Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 29, 2016
“Grief and Resistance on Memorial Day”
Luke 7: 1-10
After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.”10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.
A Roman centurion begged Jesus to heal a servant that was dear to him. He said, “I don’t mean to bother you. You don’t need to come to my house. Just say the word and he will be healed.” Jesus marveled at this level of faith and criticized others around him for their lack of belief. And sure enough, when the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.
This is an inspiring story about the healing powers of Jesus – notably demonstrated not simply as the power of touch from human hands or human contact but that a word from Jesus could be commanded from a distance.
To be honest, however, in the healing genre, this stretches even further my intellectual ability to imagine. I get the power of touch. And I understand the will power, the well-power, of the person who needs healing to affect it by believing in it. As recovery circles often say, we must participate in our own healing. Take power from your illness. I get that. Plus, we all know how friendships, family, and feeling connected to a community makes a concrete difference in our health and recovery.
In fact, a story on CNN about Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was the victim of gun violence, as well as others who suffered traumatic brain injuries, report that having loved ones present and actively encouraging their recovery can make a profound difference.
Kimberly Glassman, chief nursing officer for NYU Medical Center, said she has witnessed many occasions of unconscious patients waking up amid the support of families and believes they have played an important role in their recovery.
"When we have been able to speak to patients who have been in that state and woken up, it's very common for them to say that they heard people talking to them, they could feel people touching them," she said. Being at the bedside of the patient may not only transfer familiar signals of touch and sound, but it also means a lot to the family members. And even nurses, she said, feel more connected to the healing process when family members are there to encourage them and watch out for the best interests of their loved one.
But Jesus wasn’t at the house. Certainly the servant did have people surrounding him. And when you know that there are people praying for you from a distance – from anywhere in the world – it makes a difference too. That’s why we pray. That’s why we have the Prayers of the People. Speaking a word, naming people, even when they don’t know it, makes a difference.
So this story is about the healing power of Jesus, so powerful that it can be spoken as a word from a distance. This is a story to encourage those who heard it then and those who read it now to have faith. “Look at how much faith the centurion had. Go and do likewise.” Believe in that which stretches beyond our intellectual capacity to accept as logical. Because, truth be told, sometimes we can be too quick to dismiss something as simple, but healing, as a word. Jesus shows the power of a word.
But this is also a story meant to challenge the hardened hearts of the religious authorities. Just listen to Jesus criticize them by praising the faith of the Roman centurion. He said, “Even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” Standing there and hearing that would have been very hard to swallow.
Remember when Dennis Rodman praised the dictator of North Korea? Many people thought he had lost his mind. The former basketball star called Kim Jong Un “really awesome,” and became friends with one of the most despised people in the world – not that we don’t all need friends. But brutal human rights violations and the unimaginable suffering experienced by his people make him a pretty unlikely candidate for any kind of praise.
Just as unlikely as anyone representing Rome. Centurions were soldiers who represent the Evil Empire. They protected Roman interests, enforced Roman law, and kept locals in check by whatever means necessary. High taxation, abuse, seizure of property, political imprisonment, and crucifixion were all tools in Rome’s repertoire of tyranny. Rome wasn’t just an uninvited guest in Israel, they were a reviled enemy. It was about these people that Jesus said, “love your enemy, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the shirt off your back…” All of these commands were calls to love Israel’s biggest enemy. But if Jesus’ call to love Romans irritated or even infuriated his Jewish audience, his willingness to heal one of them must have been seen as treasonous – quite literally aiding and abetting the enemy.
But can you paint such a broad brush against every individual who represents such an institution, as brutal as it may be? If you noticed in the reading, some Jewish elders actually argued in favor of healing the servant of this particular centurion. They said, “He deserves to have you do this for him. He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.” That really says something about this man. And I can only imagine that if word got back to his superiors in Rome, he would have been just as reviled by them as the victims of Rome’s brutality would have been by the idea of helping him. It probably would have been dangerous if the centurion’s generosity was known. And yet, I wonder whether the centurion’s generosity had anything to do with the willingness of Jesus to heal his servant. Would it have mattered to Jesus whether he was a nice guy? Because wasn’t the point that he represented Rome?
This really became true for me when I got an angry email on Thursday about the choir singing America the Beautiful in commemoration of Memorial Day. For them, such a song represents the worship of country, not Christ. Their point: Patriotic songs in worship advocate God’s particular blessing upon the United States over and against any other nation on earth. Fortunately their email instigated a dialogue and in the end the individual agreed that I could mention their critique today. And spoke about it with Billie and Rob.
Truth be told, such danger is, in fact, all too common. Some churches do turn worship into patriotic rallies on such occasions as Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Veterans Day. But linking the love of God and country as equal is blasphemous. Jesus is Lord, not the co-Lord and Savior.
Dangerous things have happened when churches are co-opted into blessing the activities of government. The first time I saw pictures of Nazi flags draped behind the crosses of churches in Germany, it made me sick to my stomach. It’s one reason why our friend Wolfgang from Germany, who recently retired from Messiah Lutheran, so strongly objected to the presence of any country’s flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church.
So I agreed with the criticism that the presence of such music may look like it represents blind support, particularly of the military activities of any nation. But the question becomes, is it OK to remember the individuals who died in the service of their country during worship?
Think of the Roman centurion. He was simply an individual who represented Rome, and who, in his case, certainly had no choice but to participate in that system. Yet within even the confines of his limited autonomy, he was subversively generous and chose to build a synagogue for the people he was supposed to keep under his control.
I went online to gain some perspectives on the challenge of what a progressive church should say on Memorial Day. Certainly blind patriotism and complete avoidance aren’t the only choices. I was surprised by one of the first things that came up in my Google search – a prayer by Rev. Dick Kozelka.
