Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 28, 2016
“Patience and Persistence in the Pursuit of Wellbeing and Justice”
Psalm 40: 1, 7-15 – Common English Bible
From the rising of the sun to where it sets,
God, the Lord God, speaks,
calling out to the earth.
7 “Listen, my people, I will now speak;
Israel, I will now testify against you.
I am God—your God!
8 I’m not punishing you for your sacrifices
or for your entirely burned offerings,
which are always before me.
9 I won’t accept bulls from your house
or goats from your corrals
10 because every forest animal already belongs to me,
as do the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know every mountain bird;
even the insects in the fields are mine.
12 Even if I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you
because the whole world and everything in it already belong to me.
13 Do I eat bulls’ meat?
Do I drink goats’ blood?
14 Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving!
Fulfill the promises you made to the Most High!
15 Cry out to me whenever you are in trouble;
I will deliver you, then you will honor me.”
 Long ago in Ethiopia, a woman married a widower who had a son. She was thrilled because she had always longed to have a child. But the child refused her affection. “You’re not my real mother,” he would say. He turned away from her every attempt to offer kindness. He refused to eat what she cooked. He tore his clothes so she would have to mend them, just to aggravate her.
The woman despaired of what to do so she decided to seek the help of an old hermit who lived on the mountain. “Make me a potion so that my stepson will love me,” she begged.
“Sure, of course,” he said. “Just bring me the ingredients.” He listed what he needed and concluded by saying, “And here is the most important and most difficult ingredient of all. You must bring me the whisker of a living lion.”
The woman gulped at the thought of that, terrified, but she was determined not to give up. That night, as her family slept, she crept out of the village to the edge of the desert carrying a bowl of meat. She knew there was a big lion who lived near some rocks a distance away. She walked by the light of the moon as far as she dared. When she heard his roar, she dropped the bowl and ran home.
The next night, again she sneaked from the house with a bowl of meat. She walked even further toward the rocks until she could see the form of the lion in the distance. She set the bowl down and ran home.
Every night she drew a little closer than the night before; each time setting the bowl down and running back home. Every night the lion ate what she left behind.
Finally, one night after many weeks, she placed the bowl on the ground and stepped back but did not run away. She watched the lion come slowly forward and eat from the bowl. The next night she set the bowl down but did not move away. The lion came forward slowly and began to eat. She reached out and stroked his fur. He purred like a cat, albeit a 500 pound one. “Thank you, dear friend,” she said as she kept stroking him. And then carefully, she snipped a whisker from his chin. She moved away slowly and then ran all the way to the hermit’s hut.
“Here!” she exclaimed. “Here’s the whisker of a living lion.” She beamed with pride. The hermit took the whisker and examined it carefully. And then through it in the fire.
“What have you done,” she cried. “That whisker was for the love potion. You don’t know what I’ve gone through to get it and come back alive! It took me months.”
He asked “Can the love and trust of a child be harder to obtain than that of a wild beast?”
The woman returned home, and slowly, with love and patience, won the trust and love of her stepson.
Mindee and I discussed what made this story resonate for her. We agreed: Whether it’s in Ethiopia long ago or Colorado today, people want quick solutions and instant gratification. The story, instead, encourages patience. It ends by saying, “slowly, with love and patience, she won the love and trust of her stepson.”
But certainly along with patience, the story counsels persistence.
When I’m working on a sermon it’s often like conducting an investigation, pursuing leads that may or may not go somewhere helpful, interesting or relevant. Google is my investigative friend. I thought, “I wonder what I’ll find if I google patience and persistence.” What I found was interesting, though whether it’s helpful or relevant always remains an open question.
I found at the top of my search an article called “The 4 P’s of Entrepreneurship: Patience, Persistence, Perseverance, and Passion.” I like the addition of passion. In fact, the woman in the story definitely had passion – her desire to have a relationship with her stepson. Why else would you dare to approach a lion?
Other articles expanded on variations of the letter P, adding to patience and persistence the words perspiration and progression. Another said “Be positive, patient, and persistent.” All good ideas.
But Americans are not just impatient, we are constantly pressured to produce. Quick solutions and instant gratification are not just personality flaws. They are pressures we place on ourselves because they’ve been placed on us. The pressure even of perfection.
