Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 30, 2018
Esther 1: 10-22 – New Revised Standard Version
On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him. 13 Then the king consulted the sages who knew the laws for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and custom, 14 and those next to him were the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus conveyed by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the King. 17 For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘The King commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath! 19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before the King; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the officials, and the king did as Memucan proposed; 22 he sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, declaring that every man should be master in his own house.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
That sure seemed to reflect the fears of the advisors to King Ahasuerus in our reading today. Let me briefly recap the story of Queen Vashti, the predecessor to Queen Esther. The king held a six-month long party all around his empire to brag about his vast territory – from Ethiopia to India – and his tremendous wealth. A party that lasted six months. The festivities came to an end with a week-long binge in which he instructed his officials to have everyone drink “without restraint.” A seven-day binge.
You can only imagine a bunch of very intoxicated men laughing and telling stories and trying to one up each other, bragging about this and that. Well, the king had one last thing to display. His beautiful, very beautiful, wife, Queen Vashti. She was holding her own party for the women of the kingdom, but the King called her away and asked her to parade in front of the men so they could admire her and the men would envy the King. She was instructed to wear her crown, which according to some ancient traditions, meant she was to wear only her crown.
How many times before do you suppose she had been asked, demanded, to do something as equally humiliating? This time, however, she refused. She said no. No doubt this was embarrassing to the King. But it was all those drunken men who really got worked up. They demanded the King must punish Queen Vashti or all the women of the kingdom would be inspired to disobey their husbands too. It would be a disgrace. A sham that destroys the foundations of our society. This became a dispute not only between one man and one woman, the King and Queen, but it became a necessary action to maintain their privilege.
So, the King decreed, “Every man should be master of his own house.” Queen Vashti was banished. She was stripped of her titles and crown, her palace and her power. It was a very high price to pay. But with it, she purchased her dignity. Or, you might say, on behalf of women throughout the land, she did her civic duty.
Among male interpreters of this text, a common theme is a matter-of-fact, no questions asked, “She got what she deserved.” In other circles, however, she has become something of an icon. In fact, some consider her the first feminist in literature or recorded history. Remember, this was six centuries before Christ. Drunken men at a party and a single brave woman – 2,600 years ago.
I swear on a stack of Bibles that I did not pick this text on Friday. The Old Testament passage assigned for today is from the Book of Esther, but the lectionary does not include this story of Queen Vashti. That’s a shame. Another woman silenced. In fact, the lectionary assigns only one text from the entire Book of Esther in the whole three-year cycle so, months ago, I added the story of Queen Vashti.
I’ve always been drawn to her story, even though it is equally inspiring and depressing. She found her agency, she expressed her power despite its limitations, and by her choice, she gave the women of the kingdom the faintest idea of a different possibility. But nothing changed. She introduced the idea that a woman could say no. For which she paid a very heavy price.
Now, we must remember she was a woman of privilege. The vast majority of women would have been put out and left with no resources. They would have been abandoned by their father’s house too. Their very survival would be in question. Regardless, by her actions, Vashti told the women of the kingdom, you don’t deserve this. Vashti saw them and heard them and used her privilege. And while that may not have changed their station in life, it may have changed someone’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. And that matters. Queen Vashti bravely demonstrated to the women of her husband's empire that they were more than an object of drunken men’s pleasure.
We’ll be talking for a long time about whether Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was worth such a heavy price. Lots of “she’s getting what she deserves” for “ruining a man’s reputation and depriving him of the position he deserves on the Supreme Court.” How dare she question that, and a Yale graduate to boot? And of course, faced with questions like, “If it was really that bad, why didn’t she report it then?”
Surely, she must be asking this morning, “Was it worth it?” Hours after she testified, which even Fox News declared was credible, eleven men decided her experience wasn’t worth one minute more of delay to investigate. One senator forced a one-week delay because two incredibly brave women dared confront a man in power. But really. Can we be surprised that such an allegation would matter when our president actually bragged to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women? After that, nothing else seems quite so bad.
Why didn’t she report it when it happened? Some of you, some of us, can answer that. Perhaps you read some of hundreds of thousands of heart-wrenching tweets, such as:
You’ve heard those and many more. Why didn’t I report? To who? Tell my parents? I wasn’t out, nor did I even know what that meant, but an experienced abuser saw it. I was 15 or maybe 16, coincidentally about 36 years ago. I can’t remember what year either, but I know exactly what I was wearing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been there – although, in my case, it wasn’t a party but a church musicians conference six states away and a very long bus ride back home. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I deserved it. It was probably my fault.
