Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 28, 2019
“Undoing the Criminalization of Homelessness”
John 20: 19-29 (Contemporary English Bible)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the Twin, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
When he was in seminary, Will Willimon commuted every weekend to preach at a little church in rural Georgia. The first Sunday he arrived at the church, he saw the Sheriff standing next to his car waiting for him. He looked over and saw a padlock and big chain wrapped around the handles of the front door. The Sheriff explained that things had gotten out of hand at the last board meeting. The meeting ended with folks ripping up the sanctuary carpet and dragging out the pews that had been given in memory of their mothers and fathers. The Sheriff said he locked up the building until a new preacher could come and calm them down. But, Willimon said, things never really calmed down. Constant arguments. Pettiness. Fights in the parking lot after board meetings. He said, “I spent a year in that church that lasted a lifetime. I tried everything. And when I left, I spun my tires a little harder in the gravel parking lot, glad to be rid of such a pitiful group calling themselves a church.”
A few years later he ran into the new seminarian driving up every weekend to serve that same little church. Poor woman, he thought; only 23 years old. The young future minister told him, “They remember you out there.” “Yeah, I remember them too.” She said, “They’re such a remarkable group of people.” Willimon wondered why she didn’t use a more sarcastic tone. “Remarkable?” “Yes, all their ministries, like their crisis center for families in trouble, free day care. And there’s not a lot of interracial congregations in rural Georgia. They are the most faithful group of disciples I’ve ever encountered.”
Willimon didn’t say anything to her about how the church had to be chained up and padlocked to keep them from dragging any more pews out the front door. But he mused to himself, “Somehow they must have met Jesus behind those locked doors.” Willimon would have never believed it had he not heard it first hand from their young new preacher. How could anything good come from out of that group?
The same thing could have been said about the 12 disciples, now 11, minus Judas. Today’s text takes place on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. Ten of the disciples were in a house behind locked doors, frightened they might be next. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side. Again, he said, “Peace be with you” and told them he was sending them out into the world – a world they feared would try to execute them next. He told them to continue sharing the vision of the Kingdom of God – good news for the poor, liberation for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and, most of all, about the love of God – adding, “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
That’s all well and good. But remember: this is Sunday. It was just Friday that he had been executed. Hung on a cross. Just after he had been put through a sham trial, lied about, spat upon, flogged – a word that doesn’t do justice to the images of him being whipped to an inch of his life. He had been mocked, he had been betrayed. Peter denied even knowing him. And then, while he hung on that cross, not one of the 12 was there. And yet, two days later he’s talking about forgiveness? Thomas might have doubted his resurrection. But I would have doubted his or anyone’s capacity to forgive that quickly. Rising from the dead is one thing. Forgiving people who were not there for you? Which one is harder to believe? Resurrection or forgiveness?
Thomas wasn’t there to witness any of that. He told the ten and the rest of the followers in the room that day, “Unless I can see it for myself, I won’t believe.” And ever since, we’ve known Thomas more for that single statement of doubt than anything else. And there isn’t really that much more to know. Other than appearing on the various lists of the 12 disciples, he is only mentioned one other time in the whole Bible – when a messenger came to tell Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus is dead, the brother of Mary and Martha. Upon hearing the news, the disciples all urged Jesus not to go their house. This could be a trap to arrest him and, by extension, the rest of them. Arrest him, and whatever else might happen. But Thomas alone insisted that they should go with Jesus, “that we may die with him.” In that moment, he was the only disciple who didn’t doubt but dared to speak up.
And then, with the disciples locked behind closed doors, if you think about it, he was the only one who dared to speak up again. The one who dared voice his question. Far from just being called Doubting Thomas, shouldn’t he be given some credit as Daring Thomas – the Brave, Bold, and Courageous Disciple. It often takes courage to be the only one to speak up and say, “I’m not so sure about that.”
In that same vein, I’m not claiming courage for speaking about it, but I’m not so sure about Initiative 300 on our Denver ballots. Why are so few people questioning the $1.5 million story told by developers? For supporters, Initiative 300 is about undoing the criminalization of homelessness, one piece of which is the urban camping ban. Opponents claim Initiative 300 will destroy the city. Both sides admit it will do little, actually nothing, to address the growing number of people with no place to live in Denver. But can’t we at least start by refraining from arresting people for not having a home?
