Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 24, 2019
“Transcending Doing Good and Living Right”
Colossians 1: 15-20a – Common English Bible
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,[a] (of)
16 Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18 He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead[b] (over)
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him--
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
When Christina goes to worship, she only sits in the balcony. Originally, it was part of a deal to get her teenagers to go to church with her. Now they’re off at college but she still sits there because it makes her feel closer to them. It also has the best leg room in the sanctuary. But from her perch, she can also see who else is there. Not to check up on them, but to observe. From up there she can see an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck. She also sees an assortment of people who retired from that stress who are now busier than they ever thought they would be at this point in their life.
She knows that a few of those folks in the pews received bad news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse. She notices an older gentleman back in church, but now sitting alone after years of sitting next to his wife. She’s seen that more than a few times over the years.
Others down there had a wonderful week. One went to a wedding last night; another couple celebrated an anniversary. One witnessed the birth of a new child; another welcomed news of a first grandchild. A few of those folks in the pews received good news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse.
But most people neither had a particularly bad week or an especially great week. They don’t feel particularly blessed or especially broken. If so, then why were they all there? What united such a crowd on that certain Sunday morning? If they came to hear a sermon, they could have read it online later. Heck, they could probably get something even better; a 20-minute TedTalk on a more interesting subject.
Why are you here this morning? Did you have a terrible week? Did you have a great week? Or did you just have another week? Perhaps you don’t know why. My parents never quite explained why we went to church. They also didn’t explain why we ate dinner. We just did. But ever since, I know I need it. I’m hungry when I’ve missed it. Worship, that is, not dinner.
Sure, you might say this is my job. But it’s also what gives me life. Or something like that. Frankly, I can’t tell you much more than that. But I know it helps get me through another week of the Trump administration, or any other good, bad, or indifferent week. I can’t tell you how. It just does. It’s a gift. Trying to explain beyond that might ruin it.
And that’s my challenge with today’s text. There are a few lines like, “oh, that makes sense, I guess.” Such as the first half of the first verse we heard: “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” That’s one way to describe Jesus. “In Jesus we see the God who cannot be seen.” Big word alert, that’s an incarnational theology. The theology of the incarnation is that Jesus is God made flesh. You will hear a lot of that at Christmastime.
But, back to our text in Colossians, the “that makes sense” vibe is immediately ruined by the second half of the same verse – maybe not ruined but incongruent. “The Son is the one who is first over all creation,” or in a different translation, “the firstborn of all creation; for in (or by) him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…” And as it drones on, you can watch my mind drift down the hall to the smells of turkey.
I’m not a particularly deep thinker. I like to think. I love to dream and imagine. But I’m not very philosophical. Or maybe it’s that I’m not very metaphysical. See, I don’t even know the right word to say. I’m drawn to theology that is concrete. Saying that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything” isn’t the least bit inspirational to me. Nor do I think Jesus would have said anything even remotely like that about himself. Remember, he chastised his disciples and told them that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
More importantly, this text tells me nothing about how to live. Give me parables about Good Samaritans and Prodigal Children and Vineyard Workers and I’m right there with you. You describe to me the Kingdom of God as the realm in which justice and peace and compassion and kindness reign supreme and I’ll follow you. Tell me that Jesus “existed before all things” or “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and I’ll say, “So what. Who cares?” But maybe it is of interest to you. It may even be significant.
I like how Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg focus on the historical Jesus. What did he really say and do? And yet, there are many more ways than that to see him, understand him, and know him. Human. Divine. And, Borg says, in this passage, cosmic. Present at the time of creation. Present in all things of creation. Bringing all things together.
You may have heard of Matthew Fox’s most famous book The Cosmic Christ and Our Experiences of the Divine. The Cosmic Christ is one way to understand a mystical dimension within Christianity. Or as an archetype for mystical experiences. Fox says, “I see the historical Jesus as the particle that light is. And I see the Cosmic Christ as the wave that light is.” He added, light is both particle and wave. Just as Jesus, too, is both historical and cosmic. Deep stuff. Above my head.
Texts like today’s may be confounding but they have an important place in a faith, like ours, that emphasizes the practical. “What do I do to do good?” Marcus Borg says the significance of texts like these is how Jesus transcends his historical life. And when you put it that way, I agree. I appreciate critiques that western culture often domesticates Jesus into someone or something we can understand, confining him to the limits of our experience, making him agree with our economic and political instincts.
