Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2017
“A Revolutionary Kind of Humble”
Luke 1: 26-38 – New Revised Standard Version
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. Her name was Mary. 28 Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.”
“The angel Gabriel did not like delivering surprises. People’s reactions vary too wildly. They’re too unpredictable. Some people jump and scream – like they’ve won the lottery. Others burst into tears. Some people hear the news and hold their breath until they faint. Gabriel didn’t like these assignments – yet, for some reason, he kept being sent out to deliver news from God, surprising unsuspecting human beings.
His latest assignment was to a girl named Mary. Gabriel had to announce that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s own child. “That’ll go well,” he thought. What would it be this time? Screams, tears, fainting… or all three. Or some new form of terrified, panicked expression? What if she runs away?
Since this was such a big one, Gabriel tried to think extra hard of ways not to scare her before speaking even one word. Maybe just knock on the door? But what if the neighbors saw him standing there in his wings? Maybe write the words, “God is with you” in flour on the table where she was making bread. Too weird! Whisper the news in her ear? Sing a special song that only she could hear. But she might think she was losing her mind.
Gabriel was standing in the middle of her house as he tried to put a plan together. He assumed she couldn’t see him; nobody else had before. But when he looked up, she was looking right at him. With a mixture of curiosity and wonder. She could see him! Who is this?
In fact, he was so startled that when he stepped out completely from the curtain between heaven and earth, he just blurted out the words, “Hello, favored one of God. Do not be afraid, God is with you.”
She calmly nodded her head with a quizzical expression.
He was still so thrown by Mary’s tranquil reception that he rushed on breathlessly, “And God has sent me to tell you that you will have a baby, a boy, his name will be Jesus and he will be the Son of God most high and savior of the world.”
She was quiet, taking in his words. “How can this be?” she calmly asked.
“God’s Holy Spirit will wrap you in God’s love and the child will begin to grow inside you. He will be holy and blessed.”
Gabriel gasped for air. He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath the whole time.
Mary just quietly sat down in a chair. No screams, no tears, no fainting. She studied her hands for a moment and then raised her brown eyes to the angel’s face and said, “I love serving God in any way I can. I’ll do it. I’ll be whoever God invites me to be.”
As he turned to pull back the curtain, Gabriel saw that his hand was trembling. This girl had certainly surprised him. So confident; so calm. He looked at her again and she smiled and told him, “Don’t be afraid, Gabriel. God is with you.” They both laughed as he stepped behind the curtain.
“Now THAT was a surprise,” he thought. Maybe surprises aren’t so bad after all.”
Some of the oldest words in the Bible are lyrics known as Deborah’s Song. You might be surprised by how violent they are, but her words declare victory over their enemies – including graphic descriptions of motions involving stakes and heads. It makes the stories of David and Goliath sound tame. Back before they had kings, judges were the rulers in ancient Israel. Deborah was a mighty judge, so respected that she had to take the hand of her military commander to lead him into battle because without her, he was too scared. That’s how they secured victory against tremendous odds. She was quite the contrast to typical rulers in her day, but I dare say she agreed: “I’ll be whoever God invites me to be.”
Equally ancient are the words of Miriam’s Song after she and her brother Moses led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea, declaring victory for the former slaves. Dancing and singing, she celebrated that the Pharaoh’s horses and drivers were hurled into the sea. Also, rather violent. But dare I say she would agree: “I’ll be whoever God invites me to be.” Along with Hannah too.
Upon Samuel’s birth, hear the words of Hannah’s Song:
“My heart exults in the Lord;
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies…
For the bows of the mighty are scattered.
God raises the poor from the dust,
God lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor.”
They are all reversals of fortune, songs from willing and triumphant women.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that after Gabriel left, Mary sang what we call the Magnificat. Echoes of previous songs: “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has toppled the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Another in a line of triumphant songs by powerful women in the ancient world.
So, why does the world insist on portraying Mary as poor, meek, and mild? Doe-faced, downward gazing. Why is the focus on Mary as a virgin when, if she were the fulfillment of prophecy, Isaiah speaks only of a young woman? A “young woman” shall give birth to the Messiah. Jews are curious by this Christian interpretation, adding “If you’re going to appropriate our scripture, then why this insistence on her virginity?”
