Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 30, 2017
“Here is How I Would Like to Change the World”
John 10: 1-10 – New Revised Standard Version
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world.
About a dozen of us Park Hill UCC folks went to hear Bryan Stevenson speak on Monday night at the Paramount. Bryan is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama, and author of the book Just Mercy.
Rosa Parks once asked Bryan what he does. “Yes ma’am. We’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice.” She replied, “Oooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed. Then a third woman put her finger in my face and said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” We all nodded in silent agreement.
So on Monday night, after the lights in the theatre dimmed and the requisite introductions and recitation of his biography and degrees, Bryan stood alone on the stage and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I would like to change the world.” His whole speech was mesmerizing. Sixty minutes flew by like they were 10. I could have listened for hours more. But it was the very first thing he said that has stayed with me ever since. “Here is how I would like to change the world.”
I drove home thinking about how I would complete that simple statement, but remembered he said: “Here is how I would like to change the world!”
In our passage today, Jesus gives something of an equivalent – an objective, a purpose: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The second part of that statement is very important. To have it abundantly. As David Lose puts it, “not just life, but life in abundance. Not just survival, but flourishing. Not just getting by, but thriving. Not just existence, but joy.”
What gets in the way of human flourishing? According to the passage, we listen to the wrong voices – or rather, there are those who would trick us and deceive us – those who sneak into our lives, like bandits into a sheep pen. Therefore, Jesus describes himself in this passage as a gate. “I am the gate.”
My initial reaction to such a statement as “I am the gate” is a gut punch. I’ve heard lines like that too many times. Statements like that and others that have been used and abused to claim that he is a gate to keep certain elements like me out. United Methodists standing at the gate to keep Bishop Oliveto from serving in ministry to the church–despite how clearly God works through her.
According to John, Jesus said, “I am the gate.” It’s one of seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, along with
I’m not a big fan of these statements, again, for how they have been used and abused, not for what Jesus necessarily meant – or rather, what John meant by putting those words into the mouth of Jesus. Because the first question is whether Jesus actually said those things about himself?
We do know someone who has said things like that. “I am” statements, such as:
Jesus only had seven I am statements. This list just keeps going on and on, adding such things as:
What is the likelihood that Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” about himself, (let alone bragged about it)? Folks like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and other scholars with the Jesus Seminar would say the likelihood is very little. Why?
For one, these statements only appear in the Gospel of John, and that is important for understanding. John had a different purpose. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spoke of himself rarely – his works are to glorify God. The focus is on the Kingdom of God through miracles and good works – like helping the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and needy. In contrast, the theme of John is Jesus himself, Jesus as the definitive expression of God, salvation by way of belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and those seven I am statements.
Borg says the early Christian community represented in John’s gospel used the “I am” statements of Jesus as a description of how they experienced Jesus. They experienced the living post-resurrection dynamic of Jesus as the way, the gate, the bread of life, the truth, and so on. Did Jesus say that about himself? Jesus scholars would say probably not. But his early followers came to experience him as the way, the gate, the truth, etc.
And so, through the gospel of John, others are invited to do so too. It’s an invitation. It is to believe in Jesus whereas the other gospels encourage us to be disciples of Jesus, following the way of his teaching, which may be why liberal Christians will tend to preach more from the first three gospels than John.
And yet, despite my discomfort with the description of Jesus “I am the gate,” I also get it. And it might be more helpful than I would have thought just a week before engaging this text for today. Here’s how:
As I drove home from the Stevenson event, I thought, what would my statement be? My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world.
On Easter I referenced an article in my sermon that sums up so well my anger and despair at what has been happening in our country. It’s called “The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America.” But we can’t blame just one man, whether or not he is the greatest human being God ever created, and we can’t claim it’s a brand new phenomenon.
In his book, Bryan Stevenson reported that between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. In the 1970s, fewer than 200,000 people were in prison. Today, it’s over 2.2 million. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.
And one reason? Unlike some countries that treat drug addiction as a disease, we lock people up. And we use prisons as the solution to people with mental illness. Incarceration became the answer to everything from health care to poverty.
