Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 26, 2018
“Choose Ye This Day: Faith or Party”
Joshua 24: 1-2a-14-18 – NRSV
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:
14 “Revere the Lord, and serve in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. And protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, who is our God.”
Joshua is a pretty significant biblical character about whom most people know very little. He was, among other things, the successor of Moses. After 40 years in the wilderness, he and Moses looked down from the mountain, but it was Joshua who finally led the people into the Promised Land. Joshua was also a military general. But, he was only successful when Moses was there holding up his hands. When Moses’ hands were up, Joshua was victorious. When his hands fell, Joshua’s army suffered defeat. So, to remedy this problem, on at least one occasion, when Moses grew tired, two men held his arms up until sunset, so Joshua could prevail over the Amalekites.
Joshua was also with Moses when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Six weeks later when they came back down the mountain, he was at Moses’ side when they discovered the people had built a golden calf in their absence. That’s when Joshua learned how quickly the people could abandon their god for something shiny and covered in gold. And because they chose a tacky idol instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, no one who had been alive when they were slaves in Egypt was allowed to enter the Promised Land, hence the length of a 40-year generation; not even Moses entered. Poor Moses, who had suffered through their constant whining and complaining. Only Joshua and two others.
Of course, we can’t forget the Promised Land wasn’t theirs to settle. It wasn’t empty land. It belonged to other people, whom they had to conquer first. It was the same kind of “in-the-name-of-God manifest destiny” that white settlers forced the original inhabitants off their tribal lands in the US and blacks off their land in places like South Africa. Colonial powers seized land around the globe for themselves not just out of greed but with the religious fervor of “civilizing and Christianizing.” So, it’s hard to “celebrate” Joshua’s victories when in reality it meant killing the Canaanites to get it.
You’ve probably heard the story of at least one of those victories at Jericho. We even sang a song about it in Vacation Bible School. Joshua’s army marched around the walls of the city of Jericho for six days in silence. On the seventh day, they blew their trumpets and the wall of Jericho fell, which, I’ll give it to them, was a brilliant strategy. The walls didn’t necessarily fall from the blast of the trumpets but the weight of all those curious people standing on the adobe walls watching an army march around their city in silence.
We may “celebrate” the Fall of Jericho, but what would the residents who lost their home call it? Just like the U.S. government called it Custer’s Last Stand – a heroic, romanticized image. Tribes, who were victorious, called it the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The U.S. government called it the Battle at Wounded Knee. Tribes call the slaughter of 300 mostly women and children without weapons the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Independence Day in Israel is called Nakba, the Catastrophe, by Palestinians.
Therefore, I always feel a sense of unease with stories like these involving Joshua taking the Promised Land. Unease, but not as sick to my stomach as I was this week when on Fox News, Tucker Carlson chose to highlight the most obscure allegation of wide-scale killing of white farmers in South Africa. As he decried the injustice of this literal “fake news,” he called the president of South Africa a “racist,” with such a look of sincerity you might even think he that he thought racism was bad or an issue with which someone should be legitimately concerned. And yet it was just one more in a string of attempts to change the narrative of corruption by this administration. All of it without any hint of irony that blacks in South Africa, 80% of the population, own 4% of the land of which they once owned 100%. Gee, how’d that happen? It’s all a bunch of white supremacy garbage, which only increased the likelihood that the president would tweet in support of a conspiracy theory without the facts to keep his base happy.
But back to Joshua. We may think of him for his roles with Moses and the Ten Commandments and the golden calf and the two of them standing overlooking the Promised Land and the fall of Jericho and all his military victories. But it is today’s story that will always stand out to me: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Growing up we had a plaque in our kitchen with the words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” alongside a picture of the Last Supper and one of those half a billion copies of Sallman’s portrait of a blonde-headed Jesus.