It is important that mystery is given proper respect because that which cannot be explained is vital to a faith that is alive. Sometimes too many explanations can ruin a thing. Again, that’s how this text feels to me. It tries really hard, too hard, to say something important. But, at the same time, it also reminds me that our faith is more than doing good and living right. It is an encounter with a transcendent God. A God we can’t fully understand or completely comprehend, but who we can glimpse, in Jesus, one image of the invisible God. One, not the only.
Why are you here this morning? Perhaps you wouldn’t say it like this, but the Cosmic Christ may be one reason. Perhaps you chose to come or perhaps something within you, that you can’t quite explain, compelled you to be here today. And yet, did you just come for a TedTalk or for a gathering of community, singing and praying and everything else, that transcends doing good and living right into an experience of unity? Unity in a world desperately divided. Unity that is the hope of our divided world. The unity of we who are an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck… and retirees with very busy lives.
There is something cosmic in our being here. Today. Drawn together by God, or Jesus, or the Spirit, or something bigger than ourselves that unites us and helps us get through the next great, terrible, or completely ordinary week. How? Perhaps, unlike the Letter to the Colossians, we shouldn’t ruin it with too many explanations and simply say: For this experience, I am thankful today.
Though I will admit, I’m also grateful that later in chapter 3 the author does get practical. Do this: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
As you wait in line later for our feast, talk to the people standing around you about why you are here today. Tell someone you don’t know what drew you or compelled you or brought you back here again. If you fear you might ruin the experience by trying to explain it, perhaps you can simply say, “For whatever reason we are together, I’m grateful to be here with you today.”
 Adapted from a story about World Communion Sunday by Craig Barnes in The Christian Century, “A glimpse of how heaven sees worship”
 Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word, HarperOne, 2012, p. 204
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 17, 2019
“Do All the Good You Can”
Malachi 4: 1-2 – Common English Bible
Look, the day is coming,
burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
The coming day will burn them,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
leaving them neither root nor branch.
2 But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
healing will be in its wings
so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
Cheerful, isn’t it?! “The day is coming when all the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.” Would you like to hear an even more cheerful translation? “The day is coming when all the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like wood for the stove, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash.”
With today’s baptism, I thought I would choose the most light-hearted, easy-going text in the lectionary. As happy and joyful as a baby laughing at water cascading down her forehead. Instead, we have a text about arrogant people burned to a crisp. Of course, I could have chosen the gospel text for today, but it isn’t much happier. In Luke 21, Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” These are not texts for Showtime at the Apollo. These are texts for Showtime at the Apocalypse.
Writing about Malachi, renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann says these end-of-times and apocalyptic texts are “intellectually difficult and pastorally problematic…” None of us want to sound like a religious nut. We mostly avoid them because these texts are embarrassing, unconvincing, and deeply incongruent with our understanding of the world. And yet, he says, “for all our intellectual sophistication, our affluence, and confidence that technology will fix things,” there remains a “deep, unsettled feeling that things are indeed falling apart.” He called it the “terrible ungluing.” He wrote these words nearly 30 years ago. If he thought things were falling apart in 1992, what does he think about today?
These are, in fact, deeply unsettled and anxious times. This week, more death by gun violence in schools. Violence in the Holy Land. Kurds abandoned, on the run, and ISIS on the rise. DREAMers waiting on the Supreme Court. And of course, Ukraine and the impeachment inquires in Washington.
What do we do in such deeply unsettled and anxious times? What do we do when we are frightened that the very foundations of society are at risk? I believe there is no better place to seek perspective than from our faith. Religious texts take us back thousands and thousands of years – through wars and famines and plagues. Yes, we have vastly different worldviews and understandings about how the world works. We interpret the times differently. But, fear and anxiety about the world is constant for humankind. And the church should be where we expect to engage things that are deep.
Baptisms, in fact, invite us to reflect on what kind of world we are leaving our children. So, for our children, Ethan and Maxon and Sophia and Brigette and Brenna and Lucy, all baptized this year, I want to think for a moment about their future. For example, will the earth be inhabitable for them?
