Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 26, 2020
“Invited to Be”
Matthew 4: 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Ramones sang about the “Job That Ate My Brain.” Johnny Paycheck proclaimed, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dolly Parton sang about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen, pouring a cup of ambition, and folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
If only Simon and Andrew had to worry about working from 9 to 5, maybe the offer by the stranger walking by wouldn’t have been so enticing. But fishing wasn’t a job. It was the life into which you were born. It’s what your father did and it’s what your children will do. Even if they wanted to sing “Shove This Jay Oh Bee” how could they have simply walked away?
James and John may not have been listening to country music while cleaning their nets, but if you combine some wisdom from Kenny Rogers as Jesus stands there, maybe we can understand why they jumped. After all, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” But to what?
There seems to be no scholarly consensus whether those four brothers knew who Jesus was. Or certainly, what they would be getting themselves into.
Jesus had just moved to the area, leaving his home back in Nazareth. In the succession of Matthew’s story, Jesus, at about age 30, was baptized in the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed, “this is my son, the beloved.” Immediately, he was sent into the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days and 40 nights alone and starving, repeatedly tempted with food, power, and success. After this period of testing, the next thing we know is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested. That’s when Jesus decided to leave Nazareth and settle in Capernaum. From that time on, Jesus went around announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s the entirety of what Simon and Andrew and James and John might have known. They might have heard about some guy going around saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” But they left poor Zebedee sitting in his boat wondering what happened. His sons left him to follow one of those itinerant preachers that came by periodically. Jesus wasn’t the only one out there gathering up disciples. So, what made him different? And how did those brothers know?
But sometimes, don’t you just know? I know that not everyone has had one of those “ah ha” moments, one of those epiphanies where things all of a sudden make sense. But those who do understand, who have experienced an epiphany, maybe it was something about which you had been thinking, dreaming about a change for years, and suddenly, the door opens right in front of you.
In fact, that’s how I got here. It took a while for Art and I to finally decide we were ready for a change, but when we did, I immediately went on the UCC website that lists job openings, hoping to see something in or around Denver. There were a few along the Front Range. And then I read the two line description for Park Hill. “Oh, my God.” I felt it in my body. I called Art and said, “that’s where we’re going.” Seems pretty presumptuous, but here we are 12 years later. And I still feel as certain as ever that this is where I was meant to come and where I still feel meant to be. Although, if I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I could never have predicted what our time together would have entailed. And the process we have gone through to get from there to here. But, through it all, I may not have always been sure what to do, but I knew I was called to be your pastor.
Perhaps that was true for those four brothers too. Jesus told them, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say much about what they were supposed to do. But he did say, I want you to be my disciples. They weren’t given a clear job description, (what in the world is fishing for people?), but they were given a new identity. And it’s better to know who we are first and then what we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s been made especially clear to us as a church in the past year. Ten years ago, we adopted a strategic plan. A year ago, we commissioned a new planning team – members who help us discern what we were supposed to do next. What is God calling us to do? I suspected that one goal would be a programmatic emphasis on helping people get to know each other. Relationships don’t develop by osmosis but by intention. We were seeing the effects of that. Without relationships, people will drift in and out without notice.
The process, however, never quite came together. Feeling stuck about next steps, Dwight Meyer and I, the chair of the strategic planning team, met with Jenny Whitcher, wondering if she could help get us unstuck. Instead, she proposed a totally different approach. She proposed a relational campaign. I didn’t quite understand it, but something felt right. She met with the Governance Team and proposed it to them. They didn’t quite understand it either, but something about it might, maybe, perhaps, sort of… It was difficult because she didn’t talk about what we would be doing. She talked about being in relationship with each other and our community. Not how to do authentic relationships but how to be in authentic relationships. Some of you heard this and knew immediately, I want to be part of it. Others waited, perhaps skeptical, but heard what was happening. And by the end of the fall, 75 folks had participated. And today, Jenny is here as we begin phase two. Going deeper.
But let me take a step back first. My apologies to our visitors today, but on annual meeting Sunday, I often give a sort of State of Church Address. I thought I’d make today’s, in part, a State of the Decade report, starting with some numbers.
