Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 25, 2019
“Waiting to ReName Stapleton for All”
Luke 13: 10-17 – New Revised Standard Version
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
The authorities asked Jesus, “What’s your hurry?” Pointing to the formerly bent-over woman, they asked, “Why couldn’t she wait? It’s against the law to heal today. Do it tomorrow. It’s just one more day.” As though they really cared. After all, hadn’t she been standing there, standing bent-over, for 18 years? According to their logic, that’s 5,634 days on which she could have been healed. But no one cared about this woman with no name, no one saw her, until Jesus healed her on the wrong day. Now, they would no doubt scoff to hear that they were uncaring. “How dare you accuse us?” And claim to be the real victim, not her. “We care deeply about her suffering. But if she wants healing, she needs to wait, and do it legally.”
This story made me think of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign that sought to bring national attention to the efforts of local black leaders to desegregate public facilities. On April 3rd, a series of actions began – lunch counter sit-ins, sit-ins at the library, kneel-ins at churches, marches on city hall and the county courthouse, and a boycott of downtown merchants.
Eight clergymen in Birmingham issued an “Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” published in the local paper, which read in part, “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.” But demonstrations to realize those hopes, to gain their rights, they said, are “unwise and untimely.” Adding, “when rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
On April 10th, the city obtained a state court injunction against the protests and two days later, on Good Friday, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and placed into solitary confinement for 10 days.
While he was sitting in jail, Rev. King used the margins of the daily newspaper to scribble a letter to that group of fellow clergymen. In what I consider one of his most brilliant writings, known as Letter from Birmingham Jail, he asked why the clergymen deplored the demonstrations but not for the conditions that made them necessary. The clergymen blamed outside agitators for riling up the local population, unconcerned they would need assistance with their cause. The clergymen said they were unhappy with the demonstrators’ willingness to break laws against mass gatherings but, why then, did they refuse to obey the Supreme Court decision to outlaw segregation in public schools. Why one law and not another, Rev. King asked.
He expressed frustration that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t their greatest stumbling block but the white moderate who is “more devoted to order than to justice, who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom; who constantly advises to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
It was a similar sentiment in a letter written to King by a man in Texas which read, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry?”
You have no doubt heard pieces and parts of the Letter from Birmingham Jail before. I was struck by the similarities with the gospel text. Jesus was told to wait until it was technically legal to heal, citing laws about sabbath observance. He asked, why is ok for you to untie a donkey so it could drink water on the Sabbath but it is not OK to untie this woman so she can be free from her bondage? Remember the words “freedom from bondage.” It is key to understand this interaction.
We may be most familiar with concept of keeping the sabbath holy from the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus. Honor the sabbath because God rested on the 7th day. But Jesus was referencing a second list of Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy. The same commandments, but in this case, why one was to keep the sabbath holy was different. It is tied not to the creation story but to freedom from bondage. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath.”
Jesus wasn’t disregarding the importance of the Law. He reminded them of its entire interpretation. He wasn’t saying the Law is uncaring but that their interpretation was too limited. Jesus noted that the observance of the sabbath was to commemorate the freedom of slaves from their bondage in Egypt. Therefore, freeing this woman from her bondage is completely in line with the intention of the sabbath commandment.
Would it feel differently to you if keeping the sabbath holy wasn’t just about rest but about liberation from that which keeps us in bondage all week? To what are we held in bondage all week? Take a day off from that every week. That’ll preach!
I want to stress an important distinction. Sermons on this text can easily stray into anti-Semitic tropes about how the Law is legalistic and the Gospel is about love. It’s a slippery slope from a character assassination of the synagogue leader to an accusation against all Jews. And charges of disloyalty retweeted from neo-nazis. In fact, it’s something I had to take into careful consideration when talking about Dr. King’s time in Birmingham Jail – I don’t mean to compare Bull Connor and the rest of the segregationists with the synagogue leader. Rather, the similarity I want to suggest is the insincere misuse of law and to imagine the woman’s reaction to hearing, “you should’ve waited.”
