americans, who make up 13% of evangelicals, want to make that clear. They’re not quite so onboard and they understand the dog-whistle of America’s greatness means to Make America White Again.
Evangelicals below age 50 are not buying it either. In fact, Baptist General News, not the New York Times, Baptist General News warns that “continuing evangelical support for a scandal-ridden president is undermining the conservative white church and could even spell the death of Christianity [among younger people] in the United States.” The country is already becoming less religious as the number of people identifying as “nones” increases. And why wouldn’t they? Something as basic and obvious as flip-flopping on the morality of public leaders makes Christianity look hypocritical. Younger evangelicals were appalled by kids in cages. They care about the environment. The majority support protections for LGBTQ people and even marriage equality.
There is another way to read the King Cyrus narrative. King Cyrus represents the end of exile, the return that makes the people Great Again after things fell apart under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. What if it was the other way around and Trump is Nebuchadnezzar? He was a cruel man whose policies were brutal, but he was also considered a vessel of God. We can keep the vessel theology, but he was a means to punish the people for their lack of concern for widows and orphans. Prophets like Micah demanded, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Daniel told the king to “break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” Instead “Nebuchadnezzar deported over 3,000 of the leading scholars, religious leaders, artisans, and political leaders. Sent them away, beginning the Babylonian exile.” Waves followed. Otherwise known as a refugee crisis. And then he boasted about his great Babylon.
Yet, according to scripture, this was part of God’s plan, too. To use Nebuchadnezzar, as horrible as he was, to teach justice and mercy to the people with whom God had grown weary. If we want to assign a biblical character to Trump, it could just as easily be Nebuchadnezzar; filling the role of a cruel and brutal leader, an autocrat wanna-be, who brings the church to the brink of exile or even extinction for the sins of this age, with the promise of a future Cyrus still to come. The Trump-Cyrus comparison may not be as flattering as some want it to be.
The comparison of King David and Trump is also short-lived. When Nathan confronted David in our text today regarding his affair with Bathsheba and the cover-up, David immediately confessed, “I have sinned against God.” He repented and changed his ways. In contrast, when asked in 2015 whether he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump replied, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." This at the same event as he described the sacrament of communion as some wine and a “little cracker.”
I feel like I understand a little more about how evangelicals, older, white evangelicals, stick with Trump. There are other factors, but theologically and biblically, this explains how they can remain loyal. And they have been richly rewarded. Temporarily, but at what cost to the future of Christianity in America. What does it do to your soul to admire a man who scores bigly on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride. Sloth? But certainly gluttony. As David Horsey explains, not because of his affinity for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but his ravenous hunger for higher ratings and adoring crowds. He just can’t get enough.
As you heard, the story we read today ends at verse 13 with King David confessing, “I have sinned.” That’s where the lectionary ends. But the story doesn’t. In verse 14, Nathan then offers forgiveness. “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Confession and assurance of grace. The end. But curiously, that’s not the end either. Verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you and Bathsheba shall die.” The next couple of paragraphs tell about how their child does in fact die, how remorseful David is, and how they later have a son named Solomon, who after David’s 40-year reign, becomes the next king of Israel, widely considered the wisest king ever. Though David was forgiven, the text shows, he did not escape the consequences of his actions.
Which makes me wonder… What will be the long-term consequences of our present day? I don’t want to speak for what others may face, but I do want to be able to say we spoke up, we acted out, and we refused to give up. Our country deserves better than this.
With the weight of all we carry, we could feel
Not just distressed by all of this, but crushed.
Not just perplexed by it, but despairing,
Not just forgotten but forsaken,
Not simply dumb-struck but destroyed.
We could choose to respond in that way. Stay at home, close the blinds, or we could come together, as we have and will continue to do, and pray to God, proclaiming, as Paul did:
We may feel distressed but we shall never be crushed
Perplexed by all of this, but never driven to despair
Forgotten but never forsaken
And struck down, struggling to hold on to our hopes and our will to keep resisting, but never destroyed.
May God make us strong and courageous in the pursuit of the world that Jesus taught, that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. For everyone.
 Daniel 4:27
 Richard R. Loesch, All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture, Eerdmans, 2008
 2nd Corinthians 4:18, cited in a sermon by Walter Bruggemann, May 25, 2014
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 22, 2018
“Let America Be America Again”
2nd Samuel 7: 1-7 – The Message
1-2 Before long, the king made himself at home and God gave him peace from all his enemies. Then one day King David said to Nathan the prophet, “Look at this: Here I am, comfortable in a luxurious house of cedar, and the Chest of God sits in a plain tent.”