Businesses place pressure on employees to produce ever increasing results to boost their profits. Parental leave, vacations, and the care of family members are impediments to such results. Even, some would argue, a minimum wage. Rather, the demand on employees is to work longer hours, check emails at home, write reports at night, and use as few vacation days as possible (assuming you have any to begin with) – all done with fewer resources and stagnant pay. Otherwise you may be seen as expendable and, if you’re seeking a more balanced life, welcomed to look elsewhere.
Teachers, administrators, and school boards are pressured to produce better test results – resulting in students pressured by ever heavier loads of homework. With all that, who’s got time for daydreaming?
I read page one – the publisher’s page – of The Christian Century magazine on Friday morning, despite the mounting pressure to produce a sermon as quickly as I could. The first line of the first paragraph read “On an average day in America, ten churches permanently close their doors.” Gee, thanks, I thought. No pressure there! Don’t be too patient or you’ll be next. But, doesn’t the story we read also suggest that if you push too hard, you could be eaten by a lion.
Even retirement has become a race to see who can keep busier. Do any of you who have retired feel the freedom to be patient?
We have a problem. And perseverance, passion, perspiration, progression and positivity will not fix it when the underlying issue is rest. Who has time to rest? Not just those who are sleep-deprived, but all who’s soul is weary, who’s mind won’t cease from the scenarios of doom if we don’t work hard enough.
The Psalmist asks a good question in Psalm 50. What, to what, and for what, should we sacrifice? While the people busily offered burnt offerings and sacrifices, God said “I will not accept bulls from your house or goats from your corrals. Do I eat bulls’ meat? Do I drink goat’s blood? No, instead, offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
What should we offer? What do we offer at the altar of, let’s say, success? What do we offer at the altar of quick solutions and instant gratification? We sacrifice sanity and wellbeing. We sacrifice peacefulness and health. We often sacrifice our families. When we bring our work home, we shut everything else out in order to be productive, including spouses, children, and permission to be a sloth once in a while. Here’s to a little more slothfulness in our lives!
The end of the section of the Psalm that Jess read says “Cry out to me whenever you are in trouble.” God said, “I will deliver you.” Which will require patience because God moves in God’s time, not ours. A day in God’s sight is a thousand years.
Patience, rest, sanity, wellbeing – a different set of standards with which to measure success in our lives. A set of hard choices.
Our new Conference Minister for the UCC in Colorado, Utah and southern Wyoming was once an executive on the rise at Mobil Oil. She quit one day when she realized her life was meant for more than that. She just didn’t know what. She didn’t have plans for anything else, just a realization that she had had enough. It wasn’t because she had a call to ministry. That was an unexpected result years later. Today, ironically, travelling a three state region to visit and help churches means she is home less often, but the measure of her sacrifice comes from thanksgiving to God and not profit for her company. That may be a message for someone else here today.
On the other hand, what kind of progress for social change has come from being more patient? Who among us is that privileged? Did women earn the right to vote from waiting? Did gays and lesbians win the right to marry from patience? Will Black Lives start to Matter because everyone has waited long enough for the realization to sink in? How long must refugees wait in overcrowded camps? When will we all have health care and the poor make a living wage?
One of the most compelling things Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said was “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” Waiting is the tactic of those who don’t want the kind of change that expands and includes but rather the continuation of that which divides and excludes.
Last month I suggested to our Coordinating Team that we engage the services of Rev. Tawana Davis and Rev. Dawn Riley Duval to work with our church to engage more deeply for the cause of racial justice. Asked when, I said, “We can make a case for it in our budget for 2017 and start in February.” Enmasse they said, it must be done now. “But we don’t have money in the budget.” They insisted we cannot afford to wait.
So next month we are embarking on a six month journey – Soul2Soul – through a mini-retreat and a series of workshops that create a space to address imbedded thoughts and beliefs and awareness of systems of privilege that can move us to combat racism, intentionally and effectively. Interestingly, when asked to describe what our experience together will be like, I was told, “The common thread will be spirituality, mindfulness, love beyond measure, peace in the midst of, transformation, and liberation.” That sounds remarkably like patience and persistence from one of the local founders of Black Lives Matter.
On the other hand, we can no longer afford patience with our Women’s Homelessness Initiative. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done together as a church. But we have a big problem. We have tried to be patient and encourage people to be an overnight angel. The whole point of the program is to actually provide a safe place to sleep. But during August, Karen and Mark had to stay overnight every time. They were very kind to do that. But that was it. And so, if we can’t solve the problem of enough people to share the sacrifice of staying overnight, we will have to end our participation. We can no longer afford to wait patiently. Fortunately, when we put that message into the weekly email, three women stepped forward – while I was in the middle of writing this! Does God provide? Does God deliver? Yet, the challenge will be to continue to keep that pace in October and all the months beyond. I am hopeful. But we must persist in keeping this before us.