Therefore, we should continue to set the record straight. Here are three things about Mary I think are more important:
1)She may have been surprised that she had been chosen to give birth to the savior, but Gabriel does not have to explain what it means. She is well versed in the prophets and understood the implications of the Messiah’s birth.
2)Second, she declared those implications in the Magnificat, in words that are brave and defiant, speaking out against an oppressive Empire, railing against the rich and powerful, predicting an uprising of the humble and poor. This was not the exercise of her freedom of speech but a dare, for which she faced possible imprisonment and death. She spoke of treason. Nevertheless, she persisted!
3)Third, she was faithful (full-of-faith). Mary may have been a young woman, virgin or not (seriously, who cares?). But this is not the end of her story. She raised Jesus to be the kind of prophet who called hypocrites “hypocrites.” And who, like her, willingly faced the consequences. Mary is the one person who never left his side, even standing below him as he was executed on a cross. She was there on the day of Pentecost and remained a leader in the early church until her death.
Mary – poor, meek, and mild…? Only a self-effacing servant? Merely a vessel, the means by which something else more important can happen?
I think not. For Mary was a God-infused, Spirit-filled insurrectionist. She stands in a long line of Deborahs and Miriams and Hannahs, in a line that includes Tamars and Rachels and Ruths. And Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Sojourner Truths and Fannie Lou Hamers. Not merely vessels for someone else but, on their own, the defiant prophets of God’s truth. “Hark the Heralds” of justice and liberation for those at the bottom, proclaiming the reversal of the world’s fortunes. And ours too, by the way.
Because, lest we only celebrate the actions of people we can point to – “They are heroes.” “I could never be like them.” Because, whether she was a prophet, disciple, or rebel, or poor, meek, and mild, all of it was grounded in humility. A revolutionary kind of humble. Humility is not humiliation. But, emptied of self, love can fill us. And a heart-space filled with love can drive away everything from self-pity to arrogance. All of the things that get in the way of being completely open to invite God’s will for us. Whether pride or possessiveness.
It was her revolutionary kind of humble that allowed Mary to declare to the angel Gabriel: “I’ll be whoever God invites me to be.” How powerful is that? And it is the thing I most want for us to experience.
You do know it is the decline of those surprising, unsuspecting invitations that causes us angst. Gabriel will have to keep coming back until he’s finished his assignment, so don’t be surprised if you hear him knocking at the door of your house, or writing with his finger in the flour as you make bread, or whispering in your ear, or singing a song only you can hear. You’re not crazy, but he can’t quit until you say yes. Until we join the revolutionarily humble Mary to say with expectation and anticipation, to say without fear or regret, “I’ll be whoever God invites me to be.”
Repeat after me:
“Invites me to be”
With that revolutionary kind of humble, whether it changes a little or a lot, your life will never be same.
Litany: A Modern Magnificat From John Shelby Spong’s “A New Christianity for A New World”
One: My soul sings in gratitude.
I’m dancing in the mystery of God.
The light of the Holy One is within me
and I am blessed, so truly blessed.
All: This goes deeper than human thinking.
I am filled with awe
at Love whose only condition
is to be received.
One: The gift is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don’t have this awareness.
All: But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love’s fullness.
It’s the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.
It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.
 “The Surprise” (adapted from the story by Bob Hartman, from an adaptation by Jane Anne Ferguson)
 Book of Judges 5
 1st Samuel 2
 Luke 1: 45-55
 Isaiah 7:14
 Adapted from leanne-hadley.com
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2017
“What’s with All the Grinchiness?”
Down in Whoville
Liked Christmas a lot…
Who lived just north of Whoville,
Who’s the someone? (The Grinch)
Who was Max? (his dog)
Who was Cindy Lou Who? (the girl who discovered the Grinch stealing their gifts.)
OK. So, who’s Ignatius Heppelwhite?
Surely you know Phineas T. Prune?
Dr. Seuss wrote a story about a bird named Kindly Snather the year before he wrote about the Grinch. It was a story about appreciating what you already have.
