Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 24, 2018
“Children Ripped and Scattered: Book of Job, Part 1”
Job 1: 1, 11-19 – The Message
Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.
What do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”
12 God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.” Then Satan left the presence of God.
13-15 Sometime later, while Job’s children were having one of their parties at the home of the oldest son, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing in the field next to us when Sabeans attacked. They stole the animals and killed the field hands. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
16 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned them to a crisp. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
17 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Chaldeans coming from three directions raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
18-19 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed on the young people and they died. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
“What do you think would happen if you took everything away from him?” And, in this case, everything was a lot. The Book of Job begins by describing that he had 7 sons and 3 daughters; 7,000 head of sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, 500 donkeys; servants. His wealth was extraordinary. But he wasn’t just wealthy. He was always trying to do the right thing, going above and beyond. For example, any time his sons hosted a party, Job would get up early the next morning and sacrifice a burnt offering for each of his children, thinking, “Maybe one of them sinned by defying God inwardly.” Job did this “just in case.” He wasn’t simply rich. He was a really good guy. You might even say he’s one of the few who actually deserved what he had.
“What do you think would happen?” But that’s just one question in search of wisdom asked in Job. The overarching question is “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?” Rabbi Harold Kushner famously asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”
In chapter one, as you heard Vanessa read, Job lost everything. In chapter two, his misery is compounded. After another “I wonder what would happen…” he is then covered with terrible sores; ulcers and scabs from head to foot. So miserable, he tried to scrape himself with broken pieces of pottery. If that makes you want to gag, that’s the point. And if not gag, then cry and look away.
Like Rachel Maddow did on live TV when she had to deliver breaking news that, yes, in fact, even infants and toddlers were being ripped from their mother’s chest, from their father’s hands, and scattered into “tender age shelters,” a euphemism Chairman Mao would like. Rachel tried but could not regain composure. She looked away and told them to go on to the next program.
Administration officials defended this practice by, among lots of conflicting excuses, blaming the parents. And, I’ll be honest, people could be forgiven for asking, “What is wrong with a parent who would put their children through such an ordeal?”
Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”) is a Somali-British writer and poet in her 20s. She wrote a poem called Home that provides a compelling answer to the question “why would you do that.” This is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
“go home” blacks
sucking our country dry
[beggars] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child’s body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
Guadalupe could flee El Salvador or stay and be murdered by the same people who killed her husband. When her husband started a small electrical company, gang members showed up demanding “rent.” He didn’t have that kind of money, so they shot him 20 times. They said they’d come back and get it from her. She couldn’t tell the police. So, she paid a coyote and took a 23-day journey north with her two children. I had no other choice, she said.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Like Yessenia, she didn’t want to leave either. She’s a grade school teacher in the capital of Honduras. She rounded the corner one afternoon and saw a group of four boys beating another boy. They saw her too. “It’s the teacher!” one yelled before scattering. The boy they left behind was beaten so badly that at first Yessenia didn’t recognize him as one of her students.
“If I hadn’t showed up they would have killed him,” she said. But any consolation that she saved the boy’s life would be short lived. Two days later, she saw another group of young men she did not recognize near the school. Unable to avoid them on the street, she said, “Good morning,” and kept her eyes down.
Gangs frequently murder witnesses to their crimes. Yessenia had witnessed two crimes in as many days and knew she would be pegged as a police informer if anyone ever filed charges.
Racked with fear and anxiety, she stopped eating and sleeping. Finally, she simply fled the school where she had taught for 12 years without telling anyone. The 56-year-old is now one of tens of thousands of Hondurans who have become displaced from their homeland.
Everyone, she said, has a story about a family whose home has been burned down or a son recruited by gangs. Or murdered. The countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have the highest death rates in the world for any country not at war. 81 murders per 100,000 in El Salvador in 2016, compared to 5 in the U.S. Women are not spared. LGBT people are particularly at risk. But these are also the most dangerous countries in the world for children. 540 children were murdered in 2016 in El Salvador; that is 67 per 100,000 compared to 4 in the U.S.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
They aren’t just seeking asylum in the United States. Applications to the U.S. are up 1,000% from 2011 to 2017. But applications are up 2,000% to Mexico. And 1,500% to other Central American countries like Costa Rica and Panama.
Guadalupe and Yessinia didn’t have 7,000 head of sheep and 3,000 camels like Job (perhaps that’s the problem), but the question remains, universal through the ages, “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?”