I have told exactly one other person in my whole entire life, so telling you today is surreal. And now that we’re putting my sermons on YouTube, that’s a whole other level of terrifying! But please understand the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. I really don’t. I don’t want any sympathy. This is not about me – other than to say I see you. I hear you.
And to say about that whole trigger thing, it’s real and it went off big time with the hashtag “Why I didn’t report.” It brought up a depth of emotion that I didn’t expect. Maybe it did for you too. And I apologize if this sermon is difficult for you to hear. Just when I think it can’t get any harder to live in this country, it gets harder. But again, it’s easier to defeat evil in the light of day than when it hides in the shadows.
I believe her. And I will believe you too. I have heard too many stories from too many women and men to question the credibility of survivors whose memories are crystal clear and foggy at the same time. And I don’t automatically believe her because I have taken a partisan side. I hate that it’s become whether Dr. Ford is believable based on one’s party affiliation. But I believe her. I don’t pretend to understand her pain or know your suffering, but I do know that feeling pain is a step on the journey to healing.
One reason I am a follower of Jesus is that he is not unfamiliar with our pain. In the Book of Hebrews 4:15, it says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are.” Or, another version, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, too. He’s experienced it.” In other words, Jesus is not above it all but with us through it all. And as his life demonstrated, I believe everything can be redeemed, even though it doesn’t erase anything.
Was it worth it for Dr. Ford to testify? Watching the volcanic meltdowns of all the white men, hysterically shouting, whining, crying, what I do know is that “White patriarchal entitlement crumbled a little bit more on Thursday afternoon.” These men are afraid and won’t let go without a very mean and dirty fight. But it exposed their terror that a new day is dawning – one that is more Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate. Where Black Lives Matter. And Families Belong Together. Where Love Wins. And women are believed.
It was painful to watch, but not because we too are afraid of losing white privilege or male superiority or Christian supremacy. It was painful to watch a woman put on display in front of a bunch of men, drunk on their power, playing games with her life to prove how much they care. But then again, it’s also hard to watch a butterfly break through her cocoon, but look what ultimately emerges.
As the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1930, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
 NRSV and The Message
 Thanks to Rev. Melanie Morrison for this language and the reference to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 16, 2018
“Fifty Shades of Gray”
Song of Songs (Solomon) 2: 8-13 – Common English Bible
Listen! It’s my lover: here he comes now,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands now,
outside our wall,
peering through the windows,
peeking through the lattices.
10 My lover spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
11 Here, the winter is past;
the rains have come and gone.
12 Blossoms have appeared in the land;
the season of singing has arrived,
and the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The green fruit is on the fig tree,
and the grapevines in bloom are fragrant.
Arise, my love, my fair one, And come away.”
We’re taking a break this week from politics for a sermon I entitled Fifty Shades of Gray. And rest assured, after a sermon on sex today, I’ll have at least one next month on money, thereby covering all the topics forbidden in good company, or at least outside this good company.
The Song of Solomon – or in the Hebrew, The Song of Songs – is passionate, steamy, and scandalous. It is unlike almost anything else involving sexuality in the Bible, which more often has to do with some kind of prohibition – don’t do this, don’t do that – or some odd law like a widow required to marry a succession of her dead husband’s brothers. Or something that requires death, like stoning a woman caught in adultery or killing a man for spilling his seed on the ground or a death sentence for laying with another man. And if not death, then shame. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve saw each other’s nakedness, they became ashamed. Most sexuality in the Bible is negative and often judgmental toward women and focused on controlling women’s bodies. It’s interesting how little has changed.
Senator Kamala Harris asked an excellent question during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She asked, are there any laws that give the government the power to control male bodies? He appeared dumbfounded. Why would there be? After all, where was the man while Jesus was busy saving the woman caught in adultery?
But the Song of Songs is written in the voice of the woman and takes pleasure in the body. It is provocative and full of desire. And, I would be too embarrassed to read all of it from the pulpit. You heard the only reading from Song of Songs assigned in the lectionary – and a very PG rated reading at that. And you may have also heard a few verses read at a wedding: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (8: 6-7) (This and all texts forward are from the New Revised Standard Version.)