About the same time, a story was told about Ignatius Heppelwhite – a six-year-old boy. According to the story, children all over the world were told there would be no Christmas presents that year; it is said the children were so upset that
“their tears filled up the kitchen sinks
and cellars and empty skating rinks.”
But Ignatius Heppelwhite reminded his friends,
“everyone tells me, whom I’ve ever met
It’s a day to give, as well as to get.”
And with that he helped the children of the world decide that instead of expecting presents, they’d give presents. And, in fact, thanks to little Ignatius, the children of the world declared
“They had more fun that December
than any other time they could remember.”
It’s like the story of the Grinch who discovered that Christmas spirit did not come from
“gifts and trees, cider and punch
but being with people you love, perhaps out to lunch.”
That’s my attempt to rhyme. What do you think?
But, here’s my question. Why was the Grinch such a grinch? Why did he hate Christmas?
Is it that some people are born grinchy?
And some people achieve grinchiness.
And others have grinchiness thrust upon them? (Apologies to those who recognize the Shakespeare)
Why did he hate Christmas? Was it because he was born with a heart two sizes too small? I don’t think so. I think it’s kind of like being in school watching a group of kids having fun together but they don’t ask you to join them.
Or it’s like visiting a “friendly” church, but everyone is only friendly to their friends, not to visitors and newcomers. That would make me feel grinchy too.
The Grinch didn’t hate Christmas. He felt like an outsider. He hated feeling alone, and he wanted to punish those he thought meant to exclude him. But the Whos of Whoville didn’t mean it. And right away, they welcomed him into their circle to sing. They even gave him the honor of carving the roast beast. When other people would have told him to go away, they welcomed him in.
So, when I think about this story, I think it’s really important to look around and see who is alone, especially at Christmastime. Or ask, who might feel like an outsider? For example, to remember people who are homeless, to think about our elderly neighbors who can’t leave their homes anymore, to think about children in the hospital, who might hate Christmas if no one came to visit them and help them feel included. Remembering people like refugees. And people in prison.
Those are the people Jesus really cared about, and one reason why God came to earth in Jesus. So that everyone would know that God loves them – everyone with no exceptions. In his day, they were lepers and tax collectors and Samaritans. Today, it’s anyone you can point at and say, “We don’t want you here.” “Go back where you came from.”
Who else might feel alone? Unwanted. Or like an outsider? Can you help them feel like they’re included, too? How?
So, after the Grinch stole everything in everyone’s home, he expected to hear the Whos cry and scream and wail. But what did they do? In the morning, they gathered in a circle and sang and sang and sang. They were happy because they were all together. They had a place where they knew they belonged.
That’s why I love Christmas. It’s not about the things I get, but what you give me by being here tonight. I love Christmas because you include me in your life.
What do you love about Christmas? Are you grinchy if you don’t get something you want? If you feel some grinchiness coming on or even thrust upon you, remember Ignatius Heppelwhite. He reminded us the fun is not just in getting presents (although it’s pretty great!), but giving them, which is ever better. It’s about feeling included, but even better, helping others feel included too. Even grinches.
Oh, I almost forgot. Who was Phineas T. Prune? He was the landlord who tried to evict Mr. and Mrs. Clause from the North Pole for not paying their rent. He almost stopped Christmas from coming. Talk about grinchiness. But I’ll bet he just wanted an invitation to someone’s table for dinner. We can do that, right?
In a few minutes, we’re invited to the Table of Jesus, who invites every one of us. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done. Good or bad. Naughty or nice. We’re all included.
 Redbook Magazine, December 1956
 Phyllis McGinley, Good Housekeeping Magazine, December 1956
 And thanks to Rev. Kory on wordpress.com for the idea. “Thoughts on God…and other stuff”
 Charles D. Cohen, A 50th Anniversary Retrospective on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Random House, 2007. The history and other stories I referenced are told in the commentary.
 Movie: The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, 1966
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2017
Isaiah 9:2, 6 – New Revised Standard Version
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
For unto us a child has been born, called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.”