In 2009, our average worship attendance was 82, up from 63 two years before. We had just had a Christmas Eve service attended by 128 people, 8 of those children. This year we had three Christmas Eve services attended by 293, of which 46 were children. Again, in 2009, average worship attendance was 77, up from 63. In 2019, it was 105. An increase of 42. At a time of churches in decline, when even the most faithful people attend worship less frequently, this is almost impossible. Humbling.
OK, more numbers. At the end of 2009, we had less than $9,000 in our savings and checking accounts. Plus, a loan and tons, a scary amount, of deferred maintenance. Today we have checking, savings, funds and investments of $150,000. That’s not because of a bunch of bequests but because of careful and wise stewardship. And we’ve turned all that scary deferred maintenance into $800,000 of improvements to our building and grounds in the past five years. Did you get that? Over 3/4 of a million dollars in pledges, gifts, grants, and special projects, including solar panels, the labyrinth, and more. Speaking of solar panels, ten years ago, our bill for gas and electric was $11,000. Last year, it was less than $6,000. How can utility bills be cut in half? And save the environment at the same time!
One more thing about numbers. We used to make contributions to our mission partners through our regular budget. In 2009, we budgeted $2,000, plus took the special UCC offerings. Then we started this every Sunday program in 2011. It kept growing. In 2019, our Sunday morning mission partners received a total of $24,000. Isn’t that extraordinary? And sales from the Fair Trade Gift Market for 20 non-profit groups literally doubled over the past decade.
Of course, there is always “on the other hand.” At the end of 2009, we had 183 members. Since just the 2016 election, we have received 62 new members. And at the end of this past year, we had a total of 184 members. An increase of one in ten years?! How do you explain that? Lots of deaths, relocations, and drifting away. But it’s the new cultural reality that more people participate willingly and fully in the life of the congregation without formally joining as members. Membership has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor of a congregation’s health, even though it still has a crucial function in a UCC church. It’s still important.
So, what happened in the past decade to explain our growth? One answer starts with that strategic plan ten years ago that articulated our mission and core values, such as compassion and justice.
We set seven goals, including a deepening spirituality that links head and heart, a focus on worship and youth, more effective social justice ministry, a simpler governance structure, and a decision about whether we should own our own building or sell and share with another church.
Those of you who were here for our move or stay decision know how hard it was. Painful. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and yet without actually making a choice to stay and invest, I doubt we would be where we are today: A building that is welcoming, that we are proud to make available to our neighbors, and a worship space that feels transcendent. Gone are the rigid lines of pews that separated us from one another, forcing us to look at the front instead of at each other. Gone is the pulpit that was seven steps above the congregation, 20 feet away from the first person. Now we have a sense of community with communion at the center. Worship today is simply not what worship was like a decade ago. Which is one reason for our growth. In fact, worship attendance started increasing immediately after we removed the pews. I kid you not. Up 20% that fall.
Another important factor: Five years ago in April, we began our participation in the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. That wasn’t an easy decision either. Certainly, we thought we should but the question was more about whether we could. Could we sustain the level of volunteer effort necessary? And then, just as we were struggling with having enough overnight angels, Donald Trump was elected. Immediately, people wanting to bring light and love into the world stepped through our doors and right into service. 94 different individuals this past year alone, of which one third are neighbors and friends.
I wouldn’t welcome the pain of this world, but through it, during the past three years, the religious left has been reenergized. Today we understand more than ever what Jesus was talking about. In the face of a cruel empire, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew describes it, the kingdom of heaven. Where the poor are the blessed ones, where people love their enemies, where our neighbors are fed, clothed, visited, and liberated from empires like Rome or America. We understand more than ever before how important it is to witness to a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world where Black Lives Matter, Love Wins, people take Me Too seriously, and borders are not littered with kids in cages. However, while the religious left has been energized, not every congregation has experienced the same kind of growth and vitality. Which makes all of this even more humbling.
