Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25: 31-46 – New Revised Standard Version
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
There’s been a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth lately, judgment and eternal punishment, people cast into outer darkness, lots of apocalyptic nightmares – and that’s not just the latest drama coming out of the White House.
As Matthew winds his gospel down to its conclusion, he ramps up its intensity, speaking of wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, famines and earthquakes, cursed fig trees, foolish virgins, talents that don’t include singing and dancing but crooked investment schemes. It’s like a bloodbath for hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vipers. And there are all those constant warnings to get ready and stay awake and remain vigilant… On the one hand, good material to encourage resistance in our culture of cruelty, and on the other hand, material that tests our capacity for mental and spiritual endurance. That resilience I’ve been speaking of.
Frankly, the constant bombardment of the texts from Matthew has been a little overwhelming and a lot of exhausting. The Bible hasn’t calmed my nerves or soothed my fears. It has raised my blood pressure, as though watching the news doesn’t do enough of that already. Therefore, when I came upon today’s reading, I was relieved.
Today’s text is the mantra of progressive Christians. This text preaches, I thought. After weeks of “apocalypse now,” we finally get to the heart of the gospel: “What we do matters more than what we believe.” It’s the basic statement of faith for progressive Christians from the Book of James: “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only. Faith without works is dead.” So, I breathed a sigh of relief. We made it to the end on a high note.
This is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next week, the First Sunday of Advent, begins a new year and a new adventure, this time through the Gospel of Mark, although on second thought, Mark is slightly crazier than Matthew, and on speed. When reading through Mark, if you played the drinking game with the word “immediately,” you’d be drunk in a few chapters.
But today’s text isn’t as simple as we might think. It does make it clear that to follow Jesus, to love Jesus, means to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked…” To love Jesus is to love the least of these. And when we don’t, we don’t love Jesus. But it’s not as simple as that. If only Matthew would have left verse 46 out. It was fine without it. But he went back to that old theme of the past few weeks. To not love the least of these, to not love Jesus, means eternal punishment.
I want to tell Matthew, enough already! Enough with all the pressure. And, while I’m at it, in this would where crazy is normal, to Matthew and everyone else, enough telling me what else I need to do, or worry about, or fix or organize or protest. And on top of that, always asking, “What did I do wrong? Or what did I forget to do? Or what didn’t I do enough of?” Enough!
Earlier in the week I read a piece by one of my new favorite authors, John Pavlovitz, entitled “The Place Called Enough.” It spoke to what my soul needed to hear and I decided this is what I would like to share with you, this last Sunday of the Christian year.
“There’s a place I like to visit from time to time: a place called Enough.
[Not the place just before I give up or check out because I’m worn out. Not the place that means I’m done.] It is that place where my endlessly racing heart finally slows, where the ever-clenched muscles in my jaw release, where my labored breathing stretches from short, shallow sips into slow, savoring swells.
There, my chest expands and contracts fully, without interruption. I get a full breath, and my mind no longer chases what was or might be or should be, but pauses to quietly rest in what is.
There, in Enough, all of the hot, crackling noise [that I’m not doing enough, that I’m not good enough] ceases; the constant comparisons that tell me that I’m not measuring up, the never-ending criticisms that forever state their disapproval, the taunting whispers reminding me of what I have failed to grasp and what I have failed to do. And all that I am most surely bound to lose.
When I am firmly planted in the place called Enough, there is nothing more to prove or earn or achieve or make. There is no frantic striving, no jockeying for position, no desperate running-after. There is only the wide expanse of gratitude upon which I can rest all of myself.
I’ve been here before. I so love this place, but I always feel like I’m only a temporary guest here, only stopping for the briefest of seconds before needs and expectations and worry all conspire to rip me out and pull me back to a familiar place – of what I fail to do and how much I lack and “less-than” I feel.
No sooner do I find a momentary clearing and my thoughts are once again cluttered with swirling lists of unfinished work, of needs unfulfilled, of looming battles to be waged—and I begin to run again after that which is forever just beyond the reach of my outstretched fingertips.
In the end, it is self-induced. They are my choices. And it is exhausting. And I fear that I have developed an insatiable compulsion. Like an addiction, it causes me to breathlessly pursue a high that never satisfies but only promises that it soon will. After just one more win, just five more pounds, if only I just had a few more bucks in the bank. Then, I’ll get to Enough for good—I could live there, instead of this not yet good enough.
I’m tired of just passing through gratitude and simply taking a vacation in contentment. I want to stay here. I want to live in this place.