“We’ve thrown away children,” he said, “discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. Walking away and hiding them from sight.”
And anyone who questions it is given the ultimate insult of being soft on crime. We want people who are tough. Law and order. Add to the mix that prison is big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money from it. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners lobby for longer sentences.
And it is all magnified by racial bias. One in three black men can expect to be put in jail in their life. Bryan says, imagine living with that over your head. Being constantly “suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared every day” by people who call the police to have you arrested because you’re walking past their house in a hoodie. Driving while Black.
It’s part of a larger narrative of cruelty. How else can we explain deporting a mother of four this week who cares for a disabled child and has done nothing criminal beyond, years ago, driving without a license?
Whether it’s refusing to bake a cake to waterboarding. Solitary confinement. Enthusiasm for the death penalty. Schell described this is as “a frightening reflection on a country that seems to know of no remedy for social problems but punishment.” In a country that claims to be the greatest in the world. Which claims to be a Christian nation. Well, there may be a lot of believers, but it doesn’t seem to me that there are a lot of disciples.
So, my name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world. I want to end the culture of cruelty. But that’s only stated in the negative. And doesn’t say how. So, I want to end the culture of cruelty by teaching about the mercy, compassion, and love of Jesus Christ. For Christians to become disciples.
That may sound a little too evangelical to some ears, but I do think following in the way of mercy, compassion, and love is what saves us. Believing that anyone can be redeemed. Bryan has a great saying. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think of the worst thing you've ever done. You are more than that.
That is how he approaches people living on death row, believing that the “true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality [is] measured by how we treat the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” You know that “those who are rich and guilty are treated better than those who are poor and innocent.”
How is Jesus the gate then, or could be? By keeping out the thieves and bandits that would steal the soul of America with their enthusiasm about cruelty. As simplistic as it has come to seem, asking “What would Jesus do?”
Jesus served as the gate keeping at bay the men who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her, urging her to sin no more – though, unfortunately saying nothing about the man. Yet, today, self-righteous, fearful, and angry Christians not only throw stones at the accused, they throw stones at immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBT folks and others they accuse of ruining the country and destroying their Christian power and privilege.
So, let Jesus be the gate. And let the disciples of Christ be the fence around which we keep vulnerable and marginalized people safe from the fearful and the angry. Let us keep watch for bandits and thieves who want to climb over the fence to steal the soul of America with their passion for cruelty.
My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world. I want to end the culture of cruelty by teaching about the mercy, compassion, and love of Jesus Christ in order to save the soul of our country.
But not just to save it for the sake of survival, but rather for flourishing. Not just that we all get by, but so that we all thrive. Not just that we have existence, but that we have joy. Not just life, but life in abundance. For all of God’s people.
What is your name? And how would you like to change the world? Always remembering that when you are tired, tired, tired, to be brave, brave, brave.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014
 David J Lose, WorkingPreacher.com, “Abundant Life Now,” 2014
 See more at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-best-most-only_us_56f0a08ee4b03a640a6b7380 and http://www.care2.com/causes/20-things-trump-says-hes-the-best-at-and-why-hes-wrong.html
 Read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Marcus Borg, Harper Collins, 1994
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 23, 2017
“Earth Day: Partners in Creation”
John 20: 24-25 (The Message)
But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.”
But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”
Before there was anything there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water, in no particular order. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”
So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be… just rocks.”
Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will be clouds, and some of this water will be… just water.”
The angels said, “Well, God… it’s neater now. But is it done yet?” God answered, “Nope.”
On some of the rocks God placed growing things and creeping things, and things only God knows what they are. And when God had finished doing all this, the angels asked, “Is it done yet?” “Nope.”
God made some animals for the rocks and some swimming things for the water and then some humans by combing some water and stardust and told them, “I’m done. Please finish up the world for me. Really, it’s almost done.” But the humans protested: “You have the plans. We can’t do this alone.”
“Yes, you can,” said God, “but I’ll agree to this. You keep working on it and I’ll be your partner.”