I visited El Salvador 9 years ago for the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was surreal then to see homes and businesses covered with barbed wire and the presence of armed guards everywhere. But they spoke of hope. They were healing. Yet, I now remember their complaints that planeloads of American-born Salvadorans had begun arriving every week, full of young men stripped of their citizenship, sent to a country where many had never lived. The influx of these men was destabilizing their country, they told us, which was still recovering from the effects of a U.S. backed civil war. The U.S. is not innocent of these crimes today. But even if we were totally guiltless, the exhortations of scripture would still apply – to treat aliens as you would a citizen.
And yet, today, I am not interested in repeating the admonition to Christians to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, free the captive… We’ve been saying that for years. Or even recite the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.”
Instead, today, I want to tell the story of Job’s three friends who each travelled from their own country to keep Job company in his misery and comfort him. Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, and Zophar from Naamath. The text says in chapter two: “When his friends first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how deeply he was suffering.” They sat there in lament for seven days and nights.
That speaks to me today. I lament, you lament, we cry in lamentation. Powerless, or at least feeling relatively powerless, that our country has somehow again returned to its past of ripping children from their mother’s arms. From black women on the slave auction block. From Native women forced to give their children to government agents to place in boarding schools – to “civilize” and “Christianize.” Mass incarceration of children in the name of education, complete with miniature handcuffs. All of it “legal,” defended and enabled by a warped distortion of scripture, some unwittingly, some not. Congregationalists were among many denominations who operated boarding schools. Many thought they were doing the right thing.
I fear the same for agencies today that are caught trying to serve children but are enabling their separation from parents, places like Lutheran Social Services visited by Mrs. Trump on Thursday. Can you imagine what this is doing to the souls of agency staff, not to mention government employees carrying out their directives? I weep for them too. We were once champions of human rights. The U.S. led the way to the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, although notably, incongruously, during the worst of brutal Jim Crow laws.
And, I can’t ignore, it’s hard not to notice the commonality of non-white skin tones of all these targets, as well as remember the Japanese, citizens no less, forced into concentration camps bounded by barbed wire in the desert.
All of these actions forever alter the bonds of parents and children. The legacy of children ripped and scattered has played out in multi-generational trauma. It will this time too.
Five-year-old Jose won’t forget being separated from his father, flown to Michigan, and placed with a foster family by a Christian agency that is trying to help. Janice and her family had provided a temporary home – transitional foster care – to minors fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala before. In fact, twelve in the last two years. But this time was different. All the others had access to their parents on a daily basis. Janice said, “They talked to them on the phone. We’ve done video chats with Mom and Dad and siblings with every placement – except now.” Jose is the first to be forcibly separated and left with no ability to contact them. Every day he asks, “When will I see my papa?” They tell him the truth. We don’t know. He finally did get a call, but with no promise of when they would see each other again. That’s when a whole new trauma ensued. He erupted in anger, screaming, and crying at the table for an hour. When his fury subsided, he collapsed on the floor, still sobbing, crying “Mama, Papa” over and over. Janice just sat there on the floor with him. “It was really hard to watch,” she said, her voice breaking. “The look on his face was anguish.”
When I decided to do a three-week series on the Book of Job earlier this spring, I had no idea this would be our context. The news in the past two years, of course, has left us with no lack of sermon material, but I assumed I would end this first part in the series with what Job told his wife. Sitting with his body covered in scabs and sores, Job said, “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days too?”
And it’s true. That is another way this is a universal story as old as the Book of Job and beyond. When we lose something, maybe not 7,000 sheep or 3,000 camels, but more likely a job, or a home, or our health, we hadn’t previously asked “why do I have a home, a job, or my health?” We don’t generally ask what did I do to deserve all these things. We ask “why” when it’s gone. It’s a story as old as Job.
But most of us also want those stories to have a good ending. The moral of the story. A nugget of wisdom. Job’s very words: “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days?” A good sermon, too, should end on a high and hopeful note. And for the next two weeks we will continue to explore the meanings within Job’s story. But today I can’t offer a neat and tidy, uplifting answer to the mystery of suffering and redemption.
