Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 25, 2017
“Kindergarten vs. Kingdom Values”
Matthew 10: 34-39 – Common English Bible
“Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.36 People’s enemies are members of their own households.[a]
37 “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. 38 Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. 39 Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
This morning we wish Happy Birthday to the United Church of Christ – not quite old enough to collect social security, but we are old enough to have already had an AARP card for 10 years!
Sixty years ago today, delegates to the Uniting General Synod met in Cleveland to declare the organic union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. We often talk about four denominations merging to eventually become two denominations merging to become one in 1957. But what our forebears did was not merge these churches together but they spoke in terms of a higher calling. An organic union.
It wouldn’t be easy. In fact, this union came only after a decade of court cases and animosity, largely from members of Congregational churches that were fiercely protective of their autonomy. And though, in fact, the union was declared this day 60 years ago, in our polity, every single Congregational church still had to vote itself into the union – most didn’t do so until 1961. And ultimately, about 1,000 churches didn’t join. You’ll find these churches scattered throughout the country. First Congregational this or that, here or there; for example, in Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. Locally, the beautiful red stone Congregational church in Lyons is not UCC. Many, though not all of them, are more conservative and it can be surprising for visitors to Congregational churches to find that they are not in a UCC, which is why it’s important that we keep saying United Church of Christ in Park Hill’s name.
People often joke that when two churches join together, it creates three; and the union of the UCC was no different. So now there is also the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches, (rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it!?) and, my favorite, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. It’s my favorite because I am named in their history book as being personally responsible for a church in Northeast Ohio leaving the UCC to join them. A few years ago as I prepared to teach at Iliff, I read their history text. Imagine reading along and seeing your name! It was the scandal of my ordination as an out gay man in 1993 they were referring to.
Random churches have left over the years. Just recently Rockland Community Church in Golden left because they felt we are too hopelessly liberal. But more churches than ever left after General Synod voted in 2005 to support marriage equality for same sex couples. But while I’m grateful we took such a bold stand, losing these churches was not a good thing. Relationships among people of diverse perspectives is really important, and especially missing today.
Our biennial General Synod starts on Friday in Baltimore and we’ll see if we do anything to drive more people away. On the agenda are 20 resolutions, such as recognizing gun violence as a public health emergency, being an immigrant welcoming church, and a boycott of Wendy’s for turning a blind eye to the alleged cruel treatment of tomato pickers.
However, these are only the resolutions that came in before the deadline for submission on January 21st. Emergency resolutions can be introduced at the first plenary session. And that includes anything that has happened since inauguration day! I can only imagine our first 20 resolutions will morph into 20 more!
Most resolutions will not be particularly controversial in what has become our mostly progressive body – for example, supporting a higher minimum wage, environmental issues, and disability justice – made much more visible after the arrests of people in wheelchairs outside Mitch McConnell’s office this week, after it was revealed that the latest health care plan will eliminate $800 billion in Medicaid – not for debt relief but as Eugene Robinson said – to “create fiscal headroom for what is coming, euphemistically called “tax reform.”
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson spoke to our General Synod a few years ago. As he wrote on Friday, “this is not a health care bill. It’s the first step in a massive redistribution of wealth from struggling wage-earners to the rich — a theft of historic proportions.”
Medicaid serves almost 70 million people. It provides health care not just for the indigent and disabled but also for the working poor — like low-wage employees at Wendy’s. Additionally, Medicaid provides nursing home care, including for middle-class seniors whose savings have been exhausted — a situation almost any of us might confront.” I was shocked to read that “Roughly two-thirds of those in nursing homes have care paid for by Medicaid.”
Whereas the majority of Synod delegates are typically progressive, not every delegate nor especially every congregation is. Even though General Synod only speaks TO churches and not FOR them, it can still be seen by some as politically divisive, leading naturally to the question: Is that what Jesus wanted? Did he envision his disciples taking stands that split and divide?
Today’s text is severe and unforgiving; and it’s hard to reconcile with our favorite images of Jesus feeding hungry people and welcoming children and admonishing his followers not to judge lest they be judged. Love, compassion, kindness, mercy – these are the messages that animate my walk with Jesus. And peace. Peace in the valley, the peace that passeth understanding. The Prince of Peace. And yet, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter in law against her mother in law.”
During a Bible study on this passage, Connie, a life-long faithful member of her church, said “I’ve spent enough time around the church to know that discord happens within the community of the faithful, but Jesus would never encourage this. How did this ever get into the Bible?” Another said, this sounds like “some odd invitation to family dysfunction and disunity.” Another claimed it gives permission for bullies to engage in “righteous” bullying? Others will even point to this passage for justification to engage in war.
Does anyone remember Robert Fulghum’s very popular book a few years ago called All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Or, a suggested alternative title, Lessons from the Sunday School Sandpile.