Dick was Park Hill’s pastor in the 60s. But in another small world example, he left here to be the pastor of the church I belonged to years later in Minneapolis. And this week I learned that the man who gave his eulogy was my mentor in seminary. Around that funny little, incredibly small-world circle I came across a prayer he had written for Memorial Day: 
God, lift the hearts of those
For whom this holiday is not just diversion,
But painful memory and continued deprivation.
Bless those whose dear ones have died needlessly
Wastefully, as it seems,
In accident or misadventure.
We remember with compassion those who have died
Serving their countries in the futility of combat.
[When all the answers fail the question such deaths ask
Provide this fulfillment:]
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
He really named it. Accident or misadventure. Honoring the memories of those who died serving their country does not bless the activities of those who sent them into war. As we know, all too often with questionable or dubious rationales.
The silence of progressive Christians to the suffering of those mourning the loss family and friends is regrettable. Whether it is the loss of life through death or loss through injuries of mind, body, and soul. The tragedy of those living with PTSD, with the howls of suicide filling their brain, the strain on marriages…
Think of the love of Jesus for the Roman centurion. For his fear of loss, losing someone whom he held so dear, who was not just a servant to him… Think of Jesus’ love and willingness to heal someone who represented the Empire of Rome. We then know to uncouple the individual from the system they represent.
More than exhorting people to take Memorial Day more seriously than a day off to grill meat in the backyard, families of veterans just want churches to join them in mourning their loss.
We can do that, while the same time:
We do this so that we can to these things:
Jesus taught us to look beyond that which people represent to find and love the individuals we will see if we look. And then he demonstrated this through the healing power of a word and the encouragement to go and do likewise.
 Zack Hunt, “The Treasonous Love of Jesus”
 Whether or not this particular song does so, it represents a certain musical genre that includes such sentiment
 The last part of the prayer was condensed but retains the spirit
 These points were from or were inspired by Jonathan Agnier, “The Tragedy of Patriotic Worship” http://www.patheos.com/blogs
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 22, 2016
Romans 5: 1-5 – Common English Bible
“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Long ago in India, a king ruled the land. He always had his closest advisor by his side. The advisor was wise, but he also had a way about him that frequently got on the king’s nerves. No matter what happened, the advisor always responded by saying, “That is good, that is good.”
One day when the king was out riding, his horse was startled by a large snake. The king was thrown and dragged some distance. In all that galloping chaos, he suffered a terrible cut to his foot and he lost a toe. As his advisor knelt beside him, he said, “That is good, that is good.”
Incensed, the king screamed, “How can you say that is good? Look at my foot! You’re fired.”
In response to his firing, the advisor said, “That is good, that is good” and he went off to the palace to pack his bags.
The king returned home and his foot eventually healed, minus the toe. In due course, he decided to go riding again. This time, however, he became separated from the rest of his party. Suddenly he was ambushed, tied up, and taken back to his captor’s village.
Now, it was the practice of those who kidnapped him to use their prisoners to sacrifice to their god. The king knew this, and he knew his fate. They washed him and decorated him for the sacrificial celebration. As the king was led to the place where he would be killed, music played and all the people danced with great joy and anticipation. The king shook with terror from head to toe. He nearly fainted as the priest came forward carrying a long knife. The priest danced around him and inspected him from every angle. Suddenly he ordered the music and dancing to stop. “This one’s no good. He’s damaged.” He pointed to the missing toe, or where the toe used to be. “We can’t sacrifice something that has already been cut.” The priest slashed the vines that bound the king’s hands and legs and set him free. The king raced back toward the palace as fast as he could.
Once he was back home safely, the king thought about his ex-advisor and sent for him. The king told him the story and said, “You were right. It was good that I lost my toe. Because of it, I was not sacrificed. And yet, when I fired you, why did you say “This is good?”
The advisor replied, “There is always some good to come out of things. If I had not been fired, I would have been with you that day and captured too. And as soon as they passed on you, I would have been next.”
The king praised the wisdom of his advisor and said, “You are truly right, my friend. That was good. That was very good indeed.”
In our passage from the Book of Romans, I take great comfort in Paul’s words when he said, “I take pride in our problems, because we know that our troubles produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And this hope does not put us to shame (or as some translations put it: This hope does not disappoint), because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
In the story of the king and the advisor, despite the king’s annoyance and anger, they ended as friends. The king said, “You are truly right, my friend.” A friendship that grew out of their conflict. Good from conflict…
I too would have been annoyed by the advisors constant “That is good. That is good.” Because, as much as I take comfort from Paul’s words to the Romans, I cringe every time anyone uses those same words to tell someone who is suffering, “Well, it’ll all work out for the good in the end.” Really!? Really, this is good?! It makes me want to slap them and act very un-Christ-like.
Instead, I don’t usually say anything. I let it stew. I may tell others about it with righteous indignation. “Can you believe…?” But I hate conflict. Is it because I don’t want to invest in the time, and multiple misunderstandings along the way, that are necessary to establish an honest relationship? Do we really want to say, “That hurts me and here’s why?” Rather, how often do we avoid the issue and find ourselves drifting away, not out of the heat of anger from misunderstanding each other but from the indifference that grows each time we attempt to avoid the pain of conflict? Certainly no good could come from this…
But our reading of this text from the Book of Romans can also lead to a callous disregard for the problems of others. We might not tell someone “That is good, that is good,” but it can result in a careless indifference to suffering caused by injustice. It’s even led to people praising the poor for their courage. The nobility of poverty: “Oh, they’re so brave.” And therefore relieve ourselves of any responsibility.
Perhaps the difference is telling someone how they should feel about their troubles or experiences of loss rather than coming to the realization for ourselves. I happen to think it’s true that we learn more about ourselves and our strength through our troubles than through our successes. Well, at least that’s how I have often experienced it. I can’t say its universal – telling you how you should feel about it. Proclaiming from on high: “Take pride in your troubles.” And yet, isn’t it good news that trouble can be transformed? Trouble, suffering, conflict, pain, grief… can be transformed into endurance, character, and hope. Hope, not optimism. And from that, a better understand of self, more deeply grounded. Or, maybe we’re scared of what we will find in the process.