That’s the question Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, the head of the Colorado ACLU and a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks. He says the “Vote No on 300” campaign is using false and misleading scare tactics to paint an image of homelessness as out of control and encroaching everywhere. Denver, he said, has got to get serious about creating real solutions. But in the meantime, “Human beings shouldn’t lose their human rights just because they’ve lost their home.” Whether it comes from this election or in any other form, citizens of Denver must undo the criminalization of homelessness. And of poverty.
Pieces and parts have been done. In December, Denver announced it would no longer charge defendants for GPS-tracking ankle monitors before their trial. The city also eliminated many of its pre-trial fees after settling a lawsuit in December filed on behalf of a man who sat in jail for five days because he couldn’t afford a small administrative fee. Pieces and parts.
I don’t know whether Initiative 300 is the right solution, but I do know that it is wrong, let alone inefficient, to solve such complex issues with law enforcement. Now, I don’t wish to demonize people who will vote no – the voters. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people wanting to do the right thing. But I do doubt those in charge of messaging for the opposition because they have overplayed fear in the form of exaggerations of dire consequences. Not only meant to frighten but to confuse.
William Sloane Coffin, the fiery prophet of Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “You can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, because fear seeks safety, not truth.” How might that be true in Denver? Perhaps fear seeks safety, like property values, not truth, such as that resting shouldn’t be a crime.
Thomas should not be disparaged for doubting. In fact, I can write a whole other sermon about my preference for doubt over certainty. And we shouldn’t disparage the disciples for being cowardly. I’m rather glad to know I’m in good company. Instead, I’m grateful that Jesus still saw the good in them, the possibility of transformation in them. I’m grateful that he never gave up hope in them, that his heart was full of love and understanding for them. If you notice, he didn’t chastise Thomas for doubting. He simply said, “OK, here, take a look.”
It is sometimes said that doubt is the opposite of faith. But doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Doubt is the opportunity for faith. If we never wrestled with the “whys” and “how comes” of life, we would never grow into new and deeper understandings of the world and of our self. When we wrestle in the night with the angel, we are blessed for it. Not weakened by it. Don’t be afraid of doubt.
Coffin said, “fear seeks safety.” I might add, fear seeks certainty. He continued, “A heart full of fear makes us feel weak and inadequate and small. But, on the other hand, a heart full of love has a limbering effect on the mind.”
I admit I had to look up the meaning of the word limbering. I looked for some synonyms and among the words was flexible. A flexible mind. Or, an open mind, which also just happens to mean unbolted and unlocked – like the door behind which the disciples hid.
For all the expressions of sincerity toward homeless people, I hope that the day after the election, developers will take the $1.5 million spent on TV commercials and use it as a down payment to begin building until there is enough affordable housing that there is no one left on the street to be locked up for not having a home.
And why couldn’t that happen? Remember those church members ripping up the carpet. Who would have ever thought that people taking back their family pews would end up being considered the most faithful disciples that young preacher had ever encountered? And who knows what might happen to the hearts of people involved with this ballot initiative? Look what Jesus can do behind locked doors – whether of a house on resurrection day, a church in rural Georgia, or a wood-paneled boardroom in downtown Denver. Jesus surely demonstrates we should never write people off but keep forgiving and hoping for them.
My hope is that Jesus may inspire a heart full of love to draw us out from behind our locked doors too – whether it is the door closed to a family member with whom we are estranged or a friend we have blocked or the neighbors outside our door who’ve lost their home. Good news for the poor, liberation for the captive, freedom for the oppressed, and most of all, about the love of God. Imagine what we can do together when we are motived by love instead of fear. It might seem like a cliché, but it’s still true. I have no doubt about it.
And when you vote in this election or any other, consider which choice is rooted in love and which is rooted in fear. And then, then choose love. Always choose love.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 21, 2019
“Where Shall We Look for Hope?”
Luke 24: 1-12 – The Message
At the crack of dawn on Sunday, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled back from the tomb, so they walked in. But once inside, they couldn’t find the body of the Master Jesus.
4-8 They were puzzled, wondering what to make of this. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, two men, light cascading over them, stood there. The women were awestruck and bowed down in worship. The men said, “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery? He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Then they remembered Jesus’ words.
9-11 They left the tomb and broke the news of all this to the Eleven and the rest. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them kept telling these things to the apostles, but the apostles didn’t believe a word of it, thought they were making it all up.