The story is told of Autherine Lucy. She was the first African American student accepted to the University of Alabama after a federal judge handed down an edict that the university could no longer deny admission to persons based on race. But on the day Autherine got to campus, a mob jumped on top of the car in which she was riding. As she walked across campus, eggs were thrown at her. Bricks were thrown at her. There were cross burnings. Chaos reigned. Finally, the president and trustees of the University told Autherine to leave “for her own safety” and the safety of the University. The day after she was dismissed, newspapers expressed their relief. The headlines read: “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today.” “There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”
A few weeks ago, when I began to think about my message on Christmas Eve, I thought, “I’m tired of talking about the latest heart-breaking crime against human decency.” The outrageousness of each morning’s most recent tweet. While I love the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I hate the reality of it.
So, I decided I’m not going to talk about
No, I thought, we’ve had enough. I concluded, tonight is just for real glee and jubilance and delight. Peace on earth, goodwill to men, women, and children everywhere. Sound good?
Except that story, told by Martin Luther King Jr., called to me. He noted that, of course, the peace of which newspapers spoke was not peace; not the achievement of something positive but the absence of tension. And, at that, only temporarily. I took Dr. King to heart and realized that if I decided not to talk about the modern examples of gleeful cruelty by King Herod and Caesar Augustus; if I ignored the delight in enabling a greedy Empire, and all the rest, it wouldn’t mean we could enjoy a peaceful Christmas Eve. We could, but it would mean we have achieved our idyllic silence and blissful peace on the backs of damned.
If we shut our mouths in the face of injustice, we can achieve peace. Or, if not peace, at least its deception. We can achieve peace if we simply accept that it is OK for the poor to be sacrificed on the feasting tables of the rich. Or, if not peace, at least a moment of delusion. You understand. Sure, it’s peace. But it’s what Dr. King called an “obnoxious peace.”
I was taken by the notion of “obnoxious peace.” But with a different twist. Finding ways to be obnoxious until it is real, genuine, and authentic. You and I are worldly enough and sophisticated enough to already know that peace is not the absence of tension or anger. What is it? It is the positive presence of justice and fraternity. We also know that, until then, there won’t be peace on earth, goodwill to men, women, and children everywhere. So, Good Christian Friends, what do we do in the meantime?
On Christmas Eve, we rejoice in the birth of the Prince of Peace. Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting. But, curiously, Jesus himself declared “I’ve not come to bring peace but a sword.” Put that into a Christmas carol and try to sing it!
What does Jesus mean? Surely, he wasn’t speaking of a literal weapon. This is not scriptural justification for pistol-packin’ preachers everywhere. So, was Jesus speaking, perhaps, of making a dramatic gesture of discontent? Engard! Whatever it is, it certainly means he will not settle for obnoxious peace.
Christmas Eve is the conclusion of the season of Advent. Behind me you can see the banners representing Advent’s four themes. We proclaim that in the birth of Jesus, the Christ Child, tonight is the fulfillment of those themes. O Little Town of Bethlehem says it so beautifully, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Yes, here tonight!
And in that spirit, here tonight, I want to ask you to do something. I want to ask you to be a little more obnoxious, by means of love. But be careful of the love of mere sappy Christmas sentiment. I ask you for the real, genuine, and authentic kind that Jesus taught. Love that is deep and profound. And difficult. At times, even obnoxious.
Jesus taught about love for God – the whole-body, heart, mind, soul, and strength kind of love. He taught about loving our neighbor as our self. All of them. Yada, yada, yada. Yet unpleasant, problematic neighbors are one thing. More difficult, most difficult, is his doggone insistence that we “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” Talk about obnoxious.
So, I want to share quickly and briefly three things Dr. King said about how we love our enemies. 
“First,” he said, “we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.” Not to ignore what has been done or to put a false label on an evil act. In fact, we must continue to resist all the methods and means of hatred and violence, whether we’re in front of the White House or on the streets of Denver – and then not settling for obnoxious peace. Sitting in the hallways of Congress demanding it. Staying on the phone until they block our number. But – and it’s a big but – underneath it all, under the resistance, we must believe in reconciliation with our neighbors. Resistance for the sake of reconciliation with the neighborhood that is our nation, including those called enemies, all the way to friending again those whom we have blocked.
It’s simple. Well, maybe not simple, but we must simply believe that we will come together again. Not just once again when, one day, someone else is in power, but today. Tonight. Jesus’ birth was an act of reconciliation with a world that deeply troubled God. God kept trying, through various means, like prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Amos and more. But this time, God tried by becoming one of us. Bottom line: All the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love begin and end in the pursuit of reconciliation.