But those two readings are really tame. So, let’s go right back to the beginning in chapter 1, verse 2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Right away we know something is different. More Harlequin romance than scripture. And again, told with the voice of the woman who controls what is being said. Nothing else in the Bible is so devoid of “mansplaining;” no one here is filtering her thoughts. There are three voices: the woman, her suitor, and a crowd known as the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” She is the primary voice.
I’m going to read some highlights. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore, the maidens love you.” Did you get it? He’s a catch. And he smells good.
Then the Daughters of Jerusalem speak: “We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine.” And then she says directly to her lover: “Rightly do they love you.”
And yet, she then becomes defensive about their right to love each other. She said, “I am black and beautiful.” Yes, that is scripture, not just a phrase from the 1970s. “I am black and beautiful. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed upon me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!”
She explains to the Daughters of Jerusalem that her darker skin tone was because she was made to work outside, obviously exposing the same kind of prejudice and preference related to the shades of lighter and darker skin that has existed for millennia – not just between races but among them. African Americans may immediately hear the colorism in her words. Color prejudice that tries to determine acceptable standards of beauty and assigns people their class. But she demands – I am black and beautiful and insists upon their right to love each other. It is important to know this back story to understand the Song. It’s not just sensual, as you will hear, but social commentary on an issue of justice.
Then the object of her love breaks in with his first words: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels. Ah, you are beautiful, my love; your eyes are doves.”
Clearly, he’s in to her. Then she replies, “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.” They continue this back and forth dance.
In the next chapter, she says: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.” “My beloved is mine and I am his.” These are two more subtle and important statements. Her lover’s intention is love. It says nothing of marriage or owning her or possessing her. Further, she asserts that “my beloved is mine.” She claims him first. He is mine and I am his. It’s an unusual power dynamic in scripture, and yet, here it is: it is a biblical power dynamic of interdependent, mutual and equal love.
In chapter 3, the woman speaks: “Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves…” but he is not there. So, she looks for him frantically around the city. She panics and twice she tells the Daughters of Jerusalem to stay out of her way. And when she finally finds him she says, “I held him and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.”
Chapter 4, then, is her lover speaking, describing her beauty. “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.” Yes, first, he compared her to one of Pharaoh’s horses, now her hair is like goats and her teeth are like clean sheep. Clearly, these are references from a different time, but the passion is clear. “Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.” “You have ravished my heart… with a [simple] glance of your eyes.” How’s that for romance?
But some of chapter 5 is truly too explicit for me to read here. Better for later under the covers with a flashlight. Or better yet, with your lover under the covers with a flashlight. Page 622 in your pew Bible.
But then the Daughters of Jerusalem reappear. They question, “What is your beloved more than another beloved,” that you make such an urgent appeal. They seem to go back and forth between being skeptical of their love and supportive. She responds with more descriptions of how beautiful he is. She doesn’t describe his personality or what good caretaker he is or would be. She describes his hair and eyes and cheeks and lips. “His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires. His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold.” He’s built – arms, legs, abs like ivory – and she desires him. A desire that is celebrated, not shamed. By the time she finishes describing him, we’re blushing.
In chapter 6, he begins to describe her beauty again, at length. Hair, teeth, cheeks. In chapter 7 he continues to describe her feet, thighs, navel, belly, breasts. He tells her she is delectable. Once again, it is explicit and steamy, more Fifty Shade of Gray than typical Bible.
But then she insists again, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” It’s as though she’s telling her rivals, “Step off.” But more than jealousy, I believe this is due to the pressure she feels of prejudice. This outsider has to prove herself and their love. Anyone who has ever had to defend their choice of a mate, whether of different races and classes or of the same gender, this sounds familiar.
Chapter 8 makes the point even clearer: if I looked like you, no one would object to me kissing you in public. “No one would despise me.” How many of us could say the same thing? Wishing that we could kiss, let alone hold the hands of, our lovers in public. Wishing that our love would not lead to stares and hatred or worse, harassment and death. Abandoned by our families.
These subtexts are easy to miss but so important to understand. Because only then do those familiar words at wedding ceremonies make sense. “For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Now we understand the reason for the words about death and the grave and floods. They pledge that their love will endure every challenge, every social pressure and anything else. Good stuff. And romantic, right?
