*Picture from Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, by David Bahr, 2013
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 22, 2017
“Crossing the Threshold of a New Era”
Psalm 27: 1, 4-9 – New Revised Standard Version
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in God’s temple.
5 For God will hide me in God’s shelter
in the day of trouble;
God will conceal me under the cover of God’s tent;
God will set me high on a rock.
6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in God’s tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek God’s face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
On Friday afternoon we crossed the threshold – from one era to another.
The early Celtic people who lived in the British Isles were fascinated by thresholds; places of meeting. The Celts were transfixed by doorways where the outside and the inside meet. They were fascinated by such places of meeting as shorelines where water rolls in to meet the land. The Celts were captivated by places of meeting like where underground water bubbles up to the surface from deep below. Thresholds. Like the transition from day to night. Did anyone ever ask you to listen very carefully as the setting sun touches the horizon? Listen carefully. Be very still and you will hear it – that’s the sun sizzling the earth where they meet.
The Celts used the imagery of shorelines and doorways to describe the kinds of places where there is a very thin divide between the past, present, and future. They called them “thin places,” “where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer you can almost step through.”
When Christianity was later introduced to the British Isles and spread among the Celts, it mixed with this earlier folklore, and the idea of thin places expanded to moments of meeting between the holy and the ordinary. Thin places became those places where we meet God, where God feels especially close and real.
But what does that mean? Is this a place or an attitude? Are they dwellings or a state of being? Since I first heard of thin places, I’ve appreciated the idea. And it’s ripe with potential for this moment in history.
Eric Weiner wrote an essay about his experiences of traveling to thin places when he was a travel writer for the New York Times. He calls these “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent,” or as he likes to think of it, the “Infinite Whatever.” He was not the religion writer! Travelling to thin places, he said, does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough, whatever than means. But it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones.”
That may be the saving grace of the threshold we crossed this week. Lost, disoriented and confused – emotions expressed by many – yet, I believe, this chaos may lead to clarity and new insight. Our country may have lost its bearings (some may say, we’ve lost our mind), but we are now on our way to a breakthrough; to greater understanding about who we really are and the importance of actually pursuing an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate world. It doesn’t just happen on its own. And to me, that’s hopeful. We are in a thin place.
I recognize that thin places are essential to my spiritual life. For me it’s essential that our senses are occasionally caught off guard because the blessing is that our lack of understanding becomes a search for it. I think that’s part of why I am repeatedly drawn to travel to places where I can’t understand everything. In a literally different world, we are open to a whole different set of answers. Any time we let go of certainty, or even have it wrenched away, we gain the ability to receive.
Now, of course, to experience a thin place does not require a remote exotic location. Often it is simply bringing a different attitude to some place very familiar. When you go to work in the morning, what expectations do you carry with you? When you go home at night, what expectations do you carry with you? Does your attitude reinforce negative expectations so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s going to fail, so when it fails, I am proven right.
Sally just knew that at least one of her co-workers would get on her last nerve yesterday. She went in expecting it and when she got annoyed, it just proved her point. They’re all a pain in the neck – but that all of a sudden morphs into “nobody appreciates me.” Which further disintegrates into “I’m doomed to be unhappy forever.” Of course, you can just change out “co-worker” for neglectful spouses or ungrateful children for whom we set the expectation that they don’t appreciate us. Setting ourselves up for disappointment. We can even substitute president and member of Congress and we will succeed at setting ourselves up just to prove a point. It’s going to fail and there is no hope.
But rather, Psalm 27 proclaims: “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh – my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall.” You didn’t hear that part of Psalm 27. Curiously, the lectionary committee skipped verses two and three. But this is where the conflict is named. Confidence is expressed in opposition to fear. Eugene Peterson helpfully translates evildoers as “vandal hordes and bullies. They shall fall flat on their faces.”
The New Revised Standard Version of Psalm 27 says, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” Or as Peterson put it, “When all hell breaks loose, I’ll remain calm, cool, and collected.”
Psalm 27 is called a triumphant song of confidence. It begins with the familiar refrain, “Whom shall I fear!?” Chest thumping. It starts there. And yet sadly, not many verses later, it says “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn away in anger. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me. Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.” But if she is so confident, “Whom shall I fear!?” then why does she so quickly lament that this God, whom she calls her “Stronghold;” why would this God cast her off, walk away, and give her up to her enemies?
I wonder if that isn’t another thin place. A threshold where, like water rolling onto the shore, fear meets confidence. The meeting place of doubt and hope. The threshold; one side despair, the other side faith – often a very thin place. But the place in between, God – not only on one side and not only on the other. In the middle of the doorway. Where we meet. Where, when we are lost, disoriented, and confused, we will find ourselves, each other, and our bearings.
Agnes Norfleet said, “What is significant about sacred places turns out to be not just the places themselves. It’s memories, a piece of music, a special story, a word spoken at the right time – all of them are a thin place where we can remember God seeming to be very close and very real. And not.” Have you ever felt the disappointment of returning to a place that no longer speaks to your soul? Sometimes because we bring too much expectation, wanting it to be the same, only more of it. But instead of being a thin place anymore, it’s already thick with preconceived notions and ideas. I’ve had that happen.