I dream of the time when I will make my home here, when I will stay for more than a day or a season, to find thanksgiving my soul’s default setting; when I will dwell upon the sufficiency and beauty and goodness of the present without needing alter it or get an upgrade.
I look to the day when what I see in my home and at work, and what I see in my bank account, and what I see in the mirror are no longer reminders of what is yet to be done or fixed or gained, but clear confirmation of what is already mine—and that this news yields only a full, satiating joy.
Maybe today will be the day when I permanently retire from running in circles and lay my head back upon this singular moment and need nothing else to complete it.
I pray this for me. I pray it for you. May we believe presently that we have enough, that we do enough, that we are enough.
May you and I learn to live in thanksgiving, to take up residence in contentment, to make our homes in gratitude.
May we find the beautiful, but so often elusive, place called Enough, and may we stay there/here for good.”
I read that and re-read it all week. It felt so good to hear. And yet I must admit my discomfort, too. Is it my addiction? I get that we “have enough.” We still struggle with wanting more, but in reality, you and I have enough. I believe that we “are enough.” We can still grow and develop but who we are is sufficient. And good. But even though I’m busy enough, I still wonder, is it true that I “do enough?”
I read that and fear it is an escape. An excuse. For people to say: I do enough. I’ve done enough. Don’t bother me. John, the guy who wrote the piece, isn’t someone in hiding, removed from reality. He is an evangelical pastor and one of the fiercest critics of our leaders and the times we are living in.
He shares the same fears and disgust of a Christianity only concerned with saving souls from the earth but caring nothing about their conditions on the earth. The people who are pro-birth, but not pro-life for the living, which addresses the basic message of today’s text: if you don’t feed the hungry, you don’t love Jesus.
But perhaps my problem is, or rather the antidote to my compulsions, I just have to get back to, and keep going back to, the basic intention, the setup of creation. God’s establishment of sabbath and the wisdom of it. Always coming back to the rhythm of sabbath and our need for it; at times, desperate need for it.
For activists, for all of us, to rest and renew and re-create. And, for those at rest and at ease to get active. Faith without works is dead, but all work with no faith may kill us. The UCC has a popular bumper sticker that says, “to believe is to care, and to care is to do.” Yes, and, how can we do, if we can’t just be?
So, before we get back to the work of resisting the new forms of cruelty our leaders have come up with over the weekend, and seem to keep coming up with every day, adding to last weeks and last months and a whole diabolical years’ worth of injustice… let’s set aside our lists of all the work that is not yet done, of what is yet to be fixed or achieved, and dwell in the rhythm of this present moment’s goodness and sufficiency. Saying, enough already, OK? Exactly.
Already enough. You are enough. I am enough. We are enough.
 https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/11/24/the-place-called-enough/. I have made some alterations so its reads in my own voice
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 19, 2017
“Taxes and Immorality”
Matthew 24: 14-30 – New Revised Standard Version
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“To all who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Finally, an explanation that makes sense. Finally, an explicit declaration for tax policy. I just wish they’d say it. Be loud and proud. Those who have more deserve more! Those who don’t, those who are literally “worth-less,” throw them into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It finally makes sense.
I swear, I never sit down to write a sermon and think, gee, how can I be political. Honestly, it isn’t my intention to be always be controversial. But take today’s lectionary text, the Bible in one hand, and read it with the newspaper in the other hand, and I don’t see how we have choice. One of our visitors in the past year asked, as they left the service visibly unhappy, “Are you always so political?” I said, “No. I just read from the Bible. It speaks for itself.” I attempt to ground the Christian faith in our lived reality.
This is a text that is often only given spiritual meaning, without consideration of a social justice interpretation. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a spiritualized interpretation, unless it’s meant to avoid something more difficult to accept – like the justice and moral implications of the gospel.
In today’s parable, all kinds of preachers – and I most definitely include myself; I have taken the word “talent” in this passage and talked about something more akin to abilities, gifts, and skills. I happen to like the idea that in this parable Jesus is saying “Don’t bury your talents,” as in, “get out there and sing,” paint, sculpt, write poetry, and so forth. Or, you’re good with numbers, so “use your talents for the Lord.” You’re a good leader. You’re a good administrator, teacher, caregiver. You’re good with your hands. All kinds of variations on “You’re so talented, so gifted, you should…”
Surely all of us have had someone – grandmas and aunties and neighbors – someone who encouraged us to break out of our shell so that we can shine for the world to see and hear and appreciate. You know, use your talents so they aren’t wasted. Although, hopefully grandma didn’t add, “And if you don’t, go to hell.”