12 But Peter jumped to his feet and ran to the tomb. He stooped to look in and saw a few grave clothes, that’s all. He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”
My favorite line in that passage is: “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Or more traditionally: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
I really like that line because it has a ring of truth. And it seems particularly relevant in times like these of bigotry and misogyny; of lies (and lies about lies); of xenophobia that not only uses immigrants as pawns to score political points but purposely inflicts suffering on children. Those “good people on both sides” folks burning black churches and painting swastikas on synagogues, terrorizing Muslims standing in line at the supermarket. Cruelty, and the tolerance for cruelty, is shocking, except that we aren’t shocked anymore. We shake our heads and grow more cynical. But without the reflex of being shocked, we may begin to forget a little thing called hope. If you’re like me, that’s what I need today. But where do we look for hope? And hope in what?
The Book of Revelation describes the Second Coming as the event when the savior returns to earth to defeat evil and establish his reign of righteousness. Chapter 19 says, "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns."
I’m rather dubious about the “Second Coming.” That’s not my theology. But many people were disappointed on Thursday when it didn’t happen. As many had hoped and others had feared, Robert Mueller did not come riding in on a white horse, eyes like blazing fire, his head adorned with many crowns.
A lot of people pinned their hopes on the Mueller report, as though our nation could be saved by a smocking gun that would quickly lead to a change of leadership at the top. That will solve our problems. That will be our salvation.
Perhaps no one would have said such a thing out loud, but if you listened to the yearning in people’s voices, maybe even your own, that was the message. Waiting for Mueller Time. Hoping. Hoping it would be that easy to reverse course on cruelty and the tolerance, even celebration, of cruelty. But that’s like looking for the living among the dead. I’m dubious about the “Second Coming” because, to me, it’s passive. We just simply wait around for something to happen, for someone else to make something happen. But hope isn’t found in someone else or in something easy. Where do we look for hope? Ironically, I find hope in Good Friday.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed the words of our opening litany this morning, he wasn’t was offering a flowery sentiment. He was calling for people to change their lives in ways that would transform the suffering of his people in South Africa. Like Jesus, it was a message for two audiences – those who suffer and those who cause suffering. Imagine what it would have been like to hear:
“Love is stronger than hate.” Would you have been scared to hear that or encouraged? Would your heart warm or your blood cool?
“Goodness is stronger than evil.” That isn’t passive.
“Light is stronger than darkness.”
“Life is stronger than death.”
South Africa was a lot like the Roman Empire that killed Jesus on Good Friday. Ruled by cruelty, violence, and repression. God had an answer for that and has an answer today.
You know, the powers of hate and death like Good Friday. They use it to try to convince us they’re in control and will always be in control so just let them be and worry about the next life. In heaven you’ll never feel pain again. So, don’t worry about having health care in this life. In heaven you’ll be reunited with your loved ones, so don’t worry when we rip your children away today. They want us to have a Good Friday faith, which is to reduce our faith to hope in an afterlife. They don’t understand that hope springs forth from the worst Good Friday can offer.
Because from there we become Easter people – people with resurrection hope. Resurrection hope is deeply grounded in our Good Friday experiences and is how God changed and continues to change what is possible for God’s people – in this life, this morning – not in some afterlife removed from compassion and justice today.
Some may say Easter is about how God wins. Victory. But Easter isn’t about God winning but about God’s transformation of what winning means in a world full of Good Friday faith for both those who suffer and those who willfully cause suffering. And it transitions the ministry of one man to the whole Body of Christ. The women go to the tomb looking for Jesus, but he isn’t there because he is now among the living. In us. Among us.
Easter is God’s answer to a Good Friday faith – they are inextricably linked. We must remember that Easter doesn’t make sense without Good Friday. Otherwise it is just sentimentality. An affirmation that spring follows winter and flowers will bloom again. A reason for bonnets and pastel colored sun dresses and Easter egg hunts. Easter means nothing without Good Friday which is why, ironically, I find hope in cruelty of country’s Good Friday times, along with the way, the reason, the how, to be an Easter people.
What’s that how? Our Litany
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.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That line took on a different meaning for me this morning. I was here about 4:30 practicing my sermon when Art texted a link to a news story from Sri Lanka, where only two months ago I spent 17 days on my sabbatical. Earlier today, on Easter morning, a coordinated series of eight bomb attacks on three churches and three hotels killed over 200 people, most while they were attending Easter services. 81 died at one of the churches, Saint Sebastian’s, I visited in Negombo. Over 500 more people are injured. And a country has been re-traumatized, ten years out from a bloody 30-year civil war. Who and why has not yet been answered. I am devastated and heartbroken for my friends and for the people of a country where churches and temples and mosques and Hindu kovils sit next to each other in exceptional, loving harmony. God, who resides in the in-between-ness of Good Friday and Easter, comfort the people and hear our prayer.
