Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 12, 2020
“Park Hill 2.0: From Curious to Committed”
The passage is Matthew 13: 24-30, which is read at the end
Our passage today begins, Jesus left the house to go sit on a beach. Haven’t you ever been at a party or a family gathering, maybe on Thanksgiving, when you needed to get away from a talkative uncle or just get some fresh air? Jesus wanted, needed some space so he went to the beach. But no sooner had he sat down and felt a cooling breeze on his face than crowds pressed in on him. So many, in fact, that he might have been tempted to escape back into the house. But, as we might expect of Jesus, instead he met the crowd in their need.
He got into a boat and pushed offshore so he could speak to them. He pointed to a farmer planting seeds. “See that guy over there?” That’s often how he taught. He’d see something and point, see that woman over there. See those sheep? And tell a parable. To those of us who want answers, instead of giving definitions, Jesus gave parables. For example, see that shepherd over there. That’s what God is like.
Not quite a riddle nor a satisfactory explanation, parables give you enough wiggle room to never quite know if we’ve gotten it exactly right. C.H. Dodd said parables are stories that tease our mind into thinking without us ever knowing it. Clearly, God is not a literal shepherd, so what do you mean?
So, from a boat that day he told them this parable: There once was a farmer who just threw seeds everywhere. He didn’t carefully cultivate just the right patch of earth, prepare the ground, measure out the seeds to go into perfect rows. He just threw them. As the crowd listened, everyone would have laughed and thought that was ridiculous, but their curiosity would certainly have been piqued.
Jesus told them, the sower threw the seeds so carelessly that some fell on the road, where excited birds ate a wonderful snack. Can’t you just see happy pigeons gorging on cast off bread? Not such a great way to grow the wheat that makes that bread.
Some of the seed fell onto rocky ground without enough dirt to develop roots. They began to grow but can’t you just imagine what happens to poor little shoots in heat of the Colorado sun in July. They tried but they were fried.
Some of the seed fell in a patch of weeds, and we all know what happens to seeds we want to live. Surrounded by weeds, they often can’t survive. And if they do, their root systems may get so intertwined, if you pull the weed out, you’ll likely kill the thing you’re trying to grow. In fact, Jesus tells a parable about exactly that next week.
And finally, finally after all that waste, some of the seed fell on good earth. And it produced a harvest beyond the farmer’s wildest dreams.
That’s it. He said, “If you have ears, listen.” And then he got out of the boat and walked away.
The story leaves us with lots of questions. Why was the farmer so wasteful? Who was that farmer? We might ask, who are we in the story? Are we called to be wasteful farmers? Or maybe the point of the story is that at various times we’re all different kinds of soil. Some days nothing seems to sink in through our hard heads or rough exterior. Or are we seeds? After all, some days I feel picked on like birds pecking at me. And some days I feel fried. Or I get tangled up in weeds. And, of course, I have some good, productive days too. What are we supposed to do with this parable? Jesus walked away for the crowd to wrestle with their own questions.
The disciples came to Jesus later and asked him to explain what he meant. Some commentators suggest that second part never happened. That Matthew or an editor felt the need to end it with a more satisfactory explanation. Either way, nothing more is said about going back to the crowd to offer them clarity.
But I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is actually found in our curiosity. The good news is found in statements like “I wonder…” “I wonder if…” More than answers and explanations, the blessing of the gospel is questions like “why” and “who, me!?” Parables are meant to raise lots of questions and especially to question lots of assumptions.
For example, questions we never thought to ask before the pandemic. We may get stuck asking questions like “When can we meet back in person again?” But the pandemic offers us the opportunity to ask bigger questions, like: What if. And who, me? What is church to you if your church that doesn’t meet in person? Or what if you’re attending a church where you’ve never met anyone? What does it mean to belong? Why do we do what we’ve always done? And once we come back, should we go back to what we’ve always done?
The vision we call Park Hill 2.0 grew out of our pandemic experience of separation. Brian McClaren says, change often only begins with pain. We quickly took everything online and some surprising things happened. Right away we noticed that people who don’t live in Denver joined us for worship – in fact, to this day, around 20% of our congregation every Sunday doesn’t live in Denver. Or they live in Metro Denver but have never set foot in our building. Clearly, even in Denver, our front door is not for people passing by on 26th and Leyden anymore but on the worldwide web.
In addition to worship, we moved all our existing groups online and started a new Touchbase Tuesday to ease some of our separation. It gave us a chance to see familiar faces and share stories and laugh. It felt so good. One Tuesday, Jack and Ellen joined us from Connecticut. And then Tammy from Texas. And John from his cabin near Salida. A nice side benefit of our separation was that we could see people we knew who moved away. And Chris and John and Larry and others could keep participating from their homes in the mountains.
But then there were others, like Patti and Ann in South Carolina, who had no prior connections to Park Hill. They were in worship every week and then joined us for our Maundy Thursday service. Many, many years ago I was their pastor in Cleveland. Living now in a very red state, the nearest progressive church is two hours away, so they said they’re grateful to have Park Hill, like a lifeline, accessible to them – whether in person or not.