The humans asked, “What’s a partner?” God explained, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means you can never give up because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I’m not doing enough and on the days I think you’re not doing enough, we keep working together. That’s my offer. And they all agreed to the deal.
The angels asked God, “Is it done yet?” God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
In honor of Earth Day I thought we should remember all the commitments we have made as a church and fulfilled in the last couple of years to practice environmental stewardship, including energy consumption, water usage, and putting our money where our mouth is.
1) Solar Power: This is the biggest example. Thanks to a diligent team of our members, including Ray Allen, David Conger, Guy Harris, Blake Chambliss, Tim and Candace Johnson, Larry Ricketts, and I know I am forgetting others… thanks to this team who spent years researching and planning, we added solar panels to our roof in 2015. They were turned on in January 2016 and in the first year alone, we saved 250 trees, drove 40,000 fewer miles, and realized thousands of dollars in savings. We went from a budget for gas and electric three years ago of $11,000 to $8,500 two years ago to $6,400 last year.
We took out a line of credit to pay for the installation of our solar panels over time – it would probably take at least decade. But less than two years into it, 90% has been generously contributed and we only have $4,000 left to pay of the original $40,000 cost. With a few additional gifts from people who believe in our environmental commitment, that number could be zero by the end of the year. Heck. It could even be zero by the end of the service today!
A little aside: we received a check for $12,000 toward the solar panels a few weeks ago from a couple who said that their stock market portfolio had experienced a “trump bump” and they didn’t want to profit from it. So they gave it to the church for a cause they believe in.
So first, electricity from solar. Second, the use of less natural gas. A huge part of our energy savings for gas and electric was made possible because of a $103,000 grant from Energy Outreach Colorado – the result of a years’ worth of work by Ray Allen. We were eligible for that grant because of our Women’s Homelessness Initiative – led by Karen and Karen and dozens of us – and because we had already demonstrated a financial buy in through our capital campaign. Therefore, since we had, they invested in us too.
And thanks to that grant:
* We replaced all of our boilers, furnaces and air conditioning units to the most energy efficient option available. Boilers alone would have cost us $50,000.
* Every light fixture in the entire building has been changed out for LED. Some of those fixtures were original to the 1950s.
* Weather stripping was added around doors and windows
* We added motion sensors to light switches
* We had previously added insulation to the chapel roof
There’s more than I can even remember.
The boilers were replaced exactly one year ago so we still don’t know the full extent of our savings, but it will be significant.
Electric. Gas. 3) Water: Over the years we have replaced all our toilets to low flow – thanks to the Mile High Youth Corp and Denver Water. Notice all the partners we’ve had?
And as part of the capital campaign we replaced our wildly inefficient sprinkler system with a new one that even includes a rain sensor. A few years ago our group came back from our Pine Ridge trip late. It was after midnight and the rain was coming down so hard, the streets were barely passable. Our sprinklers were merrily running at full blast.
We also changed to a more xeric landscape. A significant amount of our lawn is now covered with drought resistant plants fed by a drip water system- watering less grass. This summer we hope to begin work on a labyrinth on the lawn outside the sanctuary. When it is finished, along with the playground and these other improvements, we will be watering only 50% of the original design.
4) We have all of our financial investments in a United Church of Christ fund called "Beyond Fossil Fuels." It is a fund which screens out gas and oil companies, along with other corporate social responsibility issues such as guns and private prison corporations. It puts our money where our mouth is.
5) We have planted trees in a Denver park. We use mugs to wash after coffee hour instead of disposable cups. We recycle. We have provided education and encouragement for our members to practice environmental stewardship in their own homes. The mission partners who receive our monthly offerings have included Eco-Justice Ministries, Clean Energy Action, and Interfaith Power and Light.
But of course beyond the congratulations, good job!, comes the question – what else could we be doing? And the partnership side of that – what more could each of us be doing in our own homes and with our individual resources?
Beyond the practical, however, first lies the question – why? The God question. The theological answer seems obvious to me. It’s simple stewardship, in Christian terms, of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful. The Lord God gave them all. We are the careful stewards.