Imagine how she would have felt: “Wait. Just a little bit more.” When have you been told “Wait. Just a little longer.” What was their intention to make you wait? As Dr. King said, wait almost always means never. We even used to tell Lance “we’ll see” when the answer was really “no.” After a while, he figured it out!
I thought about what must have been going through the woman’s head. Ironically, she didn’t go to Jesus asking to be healed. She was simply standing in the crowd, as she likely did every day, bent-over. Then the text says, “Jesus saw her.” Think about how important it is to be seen. He called her over and said, “You are set free from your ailment.” It’s a beautiful moment. Until the criticism that it was one day too early.
She might have thought to herself, just as King wrote from the bondage of his jail cell, “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear with a piercing familiarity.”
Imagine her sitting in the audience in a hot, humid, Alabama sanctuary one night, listening to a sermon by Rev. King, waving her fan and nodding her head in vigorous agreement when he said, “We have waited for more than 340 years. We still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining the right to simply have a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” He continued: “I guess it’s easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of [racism] to say ‘wait.’
The results finally came in last week. Property owners in the Stapleton neighborhood voted not to change the name in order to stop honoring a man who was a member of the KKK. But, not simply a member of the KKK. He filled his cabinet and police forces with members of the KKK. This was a man whose election to mayor of Denver was celebrated by cross burnings on the top of South Table Mountain. Despite any other accomplishments, Jews, Chinese, Catholics, immigrants, and African Americans were all openly terrorized with impunity during his reign. People who have recently moved to Denver should read about the history of the Klan here and around the state.
Even decades ago, people knew that using his name was a problem, but ultimately nothing was ever done. Which was one reason given for not doing anything now. Black Lives Matter brought it back into public discussion in 2015. I remember thinking, aren’t there more pressing issues? I concluded it was not my business deciding what is important to people terrorized by the KKK. An interracial group, including members of our congregation, has been working for the past two years to ReName Stapleton for All. They made us see it. They hoped that when people saw the truth, they would be moved by compassion. Instead, it made people uncomfortable and defensive. They came up with excuses. The Master Community Association was particularly annoyed by the group, calling them “outsiders coming in.” They were impatient to get this off their agenda, so they pushed for a vote before everyone was ready. They considered the ReName group’s concerns overhyped and accused advocates of bad behavior. A decision was made to exclude anyone from voting who lived in Stapleton but did not own property. Only property owners. Who do you suppose was disenfranchised by such a decision?
No one was surprised by the outcome to keep things the way they are. Changing would be an inconvenience. I went to the MCA meeting on Tuesday where the vote would be ratified and was struck by the tones of hostility in the room and defensiveness that sounded shockingly like 1950s Birmingham. This 100% white group told the ReName people over and over: “You should have done it a different way.” Yet, they had no power. It was surreal. And deeply saddening.
Meanwhile, as property owners voted to keep the name Stapleton, students at Denver School of Science and Technology voted to change their name to DSST Montview. Denver Parks and Rec just removed his name from the rec center in Globeville. The Stapleton Foundation changed their name to The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Living. Other groups and business owners are dropping the name. And this will continue to happen until the embarrassment is too great. Then it will change too. It could have been an occasion of enlightenment. A collective, “Oh, we see it now!” Rather, it will fester. While we wait.
A name change may seem trivial compared to issues, for example, of affordable housing in Denver, but the root is still racism. Red-lining 60+ years ago still has generational impacts on the accumulation of wealth. Racism must not just be cut out but be pulled out from its roots planted by the KKK before other issues here can be dealt with fully.
I happened to be reading Letter from Birmingham Jail in preparation for today when I came across a passage that I shared to console the disappointed members of ReName Stapleton:
Dr. King wrote to the Birmingham clergymen, "I had hoped that the white moderate would see this [injustice]. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers and sisters have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality."