The Psalmist invites us to ask what, to what, and for what do we sacrifice? Sometimes it calls us to sacrifice for the sake of patience in search of wellbeing. Other times it calls us to sacrifice for the sake of persistence in search of justice, otherwise known as wellbeing for our neighbor – Jesus called that “loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.”
Ask yourself, what is your measure of success and is it worth the price – not just paid by you but by everyone else around whom you love and who loves you? And if it’s not worth the price, then what? God said, “Cry out to me whenever you are in trouble; I will deliver you.”
Mindee Forman’s Response
When David asked me to discuss a story, a different one originally spoke to me. I liked “Old Joe and the Carpenter,” which you heard if you were here last week. I was getting ready for bed after reading the stories, and a different one kept going through my head – “The Lion’s Whisker.”
This story speaks to me in a number of aspects of my life. My daughter is about to turn 9 and has been really pushing boundaries lately with her behavior. I want to explain things to her once and have them stick, not be patient and persistent and repetitive.
As another example, I got braces a while back after needing them for 20 years, and as soon as they went on, I wanted them off and wanted to be done. Life doesn’t work that way. Moving bones takes time, and therefore, patience. Not my strong point.
The same goes for fitness – OH for a magic pill to make me the size and muscle tone I want to be, but then, the market is flooded with such false “quick fixes,” and the only thing that works is being persistent and disciplined over a length of time.
I could keep going with examples from my life…I’m sure we all could.
The thing is, if I want something to change, if I REALLY want something to change, I have to put in the work. I have to put in the time. If you really want to excel at something, author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That’s more than a year if you work at it 24/7 with no breaks, but who can do that? If you put in two hours every day (which is still fantastic), it would take you almost 14 YEARS to put in 10,000 hours. That’s dedication. That’s persistence. That’s REALLY REALLY wanting something.
It comes down to figuring out my priorities. How badly do I want a good relationship with my children? Or my husband? Or my neighbors? Or God? How badly do I want to see things change in my city? At my kids’ school? In my country? In the world? Am I willing to put in the work? The time? The years? I need to examine all of those things in my life and make sure my actions match what my heart and head tell me is important. And as David said, I need to be patient, persistent, passionate, and positive to make the changes. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t. But if I start today, it will happen sooner than if I start tomorrow…
I challenge my kids to be their best selves. I need to follow that advice as well, and live my priorities.
 “The Lion’s Whisker” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 21, 2016
“Jesus and Trolls on Social Media”
Psalm 49: 1-9, 16-20 – Common English Bible
Listen closely, all you citizens of the world--
2 people of every kind, rich and poor alike!
3 My mouth speaks wisdom;
my heart’s meditation is full of insight.
4 I will pay close attention to a proverb;
I will explain my riddle on the lyre.
5 Why should I be afraid in times of trouble,
when the wrongdoing of my bullies engulfs me--
6 those people who trust in their fortunes
and boast of their fantastic wealth?
7 Wealth? It can’t save a single person!
It can’t pay a life’s ransom-price to God.
8 The price to save someone’s life is too high--
wealth will never be enough--
9 no one can live forever without experiencing the pit.
Don’t be overly impressed when someone becomes rich,
their house swelling to fantastic proportions,
17 because when they die, they won’t take any of it with them.
Their fantastic things won’t accompany them down under.
18 Though they consider themselves blessed during their lives,
and even thank you when you deal well with them,[a]
19 they too will join the ancestors who’ve gone ahead;
they too will never see the light again.
20 Wealthy people? They just don’t understand;
they’re just like the animals that pass away.
Old Joe lived way out in the country on a farm all by himself. His closest neighbor was also his best friend of more than 40 years. Both of their wives had now passed on and all their children were grown and had moved away. All they had was each other.
But for the first time in their long friendship, they’d had a serious disagreement. It was a silly argument over a stray calf that neither of them really needed. Joe’s calf was found on his neighbor’s land who claimed that it was his own. Old Joe said, “No, no. It’s mine. Look. That calf has the same markings as one of my cows. It belongs to me!”