Second, we must remember that an element of goodness may be found in even the worst enemy. And, we must also remember, there is some element of evil in us too. But no one is beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love. As Bryan Stevenson says of men and women on death row, we are all more than our worst mistake.
Third, we must not seek to humiliate our enemies but win their friendship and understanding.
However, I must say, when I hear Steve Bannon and his white supremacist “good people on both sides, believe me” buddies; when klansmen and neo-nazis quote the 48 Laws of Power, and specifically Law Number 15 to “Crush your enemy totally,” I have to wonder if I’m just being a sucker. Because really, how do we respond to those who quote:
1. Do not sympathize with your enemies. That gives them time to strike at you.
2. When you hope for reconciliation, it will make you hesitate. You’ve got to destroy them first or they will destroy you.
3. Give your enemies nothing to negotiate, no hope, no room to maneuver.
When you hear statements like that, perhaps we have to start first with the question “why” before answering “how” to love our enemies. Yes, we can pray for those who persecute you; sure, I get that. And then move on. But why does Jesus insist on the deeper, more profound, and profoundly more difficult “love” for our enemies?
If you remember Dr. King’s famous line, we’ll know why: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Just remember the mantra: When they go low, we go high.
Secondly, why do we love our enemies? Because hate destroys us and any hope of our own wholeness.
Lastly, why do we love our enemies? Because we never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. Only with the hope of reconciliation. Through forgiveness. That’s the source of real joy.
Of course, while reconciliation must be part of healing process, there can be no healing while wounds are still being inflicted. For example, upon the poor, against refugees, Muslims, people of color, transgender people – whether in Washington or at home. That’s why the people of God, the followers of Jesus, must practice the kind of love which Jesus taught.
Only that is the antidote to obnoxious peace.
“My friends,” Dr. King said, “we have followed the so-called practical way for too long now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hate and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of humankind, we must follow another way.”
The way of love. The way to peace. By the presence and persistence of obnoxious people. Of course, in full disclosure, to be clear, an obnoxious Jesus was ultimately executed. But the hatred that tried to destroy him only created a movement of people – here, tonight, I pray – committed to being obnoxious. Until justice reigns. And reconciliation reunites our country. And our neighborhoods. And our families. When we can truly proclaim with glee, jubilance and delight: Peace on earth, goodwill to all men, women, and children everywhere. Sound good?
It’s already happening. Women are being believed. A child predator was not elected. The name of our former KKK mayor is being removed from groups and organizations, just like the Confederate statues that keep coming down. Access to marriage equality continues to grow, now coming to Australia, the 25th nation around the globe. A black man was elected mayor of the Montana state capital, a transgender woman to the state legislature, repudiating the self-described “chief homophobe of Virginia.” The arc is long, sometime achingly long, but it ultimately bends toward justice.
“For the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
For unto us a child has been born, called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting, the Prince of Peace”
 Mathew 10:34
 Christmas sermon, 1957 “Loving Your Enemies”
 Read his book Just Mercy
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 17, 2017
“There is Joy Now. Even in Grief”
Psalm 126 – The Message
“It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations--
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.
4-6 And now, God, do it again--
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.”
“It seemed like a dream, too good to be true.” Wow. How apropos. There was joy in Whoville Wednesday morning because we learned that there is actually a limit to the level of indecency our country will descend, although by an exceedingly slim margin. Despite the willingness of white evangelicals to further debase the Christian faith, indecency lost. But only through the coalition of massive turnout by African American women and enough moderate Republicans to say stop. Combined with the bravery of #metoo. It wasn’t much of a margin. And isn’t it a sickeningly low bar of morality that Christians would trade a child predator for a sure vote? An editorial in the conservative Christianity Today, written before election day, lamented that regardless of who won, Jones or Moore, the real loss was Christian integrity.
But lest our joy become a prayer at the altar – thank God I’m not like those other people! – we do well not to be joyful this morning over something as fleeting as an election. Winning or losing. Joy does not depend on who is in power. If it did, we’d be in worse trouble. Joy has nothing to do with who is up and who is down.