If you read various studies about climate change, their predictions are often very apocalyptic – collapsed ecosystems and existential threats to survival if action is not taken. It’s straight out of biblical end times. Scientists try to tell us what life will be like, for example, in 2050. But that seems impossible to imagine. Such a number sounds like it’s centuries away. Yet think about this: In the year 2100, Ethan will only be 81 years old. How many of you are close to either side of 80? Imagine if our beloved Jane Van Buskirk, who died a few months ago at age 98, would have been born this year. She would have died in the year 2117. This is not science fiction, light years and galaxies far, far away. Students like Greta Thunberg are not hysterical. They are simply trying to get our attention about what life will be like for them when they are our age.
In addition to the environment, we seriously question whether democracy can survive another five years. Or will it be the apocalypse for any institution built on truth and integrity?
And will the Church survive for our children? 85 UCCs closed last year. Ten were added. There were 6,800 churches when I was born in 1965, but only 4,800 today. At the current rate, by the time I retire, another 1,000 could be lost. By 2050, there may be fewer than 2,800 UCCs remaining – that is, if such a thing even exists anymore. That sounds like Showtime at the Apocalypse for the church. But is it better not to know? That the earth is heating up. That democracy will die with the absence of truth. That churches are closing down. I prefer to know what we can do.
Perhaps it would be helpful to know what Malachi was talking about. What were his problems?
However, he then said, for those who do right, healing will be in its wings. You will be bursting with energy, like colts frisking and frolicking in their stall. Isn’t that a fun image?
So, let’s turn for a minute to the gospel. When Luke wrote it, he already knew the Temple had been destroyed. When he wrote that Jesus said, “no stone will be left upon another, all will be demolished,” everything had, in fact, already been demolished. Why write about something that will happen when it already has? Therefore, it’s even more curious that Jesus would say, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers.” Doomsday had come. He said, “Many leaders are going to show up claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’” But Jesus said, “Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”
On one hand, that is comforting. Keep perspective. Don’t panic. Don’t be alarmed or terrified. One of the most common phrases in the New Testament, spoken by angels and humans, is “Do not fear.” Yet, on the other hand, perhaps my biggest fear is that people will do nothing. The world is coming to an end anyway. But “do not fear” and “do nothing” are not the same thing. Or an excuse. The environment is not a lost cause. Democracy is not a lost cause. The church is not a lost cause. There is too much at stake for our children.
We had a great conversation on Thursday over our noodle lunch. We discussed that there is a difference between our end and the end of time. Elders around the table told us that fears about our own mortality are meaningless. After all, what would happen if we knew our death was tomorrow? It’s simple. We wouldn’t be afraid. We’d simply mend broken relationships and tell our loved ones “I love you.”
And yet, no one knows whether the world is ending tomorrow, so therefore our task is to keep doing what we can to leave the world a better place. In the face of unknowing, during deeply unsettled and anxious times like these, we can follow the wisdom of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism:
If anything should be a creed, that’s it. This should be the conclusion to every baptism and the job description of every Christian. I don’t care what you believe so long as this is what you do. Don’t surrender to fear and terror. Don’t be paralyzed by wars and threats of war. Do not do nothing. Do good.
Speaking of Walter Brueggemann, I was in a small group with him a few weeks ago. He was in town for a lecture series and a small group of clergy were invited to have coffee with him. My claim to fame is that Walter and my uncle, also a seminary professor, were roommates during their PhD days. Nearly 90 years old now, Walter is just as fierce and feisty a social justice prophet as ever. He isn’t just a prophet, however. The most pastoral thing he said about these deeply unsettling and anxious times is that “we are never called to the task without the gift.”
As one example, he cited the 10 Commandments. Some courthouse monuments listing the 10 Commandments only state the task. For example, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” But they leave out the why. The gift. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Then the task is to “have no other gods.” What we are to do only comes after we are told whose we are. The Lord is our God. The task, then, is: not lying, not killing, not wanting or taking what is not yours.
But here is Walter’s most memorable line: “Don’t just bask in the gift. And don’t despair in the task.” Gift and task go hand in hand. That’s the essence of Christian faith.