At 110 years old, Joshua was nearing the end of his life. No longer nomads, the people were now fully settled. The text says they were living in houses and eating fruit from trees. To be more accurate, it says living they were living in houses they didn’t build and eating fruit from trees they didn’t plant. I’ve even used the text before on such occasions as church anniversaries as a kind of tribute to the generations who sacrificed to build edifices like this sanctuary without thinking – hey, wait a minute – we’re in this church because the generations before us meant for us to inherit it, and for the next generation to inherit from us. That’s inspiring. But Joshua’s people were living in houses and eating the fruit of people from whom they took it. That’s not inspiring. That’s theft.
And yet, the point is, the people were settled and ready for new leadership. It was time for a kind of rite of passage. Sort of like, you’re an adult now so you get to decide. He had them gather at Shechem, which is a narrow passage between two mountains. Choose this day whom you will serve. It is a decision we are faced with nearly every day.
Michael Cohen told George Stephanopoulos, "My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first.” And with that he flipped on a man for whom he had once pledged to take a bullet.
Under different circumstances, such a statement would have been lauded by faith leaders for its expression of family values. But some faith leaders today need a “Joshua moment” to decide whether family values include:
Are those the positions of your faith or your party?
Some “whom shall we serve” questions might include:
Perhaps we can be criticized for only accentuating the negative aspects of the times in which we are living. Can’t you find anything good to say? Perhaps we can just as easily find ourselves parroting the positions of only one party too. So what, then, do we stand for? But more important than what we stand for, who do we choose to serve?
It doesn’t matter what party we belong to, or what country we live in, the basics of our faith are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. As it says in the Book of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
It doesn’t matter whether Trump is president or Obama or Warren G. Harding. The question is always to choose this day: faith or party. When one conflicts with the other, which shall you choose? If you don’t know, ask “Where is the love?” What makes our world more like the Kingdom of God about which Jesus was constantly talking; more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate? One party doesn’t have a monopoly on that.
Now interestingly, after the people shouted, all pumped up and inspired, “We choose the Lord!” Joshua yelled back at them, “No you won’t. You’re incapable. You can’t do it.” They protested back, “Yes we can.”
And at times throughout their history, they were faithful. Wonderfully. And at other times they failed. Spectacularly. As spectacular as that gold covered calf or a gold-plated toilet.
And that’s when we realize, the issue isn’t whom we choose but that God keeps choosing us despite our failure to make the right choice. And offers grace that we might begin again. And again. And again. And, I’m sorry God, it looks like we’re gonna need it again. I’m sorry. And thank you.
 Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans, 2008
 James 1:27
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 19, 2018
“A Blue Wave Won’t Fix This.
That’s Not Entirely Bad.”
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10 – NRSV
God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
A pastor, teacher, and public defender all died and went to heaven. Standing in front of the pearly gates, they looked for instructions where to line up. The pastor thought surely there must be an express line for her. The teacher and public defender similarly thought they deserved expedited service for their years of dedication to the public good. But all three had to stand in the same line as everyone else and wait their turn. When it came their time, Saint Peter came over with his clipboard and explained that everyone needed 100 points to get in. They all thought that should be easy.
The pastor proclaimed, “I was a minister of the gospel for 47 years.” The teacher proclaimed, “I taught sex ed to middle schoolers for 30 years.” The public defended proclaimed, “I saved the lives of over 200 falsely accused men and women.” Peter exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. You each get one point!” Each of the recently deceased protested. “That’s all I get for 47 years of ministry?” The teacher leaned in, “Have you ever spent even one day in a classroom with 30 boys who haven’t discovered deodorant?” Peter wasn’t amused. He reiterated: “One point.”
So, each began to list things they thought should count as points, one after another. I tutored a neighborhood child. I spent a week at church camp. I marched in Selma. One by one, Peter put checks next to each name and kept a running tab. “OK, you’re each up to four points. Just 96 more.”
The threesome looked at each other in distress. The teacher said, “I don’t think I have 96 more examples.” The pastor yelled at Peter, “This isn’t fair. I’ve given my whole life to the church.” The public defender shook her head and finally said, “I don’t stand a chance, except for the grace of God.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Peter handed her a ticket and swung the gate open wide. She smiled back as she walked in, as the other two quickly yelled at Peter, “Grace! Grace!”