They were both stubborn men and neither would give in. But rather than let it come to fists and blows, they just stopped talking and stomped off to their respective farm houses and slammed the door. Two weeks went by without a single word spoken between them.
On the third Saturday morning, Old Joe heard a knock on his front door. He wasn’t expecting anyone so he thought it might be his neighbor finally skulking over to apologize. Rather, it was a young man carrying a wooden toolbox. He called himself a “travelling carpenter.”
“I’m looking for work,” he explained. “I’m good with my hands and if you have a project or two, I’d like to help you out.”
Old Joe looked him over, sizing up his character, silently expressing his doubts about someone who would just show up at his door. But the man had such kind eyes, and so he replied, “Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a job for you.”
“See that house over there? You see that creek running along our property line? That’s actually not a creek. My neighbor hired a backhoe to create drainage ditch from a pond up the way. He did it to spite me. Now there’s water running between us but I don’t want to have to look it. I’ve got some lumber in the barn – boards, posts, everything you need to build a fence. I want you to build a fence so tall that I won’t even have to look at that farm anymore.”
The carpenter smiled and said “I’ll get right to work!”
Old Joe had to go to town for some supplies so he left the man to work on his own. The young carpenter carried all the lumber from the barn and made quick work of it – measuring, sawing, pounding. All day with no break. As the sun was setting, he finished the project and began to put his tools back in the box.
Just then Old Joe drove up, dust blowing up from behind his pickup as he came to a stop. He looked at what the carpenter built and he couldn’t speak. It wasn’t fence. It was a bridge. A fine-looking footbridge with handrails and intricate carvings stretching from one side to the other. It was simply beautiful. Old Joe teared up.
As he stood there, his neighbor came rushing out of his house and over the bridge. He held his hand out, looking a little teary eyed too (although both would adamantly deny any such emotion).
He stammered, “I’m sorry. I don’t care whose calf it is. I just want us to be friends again.” Old Joe shook his head in agreement. But added, “You keep the calf.” But he also admitted, “This bridge wasn’t my idea. This young fellow over here was supposed to build a fence. But I couldn’t be happier. Nor could I be more ashamed. I should’ve had the idea.”
They both turned to the carpenter. He was hoisting the toolbox on his shoulder and preparing to depart. “Wait,” Joe said. “I’ve got lots more work you can do.” “Me too,” said the neighbor.
The carpenter smiled and said, “I’d like to stay, but I can’t. I’ve got a lot more bridges to build.” And with that, he started off down the road, whistling a tune as he went.
In many ways this sounds like a potential plot line for Grumpy Old Men Part 3, the movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathieu. Their feud was over a fishing pole and a girl. But the point was the same. People so stubborn they’d rather break up a friendship than admit fault.
How many of you have lost a friend? Or for that matter, how many of you have been unfriended on Facebook? It hurts. You aren’t notified when it happens and so one day you wonder why you haven’t seen any posts by a certain individual. You go to their wall and discover they aren’t there anymore. They haven’t left Facebook. They’ve left you! We’re instantly flooded with disbelief and anguish. “How could they do that? What did I do?” And then indignation. “I didn’t want them as a friend anyway. Good riddance.” But not always…
Or maybe you’ve unfriended someone. Certainly not without thought. Probably not immediately. But finally thinking, I don’t need this in my life. Too many posts about crackpot Trump or crooked Hillary. Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter. Shocking posts about transgender people and bathrooms. Hardened positions on guns. Racist, sexist, homophobic language. Increasing polarization. Decreasing civility. And we’re left thinking: Thanksgiving dinner was hard enough when I just had to listen to my crazy uncle for one day. Is it really worth it to be confronted by his rants all year long?
Not surprisingly, unfriending has been on the increase. I’ve been asking people this week whether they’ve ever been unfriended or unfriended someone else. One person said “I just block them so they don’t know.” But I sparked panic in another who said with a worried look, “I don’t know!”
Unfriending builds fences. What can we do to build bridges?
The implication in the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter is that the young carpenter is Jesus. So I was curious what we might learn from Jesus about internet protocol. I even found an article – online, of course! – entitled “15 Questions to Help Christians Follow Jesus on Social Media.”
It begins by asking “Does social media lead you into sin?” I thought, “Oh brother! What kind of ridiculousness is this going to be about?” Each of the questions also comes with a quote from scripture. The quote for this question was from the Book of Matthew. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For isn’t it better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?”