But lest we think it’s that easy – gee, just don’t be afraid – the very next line from Jesus about temple destruction and doomsday deceivers is a warning to his followers: “you will be harassed and imprisoned for your faith, handed over to the authorities, brought before kings and governors. You will be betrayed by friends and family. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name.” But, he concludes, “Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”
You’ve been given the gift to do the task of good in the world. You should know, however, that it might come with a pretty high price. But I guess it’s good to know this in advance so that we don’t fall away when the going gets hard. After all, the environment won’t be saved because of clever Facebook memes. Democracy won’t be saved through speeches and rallies. And the church won’t be saved by making things easier but by being more honest – that this is hard and totally worth it. Here me out:
To Shaun and Lindsay, and as a reminder to the rest of us: Making baptismal vows is easy. Keeping them requires your participation. “Growing with our children in the Christian life of faith, through the love you show, through the life you lead, through the witness of your faith, and through your participation with them in the life of the church.” You teach how with your action, which won’t always be as easy – especially when he’s 2. Even worse when he’s 13 – just in time for confirmation. And don’t give up because he’s 21 and away at college.
And for all of us, these aren’t just words. This lifetime gift, in good times and bad, is our lifelong task: Do all the good you can. We can because upon our baptism we were given this blessing: “Strength for life’s journey, courage in time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love, and the hope of new life, through Jesus Christ who leads us to the Holy One.”
 The Message
 The Terrible Ungluing, The Christian Century, October 21, 1992
 The Message
 Our baptismal liturgy is based on the writings of Ruth Duck
 Ruth Duck
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 10, 2019
“It’s Just My Job”
Luke 19: 1-10 – The Message
In Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.
5-7 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Play the song “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man”
We gathered at Noodles and Company on Thursday for our lectionary lunch. When the group saw that Zacchaeus was our story today, Terri and Kat both broke out in song. I remember it, too, from Vacation Bible School and Sunday School, along with little figures of Jesus and Zacchaeus made out of felt. Some of us remember lessons that involved moving biblical characters around on a flannelgraph board. It was the technological marvel of its time. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find examples on YouTube.
Zacchaeus makes for a compelling story. First, kids identify with Zacchaeus because they have the lived experience of not being able to see over adults when something important or interesting is happening. Second, Jesus told him, “Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” As a kid I was always so excited when a guest came to the house for a meal. It was certainly more interesting than eating with the same people every day. And third: Someone who notices you. Kids are often invisible. Or told they should be. “Seen but not heard;” though often, not seen either. Jesus made it a practice to see what others didn’t. Especially outsiders. The marginalized. The ostracized. Anyone considered the “least of these” was the most in his eyes.
The song says Zacchaeus was a wee little man. A terrible insult. Why do we teach kids a song that hurts people’s feelings? So, yes, the Bible says he’s of short stature. And he wanted to see Jesus so badly, he climbed a Sycamore tree where Jesus saw him. What else do we know about him? He’s rich. Perhaps most importantly, Zacchaeus was among the head tax collectors, which makes him a collaborator with Rome. We don’t know if he’s rich and also a tax collector or he’s rich because he’s a tax collector. Plenty of tax collectors were, in fact, rich because they skimmed more than their fair share off the top of taxes owed to their occupiers in Rome. Some parables make that point explicitly, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about that here.
Either way, upon seeing Jesus and Zacchaeus together, the crowd was indignant and grumbled. As we heard: “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” Most translations say the crowd grumbled because Jesus has gone to be the “guest of a sinner.” But is Zacchaeus a crook or, as some commentators say, a “notorious” sinner? Or is that a stereotype because of his job?
Maybe you know what it’s like to be vilified for simply doing your job. The other day I was watching TV and scrolling through Prime, overwhelmed by the number of choices. I was pleased to see there were now reruns of one of Art and my favorite shows – Parking Wars. Parking Wars follows the lives of ticket writers and tow truck drivers. We watch as the general public disparages these civil servants for doing their jobs. Not just as they put boots on cars or discharge vehicles at the impound lot, but we watch as people yell all kinds of insults at them while they’re simply walking along the street or standing in line for lunch. They are trained to take the abuse, but it wears on them. Why all the animosity? Especially if yours is not the car being impounded? They are collaborators with the evil empire of Philadelphia. They’ll often respond, “It’s just my job.” Or, “this is how I provide for my family.” Or, “I’ve got mouths to feed and bills to pay.” You know, now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I enjoy this kind of entertainment…
But my point: Was Zacchaeus really a sinner or did the crowd simply despise him because of his job?