In May 2016, we revisited our strategic plan and kept our mission statement and core values but adopted four new vision statements. Number one: “creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship.”
It was out of that first part of the statement that we began dreaming of a staff position for a Minister for Congregational Care. We started things in motion two years ago, to start last July with 10 hours per week and hope to grow it to a half time position one day – implementing the second part of the vision to connect people to their ministry. I’m happy to report that with today’s proposed budget, we will achieve this in September. In addition, among those four statements, we stated our vision to nurture individual spiritual gifts and talents. In a few weeks, as part of the second phase of our relational campaign, that is exactly what we will do.
The state of the past decade: vital worship, strong youth programs. Did you know that only 22% of UCC congregations even have a youth group? 2009 was the first of our many trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – on which 60 Park Hill youth and adults have participated. There have been lots of physical improvements to our building, thanks to your generosity, and lots of new opportunities for discipleship through the women’s homelessness initiative and racial justice ministry and other activities, thanks to the leadership of many of you. But it’s when Jenny suggested that our “task” is to be in relationship with one another, it all clicked.
Sometimes someone will come along and say exactly what you’ve been waiting to hear, even if you didn’t know it. Like when an itinerant preacher, declaring that heaven is near, comes by and says, “Come follow me.” Sometimes snap decisions are foolish impulse buys and sometimes snap decisions are easy because you know who you are and you’re ready when someone asks. No more fear. Just step out of the boat in faith.
The takeaway from the gospel for today: It’s not about what you are supposed to do. But who are you called to be? No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Jesus invites us to be his disciple. What we do will follow when the time is right.
 Matthew 4:17 Common English Bible
 Including $300 in rebates
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 19, 2020
“Questions for White Christians”
Galatians 3: 26-29 – New Revised Standard Version
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
We’re going to listen to a portion of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” I always find it inspirational to hear his soaring rhetoric in his own voice.
A little context first: Rev. King had only been a pastor for two years when he preached this sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in early November 1956 – an exhausting eleven months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King wrote this sermon in the style of Paul’s letters to Christians in such places as Corinth, Rome, and Galatia, beginning with greetings and complimentary words before getting into the heart of the message.
(On tv screen from YouTube)
I, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So, in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
Just like Paul addressed divisions in the church in Galatia in our scripture today, this sermon continues by describing various forms of division that existed nineteen hundred years later, such as the presence of 256 different Christian denominations in America. But more to the point, he called out the fact that there is a white church and a black church. He asked, “How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” He noted that sports stadiums and night clubs are more integrated than the church. Paul said clearly, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” However, Dr. King said, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America – the first time he used that phrase which later became common.
Speaking as Paul, he said, “I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. Oh, my friends, this is blasphemy.” As he continued to lay out arguments, he said: This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for, a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.
He then called upon listeners: “I urge each of you to plead patiently with your brothers and sisters and tell them that this isn’t the way. With understanding goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes. Let them know that in standing against integration, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself.”
I learned this week that when future congressman John Lewis was about 15 years old, he heard this sermon on the radio and credits it specifically for changing the trajectory of his life. Lewis said he realized “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
When he was a child, he saw signs for restrooms and drinking fountains designating white and colored. He would ask his mother, ask his father, ask his grandparents, “’Why? Why is that?’ And they’d say, ‘That’s the way it is. And don’t get in trouble. And don’t get in the way.’ But,” he said, “that day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change.”
The following year, at age 17, he enrolled in seminary (I didn’t know John Lewis graduated from seminary!). In a reverse order from today, he then went to college and received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, an historically black college established by Congregationalists. During that time, he organized lunch counter sit ins in Nashville. And was a Freedom Rider. And a few years later, was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettis bridge marching from Selma to Montgomery.
John Lewis heard: “You are obligated to seek to change the attitudes of your fellow Christians.” But Dr. King added, “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.”
But he also added, “Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.”
A few years later, on that bridge in Selma, John Lewis did indeed almost meet his Maker at age 25. It occurred to me, I wonder how old pastor King was when he preached today’s sermon? 27.