And what about God? Like any relationship, are we willing to risk good conflict? How far are we willing to go beyond the pleasant “Nice to know you” mouthed in the words of liturgy to our ability to say “Damn you” when a tornado rips through a school. When cancer returns. When a loved one dies? Can any relationship survive harsh thoughts and words spoken in anger? How about when we don’t speak, thinking it’s better to keep them to our self?
But God knows us better than we know ourselves. As Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.”
According to Psalm 139, God knows our thoughts before we think them. Words before they are on our lips. Fears before they frighten us. Psalm 139 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. It literally saved me when I was afraid to come out.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
The point of the Psalmist is, to God we are totally transparent. But here’s the beautiful part: the Psalmist isn’t afraid that God knows too much. Should we? We might think we are the masters of hiding ourselves – our emotions, our fears – but God sees right through that. God sees right through our pretensions. And often, more often than we think, so can other people. So should we fear what others know about us? Or the conflict that comes should we speak up? It is precisely because God knows us that we can trust God to guide us.
Paul says in Romans that our troubles produce endurance. It’s not that suffering is good for us. “No pain, no gain.” But the truth is, we all suffer. What do we do with it? Paul encourages us to believe that endurance produces the kind of character that produces hope – character, not optimism. And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. A kind of protective shield so that true love can emerge out of conflict.
Do relationships fail because of the words we speak to each other… or do relationships fail because of the words that we don’t say? Both, of course. Hurtful words cut like a knife. And sometimes we’d rather not know. But those same words can heal. Words never spoken cannot heal and will not build relationships that can survive the test. There is no hope in a relationship that can’t handle truth. We will never know what the other is capable of, or what we ourselves are capable of, if we only maintain with each other the polite gestures of an acquaintance. Nothing could be truer of our relationship with God too.
The relationship of the king and the advisor changed. They became friends after their conflict. Something good from conflict. Is that something we could risk? To know ourselves better; to go deeper in our relationships; to trust more in God?
Troubles to endurance to character to hope…
I think of the hope we are expressing today after worship when we will meet as a congregation to adopt our new vision. When we started our long range or strategic planning process in 2009, there was some uncertainty about our future. Tentativeness. An earlier period of conflict shook the congregation during its first interim. Add to that the uncertainty all congregations feel in our rapidly changing world. When I arrived two years later, confidence would not have been the first word used to describe us.
In the plan we adopted in 2010, one thing we set out to do was to reclaim our bold history. Park Hill Congregational UCC has an especially long history of work for racial justice. For those who are new here, this church chose a radical path during the 60s to welcome African Americans into the neighborhood who had previously been blocked from moving across Colorado Boulevard. And to stand up to the bigotry of the accompanying white flight. It was a very tense time. Block busting. Realtors calling in the middle of the night to sow fear. We can do nothing but express wonder and admiration for the courage of those who believed in racial justice for our neighborhood so much that they risked the conflict that comes from taking a position of inclusion. Many people left Park Hill and some left our church. It was a bold history worthy of reclaiming.
But not to simply revel in it. Just what is the struggle today? The presence of Black Lives Matter in our church reflects that the struggle for racial justice is and will always be in the DNA of our congregation, which is one reason I wanted to come here.
Yet when our leadership teams met in March to begin evaluating our previous plan, several people noted that our vision sounded apologetic.
As we read those statements out loud, the implication to people who hadn’t been here at the time was that we were apologizing for not being bold, not having a purpose, and spending our time on matters that were not important. A longer time member around the table, Lucy Loomis, wisely observed, that’s how it felt. Others agreed. And, that things feel so differently now. More confident, more certain, more hopeful.
How did we get to this place of hope? Trouble, endurance, character, hope? In part, by risking conflict. The decision to avoid conflict is the decision to choose stagnation. And so today we can look around this room with wonder and admiration. A church that took the risk of relevance in the 21st century. That’s where our hope comes from. Thanks be to God!
Our Proposed Vision
1) Participation: A church where everyone finds their place for ministry.
Creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship, and developing effective structures for leadership. (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
2) Social Justice: A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.
Whether it’s at home or work, among our neighbors or on the front lines, our faith as Christians means fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: good news for the poor, working for the release of captives, advocating the liberation of the oppressed, and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth (Luke 4: 18-19). (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
3) Education: A church community fully engaged in faith formation.
Nurturing the values of a compassionate Christianity for children and families, helping youth integrate progressive Christianity into their lives, and exploring a deeper spirituality in adults – through inspiring worship, engaging classes, meaningful service opportunities, and creative intergenerational activities. (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
4) Stewardship: A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely.
Expanding use of our building, securing our long-term financial health, growing our congregation, and nurturing our individual spiritual gifts and talents for the purpose of serving our neighbors. (Notice that we could/should add this final line to all the previous statements)
So, our mission remains the same:
We are a diverse community of seekers
Inspired by the teachings of Jesus
Called to bold acts of compassion and justice
And Our Core Values
In other words, hope. Through some challenging times.
 Elisa Davy Perman, editor, “That is Good,” Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, Pilgrim Press, 1998, page 5
 New Revised Standard Version
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 15, 2016
“The Silliness (Or Danger) of Seeking to be Great (Again)”
Genesis 11: 1-9 – Common English Bible
“All people on the earth had one language and the same words. 2 When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” They used bricks for stones and asphalt for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”
5 Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. 6 And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. 7 Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” 8 Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city.9 Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.
I love hearing family stories. Don’t you have your favorites? Grandma, tell us the story again of what it was like during the depression. How did you and grandpa meet again? Lots of whys and how comes. In our family, why is it that we eat hamburgers on Christmas Eve? How come our name is spelled differently? Lots of stories we’ve never heard are told when our families gather for funerals and memorial services. Sometimes we even feel a tinge of guilt for enjoying those times so much. But go on, tell us just one more story, grandma.