And that’s good news. More people have been mobilized. More people of all races see the issue now – 35% of the 35% who voted were enlightened. The bent-over woman’s life was changed when someone saw her. Really looked at her and felt compassion. She was no longer nobody. In honor of the sabbath, not in disregard for it, Jesus freed her from bondage. This is our legacy as his followers. Jesus taught us that things change – people are freed from bondage – when we see each other. When we stop looking away and really see.
Post Sermon - Additional background according to Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian who wrote a 1981 book “Hooded Empire – the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado:
On the surface, Stapleton renounced groups like the Klan, saying that “True Americanism needs no mask or disguise. Any attempt to stir racial prejudice or intolerance is contrary to our constitution and is therefore, unamerican.”
Such statements were standard practice for politicians of that era, Goldberg said. (Think Trump and teleprompter speeches)
But in practice, Stapleton had formed a friendship with John Galen Locke, the Grand Dragon of the Klan in Colorado, Goldberg said.
And Stapleton had joined the Klan. He was listed on a Klan roster as member No. 1128.
Goldberg noted people joined the Klan during that time for a variety of reasons.
Some were anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic or racists. But many joined for other reasons, Goldberg said. Denver had a crime problem at the time and the Klan offered a law-and-order platform.
He said the Klan also wielded economic power. It published a list of merchants who had joined the Klan and displayed them at meeting with the letters KIGY, meaning “Klansman I greet you.’’
And Stapleton was more than simply a member of the Klan. As mayor he appointed Klansmen to several top posts including manager of safety, clerk and recorder, city attorney, parks manager and city accountant, Goldberg said.
He said Klansmen also infiltrated the police department and controlled the lower courts, inserting the Klan roster into the jury pool.
While facing a recall election in July 1924, Stapleton’s support for the Klan was full-throated, according to a story in The Denver Post.
“I have little to say,” The Post quoted Stapleton as saying. “Except that I will work with the Klan and for the Klan in the coming election heart and soul. And if I am re-elected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.”
The Klan’s grip on Denver began to fade in 1925 and the alliance between Stapleton and Locke came to an end, Goldberg said.
On Good Friday 1925, Stapleton ordered a series of raids on bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes that exposed a system of bribes and payoffs that involved a Klan vice squad, Goldberg said Locke was removed from his Klan position by the Grand Wizard in Georgia.
The Colorado Klan split into two factions. Once led by Locke called itself the Minutemen and dressed like soldiers in the American Revolution.
The Klan relocated from Denver to Cañon City, where by 1930 Goldberg said its funds were exhausted and its members dispersed.
Historians note that claims that Stapleton was reformed are revisionist history.
 Exodus 20: 9
 Deut 5: 12-15
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 18, 2019
“Rejecting MAGA Christianity”
Luke 12: 49-53 – New Revised Standard Version
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
It's time for back to school and I can’t resist offering a few corny jokes:
The teacher asked, “Tommy, can you tell us where the Declaration of Independence was signed?” (You know, right?) Tommy replied: “Yes, ma’am. At the bottom.”
Jane came home from her first day of kindergarten, and her mother asked, “What did you learn today?” “Not enough, I guess. They told me I have to go back again tomorrow.”
OK, that’s enough, but it reminded me of Robert Fulghum’s famous book – All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You might remember some of his simple wisdom:
There are more, like taking a nap every afternoon. Perhaps my favorite is “When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
Fulghum said, “Take any of those and extrapolate into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work life or to the government and to the world and it holds true and clear and firm every time. Ecology and politics and sane living through love and basic sanitation.
OK. Just one more corny joke:
Marci’s Mom asked, “How did you do in school today, dear?” Marci replied, “We did a guessing game.”
Her mom said, “But I thought you were having a math test.” Marci replied: “Yes, exactly!”
I wanted to get you laughing (or at least try!) because what comes next is no laughing matter. Jesus asked, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No! I have come instead to bring division.” It’s not a joke about mathematics. Division. Get it?
And if we don’t get his point right away, he makes it clear: “A household of five will be divided – three against two and two against three.” Father against son and son against father; mother against daughter, etc., etc.