One of the biggest questions about how to interpret this story lies in one Greek word and whether it is present tense or future tense. Some of you who are grammar geeks will really love this. The eyes of others may glaze over while you mentally make a list of what you’re going to buy at the market after worship. But I promise this is important.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus and invited himself to dinner. Does Zacchaeus then reply to Jesus, “I will give half my possessions to the poor”? Or does he say, “I give half my possessions to the poor.” Does he say, “If I’m caught cheating, I repay them four times as much?” Or that now he will?
If it’s will give, that means Zacchaeus realized he was a sinner who needs to repent. But take away the word “will” and Zacchaeus is simply responding to the grumbling of the crowd. They’re not being fair because “I give half my possessions to the poor.” And if caught cheating, “I repay them four times as much.” By the way, the law only required restitution plus 20%. Zacchaeus pays 400%. Does he promise that he will or does he explain that this is what he does?
Here’s where it matters for interpretation. Some Christianity emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for repentance. They insist this story is about how he will give – that he met Jesus, repented, and will now give away half of his possessions. Except, here you go grammar geeks, there is no future tense for this Greek word. The only option is that this is something Zacchaeus already does, and therefore this is not a story about a repentant villain named Zacchaeus but a villainous, judgmental crowd. Any judging going on is how Jesus judges the crowd for labeling and excluding Zacchaeus. If not despised, making him feel invisible. Jesus repeats this important point by reminding the crowd that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham too. Future tense or present tense.
Someone asked, but what’s wrong with saying Zacchaeus is a sinner? Aren’t we all sinners? But, I ask, why is that label necessary? Isn’t it enough that we are all humans? Flawed. In need of grace and forgiveness. After all, we know how hard it is to be a human. Why must we go around labeling each other that way? How often is calling someone a sinner just a way to justify what you fear or hate? Perhaps I’m just sensitive about the whole “love the sinner hate the sin” thing. Which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with love but supposedly softens the prejudice. Yet, if we’re all defined as sinners, when does that happen? Does that include the baby out of the womb? When do those kids who climb trees in order to see over the adults become sinners?
There’s one more word that must be interpreted. Salvation. Jesus proclaims salvation has come to this house. Some may say, that means Zacchaeus has been saved and can now go to heaven. That’s too narrow. Salvation for Jesus is more than that. It’s wholeness and healing, on earth as it is in heaven. In many parables, healing meant they were able to return to their communities and families. The place where they can belong again. Which means, in other words, salvation has come. The healing work of Jesus restored people and their communities.
It reminds me of restorative justice. One local group is Colorado Circles for Change, formerly known as VORP, the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. It provides restorative justice programs for youth as an alternative to traditional punitive consequences in the juvenile justice system. It is a method for youth to take their actions seriously and resolve them in a way that restores the relationship. It is an intervention so these kids don’t become just another statistic in the pre-school to prison pipeline. Schools that use restorative justice instead of suspensions often prevent what becomes the inevitable next step to jail. CCFC helps youth acknowledge and heal harm, but also affirms their strengths, transforms their decision making, and reduces recidivism. And if you will indulge my pride, as some of you know that Art, after being introduced to VORP here in church, was honored on Thursday night for 10 years of volunteer service doing exactly that.
Restoring wholeness to the world includes ex-offenders too. We need robust re-entry programs to help those who have paid their debt to society so they can be fully reunited in their communities. Australia has a program called the Sycamore Tree. Embraced. Included. Instead of forever labeling people “felons,” thereby making some incapable of getting a job or renting a house.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that the kingdom of God is for the poor and the oppressed. He proclaims liberation for the captive, freedom for the prisoner, and sight for the blind. Jesus welcomes the misunderstood and reviled. And “the least of these.” The crowds who followed Jesus loved that. But, just steps from Jerusalem, counting down the days from his execution, this story takes it even further – maybe too far. The crowds liked it until Jesus proclaimed in this parable that the kingdom of God includes even Roman collaborators. That’s the scandal of this story. Even them.
But the scandal of this story won’t make sense until we place it in our context today. Who are the “even them!” for you? Sure, we can come up with a whole list of people reviled for doing their jobs. Meter maids and DMV employees and border patrol agents and hedge fund managers on Wall Street. But deeper in your gut, more viscerally, a feeling like how the crowd about Zacchaeus… How about officials in the Trump administration? Not civil servants just doing their jobs, but… well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.