 Revelation 19:11-12
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday 2019
From the Gospel of Matthew
Throughout the service, there is a running commentary as well as hymns and litanies interspersed between the scripture readings from the Gospel of Matthew.
Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence complained that he is a victim of religious oppression. That’s because openly gay Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced buddha-judge) said of Pence, “If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” Pence was shocked! Fox News was shocked. How dare he? I don’t have a problem with him. “He knows me better than that.” But Mayor Pete knows him all too well. As Indiana’s governor, Pence repeatedly blocked hate crimes legislation, said that homosexuality is “incompatible with military service,” wants to ban transgender soldiers already serving honestly. Pence sought to take money away from HIV prevention in order to provide government funded gay conversion therapy. And of course, his push for religious liberty laws to create a legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The whole list is extensive and exhausting. And might tend to prove that Pence has a problem with the Creator.
Mayor Pete didn’t call Pence a bigot or a hypocrite. But you can’t do all those things and claim not to have a problem with LGBTQ people. You can’t do all that and then simply smile about porn star affairs, playmate payoffs, multiple marriages, serial adultery, and grabbing women’s genitalia. You can’t claim “family values” and then separate families. Or claim to be pro-life only until the fetus is born but not when he is hungry. You can’t decry migrants fleeing violence and then support removing any funds to make the countries they are fleeing any less violent.
Mayor Pete was pretty polite about it all. Jesus, however, didn’t seem to care about being polite. And today we’re going to hear Jesus call leaders out on their hypocrisy, with such verses as “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they [pointing to the Pharisees and scribes, they] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”
After that statement, can you imagine the conversation on Fox and Friends? Shocked spokesmen for the indignant Pharisees would call this accusation ridiculous. They would call Jesus a bully. The KKK would start planning a rally. Do things ever change…
Jesus began his ministry with a vision of a world turned upside down – or rather, set back up right: “Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich.” He taught a series of reversals: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” But just to be clear, he was not denouncing Judaism, his religion. He critiqued how it had come to be practiced – how the authorities were more concerned for the letter of the law than the law itself – The Law, based on the love of God and the liberation of humanity from greed, hate, and violence. Jesus said:
5:38 “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus wasn’t talking about charity. He stood in front of crowds of lepers and prostitutes, the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized, and taught them how to subvert the system by means of love, as the indignant religious establishment stood by watching.  And, challenged us all to love our enemies:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of our God in heaven; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as our God is perfect.
That last line is curious. Jesus wasn’t calling for “perfection” as we often think of it in modern terms. Eugene Peterson translates the meaning: “Live the way God lives toward you: generously and graciously toward others.” Perfect as in “completed.” We can get distracted by the word “perfect” and miss the point: that Jesus is calling out the hypocrisy of the religious establishment who are neither generous nor gracious toward others. He goes on concerning charity:
6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your God in heaven. 2 “Whenever you give alms to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you.
And concerning treasures:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus concluded these and other re-interpretations and summed it all up in The Golden Rule:
7:12 “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
So, how did the religious leaders respond to his criticism? Kind of like some have responded to a kneeling Colin Kaepernick. Not with concern for the poor or outrage over injustice but for being called out, complaining about ungrateful NFL players (those sons of … I can’t repeat our president in polite company). Their outrage was simply that someone would call out injustice, to the point that they whipped a crowd up into shouting about Jesus: “Crucify him.”
On Palm Sunday at this point we often listen the macabre stories of torture known as the Passion Narratives and sing about the “saving grace” of blood, sacrificing the Lamb. We sing of shame and blame. A familiar song for Holy Week, like many others in the hymnal, goes: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Jesus, that has slain you. And I, dear Jesus, it was I who denied you; I crucified you.”