Other interpretations encourage us to take risks, to not be so cautious that we’re paralyzed from doing anything, from making any difference in the world. It’s true that helping someone risks getting more deeply involved than we may want. Loving someone risks getting hurt. That doesn’t mean, never love.
There is nothing wrong with a spiritualized interpretation that says “take a risk, don’t waste your talents, don’t bury them in the ground.” But we can’t overlook the reality that in this parable, talent means money. When the Bible talks about a talent, it’s talking about an amount of money roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages. Which means we have to talk about money, not just talented people.
So, a talent is worth roughly 15 years of wages for an average laborer. Let’s figure out what this would mean today. The median income in America is roughly between $50-60,000 – half make more, half make less. Take $50,000, multiply by 15, and it equals three quarters of a million dollars. So, in the parable, this “man who went off on a trip” left one guy with $3.75 million dollars, left another guy with $1.5 million, and the other with $750,000. At the end, the man returned home to the modern equivalent of over $11 million dollars. I have no “talent” for math, so it took me a little while to figure that out. My dad, with only an eighth-grade education, had the talent to do it in his head.
But wait a minute, I do know this: in an economic system as limited as theirs would have been, where many transactions would have simply involved bartering for one another’s services, no matter how long the man was on his trip, how in the world could $5 million turn into 10? How could this have happened without cheating or some dirty work to achieve those results, sort of Bernie Madoff style?
It’s absurd, right? Well, as I’ve said before, the parables of Jesus are often meant to be absurd, to suspend disbelief. It gets the crowd’s attention, riles them up. Jesus is never too far from drawing unwanted attention to people like this in his world and ours, such as one man would have 15 talents! People standing around listening to the story would have looked at each other incredulously. Just like we shake our heads at the 8 men who are “worth” the same as 3.6 billion people – half of the world’s population. 8 men.
Jesus didn’t refrain from calling people broods of vipers and snakes. And while he doesn’t say that here, this parable is surrounded by one accusation of hypocrisy after another. Therefore, a basic question I have is whether Jesus is praising these investment gains or criticizing the moral absurdity of such wealth inequality.
Some people claim Jesus was a proponent of the free market. The gospel of Luke has a parallel story about which Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes: “While the story lacks specifics on whether he invested the money in a herd of sheep or a hedge fund, we do know that he made his gain by engaging in business transactions of some sort. He used a free market system to bring a tenfold return on investment. No doubt such a return took a lot of diligent, dedicated effort.”
But, only a crook, or someone working for a guy who the parable describes as “reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he didn’t scatter…” Only a thief or a scoundrel or a congressman could turn some extra herds of sheep into millions of dollars. And yet, it was the third slave “cast into outer darkness?” (Perkins would call the first man an entrepreneurial genius and the other lazy, and probably demand a drug test.)
I don’t think Jesus is offering praise for this scheme as much as he is criticizing what happens when the world is dominated by power and wealth. Was the third slave lazy or inept? Or did he get down on one knee and refuse to participate in this system of oppression, unwilling to make a corrupt man even wealthier. And for doing that, was abandoned and condemned to a place of suffering.
But, c’mon God. It’s Thanksgiving, for God’s sake, (oops, I mean for Your sake). This is a little too heavy for today. Can’t you give me something like a text about gratitude and counting our blessings…
Something like the song,
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God has done;
You know the rest.
But, no instead, Jesus said,
Count your millions, make them even more
Count your millions, stick it to the poor
Count your millions…
Well, you know the rest.
You read the papers, follow the news, and watch as student loan interest, child care, housing costs – the stuff of the one talent person – is taken away so the rich can deduct their vacation home. Bills for the benefit of corporations who are persons but not actual human persons. For corporations to take full advantage of massive deductions while the deduction is taken away from the school teacher who spends his or her own money to buy supplies for their students.
I’m not interested in the specifics of tax policy, or health care policy, which party “wins” or any other such thing. Not questions of policy but of ethics. As people of faith, we don’t need to examine the minutiae, but the morality. Eventual tax increases for those making only $10,000 and tax savings for those now free to inherit an extra billion dollars… Pulpits around the country this morning should be proclaiming, “That is immoral!” Proponents of this crooked investment scheme should be worrying about their soul cast into outer darkness with the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Where is Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas ghost when we need him? Taxes themselves are morally neutral. How they are applied, who is affected, who loses, who gains – those are the moral questions that so far deserve a failing grade.