Because I feel like, first, we need seven days and nights to sit like a friend with Job in lamentation, rip our clothes, throw some dirt, and declare, this is what undeserved suffering looks like. We can give value to our tears. In addition, there are many faithful responses, which include speaking out; giving money to organizations trying to help; showing up at rallies; continuing to make phone calls; not being distracted from all the other egregious actions continuing to unfold while our attention is elsewhere. But as Christians and people of faith, we have another outlet for our grief and anger. Arguing with God. It’s healthy.
I’ll never forget the Holocaust story of the Jews at Auschwitz who decided to put God on trial. (Jews, of course, the “infestation” decried by Nazis). They created a court with a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, and jury. Witnesses testified for and against. In the end, God was found guilty. When the verdict was read, everyone sat in stunned silence. Someone asked, what do we do now? They stared at each other and said, “now we pray.”
Everyone wants someone to blame for children ripped from their parents and scattered across the country. Or soon, perhaps, their unlimited detention together. Trump blames Barack Obama and Democrats. Before blaming the parents, Jeff Sessions blamed the Bible. “For the Bible tells me so.” Some may blame gangs. Some may blame God for not intervening. Or Satan. Next week we’ll hear arguments from his friends that surely Job is somehow to blame for his suffering. All I know is that parents are not to blame. After all,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Lord, have mercy (tear cloth)
Christ, have mercy (dump dirt on the table)
Lord, have mercy
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Eugene Peterson
 The whole poem https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/no-one-puts-their-children-in-a-boat-unless-the-wa/
 Listen to the whole poem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI9D92Xiygo
 up from 60 in 2012
 Leviticus 19:34 among many others
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 10, 2018
1st Samuel 17: 4-11, 49 – The Message
A giant nearly ten feet tall stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath from Gath. He had a bronze helmet on his head and was dressed in armor—126 pounds of it! He wore bronze shin guards and carried a bronze sword. His spear was like a fence rail—the spear tip alone weighed over fifteen pounds. His shield bearer walked ahead of him.
8-10 Goliath stood there and called out to the Israelite troops, “Why bother using your whole army? Am I not Philistine enough for you? And you’re all committed to Saul, aren’t you? So pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he gets the upper hand and kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if I get the upper hand and kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!”
11 When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine’s challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope.
David reached into his pocket for a stone, slung it, and hit the Philistine hard in the forehead, embedding the stone deeply. The Philistine crashed, facedown in the dirt.
David and Goliath is such a familiar, iconic, story that I could almost say “David and Goliath,” let you fill in your own examples of victories for the little guy, and say “Amen.” But who is who?
For example, this morning, in a number of churches, preachers are talking about a Colorado cake-baker as a David figure, taking down the Goliath of a secular society on the rise, threatening the deeply held convictions of religious people. At least, the deeply held religious convictions of those who tell everyone their convictions are the only ones. It’s not about tolerance for all beliefs, all religions, but power for a few.
I too have deeply held religious convictions but I hail Edith Windsor as the David in the battle with Goliath. This Pride month, I hail the black and latinx drag queens of Stonewall who fought back against another humiliating raid. I celebrate the David-ness of Richard and Mildred Loving who slayed the last giant of legal prejudice against interracial marriage 51 years ago on Tuesday. People had deeply held religious convictions about that too, not to mention slavery and segregation as well. Hard to believe, but that Goliath was slain.
But, perhaps let’s not focus on dividing ourselves into another battle of the Israelites and Philistines, though I fear we are in for another 40 years of “religious liberty” battles. But first, let’s go back to the original story.
As the story goes, David was a young boy, a musician, a shepherd, who came to the battlefield to bring his three older brothers some lunch. The Philistines had been trying to destroy Israel for years. It had come down to one last battle, but as it turns out, this last battle would be between just two warriors. Goliath and whomever Israel sent to take him on. Whichever lost, their whole nation would become the slave of the other. But no one would come forward. The stalemate had lasted 40 days.
David was astounded. Why are you just standing around? It was unthinkable that no one would stand up to this guy, even though Goliath was two or three or even four feet taller than the rest. Even today, the way the text tells it, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neill would have to look up to him. Like these players, Goliath was built. To make the point, the text tells us his armor weighed 126 pounds, perhaps the same as David.
No one would even try to slay that Goliath. So, seeing no one else step up, David insisted he could do it because as a shepherd, he had the experience of taking down the lions and bears that tried to kill his sheep. Everyone thought he was foolish, but no one else was willing, so King Saul reluctantly agreed.