Or as Muslims call it – Khalifah: we are trustees. “We are not masters of this Earth; it does not belong to us to do with as we wish. It belongs to Allah who has entrusted us with its safekeeping.”
Buddhists speak of the interconnectedness of human beings, society, and Nature. But the Dalai Lama added, “taking care of the earth is nothing special, nothing sacred, and nothing holy. It’s like taking care of our own house. We can’t just pick up and move to another planet.”
Hindu tradition also understands that “man is not separate from nature, that we are linked by spiritual, psychological, and physical bonds with the elements around us.”
Poetically, I love how His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 of the Eastern Orthodox Church puts it: “Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator.” Humans are like priests at the altar of creation – mediating for its good.
From different perspectives, all of our religious traditions come to the same conclusion of care and protection for the earth.
So maybe a better question is why any person of faith, or more specifically, any Christian would not be on the forefront of protecting the environment? The fiercest champions of the earth should be those who believe it was created by God, right? So why not?
Well, for some, the earth is a sinking ship. A Titanic. It’s going down so the role of the church is to give people life vests. Saving souls. To get us off of here. Think of the images from books and movies like Left Behind. The saved are taken up in a rapture, leaving a despoiled earth behind for the heathen.
Yet, 500 years ago Martin Luther is said to have remarked, "If I knew Jesus would return tomorrow, I’d still plant a tree today."
But, as you know, somehow climate change and the extent of the cause by human activity often depends on your political party. More Christians identify themselves by one party – led by climate deniers who believe it’s all a hoax – and so the platforms of that party become the issues most important to their churches. I’m grateful for the young evangelicals who are bucking this trend.
The others remind me of doubting Thomases. Prove it. Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” And yet, instead of complaining about his lack of faith and saying “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus simply said, “Here. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Take your finger and examine my hands.” If that’s what it takes, ok. Patience and understanding for him to get. And then, Thomas exclaimed, “My master. My God.” And from there they went on – Thomas took Christianity to India and is considered the founder of the faith there. Thomas demonstrates that it’s never too late for those who don’t believe now to get on board and accomplish amazing things.
One conservative Christian Republican former climate change doubter now calls himself an “evangelical environmentalist.” Scott Rodin describes how he had been taught to feel about people who care for the environment:
1) They’re all left-wing, socialist, former hippies who have no job and hate those who do.
2) They’re all alarmist, scare-mongering activists who chain themselves to trees and, annoyingly, always claim the world is coming to an end.
3) They’re all shame peddlers, always wanting to make everyone feel guilty for the way we live and for not caring about the rain forest, polar bears, and spotted owls.
4) And worst of all, they’re all atheists who worship nature and hate Christians.
So, he said, don’t be surprised if Christians don’t want to partner up if that’s all you’ve ever been told about environmentalists.
He’s been converted, it’s a longer story how, but he now drops off his recycling on the way to Bible study. And uses electricity generated from solar panels to show films about Jesus. And he proudly displays a Save the Whales bumper sticker next to the emblem of a Jesus fish on his car. It starts small. But he also preaches the gospel of creation-care to what he calls his “baseball loving, apple-pie eating, patriotic, Bible believing, church attending friends.”
And in the meantime, climate change doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. It’s going to keep happening. So while the Thomases work on their doubts, we can keep lessening our own environmental impact. Although, really, to make a dent in the problem, it has to be done on a scale such as companies and governments have. As much as we can do alone, people of faith have to join the advocates of the earth in the same way as what gets attention – marches, rallies, calls, letters… bigger picture changes of the technical sort, partnerships with scientists.
But among the news stories during another chaotic week, there was a small heartening and hopeful story: a Kentucky coal company is refurbishing an old mining site with a massive solar farm, generating 5 to 10 times more than the next biggest site in Appalachia. And generating clean energy jobs. They’re not going to stop coal mining – yet. But with some prayer and encouragement from Bible believing Christians, they just might one day.
So, congratulations on the steps you’ve already taken. Remember why. The God question. And ask yourself: what else we can do together as partners?