This is one of the most difficult of the difficult sayings of Jesus. It’s offensive. It’s especially offensive during this polarized time in our national life, often divided by religion and between people of the same religion. We don’t need more of that.
How is it that the Gospel of Luke can begin chapter one with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” and now he promises the opposite. I thought he was the Prince of Peace.
For that matter, how does the parable of the prodigal son make any sense without healing the division between son and father? His father could have told him, “you made your bed, now lie in it.” Divided, father against son, son against father. They reconciled. That’s the point of the parable. But then again, their reconciliation now caused division with the elder brother who became angry. No good deed goes unpunished.
Today’s text is offensive and perhaps it should come with a trigger warning for anyone whose family used it as justification for rejecting them.
These are all true stories. And unfortunately, there are many, many more. Forty percent of homeless teens are LGBTQ or questioning. And the primary reason? Religious rejection. Some of us worship here because we were rejected by another church – some “politely asked to leave” and others very publicly shamed. And somehow this text is twisted to justify that Jesus would be OK with it. After all, he didn’t come to bring peace but “righteous” division.
My first reaction is to simply ignore texts like these and find something else in the lectionary for today. But we can’t simply refuse to engage texts like these because on first reading they seem offensive or trigger pain. Ignoring it doesn’t help – at least until we try to understand it first.
So, on one hand, I reject rejection via this text. On the other hand, it would seem like a perfect text to justify the rejection of MAGA Christianity, that Make American Great Again form of “religion” practiced by those who blindly support anything and everything the president says, does, or tweets.
For religious reasons, I believe we have no choice but to voice vigorous opposition. Not for the long list of indiscretions and the president’s personal immorality. Whether or not he paid off one, two, or ten porn stars really doesn’t bother me. Cheating on a succession of wives? I honestly don’t care, other than how that kind of casual disregard for women as objects enables abuse.
The issue, however; the urgency I feel is to keep up the opposition and active resistance on behalf of all who suffer the enactment of all his policies. But in fact, he isn’t as offensive as those who cheer on his bullying – his most unfailing loyal supporters – evangelical “christians.” Who wish to make America white again. “christian” again. Straight again. Where men rule and women submit to their place.
I read today’s gospel and think, instead of sitting back and watching such things as families forcibly separated, rather than be quiet about it to maintain the peace, I’d rather be divided from my Christian siblings. Now, I wouldn’t drive them to the edge of the forest and kick them out of the car. I wouldn’t summon a priest to drive the devil out of them. I wouldn’t rather they die in the street in front of my house than allow a MAGA christian inside. But would I rather risk family unity than allow chants of “send her back” to go unchallenged?
I would be appalled if a school child acted as immaturely as those rally goers. But Rev. Dennis Episcopo said he hasn’t seen anything objectionable in the president’s behavior. The Wisconsin mega-church pastor hasn’t seen anything worthy of mention to denounce. Nothing in his behavior to be dissuaded from supporting him again. He said, “There could be something, where society really crosses the line on something that I feel as a pastor I have to get up and say something about. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Charlottesville. Kids in cages. The Muslim ban. Providing the justification for the mass shooting of “invading” Mexicans at a Walmart?
I’d say Jesus is right about bringing division to our houses. That it’s better for families to be divided rather than to proclaim a false peace. To value the pursuit of justice over “let’s all just get along.” The prophet Jeremiah warned against those who cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
We can probably all agree that we don’t want phony peace. And yet, is division the goal? Is the goal, as the text might seem to suggest; is the answer of Jesus to bring division? As one commentator asked, “Is he prescribing division or describing it?” Suggesting we should be divided or saying that we are?
Surely division is one way to describe our current times. But that’s not all there is, is it? Not to simply describe and then denounce injustice, feel better about ourselves, and go home. A deeper question asks: Is even justice the goal?
But what is justice? There’s retribution and revenge and retaliation. And there is redistribution and reconciliation.
One of our affirmations of faith describes Jesus as God’s way to reconcile the world to God’s self. Second Corinthians 5 says, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” If we look at the totality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is for the goal of reconciliation with God, our neighbors, and our enemies. It includes reconciliation within, as well.