It’s beautiful and provocative. It’s sensual – speaking of taste and touch and smell and sound. And in a biblical context, scandalous. So, what’s it doing in the Bible? Or better yet, how did it stay there?
For centuries, it was justified as an allegory of God’s love for Israel or of Christ’s love for the church. I get the passion, but how do you explain all the talk of six pack abs and breasts like two fawns. To me, that makes it kind of creepy. What does all this very sexually charged imagery have to do with God or Christ? I’d rather just say that the Bible makes for a surprising source of erotic poetry. Not to mention, there is nothing obviously religious nor is God ever mentioned or even alluded to once.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk and mystic in 1200s, famously wrote 86 sermons on just the first two chapters. Imagine being a celibate monk having to sit through 86 sermons on this. But his point was about a passionate spirituality and Christ’s zealous love for us. He sought to shift spiritual formation away from cool intellectual enlightenment toward warm, earthly affections. He wanted to inspire desire for God more than intellectual understanding of God. The feeling of yearning when one is absent from the other.
Yet, like the lovers demanding respect, this book simply insists on its place among the rest of God’s Holy Word, where, instead of shame, we hear the body and sexuality celebrated. A corrective to the dualism of spirit as pure and body as sinful. Not to mention, it is a corrective in our world which too easily uses bodies and sexuality to sell everything from hamburgers to cars. And a reminder in an era of MeToo and scandals surrounding the cover up of pedophile priests. None of that is about sexuality. It’s all an abuse of power. The Song of Songs is erotic, but through language that expresses feelings and longings. This woman is empowered, speaking with her own voice.
In the Song of Songs, sexuality is healthy, good, and not just for the sake of being fruitful and multiplying. It’s not about shame and not worthy of marketing. The shame is a society that does not approve of their love. But they claim each other. They praise one another, they need each other. And most importantly, they persist in the face of opposition to their love.
Some preachers are obsessed with a God who punishes our desires, but the Living, Almighty, Everlasting God, who is the source of all good things, liberates and gladdens the world and teaches us in the Song of Songs to celebrate the gift human sexuality and its expression in passionate love.
There is so much more I could highlight, but one last thing:
James B. Nelson, my mentor in seminary, authored a resource for blessing same gender marriages. He described the marks of healthy and blessed relationships. Among them: Blessed are relationships that are body-positive. This means, do not fear or despise your body because that diminishes your relationship. If we are negatively obsessed with our body, how are we to be intimate? Praise the beauty of each other and accept their compliments. They aren’t lying! If your lover says you are beautiful, but you respond back, “No, I’m not,” or “Let me lose a few pounds first,” you are telling your lover that they are wrong to love someone so repulsive. You do not have a face only a mother could love. You are not someone only God could love. You are beautiful. Amen?
Addendum not included for preaching:
The UCC formally expressed this kind of sentiment in 1977, in a General Synod pronouncement on Human Sexuality. It was a ground-breaking and controversial resolution that covered a wide ground. The statements included:
In all, there were 18 statements. 1977. We still have a long way to go. But then again, the Song of Songs is from somewhere around 500 years before Christ.
 Renita Weems, “Song of Songs,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster/John Knox, 1992
 Wm. Loyd Allen, “Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Song: Why They Matter,” Review and Expositor, 105, Summer 2008.
 James B. Nelson, “Relationships: Blessed and Blessing,” Blessing Ceremonies: Resources for Same-Gender Services of Commitment, UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, 1998
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 9, 2018
“The Power of the Tongue for Good and Evil”
James 3: 3-10 – The Message
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
A priest, a rabbi, a pastor, and an imam all walk into a bar. It’s not unusual; just a regular gathering of a foursome of friends who meet for mutual support, away from others in their congregation or denomination. Over the years, they’ve discussed all kinds of topics and one day it was the power of confession. They marveled at what their congregants confided in them.
One of the group suggested they try it with each other, to take their openness and honesty to an even deeper level. The first shared, in fact, “I’ve been wanting to tell you something. I’m really struggling. I think my drinking may have gotten out of control.” They all listened sympathetically. After a few moments, another spoke up. “Since you were so honest, I want to tell you that I’ve gotten into a little trouble with gambling. In fact, things have gotten so bad, I’ve started eyeing the money in the offering plate as perhaps an answer to prayer.” The third said, “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’ve got a crush on someone in my congregation.” They all looked at the fourth who sat in silence. “Come on,” they said, “you can tell us.” He stammered, “Well, um, ah… you’re not going to like it. I am an incurable gossip.”
