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
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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