Matthew placed the parable of the talents as one of the very last teachings of Jesus. In the next day or two he will be found in the garden and carried off by soldiers for his sham trial and execution. His end is near. Matthew loves telling apocalyptic stories, so this must be placed within that context too. It really isn’t a story about using our talents or taking a risk. Well, risk, but the risk is that if you don’t get ready for Jesus to return, you won’t be ready for judgment day. The parable taken in isolation sounds like the rich win. And that the rich should win. But this isn’t really even a story about money.
To be honest, I’m a little stumped by this parable and what it means. It is so inconsistent with the message Jesus has been preaching all along. After all, he said, what good is it to gain the whole world but lose your life?
On its own, this seems like a terrible parable. However, as a progression of the bigger story, maybe it has some merit. I’m thinking out loud here, but remember how the third slave buried his talent in the ground? He was condemned and abandoned. Well, in a few days, something else, someone else, will be buried. In a tomb. And buried with Jesus, all the hopes and expectations of his followers. But remember, that terrible story doesn’t end there either. God raised him.
The first two slaves may have doubled their investments, but the buried savior became a movement of love and compassion that expanded a million-fold. The earliest Christians, or actually, before Christianity became a thing, the first followers of the risen Christ sold all their possessions and created a common pot from which anyone could take who had need. There were no more rich or poor. It’s the story of Pentecost.
In the end, what I know is that the short-term investment gains of the first two slaves pale in comparison to the richness of a life whose meaning is found in love and acts of compassion. A life of justice seeking. Does your life have meaning because of what you own?
I give thanks to the One from whom we have received life, not mere money, to whom we owe thanksgiving, a debt gratitude for all the blessings we can count, one by one by one.
 Audrey West, The Christian Century, October 13, 2017
 Matthew 16:26
 Acts 2:43-47
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 12, 2017
“One Year Later: Resistance and Resilience in Our Post Human-Decency World”
Matthew 21: 28-32
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Remarkably sad, betrayed, and angry. Fearful, shocked, and scared. Helpless, numb, and crushed. And determined.
When we packed in here one year ago, literally packed in, those were just some of the hundreds of emotions expressed on these sticky notes that we placed on the windows around the sanctuary. I kept them as a memorial to the election of 2016.
One of these notes described being “aghast at the depth of racism and sexism the election revealed.” That horror has only confirmed itself as more deeply ingrained than many of us might have been lulled into thinking in our supposedly post-racial America. Although, as I quoted a year ago, DaShawn Mosley from Sojourners, among others, asked why so many white progressives couldn’t see, couldn’t believe that “every time African Americans get a little bit closer to equality, a wave of white resentment comes hurtling around the bend to wash all of the progress away.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fascinating new book shows how the same thing happened after eight years of Reconstruction, the period following slavery when African Americans rose in power and stature, only to be slapped back down by deviously devised Jim Crow laws, the open terrorism of the KKK, and silence of good people.
Post-election, a lot of blame was directed toward the white working class; poor whites who resented being “left behind.” But Coates said blaming them is misplaced. It’s a false narrative. I didn’t know this, and was surprised by it: According to the reputable polls he cited,
Coates points out that, of course, “every Trump voter was most certainly not a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it was acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one who is.” Over to someone who bragged that he could sexually assault women, “they’ll let you do it,” because he was a celebrity, while calling Mexicans rapists. Someone who promoted physical violence. Who scapegoated refugees… Well, you know the story. We’ve been living in a post-human-decency world ever since.
Let me also note, however, that Hillary was not devoid of her own racism, including her language about crime and super-predators. Not to mention, we surely would have stayed securely tucked in our beds safely holding on to our “delusions of inclusion,” as Crystal Fleming described it. In fact, bringing the neo-nazis, the KKK and the white supremacists of Bannon’s alt-right “good people on all sides” out from under their rock might ultimately save us from them.
When we gathered for the first service after the election last year, we didn’t know what would actually transpire. We only had promises. We waited and hoped with baited breath that the worst would not unfold. My sermon was entitled “May the Intervention of the Holy Spirit Save Us from an Apocalyptic Nightmare.” And perhaps it has been the Holy Spirit that created the chaos and ineptitude that has saved us from something worse. Maybe we should be thanking Twitter instead of cursing it for the distractions which have stunted some goals. But thank goodness for the Judiciary. And most definitely, thank goodness for the framers of the Constitution who have kept the dictatorial desires of our President from being realized.
And yet, despite many failures, we are still living with
But hey, the stock market is better than ever and maybe billionaires can finally get some tax relief.