As progressive Christians we struggle with the question of whether it needed to happen so violently. Did Jesus have to be crucified and die on a cross for reconciliation to happen? Like today’s text about division, we can ask: Was violence a necessary prescription or an apt description? Was the violence of an Empire like Rome necessary? Or does violence best describe the Empire running Washington, DC, today?
I propose that Jesus is describing division. And that we have to understand our division before we can begin the work of reconciliation.
Some people are licking their chops for the opportunity for some righteous payback, believing that an election will make a difference. But let me suggest that, as Christians, the justice we seek is reconciliation, remembering, of course, that reconciliation without justice is worthless. And that justice without reconciliation can be simple brutality. And that reconciliation isn’t complete without redistribution.
I can’t even fathom how hard it will be for our nation to be reconciled to one another. In fact, I fear it will take longer than our lifetimes. But, for the sake of the school children whose backpacks we blessed today, that is our call to action. Our Christian vocation.
At just the moment I feel like giving up, that it would be surely easier, let alone better for my mental health, not to care so much about what is happening to our fellow human beings, I need to remember that the Christ who suffered violence walks alongside us. Jesus knows in his crucified brown-skinned body the worst of what humanity can do when MAGA-style religion and state collude to maintain their own power and privilege. He knows it. He exposed it. And then he defeated it. That’s why I want to follow him. And ask, would you like to come along too?
So, when we feel tempted to give up and need the fuel to keep going, I offer these words of the Franciscan Blessing:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
Continuing to name and then heal our divisions, to fight for justice and the redistribution of resources (you know, the first thing we learned in kindergarten – share everything,) that we may be reconciled as a nation.
 Villard Books, 1986
 Luke 1:79
 Stories were drawn and adapted from https://www.aliforneycenter.org/_aliforney/assets/File/1265.pdf
 Audrey West, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 358-362
 Sister Ruth Fox, OSB, 1986
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 11, 2019
“All the Stuff We Really Need”
Luke 12: 32-34, 48b – New Revised Standard Version
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
This is a story by Byrd Baylor:
If you could see us sitting here at our old, scratched-up, homemade kitchen table, you’d know that we aren’t rich.
My father tries to tell us we that are, but can’t he see my worn-out shoes? Or that my little brother has patches on the pants he wears to first grade?
“You can’t fool me,” I say to him. “We’re poor. Would rich people sit at a table like this?”
My parents made this table out of the lumber someone else threw away. They even had a celebration when they finished it.
My mother pats the table and agrees with my father. “We’re rich because we sit here every day.”
Sometimes I think I’m the only sensible one in my whole family.
Now understand, I like this table just fine. All I’m saying is, you can tell that we didn’t pay anything for it. That it didn’t come from a furniture store. It’s not a table where rich people would sit.
I called a family meeting and the subject is money and I tell my parents we don’t have enough of it.
I tell my parents they should both get better jobs so we could buy some nicer things.
And add, “I hate to bring this up, but it would really help if both of you had a little more ambition.”
My parents have some strange ideas about working. They think the only jobs worth having are outdoors. They want cliffs or canyons or desert or mountains around them wherever they work. They want a good view of the sky.
They want to always work together, and their favorite thing to do is to pan for gold – piling us into a beat-up old truck and heading for the rocky desert hills or back in some narrow mountain gully where all the roads are just coyote trails.
They love to walk the wide arroyos, the dry streambeds, where little flecks of gold are found.
After a month or two out there, they always find a little bit of gold to sell, but it’s never made us rich. And as far as I can see, it’s just an excuse to camp in some beautiful wild place again.
They also like to pick chilies and squash and tomatoes. They don’t mind planting fields of sweet corn or alfalfa. They’ll put up strong fences or train wild young horses.
My father asks, “How many people are as lucky as we are?”
But I’ve called this family meeting to say, “You could make more money working in a building somewhere in town.”
“But,” he says, “our number one rule is that we have to see the sky.”
“You could look through a window.”