The Psalmist says she wants to live in the house of the Lord all the days of her life. But, I believe, this confirms that the house of the Lord is less of a dwelling than an attitude. And it sounds like one of my favorite lines from UCC pastor Ken Samuels when he says, “Christianity should not be about pie in the sky by and by when we die but something sound on the ground while we’re still around.” I want to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life speaks of LIFE. To recognize God’s presence Now. Here.
Many of us do not want to cross this particular threshold – this place of meeting between now and the next four years. Feeling lost, disoriented and confused. But, rather, I’ve concluded, we can bring to this time an embrace of new insights and possibilities and renewed energy. An openness to “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I was going to say “Amen” here. And when I finished writing my sermon, I got in the car and drove away feeling satisfied. But by the time I got to King Soopers I realized, what a white privilege thing to say. While I’m looking at this as a threshold for new insights and possibilities, others too will be standing at the threshold – some struggling not to be thrown out the door; others standing at the threshold barred from entering. I mean: We’re looking at the doors of hospitals shut. Doors of women’s health clinics shut. Doors of climate scientists shut. Even the doors of public schools shut.
We must ensure that all these new insights and possibilities and energy are redemptive – not just enlightening. And that calls for our passion, and anger, and that our will to resist not fade after 100 days. We must not forget that things will not be alright for everybody. Yes, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But a lot has been promised.
It’s important that we commit to stand with each other and that we will continue to help another cross this threshold together. And build a chain strong enough to hold and deep enough to protect those exponentially more vulnerable than we, who can ill afford the luxury of a laisse faire attitude to the potential benefits of thin places at this moment in history. Yes?
Even so, remembering that we are people of faith – faith in a God who is stronger than our fear. God is the stronghold of our life; of whom shall we be afraid? Even though all hell break loose, yet, we shall remain confident and seek only one thing: that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord all our days. But that’s not enough. We must also hold open the door for anyone those in power try to shut out. In God’s house, we are all welcomed across the threshold. Let’s make sure no one tries to pass a law against that!
 The Message
 Faith in Public Life: http://www.justice100.org/
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 8, 2017
“Tracked Down by the Zeitgeist”
Matthew 3: 13-17 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”
On the afternoon of December 1, 1955, a woman asked “Why do you push us around?” The officer replied, “I don’t know.” But it was his job to arrest her anyway for not giving up her seat to a white man.
The story has often been told that Rosa Parks was simply a poor seamstress who refused to move because she was tired after a long day of work, unaware that her action would spark a new civil rights movement. That myth persists even though Rosa corrected the record herself by saying “people always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I wasn’t tired physically... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” As a member of the NAACP in Montgomery, her action had been planned in advanced. Yet, if it wasn’t that she was simply tired, there still was a moment when she decided she was going to do something. What was that motivating moment? In Slate Magazine, Diane McWhorter said “We all act upon, and are acted upon by, forces we don’t understand [and don’t control]. And then suddenly those forces crystallize in a person or an event that “de-randomizes” all that has come before.”
Something happens and we will no longer accept what has always been assumed, business as usual. Suddenly it all makes sense and we know what to do, or at least, we know that we are ready to do something.
I’m curious about that crystallizing moment for her. The epiphany. The “ah-ha” that changed the path on which she had been living. Like McWhorter put it, living “randomly.” Meaning, when we’re satisfied enough, if not particularly intentional. But suddenly we know that the future we assumed must be transformed. Martin Luther King said of Rosa Parks, she had been “tracked down by the zeitgeist.”
Zeitgeist is defined as the attitude or general outlook of a specific time or period. For her, the 1950s segregated Jim Crow South. Suddenly, in some instant, it was no longer acceptable. I am prepared to act.
In July 2013, Alicia Garza posted what she called “a love letter to black people” on Facebook. It was a response to a community distraught over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. On the day of the Zimmerman verdict, Garza posted: “the sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now and that makes me sick to my stomach… [To her Facebook friends Garza said,] “Stop giving up on black life.” She ended with “I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Alicia’s friend Patrisse Cullors amended those last three words to create a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. And a new civil rights movement began. Starting as small as Rosa’s sit down, this new movement grew in momentum after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and after each subsequent death. In the three years following, that one lone hashtag was used 13 million times. It crystallized for thousands of young people who found themselves tracked down by the zeitgeist. That hashtag made sense and hit a nerve and now they too are activists.
For you, what has been a motivating moment? What have been the epiphanies, the “ah-ha” when you said I have to change this? It doesn’t have to be about an issue. I’m also thinking about relationships. “I’m done.” Or a workplace. “That’s enough.” Or the moment when we chose the path of sobriety. Weight loss. Or self-acceptance. A realization: This is who I am. And that’s good. What have been the moments when you said “I have to” or “I’m going to…”? What happened when you too were tracked down by the zeitgeist? When some prevailing attitude was no longer acceptable?