Damage has been done. Families have been torn apart. But, thank goodness, or thanks to the intervention of the Holy Spirit, some threats remain unrealized. The stakes have been high, the apocalypse has been dared, but thank goodness, it has not arrived.
But more than anything else, thank goodness for you. For your resistance. For your active participation. For showing up at the Women’s March. For the half of our congregation who marched down Colfax Avenue through torrential rain after Charlottesville. For your participation in Black Lives Matter and the Northeast Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice, who along with some Indivisible groups call our building home for their meetings. By the way, your stewardship pledge pays for that. Thank you for joining the ACLU and writing checks to the Southern Poverty Law Center. For showing decency for our fellow citizens by donating to hurricane relief and especially volunteering for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative.
John Pavlovitz described the year 2017 as a “long decade.” But he joins me in expressing gratitude for the millions of ordinary people who became overnight activists, engaging in their local communities in ways they’d never done before. He said, “It’s been a year of hot humid hell, but heaven has been present in the middle of it.” In Virginia, the fact that the bigoted author of the bathroom bill, the self-described “chief homophobe in Virginia,” was voted out of office and replaced by a transgender woman is indeed a bit of heavenly justice.
But this long decade of a year hasn’t actually even been a full year yet. And despite the recognition that, yes, our cruel national nightmare will one day be over, even so, a return to civic decency and the healing of our deep divisions are a long way off. Resistance has been effective. But also depleting. The stress has taken a toll, including on our immune systems. Several people have described their simple colds as taking twice as long to heal. A coincidence. Or a consequence? Maintaining vigilance long term will require something deeper than we might have expected, or have been cultivating. Today’s story of the foolish virgins may be instructive.
First of all, the whole thing about “foolish virgins” sounds a little like one of the platforms for the promise of making America great again. So, let’s just offer our collective “yuck” so we can look behind the story. It’s also been called the parable of ten bridesmaids, ten maidens, none of which is really much better. I had to laugh, though, because one of the commentators, writing long ago, said the Greek shouldn’t be translated “foolish.” It’s closer to saying “they were morons.” But whatever word you use, it’s still “yuck.”
And double yuck. We have to name that this is another one of those apocalyptic texts that Matthew loves. And though provocative, whatever you call it, the apocalypse, Armageddon, the end times, or the second coming of Christ, they are a problem. As I’ve said before, as progressive Christians, we are not looking forward to everything falling apart through war, famine, and flood in order to fulfill some biblical prophecy from which the mission of the church is to save souls. But rather, our calling and vocation is to help set this world right – to become the open, inclusive, just, and compassionate world that Jesus proclaimed, also known as the Kingdom of God, the Common Good, on earth as it is in heaven. The message of today’s text to “always be ready” still applies. We’ve had a year of practice. But can we stick with it?
That’s why I’ve started to think that we need to work on our resilience for this calling, to build it up, whether it be for 3 more years or 7 or longer. In fact, we should plan for a lifetime. This past year, you and I have been vigilant in our resistance. Keeping on top of things. Monitoring the news. Showing up when needed. Ready. But will we find ourselves one day with an empty lamp? Will the oil in our lamp run dry because we haven’t been filling it? Are we sure there will always be enough time to do it one day when we need it right now? Resilience.
The foolish virgins didn’t prepare so they found themselves locked out. But for our times, I would look at it a different way. Not locked out. But worn out. Done. Exhausted. Depleted. Fatigued. Drained. Think of your own word to say – I’ve got nothing left. I’m out. Burning our lamps with the fuel of anger and righteous rage can provide only so much light before its gone and everything goes dark and we feel hopelessly lost. Can I say it again? Burning our lamps with the fuel of anger and righteous rage provides only so much light before its gone and everything goes dark and we feel hopelessly lost. So, how are we continuing to keep our lamps full?
As I have said repeatedly this year, you are what keeps me sane. Worship is what keeps me going. I don’t know what I would do after another week of chaos without a day to worship and rest. The rhythm of Sabbath and a place to process. God keeps us focused on the bigger picture. After all, God was before the beginning and God will be after the end. Talk about big picture! We need that kind of perspective. And to practice gratitude through all things despite all the things happening in our world.
Jesus shows us what following his vision means – from the consequences of compassion and justice to the redemption of the worst thing the world can throw at us. In our culture of cruelty, this post-human-decency world, our Christian calling and vocation, our vision, is clear: A world that is open to all, inclusive of all, a just world for all, and people who are compassionate at all times and in all ways.