The great spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote that joy “does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure. Joy does not even depend on the absence of sorrow and pain. It is a divine gift that does not leave us during illness, grief, oppression, or persecution.” In fact, he said, “the most painful times of my life are those times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself. It was that reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope.”
I join many others who grieve their first Christmas without a loved one – in my case, my mom. We didn’t get to spend every holiday together, but nevertheless, there will be no more annual Christmas letters. No more phone calls. A painful loss like most of us have experienced; which we will all experience. But while I was thinking about this, I was reminded of how much fun we had at her funeral. Such that I almost felt kind of guilty. But everyone being together, telling stories, remembering good times, demonstrated to me that joy didn’t die. Nor would my mother have wanted it to.
Nouwen said, “We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but sorrow and joy can exist together. Think about some of our deepest life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow.” Nouwen said, 'My grief was a place where I found joy.'
That will be such an interesting thing to ponder during moments of sadness this Christmas. Joy doesn’t need to wait for some future holiday. There is joy in my grief now. This isn’t just a holiday for grief to mess up my joy.
Eminent theologian Karl Barth adds a twist to all of this. He said joy is always defiant. “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.” Coming from Barth that’s interesting, especially because he was the consummate traditionalist who had little time for liberals and disdain for the social gospel. He was a post-war realist and hero of the neo-orthodox movement in the 1950s. So, a word as strong as defiance from him is notable. But he is also the one who famously said sermons should always involve reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. We are cautioned, however, to very carefully always read the Bible to interpret the news, not use the news to interpret the Bible. A very important line to walk. But it might also explain his claim that “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.” In spite of the news. In spite of whatever is happening in our lives. In spite of grief.
It’s one way to read today’s Psalm. Psalm 126 is called a Song of Ascent, one of 15, recited by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the festivals, likely sung on the way up the last hill to the Temple. They are remembering, telling stories, laughing, singing… There is a certain note of nostalgia for days past. They sing about how wonderful God has been to them. It seemed like a dream, too good to be true. We were the talk of the nations. But it’s not just the past. We are one happy people, it says.
Yet, in the next verse, they speak of their lives as drought-stricken. They acknowledge despair in planting their crops. They admit to harvesting with heavy hearts. But do it again, they sing. Rain and joy and laughing and armloads of blessing. But it’s not “jingle-bell joy,” as Talitha Arnold calls it. She said, “Their joy and anticipation was planted in sadness and watered with tears.” That doesn’t quite fit Barth’s claim: that “joy in this world is always in spite of something.” But it speaks to the fun we had at my mother’s funeral. It was grounded in sadness and watered with tears. And the harvest was joy, but not in spite of grief. I found joy in the grief.
I naturally like the notion of joy as protest. Drought, despair, and heavy hearts. Taxes, health care, and nuclear war. Joy as defiant choice.
But I also believe that joy is simply a divine gift that does not depend on good news or bad. Joy is always and already within us. Even so, we must still choose it. Nouwen said, “Joy doesn’t just happen. It is a spiritual practice.” But it’s not hard because it already exists. Therefore, it is not something we need to stress about or strive to achieve or create. We nurture it, grow, practice it. And there are lots of lists on “how to nurture joy.” Oprah’s always good for that. Among the lists, one is called “40 ways to find joy in your life.” Finding joy through things like singing out loud, getting outdoors, and snuggling.
Even so, there are plenty of articles that claim we can create joy or achieve joy. There’s even a website called achievingjoy.com. But it requires your credit card to access. I kid you not. That should tell you something!
Whether it involves defiance, making a choice, or receiving a gift, finding it or nurturing it, all I know is that joy is not something that will come later when something else happens. It is not an achievement. Or subject to failure. And therefore, we don’t have to be afraid of the pain of loss or grief we may feel at Christmas. Though it can be a very difficult time – whether the 1st Christmas after, 10th or 50,th I will try to remember: Joy doesn’t need to wait for some future holiday. There is joy in our grief now. This isn’t just a holiday for grief to mess up our joy because joy and grief are friends.
Joy is here. Already. Now. Therefore, let’s not wait until we feel better or things are looking up; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until we see results; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until people say they’re sorry or until they stop talking about us; because there’s joy now.