 Rabbi Marc Gelman, “Partners” from Does God Have a Big Toe, Harper Collins, 1989
 For excerpts of these statements and more, see www.greenfaith.org
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 16, 2017
Matthew 28: 1-10
1-4 After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.
5-6 The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.
7 “Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”
8-10 The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”
First off, it’s good to be here with you this morning. A few days ago I had a dream that I went to the Easter service at a different church and sat in the congregation before realizing in the middle, I’m supposed to be here today! And preach! I frantically went through a list of any excuse I could come up with for why I hadn’t shown up. This was all very real, but eventually I realized I was dreaming. Yet, I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of it. And the morning after I felt worn out. Have you ever had dreams like that?
On 11/9 we all woke up and prayed that the news was simply a nightmare. It had to be a dream. I mean, we hadn’t really chosen a vision of our country in which sexual assault is funny. Or that rounding up immigrants was appealing. Walls, bans… that even banning little children from Syria felt like a good thing, the right thing to do. You remember the promises. But it must, we all thought, be a dream.
Rob Calabrese woke up one morning with an idea. He created a website encouraging people to move to Cape Breton Island off the east coast of Canada – a place where he promised the only walls are those “holding up the roofs on extremely affordable houses.” He wasn’t really serious. But within 24 hours, he had received 80 inquiries. Within a week, 2,000. Number 2,121 was from a former US Marine who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. Among the inquirers were a molecular biologist, a university professor, contractors, a granite construction worker. Number 4,635 was a couple from Loveland – an attorney and a paralegal. “We don’t know what else to do.”
Alas, many of us are feeling similarly unsure, and worn out. I can feel people slowly disengaging from the struggle for an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. Have your noticed it too – even in yourself? Giving up. Waiting it out. Of course, some cannot disengage. Fatigued victims kept awake by the constant fear of being rounded up and thrown out – with or without their children. Others who are victims of bloviating bluster, bombings, and beatings.
When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary woke up the morning after the Sabbath I can’t imagine they had actually slept, and if they had, they would only have had nightmares replaying over and over the gruesome images of Jesus being nailed to a tree and hung for public view – a method used by Rome to send a message. Not unlike the purpose for a lynching. Crucifixion was an especially cruel and effective slow motion billboard to any other agitating prophets and preachers and their followers. The disciples of Jesus got the message loud and clear. They were huddled together behind locked doors.
That is, all of Jesus’ disciples except two – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Or all but three disciples, as Mark’s Gospel adds Salome to the Marys. Luke says the third woman was Joanna, plus a whole group of “other women.” In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone.
But whoever and whatever the number, women marched to the tomb in grief and rebellion against Rome’s order to stay away. A small determined group of women disobeyed orders and headed to the tomb, ready to resist whatever the soldiers guarding the tomb might do to them.
And to me, that represents the faithful response to crucifixion. Not to hide behind locked doors but to wake up and walk out in bold disobedience. Defiance.
Not unlike Gloria Richardson. Have you heard of her? She was a civil rights leader in 1963 in Cambridge, Maryland – one of very few women allowed to lead. There is an iconic picture of her. A soldier is pointing a bayonet at Gloria and she simply pushes it away with an annoyed look on her face. A defiant “girl, please” as she pushed the weapon away and kept marching.
Or I think of the women who led a rebellion on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When the men couldn’t make a decision that would come to trigger Wounded Knee 2 in 1973, women stood up and said, “We have to do this.”
It was three women responding to the death of yet another Black man by police who inspired a whole new generation of activists by simply saying Black Lives Matter.
And the resistance of the last 87 days. Axios reported this week that the largest number of people organizing, making calls and showing up are middle aged women. And they have had an impact. They are making a difference.