But first, Saul wanted to cover David in armor. Of course, he would have looked silly. But more to the point, he would have been hardly able to move. He refused. Then unencumbered, David approached Goliath. David called out, in his pubescent voice, “You come after me with swords and spears and ax, but I come at you in the name of God Almighty.”
Do you remember Bree Newsome? She was the woman in South Carolina who climbed the flagpole on the state capitol grounds to take down the confederate flag. When Bree climbed that flagpole, she yelled to those waiting to arrest her: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence.” As she removed the flag, she yelled, “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” On her ascent up the flagpole, she also quoted David’s most famous Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not fear.”
David called out, think of the voice of the Peanuts character Linus, “You come after me with swords and spears and ax, but I come at you in the name of God Almighty,” but Goliath just laughed and snorted. Imagine James Earl Jones. “This is who you send?!! An apple-cheeked, peach-fuzzed little boy?” Goliath threatened to grind David into roadkill. But David just calmly searched the ground, picking up one stone after another, feeling for just the right five stones to put in his pouch.
Now if this were a Hollywood movie, he would have missed his target the first four times. The first stone would have gone off wildly into the river. The second stone might have almost struck a bird. Each time a little closer. But scripture says it took just one shot. Placed perfectly on Goliath’s temple, on his body otherwise covered in 126 pounds of metal. And the giant lay slain on the ground. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Israel prevailed. The young shepherd boy musician was a hero.
No wonder everyone knows this. It’s a great story. So many of us can relate. In fact, as one writer said, “In a country of more than 300 million people, we all have one thing in common. We all think we’re that little guy. Ninety-nine out of 100 people identify with David. Yet it’s funny how many of us still spend our lives trying to become as powerful as Goliath.”
There are a lot of Goliaths in our world. Although, we should also ask, how are we like Goliath? But that’s another sermon.
My question today is: who is your Goliath? But first, maybe we need to ask: what is a Goliath? Maybe a bully. Maybe a fear that is 10 feet tall. The tyrant on Pennsylvania Avenue? I suggest Goliath is anything or anyone we can’t get out of our mind and becomes the only thing we see. Maybe bellowing and taunting. (tweeting)
But what else keeps us awake at night? Big hairy giants. Like debt. Can I ever climb out of debt? Or cancer. Will she get through it – all the treatments, all the side effects? Or, will it come back again? Will I get it? Which is naturally about grief, and death – fear of our own or of someone we love. Sometimes it’s the only thing we can see. Yet, every minute spent worrying about death has already cut our lives shorter by that very worrying. How do we slay that Goliath?
And relationships. Sometimes they tower over us 10-feet tall. Problems with friends; all those dysfunctional work relationship dynamics; and the strain put on our relationships when the needs of our children, spouses and parents are all sandwiched together.
They can become larger than life, like David’s Goliath. And yet, how many of our Goliath’s are actually small, and often quite petty? What would happen if we discovered the Wizard, our Goliath, is just a little man behind a curtain?
Our 10-foot Goliath may be a bunch of little issues magnified out of proportion. Or it may be that one great big giant of an obstacle that seems unbeatable and impossible to defeat. Or maybe we’re so intimidated, we never even try to slay our Goliath.
So, as I thought about what to say today, I imagined searching the ground, picking up different stones, getting a feel for them, and asking - what five stones could we use to bring down our Goliath? Any one of which could do the job.
The first stone could be Reality. Just what are we really facing? To look at our reality instead of our fear. And not letting someone else’s fear become my fear.
Maybe David just had fresh eyes. He hadn’t been staring at Goliath for 40 days. When he walked up, he saw a big man slathered in metal who couldn’t run as fast as him. All that stood in front of him was a big bully with a hole in his armor, not a lion or a bear. Reality wasn’t as bad as the fear. Might that be true for us too? How bad is it really? Have you tried asking a friend?
It might have been logical that David could take out Goliath. He could have measured their relative heights, studied just the right angle for the sling, tested the strength of the leather… But he still had to do it, all while people stood around him saying he was foolish to try. Perhaps it is trite, but the second stone I suggest we pick up is Courage. It takes courage to stand up to our Goliaths. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
The counterpart to courage, our third stone could be Foolishness. We absolutely need a certain measure of wisdom and discernment. But sometimes all we need is a little foolishness. Instead of permission, to ask for forgiveness…
But did David even need a stone? He told Goliath, “you come at me with hatred and violence, with your threats and empty words. I come at you in the name of God – who protects my mind, body, spirit, and strength.” Perhaps the fourth stone is a non-stone. A non-violent response.