Sermon after sermon has been preached on this passage from James about the destructive nature of gossip. The dangers of the tongue. A restless evil, full of deadly poison. A big horse can be directed by a little bridle, an entire ship is directed by a little rudder. They can be controlled. But not the tongue. Just like a small flame, an ember even, can set a whole forest on fire, the tongue, one of the smallest of our body parts, can destroy communities and reputations and more. Being the victim can leave us feeling helpless.
Greg’s car broke down in front of the bar in his small Texas town. It sat there all-night long. In the morning, Betty, the local Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched, started telling the story. By noon, the story had become that Greg was a raging alcoholic who had left his wife and abandoned his children and refused to pay child support. No amount of explanation that his car had simply broken down could change the story, so Greg had an idea. That night he parked his car in front of Betty’s house and walked home. By noon the next day, the story changed. Greg had left his wife because he was having an affair with Betty. That’s one way to deal with an incurable gossip.
As I said last week, though it is considered one of the New Testament letters, James has more in common with scriptures from the wisdom genre like the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, with such gems as Proverbs 10:19 – “The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words.”
Yes, gossip can destroy trust. Churches, families, organizations can all be destroyed by rumor. It’s a problem. But gossip is hardly the worst of our problems. It’s puny in the face of daily news.
Decent people don’t know what to do with what falls so easily off the tongue of this president. Media outlets have done everything in their power to call lies “stretching the truth, massaging the truth, misleading claims, falsehoods, mis-representations, untruths, fictions, fabrications,” all in the attempt to avoid the over-use of the word “liar” about the Occupant of the White House. One argument for not using the word is that if it is used too often, the power of it decreases. It’s so normal for the president to lie, it’s not newsworthy. To be fair, sometimes he doesn’t lie. He doesn’t always understand what he’s talking about. But with the power of his tongue and tweet, America is diminished every day. There seems to be no bottom to the bottom. And no end to the excuses for his behavior, for one very important reason, which I’ll get to later.
But lies, slander, gossip… They’re all small potatoes. Walter Brueggemann, the fierce social prophet and best biblical scholar alive today, has some other suggestions for the most destructive deceptions of the tongue, ideas he articulated long before this era we are living in today.
The first deception is false advertising. Words that make our lives feel incomplete if we don’t… Name it. Obtain whatever it is that is being sold. The problem isn’t with simple claims like brighter, whiter, bigger, and better. It’s those words that make us feel like we are not enough as we are.
But while false advertising makes false claims, propaganda, Brueggemann says, creates false policy from false facts (alternative facts?). Propaganda is his second deception. Building a Wall is supposed to keep the hordes of Mexicans from crossing the border – who, we’ve heard many times, must be stopped because they are rapists, drug dealers, and we can assume, some good people too. But one needs “false facts” for propaganda. Describing the horrors of hordes of Mexicans makes it possible to justify ripping children from the arms of their parents and locking them in cages, though fact-check, most of the victims were not Mexican.
But facts don’t matter, and propaganda is simply a means to an ideology, Brueggemann’s third deception, which is fundamental to our nation’s conflict. The ideology of America, to me, at its best, is liberty and justice for all. A democratic system that welcomes the participation of every citizen. Competing against that, however, is a different interpretation of America. Not the philosophy “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Instead this is the ideology “of the right people, by a few people, for the people who earned it or deserve it because they’re ‘real Americans.’” An ideology built on a three-legged stool of white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy.
America has never been perfect, but each generation has made progress toward a more perfect union. But again and again it has come into conflict with that three-legged stool, cleverly, or not so cleverly, hidden in little words that sound as soothing as mom and apple pie as they fall off our tongue: Some of which include safe streets, family values, patriotism.
But safe streets, as you know, is just code for locking up people who aren’t real Americans, creating a crisis of mass incarceration. Mixing racism with greed has proven quite profitable, allowing prisons to become a source of wealth, not to mention the bonus effect of disenfranchising large numbers of the wrong voters. And then turn that money into free speech. And turn corporations into people. Add to it religious freedom to discriminate. Call birth control an “abortion inducing drug” and voila! White privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy. Exactly what makes Russia so great.