Week after week this summer, the news has given us another reason to feel depressed one day, outraged the next; or “fired up and ready to resist” one day, and “I’m worn out, let’s just wait this out,” the next, each week causing more people to slowly disconnect from the news.
I reflected back on some of the sermons I’ve preached this summer, one of which, about the underserved suffering of Job and the separated families, I ended by saying we need to just sit in some old fashioned biblical lamentation. I’ve tried to encourage us with reminders that when all we can do is sigh, that is, in fact, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. I’ve given rallying cries for resistance as well as encouraged breathing and making sure we take time for rest. In each sermon, I tried to listen faithfully to the text for our call as Christians during these distressing and disgusting times, last week wondering, how can some Christians just stand by all as all this happens, and not just stand by, but actually approve at rates higher than the rest of the country?
John Pavlovitz joins in wonderment. The early Christians, he wrote, the immediate followers of Jesus, joined him in welcoming the outcast and the vulnerable—they didn’t refuse to serve them or harass them at school.
Christians then, cared for the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked—they didn’t claim they were lazy and had made bad choices.
Christians then, sought to destroy social barriers between people—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. They didn’t try to make the barriers worse.
Christians then, pushed back against the powers that hoarded wealth—they didn’t admire them.
Christians then, loved their desperate neighbors as themselves—they didn’t wall them off and lock their kids in cages.
Politicians can say and do all they want, but Christians can’t hold up “John 3:16” signs at football games and proclaim “For God so loved the world” and then angrily yell “America First” at rallies.
And a blue wave in November or a red wave the next won’t fundamentally change the dynamic of division in our country. It all leaves me feeling both ready to fight and hopeless at the same time.
And then I came upon this text: God said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.
When I’m weak, then I’m strong. The president loves to divide people into the weak and the strong. To him, calling someone weak is the ultimate insult. That’s why he loves dictators. Because they are strong. He would have been a huge admirer of Caesar and the ruthless power of the Roman Empire. And yet, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to demonstrate the opposite.
Jesus lays out his vision at the beginning of his ministry in what we call the Beatitudes – known in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount and in the Gospel of Luke as the Sermon on the Plain. The more familiar in Matthew speaks only of blessings, though they are upside down, such as blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort; and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But the version in Luke is much more pointed:
20 Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Those are pretty strong statements! They are also examples of things for which we don’t strive. They are not achievements. We don’t try to be poor or hungry or to weep. But they are one way to illustrate Paul’s claim that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The experience of grace isn’t found in those things we can achieve, but grace is revealed each time we say, I can’t. Or, I don’t know how I can possibly do this anymore.
But first, what is the context of Paul’s statement? Earlier in same chapter, Paul says we shouldn’t boast, even if we have a right to do so, whether it is teaching middle school sex ed or being a pastor for 47 years. And yet, Paul has also just listed how he has suffered as an apostle: imprisonments, floggings, stoning, shipwrecks, and the danger and hardships of long journeys: from bandits, rivers, hunger, thirst, cold, to walking hundreds of miles across Asia Minor and Greece. “But I’m not bragging!”
He is, rather, likely trying to defend himself against adversaries, or an adversary, unnamed but probably in Jerusalem, who criticized Paul, for unknown reasons. Kind of vague, right? But hearing only one side of a conversation does that. If I’m listening to someone talk on the phone but I don’t know what the other person is saying, I can only guess and fill in the blanks. The comedian Bob Newhart was a genius at doing this. That’s what these letters of Paul are, whether to the Corinthians or Romans or whomever else. But further complicating matters, this book known as 2nd Corinthians is not just one letter but a combination of perhaps three letters, written at different times about different issues. We’re left to try to figure out what’s going on behind the story.
And yet, whether it’s an actual adversary or something else, in this text he called his adversity a “thorn” in his flesh. He prayed to God three times to take it away, but, he said, God would not. This thorn is the subject of much speculation. Scholars have offered lots of opinions, including, as I mentioned before, a particularly difficult, unknown critic. Others have suggested that he suffered because of a physical problem, or maybe migraines, or maybe depression. Maybe he was trying to control bouts of anger or some other torment. Some scholars have even said that perhaps he struggled with sexuality.