Well, when you look at our text today from the Book of Genesis, you can picture a family gathering when someone said “tell us again why there are so many languages and cultures.” Or maybe they asked “Why do our people live all over the world, not just where we grew up?” And so you heard the beginning. Well, a long time ago, “All people on earth had one language and the same words.” But they tried to build a great tower in order to make a great name for themselves. They claimed that then “we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” I don’t know why that would be a problem in the first place, but the story concludes: Their efforts didn’t work because God intervened and said, “Let’s mix up their language so they won’t understand each other.” They will be frustrated and stop trying to build it.
I have to tell you, what sounds innocently enough like a little story to explain why we have so many languages and cultures doesn’t explain it. And generations of scholars have struggled to understand the meaning of this passage – which I found out too late to change my mind and try a different text. Well, I could have, but who doesn’t like a challenge. What’s this really about?
But it’s not all serious. It’s actually pretty funny. The people thought by building this great big huge tower with its top in the sky would be impressive enough to give them a great name. But God has to “come down to see” it. Which means to say, this “great” tower was so “eensy weensy” that God couldn’t see it from heaven. God gives shade! And yet, here’s the thing. In response to seeing it, God seems a little anxious or even afraid of what humans could potentially accomplish together.
Again, in a nutshell, Genesis chapter 11 says: The people want to build a great tower to give them a great name so they won’t be dispersed. God mixes up their language so they won’t be able to understand each other and they will give up. But underlying it all, the story seems to suggest the real problem is that God is afraid of what humans could actually do if they worked together. Isn’t that weird? I mean, isn’t that the kind of unity we dream of? Human beings that understand one another and work together? Talk about a wonderful vision!
There’s always been a tinge of paranoia in the stories told about God. Variations of paranoia, jealousy, indecisiveness, and even schizophrenia. Fear that “the humans” are plotting. Now of course, when the story says God “said” or God “thinks” or “God is,” remember, this is human beings trying to understand God. Not the literal actions of God. So the people who are trying to understand God are the ones who said God doesn’t want humans to work together to achieve great things. I still don’t get it. Why not? What could go wrong with that? What could go wrong with humans having too much power?
Oh, so maybe I do understand it. For example, in the drive to make America great again. Because, for whom would it be great again? And what exactly does the word “again” refer back to?
Now I see it! God might rightly be afraid of what humans could accomplish. Think of the repeated damage that has been caused by human arrogance. Especially with such silly priorities as towers as high as the sky so their name would be great.
So maybe is wasn’t human cooperation that God should fear but humans seeking to achieve false goals. I guess the idea could be that many languages and cultures might curb the human tendency to dominate. Yet today, the Day of Pentecost, we celebrate a kind of reversal of the division created at the Tower of Babel. The great act of God this time was unity – through demonstrations of fire, wind, and the Spirit. It was this kind of unity that went on to create the Church of Jesus Christ. People of every nation and language gathered in Jerusalem and they all understood each other. Of course, now what do we do with that power?
If God sought to create division so the people were thwarted from pursuing the goal of their silly tower, what would be the right goals? Funny you should ask! Our leadership teams have articulated four of them – four vision statements. We have been meeting this spring to ask the question “Where is God calling us to next?”
Starting with 20 people gathered around the room on a Saturday in early March, it was fascinating to watch as common themes emerged. Pages and pages of chart paper and dozens and dozens of sticky notes coalesced into a succession of statements condensed into the four you have in your bulletin today. But as I looked at each statement again this week, I was struck by the way each one begins. Take a look at your bulletin insert: #1 starts by asking us to be a church. #2. Be a church. #3. #4. Be a church. And then what that means.
All our conversations led to that common vision to clearly ground our identity as a church, which may seem obvious, but what that means is: our vision is not to be a social club where we only gather to see friends, or a Kiwanis type club that only does community service together, or to only align our values with a political platform. Our vision is to remember and always seek to be a church. First, foremost, and above everything else. How are we a people of faith?
Vision statement #2 gets at this more specifically. “A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.” Many people when asked to describe our church use the words social justice. That is an identity marker for Park Hill Congregational UCC. In our vision making, we could have said “well, we’ve been there, done that,” but we all decided we wanted to take it deeper. You might ask, How is social justice a vision when it’s already a statement of our core values? In the same way that Jesus spent his entire life proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He said, “It’s here, and not yet.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke so eloquently this week about just that: how progress brings backlash, illustrating this very point. Here, and not yet. The Emancipation Proclamation brought with it freedom as well as Jim Crow laws. Brown v. Board of Education was to finally end segregation in schools but it also fueled white flight and the growth of suburbs. Equal marriage laws have brought rights for some and found others the targets of the manufactured crisis of bathroom laws, which Lynch said were reminiscent of separate drinking fountains as a little girl found in her home state. But she concluded her speech by promising that the federal government “sees” transgender people. Few statements throughout this “crisis” have been more Christ-like.
Jesus’ very first proclamation of his mission in the Gospel of Luke was this: good news for the poor, the release of captives, the liberation of the oppressed, and recovery of sight to the blind. We ground our social justice vision in that very statement.
But in developing the language of our vision, the concept of blindness has been the one area of most discussion because it has prompted the most discomfort for us. That’s not a bad thing. It’s the challenge of interpretation.
But what is blindness? Who is blind? Is Jesus speaking here only of one’s physical inability to see through their eyes? Or is Jesus speaking of those who are blind in their heart – who can’t even see the way to their own love and acceptance? You know, to love ourselves as we love our neighbors?
Or is Jesus speaking of those who can’t see or refuse to see the often invisible among us – those who are suffering, lonely, homeless? Or any who are judged for their identity and all who are condemned for their loving. Jesus did this repeatedly throughout his ministry and so our vision is participate in the social justice witness of Jesus Christ and, like him, speak up on behalf of anyone excluded and denied their full humanity. Our vision statement reads “and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth.” To see one another with the love of Christ.