When I wonder if I’ve got the perspective and gratitude needed for resilience, I’m reminded of the Syrian-American poet Mohja Kahf who wrote:
Feeling calm. You folk forget,
I’ve lived in ameriKKKa before. Lived to tell.
Think one election is enough to get me down? Psh.
Roots dig deep in winter, drink nourishment underground.
Good in the world doesn’t drain out overnight.
This ain’t the apocalypse, just the same old business
a little more naked than it has been in a while
and now we have a few more tools stored away
in the vision cabinet for making plans.
This isn’t optimism, just Sisyphus speaking.
I know this boulder from before, and I’ll push it again,
only this time I have more friends,
know better how to hunker my shoulder to it.
Never expected it to get any lighter, and if it did for a minute, that was a breath we can use for the next heave.”
I shared a picture this week of a lone individual hauling a huge heart shaped boulder uphill. Alone. I reminded us to be grateful that we have a church to help us through these times, an unapologetically progressive church. Do you know how many people crave a church like this?
So, for resilience. I want to start developing more resources for us this year, to keep our lamps full or when we are wearing down and want to give up. Here are a few things we can do, and ways the church helps:
1)Keep connected with other people – don’t isolate but gather regularly with friends and neighbors, as in, we’re here every week.
2)Accept that we are living through what we are living through. We can’t wish it away. And then learn from scripture that dictators and demagogues have existed throughout history. And what ultimately happens to them when the people of God resist.
3)Change what you can. Take action, some action, so that you don’t detach and, again, just wish things would go away. We are here to act together for the common good, the Kingdom of God. And we are uniquely blessed with the opportunity to literally feed and shelter people. Which feeds us and fills our lamps.
4)Remember that no problems are insurmountable – through the sacrament of communion, we re-member what Jesus faced, how he coped, and how through God he overcame. And will always be with us. In baptism, we rehearse this dying and rising to new life.
5)The Spirit is in you, so trust your instincts. But also observe and learn and be grateful for the elders in our midst who have been through this before and worse.
6)Give value to such rituals as singing and reading and listening and silence. Through them, God will give you all the strength you need to rise up, to stand up, to stand firm, and hold fast to that which is good and decent.
7)And, as I said one year ago, continue to pray for the intervention of the Holy Spirit to save us from an apocalyptic nightmare. Through the halls of justice, down the corridors of Congress, and around the oval walls of the White House – pray with everything you’ve got. Because filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can make this post-human-decency world as temporary as possible. Not because something as inconsequential as political parties change but because conservative, moderate and liberal, Tea Partiers and people still yearning to feel the bern, people of all faiths, find common ground on behalf of all people’s Common Good.
One: Where hatred roars, we will sing of love.
All: Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage.
One: Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice.
All: Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort.
One: Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
All: Now and ever, now and ever, now and evermore.
 See more at https://davidbahr.weebly.com/blog/lets-not-just-wait-and-see-lets-watch-and-get-prepared
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, New York, One World Publishing, 2017
 Columnist and UCC member Leonard Pitts described the election as a slap down to women, people of color and LGBTQ folks http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article114285558.html
 Lots of articles including http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/20/politics/election-2016-white-working-class-donald-trump-kaiser-family-foundation/index.html
 Coates, page 346-347
 https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/11/08/year-resisting-worst-case-scenario Sign up to read his stuff!
 Can’t find the exact citation. But to learn more about her: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/mohja-kahf#poet
 These are an adaptation for a Christian pespective and combination of several lists I found online, one from the American Psychological Association which was particularly helpful: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 5, 2017
“Was Jesus a Hypocrite?”
Matthew 23: 1-12
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I’m terrified of Muslims. I don’t want Sharia law in America.
OK. Let’s avoid that by separating church and state.
Nope. I believe in Jesus. I want this country to be more Christian.
OK. Let’s be more Christian. There’s some refugees over there who need help.
Nope. I’m not helping refugees while we still have homeless kids and veterans in America.
OK. Here’s a bill to help homeless vets.
Nope. I don’t want to raise my taxes.
OK. What about homeless kids?
Nope. Their parents are just lazy and want handouts. They shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them.
OK. Let’s fund Planned Parenthood to help people plan for parenthood.
Nope. Some of that money might go for an abortion. I’m pro-life.
OK. Let’s give everyone a better life with access to health care for women, infants and children.
OK. So, you’re pro-birth, not pro-life. Once their born, shouldn’t we help families care for them?
Nope. That’s socialism. I believe in the Constitution, not dirty, dirty socialism.