But they won’t even think about it. Do you see what I mean about being the only sensible one in this family?
My mother hands my brother and I a pencil and some yellow paper. “OK, let’s add up our assets. You be the bookkeeper.”
We start with $20,000. That’s how much my father says it’s worth to him to work outdoors, where he can see sky all day and feel the wind and smell rain an hour before it’s really raining. He says it’s worth that much because, if he feels like singing, he can sing out loud and no one will mind.
I have just written $20,000 when my mother adds, “You better make that $30,000 because it’s worth at least another 10,000 to hear coyotes howling back in the hills.”
So, I write down $30,000.
Then she remembers that they like to see long distances and faraway mountains that change color about 10 times a day. “That’s worth around $5,000 to me,” she says.
I scratch out what I had written and put down $35,000.
My father thinks of something else. “When a cactus blooms, you should be there to watch it because it might be a color you never see again.” He asks my brother, “How much would you say that color is worth?” “50 cents?” But they decide it’s worth another $5,000. So now I write $40,000 on the yellow pad.
My father loves to make bird sounds. He can copy any bird, but he’s best at white-winged doves and ravens and red-tailed hawks and quail. He’s good at eagles too, and great horned owls. So, of course, he tells me to write down another $10,000 for having both day and night birds around us.
I cross out what I had. The total is now $50,000.
My mother asks me how much I’m worth to them. I suggest they could add another $10,000 to the list of assets.
But my father said, “Don’t underestimate yourself. Remember how good you are at making lists for us.” He’s right. I am very good at making lists. Someone in this family has to.
They end up deciding I’m worth about a million dollars. I tell them that’s a little high, but I smile and write it down anyway. Naturally I have to add another million for my brother, though at 7 years old, he doesn’t do much yet to add to our bottom line. And then add one million each for my parents.
So, I scratch out all the previous numbers and write 4 million, $50,000.
My brother says we should add $7 for all the nights we get to sleep outside under the stars. We all agree that’s really worth more like $5,000. Then I decide I want to add $5,000 for the pleasure of wandering around in open country alone, free as a lizard, not following trails, not having a plan, just turning whatever way the wind blows me.
Now my yellow pad says we have 4 million, $60,000. And we haven’t even started counting actual cash. But by then I realize the cash part doesn’t really matter. And suggest it shouldn’t be included on our list of riches.
So, I declare the meeting is over. The rest of them go outside to see the sliver of a new moon while I sit at our beautiful, hand-carved, homemade kitchen table.
I think, no one is rich enough to ever afford something as nice as this.
This beautiful story is entitled The Table Where Rich People Sit. It might be an interesting exercise for your family to sit down with a pencil and a pad of yellow paper to make your own list of assets.
Last week in our text from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the crowd, “Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions.” He asks them to consider the ravens. “You are worth so much more than birds.” Jesus said, notice how the lilies grow. Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed as beautifully as those. He points to the grass in the field and exhorts his followers not to chase after what we will eat or what we will we drink, but instead, desire the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.
I can only imagine the girl in the story I told, at least at the beginning, rolling her eyes. “Let’s be sensible about this, Jesus.”
In today’s reading, he goes even further. Yes, considering the ravens and noticing the lilies and admiring the grass is a lovely idea. But then he said very directly, “sell your possessions and give to those in need.” And adds the familiar phrase, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” which is the lesson of the family.
But it’s the last line of today’s scripture that speaks most directly to me. It’s the disconnect I feel in our country. It’s the disconnect and it’s the solution.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Sit with that for a few seconds.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” The disconnect and the solution. For our country. And maybe for you too.
Jesus isn’t speaking spiritual-eze. This isn’t about heaven. And not just about ravens and lilies and grass but specifically about possessions. Our stuff. Jesus is talking about our stuff. Because your stuff reveals your heart.
What if we think about all our stuff, stuff that’s stuffed into corners and stuffed down in basements and up in attics and in all those storage locker facilities that keep going up everywhere… What if we think about all our stuff and realize our stuff has nothing to do with our heart? What if our stuff is just about having stuff? And more stuff to go with it. And if so, wouldn’t we be better off selling it and giving away the proceeds? To help people who need stuff? Wouldn’t that liberate us? And in the process, help liberate others?