As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, what is your desire? For every obstructionist to land in jail, lose their job, live their lives forever as a disgraced sinner? Unable to go out in public. Banned from restaurants. That may provide temporary satisfaction for some people. But followers of Jesus are called to the scandal of “even them.”
After accountability, our call is to work toward the beyond. To move beyond labels that exclude and denigrate to the work of restoring broken families, communities, and a nation more deeply divided than any time in our lives. That is how salvation will come. Salvation is not about “pie in the sky in the by and by when we die.” But, as UCC pastor Kenneth Samuel describes it, one of my favorite lines, “our faith is about looking for something sound on the ground while we’re still around.”
We seek truth. Accountability is absolutely necessary. But let’s never forget ultimate reconciliation with “even them.” It’s not just our job. It’s our calling as a church the follows Jesus Christ.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 3, 2019
“Our Not-Yet Reality Made Real”
Isaiah 2: 2-5 – Common English Bible
In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of the mountains.
It will be lifted above the hills;
peoples will stream to it.
3 Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
to the house of Jacob’s God
so that God may teach us God’s ways
and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
4 God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war.
5 Come, house of Jacob,
let’s walk by the Lord’s light.
I once heard the story of an architect who died before seeing her masterpiece project completed. At the grand opening, the emcee lamented, “It’s a shame she didn’t get to see this.” A wise soul in the audience replied back, “but she did see it. That’s why it’s here.”
People said about Martin Luther King, Jr., that it’s too bad he didn’t live to see the first black president. But he and other civil rights giants did see it. He even described it in a dream. “One day in this nation…” In this case, of course, the building isn’t complete, but like the Prophet Isaiah who saw a world that had abandoned war, it’s there. It’s just a not-yet reality.
The prophet said of those who walk on God’s paths, who learn God’s wisdom, “They will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.” Imagine weapons that have become the garden tools with which we can feed the world.
There is a vivid description of heaven and hell found in the folklore of a surprising number of different cultures – Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, medieval European, Chinese: Imagine it. There are two groups of people sitting around tables overflowing with food. One group of people appears fully fed. Happy, healthy. The other group looks like they are starving. Miserable. Both groups have utensils with which to eat from those piles of food – forks, spoons, etc. – but the utensils are six feet long. Too long for people to feed themselves. The one group used their six-foot-long forks to feed each other across the table. The other group… well, you get the picture. Hell is where there is plenty to eat but no one is willing to feed the other, so they all starve. Not willing, or no one has figured out how.
Guy Harris figured out how. As a church, we all want to make a positive impact and contribute to the quality of life for our neighbors in Park Hill. Yet, it’s one thing to do that by providing meeting space for groups, financial support for our mission partners, or even overnight shelter. Those of us who gather inside the church on Sunday mornings wish more people could benefit like we do from participating in the rituals and liturgy of the church, especially the rituals and liturgy of an open and affirming congregation. But Guy knew that there are walls and barriers around even the most welcoming sanctuary. That’s why he championed the idea of a labyrinth outside. Not as an amenity for our members but as a resource for our community. A way to contribute to the quality of life for our neighbors in Park Hill – spiritually.
You may not know that our playground was built before we had a school. Members raised money and built it because there are no other playgrounds close by. But a playground, just like meeting space and overnight shelter, serve external, physical needs. Guy saw how a labyrinth serves an internal, spiritual need, something we provide mostly through Sunday worship. But that doesn’t help someone unable, for whatever reason, to walk through the door. He saw something our neighbors could use 24 hours a day to help them through times of grief, a place to center our chaotic lives, or a place to encounter the divine in whatever way one is able, in whatever way one describes.
We might say it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see it become a reality. But just walk out the door and, as Guy anticipated, you are likely to see people on it all times of the day – including one morning when Kathy Blake came over to the church before dawn. A man was walking with the aid of the streetlight dappling through the leaves of the trees. You have to wonder what was on his heart and mind at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning that he would decide to use our labyrinth. Guy knew and saw this not-yet reality. That’s why it’s here and we can dedicate it today.
On this All Saints Day, we honor the lives of the three members of Park Hill UCC who died this year. They all saw and pursued their own not-yet reality.