As our leadership teams deliberated our way into these vision statements, I was struck by how simple and yet how hard each of them will be to accomplish. Like #1. A church where everyone finds their place for ministry. Participation. What’s radical or ground breaking about that? But has there ever been a time when more things competed for our time and attention? Most people aren’t looking for more things to do, more places to be, more people to meet. They usually need less. The church can actually help with that as we consider choices and priorities for the health and wholeness of our families. But also, for the health and wholeness of our church, we need to find ways to engage with each other, otherwise, how can we be a church? And even more importantly, with people who are unable to come to church anymore.
And #3. A church community fully engaged in faith formation, again, among people with ever busier lives. What are the new ways we as churches can teach and nurture the Christian faith in children, youth, and adults? It is of most vital importance. Christianity cannot be assumed anymore. How do even teach that it is a value? More of the same won’t do it.
And finally #4. A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely. I am so proud of our church now being fully solar-powered. And that every measure of sustainability has been addressed from boilers to water sprinklers to light bulbs. What else can we do? I am happy we are now opening our doors even more to community groups that can utilize our beautiful space. Who else can we invite in? And yet, more basic, how do we ensure that smaller congregations such as ours are financially viable in the future? A difficult question for sure. We have a vision of a church that is strong and vibrant, where our youth today will bring their grandchildren. What do we need to do to realize that vision for them? Do we believe in that? It’s a difficult subject, but it’s our call to grow our giving capacity and build a long term structure of financial wellness so that we will be here for future generations.
Or is that the kind of thing God would condemn as a Tower of Babel? The building of a shrine to human achievement rather than fostering a dependence on God? Is a savings account or a capital reserve faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God?
Most interpretations of our story in Genesis seem to suggest that the problem it addresses is that if humans cooperated to build this great big tower, they’d realize they don’t need God anymore.
I don’t see why it would ever have to be either or. Certainly I understand the temptation of human pride. We see the pursuit of false “greatness” all the time. I know how highly we prize individual achievements. And how many fewer people see a need for God at all.
But I also know that if God isn’t at the core of our goals or our vision, none of the words we write will happen because we can’t make it happen on our own. And if we did, we would cease to be a church. Oh, we might limp along for a while as a place to meet our friends, we could maintain some integrity as a community service organization, and we could even have an impact with a political witness. But would we be a church?
Proverbs famously says, without a vision, the people will perish. Here’s praying that in the pursuit of our vision God will be honored and you will be included. That what we work together to build is worthy of the high calling of Jesus Christ and not the silliness of seeking of greatness.
We are a diverse community of seekers
Inspired by the teachings of Jesus
Called to bold acts of compassion and justice
Our Core Values
Spiritual Depth and Intellectual Integrity
Worship, Education, and Outreach that Transforms People and Society
Social Justice, Diversity, and Love of Neighbor
Being Open and Affirming to Everyone—Without Exception
Belief that These Values are Embodied in the Life of Jesus
Our Proposed Vision
1) Participation: A church where everyone finds their place for ministry.
Creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship, and developing effective structures for leadership.
2) Social Justice: A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.
Whether it’s at home or work, among our neighbors or on the front lines, our faith as Christians means fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: good news for the poor, working for the release of captives, advocating the liberation of the oppressed, and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth (Luke 4: 18-19).
3) Education: A church community fully engaged in faith formation.
Nurturing the values of a compassionate Christianity for children and families, helping youth integrate progressive Christianity into their lives, and exploring a deeper spirituality in adults – through inspiring worship, engaging classes, meaningful service opportunities, and creative intergenerational activities.
4) Stewardship: A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely.
Expanding use of our building, securing our long-term financial health, growing our congregation, and nurturing our individual spiritual gifts and talents for the purpose of serving our neighbors.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 8, 2016
“Notice the Little Slave Girl”
Acts 16: 16-34 – Common English Bible
“One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman (most translations say slave "girl"). She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.
This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.
19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. 20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.
25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”
29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.
This is an odd text. And totally weird for Mother’s Day, which is something those who set the lectionary texts for every week wouldn’t have taken into consideration anyway. As we are reminded every year, Mother’s Day is not a liturgical celebration. Neither is Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day – you get the picture. But then again, for many, Christmas isn’t a liturgical holiday either. For an increasing number of people, there is nothing particularly religious about Christmas. Or even Easter. I looked for an Easter card to send to my mother and they were all about spring and pretty pastel dresses. I finally found one with a cute picture of a lamb. I chose it because I figured Jesus was more likely to have had a pet lamb than a bunny.
So Mother’s Day may not be a liturgical celebration, but still, why did the text, today or all days, have to be about Paul and that little slave girl. And did you even notice her?
But making it about Mother’s Day wouldn’t have necessarily been easier. As I said in the weekly email, “This Sunday we give thanks for mothers. But this is also a complicated day for many. It can be a difficult day for all whose mothers are deceased. A painful day for those who had or have strained relationships with their mothers. Terrible for mothers who have lost a child or are unable to conceive. One woman in my church in Cleveland told me she never went to church on Mother’s Day because over the years as a woman without a child, she felt unwelcome. Shamed, even. But if we do celebrate mothers, then we also can’t forget to celebrate the aunties and grandmas and other guardians raising children. And foster moms. Surrogate mothers who may never meet the child they bore. Not to mention, the dual parenting roles of single dads and double dads. In reality, Mother’s Day can range from beautiful to difficult to painful to terrible. Yet then again, after making all those clarifications and qualifications, we don’t want to take anything away from mothers who just want to hear “Thank you!” Who should hear “Thank you!” So, thank you.
You may not realize that I’ve been trying avoid the actual text for today… but that little slave girl keeps shouting, “Don’t skip over me. Tell them my story.” So, OK. But, let me tell you, her story may be just as dark as the original call for a Mother’s Day. Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day of Peace in 1870. Just five years after the Civil War, she called for a nation-wide gathering of women, mothers, to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, [and] the great and general interests of peace.” But first, before we do that she said, “Let [us] meet, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.” To bewail. Five years since the Civil War. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose over 600,000 men in a country of 31 million. Or, equivalent to today’s population, 6 million dead on American soil. In order release human beings from their status as property.