Art and I did the Marie Kondo thing – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – asking of every possession, does this bring me joy? He was much better at it than I. I drew the line at a few things, like when he wanted to part with our first season DVD set of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. I hid it in a drawer.
But after all, how much stuff do we really need? In essence, Jesus said, desire the kingdom of God – a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate – and we’ll find ourselves with all the stuff we really need.
Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon and Schuster, 1998
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 4, 2019
“Knowing God in an Era of Domestic Terrorism”
Luke 12: 13-31
I’m going to read our gospel text today by combining three translations – the New Revised Standard Version, the Common English Bible, and The Message – along with a little interpretation of my own. Listen for the Word of God.
Someone cried out from the crowd to Jesus, “Teacher, order my brother to give me my fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus had a good comeback, “Friend, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?
Then turning to the crowd, Jesus said, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed, because the quality of your life is not determined by your possessions.”
(Or said another way,) “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
(Or, said another way,) “The good life does not consist in the abundance of stuff.”
He then illustrated his point by telling them a parable: “The fields of a certain rich man produced an overly abundant crop. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? My barn is not big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said to himself, ‘This is what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, enough for many years, and I’ll say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve done well. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”
Just then, God showed up and said, “Fool!” (All three translations use the word ‘fool!’) “Fool! Tonight, you will die.” (Not a judgement that he will die tonight because he’s a fool but rather a way to pose these questions:) Tonight you will die. And that barnful of grain? What good will that be to you then? Who will get all of that?
(Then, in his concluding statement, Jesus said:)
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Or, “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” (The image of hoarding in this translation is powerful.)
(But my favorite conclusion of the three,) “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self, and not with God.”
“When you fill your barn with Self.” Note that in this parable, the rich man speaks of himself or to himself 13 times: He said to himself: What should I do. My barn is not big enough. Here’s what I will do: I’ll tear down my barns. I’ll gather in all my grain, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, “you’ve done well. You’ve got it made. Take it easy and have the time of your life.”
So, Jesus just talked about greed and possessions and this rich guy’s self-centeredness: “Then he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. And you are worth so much more than birds! Who among you can add a single moment to your life by worrying?” (Or as some translations of the original text say, “Has anyone standing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as one inch by fussing about it?” which really gets to his point about the absurdity of worrying!)
Jesus continues: “If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even King Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed as beautifully as one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and dead tomorrow, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. God knows you need them. Instead, desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
Stop worrying. Dose Jesus knows us well, or what?! Fretting and fussing and stewing and agonizing about all kinds of things… Although I get what Jesus is saying here, I wish he would have clarified that we still need a job. Don’t we? We can easily miss that he is talking about greed. He asks: What do we spend our time chasing after? Or maybe I’m missing the point completely. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of this last section:
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends. God wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”
Quote: “People who don’t know God fuss over these things.” I’m not sure that’s a fair statement about people who do not believe in God. Don’t we all worry? I get plenty stressed out too. Yet I can identify. And so did Dr. King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story about how he grew up in the church. The son of a preacher. The great-grandson of a preacher. The great-great-grandson of a preacher. His only brother and his uncle were preachers. Dr. King laughed that he didn’t have much of a choice but to go into the family business. But, he said, though the church was something very real to me, “it was kind of an inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God” of my own.
That changed when he moved to Montgomery to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Things were going well, but one day a year later, Rosa Parks decided she wasn’t going to give up her seat on the bus any more. The famous Montgomery Bus Boycott began, and Martin was asked to serve as its leader. We can’t forget that he was a young pastor in his 20s.
Things went smoothly for the first few days. But then white people in Montgomery realized this boycott was not going to end any time soon. Among other things, “they started making nasty telephone calls,” and, he said, “it came to the point that some days more than 40 calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children.” He remained strong willed. But he said he would never forget coming home from a meeting one night very late, around midnight. His wife was sleeping. He had another early morning meeting, so he quietly got into bed next to her. But the phone rang.