It makes me think of the trio of events in Seneca Falls, Stonewall and Selma. Like the women who gathered in Seneca Falls demanding to vote; like the black and Latinx drag queens and others fed up with brutality finally fighting back at Stonewall; ordinary women, like Annie Lee Cooper, and all the others who crossed the bridge in Selma and walked into a waiting mob, the response to crucifixion is not to cower behind locked doors, keeping our heads under the pillows, praying it’s only a nightmare. The response then and to crucifixions still happening today, such as
Blake Chambliss shared an article that describes “the emergence of a culture of cruelty in our country. Inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt, forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering.” A culture of cruelty promoted from the biggest bully pulpit of our land, encouraged with demands “get them out of here.” Lock more people up, dump 24 million people off health care, throw school lunches in the trash for the children of parents who cannot pay or fall behind. “A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times.” Even the defense of dragging passengers off planes, until enough people said “that’s enough.”
The response to all these crucifixions and more is to act like Mary and Mary and all the other women who woke up and walked out toward waiting soldiers.
This is the spirit of Easter. This is the meaning of resurrection. Defiance. Not bunny rabbits and pretty dresses but defiance in the face of death. In the face of cruelty.
It was God’s response to crucifixion. To those who wished to silence Jesus: You kill him. I’ll raise him. God’s actions were meant to “defeat and deny the powers responsible for his death.” Resurrection was the means of God’s defiance. And so, in response, what else could we do as God’s people, followers of Christ?
But lest we think defiance is only standing in a protest line or joining a picket, we can wake up and practice acts of defiance every day. Willie James Jennings said “joy is a defiant act of resistance.” What a great line. At a time like this, “joy is a defiant act of resistance against forces [that would keep us trapped in nightmares] of despair.”
Defiant joy. Seeking out acts of treasonous love. You know, love those you are told not to love.
In the spirit of Easter defiance, we can lead an insurrection of compassion for those who “do not deserve it, for those who have not ‘earned’ it.”
With resurrection power, we can inspire some seditious gentleness among people with whom we violently disagree. We can demand a mutiny of civility.
In the face of boldly cruel, public crucifixions meant to intimate us away from action, to tire us out, to wear us out, to deprive us of hope and keep us trapped in fear… wake up! And be defiantly joyful. Rebelliously hopeful. Persistently unwilling to give up.
Like the Beatitudes say, prophets and witnesses like you and me who get into trouble and raise holy hell are blessed. Rejoice and be glad, Jesus said, for great is your reward in heaven. But as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, on earth, as it is in heaven. Not for the sake of some future reward but the reward of justice for those being crucified today, here and now.
Wake up. We are not trapped in a nightmare because we can do something. We can get up and join the women and march to the tombs of the victims of cruelty today. God’s response to those who want to deal in death was defiance by means of resurrection. You and I can use whatever gifts and graces God gave us to join that resurrection force for joy, gentleness, and justice.
One: Where hatred roars, we will sing of love.
All: Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage.
One: Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice.
All: Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort.
One: Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
All: Now and ever, now and ever, now and evermore.
One: Because God has the last word. Christ is Risen.
All: Christ is Risen Indeed!
 Read her oral history in the compilation Generations on Fire https://books.google.com/books?id=DHoMjWXfe2AC&pg=PT73&lpg=PT73&dq=Generation+on+Fire:+Voices+of+Protest+from+the+1960s,+An+Oral+History+gloria+richardson&source=bl&ots=YcNIU3hljQ&sig=nkcLK3ozXlnBs67wpwohSLss4tg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjF6sDhhqLTAhVi0YMKHR9KAooQ6AEIQTAI#v=onepage&q=Generation%20on%20Fire%3A%20Voices%20of%20Protest%20from%20the%201960s%2C%20An%20Oral%20History%20gloria%20richardson&f=false
 This idea was first inspired to me by an article “The resurrection isn’t an argument. It’s the Christian word for defiance” by Giles Fraser in The Guardian, March 31, 2016
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
 Inspired by a prayer by Carol White
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 2, 2017
“The Stench Will Get Worse”
John 11: 1-45 – Find the text at the end of the sermon
I want to quickly review the texts we have been reading in the Gospel of John on our journey through Lent.
The humble lifted high, the powerful toppled from their thrones. The hungry filled with good things, the rich sent away empty handed!