If you don’t know it, it’s great stuff. Some of the examples include:
You can extrapolate from these statements very adult policies that affect taxes, the environment, law enforcement, sanitation, and the humane treatment of laborers. But while these are excellent examples for humans to live in harmony, Jesus taught about Kingdom values, not kindergarten ones, and it turns out that Kingdom values are more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness.
Now, a basic question for study in this passage is whether Jesus meant that his purpose was in order to turn people against each other. Was that what he meant? It’s good to be divisive? I don’t think so. Rather, his statement is among many others to prepare his disciples to go out into the world. A few verses before he gave them encouragement about the love and care of God – saying to his audience “Even the hairs on your head are counted.” “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without God knowing about it already. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Apologies to the sparrows, but we get the point. Or as it says in The Message – you are worth more than a million canaries. Therefore, don’t let your adversaries bully you.
All of this precedes his statement about peace and swords. Not in order to turn people against each other but as a warning to them about the consequence of following his commandments. And what did he say were the most important? What is the summation of all the law and prophets? To love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. But how could loving your neighbor, or even loving God, engender hatred?
And yet, it’s not how the white supremacist or the homophobe or the oil company executive responds that ultimately matters. Rather, it’s the reluctance of Christ-followers to say any of those things or put our lives and reputations on the line in order to keep the peace. It’s classic Dr. King from a jail cell in Birmingham, responding to white clergy urging that he and civil rights workers act more politely to keep the peace.
When churches preach “let’s all get along” by means of keeping silent about the news of the day, well then, we deserve to become like the salt that is trampled underfoot because it has lost its taste. What’s it’s purpose? We are simply a light that is hidden under a bushel basket. And what good is that?
Richard Nixon famously asked “How will this play in Peoria?” Whether to visit China or bomb Hanoi, his advisors weighed how the decision will sit in the living rooms of people in Peoria. Just like before introducing a new product, Coca Cola tests it in Peoria. And if it sells in Peoria, it’ll sell in Topeka and Omaha too. It’s literally the geographic middle of the road, a weathervane, a cross section of the good ol’ USA. An idea will sell in mythic Peoria if you tell people there is nothing required of them. No sacrifice, no cost. Nothing unpleasant. Law and order, property values, tax rates…
It may work well for Coke, but problems begin when the Church only acts upon how well it will play in Peoria. Benjamin Corey said, “Jesus didn’t come to bring a period of tranquility where everyone holds hands in a circle. He came to bring upheaval to the ways of this world. He came to flip tables. He came to speak up for the oppressed, to loose their chains of bondage, to welcome the stranger,” and bring to the table those left behind by the rich and powerful.
He came for the millions about to be locked out of doctor’s offices. He came for those locked out of bathrooms. He came for those locked behind bars for longer periods for lesser crimes to keep prisons at capacity for shareholders. Profit over people. Concern that people have more money to build even bigger houses than concern for maternity care to give birth to healthy babies. The increase of power through fearmongering over the power of compassion and understanding.
Quinn Caldwell wrote about this passage: “It’s not that Jesus likes conflict. He knows we live in a world built on injustice. Conflict is not desirable. It is inevitable. The only choice is between living with the conflict that already is, and living with the conflict that comes with trying to change it.”
The prophet Isaiah said, “Come, let us reason together.” I could have no higher hope for the UCC at our General Synod or for our country. But never to trade away the rights of the poor, the misunderstood, and the left behind so the people of Peoria can feel comfortable.
We can disagree about the means and methods. We should, in fact, engage in debate. That’s a good thing! Nobody has all the answers. As long as we understand that the bottom line is compassion – that we are disciples of Christ’s mercy and compassion – even when, and especially when, that is divisive. That is not negotiable.
Because as our passage concludes today, “whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” I guarantee you that doesn’t play well in Peoria, but to be fair, I don’t necessarily know how well that plays in Park Hill either. It’s not easy to hear Jesus say, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
After a second thought, I’m not so sure that kindergarten values and Kingdom ones are that different.
In 1987 a group of liberals and evangelicals in the UCC gathered to craft a common statement of mission. It was a wonderful example of collaboration that included the concerns of people on every side and down the middle, from liberal to conservative, and evangelical to progressive. Join me in reading it:
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves:
To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God's forgiveness;
To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world;
To embody God's Love for all people;
To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life;
To embrace the unity of Christ's church;
To discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.
hey all reveal the love of the Christ who still lives because of you.
 Modern Day Pilgrims, published in 2000
 Villard Books, 1986
 Lance Pape, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, Homiletical Perspective on Proper 7, p. 167
 Edward Marquardt, Sermons from Seattle
 Patheos blog, “What Jesus Meant,” September 8, 2015
 Quinn Caldwell, “Not Peace,” UCC Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, June 25, 2017. I changed violence to conflict.
About this testimony: The UCC Statement of Mission, 1987, was drafted by a churchwide conference on mission in Houston, Texas, in which representatives from all communities in the church—including evangelicals, liberals, and others—tried to find common ground. The statement was affirmed by General Synod XVI later that year.