Who do you suppose it was? Who would it be today? It would be one of those ‘send her back’ chanting, MAGA-hat-wearing, ‘very fine people on both sides’ folks. That late night caller was their hooded granddaddy declaring: “We are tired of you and your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” Particularly chilling words this morning after El Paso. But coming from the same domestic terrorism of white nationalists.
Dr. King said, “I’d heard these things many times before, but for some reason, that night it really got to me.” He made some coffee and sat at the kitchen table thinking about his beautiful daughter, born just a month before. He thought about his dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife sleeping in the other room. And how both could be taken from him. How he could be taken from them. And at that moment, he said, “I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer.”
That night, he said, all the theology and philosophy he had studied, all the theological and philosophical reasons for existence and the reality of sin and evil in the world had no meaning. Aristotle described God as the “Unmoved Mover.” Alfred North Whitehead described the “Principle of Concretion.” Spinoza defined God as the “Absolute Whole…”
But, that night, such a God didn’t matter. Instead he discovered that religion had to become real to him. “I had to know God for myself. And so, I bowed over my cup of coffee and prayed, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do right. I think the cause we represent is right. But I am weak. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And if people see me weak, they will begin to get weak.’”
At that moment an inner voice said, Martin, “’Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ And I knew in an instant that I would never be alone. God would never leave me. Never leave me alone.”
In that moment of surrender, God became more than something to believe in. “I knew God as a rock in a weary land, shelter in a time of storms, water when I’m thirsty, bread in a starving land.”
Sometimes we mainline Protestants do just as Dr. King had done. We talk about God, like Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” or C.S. Lewis’s “Inconsolable Longing, The Signature of Every Soul.” They’re all beautiful ideas, but detached.
We may try to convince people that there is a God – that all we need to do is look at a galaxy of stars or stare at the mountains to believe there is a God. And it does takes faith to affirm that God exists. But does any of that matter if God remains a distant idea instead of a present reality?
When Trump-inspired white nationalism manifests itself by yet another act of domestic terrorism, we don’t need explanations about the existence of God. We desperately need to know God. When justice is denied the Eric Garners of our world, the modern day victims of the lynching tree, we don’t need more clever ideas about God. Our hearts ache to know God.
When watching the news no longer informs us but rather frightens us and depresses us and causes us to worry, fret, stew, and agonize… When fears for our future keep surging and our hopes keep disappearing, I need to know God “as our rock in this weary land, shelter during this time of storms, water because I’m thirsty and bread because we are starving.” That’s what I need. Perhaps you feel that way too.
But not because we are looking for a way to escape. Some interpretations of Christianity, as we know, teach us to leave this dark and depressing world behind and claim what is ours at the pearly gates of a heaven with streets lined with gold. However, we are not looking for discharge from this world but rather for courage in the struggle for justice and peace. We are looking for meaning in the joy and cost of discipleship. Knowing God during this era of lies and deceptions and payoffs to porn stars means that we have the courage to stand up for truth and righteousness. To know God means we have the power to speak during a time of deafening silence. For if we desire the kingdom of God, all these things shall be added unto you.
When we feel weak, when we’re faltering, when we’re losing courage, if we know God, the God who stands with the downtrodden and depressed, the hopeless and the oppressed, the vulnerable and the frightened, then we need not worry. The rich man in the parable was declared a fool because he failed to realize he was part of a community. That, like us all, we depend on each other. Who harvested those crops in the hot sun? Surely not him. Who built his barns? Certainly not him alone. Who sent the rain and the sun for his grain to grow?
It’s hard to know God if we define success by what we have. Or if we are so full of self-assurance, certain that what we have is because we made it happen. That makes it really difficult to know God.
But it’s not hard to know God:
God is personal. And, like Dr. King, in all those moments, God becomes especially real when, in personal and national despair, we pray:
(Repeat after me)
 “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” Sermon delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, August 27, 1967
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world