Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 28, 2018
“On a Roller Coaster Without a Restraint”
2nd Corinthians 4: 8-9 – NRSV
We are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
I planned ahead this week and finished my sermon early so I could take my birthday off. After I heard the news that the MAGAbomber had been caught, I thought, I’ll need to go in a little early on Sunday and make a few changes. Then, Saturday morning Art and I went hiking at Brainard Lake. The views were absolutely glorious. A perfect day – freezing cold hurricane force winds – but absolutely glorious, snow-capped peaks and clear blue skies dancing right in front of our eyes. We got back to Denver late in the afternoon and I heard the news. Eleven people dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter was a rampant anti-Semite and, according to some news, particularly angry about refugees. This time I knew I couldn’t make a few changes to my sermon. I knew I had to start over.
But where does one begin? I haven’t had time to process my own feelings let alone try to say something helpful or inspirational. But the truth is, I don’t even know any more what my feelings are. Am I angry? Am I sad? Am I ready to fight or ready to give up? Sometimes it’s both at the same time. God, what do you want from us?
Struggling for answers, I thought of the words of Psalm 4:
Answer us when we call to you,
our righteous God.
Give us relief from our distress;
have mercy on us and hear our prayer.
I thought of some scriptures that bring comfort, like Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, it’s like a nurse has filled an IV bag full of medication for our heart. We let out a big exhale, our breathing slows, we listen…
2 You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters;
3 You restore my soul and lead me in right paths.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
But wait. Evil is exactly what I fear. I fear the evil that stalks our country. I fear the men who think evil is a winning strategy. Who compare women and children fleeing violence in their country like they are an invading force, preparing our military as though we were facing modern day Crusaders. Who use racism and anti-Semitism and xenophobia as a rallying cry. I fear that evil. Sometimes I find myself angry and sometimes just helpless and numb.
Psalm 69 says this so beautifully:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
4 There are more who hate me without cause than there are the number of hairs on my head.
Can you hear the crushing despair? I understand it. I understand it as an emotion I feel in between cycles of rage. Rage to rage we fly, faster and faster, like we’re strapped into a roller coaster without a restraint. Peaks and valleys of Halloween horrors. The Psalmists often felt the same way. The one in Psalm 69 who just spoke of being weary with crying, throat parched, eyes growing dim… Listen to what they ask of God now:
24 Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation;
let no one live in their tents.
27 Add guilt to their guilt;
may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
And that’s only 4 of the dozens of verses in a row; pow, pow, pow. There are other psalms, too, that don’t let up. Imprecatory psalms, they are called. Psalm 109, in particular, shows absolutely no mercy and says of the wicked:
8 May his days be few;
9 May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off…
may his memory be cut off from the earth.
So, OK, maybe that’s going a little too far. But the Bible knows well our roller coaster of emotions. Why did the psalmist wish all those things? Here is the explanation for their rage:
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death.
Sometimes scripture knows exactly what to say. And sometimes it helps to just let go and ride the roller coaster and speak aloud to God some of what we probably shouldn’t tell other people. But God can take it.
And then we are drawn back to Psalm 23,
4 Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we will fear no evil;
for you, O God, are with us;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort us.
5 You prepare a table before us
in the presence of our enemies;
you anoint our heads with oil;
our cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us
all the days of our life,
and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And yet another House of the Lord was attacked yesterday. Another man enacting evil. But not in isolation. We have to stop calling these lone killers. We have to stop questioning their motives. We know his motive. To kill Jews. To express rage at the loss of what he perceives to be his right – along with the rest of them whose motivation is to Make America Great Again with a return to white privilege, male superiority, and Christian supremacy.
As I grieve with the members of Tree of Life, I was reminded of the six Sikhs killed while their community worshiped in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. I remember the nine members of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, targets of hate and violence in their House of the Lord in 2015.
Among with names like the Rev. Clementa Pinkney, you may remember Ethel Nance, one of the nine. You’ll remember her daughter, Nadine, who shockingly told the killer two days later, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.” On the spot, perhaps ready or not, members of the other 8 families followed her example. We all listened, stunned. Some, however, not yet ready.
Like even a year later when Nadine’s sister, the Rev. Sharon Risher, said she still wasn’t ready to forgive. “I’m not bitter, but I can’t.” The shooter doesn’t act like he even wants to be forgiven. Risher had to leave her job, finding the demands of her employment as a hospital chaplain too emotionally draining as she still grieves her mother.
However, then there’s Rev. Anthony Thompson whose wife Myra was killed, but he said he wouldn’t let the shooter control his life. He said he began to heal the moment he spoke those words of forgiveness.
Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was among those murdered, gave up her job as a middle school music teacher to run a non-profit called the Hate Won’t Win Movement. That’s the way she copes – focusing on the potential for good. She said, “I couldn’t harbor hate in my heart and then go out and preach love.”
But Arthur Hurd, whose wife Cynthia died, said that the only thing that will bring him joy again is to be the one who pulls the switch that ends Dylann Roof’s life.
If you aren’t sure how you feel today, I don’t really either. Maybe one of the above and maybe none of the above. I know I am tired. And one more thing. And this is what I will continue to hold on to.
Park read the scripture today as this: We are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.
But that’s only part of what Paul told the Corinthians. He said:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
9 persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed. New Revised Standard Version
Let me say it again in a different way:
We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed.
We are confused, but we aren’t hopeless.
9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned.
We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. Common English Bible
One more time, this time by Eugene Peterson, who died this week at the age of 85, in his translation The Message:
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;
we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do;
we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side;
we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. The Message
That’s what I know. That’s what holds me together on days like these. When I feel like I’m on a roller without a restraint, God is what holds me in. Holds us in. We don’t have to hold on. We have to let go.
Sometimes when things don’t feel well, we have to turn to God in faith and proclaim, “It is well with my soul” remembering the God who gives us, as Psalm 69 said, relief from our distress, who has mercy on us and hears our prayers. For ours is a healing God. And ours is a healing community. As Mary Luti said, “The truth about human beings is that we’re all broken. The larger truth is that we heal. And we heal each other. We have the power, often in the simplest acts, to help each other heal.”
Sing “It is Well with My Soul”
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world