Let’s not wait until the pain in our body disappears or our minds are at ease; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until our financial situations improve or we can retire; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until we understand every experience in our life that has caused pain or grief; because there is joy now. Name it and claim it.
I’m not going to wait until the journey gets easier or my challenges are removed; because I have joy now. Even in grief. Maybe especially in grief. I claim joy. How about you?
 Benjamin Reaves, “Joy...That Lasts!” 30GoodMinutes.org
 Talitha Arnold (Pastor of UCC Santa Fe) Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, p. 58
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 3, 2017
“How Long? Not Long”
Isaiah 64: 1-9 – Common English Bible
“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Mountains would quake before you
2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.
If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence.
3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations;
when you came down, mountains quaked before you.
4 From ancient times,
no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any god but you
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him!
5 You look after those who gladly do right;
they will praise you for your ways.
But you were angry when we sinned;
you hid yourself when we did wrong.
6 We have all become like the unclean;
all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.
All of us wither like a leaf;
our sins, like the wind, carry us away.
7 No one calls on your name;
no one bothers to hold on to you,
for you have hidden yourself from us,
and have handed us over to our sin.
8 But now, Lord, you are our God.
We are the clay, and you are our potter.
All of us are the work of your hand.
9 Don’t rage so fiercely, Lord;
don’t hold our sins against us forever,
but gaze now on your people, all of us.”
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom [off] her sacred throne?"
Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust[heap] of shame to reign supreme among the children of [humankind]?"
Those were the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken from the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of the march from Selma in 1965. Words not spoken before they started, words not spoken while everyone waited around wondering when they could finally cross over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and how they would make it past and through the violent white mobs. No, these were words spoken after they arrived. A march first attempted on March 7th but interrupted and interrupted again, and not completed until March 25th, with a Unitarian minister killed in between. Not to forget, of course, that it is 50 miles between the two cities, which they walked 12 miles at a time.
At the end of his speech, Dr. King asked: "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir)
I come to say this to you [today]. However difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)
How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
[Who] is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
[And] has loosed the fateful lightning of a terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
[God’s] truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)
Blood stains still visible on the bridge, the words of Dr. King delayed, but not denied. The speech is also sometimes referred to as "Our God Is Marching On!" But I really resonate with the original title: “How long, Not long.”
It resonates because, week after week, we keep having to ask it. How much longer can we stand of the sheer quantity of lies and the ever-emboldening confidence of fabrications, distractions, and the deliberate blurring of reality? Outrages meant to exhaust us; tweets meant to wear us down. How much longer, Lord, must we endure these present days? Even though we rest assured in Dr. King’s exhortation: No lie can live forever. But really? Are you sure? Do you promise?
I’m with Isaiah. Sometimes, when I’m at my wits end, when I can’t shake my head anymore because it will fall off my neck, the prophet Isaiah said so well what I often conclude is the only thing that will save us: “If only you, God, if only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And set things right. Restore our world with civility. Decency. And truth. Bring on some of that good ol’ fashioned trampling and grapes of wrath stuff. And loose that fateful lightening from its terrible swift sword.
Oh Lord, how long? Because the waiting is awful. Of course, it hasn’t actually been that long. And as a person of privilege, my struggle is more existential, not a matter of fearfully anticipating raids at work, banned and abandoned at the airport, deported from my home and fearing the separation of my family, and beatings for walking down the street…
You get what I’m saying. Keep all things in perspective. Yet, no matter the circumstance, justified or not, physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, my long and your long… is long. From the back seat of the car, asking, “aren’t we there yet?”
And then, just in time, along comes Advent. Advent calls our waiting sacred. Advent is an interesting time to consider… time. There are plenty of quotable quotes, like: “Just in time.” “Time is of the essence.” “All in good time.” However, Karoline Lewis says those are all attempts to control time, as in, “we just have to get through it.” Or hurry up and be patient. We also often force it to be redemptive, demanding that “Time heals all wounds.” Oh really? Many of us know, that’s not always true. It is true, however, that “time will tell.” And as Dr. King promised, as does scripture, the “time will come” when what you reap is what you sow. When the chickens come home to roost.
