Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 23, 2020
“Vote as If Someone’s Life Depended on It”
Matthew 17: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
One cold winter morning, the matriarch of a small New England church was nervous when she came to worship. Not that the sidewalks might be icy or that the boiler might not have kicked in early enough to warm the sanctuary. Betty was anxious because it was the first Sunday with their new pastor. It wasn’t a Congregational Church, so she had had no say in the pastor assigned to them. She and many others in her coffee klatch traded rumors that this pastor had been a troublemaker. Might try to shake things up. But by the end of the service, Betty was pleased. As she grasped the hand of the new pastor, Betty told her that all her fears had been relieved. “I listened carefully to your sermon and I am so happy. You were wonderful! You didn’t say a thing!” At least, nothing to make anyone uncomfortable.
In contrast, a white pastor in Alabama in the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement, began preaching about issues of race, every week, preaching from such passages as Ephesians, “in Christ’s flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” One by one, he preached the church down to a handful of people. The pastor remarked, “Good. Now we can become a Christian church.”
In seminary many of us were told we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Among your group of peers, that sounds fun and exciting. In case Peter, however, thought the idea of following Jesus would be an exciting fun-filled adventure, Jesus afflicted him with some clarity.
The text today begins by saying “six days later.” What’s the first thing we have to do? Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In return, Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church.” He promised Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But then Jesus told all of them about going to Jerusalem and how he would undergo great suffering and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter responded by “rebuking” Jesus. “God forbid it,” he said. “This must never happen to you!” To that Jesus slapped back, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” Ouch. All he said was, “I don’t want anything bad like that to happen to you.”
Then Jesus told the crowds of people hanging around him: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
That’s the context. Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and went with them up a high mountain.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew tried to link Jesus to Moses. “Up a high mountain” is an example of how, over and over, Matthew tells stories in a way that point to Jesus as the new Moses. For example, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, which only Matthew tells, is about how both Jesus and Moses escaped a tyrannical ruler who tried to murder infants, whether a king or pharaoh. There are many other examples. Moses received the commandments on a mountain, Jesus taught the Beatitudes from a mountain.
But our scripture reading this morning is especially notable. Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah on top of a high mountain where he is transfigured in a bright light. Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Transfiguration is one of those odd words only used in the church. The Common English Bible tries to simplify the word as Transform. Jesus was transformed. To me, that’s not quite enough. Eugene Peterson tries to describe the indescribable as “His appearance changed from the inside out. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.”
Of course, we are tempted to ask, did that really happen? But, what I do know is that it sounds a lot like how Moses encountered the magnificent light of God’s presence on a mountain – which, I think, is more the point Matthew is making.
In today’s reading, Elijah is added to the mix and, thereby, Matthew makes yet another linkage explicit. Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah. Matthew’s intended audience wouldn’t have needed any more explanation.
So, six days earlier, Peter declared Jesus the Son of the Living God. On top of this high mountain, God’s voice is heard saying exactly that. “Listen to my Son. My beloved.” It was the same voice heard at his baptism, the start of his ministry. This same voice is heard again, now at the start of his descent to Jerusalem and his suffering, persecution, betrayal, and death.
There’s a lot of symbolism going on in this text. Enough that we may we start to ask, “so what?” So, if I’ve lost you with all of this background and context, come back because I want to talk about what we do with this text. How does Peter respond to all of this?
How many times have you heard or thought to yourself: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” I don’t know if it’s true for you or not, but I feel like I was programmed by my parents just that way. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” In fact, isn’t there some saying like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” My strict German grandmother probably said that. In German.
So, if I had been standing there with Peter, I would have heard the voice of my parents and said, “Yeah, we should do something.” Various translations of the specific word Peter used for his “let’s build something idea” include dwellings, booths, shrines, tabernacles, shelters, and more. Whatever exactly it was, it was something. Perhaps to remember or memorialize the moment with a shrine. Or another interpretation is “let’s build something up here,” like a shelter or dwelling, so we don’t have to go to Jerusalem. Let’s just avoid all that conflict. One of my favorite things to do.
Jesus was likely annoyed with Peter’s impulsive interruption, but before he could say anything, that voice from heaven intervened and said, “Listen to him.” Or, here is my translation of this verse: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
How does that phrase make you feel? “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” For all of us ever busy, overprogrammed people, driving our children across town from a soccer game to a piano lesson, continuously checking our emails, responding to texts, too much homework, busier in retirement than ever before – that sounds good. A relief. “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
And yet as we try to keep up with the newest outrage from Washington, feeling like we have to respond to each one of those newest outrages until we fall to the ground exhausted and tempted to give up… Paralyzed. When that happens, in the vein of Peter, and my parents, I need to hear, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.”
Which is it? Either way, that voice proclaims “listen.” To listen requires us to first stop. And breathe. In fact, let’s do that. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the burned out. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the broken down. Comfort for the afflicted.