During my sabbatical I went to Montgomery and basked in the light filled sanctuary of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I stood behind his pulpit and met a woman in her 90s who knew Dr. King as her pastor. She now gives tours of the parsonage where Martin, Coretta, and their children lived, where we saw the table around which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met and the crystal bowl Mrs. King used to serve punch. Among other things, we saw the phone on which they received death threats and the hole in the front porch where someone threw a bomb.
I went to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery in order to see the lynching memorial and legacy museum created by Bryan Stevenson – the subject of the new movie Just Mercy, which I haven’t seen yet, but reading the book shaped my sense of responsibility as a Christian and a pastor during these divided and difficult times.
About two years ago a group from our church went to hear Mr. Stevenson speak at the Paramount Theater. I’ll never forget how he stepped up to the podium and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I want to change the world. I want to end the death penalty.” He explained that one way we can change the disturbing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty is to tell the truth about the unbroken chain of events – from slavery to the “War on Drugs” mass incarceration, from lynchings to police killings of black men, women, and children – a legacy of slave patrols under which every black person was presumed guilty. As Bryan said, and is clearly true from the news, “a guilty white man is treated better than an innocent black man.” All of this with Jim Crow segregation in between.
In 1956, Dr. King’s sermon laid out the sacred responsibility of Christians to end segregation and the sober consequences of following Jesus. But in 1963, feeling abandoned, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King lamented, “I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead some have been outright opponents. In the midst of blatant injustices, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard many ministers say: ‘those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
So, what might Dr. King’s updated sermon, Paul Letter’s to American Christians in 2020, address today? Here’s one thing for Christians to grapple with: following a string of black men, women, and children killed by police in 2015, 81% of black Christians said they believed those killings were part of a broader pattern. But more than 70% of white Christians believe they were all isolated incidents. 71% of white Catholics, 72% of white evangelicals, but most disturbingly to me, 73% of white mainline Christians deny the lived experiences of black Christians.
Jim Wallis from Sojourners said, “white Christians must start acting more Christian that white.” Which is one indication of the state of American Christianity today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great theologian imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. He stood against the perversion of German “Christians” who supported Hitler and the Third Reich. He insisted Christians take “the view from below.” From the “perspective of those who suffer.”
This week, the International Bonhoeffer Society cited his writings and sermons and make a shocking statement. They described the “ever-deepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized,” including the “dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systemic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history.” And then declared they do not believe that American democracy can “endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump.”
The International Bonhoeffer Society is simply a group of scholars who describe themselves as dedicated to advancing his theology and legacy through critical scholarship, engaged pedagogy, and constructive readings of his collected writings. But they described Bonhoeffer’s warnings about leaders who become “misleaders” interested only in their own power. How he warned in the 1930s that “when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately.” And always reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation to the victims of any societal order.”
They’re as non-partisan as it gets, so this is not the kind of statement they make easily, although it did come on the heels of the Christianity Today editorial that advocated the removal of the president from office that shook the evangelical world.
These Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, also admitted their own “complicity in the social order than has produced Donald Trump’s presidency and the many social and economic injustices that predate it.” And then pledged to actively resist policy goals that harm vulnerable people.
Paul told the Galatian church, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That would seem to imply that in Christ, there should be no distinctions such as evangelical, progressive, fundamentalist, or vanilla Christians. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But, big question: Did Paul say, there “should be” no division? Or did he say, “In Christ, there is no division?” That is something entirely different.
Back in 1949, 20 year Martin said: “We must bring Christ back to the center of the church.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but he may have been on to something important and particularly relevant today.
Of course, what it means to put Christ back at the center could be quite different depending on the church. But it is a really important point as we engage in what is going to be an even more divided electorate in 2020, in which the church is not supposed to be explicitly partisan.
With that in mind, we must always focus on what Jesus taught. What is your position on wealth inequality? What did Jesus say? What is your position on immigrants and foreigners? What did the prophets teach?
The question isn’t how you can fit some Jesus into your political views but how does Jesus inform your political views? This does not necessarily fit easily into one party, nor should it in a diverse society.