But by not naming his thorn, we’re invited to each name our own. Things we wish we could get rid of or change but will not go away. If I ask you, “What is your thorn in the flesh,” you could probably answer without too much trouble. The president has a new thorn named Omarosa. But with all seriousness, that which we may consider our greatest torment or fault is the source of our greatest strength. Whether it is the thing that causes us to lose sleep at night, or a chronic illness, Paul suggests, from his experience, it is a source of strength. Why? Precisely because when we feel most at our wits end, that is when we are most open to a power not of our own making.
I have some questions:
What is a reason you can’t sleep at night? What keeps you up?
Is there someone who constantly torments you or criticizes you?
Where in your body do you experience pain or anxiety?
What emotion do you find yourself unable to control at times?
What or who do you wish would just go away?
Those things are ultimately our strength because they make us most open to God. We may even come to realize we are strongest in our broken places.
For me as a young man, it was being gay. I had no conception that anything good could come from it. All I saw was limitation. Pain. Heartache. I wanted God to take it away. I got down on my knees and prayed a lot more than three times for God to relieve me of the thorn in my flesh. But when I was at my lowest, when I had nothing left with which to fight, I finally let go and let God into my greatest brokenness. I did not expect it to be a blessing. But because of it, I found a strength I would not have otherwise known. Because of my thorn, I came to understand the line from Ernest Hemingway: “Life breaks all of us, but some of us come to realize we are the strongest in our broken places.”
That reason we can’t sleep at night.
That person who is constantly tormenting and criticizing.
That very place in our body where we experience pain and anxiety.
That emotion we can’t control.
The very thing we wish would just go away but won’t.
That’s not something a blue wave can fix. And that’s not entirely bad.
We find strength in some of the oddest places. The five-year anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death is coming up in a few days. I was reminded how, a few months after, my sister Judy saw a tree-trimming service working at her neighbor’s house. She crossed the street and asked the foreman to come over and look at the dead tree in her backyard. It was one of many tasks her husband would have taken care of, but with his death, it was one more thing she had to deal with. My sister was worried it could fall on the house, but the man told her she didn’t need to worry. “Cottonwoods are stronger in death than they are in life.”
It was another occasion when a complete stranger said something that brought my sister to tears. He stood there, his flannel shirt covered in saw dust, and just held her. I looked on a forestry website to see if it was indeed true, and though I’m not sure that it is, regardless, it was one of those broken moments which provided her with the strength she needed to get through one more day.
When we are weak, then we are strong. Our greatest pain may be the source of our greatest strength. I wonder if our country isn’t ultimately going to be stronger because of this time of brokenness. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. To stop living from election to election as though that’s going to fix us.
Meanwhile, there are going to be times when we feel like we have nothing left to give. It is in that moment, the grace we need will be sufficient. Whether we need 96 more points or just three.
 Luke 6:20-26
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, page 103
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 12, 2018
“Chipping Away, Tweet by Tweet”
Ephesians 4:29-5:2 – NRSV
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Tasuku was a stonecutter. His job was to cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. Day after day he stood at the bottom of a mountain and chipped away at the hard rock with his little chisel. One day he saw a prince who passed by wearing beautiful, colorful clothes and Tasuku envied the prince. He wished he could have that kind of wealth and power. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku and granted his wish. He became a wealthy prince.
Tasuku was enjoying his silk clothes and happy with his powerful armies, until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished he had the kind of power the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with the power to parch fields and humble the people with their thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun, until a cloud covered him and blocked his powerful heat. With that, he made another wish, and the Spirit complied. Tasuku became a cloud with the power to cover the sun and send powerful rains and floods and storms to destroy whatever he wanted.
Tasuku was happy to be the cloud, until he realized the mountain stood solid despite all his storms and floods. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed. Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than any prince, the sun, or a cloud. And he was happy, until he felt a chisel chipping away at his feet. It was a stonecutter – cutting blocks from the foot of the mountain to sell for his daily living. What do you suppose he wished to be then?