But some folks, like Betty, our matriarch from New England, not to pick on her, they don’t want that comfort interrupted, to be afflicted by hearing about the needs of the world. But what happens when “don’t just do something, stand there” becomes the mission of the church? What happens when “don’t just do something, sit there” becomes the rationale for accepting the status quo? Which, of course, is a privilege only some communities are afforded.
When someone says, “Don’t bring politics into the church,” they’re not an immigrant community fearful of a raid any minute.
Is it politics to pray for guidance? To ask of your faith:
There are more actions, of course, than voting. It’s just that our Super Tuesday ballot is sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be completed. And I need to vote as if someone’s life depended on it.
This week we saw the proof of Bryan Stevenson’s assertion – that the rich white and guilty will be treated better than innocent poor people of color. Every new day of this presidential administration is another outrageous example of corruption this and law-breaking that. We can’t keep up with it all to respond to everything. We could, but we wouldn’t last long. That’s what they count on. That’s what they laugh about on Fox “News.”
Therefore, the concern is how to avoid burnout or how to recover from burnout. Not to just to do something, but stand there. To comfort the afflicted by listening and supporting one another, knowing that each one of us is carrying a heavy cross. To listen and pray for that voice from deep inside the cloud. Then to listen to each other so that we don’t just stand there but begin to do something – as if someone’s life, including yours, depended on it.
The lesson I see from Peter is not just to react in the moment and do something. Or stay upon the mountain to avoid doing anything. First, listen. And then do the one thing you especially can do. That thing for which your gifts and your talents make you uniquely qualified.
And what is that thing? That’s what we are going to do together during Lent this year. We’re going to explore and discover our gifts and talents as we deepen our relationships and connections with God and each other. The second phase of our relational campaign from last fall starts Wednesday night during the Ash Wednesday service, continues every Sunday in March during Second Hour, will take place during more intimate meals in homes and small gatherings in April, and will end with a daylong retreat in May. Lots of listening before we start more doing.
We often think of Lent as a time when we give something up. That’s appropriate because when we listen and act accordingly, we may need to say “no” to some things, give something up, in order to say “yes,” to take something else up. Known as our own cross.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
As followers of Jesus, that’s our invitation. I’m curious whether you think that’s a comfort or an affliction.
 Story adapted from Will Willimon
 Matthew 16: 24-26 - adapted
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 2, 2020
Micah 6: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
What God Requires
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The lectionary today provides us one of the most familiar half-verses in the entire Old Testament. But what’s the rest of the story? The context.
It starts by God telling the people, if you have a problem with me, please tell me. God tells them to take their contentions to court. And then God invites in a jury. Tell it to the mountains and hills, the eternal foundations of the earth. Let them decide the verdict. That’s the setting.
Then watch as God lays out a defense. God pleads, what have I done to you? Please, how have I wearied you? It’s the not the voice of an angry God demanding an answer. It is the voice of a God who agonizes and is filled with sorrow. Notice: God doesn’t complain or say they are wrong. God doesn’t deflect and instead accuse them of unfaithfulness. God simply replies by asking the people to remember their history:
In sharp contrast, the responding party from the people explodes and blows everything out of proportion. “What do you want from us!?” And goes into a litany of the most preposterous examples he or she could imagine.
Animal sacrifice was a way to honor God. An offering, for example, of one sheep or a ram. But the lawyer for the people asks, “What do you want? Would a thousand rams be enough for you?”
Imagine that you’ve lent $10 to a friend who promises to pay you back by the end of the week. Months later, you finally ask your friend if you can have your money back. I’m sorry to ask, but could you… But, instead of being embarrassed, apologetic for having forgotten to pay you back, they respond “I suppose you want interest from me too. What do you want? Ten million dollars? Will that be enough to finally satisfy your greed?”
That’s the answer from the lawyer for the people. Will a thousand rams be enough for you? How about not just one jug of oil but rivers of oil? How about my first-born child? Will that be enough to satisfy you? You see: Rant, rave, deflect – and now you’re the bad guy. An unnecessary litany of increasingly absurd defenses.
It’s like the rants and raves and deflections of increasingly absurd defenses offered by the lawyers for the president. From “he did nothing wrong” to “everyone does it, get over it” to “anything the president does is, by definition, not wrong.” Or, the more reasonable explanation, “it’s wrong, it’s just not wrong enough.” Which I have to admit, I might agree. If sexually assaulting multiple women isn’t bad enough, this is nothing. If ripping children from their mother’s arms and placing them in cages isn’t bad enough, well, this does, in fact, pale in comparison. Another litany of increasing absurdity – absurd that any of it is OK.
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t been able to watch the impeachment trial; barely a few minutes here or there. Just enough news coverage to feel like I had a sense of what happened that day.
This week, I read a blog post by John Pavlovitz, the author we invited to speak here last year, that felt so spot on, I feared he had entered my dreams and taken dictation.
Back in September which, emotionally, feels like ten years ago, long before the events of the past few weeks, Pavlovitz said:
There’s more, but no need to read more of the stuff we all know all too well. These must-be-a-dream real-life nightmares are exhausting. I’m trying to hang in there. How about you? Every time I think we must have reached the bottom, the bottom drops further.