OK. At least we agree on the Constitution. I especially love the part that gives everyone freedom of (and from) religion.
Yes! Freedom of religion. Except for Muslims. I’m terrified of Muslims.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, another church is doing a parody of liberal Christian values. As soon as we can point and say “hypocrisy” to one group, they can do the same thing back. And finally, we all have something in common! Hypocrisy. There’s a lot of it going around.
I googled “Trump is a hypocrite” and there were around half a million hits, some related to playing golf, executive orders, etc. I’d like to add, his refraining from judgment about a white man who killed 59 people but demanding the execution of a Muslim immigrant less than 24 hours after the tragedy. I then googled “Obama is a hypocrite” and I got another half a million hits, some of them no less true, like all the killing ordered by unmanned drones. Civilian casualties. Other charges included his big speech payouts.
But not especially surprising, when I googled “Christians are hypocrites,” I got 1 million hits – double the politicians. Sad, but not shocking. After all, things like “God loves everybody, except gays, Muslims…, etc.” Or the acrobatic act some Christians do: “Hate the sin, love the sinner…” Well, it just isn’t love. It’s hypocritical. The man who killed three shoppers at Walmart in Thornton had a Bible on the floor of his apartment.
But I was surprised to learn this: the phrase “Jesus is a hypocrite” registered nearly 14 million hits. I huffed to myself, Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite! How could anyone say that? People have Christians confused with Jesus! Isn’t that a sad statement? What does that say?
But such confusion was illustrated very clearly in a story in the Washington Post entitled: “Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen.” Joel Osteen is the mega-church pastor in Houston with the beaming smile. The pastor, worth $50 million, owns a $10 million mansion and a luxury yacht. He was called out because he didn’t open his Houston church to flood victims, a big enough facility given that it is housed in a former NBA arena. It wasn’t opened until the hypocrisy of it humbled him in the media. While people drove to Houston from all over on their own with their little fishing boats, social media was flooded with memes of him sailing by on his yacht waving at people on their roofs – Jesus loves you.
Oh, but hypocrisy sightings are dangerous! My finger pointing is dangerous. Please remind me to take the log out of my own eye before pointing out the sliver in Joel’s.
I clicked on some of the articles that said Jesus was a hypocrite and found one which I thought had merit and applied to today’s passage – or at least it applied to me and my smug contempt. The author reminded us, Jesus told his followers “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I stand judged. But Jesus? The idea that Jesus was a hypocrite!? Although, I have to agree, he was little “judgy” in today’s passage too, don’t you think? Jesus said “do whatever the scribes and Pharisees tell you and follow it. But don’t do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Then Jesus continued, as you heard Kathy read, until he concluded, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Sounds kind of nice, an inspirational way to wrap it up, like, “And the moral of the story is…” I stand judged and humbled. The end.
Except, that’s not the end. The lectionary ends, but story continues. This part doesn’t usually get read in churches: Jesus then turned away from the listening crowd and looked over and pointed to the scribes and Pharisees and angrily said, “But woe to you, hypocrites. Woe to you, hypocrites. Woe to you…” Seven times to their faces (their reddening faces, steam rising off their hair). He judged them, and harshly.
With each charge he listed their hypocrisy, including, for example, how when they tithed, when they gave their 10% of such things as mint, dill, and cumin, Jesus said, “you do that but you neglect justice and mercy and faith.” Thomas Long described the burdens they placed on people through their myriad rules, standards, and directives as “moral bean counting.”
Jesus told them, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Meaning: You’re missing the big picture, you’re sweating the small stuff… Seriously, Jesus went off on them at bullet speed, hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite. Seven times. Five more times he called them blind – blind guides, blind fools. Snakes, broods of vipers. “Blood is on you.”
The crowd’s mouths were left hanging open, no one standing there could have misinterpreted his feelings or what he meant. And they might have thought to themselves, “Um, Jesus, what about that whole ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’ thing?”
But then, after his angry outburst, Jesus collapsed to the ground and wept. “Jerusalem,” he lamented, “Jerusalem, how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.” Then he walked out of the Temple, right past the place where two days before he had angrily overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and went up on the Mount of Olives and sat down. When he calmed down, his disciples came and they spoke privately. The next chapter in the Gospel of Matthew was about questions they asked and parables he told them, finally saying, “They’re going to come after me in two days.” These events all happened during his last week – the Tuesday of what we call Holy Week. “After the Passover meal,” he said, “I will be turned over to be crucified.” After listening to him go off on his religious leaders, I tempted to ask sarcastically, “ya think?”