These are the stories that progressive Christians, like myself, relish in telling. They represent the faith tradition of the United Church of Christ of justice and equality. But there remain lots of texts like today’s that leave us asking, what do we do with this?
The basic story is this: Lazarus is sick. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. It is where Jesus often went to be among friends who were so close they were like his family. So naturally Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus. They didn’t say explicitly that he should come right away, but clearly, that is what they expected. After all, Jesus had been healing all those strangers, why not his friend? But instead of dropping everything to rush over – and he was only two miles away – Jesus promptly did nothing. And that was fine with the disciples because the last time they were there, the townspeople had been ready to stone Jesus. Why would you want to go back there?
Jesus gives them some confusing spiritual admonitions about light and stumbling, about which they collectively said “Huh?” So Jesus said, Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples descend into a comedy routine, unintentionally of course, about why Jesus would need to go to such a dangerous place to wake him up. Jesus interrupts again: He’s dead; although no one had told them that he was anything more than sick.
But once again, instead of rushing over, Jesus does nothing. And by the time they causally wandered over to Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. That it had been four days is important. Popular Jewish belief at the time held that it took three days for the soul to separate from the body, so it would have been obvious to those who first heard the story that the situation was beyond hope. Lazarus wasn’t simply mistaken for dead. He was gone and it was past the time when something could be done. No more time left for anything to be fixed, not even a miracle from the famous healer named Jesus.
Earlier Jesus had said that Lazarus’ illness was for God’s glory, but Martha wasn’t having that. She pleaded or yelled or cursed or some combination of it all – “Why weren’t you here? Why don’t you care? If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead.” She reminds us that those who have lost a loved one don’t find comfort when told there is some larger purpose behind it. Telling someone that “God needed another flower in his garden” or some other BS we tell grieving people hurts more than it helps. Martha was pissed. Or maybe she was crushed. Whatever she felt, Martha managed to say, “Yet, even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Did she really believe there was still time for a miracle? Or is that just desperation? She seems both resigned to the fact that it is too late while hoping that something can still be done. It’s an emotional rollercoaster – grief, anger, acceptance… One that many of us have been on too. Can’t something be done?
Mary comes on the scene and repeats the same accusation and angrily said, “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t be dead” and then falls at Jesus’ feet weeping. Or maybe she tearfully said, “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t be dead” In either case, Jesus wept too, genuinely pained for friends so close they are like his family.
They walked over to the tomb but Mary told Jesus not to get too close. He’ll stink. Plus, after all, his fate has been set. It’s been four days. There’s no more time left. Even if he wanted to, it’s not possible anymore.
Jesus cried to Lazarus “Come out!” His face still wrapped in bands of cloths, Lazarus came stumbling out of the tomb. He’s alive. That, or it’s the Zombie apocalypse! I do have to wonder how Lazarus felt about being used as a prop in this story!
Nevertheless, naturally I think, the real explanation is that Jesus and Lazarus had been playing a big joke on his sisters. Hide and seek. Or he had just been passed out drunk.
John knows our skepticism – or at least mine. So throughout his gospel he has been building a case. The raising of Lazarus is the last of what are known as John’s Seven Signs. With each sign he raises the credibility stakes.
Jesus’ first sign is at the wedding in Cana. Jesus turned water into wine. And we think, yeah, sure, why not. A little sleight of hand and anyone can do that, right?
Jesus’ second sign was when a royal official came to Jesus to ask him to heal his son, who was back at home. Jesus didn’t bother to go to the official’s house. He simply said, “Your son is healed.” And sure enough, he was. But maybe he wasn’t that sick in the first place. Just a panicky dad.
Sign number 3 was a paralytic man in Bethesda who asked Jesus to help in get into a pool of water that was known for its healing qualities. He didn’t ask for healing, just a little help getting into the pool. Jesus said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” Gee thanks, Jesus. But he did it! However, maybe he wasn’t really all that disabled.