Yet, as I write this I wonder if this isn’t just the depression of the privileged. I’m used to thinking that things generally work out. But how often has the notion of the Common Good been much more about the Common Good for people like me? With a good job, a good education. I can show up at the doctor’s office any time I want because I have insurance. I have a passport to go anywhere in the world I want. And a pension that benefits from a strong stock market. And I’m white. Things have generally been pretty good. Better than for most.
I have to admit, the idea that Americans have had shared values in the past and this is just an aberration reveals my privilege, and ignorance. I remember back to something I said in my first sermon after the election. DaShawn Mosley asked what was wrong with white progressives. How could you be surprised. How couldn’t you see that this would happen? “Every time African Americans get a little bit closer to equality, a wave of white resentment comes hurtling around the bend to wash all of the progress away.”
Columnist Leonard Pitts described the election as a “slap down to women and people of color and LGBTQ folks. A vicious and painful reminder so we’ll know our place.”
So, when I think our nation’s increasing diversity is a good thing, and start thinking that things will finally get better when the country becomes a minority majority, I need a dose of reality. Like that from Dr. Jennifer Richeson who told the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The Era of White Anxiety is Just Beginning.” She’s a researcher who said tolerance likely won’t increase but rather an even “more propulsive acceleration” of desperation from “a historically white majority [which] will [not] quietly cede power.” For example, the kind of actions we are seeing today from white, evangelical Christians who are both fearful and angry that their cultural dominance is passing from the scene. Willing to do literally anything to debase themselves to hold on to their power.
Black History month should remind us how this has happened over and over again throughout our country’s history. Absurd and intentional acts of cruelty. But we also remember heroes and how many people have not only survived but done such things as establish thriving businesses and colleges and so much more. Leonard Pitts added to his slap-down comments, “to those who wish to crush my spirit and the spirit of others like me, hear this – it will not work.”
And John Pavlovitz says exactly what the privileged need to hear, those for whom things have generally worked out: “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.”
I’ve always liked that line about the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” It was made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr, but it’s actually a line from a sermon from a Unitarian preacher in 1853. Pavlovitz interprets it for our time. Stop trusting that it will happen, leaving it to fate and chance, and instead “decide to be arc benders.” “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.” He said, “The only way things are going to be OK, is if good people make them OK.”
That means: 1) people of faith must stop abandoning the conversation about religion to those who are loudest about their vision of exclusion. We have to push louder and harder against Christian supremacy, male superiority, and white nationalism. Progressive Christians must learn how to speak about our deeply held religious convictions, the reasons we are passionate about the Common Good. (That’s one of the goals of our relational campaign this spring.)
2) Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and Agnostics and Hindus and Buddhists and Humanists and anyone committed to the Common Good must realize our combined power and offer a unified voice. (That’s why we support mission partners like the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado last month.)
3) Progressives and moderates must realize that one election every four years isn’t the way to make change to benefit the Common Good. It will take every person in every profession every day, from students and teachers and bankers and bus drivers and those who have retired, every person in every profession every day deliberately working for the goal of shared prosperity – using whatever skill, gift, or talent we have. (That’s another goal of our relational campaign this spring.)
And, 4) frankly, it will take the 100 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 to decide they give enough of a damn to register and show up. Question: Who is going to register them?
This may all strike you as too hyperbolic. Too exaggerated. Too pessimistic. In fact, it may start to sound like the lawyer for the people in today’s reading from Micah.
What do you want from us? A thousand rams?
What do you expect from us? Rivers of oil?
What if we give up our first-born children? Will that finally be enough?
And what does the prophet Micah then say in response? He is the last to speak. The jury has listened, God has spoken, the people replied with increasing absurdities, and now the prophet says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s the context. The rest of the story. In the 8th century BCE, under King Hezekiah.
That also happens to be the context of the 21st century, CE, under a different system, but, so OK, mortals, what does the Lord require of you? You already know what is good.
Well, then as now, it’s not as simple as we might like. It’s not as easy as one ram or even one thousand. Then as now, it’s not as simple as a jug of oil or even rivers of oil. Then as now, it’s not as extreme as child sacrifice.
But what is required is a change to the way of life for the privileged: Not to be “hopers” in arc bending. Not an observer of arc bending, or a commentator on the slowness of it. We must not let the absurdity of our country’s defenseless cruelty and the lawlessness of our leaders go unanswered.
So together, we are going to bend the arc and do justice. We’re not going to simply believe that our leaders will do what is right. Anymore, that’s irresponsible.
And we going to love kindness. At this point, trusting that everything will work out is a fool’s delusion.
Of course, to be arc benders, that also means the sacrifice of our time, skills, gifts, talents, effort, and money.
We’re not going to do it alone, however, but humbly with our God. With God and our church family learning how to be more articulate and proudly progressive Christians committed to the Common Good that is good for everyone.
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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