What is the ideology behind the Wall Street Journal headline this week about Nike and Colin Kaepernick? It described him as the man who kneels against the national anthem. How dare this Black man be so unpatriotic? Why wasn’t the headline about the man who kneels to protest the epidemic of police killing unarmed Black men, women, and children.
Little words reveal the bigger story. “Secure borders” rationalizes Islamophobia. How can you be against secure borders? There’s an immigration crisis, but only because more of them aren’t Norwegians. Xenophobia is the immigration crisis.
And on and on we could go, until we are exhausted, angry at all the people willing to excuse bad behavior, feeling insane as we try to make rational what is utterly irrational. Except that it’s not. This is all terribly rational for those willing to do anything to achieve “again” the ideology of white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy. The president is its greatest cheerleader and willing to act by any means necessary. Why would anyone object?
James said, a bridle in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder on a large ship, or an ember from a raging fire – the smallest of objects – can change the course of their direction. All along I was thinking, “That darn tongue.” Source of all our problems. Evil. Deadly poison.
What if instead we considered the wisdom of this passage that something as small and simple as a bridle in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder on an ocean liner, or a single ember from a raging fire – the smallest of objects – is all we need? Curses and blessings come out of the same mouth.
The tiniest of minorities turned the course of history for a billion people this week. India is culturally a deeply conservative country. A law put in place 100 years ago by their colonial oppressors criminalized same gender relations. This week the Indian Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, which had been done and undone before, because the majority didn’t want it. But a tiny, tireless group kept up the pressure, enduring harassment, beatings and imprisonments. Imagine a few hundred or a couple of thousand people in a population of one billion. Chief Justice Misra said, "The LGBT community possesses rights like others, and majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights. Veils of social morality can't be allowed to curtail the rights of others.”
So, what can something as small as this congregation do to change the course of history in America? If you laugh and answer was “nothing,” I’ll go get a job at Starbucks instead. If all we did when we got together was try to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, I’d give up the ministry. But faith as small as a mustard seed. That’s all we need. That’s why we came back home today. For the inspiration to keep using our tongues for good, not evil. To keep proclaiming the ideology of an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate world. I don’t care so much for the word ideology. To me it just means following the teachings of Jesus – in words and actions – and working together with people of all faiths for human privilege, gender equality, and the supremacy of nothing but love.
That means we must present whenever hatred roars, to sing of love;
And wherever fear stalks, to stand with courage;
Whenever bigotry rages, to call for justice;
Wherever pain overwhelms, to extend comfort;
Whenever systems oppress, to work for change.
After I finished my sermon, I went home and realized President Obama gave me the perfect last line. And when a bully attacks, to call it out, not follow him.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 2, 2018
“Wages and a Fatter Than Usual Corpse”
James 5: 1-6 – NRSV
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Hear verse 4 again. “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Or as the Common English Bible translates it: “Listen! These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields.” And in simpler terms: God knows what you have done. And is not happy.
The next verse, as Eugene Peterson translates it: “But [after all that] all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. (That’s an image!) In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good people, who stand there and take it.”
This Labor Sunday reminds us that the scriptures are full of texts that are very explicit not only about the treatment of the poor, of widows and orphans, but specifically of workers.
Texts such as: Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Do not take advantage of a hired worker, …whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing among you. And pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” New International Version (NIV)
“Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.” Common English Bible (CEB)
I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against sorcerers, liars, adulterers, (and then, right up there with adultery) against those who oppress hired workers in their wages, and against those who mistreat aliens, …says the Lord of Hosts.” New Revised Standard Version, alt (NRSV)
Nothing is quite as clear, however, as Sirach 34:22 in the Good News Translation: It is murder to deprive someone of his living or to cheat an employee of her wages.”
Epifania (E-pee-faa-nee-aa) Hinchez is a home care aide in New York City. New York has an admirable $15 minimum wage, but an exception was carved into the legislation for home health care workers, 93% of whom are women and 79% immigrants. Epifania is among the many who work mandatory 24 hour shifts in their client’s homes but are paid for only 13 hours. That’s because supposedly they sleep for 8 hours. I guess the rest is for “breaks.” But as she explains, how can I sleep when “I have to flip my patient’s body every two hours and change her diaper at 9 pm, midnight, and 3 am? Not to mention, besides providing care all day long, responding to any other cries for help 24 hours a day. Her last patient weighed 290 pounds and couldn’t walk. The heavy lifting led to injuries and nerve damage that required surgery. Again, Epifania is only paid for 13 of those 24 hours. Yet, she does it anyway because, she said, she loves her patients and considers them family; and needs the job to take care of her own family.