I remember at least one time like that in my life. As I was struggling to come out, another student at college said, “I’m sorry this means that now you can’t be a minister.” It was a tiny little innocent comment that reflected the zeitgeist exactly. An out gay man could not be a minister. But everything crystalized in that moment. There was no big fanfare, I wasn’t a shepherd visited by an angelic host, but I decided this was unacceptable and I would not be stopped, or at least, I wouldn’t give up trying. In the 29 years since that singular moment, so much has changed that I could never have imagined at the time. Unfortunately, some of which we gained we stand to lose in the near future.
What has been so difficult after the election is the shift in zeitgeist in our country. A palpable shift from one in which we thought our shared values included an appreciation of diversity to one in which diverse people are pitted against each other. That, yes, there will always be a few who try to hoard wealth for themselves, but there seemed to be, nonetheless, a widely shared value that prosperity among all of us is better. A sense of uniquely American responsibility for each other. A zeitgeist about democracy and fairness and respect replaced by a contempt for education and a mean-spirit that believes cooperation for the Common Good is a bad thing. Even the zeitgeist about truth is not considered sacred anymore – where facts and lies are subject to definition by tweet.
Perhaps it’s good that it is so obvious. We don’t need to go looking for a motivating moment. An epiphany. An “ah-ha!” A big fat package was delivered postage due on November 9th. The only question is the exact nature of the action each of us will take in response. Waiting, like Rosa, for the moment we realize this is a seat from which I will not stand. Like Alicia, in despair, finding the clarity to state what became the hashtag seen round the world to crystallize a new civil rights movement.
But perhaps, like Jesus, we must first be sent into the wilderness too. To be quiet. To listen. His baptism led immediately to a time of preparation for temptation – after 40 days he was presented three variations of a temptation to seek the easy way out. But his baptism prepared him for that.
Most of us have been baptized. But I’m not sure we have ever thought of our baptisms as a preparation. Perhaps because we may think of baptism as something for cute babies – preferably when they’re still young enough that their reaction to a stranger and some cold water isn’t to scream bloody murder at the top of their quickly developing lungs. Baptism, the way we practice it, may not be messy enough. Or considered consequential enough. Someone once suggested that baptism should involve jumping out of an airplane. Skydiving. Free fall. Pull the rip cord. And only then, gently float down to the ground. The number of baptisms would probably plummet but we would understand that baptism is meant to prepare us to face our fears. Or if not skydiving, something equally capable of communicating our need to give it some serious thought first. Like rollercoasters… (shudder) and other matters of life and death.
Brad Braxton wrote that if we were to take the baptism of Jesus seriously, we would see that baptism is revolutionary. That baptism is preparation for a revolution. Parents, when you presented your child for baptism, did you ever consider that the path you chose for your child would prepare them to lead a revolution?
Baptism in Matthew’s gospel is sprinkled with subversive clues, beginning with, why would a sinless Messiah come to be baptized if baptism were merely about personal piety? John even tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. I need to be baptized by you! But Jesus counters by telling John he wishes to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus chose baptism, in front of growing crowds of people flocking to the desert seeking a change in their lives. He chose baptism right in front of a bunch of hypocritical religious authorities whom John pointed to and called snakes and vipers. Why are you here!? Jesus chose this public venue, not a private event, to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Righteousness is one of those church-y words, such as sin or salvation or even baptism. It sometimes fails to communicate its intent clearly. It is not primarily something like – You should be more righteous. And it’s incongruous to call someone “self-righteous.” It’s a curious word. And here are three possibilities to understand his meaning:
1) righteousness is about God’s saving action in the world (not something we can do; not something we can be)
2) in Greek, the word is also be translated as justice, and
3) righteousness simply expresses God’s passion to see things set right that are wrong – the reversal of fortune such as the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away emptyhanded. That is righteous. It has nothing to do with being “holier than thou.”
This understanding of righteousness would suggest that baptism is first of all, not about me. It is about our willing participation in God’s passion for seeing things set right that are wrong. It is God’s saving action.
Jesus said his baptism was to “fulfill all righteousness.” So by submitting to being baptized, he declared, “I am ready for the revolution.”
Something was wrong in his world. Yes, the Roman occupation. But worse, the collaboration of religious and Roman authorities to enrich themselves. Fake peace. Tyranny. Rigid rules, stuffy rituals, meant to control people, not to uplift them. Something was wrong back then. And something is deeply and terribly wrong today.
Remember Rosa? Suddenly, forces not fully understood crystallized in a moment that de-randomized all that came before. Suddenly it all made sense. She was prepared to refuse to stand. If you haven’t had that motivating moment, an experience that has provided the “ah-ha” needed to act, just wait. The zeitgeist is looking for you too!
And when found, your baptism has prepared you for your place in this righteous revolution. Yet just remember: this is not about us. This is our participation in God’s passion for seeing things set right that are wrong. It’s not an agenda that can be implemented or dismantled by a political party. It is about having the same gospel values whether we admire the president or are terrified by him.
We can’t save the world, no matter how important we are. But through our baptism we were made ready for the moment of clarity that it’s time to do the righteous things of God.
So, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when your Rosa moment comes, when your Alicia moment comes, know that you have been prepared for the revolution!
 Brad Ronnell Braxton, “Ready for Revolution,” The Christian Century, January 2-9, 2002