At Christmas we say “Jesus was born in the ‘fullness of time.’” Meaning, the time is already here. But, the famous line of Advent is actually “here, and not yet.” Christ is among us, and yet to come. Just as we say of the Kingdom of God: It exists, in and among and through us, yet it’s fulfillment, we still wait. But for how long?
As much as I want “their time” to come, whoever the target of my pointing to “them” is in any one given moment… Yet, perhaps, instead, I should ask: Am I ready for my time? It took Isaiah only a minute to get there. He started by pleading to God, beseeching, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If you did, he told God, mountains would quake. Fires would ignite. Water would boil. Nations would tremble.
Isaiah described the actions of what I call his “Cosmic Warrior God” to “Show them!” But, did you notice the shift, the sharp contrast, when Isaiah then said, “We are the clay, and you are our potter.” I don’t understand the sudden change. What happened in those couple of verses? If God is the Cosmic Warrior come to set things right (as in set in “them” right), why is God all of a sudden a potter, molding and shaping…?
Maybe this is it: To set me right. Let me see if I understand. This isn’t about what “they” do. This is about what we do. The shift from warrior to potter means, regardless of what anyone else is doing, what do we believe and what should we do right? It’s not what do “they” do wrong anymore? Would you agree?
I’ve never thrown a pot, but it sure looks messy. Actually, now that I think of it, we made pottery at summer camp. Well, tried to. Everything I tried to make melted, collapsed, into a misshapen lump. Have you ever tried? Maybe you stuck with it and became a master potter. I finally managed to make a rudimentary bowl, which I then presented to my mother as “a gift.” She dutifully praised and thanked me. Lies, I realize. All lies! But sweet. And exactly what we need a mom to say.
But whether a mess or beautiful, I’m reminded that all pottery must go into a kiln, into the flames, to be complete. It all must go through the fire. How long? I don’t know. Just like I don’t know how long these present days will last. I do know that God hears our pleas for justice and compassion to finally reign – And I also know that justice is already here. In you. And compassion is already here. In you. It’s in, among, and through people of faith and people of good will and people of conscience. People worrying less about whether Starbucks puts Christ back in Christmas than they care about putting Christ back into Christians. How long until that time comes? Dr. King said: Not long.
Because as long as you and I seek our faithfulness to the life and teachings of Jesus, as long as we act justly, love mercy, and walk with humility, that’s what matters. It’s the “here” we can control. The “not yet” for which we pray. And let judgment be in the realm of God’s duties. For us not to condemn but provoke. Or at least, for our condemnation not to be self-righteous. Because we must still condemn white supremacy, the fleecing of the poor for the sake of the rich… The Bible is constantly speaking up on behalf of justice for immigrants and refugees. These are not things to abandon, to say “Let’s all get along!” Or make it all about just Jesus and me. My call is for our justice and mercy to come with humility. I don’t promise it will be easy but I believe we may feel a little less on edge.
I do acknowledge that I’ll still find myself with Isaiah calling upon God to smite those whom I label as enemies of decency. It’s a reflex! And so satisfying. But deadly. So spiritually deadly. But like Isaiah, no matter where we begin, how many times we fail, or how many missteps we take, my hope is to conclude as he did: Praying for God to shape and mold me and you and us into pitchers full of peace, carafes of compassion overflowing, and jugs filled to the top with grace. My Advent prayer is for each of us to be willing clay in the divine Potter’s hands, realizing, of course, that also comes with time in a kiln.
Including this fiery, agonizing, polarized time in our nation. But this time too, this waiting, is sacred. Christ is here, and not yet. In Selma, they had finally crossed the bridge and arrived on the steps, but the journey was, and is, far from over. In the meantime, our faithfulness to the life and teachings of Jesus can be expressed this way:
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love.
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage.
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort.
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
Not self-righteously, but allowing ourselves to be clay in our Divine Potter’s hands. With a little Cosmic Warrior help sometimes! Because we need Dr. King’s radiant star of hope to plunge against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night and pluck weary souls from their chains of fear and the manacles of death.
For how long? Not long. At least, I hope so!
 https://www.axios.com/community/Jim “Trump's mind-numbing media manipulation machine”
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world