Sign number 4 involved a crowd of about 5,000 people who had come to listen to Jesus teach. You know where this is going. As evening approached his disciples told him he should stop talking so people could go into town and get something to eat. Jesus said, “You feed them.” All they could come up with were a couple of fish and some loaves of bread, but in the end, 12 basketfuls of bread were gathered up after 5,000 people had eaten. But the real miracle was the abundance of people sharing, right?
Sign number 5: Jesus walked onto a stormy lake to the boat where the disciples were. Jesus calmed the storm and rescued a frightened Peter who tried to do the same thing but couldn’t – overtaken by fear. Jesus walked on water. But maybe it wasn’t so deep? And in the end, it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s all a metaphor, right?
Sign number 6: Jesus put mud on the eyes of a man born blind. He washed and then he could see – our story last week. The Pharisees argued he wasn’t really blind in the first place –suggesting my own skepticism. Metaphorical blindness, right? Because the real point was that it exposed the blindness of the religious authorities. Just like sign 5 was really a message about confronting your fears. And sign number 4 was really about the power of sharing. And sign number 3 was really about taking initiative for our own healing. You get where I’m going.
Then sign number 7: Lazarus is raised from the dead. But maybe he wasn’t really that dead.
Anticipating my search for alternate explanations, a more reasonable justification, John goes out of his way to give such details as – it’s been four days, he stinks… No. There are no “maybe it’s possibles…” left.
Now, to be clear – these are signs. They are not meant to turn Jesus into an object of worship, not meant to turn Jesus into an idol, but signs pointing to God. Jesus’ miracles were not about drawing attention to himself but to point to God. It is God whom we worship, the one Jesus calls Abba, his Father.
And with each sign, John raises the stakes of what is potentially conceivable, thinkable, and even imaginable. It most certainly strains the bounds of intellectual credibility. But the challenge of our faith is always to keep our hearts and minds and soul and strength open to receive that which may not be easily conceivable, thinkable, likely, believable, plausible, reasonable… Lazarus.
Examples like Lazarus show how Jesus keeps pointing to greater potential than what exists in us alone. Such signs keep directing us toward that which is greater than ourselves. Placing our faith in God, not in ourselves. Remember – to love God with all our hearts and minds and soul and strength. And to love our neighbor as our self. And just who is our neighbor? Everyone we wish it weren’t.
In keeping with our progressive, justice-focused faith tradition, we remember that each sign and miracle also raised the profile of trouble-maker Jesus. The religious and Roman authorities keep having to evaluate his acceptable threat level. Remember they have been watching his seven signs too – each time wondering if he has gone too far this time.
At various times there have always been preachers and prophets, minor agitators. Even miracle workers and healers weren’t unheard of. If there were threats, they could be controlled or put down if necessary. Rome was good at that. And crucifixion was a good deterrent. Any remaining followers are scared off.
And next week we will hear about that final encounter between Jesus and the authorities. He will arrive in Jerusalem with palms waving and great fanfare and excitement. And then within days be quickly abandoned by every single follower except a few women. Their mission to silence Jesus accomplished.
But they soon discovered what they really had on their hands. This was just step number one in the revolution for the humble and the hungry. The poor, the immigrant, the refugee. Those bound by death.
When there are no more explanations. Nothing more to say. Rock bottom. It is finished. When credibility and plausibility and conceivability and thinkability (is that a word?), when those are no more, then hope begins. Hope begins where things seem least hopeful. After four days, the stench growing…
We aren’t there yet as a country. But it is astounding how fast we are sinking. And maybe that’s good news. Because maybe only then will we come together in a way that nobody can conceive of yet. Love of neighbor still seems far off in some circles. You mean those people too? But that is our job.
It is truly our challenge, and our blessing, to always keep our hearts and minds and soul and strength open to receive that which may not be easily thinkable in the moment. But we can! Because when things couldn’t possibly get worse, our faith is in God, not our own ability. Whew!
Though I do caution, in the meantime, the stench will probably get worse before it gets better. Recall from the story, Lazarus stank pretty bad before his glorious unbinding took place. Before he was, before we are, completely free.
John 11:1-45 Common English Bible (CEB)
11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.”13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death.20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.”29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance.39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.
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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