But for ourselves, as we remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we should all be asking questions with Christ in the center, such as:
Depending on your answer, you might be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical, but as Congressman John Lewis realized, “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
Bryan Stevenson suggests four ways:
1. Get proximate to those who are suffering
2. Challenge and change existing narratives
3. Be willing to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable
4. Stay hopeful
Stevenson said, "You cannot change the world if you allow yourself to become hopeless. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists, and so you've got to find a way to stay hopeful. You either are hopeful or you're the problem. I hate saying it like that but I really do believe it, because your hope is your super power. Hope will allow you sometimes to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet. When you're hopeful you can actually believe things and see things that other people can't."
Call to Confession
Dr. King once said, “Nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Truly, the work of justice begins with a proper recognition that injustice is real. Let us confess those things that distract and consume us. And let us be awakened by the movement of the Spirit that gives us and the whole world life.
Unison Prayer of Confession
God of Justice, whenever we settle for the way things are instead of the way you would have them to be, forgive us.
Whenever we are paralyzed by fear or limited in vision, increase our trust in you.
Whenever we offer charity, but fail to work for justice, show us the more excellent way that your love requires.
Whenever we tire of our struggles and tomorrow feels overwhelming, restore our hope.
Whenever we forget those who have gone before us or act is if we were the first to struggle, allow us to recognize our arrogance.
May the witness of our brother Martin encourage us to be dreamers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The Assurance of God’s Pardon
If, by reflection, analysis, and prayer, we are freed to acknowledge the wrongs around us, the pain among us, the selfishness within us, and the work before us, God’s call is constantly being revealed in us. Always remember and never forget: The liberating love of God is at work within you!
 Inspired by Paul Rauschenbusch – adapted from 7 Ways to be an MLK Christian
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 12, 2020
“Baptism: An Act of Solidarity with the Poor"
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, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus was just born a few weeks ago and today he’s already 30 years old. What happened in between? Well, among other things, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he was visited by the wise men from the East and then his family fled violence to live as refugees for a few years in Egypt. Then, when Mary and Joseph felt it was safe to leave, they moved the family to Nazareth. Then what?
Jesus was curious so he traveled eastward with his best friend to meet up with those three wise men – a magician, a Buddhist, and a Hindu Yogi. At least as it is recorded in The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. These three wise men taught him many things, including how to multiply food and how to become invisible. They taught him the origins of cappuccino, how rabbits became associated with Easter, and why Jews eat Chinese food on his birthday. When Jesus and Biff returned home, they shared stories of their adventures with their friends, including Maggie, who later in life became known as Mary Magdalene. These young friends shared their hopes and dreams and the occasional mischief, especially the foul-mouthed Biff, and argued over who got to play Moses in their games.
Since the Bible offers so little information, it’s stands to reason that people are left to speculate. Such speculation of the more serious kind, you know, less blasphemous and sacrilegious, often includes the suggestion that Jesus spent part of his young adulthood travelling, in particular among Eastern religions. For example, among others, the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ suggests he spent his youth travelling across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt.
Modern scholars, however, including Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus are supported by actual scholarship and that any suggestions that Jesus, in particular, came into contact with Buddhism are “without historical foundation.” In fact, Leslie Houlden states that all of these modern comparisons only emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century. Which is kind of disappointing. Jesus and the Buddha obviously never met, since they were born 500 years apart, but I still like the idea that they would have been good friends – like the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I love pictures of the two of them poking at each other and making each other giggle.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph went every year with Jesus to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. You may recall the year when he was 12 years old, he went missing. After three days of travel on the return home, his parents realized Jesus was nowhere to be found. They rushed back to Jerusalem and discovered Jesus sitting in the Temple among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. His parents, a little irritated at Jesus, asked him why he has treated them so poorly? Jesus simply responded, “where else do you think I’d be?” Or something similarly nonchalant. I’m not sure exactly what Mary or Joseph said next, but Luke 2:51 reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth with them and was “obedient to them.” Seems to me there might have been a little ear tugging involved. The last thing the Gospel of Luke reports about his childhood was that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” How? Who knows?