3 Nathan told the king, “Whatever is on your heart, go and do it. God is with you.”
4-7 But that night, the word of God came to Nathan saying, “Go and tell my servant David: This is God’s word on the matter: You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’
What are the signs that someone has too much time on their hands? The neighbor who puts up 100,000 Christmas lights? I did a little crowd-sourcing on Facebook for some ideas. Their replies included spending too much time on Facebook! Watching Rachel Maddow obsessively. Hey now! Shopping every day. Posting too many selfies. Keeping a white car clean. I have a white car but it is definitely not clean. By Friday morning my question had elicited more than 30 replies, including a colleague who explained, “In 12-step language, it's when someone else takes your 4th step inventory.” Lots of really thoughtful replies.
Of course, you may laugh at the idea that anyone could have too much time on their hands. But ask a student ready to go back to school. Why? To have some regular routine back in their life, and lunch. Ask someone who’s just retired. They haven’t yet discovered they’ll soon be busier than they’ve ever been. Too much time on his hands? Ask the king who has won all his battles and now has nothing better to do. That’s how my train of thought began on this passage; but more on that later.
I was at a meeting this week at which someone made the comment, “I hope things aren’t really as bad as they seem on the news.” It was a harmless statement. She didn’t mean anything more than to express hope. In my typically cheerful way, I replied, “No, they’re worse.” It kind of dropped the mic on the room! But while we’re overjoyed that the soccer team was rescued in Thailand, we can’t forget the kids locked in cages in America. They may not still be wrapped in foil blankets, but thousands are not yet wrapped in their parent’s arms. And some may never be. But the news media has moved on. It’s hard to blame them. There is too much to cover. There just isn’t enough time. Nor, perhaps, the will or even ability to pay attention to that much bad news. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically… Time is precious. And as Robin Wilkerson replied, “only worth the value we assign it.”
And yet time is also a privilege. It isn’t available in the same way for everyone, like anyone who has to take two buses to go from their first job to their second one. It isn’t available in the same way for those caring for their children one minute and their parents the next. You get the idea. Discretionary time can be just as valuable as discretionary money. Yet, supposing most of us have at least some measure of control over our time, how do we choose to spend it? Attending church is a choice you make, and I assure you, I take that into consideration every week. To try to make my sermons worth your time.
Since the election of 2016, I have been heartened by how many people have chosen to spend their time engaged in improving our communities. At the last Indivisible Denver meeting, there were more than 100 people in here on a hot, sweaty Sunday afternoon. Hot outside; sweltering inside. Just one group. How many hundreds of thousands of people have attended one march after another? Made phone calls, written letters. How many millions gathered for the Women’s Marches?
And yet, no disrespect meant, but Mexicans and Muslims and refugees and immigrants and people living paycheck to paycheck from Appalachia to the Zuni Pueblo have been asking for that same time and attention for a long time. The Rev. William Barber says, we need to “stop acting as though Trump is the first.” But then get to work because it’s still better to be late than never.
Langston Hughes is one of the poet geniuses of the Harlem Renaissance. His most famous poem asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Another poem from 1938, declares “Let America be America again” but adds, “America never was America to me.” “And yet,” he said,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Meaning, the dream of America.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
1938. He calls it “my land,” yet he reminds us, “There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” It never was America to me.
So what does it mean, then, to say, “Let America be America again?” A memory once dreamed? An unfulfilled promise? It’s a privilege to even ask. Is it a time that has already been or a time that has yet to be? It’s part of the conflict of being America in the time of Trump. It’s all of it. A few have already experienced America, yet it’s the paradox of Langston Hughes. Who are we?
So, back to King David. (It all ties together. I hope!) What caught my imagination as this story began was a man who had nothing but time on his hands. Who was he? Picture it: King David rambling around his immense mansion, wearing his robe and slippers, picking up objects, like vases and candlesticks, admiring each of them, putting them down. Walking out onto the veranda to view the scenes of his kingdom below, pacing a little, and then walking back inside his house. With too much time on his hands, he thought, let’s move God inside too. God needs a house.
His days were full of memories, the battles were done, a nation at peace. Prosperity was clearly evident as he wandered the hallways of his beautiful house made out of cedar. He might have actually preferred being in the pasture with his stinky, obstinate sheep. He might have missed the thrill of protecting them by fighting off lions and tigers and bears on moment’s notice. Or the danger of battle, starting out when he was just a boy using a simple sling shot on Goliath.
But with too much time on his hands he pondered: How about a special home for God? I live in house made of cedar. God lives in a box covered by a tent. In our text, it’s called the Chest of God, more commonly it’s known as the Ark of the Covenant. He was excited to tell Nathan his plans.