No. You and I did not crucify Jesus. We are not the guilty. But our faith teaches that we are the responsible. Kind of like the realization a white basketball player for the Utah Jazz named Kyle Korver wrote about this week. He slowly came to that same realization about white privilege. He said, “As white people, are we guilty for the sins of our forefathers? No, I don’t think so. But, he asked, are we responsible for them? We are responsible, he said, not because we are guilty but because we have benefited from “an ugly history…not some random divide.” And therefore, I’ve come to realize the problem isn’t primarily about racist hecklers. We need deeper solutions to racism engrained in our system. Not passing blame but recognizing the need for police reform, criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and ending the death penalty, wealth inequity, school discipline practices…
That’s exactly why it’s more important to remember why Jesus was crucified than how. We need not be fascinated by the details of his crucifixion, by some sense of guilt, but rather fixated on the people whom Jesus loved so much he would sacrifice his life to show us the way – to accept our responsibility as people of faith. And that’s why today’s mission partner is so important: The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Again, we remember, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Then, concerning prayer, Jesus said
6 “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to Abba who is in secret; and Abba who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you ask.
So let us pray as Jesus taught:
Our Creator, holy is your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is…
Listen to one of many stories told about Jesus:
15:32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, plus women and children.
The crush of the crowds was often relentless. The disciples were just as often clueless. And the criticism by the authorities unyielding: “How dare you say that about us?” But Jesus replied:
12:33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
One: Jesus now faced the consequences of challenging those in authority. They clearly believed his teaching about the kingdom of God was subversive:
All: Break the chains of oppression;
One: Set the prisoner free;
All: Share your bread with all who are hungry; Clothe the naked.
One: Shelter the homeless and Give protection to the lost.
All: Why is this subversive? Isn’t this Good News?
One: Indeed, why do the powerful want to silence him?
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In chapter 17, Jesus again foretold his death and resurrection -- and even a third time after that
17:22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.
SONG – WHY, verse 1
The crowds following Jesus only got bigger, upsetting the authorities and making them more nervous every day. His abilities went far beyond stirring up the crowds, however. It was the power of God through his miracles and healing. It was his great love and compassion for hurting humanity. Among many stories is this one in which Jesus healed two blind men:
20:29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Imagine the constant pressure of the crowds and the expectations for Jesus to perform. Like the rest of us, he often grew tired and weary, and you can hear how it got to him when he cursed a fig tree:
21:18 In the morning, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
SONG – WHY, verse 2
As we celebrated this morning with the procession of donkeys and palms, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds threw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground to welcome him like a king, but a different kind; not like the one also entering Jerusalem the same day on the other side of the city, riding on a chariot surrounded by soldiers. The power of Jesus did not come from force, but from love.
21: When they had come near Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. They were unnerved; people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?” 11 The crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
But the celebration quickly became provocative action.
12 Immediately then, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children yelling in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; but have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
SONG – WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME, verse 1
His teaching about the sheep and the goats is one of the clearest things he ever said. His greatest sermon:
25:31-33 “When the Son of Man finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, he will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, like a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
34-36 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
37-40 “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’
41-43 “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because--
I was hungry, and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless, and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering, and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
44 “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
45 “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’
46 “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
Anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus or a Christian cannot ignore these words.
SONG – WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME, verse 2
26:1-2 Jesus told his disciples, “You know that Passover comes in two days. That’s when the Son of Man will be betrayed and handed over for crucifixion.”
3-5 At that very moment, the party of high priests and religious leaders was meeting in the chambers of the Chief Priest named Caiaphas, conspiring to seize Jesus by stealth and kill him. They agreed that it should not be done during Passover Week. “We don’t want a riot on our hands,” they said.
They waited. In the meantime, Jesus and his followers gathered for the Passover meal.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in God’s kingdom.”
INVITATION TO COMMUNION
One: We come to this table because Christ invites us. We come hungry, ready to be fed. We come thirsty, ready to drink. We come to re-member.
All: We come in remembrance, but much more: In recalling the life of Jesus, we are moved by the death of Jesus, to be Christ-like among suffering humanity.
One: Let us join here not in passive recollection, but active commitment.
SOLO/HYMN – JESUS TOOK THE BREAD
26:36 Following the meal, Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “Abba, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, here comes my betrayer.”
And so began the actions that led to the execution of Jesus upon a cross – the means and method of the Roman Empire to send a warning to other would-be prophets. It would scatter all their followers. But while early Christians may have hid behind doors for a few days, they were inspired to organize communities of love and resistance. And so shall we. When we gather back here Thursday night, we’ll hear the events that follow his betrayal. And then, on the first day of the week, gather to remember that the love of Jesus for suffering humanity means hate will not forever prevail. Cruelty is already on the way out.
That’s exactly why it’s more important to remember why Jesus was crucified than how. We need not be fascinated by the details of his crucifixion, by some sense of guilt, but rather fixated on the people whom Jesus loved so much he would sacrifice his life to show us the way – to accept our responsibility as people of faith. And part of that responsibility is to consider our own hypocrisy and take the log out of our eye before pointing out there is straw in our neighbors.