There is an obvious moral of the story that when we wish to be something we’re not, we’ll eventually find ourselves wishing to be who we were in the first place. Being someone else just brings its own set of problems. So, accept yourself and appreciate your gifts.
But as I came across the story again this week, it made me think how every day, little by little, tweet by tweet, a stonecutter is chipping away at the foundations of decency and democracy. In his first year, by means of 2,568 tweets. Since he started tweeting, 222 that call someone dumb, 183 that call people stupid, 156 that call someone weak, and 234 that call someone a loser, which I thought was a pretty low number. Little by little, tweet by tweet, chipping away.
As you likely know already, today is the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of Heather Heyer. And the debauched claim of the Sympathizer in Chief of “very fine people on both sides” among those white supremacists, neo-nazis, and members of the KKK. Ask the 400,000 Americans who died fighting in World War 2 whether nazis aren’t such a big deal. But little equivocations like “both sides” chip away.
The Pulitzer prize winning journalist Connie Schultz was on TV the other day and someone tweeted at her, “the horizontal wrinkle between your eyes is distracting. Botox can fix that.” Connie, who by the way is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, admired the person’s ability to focus on her nose as she discussed the continuing crisis of family separations and then explained it’s not a wrinkle but a scar. When she was 8, her father put a swing set in the backyard. She peered up, hands shading the sun from her eyes, and thought how cool it would be to climb to the top. Her father, sensing this, said “Don’t even think about it.” Mom added, “You could get hurt. And even die.” Connie climbed it anyway and fell facedown into the glider, slicing open the space between her eyes. You can imagine the sight of an 8-year-old with blood seemingly streaming from her eyes. As they left the emergency room, her mother said “You’re going to have a big scar, young lady. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” “Which I was,” Connie said, as she admired the black threads of the stitches between her eyes, “but I wasn’t going to say it.” She replied to the tweeter, “This is what 61 looks like. And reminds me of a girl who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This little scar inspires me.”
Little things like a scar can build us up, remind us of courage and tenacity, and little things like a tweet can chip away until the mountain has fallen. A mountain no one ever thought could be brought down. Perhaps by a missile but not with a few words typed on a screen. More disturbingly, however, the abundance of words not spoken.
The more egregious the tweet, the more united you would think the country would become as we recognize the threat to our shared existence on this land. Or at least you would think as Christians – whether liberal or conservative – we would be united against this threat. We share the same scriptures, like this one today from Ephesians. And with Muslims and Jews and Christians, we share the same God.
I have a book on my desk I’ve been meaning to read again. It’s Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, written way back in the quaint old days when life was simpler in 2011. As I look at it on my desk, I keep thinking, yes, that’s what we need to prepare ourselves for. We need to help heal our country.
And how might we begin? First, by knowing what we are, and who we are, seeking to become. Today’s text from the Book of Ephesians provides a pretty good description of an old life and a new one in Christ. It begins by providing some powerfully descriptive words for our present state: Wrangling, bitterness, wrath, slander, and malice.
Those are fascinating words. I had a little fun with a thesaurus and followed a trail of synonyms. For example, if you turn in the middle of your bulletin, you will see the word wrath, with its descriptors of rage and anger and frenzy. But then follow those words. They include the imaginative richness of words like rant and rave, blather, nonsense, irritation, obsession, and whirl. Might another word for whirl be chaos? We can certainly picture the malignancy of malicious tweets full of nastiness, cruelty, spitefulness, and vindictiveness. The Book of Ephesians vividly and remarkably describes the world in which we are living.
Obviously, the early Christians struggled with this in their day too or these words would not have been chosen. Perhaps it is cold comfort to know we are in good company, or bad company, that is. But, whether it was 60 years after the death of Jesus when Ephesians was written, or 2,000, I find the description of a new life in Christ compelling.