Might this not lead to a shortening of her own life? All of that so company shareholders, in the very graphic words of the Book of James, might have a “fatter than usual corpse” when they die.
The Book of James very clearly describes wage theft. People had to be told, don’t do it! Which is true then and now, whether they are workers who harvest your fields or who worked for a certain former Atlantic City casino owner and are among the 3,500 who filed official complaints: un or underpaid painters, glass installers, cabinet makers, drapery installers, marble installers… some of whom lost their businesses. Dishwashers, bartenders, even architects, real-estate brokers, and ironically, his own lawyers. All so he can have a fatter than usual corpse. That’s the Book of James, not me.
While Epifania is a good illustration, I assume you realize this doesn’t just take place in faraway states or countries overseas. Workers in the State of Colorado are subject to as much as $750 million in wage theft. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable. And other under reporting makes it difficult to determine, but the Economic Policy Institute estimates that nationwide wage theft could be as high as $50 billion each year. While the general public understandably decries burglaries and armed robberies and stolen cars, the affect of wage theft is three times higher, yet is not considered as serious a crime as a stolen car. But scripture thinks it’s pretty serious, especially in Sirach: “It is murder to deprive someone of his living or to cheat an employee of her wages.”
Here in Denver, Eduardo was hired to complete an exterior stucco job. He warned his employer not to use a certain material because it would not pass city inspection. His employer dismissed his concern and when the job did not, in fact, pass inspection, the employer refused to pay him. Eduardo agreed to do the job again. He obtained the correct materials, expecting to be reimbursed, not to mention, get paid for his labor, let alone doing it twice. The employer refused both his $500 wage as well as the $1,000 he spent for new materials. El Centro Humanitario, our mission partner in June, directed him to Towards Justice, which helped him recuperate his wages. But not before he incurred overdraft fees because he didn’t get paid in a timely fashion. If he had sought temporary assistance from one of those pay day lenders, it might have been much worse.
Speaking of those lenders, The Interfaith Alliance, which is here today as our September mission partner, has been involved in a successful effort to get a measure on the upcoming mid-term ballot to put limits on pay day lenders. If voters agree, the interest rate they can charge will be capped at a measly 36%, which may sound unfair, but is much better than the current rate of 500% allowed by our elected legislature. I always thought pay day lenders preyed on those without bank accounts, but who are their most frequent victims? The fact that the largest number of pay day lenders are in Colorado Springs might give you a clue: people in the military and veterans. Plus, senior citizens. Getting trapped in their debt hell, where a short-term $500 loan for an emergency can rack up fees and interest well into thousands of dollars, is sometimes a side effect of withheld or delayed wages.
During this time of increasingly obscene wealth inequality, it’s good to remember churches began observing Labor Sunday during the same kind of gilded age in 1890. Although, clergy often had to be embarrassed into addressing the issue of worker justice by labor advocates who quoted scriptures like today’s reading from the Book of James. On the other hand, worker justice was often the heart of the Social Gospel, with powerful preaching from folks like Washington Gladden of First Congregational Church in Columbus and Myron Reed, of First Congregational here in Denver. But they were often preaching into the wind. So many people prefer a message of charity, at the time highlighting the pious good will of such industrialists and monopolists as the Carnegies and Rockefellers. Labor advocates described this as “pouring a little balm on the surface, while cancer eats away at the heart.”
We are still challenged by such attitudes toward charity. That’s why we support groups like the Interfaith Alliance. They help us hold compassion and justice in balance. While we provide shelter to 20 women on Tuesday nights, our support of advocacy and action with groups like the Interfaith Alliance help us address the structural injustices that create and perpetuate homelessness.
So, a little about the Book of James. Outside the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, no other book in the New Testament describes Christian faith more clearly and forcefully. It asks, for example, what good is the gospel if you don’t do anything with it? AKA “Don’t be hearers only, but doers of the Word.”