The original call for a Mother’s Day wasn’t to demand respect and appreciation but to work for peace and to mourn their dead. And if we think of the little slave girl, maybe that’s even why she was a slave. Maybe her mother was dead.
Maybe she was like little 8 year old Jeannette from Guinea whose father gave her away after her mother and brother died. Hers is one of too many examples of the modern slave trade as detailed in the US State Department’s annual Report on the Trafficking of Human Persons. Jeanette worked 18 hours a day, but was never paid. She slept outside and ate leftovers from the garbage, or was denied food all together. She was beaten and worse. She wasn’t allowed to leave, but even if she was, she wouldn’t know where to go.
Or was she like 12 year old Ouare from Ghana whose parents died, so his uncle sold him to traffickers who then took him to Burkina Faso to work as a cocoa picker. All the profits of his labor went to his new cocoa masters – and his uncle.
Or was she like Rania from Morocco who signed a contract she couldn’t read to become a cleaner in Cyprus, a way to make money for her family? But when she arrived she learned she had been purchased for a prostitution ring instead. She couldn’t leave. And she knew that if she could in fact return home, she would have been the victim of an honor killing for damaging her family’s reputation, at the hands of her brother. This story is repeated by the tens of thousands all over the world. In the US too, as much as we’d rather keep silent about it.
The State Department’s annual Report includes so many gruesome and unspeakable stories of men, women, and children whose suffering cannot be imagined – in mines, sugar plantations, cocoa fields, as domestics and sex workers. Stories from credible sources so terrible, they’re not spoken of in polite company or from proper pulpits. But this little slave girl made Paul pay attention to her. And so, must we.
Now Paul said little except to describe her as annoying. According to the NRSV, he was “very much annoyed.” That’s because for several days she followed Paul around shouting, like a carnival barker who won’t give up: “These people are the servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.”
It would seem that all she is doing is trying to help them. She’s not insulting them, she’s doing marketing for them. But no matter how helpful, someone shouting all day long would get tiring, and so Paul finally snapped. He flipped around to cast the spirit out of her that allowed her to predict the future. To shut her up. But that got him in trouble with her owners who made money off of people willing to pay to hear her tell their future. So now what? She was now worth nothing. And therefore Paul and his companions were put in jail for interrupting their commerce. The state/the Empire sided with the loss of the owner’s profits instead of considering the freedom of the child. Just like when slaves escaped in America. The authorities sided with the owners and sent the slaves back. And the state/the Empire arrested people who got in the way of their commerce.
And it still happens today. At times property rights seem more important than human lives. There was more outrage in Baltimore over the burning of a CVS than the death of Freddie Gray and the string of others like him. Was looting really the biggest problem during Katrina or people trapped? And then there are the people too poor to pay their fines, so the state/the Empire puts them in jail.
Just this Thursday, Colorado Springs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado announced a settlement that will finally end the practice of jailing people who are too poor to pay their court fines. Over the course of one year, a man named Q-Tip spent a total of 90 days in jail for holding a sign asking for money. Jailed because he couldn’t pay his fine. He was among 65 more people that the city will give payouts for putting them in jail.
Officially, debtors' prisons have long been illegal in the United States. But some courts still send people to jail when they are too poor to pay. Last year, the Justice Department stepped in to stop the practice in Ferguson, Missouri, too.
The ACLU of Colorado discovered nearly 800 cases where people had gone to jail in Colorado Springs. Most of them were homeless — ticketed for things such as panhandling or sleeping in a park overnight.
The ACLU argued that people with means can simply pay a fine and move on but the poor get sentenced to jail. “That's a two-tiered system of justice that violates the principle of equal protection under the law."
Q-Tip was arrested for panhandling, but as he explained, "In our world, there's a difference between a panhandler and a flyer." A panhandler comes up to you and asks for money. All I did was "fly a sign." We’re all familiar with those cardboard signs written in black marker asking for help. And now I know they aren’t panhandlers; they’re flyers.
Q-Tip said, "My sign always said, 'Have a beautiful day. And God Bless You.'" And courts in Colorado and other states have ruled that there's nothing illegal about just holding a sign that asks for money. That's free speech. But police in Colorado Springs issued citations because flyers are embarrassing and bad for property values. Once again, property over persons.
The state/the Empire put Paul in jail because the slave girl’s owners couldn’t make money off her unique gift anymore. Their property was useless. But in a twist, those who arrested them got in trouble when they discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen. When the authorities discovered this violation of his privilege… Well, listen to the story that continued after our reading for today, starting with verse 35:
After spending the night in jail, including the earthquake and how they didn’t use the opportunity to escape, “At daybreak, the court judges sent officers with the instructions, “Release these men.” The jailer told Paul, “The judges sent word that you’re free to go on your way. Congratulations! Go in peace!”
37 But Paul wouldn’t budge. He told the officers, “They beat us up in public and threw us in jail, even though we are Roman citizens in good standing! And now they want to send us away secretly? No way! If they want us out of here, let them come and lead us out in broad daylight themselves.”
38-40 When the officers reported this, the judges panicked. They had no idea that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They hurried over and apologized, personally escorted them from the jail, and then asked them if they wouldn’t please leave their city. Walking out of the jail, Paul and Silas went straight to Lydia’s house, saw their friends again, encouraged them in the faith, and only then went on their way.”
The layers of injustice and privilege are obvious. And usually overlooked in this text and many more. The same as people jailed for the crime of being poor. Obviously wrong and mostly overlooked. Not to mention people living in prisons run by private corporations meant to profit their investors, not rehabilitate offenders. They’re invisible. And it would never happen to a person with privilege. Or maybe it does. There was a scary article in The Atlantic recently that said that 47% of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. It was called “The Secret Shame.” And people keep it silent from their families and friends and neighbors even though they might be in exactly the same boat. Their pain silenced. Just like the slave girl who is never heard from again.