The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus spent his young adult years as a carpenter, the profession of his father, or rather, his step-father. The Gospel of Matthew says the same thing. When people were upset with him and asked, “who does he think he is,” the response was, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son?”
There’s not much else available to us about those 18 “unknown, missing, or lost” years. The only other writing we can draw from was called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, dated somewhere around the year 80, the same time as the Gospel of Luke. In the end, it was not chosen to be part of the canon of scripture, perhaps because it is quite bizarre. Jesus is described in the same manner as a trickster in Greek mythology. And petulant. One-year old Jesus made the neighbors blind after they complained about something to Mary and Joseph. He killed a boy who accidentally bumped into him. Later, however, it’s all good because he healed everyone he harmed. This gospel is less charming than imagining Jesus and Biff learning magic from one of the wise men. Although, among the better stories in the Infancy Gospel is how he brought a clay pigeon to life after breathing into it.
Regardless, around the time he was 30 years old, Jesus presented himself to John and asked to be baptized.
One of the questions raised at Noodles and Company on Thursday was “what was baptism at that time?” Baptism has its root in the traditional miqvah, a ritual washing.
Back in Jerusalem, before a pilgrim could enter the main sanctuary of the temple, the court of the faithful, he had to completely immerse himself in its pool of clean water as a symbol of his ritual purification. For a fee. A hefty fee. It was quite a profitable enterprise. Enter the temple. Make a sacrifice. But, go further? Pay the price. However, if wealthy people wanted an even nicer experience, away from all those common folk, they could pay for a premium upgrade at the miqvah in the home of a priest. But among those commoners, the poorest of the poor couldn’t even afford the cheap ones. And therefore, could not enter the court of the faithful.
John, however, did not require a fee. The price of baptism was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path. Metanoia. To turn around. John turned the miqvah immersion in water from a purification ritual into a symbol of forgiveness. And furthermore, John declared that God’s forgiveness was free to anyone who asked for it. But hold on there… Only priests had the authority to declare God’s forgiveness – for a fee.
Therefore, more and more, increasing numbers of people started traveling the day’s long journey from Jerusalem to John’s cave along the Jordan to be baptized. Including the religious authorities upset that he was cutting into their profits. John called them out – why are you hypocrites and broods of vipers here?
Among those who showed up in those increasing numbers was Jesus, John’s cousin. Remember John’s mom Elizabeth and Jesus’ mom Mary were cousins. They visited each other while Mary was six months pregnant – now 30 years ago.
Why would Jesus ask to be baptized if the purpose was to repent of past mistakes and promise to follow a better path? Did his best friend Biff actually lead Jesus into a brief life of sin and debauchery while they lived among the wise men?
Well, here is an explanation by Richard Losch that I hadn’t considered before. Jesus asked for baptism by John to identify with the poor who couldn’t afford the hefty fee to enter the court of the faithful. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor – his very first act of pubic ministry. Which then, as he gathered followers, was quickly made explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, the first line of which is “Blessed are the poor.”
Baptism does, in fact, have many meanings. Repentance for sin. Forgiveness. A dying and rising to new life. An initiation into the church and the Christian faith. A promise. A dedication. A rite of passage. But, I especially like the addition: baptism is an act of solidarity with the poor.
Whatever it is, and all of what it is, baptism represents the transformation of what has been to what we hope and pray will be. In word and deed. Which is not a “once and done.” Not that we have to be baptized over and over, but to return regularly to examine what we promised, or what was promised for us. And get back on the better path.
That’s why we begin every new year with a renewal of our baptism vows. And as we enter the down and dirty of what could be a very nasty 2020, I’d like to invite us to consider what it means to us to be in solidarity with the forsaken, the persecuted, the lonely, the left out – everyone left behind in this economy. Everyone left behind in this country. Yet, not just left behind, but locked up. Caged up and thrown out.
Repentance for our participation in and benefit from the systems and structures of white supremacy. And then, metanoia, our promise to turn in a new direction, to walk a better path, to build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. With every word we choose to speak and with our every deed.