As we gather today I invite us to honor the life of Jesus and remember his love through the sacrifice he made for suffering humanity in the words of the litany in your bulletin:
LITANY OF THE PASSION
One: Christ Jesus, in agony in the garden of Olives, troubled by sadness and fear, comforted by an angel;
All: Christ Jesus, betrayed by Judas’ kiss, abandoned by your friends, delivered into the hands of the powerful;
One: Christ Jesus, accused by false witnesses, condemned to die, struck by servants, covered with spittle;
All: Christ Jesus, disowned by your disciple Peter, delivered to Pilate and Herod, condemned as a criminal;
One: Christ Jesus, carrying your own cross to Calvary, consoled by the daughters of Jerusalem, helped by Simon of Cyrene;
All: Christ Jesus, stripped of your clothes, praying for your executioners, pardoning the thief;
One: Christ Jesus, entrusting your mother to your beloved disciple, giving up your spirit into the hands of your Father/Mother, showing us how to live and how to die through the example of your sacrifice.
All: Let us remember his death, but more importantly, let us imitate his life.
One: We will remember
ALL: WITH HOPE, BECAUSE HOPELESSNESS IS THE ENEMY OF JUSTICE
One: With courage, because peace requires bravery
ALL: WITH PERSISTENCE, BECAUSE JUSTICE IS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE
One: With faith, because we shall overcome. Amen
(Benediction written by Bryan Stevenson)
 “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 is harsher than the Sermon on the Mount, aka The Beatitudes, in Matthew 5
 The Message
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 7, 2019
“It’s a Joy to Be Home”
Psalm 126 – New Revised Standard Version
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves
First of all, I am thrilled to be back home and see all of you. I am filled to overflowing with gratitude for the experiences I have had in the past three months and overwhelmed with appreciation for everyone who served in my absence, foremost to Terri who clearly demonstrated she is already a gifted pastor. Amen? When she finishes seminary and gets her master’s degree, watch out! I want to thank all the exceptional preachers who took turns sharing the gospel. To Tammy who kept everything running smoothly and the rest of the staff. Members of the Governance Team and Rob who stepped up for extra duties as Moderator. To Bill McCarron, I was so excited to see this lighting project was completed. And the boilers fixed! Thank you all.
The danger of naming any one person is the likelihood of leaving some person out, so when I say thank you to everyone, know that I mean YOU and all your contributions to and participation in the mission and ministry of our church. As far as I can tell, it was a positive sabbatical experience for the whole congregation which makes us stronger today than we were before.
And me too. I’m not sure what adjective can best describe my sabbatical experiences. Fantastic. Phenomenal. Incredible. Amazing on steroids. Words make it sound too puny. I’ve been in ministry long enough that this was my fourth sabbatical. This was extra-ordinary. I remember how burned out I was before my first one in 1999. I spent a quiet two months in a monastery outside Santa Fe healing, being fed, and renewing my spiritual life.
My second sabbatical in 2005 was very different. I had just completed all the research for my doctoral program so I used the sabbatical to compile and write my dissertation.
My sabbatical in 2013 was part of a larger healing journey not from burn out but from some painful experiences. I didn’t know I was on a healing journey until the end when I was getting ready to leave Bangkok and found myself plopped up against a tree crying. Like, really crying. But after that, the whole rest of my sabbatical made sense. And it was indeed healing.
So this time, when I found myself crying again, I was sitting on a plane leaving Sri Lanka on my way back to Bangkok. I had to ask, “What’s going on now?!” But I quickly realized I wasn’t sad that I was leaving Sri Lanka. I was simply so full of joy that I couldn’t keep it all inside and it was leaking out. I just felt complete and total joy for having been there, for three weeks of one joyful experience after another. When I thought more about how to describe the feeling, I felt clean; like I had had a bath to wash off all the toxic residue of living in America today.
All that joy continued through the rest of my travels up to and including last weekend when Art and I went on our last hike. We were in Estes Park. It had been gray and snowy for two days. On Sunday morning, though, we awoke to a bright sky. We went back into Rocky Mountain National Park and the snow off the mountains was blindingly breathtaking against the pure blue sky. We kept stopping to take pictures. One more. As we drove back to Denver, I told him I was really excited to be returning.