Yet that’s what I so admire about him. I so admire his willingness to tell truth like that and accept the consequences. And, then turn those consequences around. Crucifixion became Resurrection. Death became life. Hate became love. Isn’t that what it means to follow Christ. Accountability – both of others and of yourself. And redemption. He showed us how. He knew what would happen to him when he spoke like that and he did it anyway. But of course, it’s always easier to admire the courage of someone else than it is to be courageous ourselves. I could never be Jesus. I could never be Martin Luther King. I could never be Rosa Parks. I could never be… Even though, all that is asked of us is to be (names ___, ___, ___.)
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
We may not be called to stand up to power in the same way as Jesus, but each of us has a calling that serves the same purpose. For some it is speaking out, for some it is holding someone’s hand through it, for some it is feeding their hunger, for some it is crying with a victim, for some it is simply living with integrity and letting the chips fall as they may.
I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for Jesus to know that you’re going to be executed in three days. Yet, I can imagine how disgusted he was. His anger and frustration over the twisted ways God was represented to the world by them, such as God loves everybody, except… etc. Hate the sin, love the sinner, etc. The injustice and hypocrisy of it all. The hypocrisy, however, not of Jesus, but of Christians.
Now, it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t pointing out the hypocrisy of some “other people.” Again, as we have to remember when we read through Matthew, this was a family affair. He was not a Christian saying these things about Jews. This is another text that gets used in an Anti-Semitic way, but Jesus was simply a prophet among his own whose strong words were critiques of his own leaders.
Jesus charged them with hypocrisy. I think it’s one of the worst things you can say about someone. You’re mean, or cheap, stupid, or incompetent, a phony; those things don’t bite or say quite as much about someone as “you’re a hypocrite.” My favorite use of it was Jane Fonda’s accusation to her boss in the movie 9 to 5: “You're a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Most of us try to avoid being called a hypocrite – though I demonstrated at start of my sermon how easy it is. It’s quick and easy to say, but hard to hear.
Maybe you’ve heard this: The pastor of a tiny church in a small town didn’t want to be called a hypocrite, but sometimes you just have to do some unsavory things. There were two brothers in her town who, over the course of many years, cheated, swindled, robbed and generally stole from everyone with whom they ever did business. Everyone in town and in the surrounding community reviled and despised these disreputable and dishonest men.
One day, one of the brothers died. They didn’t belong to a church so they had nowhere to hold his funeral. One by one, the brother visited the pastors of the churches in town, promising large sums of money to hold the funeral. But only if during the course of the service the pastor would refer to his brother as a saint. No one would agree, except the pastor of a church whose boiler had just quit for the last time. They were desperate and she felt she simply couldn’t turn down such an amount of money. But the townspeople were appalled and called her just another example of a money-grubbing Christian hypocrite.
Everyone in town and in the surrounding community came to the funeral. Not to honor the man but to see what the pastor would say about him. As the funeral came to an end, the pastor still hadn’t called the man a saint. The brother looked up and tapped on his check book. The pastor nodded and looked down at the coffin. She concluded the service by saying, "As you all know, the departed was an awful man who robbed, cheated, swindled and probably stole from everyone here. Amen?
But, compared to this brother, he was a saint! Amen.”
The lesson about hypocrisy in the Gospel of Matthew is difficult to hear because, especially during times like these in our divided country, it is so tempting to look for ways to prove it – in others. It’s easy. When it’s “them,” of course. Hypocrisy is much easier to see when you look outward than when we look inward. But that is our question if we are to be faithful to the text. As my friend Kate Huey said, “If we don’t wince when we read this text, we’re missing something crucial.” Is it hypocritical to call out hypocrisy in our leaders? Isn’t that what justice is about? The hypocrisy would be to ignore our own.
But what does this have to do with All Saints Day? What am I saying about our dearly departed loved ones? Of course, every one of the people we remember today was a saint! And every one of them wasn’t. They were all people who rose to moments of glory. And every one of them failed their best intentions at times, who had lapses in their moral judgments and made mistakes. I don’t think of sainthood as perfection as much as it is perseverance.
But they were all redeemed under the grace of the same God who turns death into life and hate into love. The grace of God which turns despair into hope and failure into triumph. Every one of them falls under the protection of God, whose love smooths out our rough places, whose truth lifts those who have fallen and humbles those who exalt themselves. Just like God shall do for every one of us. Through Christ, we are raised, saint, hypocrite, and all, just like God promises.