For example, who demonstrated more power to slay Goliath than those who marched in Selma and Washington? Those who sat at lunch counters and rode buses across state lines? What they faced down, however, wasn’t simply their fear. Those dogs were real, biting into children. Those fire hoses were real, slamming bodies against the wall. The ropes slung over trees were real. Black men and women and children were literally hung as forms of entertainment and intimidation. To expose this evil, everyday citizens exhibited unbelievable courage (some may have thought foolishly). All without the use of a stone. And what continues to inspire me was how many simply said, “It was just God.” God is what made the civil rights movement so powerful. God is the David at work slaying the Goliaths of white supremacy, nationalism, and fake appeals to God and country; sometimes disguised as religious liberty.
So, we have stones for Reality instead of fear; Courage and Foolishness. A non-stone for God. What’s our fifth stone?
That’s when the cursor on my screen sat unmoving. Blinking. Taunting me. No ideas were coming and I didn’t want to finish with a cliché. Then ideas did come, but the words were odd. I finally made a list of them. A fifth stone for Discouragement? A stone to remind us of our Disadvantages. Our Difficulties, Shortcomings and Weaknesses. I had this unusual array of choices for the fifth stone. Until it finally dawned on me. All those words were pointing to the greatest power we have. The strength that comes to us in our Vulnerability. It was his vulnerability, the lack of armor to weigh him down, for example, that made David invincible.
After all, the greatest power we have is not our acts of faith and courage. David didn’t make the mistake of thinking it was about him. David said to Goliath, “This very day God is handing you over to me. Then the whole earth will know that there’s an extraordinary God in Israel. And everyone gathered here will learn that God does not save by means of sword or spear. The battle belongs to God.” David’s victory was not meant to bring him glory. It was to show the world that the work of slaying Goliath is God’s to do, alongside the vulnerable.
Maybe we shouldn’t be picking up stones at all but finding ways to put them down. Perhaps the challenge is not to become well balanced and free of fear, but to lay down our swords, spears, and stones to show the world the power of God in our vulnerability.
This sounds very much like something the guru of vulnerability, Brené Brown, would say. She contends that vulnerability makes our lives better. She said, “I was raised in a ‘get ‘er done’ and ‘suck it up’ family and culture. Very Texan, [she said,] German-American. [I recognize that part.] The tenacity and grit of my upbringing has served me, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty.”
For example, there is no certainty the first time we walk through the doors of a church. We have to risk to belong. What a blessing, but we must first become vulnerable to walk through the door. There is no certainty that we will feel welcome, no matter how diligent we are with our web searches. We must be vulnerable to belong.
And creativity. Creativity doesn’t come from certainty. Creativity comes from being open to what comes, including blank screens and blinking cursors. We must be vulnerable to create.
And certainty kills religion. A black and white faith is not faith. It places us into categories for who is in and who is out. And after all, in the end, even love is a risk. Giving love and being loved. What does it mean to say, “God is love?” A risk? We must be vulnerable to love and be loved.
Goliath was slain when David made himself vulnerable. He took off the armor others thought he needed and stood there by himself and used the skills he had learned in times of danger. And then let God work through him. He leaned into that place where the foolishness of God is more than our wisdom. And the weakness of God is more than our strength. That's always been the strength, the power, of coming out.
Facing reality instead of fear (although some reality is really dangerous), courage, foolishness, non-violence, and vulnerability. What do you think? Maybe the story of David and Goliath is more than just a story of victory for the little guy. Even though, I really like that part too.
 1st Corinthians 1:25
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 3, 2018
“The Criminalization of Compassion and Survival”
Mark 2:23-3:6 – New Revised Standard Version
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The arrests of nine members of No More Deaths raises the question: Is it wrong to do good?
Today’s short readings on plucking grain and healing a man’s withered hand can be found not only in Mark but Matthew and Luke as well. Which means, this is an important story. Mark was the first gospel written. Scholars believe Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark when they wrote their gospels, so it’s always interesting to see which stories they picked to repeat, as well as, how those later writers interpreted the same story. In this case, all three are remarkably similar, except a few details and one very important addition in Matthew, which I’ll talk about later.