What ever happened to her? How would she survive on her own, no longer able to make a living off her unique skill? Did she have a family to go home to? Would they accept her if she did? Perhaps it didn’t matter to Paul. Or maybe she became one his followers. I can only hope that she wasn’t abandoned like those truly on the margins of our society once they are given their freedom.
Freedom isn’t easy. And if the little slave girl hadn’t kept shouting at Paul, he wouldn’t have noticed her either, and we wouldn’t have paid attention to her story behind the obvious and overlooked layers of a scripture text begging for us to notice. And to notice the layers of privilege and injustice woven into the fabric of our nation too. Property over persons.
Did you know that slavery is actually still legal in Colorado? Someone noticed that in our state Constitution there’s an exception for prisoners. “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” They can still be considered, and treated, as slaves. A coalition movement called “No Slavery, No Exceptions” has worked to put the question of finally ending all slavery, ending all exceptions, on the ballot this fall.
In the aftermath of the bloodiest war on American soil, Julia Ward Howe’s original proclamation for a Mother’s Day observance named the need to commemorate and bewail. And then to work for peace. Then and now, such a call doesn’t begin because everything is kept OK by virtue of silence but because something can be done by speaking to end the suffering and shame of victims. Too often in an effort to keep things peaceful and pleasant such things go unnamed in the pulpit, unnoticed.
Where is the hope in this story? Are we asking from the perspective of privilege or those who are considered property? The little slave girl just wanted us to notice her. Maybe our suffering and shame in silence will be noticed too. And we will feel less alone.
 Estimates of 620,000 in a population of 31 million. That number, however, is considered by some as too low. See http://www.history.com/news/civil-war-deadlier-than-previously-thought
 The Message
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 1, 2016
"The Rightness of Making Wrong Choices”
Acts 16: 9-15 – Common English Bible
A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. 12 From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. 14 One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. 15 Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.
Have you ever said, “God just didn’t want it to be”? Or, “I guess it wasn’t meant to happen.” Hold that thought. First, Lydia.
I’ve always thought it would be great to be friends with Lydia. I mean, she’s a woman surrounded by purple. Can you imagine the joy of selling beautiful purple textiles all day long?! How could you ever have a bad day?!
There’s not a whole lot written about Lydia – whether she wore a red hat, slurped her soup, or wore slippers in the rain. But the few descriptions we do have tell us a lot. A purple aficionado, yes. But also, an independent businesswoman. A gracious host. And a worshiper of God.
Being described as a “worshiper of God” meant that she was a Gentile who was intrigued by the Jewish belief in God. It means that she was open to exploring such meaning for her own life. Which meant, she was open to what Paul had to say to her when she and some other women were gathered by the riverside that day when Paul was looking for a place to pray. Maybe they were praying too. Or gathered to discuss deep and spiritual ideas.
With that kind of openness, Lydia listened eagerly and became convinced. She responded and demonstrated how belief in Jesus was expanding beyond Jews to also include Gentiles. As you probably know, initially, those wishing to follow the way of Jesus were thought to first need to convert to Judaism before being considered a “real Christian.” So much of the conflict and strife in early Christianity, and much of the content of Paul’s first letters, were about how to reconcile exactly those differences.
The beautiful thing is that as Christianity developed, it was a way of spiritual life equally for men and women – including leaders in the church. Equally for Jew and Gentile. Equally for slave and free. Equally for rich and poor. I’m not sure we can adequately understand from our context how completely radical that would have been, although today, sadly we still have to ask in church and elsewhere, how often do those who are truly poor and the very rich, and everyone in between, interact meaningfully? Not as servers at a shelter or donors to a cause that helps the poor but sitting together at a banquet. How many churches are truly integrated? We have mostly black churches or mostly white churches and Spanish speaking churches or English speaking churches. We even have churches for liberals and churches for conservatives. Pentecostal, Catholic… It must have been quite a beautiful sight to see how such radical equality was practiced in early Christianity. It would be beautiful and radical today too.
But back to Lydia. Notably, upon her decision to be baptized, she actually became the first Christian convert on the continent of Europe. Later, she even started a church, which was, in fact, the first church on the European continent. Get that?! The first new-church start in Europe was led by a woman. My friend Kate Huey lamented that when she grew up as a young girl in the Catholic Church dreaming of becoming a priest, nobody told her about Lydia. Her conversion led directly and immediately to an expression of extravagant hospitality – stay with us, she urged. And generous support. She continued to support Paul’s efforts financially for years to come.
But this story is about more than Lydia’s conversion or her entrepreneurial spirit – whether starting a church or selling purple cloth. Her story starts back with my first question:
Have you ever said, “God just didn’t want it to be.” Because that’s why Paul met Lydia in the first place.
Paul’s arrival came only after repeated failures to figure out where he was supposed to go, what he was supposed to do next. Paul repeatedly failed trying to figure out the right direction to take next with his life. Just before our reading today, verses 6 and 7 tell all the different cities Paul thought he was supposed to go to, but where they kept running into road blocks… in Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Troas… He blamed those road blocks on the Holy Spirit, claiming that the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to pass. Imagine trying to tell your mother that – it wasn’t my fault. Which is sometimes the same as saying, God didn’t want it to be. Or, it just wasn’t meant to happen. What was really going on?
But at least he was open. He didn’t say NO. I had to learn not to say “No, I’d never go there.” The first time I visited Cleveland, I said I would never move there. I had never been in an industrial rust belt city so when I saw so many soot stained buildings and dreary gray skies, I made an announcement that gave God no choice but to make me eat my words. Four year later looking for an apartment. Not surprisingly, it was exactly the right place for me to go. And I happily stayed for 17 years.
But of course I can say that now, from the perspective of looking back. It’s harder to say in the moment that it’s good we’re being blocked from proceeding down the path we think is meant for us. Haven’t you ever thought, “This would be perfect for me.” And then it didn’t work out.