Afterall, what does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. But to also remember, not just once, our baptismal vows are to keep doing justice, to keep loving kindness, and to keep walking humbly, day by day, year by year, in solidarity with God and our neighbor.
A ritual for renewing our vows continues, including the following:
Remembering Our Promises
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, following in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?
And do you promise, by the grace of God, to grow in your faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation in the life of the church?
Then individuals come forward and touch their forehead with water while singing Here I Am
 Christopher Moore, 2003
 Richard Loesch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008, pp 222-225
 Micah 6:8
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 5, 2020
“Socks on the Bathroom Floor”
Note: Today we will celebrate the Blessing of a Civil Marriage for Pat Smith and Peter Cozens following the sermon
Matthew 7: 24-27 – Common English Bible
Jesus said, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26 But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
This is a pretty familiar and relatively easy idea to understand. Build your home on bedrock and it will stand. Build it on the sand and, as the children’s song says, “when the rains came down and the floods came up, when the rains came down and the floods came up, when the rains came down and the floods came up,” down it went and terrible was its fall. Splat!
OK, cute. But what does that mean? What is bedrock and what is sand? The very first line of our reading today says, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” Obviously, we need to know what are “these words?” Therefore, today’s text about wise and foolish builders cannot be understood without what precedes it. And in this case, it’s the two chapters that follow his famous Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus came down from that mountain and told his followers, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” He then repeats over and over, again and again, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” For example, Jesus explained, you have heard that it was said “You shall not murder,” but, I say to you, murder is the same as being angry with a brother or sister. Anger, that is, without the determination to resolve your differences.
For the next two chapters, Jesus repeats this over and over, again and again, about such things as fasting, prayer, adultery, divorce, making oaths, retaliation…
On retaliation, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” He goes on to offer a brilliant lesson on civil disobedience against Roman occupation. He advocates using subversive tactics, such as turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving not only your coat but your cloak as well. He doesn’t offer wisdom on how to be a doormat but a lesson in civil disobedience. But that’s another sermon.
Jesus continues, you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In the midst of all this, Jesus said, “Do not worry. Look at the birds of the air. Can worrying add a single hour to your life? Stop worrying about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” And one of my favorite lines: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, many of these sayings are familiar. Jesus said, “Do not judge so you won’t be judged.”
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.”
Jesus concludes, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
And then, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise builder. And if you don’t – well, splat.
Eugene Peterson translates our passage today inventively:
“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. These are foundational words, words to build a life on.” But again, not just hearing these words but acting upon them.
Wisdom for living. And, importantly today, wisdom for a marriage.
Every Thursday, a group gathers for lunch at Noodles and Company to discuss the reading for Sunday. Those of us gathered on Thursday represented marriages of 57, 50, and 13 years. Imagine 120 years of lived experience upon which to draw. I asked for their wisdom. What has made your marriage work? They called out forgiveness, patience, respect, honesty, kindness, love, a shared value system, the willingness to ignore bad habits. Like socks left on the bathroom floor again. But, honestly, I was kind of disappointed that there were no big surprises.
But, in fact, this advice was so universally true, you could even exchange out the word marriage and use to explain how to be a friend or even how to live next door to your neighbor. Forgiveness, patience, respect, honesty, kindness, love, a shared value system, the willingness to ignore bad habits…
But it could also explain why we are so divided as a nation. Forgiveness? Patience? Respect? Honesty? How about kindness and a shared value system? There’s not a lot of that going around these days. But there is plenty of what Jesus called foolish: anger, desire for retaliation, enemy-making, and judgment…
Among our lunch bunch on Thursday, none of their words of wisdom for a marriage were particularly earth-shattering, but three additional lessons did stick out to me: taking time apart from each other; willingness to sacrifice for the happiness of your partner, not expecting them to make you happy. And, 57 years later, still feeling passionate for your partner.