Scholars believe James was written before all the other gospels except Mark. But the intent was not a recitation of the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but more like a summary of his teachings. More than half of James teaches us, in the style of wisdom literature, to “do this” and “do that” because “faith without works is dead.”
James isn’t exactly a letter like we think of the other New Testament books, though it was meant to circulate. It wasn’t written to a specific community to address a particular problem, like for example, Paul’s letters were. James is also unusual in that it does not address issues of conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Which also suggests that the instruction to pay your workers was not necessarily directed at the Christian community itself but another indication of its place in the genre of wisdom literature. There is no evidence that the earliest Christians were not taking care of the poor. The Book of Acts, for example, spoke very concretely about how communities organized themselves to do so. Therefore again, James may be more about the wisdom of right action than an admonition for bad behavior. If we read it as finger-pointing, we may miss its point, though that does not let us off the hook.
So, what, then, is our call to action? If we don’t own companies, if we don’t have employees, does this text have any practical applications for us this Labor Sunday or is it just about someone else? I suggest three actions we can take to enact the Good News: First, vote “yes” to cap the interest rate lenders can charge. And educate your neighbors and friends. Secondly, there’s another measure on the ballot: vote “yes” to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude still enshrined in the Colorado Constitution, a measure which failed last time, perhaps for confusing language. It doesn’t address prisoner wages, yet, but this is the first step. Tell your neighbors to vote yes on both. My third suggestion will require more long-term engagement: Tipping.
The syndicated columnist Connie Schultz wrote a piece 14 years ago that she keeps updating from time to time. Connie is the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.
Her original story is entitled “A little tip about gratuities.”
If you've ever used a coat check, you probably noticed a tip jar. You might stick a dollar or two into that jar and assume the person behind the counter, usually a woman, will get the money.
That's certainly what I always assumed. From now on, however, I learned I have to ask. I recently attended an event at Windows on the River. At the end, I picked up my wrap at the coat-check counter. I pointed to the large tip jar bulging with bills and said to the weary clerk, "Well, at least you’ve got some decent tips for tonight."
She shook her head and said, "Oh, we don't get to keep those."
I thought I misheard her. "What?"
"We don't keep the tips."
"Who does?" I asked.
When I asked her how that made her feel, she sighed. "They say they use it to give us a Christmas party."
Nowhere was there a sign indicating that the pile of bills in the tip jar was not going to the clerk but to management.
At another event, I watched one person after another shove bills into the slot on the top of a box marked “tips.”
"Who gets these tips?" I asked the coat-check clerk.
She resisted telling me, but I pressed.
"Management," she said softly.
"How does that make you feel?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Life isn't fair, right?"
So, I called the general manager of that fancy event center. She said, "Why are you asking about this? Why do you care?" The "girls," she insisted, are happy with the current arrangement. “And they're already paid an hourly wage."
Word that I was “asking questions” went up the chain to two corporate vice presidents who called me. "We're confused. This is newsworthy?" They went on to praise their workers as some of the kindest, most professional servers in the business. And they get a free meal.
Besides, they defended themselves, those tip jars only collect about $800 a year. Hard to believe, judging from the amount I saw stuffed into that jar last Friday night.
They said, "We match it for their Christmas party." When I asked if they'd ever let their employees decide between keeping the tips and having a party, they fell silent. "Why does this matter?" they asked.
The original general manager remained unrepentant. She said, "I don't ever think about who's getting the tip when I use a coat check. I don't care."
Connie asked her readers: Do you care? If you do, then ask and complain and make a big deal and embarrass companies that withhold those tips, like those who withhold wages. Ask when you see a tip jar at a bar. Who gets these? Connie has added subsequent columns, noting that if you are charged a “service fee” for a party of more than six people, ask the server, how much of this do you get? And if you leave a tip on your credit card, ask whether they get the full amount or minus the transaction fee.
Tipping isn’t worker justice. In fact, one person wisely described the tip jar as the "Trickle Down Economy Jar." Yet it might just be one way we are engaged in stealing the wages of the workers whose cries are heard by the Lord of Hosts. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any help having "a fatter than usual corpse."
 The Message
 https://www.stoppredatorypaydayloans.org/our-fight/ Vote YES!
 Per Amanda Henderson of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado
 Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word, HarperOne, 2012
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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 Traveling around the world