So, as I thought about my sermon for today, I didn’t want it to be a travelogue, “Here’s what I did,” but rather a sermon. I waited to read the lectionary texts to guide me and then marveled at the synchronicity. I had just spent months experiencing joy in one way after another, cleansed from the toxic soup of our country for a moment, and the first text I read was Psalm 126:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy;
The Lord has done great things for them.
The Lord has done great things for us
And we rejoiced.
The last few verses abbreviated:
May those who sow in tears,
Reap with shouts of joy
Those who go out weeping,
Shall return home with shouts of joy.
The prominence of the word joy in the text and the predominance of joyful experiences during my sabbatical made me feel like God was saying, welcome home.
As I compiled all my Facebook posts and pictures into a sort of “book,” I created a top ten list of experiences. I want to tell you about three of them. The first one was terrifying. The second was all about enduring. And the third was gruesome.
First, terror. I was very excited to enter my first Hindu kovil, their place of worship. So far on my trip, I had been in beautiful mosques, especially the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, as well as churches, and lots of Buddhist temples, but this would be my first time in a kovil. My knowledge of Hinduism was, and still is, woefully lacking and completely absent about what happens during their regular religious ceremonies. My guide and companion through Sri Lanka, Naswar, who is Muslim, took me to the largest kovil in Jaffna just in time for the 10 am Friday “service.”
Despite the heat, I wore long pants and carried a shirt with sleeves just in case. To enter many Buddhist sites, shoulders and knees must be covered. A few days before, I had walked around a temple with my shorts halfway down my hips in order to cover my knees, so this time I was prepared. But I wasn’t prepared when I discovered that to enter a kovil, men must remove their shirts. When Naswar went to ask if we could enter, he came back with the terrifying news – at least to me. If I wanted to go in, I would have to be half-naked and barefoot. I don’t even take my shirt off at home so the idea that I would have to do this in front of hundreds of strangers was…. Flashbacks to locker rooms in junior high. But, to experience this literally once in a lifetime opportunity, I had to get over myself. Now. It was 10 o’clock and the service/ceremony was starting.
Naswar was totally up for it. He loves to take his shirt off. His other job is as a model. In fact, a few weeks ago he won another “top model” trophy in a world competition in Indonesia. So, I placed my hope that people would look at him instead of me. But the truth is, in the end, no one looked at either of us. They were there to worship. We all had our shirts off and it wasn’t all pretty. We went in and I got to experience what Hindus do when they gather weekly. I felt honored to be there, but even more so, out of my terror, I left absolutely consumed with joy. I even took my shirt off again later that afternoon to get into the Indian Ocean.
So, endurance. One of the things you may have heard me talk about before my trip was climbing Adam’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. But it’s not just a hike. It’s a religious pilgrimage in the middle of the night in order to arrive in time for sunrise. There is a Buddhist temple at the top, but it’s a journey taken by all religions. I knew it would be hard. I knew it could be very crowded. That the weather at the top might not cooperate. I read all about it. Seven-mile round trip, 3,000-foot elevation gain, and all of it on concrete steps, 5,000 of them. Six hours on steps. Art and I trained at Red Rocks, going up and down from the stage to the plaza. To match it would be to do it 38 times. Or imagine climbing the steps to the top of the cash register building downtown five times. And then walking back down those steps five times. Except that would be far too easy. Those steps are all the same size and there are handrails to lean on all the way. On the journey up and down Adam’s Peak, however, no two steps are the same height, varying from 2 to 18 inches, or depth, varying from a few inches to a few feet. But for most of those seven miles, there’s no stretch of flat ground longer than maybe 12 to 15 feet. And there is nothing to hold on to for most of the journey. It wasn’t hot, in fact it was chilly nearing the top, but it was humid. I walked with rain falling from my head, but it wasn’t raining. I was just that soaked in perspiration.
About 4:30 in the morning, I was ready to call it quits. Even though I couldn’t imagine having to come home and say that I hadn’t made it, I had nothing left. I sent a picture of the steps to Art and then the words, “this is killing me.” Except the picture didn’t go through. Not enough signal. And if the text went through, all he would have known is that something was killing me – perhaps an animal, or a picture snapped as I was plunging off a cliff. It was four hours until I could check back in with him to say that I was still alive.
Other people were struggling too, so we kind of cheered each other on as we passed back and forth. A man handed me some kind of homemade food and insisted I eat it. We didn’t speak each other’s languages, so I wasn’t sure if what he gave me might make me high or maybe give me diarrhea, but that’s the kind of thing you risk. So I shared half a Clif bar with him too. His tasted better.