Healing our divided world is one thing. But must we not also address the divided church of evangelicals and conservatives vs. moderates and progressives. The divisions in the early church were often related to differences between Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were not. You know, of course, that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was prophet who loved his own. It all simply started as a reformation movement. But, Jesus had a way of drawing Jews and Gentiles together. And after his death, the question was, must Gentiles convert to Judaism first? Ephesians was a letter that circulated among many Christian communities that, among other things, addressed this conflict.
The author made unity a central theme. But also described this unity as already achieved. In chapter two it says, “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near… For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Consider our current context in these ancient words. But notice, the healing of this division is not something yet to be accomplished. It is in the past, settled, resolved.
There is another passage you’ve likely heard before from Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and through all and in all.”
If what you heard in my sermon last week is that evangelicals and progressives are divided, this text is a correction. We are united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism, even though we may disagree about its meaning and implications. Our unity exists. Though it may be easier to see the divisions among us. But, like Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eyes before noticing the speck in your neighbors.”
No one can change the ways of our Tweeter in Chief, but we can change ourselves. Plus, as Grace Aheron, a campus minister in Charlottesville, tweeted, “Jesus didn’t spend time trying to change the mind of Caesar. He was demonstrating the kind of world that could exist.”
Today’s verses are remarkably tweetable and even fall within the requirement of the number of characters Twitter allows. They also demonstrate the kind of world which stands in contrast to Caesars, then and now, whether in Rome or Washington.
With 132 characters:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up so that your words may give grace to those who hear”
And with 104 characters:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”
“be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you”
And finally, another 146 characters:
“be imitators of God, as beloved children and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”
Among these words, my favorite descriptor of a new life in Christ is “forgiving.” At first blush, not the most exciting. It seems a little bland, ordinary. But follow the synonym trail: “Merciful, magnanimous, big, generous, liberal, open-minded, unprejudiced.”
Have you ever described “forgiving” in that way? That’s our calling if we seek a life whose foundation is Christ. That, to me, is compelling. To set aside bitterness toward our neighbors and rather be magnanimous, liberal, open-minded and unprejudiced, through acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and compassion. Just as Jesus has done toward us. A mix of doing and being.
What then, however, does that say about our response to those very fine neo-nazis who went on a murderous rampage one year ago today? That’s our constant challenge. To be compassionate, but not accomplices to injustice. Gentle, but not appeasers of racists. Thoughtful, but not silent to violence, whether it’s the violence of the KKK or that which has been done to kids in cages.
We might be intimidated by the size of the mountain in front of us. But slander, malice, and wrath are not made of granite. And those tweets will eventually vanish into thin air. The mountain of their invincibility is just an illusion. It’s just a pile of sand, and that doesn’t require the skill of a stonecutter but just a bunch of us with buckets. And little by little, we can bring it down until it has fallen into the dust heap of history. And while some are tearing down, others can be rebuilding, brick by brick, stone upon stone. It’s the little efforts by all of us that will build us up and heal the heart of our democracy.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 5, 2018
“Understanding Trump and Evangelicals”
2nd Samuel 11:26 – 12:13 – Common English Bible
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27 After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.
But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.
12 So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. 2 The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him.
4 “Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”
5 David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! 6 He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”
7 “You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power. 8 I gave your master’s house to you and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. 9 Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. 10 Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
11 “This is what the Lord says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.”
13 “I’ve sinned against the Lord!” David said to Nathan.
How do evangelicals stick with Trump? I don’t mean it as a partisan question or even necessarily a judgment. Not even why, so much as how. I just need to know how to explain how theologians justify, not the election, but given everything that has happened since the election, how support has actually increased.
Social scientists offer a variety of explanations, such as a disciplined single-minded dedication to achieving a Supreme Court that will enact their favored policies. Some will suggest various theories about race and economics. But my interest is in the theologians, not the politicians. And I found the answers I needed. Answers that make sense.
King David is one answer. A deeply flawed individual who, despite Bathsheba-gate, yet even so, became one of the most beloved leaders of the people. They just had to stick with him. That’s one explanation.