Accessibility is a big thing for others too, although in a different way. Kathy and Mike live near Roxborough State Park and Tom and Laura live in Brighton. Those are really long commutes. They look forward to continued online access especially when the weather turns bad this winter. Lindsay and Shaun like this option since their toddler always seems to want to nap at 10 am. Online worship any time of the day and any day of the week is a welcome convenience for some people.
But for others, it’s much more than that. One couple lives in eastern New Mexico, “think west Texas,” she said. They belong to a church of very nice people, but, she said, their church is silent about important things in our world, in our country, in our government. And, she said, “your church seems unafraid to meet issues head on. So, during such turbulent times, your church is a safe refuge for us.” It’s not that we would want to take them away from their home church, but how wonderful that we can support and encourage their faith where they are. Just like for Chris in Louisiana, Bette in Texas, and Berneda in Iowa.
And that’s an important distinction. We don’t want to take people away from where they may belong but if we can partner together for a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate, what a blessing for us all. Yet for others, this can be a place to belong, especially LGBTQ people, with few places to belong.
Park Hill 2.0 started out as a desire not to leave anyone behind when we return to worship in person. We didn’t fully realize what it meant, what a sacred calling it is, to be a lifeline or a safe refuge for lonely progressive Christians. Bottom line: This means investing in good quality equipment for livestreaming in the sanctuary – video, sound… and people capable of running it.
But church is more than coming to worship on Sundays – whether in person or online. So we want people watching or observing to fully participate in faith development and community life. And so, Park Hill 2.0 envisions ongoing gatherings and studies online, each of us now in our homes, but eventually capable of including groups both in the church and anywhere people live. This further benefits people who don’t wish to go out for health or mobility reasons or driving across Denver in rush hour is so aggravating, it prevents participation in weekday activities. So for now, both Inez ten blocks away and Sally in Steamboat Streams can keep participating in our book group’s study of How to Be an Antiracist. And in the future, with some folks gathered in person at the church. Or leadership meetings, or Sunday School… Bottom line: This means investing in video conferencing equipment.
But what comes next? We have developed a strategy for Park Hill 2.0 that envisions a path for someone who is curious, who observes us online, to become a participant in some group or gathering, like Susan and Carole, have. They participants who have never been in the church. From observer to participant and then to become a supporter of ministry through prayer or giving and to become a fully committed partner in ministry, perhaps even serving in leadership. A path from curious to committed – the same for someone who worships with us in person, but previously more assumed than articulated. The pandemic has taught us to put more time and attention into each stage and offering meaningful experiences that help each of us grow in our faith and for our faith community to grow. And, as we began last fall, to nurture growing relationships, just as we learned in our relational campaign.
We’ve greatly increased our social media ministry to invite people to observe. Now to invite greater participation, I’m excited to announce some new programming we’ve developed for exactly that purpose. In addition to our ongoing groups, in two weeks, we’re going to add a weekly evening option – a course called “Gratitude During Difficult Times” for six weeks on Tuesdays at 6 pm Mountain which I will co-lead with Lori Fell who lives in Pittsburgh, for whom it will be 8 pm. And in the fall Terri will begin an evening group called “P-Squared: People and Prayer.” Again at 6 pm here so people across all the time zones can reasonably participate – one of the things we have to think about going forward.
The possibilities are endless. In fact, they may be overwhelming! On Thursday, people at Lunch and Lectionary, which has more than doubled during the pandemic, talked about healing our country’s urban/rural divide and perhaps partnering with a church somewhere for dialogue on Zoom. That prompted me to reach out to a pastor friend at a Black UCC in Virginia and we’re exploring a joint Bible study. We could invite an author, like we did with John Pavlovitz, over Zoom, saving the cost and carbon of a flight. In fact, so many things are possible, we have to remember to be strategic and call upon our mission – not to do everything but to ask, how does this help us build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate?
Although, on the other hand, Jesus did tell that parable about throwing seed wherever it might fall. Surely we don’t want to limit God’s grace from leading us places we wouldn’t have expected. I’m not sure Jesus wants us to be wasteful, but perhaps not so cautious that we don’t try new things, which would be a terrible waste of this opportunity the pandemic handed to us.
In many ways, the vision of Park Hill 2.0 isn’t that exceptional or ground-breaking. It just embraces methods that increase our reach and widens our welcome. Sadly, however, it is exceptional in that others aren’t, or haven’t yet, embraced or articulated a vision like this. And that’s why one of our online worshipers in Arizona has donated $10,000 for our efforts. She heard our vision for Park Hill 2.0 during worship on Pentecost and said, “I want to invest!” She was excited and frustrated that her own church doesn’t have this kind of vision. She doesn’t want her own pastor to know about her gift, but she does want you to know and invites you to join her and make that kind of investment in Park Hill 2.0 as well.
There’s so much more I could say, but like Jesus, I’m going to step away leaving you with more questions than answers. At 11:30 we’re going to break into small groups, break out rooms on Zoom, so we can discuss what this means to you. While there is so much that remains unknown in our world right now, these things seem certain: we value relationships, we value growing in our faith, we value worship, and we seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. And if you value that too, be more than curious, commit to joining us.
And now for the parable from Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23, The Message
At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.
3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
9 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
“Study this story of the farmer planting seed. When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.
20-21 “The seed cast in the gravel—this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm. But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.
22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.
23 “The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.”
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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