On the other hand, however, maybe, as he rambled the hallways, every time he picked up a vase or a candlestick, he was haunted by the memories of each home plundered to take those precious items. Troubled by the scenes of so many battlefields strewn with dead bodies – under his order. Perhaps he recalled the trauma of killing Goliath. We never think about what that must have been like for a young boy. Lions and tigers and bears are one thing, but that was his first human life. Maybe he was filled with regrets, like he is about to be over Bathsheba’s husband Uriah whom he sends, like a mob boss, to be killed on the front lines to cover-up David’s indiscretions. Once again, too much time on his hands.
His life may have appeared to be filled with peace and prosperity, but under it all, maybe he desperately longed to atone for his misdeeds. Forgiveness for his transgressions. So, therefore, as he rambled the hallways, he thought: I can make it up to God by building a grand house for the Almighty.
On the other hand, or I guess, now, on the other foot, maybe this was all an act of arrogance to further solidify his power. The kings of many nations surrounding Israel had built glorious temples for their gods, not out of devotion but in order to enhance their positions of power. Maybe David masterminded the idea of a grand house just like what all self-serving autocrats did, and do. Mine is bigger than yours, believe me.
Whatever the motivation, whether it was because he loved God (which he did), or because he was bored (which he probably was), or because he was tortured by his character flaws (which he definitely had)… Whether it was a power grab, an act of contrition, an act of devotion… or all three, it didn’t matter to Nathan because, as he observed, God loved David in way like no other. So, without even stopping to think about it, Nathan said to David, “If you want to, God will approve.”
What was his motivation? Boredom? Ego, regret, love… In the age of Trump, it’s probably a good idea to ask those questions of ourselves too. Who are we? And what are our motivations?
One of the positive results of the election is the number of white people who have begun to see white supremacy. Willing to understand white privilege. But it’s another paradox of our times that such motivation includes some mix of ego, regret, and love. Among writers who are grateful for this “new” awareness are some increasingly frustrated by those who are well-meaning but exhausting – people falling over themselves to prove how not racist they are; almost like a competition about who can be the most “woke.” Are they motivated by dismantling such privilege, confronting and tearing down the foundations of white supremacy, whether it be through the means of mass incarceration or Muslim bans or kids in cages? Or is it about not looking bad? What are we trying to achieve? Destruction or accommodation?
And what was King David trying to achieve? Building a house for God sounds like a nice idea. Even the Prophet Nathan thought so. Until God spoke. “What do I need this for? Have I ever asked for this?” Did David understand the implications of what he was proposing? We might think it is primitive to imagine God as living in a box. Quaint and silly. But what that meant, theologically, is that God went everywhere the people went. This represented a God who dwelt in the midst of them. Moving God’s residence to a grand permanent house meant the people now had to go to God. God would become unmovable. And soon, inaccessible but to a few.
Do you see why this matters? Who benefits from confining God to one place? The person who controls that place. The people seeking to build and impose restrictions on a once free people. Those invested in the power and wealth of an empire, a monarchy. All of these motivations were disguised by the promise of a pretty pink palace. Disguised just like how much of what passes for patriotism in America has nothing to do with respecting the flag or saluting the troops but for power and control. Just like, who dare question a beautiful palace for God? All without asking, is that really who God is? Not what God wants, but who God is. And all without asking, is that really who America is? We’re just flags and anthems?
I agree with Langston: Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Whether it’s ever really been true before or not, out of the rack and ruin… the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies – We the People say No:
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
You know what: That’s all the Prophet Nathan is saying too. Let God be God again. Free, not confined.
So, as the text continues, after saying, “I never asked for a house built of cedar,” God told Nathan to tell David, “this is what I’m going to do instead – for you. I will build you a house. Not a house for you. But you as a house for generations to come and guarantee your kingdom’s permanent rule. And I will never take away my love. I will discipline and correct the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, but I’ll never remove my gracious love.”
That same promise lives on today in people of God. In the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, (boy o boy!) and those days when we feel bereft of optimism, and when things are not better but really much worse than we hoped, yet, the promise of God remains to make us God’s house, “a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, [like God, and] Equality is the air we breathe.”
Just let me say, worrying too much about all this is a sign that we have too much time on our hands. Better, instead, to listen to prophets like Nathan, when to stand up and show up and speak up. Instead of alphabetizing our spice rack one more time, can you spare some of your precious time, our privilege of time, so that America can be America again? Can is the wrong word. Will you?
 Paraphrased 2nd Samuel 7:11-16
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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