For sending a tweet? Pinning a pin (on Pinterest)? Posting a picture on Instagram? Sending a snap on SnapChat? Questions of life and death, heaven and hell, for having a Tumblr account…? I hadn’t realized the magnitude of all this. I created a Facebook account for my mother so she could follow all the activities of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Have I put her eternal soul at risk?
Another question asks “Do you use social media for unprofitable arguments?” It’s an oddly worded question but quotes from Proverbs, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Well, that may actually be a pretty good question to consider. Are we only speaking to be heard without listening to understand?
So I did a little tweaking to the language of some of the other questions and realized there are some pretty important things to consider:
Some of the scripture texts attached to the questions were a stretch, to say the least. I mean really: talk about your body and hell and dismemberment…? So I thought, what other scriptures might be instructive?
I’m officiating at a wedding this coming weekend for Melaine Bertotti. Some of you may remember her. She even went with us on our first trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where she impressed our teens with her football skills. She and her fiancé chose to have 1st Corinthians 13 read at the ceremony. She said, “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s perfect.” I agreed. But it also made me think it might be perfect for this sermon. “Love is not arrogant, boastful, or rude.” What might that say about our social media relationships – friending and unfriending, following and unfollowing, and everything else in between?
“Whether I post in the tongues of human beings of or angels, if I don’t have love, I am nothing. If I know all things (and can prove it to you with this link to The New York Times) but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t arrogant, boastful, or rude. It doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints. Love puts up with all things, trusts all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”
But does that have to include my uncle’s links to stories on Drudge, Breitbart, and the Blaze? Or course, he’d ask the same thing to me about Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, or even the Washington Post. Where do we meet in the middle? Bridges instead of fences. Can we even do that anymore? Or want to? Perhaps the best advice of all comes from the First Lady: “When they go low… we go high.”
The cover of Time Magazine this week tells a dark story: “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet” – turning the web into a cesspool of aggression and violence. Trolls are those internet bullies who write vile things in comments sections or send nasty tweets. However, not just bullying or hate speech but threats of rape and violence and worse. Female journalists are prime targets. But so are teenagers, ridiculed for acne and weight issues, encouraged to commit suicide. A Pew Research Study found that 70% of 18-24 year olds who use the internet have experienced harassment. The internet, with its lofty ideals of the free-flow of information, is sinking under the weight of sociopaths free to act out. Even the UCC had to eliminate the comments section under news articles published on ucc.org. The worst violator of decency – a retired UCC minister. What’s worse, as standards of behavior fall, it affects all of us. We’re tempted to follow along. I was truly tempted to repost a Melania Trump meme that was really at heart about slut-shaming.
In the interest of equal time, since I googled How to Follow Jesus on Social Media, I googled How to be Troll on the Internet. Sadly, not surprisingly, I found a long list of very detailed articles, enthusiastically explaining exactly how.
“When they go low… we go high.” But sometimes we can find ourselves on the low road. How would we know? Just ask: Does our speech lift up or tear down? Could anyone recognize Christ through us? We don’t need the internet to spread negative attitudes, complaints, gossip, and blame. This isn’t all about someone else. There’s a little Jesus and a little troll in all of us.
I may laugh when someone says the internet is the tool of the devil or the invention of Satan. Some of these trolls are like the living expression of the devil’s minions…and proud of it. And in response, more people are not just unfriending but dumping Facebook and Twitter and the rest altogether, consigning it to the dung heap of hell. Claiming a piece of sanity and civility in a rapidly devolving world.
But wait. Social media is also a beautiful tool for relationships. I know more about the births and deaths, struggles and high moments of people’s lives from Facebook than I would ever know any other way. It can be shallow. It can bring out the worse in people. But so can any other human activity known to man – including churches. Unfriending builds fences.
Elisa Davy Permain is the editor of the book of wisdom stories we have been using all summer. She said of the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter, “Most people see this as a Christian story and Jesus as the carpenter. But remember, we are all the carpenters of our lives.” Is it not time to work on our bridge building skills? Although, I have to say, sometimes “love your neighbor as yourself” means the appropriate consideration of a fence to preserve our mental health.
The message we can take from Old Joe and the Carpenter is not to let the work of bridge building be for someone else to do. It is for we ourselves as an expression of Christian discipleship – for they shall know us by our love. No matter where we are – in person, online, at home, or as we go back to school – there is always an opportunity to choose: when they go low, we go high!
 “Old Joe and the Carpenter” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.