Roslyn and Jimmy Carter have now been married more than 73 years. Roslyn, three years younger, lived down the street from Jimmy’s family and had a crush on him. One time when Jimmy was home on leave from the Navy, he was busy every night dating a beauty queen, an actual pageant winner. But on his last night in town, the beauty queen had other plans, so Jimmy, Roslyn, and his younger sister June (who had been trying to set them up) went to the movies. The next morning, Jimmy told his mother he was going to marry Roslyn. When he asked her only two months later, on President’s Day weekend, she said no. She had promised her dying father to finish college first. But after she did, they married on October 19, 1946. And 73 years later, they still walk down the street holding hands.
There are lots of lists one can google, like 8 Keys for Success or 10 Signs of a Good Marriage. One notably different article was entitled “The Three Pillars of a Successful Marriage – and Love is Not One of Them.” I was curious so I read on. The author cited Integrity, Respect, and Endurance. Endurance may be true, but it’s not the most motivational thing I can imagine. You just have to endure!? But the article ends with the postscript of inviting God into your marriage. And God is love.
Sometimes I learn more from examining an issue from the opposite side, so I googled “foolish marriage advice.” One promising article chronicled the worst advice from every decade. In 1900, it was for the wife to never be smarter than her husband. At first, these seemed funny. Or funnyish…? In the 1940s: Don’t talk about your problems. In the 1970s: Don’t be a nag. Then I realized how unfunny this whole thing was and how much damage has been done through the decades by such sexist and misogynistic “advice.” Always directed to the woman. By the time I finished reading I wasn’t just sad but angry. But, then again, what did I expect from googling “foolish marriage advice?” Makes me feel a little foolish for trying.
Barbara Essex offers the best interpretation of this passage. It’s all about the storms. “The test of a house’s strength comes only during bad weather. Although the roof looks fine, there is no way of knowing how sound it is until the rains come. Although the basement is cozy and spacious, there is no way of knowing how sealed it really is until the floods flow. Although the windows look great, there is no way of knowing how strong they are until the winds blow. The strength of the house does not appear until storms come.”
And the storms will come, won’t they? And then, where do we turn? Our friends with 120 years of lived experience made it through because of forgiveness, patience, etc. etc. You might even say they needed a good dose of endurance.
And yet, sometimes the only wise thing to do is to end the relationship.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church. On Friday a protocol for separation was agreed to by the diverse interests entangled in four decades of conflict over the place of LGBTQ people in the church and same gender marriage. The method and means for divorce have been agreed to. As anyone who has been divorced knows, it’s not what anyone wants, but sometimes it is what everyone needs for health and wholeness. For human flourishing to be restored. The document released on Friday is called “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” I was moved by the title. To imagine that grace can be the outcome of separation is profound. And a lived experience to which some of you may be able to attest.
Going forward, if this protocol is adopted by the larger body in May, those who wish to punish clergy who perform same gender weddings or prohibit LGBTQ clergy from their pulpits are free to leave and form their own denomination. Including an equitable division of the assets. Instead of this being a sad day, however, everyone can finally breathe a sigh of relief that the means for separation have been set. Perhaps an odd topic for a day celebrating a marriage, but it is a realistic assessment of the kinds of wise and foolish choices we must make sometimes. It could actually be quite foolish to stay together under the certain conditions.
Of course, that isn’t always possible. We can’t divorce our country. And it’s been raining a lot lately. There’s more rain in the forecast. Torrential rains coming down and the Noah’s Ark-sized floods coming up. Gale force winds banging on the shutters. Will we go splat? We wonder: will the foundations set by our founders hold up – the rule of law, fidelity to the constitution, representative government of the people, by the people, for the people. Something as seemingly simple as truth?
Jesus’ words about anger and retaliation and judgment – and worrying – seem particularly apt. And splat-worthy. And yet, might the lesson from the text today be not that our house won’t blow off the foundation because of laws but because in the hearts of the people, we hold open the possibility that one day we will forgive each other? And if not today, that we refuse to close the door to the hope of reconciliation one day?
That we will be patient and respect one another, be honest with each other, be kind to each other, and love our neighbor, not despite that they may be like enemies to us, but because Jesus said it is wise to love one another as much as we love ourselves.
That, and overlooking the socks left on the bathroom floor. Again!
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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 Traveling around the world