Among the climbers were people of all ages. It was the grandmothers with gray hair climbing barefoot in long white dresses that gave me the most inspiration; that is, when I wasn’t feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with them. I was told that the more times someone climbed to the top, the better “upgrade in heaven” they would receive, which is why this was so popular among the elderly.
I just kept grinding it out. Resting and climbing. Resting longer and climbing a little less until I finally saw the top. I thought. I used the altimeter on my phone to check that this was it. But it was a false summit. Another 1,000 feet up. The last part was even steeper than the rest. But, in the end, I did it. I arrived on the last final step at 5:45. I turned around and saw the first orange sliver in the sky. I made it at exactly sunrise. The sky was perfect. Enough clouds to give it some drama. I endured and saw the most glorious sunrise of my life, with hundreds of people packed on top of each other outside the gates of a Buddhist temple, with whom we would now have to walk down those 5,000 steps. My legs hurt like hell. But I was so happy and full of joy, it was… well, not any easier.
The third among my top ten experiences was not joyful but terrible and gruesome and grim. A pastor friend and I went to Montgomery, Alabama, to see the new memorial to victims of lynching. The memorial itself is oddly beautiful even though represents some of the ugliest parts of our American story. There are 800 large rectangles the size and shape of coffins. As you walk, the floor descends and the boxes hang higher and higher over you, like you can imagine someone hanging from a tree. Each coffin-shaped-object represents one county with a documented lynching. Some counties had one name, others had dozens of names. There were other signs along the wall too. There was a plaque for Calvin Kimblern who was lynched in Pueblo in 1900, in front of a cheering mob of 3,000 men, women, and children who had been let out of school for the day.
Like I said, the memorial is hauntingly beautiful, masterfully done, and as emotionally engaging as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. There is also an accompanying Legacy Museum. All of it the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. The museum was built in what was an actual slave market. The museum takes visitors through an emotionally brutal experience, from holograms of slaves crying out from behind bars, asking where are my children? And then, when slavery was outlawed, images of lynching, and when lynching was no longer in fashion, the emergence of Jim Crow laws.
But the story didn’t end there. As Jim Crow laws were declared unconstitutional, still new forms of deadly racism continued to develop in their place, including drug wars that led to descriptions of children as super-predators and their mass incarceration, and overcrowded prisons for profit, and a vast increase in the death penalty ordered by judges over the objections of juries. And the killing of unarmed black men, always presumed guilty first, by police.
Among the exhibits, you can sit behind glass and listen on a phone as though you are talking with an inmate, including Anthony Ray Hinton who was on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn’t, nor could he have, committed, except that he was framed for being a poor black man in Alabama without real representation. Nobody would care. Just another means of lynching. I read, and recommend, his gripping autobiography. Just this week a black man and his nephew were released after 43 years on death row. Exonerated. Who, of course, shouldn’t have been on trial in the first place if they weren’t black and presumed guilty first.
After 2 or 3 hours in the museum I told Chris I needed to go to church. I couldn’t imagine any other way of putting everything into perspective to help me process it. I needed church. We went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. But first we visited the parsonage where Dr. King and Coretta lived when he was their pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The house had their actual furnishings. We saw the couch where he sat with his children. We saw the dining room table where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born and the punch set that Coretta used to provide refreshments. The phone in the kitchen on which Dr. King received so many death threats and the hole in the porch where a bomb was thrown. And the study where Dr. King wrote his speeches and sermons.
Then we went to his church. The tour guide bubbled over with joy. She loved what she was doing. The tour ended in the sanctuary in the late afternoon. The sun started to wash the colors of the stained glass windows over the pews. Like it does in here. At that point I was about a week away and not quite ready to return from sabbatical. But this felt like a sign that brought everything full circle. In that moment, I was ready to come back. It was a gruesome and terrible day that ended with anticipation that I was ready to get back to the mission of our congregation to proclaim that God is love and Black Lives Matter.
I didn’t really want my first sermon back to be a travelogue, but after reading a scripture so infused with joy, I didn’t know what else to do but speak of the joy that arises out of terror. Joy that appears in the sunrise when we endure. And the joy that comes after weeping. Perhaps you can remember your own experiences of joy rooted in pain. And perhaps you can hear hope in my story that joy waits in the morning for you too.
It’s good to back. It’s a joy to be home.
 The Sun Does Shine
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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