So, the first issue is about the disciples walking through a field plucking grain to eat. The Law says no work is to be done on the sabbath, including cooking. Anything you ate that day had to be prepared the day before. You’d think that rubbing some grain between your hands wouldn’t quite be “work,” but it drew the attention of the Pharisees who were looking for a way to engage – and discredit – this upstart preacher and healer.
Jesus had been drawing attention around the whole region. His fame was spreading as quickly as wildfire, creating concern among the authorities. But if the Pharisees could prove he was promoting blasphemy, Jesus would be discredited and like all the many preachers and healers before, he would simply disappear. Problem solved.
But Jesus proved adept. He knew the Law and the scripture better than they expected and was able to refute the accusations against his disciples by citing how David ate the Bread of the Presence, which was unlawful because it was reserved for priests. Clearly there were exceptions to preserve life, and as Jesus noted, “The sabbath was made for humankind; not humankind for the sabbath.”
Jesus’ saying was in line with other Rabbinic traditions. We may be more familiar with the origins of sabbath related to creation – “And on the seventh day God rested.” But among other origin stories, in Deuteronomy, God “instituted a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” Another rabbinic saying: “Profane one sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many sabbaths.” In other words, it would be better if someone didn’t die of hunger before making it to the next sabbath. Life is more important. Which would have applied to David fleeing persecution. That’s why it was OK that they stopped to eat.
Taking note of all these traditions and sayings is important because too many preachers use this text, like many others, to falsely assert that Judaism is about law and Christianity is about grace. Legalism vs. love. This is not true. As Matt Skinner notes here, “Jesus is not assailing Judaism. He is not rejecting the law. He is not saying the sabbath is obsolete. In this case, he’s not even insulting the Pharisees. Jesus is simply illustrating that any religious value, in the wrong hands, can become oppressive.”
Speaking of that, did you hear earlier this week about the evangelist who claimed that he needed a $54 million-dollar jet, his fourth, to help him “efficiently spread the gospel to as many people as possible.” In fact, he further claimed that if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t go around on a donkey but would have a jet of his own to take the gospel into all the world. Now, Jesus did say, God wants us to have life, and have it abundantly. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to have a jet. Obviously! But, as you know, religion in the wrong hands can be… ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, the idea of a jet-setting preacher is just as absurd as claiming that killing the Affordable Care Act was an act of “mercy.” “Mercy?! Joe Kennedy responded back brilliantly, “With all due respect to Speaker Ryan, he and I must have read different Scripture. The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and comfort the sick. It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill. This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
If I may add, you are free to be cruel, just don’t act as though Jesus thinks your cruelty is a good thing. Notably, to Jesus’ comment about the sabbath, the Pharisees had nothing to say in return. Neither did Speaker Ryan.
Back to our reading, in the second half, Jesus had another encounter with the Pharisees. There was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched to see whether Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath. I love how their assumption is “He won’t be able to control himself.” And sure enough, filled with his loathsome compassion, Jesus asked the man to come forward and asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath; to save life or to kill?” But no one said anything. So, he simply told the man to stretch out his hand and it was restored.
So, here is where the Gospel of Matthew, as I mentioned earlier, differs slightly from Mark. Not, maybe, “differ” so much as it adds more material to make it more abundantly clear. After Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath,” Matthew adds a very helpful example: “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you just let it be or will you lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being, or human life, than a sheep” (no disrespect meant). Jesus then asserts: “So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Matthew makes crystal clear what Mark only implies. It is lawful to do good on the sabbath.
Once again, Jesus is not denigrating Judaism. He’s not rejecting the law. Once again, he is following a rabbinic tradition that includes: “Saving life overrules the sabbath.” Critics might argue that a withered hand is certainly not life-threatening, but the life-affirming Jesus returns the man to fullness, restores his dignity, his place in the community, and allows him to provide for his family.
The issue of these two stories – plucking grain and the restoration of a withered hand, both on the Sabbath – is about what is a lawful activity. But I believe the intent is larger than that. I contend Jesus is asserting: It is lawful to do good. Period.
That has all kinds of implications, including, for example, those members of No More Deaths arrested on the US/Mexico border. What do you do for people who are literally dying of thirst? Should it be illegal to give them something to drink? According to some, the answer is yes.