Lucy Black Creighton died at age 91 on Christmas Day. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, she retained the best of southern hospitality as the most gracious host one has ever encountered. A staunch Democrat married for 62 years to Tom, an equally staunch Republican, they modeled a marriage that polls today indicate parents most fear for their children – not inter-racial but cross partisan. The business editor of the Rocky Mountain News in 1990 described Lucy as “perhaps the best known of Denver’s businesswomen,” a pioneering, highly revered economist. Another retired CEO described her as the Duchess of Data. She became the go-to source for economic forecasts and then vice president at First Interstate Bank, economics professor at Colorado Women’s College – the college where Johnson and Wales is now located – and the president of the State Board of Land Commissioners. Can you imagine what it would be like for a woman in the 1960s to decide to get a PhD in economics from Harvard? Who was her role model in such a male dominated field? She lived and modeled a not-yet reality. Not just for herself but for us too. For which we are grateful.
Cliff Cressy died in April at age 95. He was always coming up with ideas – practical ideas while doing something, like changing his grandkids diapers. In the early '80's disposable diapers were new and if you thought the baby was wet, unwrapping the diaper to check would rip off all the plastic. He solved that problem with duct tape. But then he thought of an idea involving a little transparent window with moisture sensitive tape that would change colors when it was wet. He named it the "Wee window" and "Tinkle tester." He went to a patent attorney and found out that Kimberly Clarke already patented the idea, even though at the time they hadn’t actually yet made it work.
He was always thinking. He'd be in a restaurant and say, "I have an idea!" and start drawing it. Marilyn would say, "Oh no, not again!!" If he wasn’t inventing, then he was fixing things – inventively. Once Collette went to visit. His reading glasses had broken. He fixed it with the ink tube from a Bic pen and a pipe cleaner. Cliff did actually have a number of patents on tools and a whole business manufacturing and selling his innovations and inventions – in addition to being an insurance agent.
Always thinking of how to make the world a better place, that’s why Cliff answered the call of Martin Luther King Jr. Cliff went to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge because Dr. King said things won’t change until white people show up. He did. And lived and modeled a not-yet reality. For which we are grateful.
Jane Van Buskirk died a few months ago at age 98. She ran this church in the 1970s. She wasn’t the pastor, but from the office, she knew more about what was going on than anyone else. And was on the front lines caring for anyone in need or crisis. Roy Smith would tell you that she served as much as a pastor as anyone and helped him as a novice pastor succeed. Jane’s life may have looked more conventional, but she was hardly a conventional woman within it. When her son David came out as a gay man, many decades ago, Jane not only accepted him without question but helped this church become Open and Affirming. A not-yet reality she could see.
I last talked with Jane the week before her death. Hospice was in the other room preparing a bed for her. Clearly with little time left on earth, I asked how she felt about what was coming next. As she lay in her bed, she raised her head a little and very clearly and confidently said, “I’m optimistic.” I had never heard anyone speak that way on their death bed. Some people will say they are ready to go, as she had been for several years, never intending to live for 98 years. Or people will say that they are happy to be reunited with loved ones. But she said, “I’m optimistic.” I love that. That’s also why she beat breast cancer when she was 90. She lived and continued to model a not-yet reality. For which we are grateful.
These three otherwise ordinary but yet also so extraordinary members saw something not-yet and made it real. They are the legacy we carry for the next generation. We who are otherwise ordinary and yet also just as extraordinary have a story that will be told too.
What do you see that isn’t a reality yet? It’s easy to get bogged down in what cannot be done. It’s easy to say “I just can’t imagine it” when confronted with a problem we think has no answer. But you see something too. You carry around a something not-yet. For yourself, your family, your community, and our church. You can make it real too. Like the Prophet Isaiah said, if you walk on God’s paths, by the light of the Lord, instruction will come – wisdom by listening. As impossible as a world where weapons have become gardening tools.
That’s one gift and intention of the labyrinth we dedicate today. Like life, if we will keep with it through the seemingly endless twists and turns, if we stay on the path, we will not get lost. It’s not a maze. It’s not meant to confuse us. We won’t get lost if we stick to it. We enter with an intention to find our center and then return by the same path ready to engage. One author described three movements – entering, centering, and returning. Every time we need to, 24 hours per day.
Thank you to Guy for seeing it. To David Conger for the enormous lengths he went to make it happen and everyone who helped him. To the 52 different donors who contributed to make it happen. To our talented architect. And especially to the men who laid it out and carefully placed every brink.
Our not-yet reality is finally real! Thanks be to God!
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world