Sometimes it’s a God-thing. But sometimes it’s a race thing. A gender thing. A sexual orientation or a gender identity thing. Barriers not of the Holy Spirit but of human division. Not a “God-thing” but a “You’re the ‘wrong’ kind of thing,” maybe religion or immigration status… That kind of thing. You speak the “wrong” language. Things that aren’t fair. When whites could buy houses in Park Hill but African Americans couldn’t, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was a carefully drawn red-line kind of thing. When I couldn’t get ordained in the church of my upbringing, it wasn’t a God-thing, and yet, finding the UCC was absolutely a God-thing. Isn’t it interesting how God works around what humans do to each other.
In contrast, Paul didn’t have those barriers. He was able to move around freely because there’s a little detail in the text. Paul was a Roman citizen. If he needed it, he could appeal to the occupying force for help. As one commentator noted, if he were found in a ditch, he wouldn’t be just another Jew in the ditch. He was a Roman citizen who could expect help and demand respect.
Many of you know how much I have love travelling, especially around Southeast Asia for the last few years. But I am fully aware that I go with a tremendous amount of privilege. As an American, I can show up at the border and enter without proving I have a certain amount of money in my bank account first. The friends I’ve made can’t just show up and visit the U.S. Though I’m in their country, I move around freely on my own because so many signs are in both English and their language, whether in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia. I can expect a certain number of people to speak English. I’m a man, so I don’t worry about sexual assault. And I’m white, and so for whatever and for many reasons, I’m given deference and privileged to have people come over to help me when I look confused, for example, trying to figure out the subway.
The only time this wasn’t true was in Laos, where instead of expecting the police to treat me extra nice, I knew I was their target as they waited for me to do something wrong so I could be arrested, taken to jail, and fined. It was quite the contrast – driving while white, walking while white, being followed while white.
One day you’ll have to ask me the story of how I avoided going to jail by sleeping with a man I had met earlier in the day who had taken me to a nightclub, which due to our inability to understand each other very well, I didn’t know we were doing. (Not “sleeping with,” by the way!)
Some things never change, and so Paul, the Roman citizen, was privileged to move around wherever he wanted. And, apparently Lydia was pretty privileged too. She was from Thyatira, in modern day Turkey, Asia, but was living and selling her purple textiles in Philippi, in Macedonia, today’s Europe. Her wealth granted her privilege in ways that being a woman might have limited. I relate all of this because saying “God didn’t want it to be” or “It wasn’t meant to happen” doesn’t apply equally to people who face barriers because of discrimination.
And yet, even so, surely most of us at some point in our life must have asked, “Why didn’t that work out?” and then in hindsight find that something did come of it, something beautiful and amazing; sometimes because we were able to make it work. Always because we kept trying. Because remember, after each failure, Paul kept trying until he found Lydia. He remained open – if not this, then what else, where else, am I supposed to go.
When a door closes, in the moment, we all know that it feels more like punishment than an opportunity. Yet looking back, how we can say, God was in that. God was in that because God was with us the whole time, even those times we may blame God for blocking the way or keeping us out.
As people of faith, we live with the tension of believing in a God who would close doors for our own good while at the same time saying that we don’t believe in a God who acts directly in the affairs of the world. I mean, God doesn’t literally step in our way.
I know I live with this tension. Believing in – and experiencing – God actively working in my life. I know this in my heart. While at the same time, knowing in my head that God isn’t a deity that spares my house while flattening my neighbors. What does it mean when we say “God saved me”? It’s that tension of “yes” and… but that’s not how it works. I don’t believe in a God who puts food on my plate but doesn’t in a different neighborhood in Denver.
I will say, however, I know what it’s like when Paul felt blocked by the Spirit from going where he thought he was supposed to go, and yet how he ended up exactly where he was supposed to be. You know, that “God-thing.” I know what it feels like to be frustrated by something I can’t control or fully understand. Blocked for simply being who you are. And yet how sometimes that leads to a beautiful “God thing.”
When things didn’t work out, how did Paul finally find his way? Paul finally found the right destination because he listened to a man calling out in need. He had a vision. And Paul responded. Now, funny enough, there’s no indication that Paul ever found that man, or that the man actually ever even existed, but responding is what put Paul on the right path to meet Lydia. He listened. He was open. And that’s an important interpretive clue. One commentator wrote, Paul’s arrival in Philippi “wasn’t the result of a carefully executed strategic plan.”
I laughed when I read that because it comes just as we carefully consider the next step in our planning as a church! But as Burt Burlson noted, Paul wasn’t following a strategic plan. He simply demonstrated an openness to making a few wrong decisions. His right arrival was the result of a few wrong choices. His right arrival was the result of a few wrong choices. Remembering: Nothing takes us beyond God’s ability to help us find our way – no matter how many wrong, or bad, choices we make.
And so just at the moment we begin considering the next step in our long range planning – adopting a new vision – we can reflect on the six years since we adopted our last plan. It’s true that some choices didn’t work and maybe even God closed some doors. Frustrating at the time and issues still to address. But it’s amazing to read our previous document and consider how far we have come, how much we have accomplished together.
Again, not everything worked. So for the past couple of months, our leadership teams have been meeting to articulate a new vision upon which we can build. Asking, Where is God calling us next?
A copy of our four ideas, priorities, can be found in your bulletin:
I have to tell you: Each one of those statements has a closed door behind it – or two or ten. Which simply means openness to trying another door. True for each of us too. I mean, if Paul’s arrival at Lydia’s house wasn’t because of a carefully executed strategic plan, what was it about? Paul tried and failed and tried and failed. What’s the quote? “If you fall down seven times, get up eight.”
Each of us in our own way can do the same thing as we seek direction for our lives, until we find the place we are meant to be. And we’ll know that our being there is a God-thing. Paul demonstrates the rightness of making some wrong choices.
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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