But the one cited most often, and the one I found most persuasive, is that he is the new King Cyrus. Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, and therefore pagan, who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, ending their 70 years of exile in Babylon. He restored the people to their former glory and even helped them rebuild the Temple which lay in ruins. God used Cyrus the Great to restore the people. And God will use, or is using, Trump as a modern-day Cyrus to do the same thing. They shall be restored to their former days of glory.
Cyrus didn’t need to be perfect. There’s even a term for it. “Vessel theology.” What is important is not the vessel but what it carries. Cyrus was a vessel, even though he was a pagan. Just like, it’s explained, God chose Trump to be the president. And how can we question the wisdom of God?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly made this comparison, even having minted a coin for the occasion of the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. It had the face of King Cyrus and Trump side by side. Upon the announcement and return of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the comparison was proven. And Trump fully embraced the connection and even sent greetings on the Persian New Year, complete with a quote from Cyrus the Great. A few days late, and ironically, it was a fake quote. But nonetheless, the linkage was made explicit.
I’m not saying I agree, I’ll say more later, but theologically, this holds together. It makes sense. I found it helpful in understanding. Trump returned the exiles to Jerusalem and shall end their exile in America.
Cyrus is a pretty obscure figure in the Bible, so if you’ve never heard of him, you’re in good company. He appears most extensively in the Book of Ezra, which is so obscure it doesn’t even appear in our 3-year lectionary. There are several mentions of Cyrus in the Book of Daniel, too, a book which has to do with remaining faithful during times of persecution.
Daniel is a fascinating sub-story in all of this and has even been used to explain Mike Pence’s role. It’s a stretch even by hard core evangelicals to say that Trump himself is an evangelical. He’s given a “mulligan” as a “baby Christian.” And that’s why Mike Pence is so important.
Daniel is an outsider in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court but has gained tremendous power by his proximity. He remains untainted and “shows how God’s people can survive in exile – even under the fist of the most despotic ruler – so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” Daniel used his position of proximity to establish protections for the Jews and secure appointments for his friends. I’m not sure Pence embraces this comparison, but he is consistent in expressing his belief that evangelicals face some of the worst persecution in our country. And need to be protected. When Trump’s a bully, at least he’s being their bully.
They are oppressed and in exile. That’s as important a key to understanding evangelicals and Trump as almost anything else. Arguably more than any other factor, the degree to which a Christian describes him or herself as oppressed reveals their willingness to stick with anything Trump does. In a 2017 survey, 57% of white evangelical respondents reported they face discrimination comparable to, or even higher than, Muslims.
Part of that is that they feel they are being displaced in their own country want it back, one reason so many are opposed to immigration, despite the biblical command to welcome the stranger and the foreigner. To treat an immigrant as a native-born citizen. But when Trump described Haiti and African nations as “bleep-hole” countries, defenders like the “boys will be boys” megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress agreed. “Right on target,” he said. Immigration, whether by refugees fleeing actual persecution or crossing illegally, only represents a further diminishment of their power. Why can’t we have more Norwegians?
They feel like victims. Is it true? It doesn’t matter. And I understand. Their beliefs are often met with derision. Ignorant, backward. They are not always represented well on TV or in the movies. The country is less and less “culturally-Christian.”
But sticking with Trump no matter what he says or does doesn’t help matters. Respected polling firm PRRI asked evangelicals in 2011 if they believed a politician who commits immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. Only 30% agreed. 2011. When asked again in 2016, two weeks after the infamous Access Hollywood tape when Trump bragged about groping women, 72% of white evangelicals said a politician who committed immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically. 30% before Access Hollywood; 72% after.
And ever since, no reports of payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models, whether true or not, matter. While poll numbers soften occasionally among some people, support is stronger than ever among evangelicals. Now, that is, white evangelicals. African American, Latino, and Asian Americans, who make up 13% of evangelicals, want to make that clear. They’re not quite so onboard and they understand the dog-whistle of America’s greatness means to Make America White Again.