Scott Warren is among a group of volunteers arrested in January who disagree. Scott is a professor of geography at Arizona State University and on weekends (notably, on the sabbath) his group puts out jugs of water for migrants crossing 100 miles of the Sonoran Desert. One of the areas is a 20 mile stretch in the Growler Valley, a “death trap,” where summer temps soar to 115 degrees and in the winter, you can die of hypothermia. A place where, last year alone, members of the group discovered the human remains of 32 people. Scott said it’s not unusual to come across scattered rib bones. He even found a skull resting beneath a mesquite tree.
He was charged with a felony for “harboring migrants” after he was allegedly witnessed giving food and water to two people in the desert. A felony. The timing of his arrest was suspicious, however, coming just hours after a report documented the systematic destruction of their water deliveries. 3,856 gallons of water – some by pouring the contents on the ground, some cut by knives, some punctured with bullet holes. Some of it done by hunters, some by right-wing militia members who “patrol” with their rifles, but much of it by border patrol agents, though, to be fair, this is not a new development. Pictures of children in cages dates back to 2014. Yet, as we know, this has been much more enthusiastically embraced and enhanced. After all, in the past year, calling undocumented migrants “illegal aliens” is no longer sufficiently derogatory. Now they are “criminal illegals.” Or as the president has taken to insist: they’re animals.
Arresting Scott for leaving water in the desert is another in a movement toward criminalization. For example, we’ve criminalized mental illness. Where do people go for treatment? Prison. We’ve criminalized homelessness. As long as you’re moving, it’s not a crime to be homeless. But if you sit down, if you lie down, if you spend too much time in one place, it’s a crime. Denver Homeless Outloud offers a listing of Colorado Laws Against Surviving in Public. That’s descriptive! Among other things it suggests that instead of arresting people for bathing in streams, why not provide hygiene centers where people can clean up. Arresting people for being homeless is expensive.
Naturally, I guess, if these are criminal activities, why not criminalize compassion too? Remember when 90-year-old Arnold Albert was arrested for distributing sandwiches in Fort Lauderdale. Three years later he’s still doing it because people are still hungry. In January, 14-year-old Ever Parmley learned a valuable lesson when he and 12 others faced misdemeanor charges for giving away food, clothes, and toiletries in El Cajon, California. Adele MacLean was ticketed for handing out sandwiches in Atlanta. The day of her court hearing, the group Food Not Bombs planned to protest by handing out sandwiches on the court house steps, but the charges were dropped. Cities across the country are making compassion a crime and punishing do-gooders.
But the criminalization of compassion is one thing. It is a choice among people who often have the privilege to do so. It’s the criminalization of poverty, the criminalization of survival, that should concern us more. It’s simply wrong. God’s concern for such people was to “institute a sabbath so that a people who once toiled every day in slavery could forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest.” But saving life overrules sabbath, especially in situations like David who was fleeing death and persecution.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009, “The use of the criminal justice system to punish those whose only crime is being poor and without housing is not worthy of our great nation. It is unconstitutional and only reinforces and strengthens the vicious cycle that entrap too many of our fellow citizens in poverty and homelessness. It is time – indeed, it is past time – for this to end.” His comments were in a report entitled Housing Not Handcuffs.
An instruction letter was issued in March 2016, urging chief judges and court administrators in states to abandon policies that could trap poor people in cycles of fines, debt and prison. It included examples of how police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, used the legal system as a moneymaking venture preying on poor and minority residents. But, surprise, surprise, five days before Christmas, Jeff Sessions reversed the sentiment.
Plenty of things should be against the law, such as withholding wages owed to employees. Lying and obstructing justice. Selling guns to minors. Hunting elephants for trophies. But doing good or being poor should not be a crime.
As I’ve tried to figure out, what is it with the divisions in our country, I’ve come to wonder if there aren’t two kinds of people. Ones who think we’re in this alone, and want to be left alone, and ones who think we’re in this together, and that we need each other. Are we only individuals or are we a community? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not it. It’s more than that. And, of course, trying to divide people into two groups, only serves to divide us into two groups.
But as I try to find meaning in the Gospel today, the Good News of the Gospel, two other categories come to mind. If it’s a crime to do good, call me a Christian. And if you want to make doing good a crime, at least leave Jesus out of it.
Friends, should we go do some good in the world?
 Matthew 12: 1-14, Luke 6: 1-11
 Sabbath is sometimes capitalized, other times not. I have chosen to keep it consistent and follow the NRSV
 Skinner quoting Amy Jill Levine and Joel Marcus
 We must be careful not to make this “ableist,” against persons with disabilities
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world