Evangelicals below age 50 are not buying it either. In fact, Baptist General News, not the New York Times, Baptist General News warns that “continuing evangelical support for a scandal-ridden president is undermining the conservative white church and could even spell the death of Christianity [among younger people] in the United States.” The country is already becoming less religious as the number of people identifying as “nones” increases. And why wouldn’t they? Something as basic and obvious as flip-flopping on the morality of public leaders makes Christianity look hypocritical. Younger evangelicals were appalled by kids in cages. They care about the environment. The majority support protections for LGBTQ people and even marriage equality.
There is another way to read the King Cyrus narrative. King Cyrus represents the end of exile, the return that makes the people Great Again after things fell apart under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. What if it was the other way around and Trump is Nebuchadnezzar? He was a cruel man whose policies were brutal, but he was also considered a vessel of God. We can keep the vessel theology, but he was a means to punish the people for their lack of concern for widows and orphans. Prophets like Micah demanded, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Daniel told the king to “break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” Instead “Nebuchadnezzar deported over 3,000 of the leading scholars, religious leaders, artisans, and political leaders. Sent them away, beginning the Babylonian exile.” Waves followed. Otherwise known as a refugee crisis. And then he boasted about his great Babylon.
Yet, according to scripture, this was part of God’s plan, too. To use Nebuchadnezzar, as horrible as he was, to teach justice and mercy to the people with whom God had grown weary. If we want to assign a biblical character to Trump, it could just as easily be Nebuchadnezzar; filling the role of a cruel and brutal leader, an autocrat wanna-be, who brings the church to the brink of exile or even extinction for the sins of this age, with the promise of a future Cyrus still to come. The Trump-Cyrus comparison may not be as flattering as some want it to be.
The comparison of King David and Trump is also short-lived. When Nathan confronted David in our text today regarding his affair with Bathsheba and the cover-up, David immediately confessed, “I have sinned against God.” He repented and changed his ways. In contrast, when asked in 2015 whether he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump replied, "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." This at the same event as he described the sacrament of communion as some wine and a “little cracker.”
I feel like I understand a little more about how evangelicals, older, white evangelicals, stick with Trump. There are other factors, but theologically and biblically, this explains how they can remain loyal. And they have been richly rewarded. Temporarily, but at what cost to the future of Christianity in America. What does it do to your soul to admire a man who scores bigly on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride. Sloth? But certainly gluttony. As David Horsey explains, not because of his affinity for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but his ravenous hunger for higher ratings and adoring crowds. He just can’t get enough.
As you heard, the story we read today ends at verse 13 with King David confessing, “I have sinned.” That’s where the lectionary ends. But the story doesn’t. In verse 14, Nathan then offers forgiveness. “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Confession and assurance of grace. The end. But curiously, that’s not the end either. Verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you and Bathsheba shall die.” The next couple of paragraphs tell about how their child does in fact die, how remorseful David is, and how they later have a son named Solomon, who after David’s 40-year reign, becomes the next king of Israel, widely considered the wisest king ever. Though David was forgiven, the text shows, he did not escape the consequences of his actions.
Which makes me wonder… What will be the long-term consequences of our present day? I don’t want to speak for what others may face, but I do want to be able to say we spoke up, we acted out, and we refused to give up. Our country deserves better than this.
With the weight of all we carry, we could feel
Not just distressed by all of this, but crushed.
Not just perplexed by it, but despairing,
Not just forgotten but forsaken,
Not simply dumb-struck but destroyed.
We could choose to respond in that way. Stay at home, close the blinds, or we could come together, as we have and will continue to do, and pray to God, proclaiming, as Paul did:
We may feel distressed but we shall never be crushed
Perplexed by all of this, but never driven to despair
Forgotten but never forsaken
And struck down, struggling to hold on to our hopes and our will to keep resisting, but never destroyed.
May God make us strong and courageous in the pursuit of the world that Jesus taught, that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. For everyone.
 Daniel 4:27
 Richard R. Loesch, All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture, Eerdmans, 2008
 2nd Corinthians 4:18, cited in a sermon by Walter Bruggemann, May 25, 2014
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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