Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 4, 2016
Psalm 84 – Common English Bible
What a beautiful home, God-of-the-Angel-Armies!
I’ve always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
3-4 Birds find nooks and crannies in your house,
sparrows and swallows make nests there.
They lay their eggs and raise their young,
singing their songs in the place where we worship.
God-of-the-Angel-Armies! King! God!
How blessed they are to live and sing there!
5-7 And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!
8-9 God-of-the-Angel-Armies, listen:
O God of Jacob, open your ears—I’m praying!
Look at our shields, glistening in the sun,
our faces, shining with your gracious anointing.
10-12 One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship,
beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.
I’d rather scrub floors in the house of my God
than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
All sunshine and sovereign is God,
generous in gifts and glory.
God doesn’t scrimp with his traveling companions.
It’s smooth sailing all the way with God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
One day a farmer decided that his donkey was fat enough to take to market to sell. He told his son to bring him two poles. He said, “We’ll carry our donkey to market on these poles so that he won’t get too thin from walking the long distance.”
So they tied the donkey to the poles, hoisted it all on their shoulders, and headed down the road to the market. The donkey hung upside down in between them, braying and heehawing his displeasure.
They came upon a group of people in the road who laughed and laughed. “Look at you stupid fellows carrying a donkey like it was a pig. That donkey should be carrying you! Why don’t you get on its back and ride it?”
The father and his son were very embarrassed at all the laughing and jeering. The father said, “I guess we must look pretty strange carrying a donkey. Maybe we should put him down and ride. But, he’s too small for both of us.” He told his son that because he’s smaller, he should ride while the father walked out front carrying their packs.
The son agreed. So they untied the donkey and the son got on. They again began down the road toward the market.
A little farther they came upon another group of people. They called out to the son, jeering, “What kind of son are you? You ride in comfort while your poor old father has to walk carrying bags? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The red-faced son dismounted. He said, “Maybe you should ride, father, and I will carry the packs.” The father agreed. “Maybe that would be best.”
So the father got up on the donkey and the son walked out in front with the packs.
They crossed the river and entered the village. They came upon a group of young women alongside the road. “Look at that handsome young man walking like a servant while that old goat rides like a prince. You should ride, handsome boy, and the old man should walk.”
The boy turned and said, “Father, have we made a mistake again?” The father replied, “It seems like we have made several mistakes today. First we carried the donkey and the people said it was wrong. Then you rode and people said it was wrong. They I rode and people said it was wrong. Perhaps we should ride it together.”
“Splendid,” said the boy. So they both got up on the donkey and continued toward the market. When they reached their destination a crowd of people began pointing and staring at them. “How could you be so cruel? That donkey is barely old enough for one rider, and yet you have put two on him? It’s so little, you should be carrying it! Shame, shame,” the people cried out louder and louder.
The father and son got off at once, but the crowd wouldn’t let up. And they were so loud that it frightened the poor little donkey. It bucked and kicked until the father and his son lost grip of the rope and the donkey ran off, never to be seen again.
What a story! And, at least for me, it rings a little true. For any would-be people-pleaser, there’s probably a connection. Someone says, “You should do it this way.” So, you do. Someone else says, “You should do it that way.” So, you do. Then someone else, and on and on and on… Each time trying to please the person making the suggestion until everyone is upset. Your family. Your co-workers. Most especially, yourself. Your stomach. Your sleep patterns… What “should” we do?
In the story, what might they have done differently? They could have yelled “Mind your own business!” and kept moving on. Or “Thank you. I appreciate the suggestion” and kept moving on. Perhaps more the second than the first.
Scripture might actually contribute to the problem. In Philippians Paul says, “In humility, consider others above yourselves.” In Romans, “Honor one another above yourselves.”
What’s a Christian to do? Is people-pleasing even the problem? Or maybe the problem is when our behavior is motivated by the need for approval. Not doing the right thing but what most people will be happy with. Then we will have peace.
Apparently people pleasing is not a new phenomenon, recently realized through research in the fields of psychology and psychiatry and the like. Or in journals like the Harvard Business Review writing about the problem of people-pleasers in the workplace. No. Two thousand years ago, Jesus warned: "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them." (Luke 6:26, The Message)
So, if we wanted to evaluate our level of people-pleasing or approval-seeking, what are some questions we may need to ask?
But what’s wrong with being agreeable? Being easy to get along with? What’s wrong with seeking the peace?
One list I came across asked a question I hadn’t thought of before.
Which means, what might I be willing to do to achieve that? Wow. Do I believe, deep inside, that I can get most everyone to like me? Why, yes I do. How about you? And perhaps that’s why I made some of the choices I did, especially in high school? Or maybe even today?
Might that be one reason why some people are reluctant to get involved in social change? Someone’s not going to like it. Or worse, they might not like me! Expressing an opposing view might lower someone’s opinion of us. What is a frequent criticism of activists? Why must they be so disagreeable?
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is persona non grata number one right now. For expressing an unpopular opinion. Not for drunk driving or dog fighting or domestic violence or foul language to children.
An excellent article in Rolling Stone magazine noted that 70% of NFL players are African American (yet 6% of the population) while 83% of NFL fans are white. “These are people who pay staggering amounts of money to watch black men batter their bodies on the field. And as long as they run and tackle, keep their helmets on, and their mouths shut, then they are acceptable to the white mainstream public. However, when black athletes choose to point their aggression not towards each other but to larger, systematic inequalities, that's when the backlash begins.”
Fans posted videos of burning Kaepernick’s jersey, called him a disgrace and disrespectful, arrogant, ignorant, ungrateful. Those were the nice things. The same fans, most of whom, said not one single word about Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott… the list is too long. The pressure is always on African American athletes to tap dance and sing and say “thank you sir” for the privilege of living in America, which means white America. And to apologize each time someone is offended by the suggestion of anything else, not to mention hearing truth spoken.
But, to me, patriotism at its best is protesting the killing of people of color, not whether or not you stand for the national anthem. Which one matters more?
It may be hard to ask such questions if the goal in the end is to get everyone to like you and to agree with you. I risk bringing it up because I know we don’t all agree about Colin’s tactics.
Probably my dad too. My dad was far from what anyone – especially himself – would consider a social change guy. But occasionally he got in trouble. My dad was a Gideon – the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. When we think of Gideons they are often characterized negatively. Pushing their religion on us, advocating some kind of right wing agenda. My dad just loved the Bible. Read it every day. He wanted others to encounter it and love it too. Two weeks ago when we went through my mother’s entire household of belongings, we came across the Bible she had given him while they were dating in 1944 (courting, I suppose they might have called it then). It was so well worn it barely stayed together. And so full of notes, the pages couldn’t hold anymore. You get the picture.
But one day he got in trouble with the head Gideon in the state of Montana. The topic of homosexuality came up at a meeting, apparently everyone believing they were all on the same page – the condemnation of gay people. My father very calmly and clearly said that his son was gay and that he loved him. That was it. That night he got a call asking what kind of trouble he was trying to stir up in Miles City. From a man whose son was also gay, but of whom he had a starkly different opinion about the fate of his eternal soul. All of a sudden, in his late 80s, my dad was an agitator with a gay agenda.
My dad knew the Bible better than most people. He lived his life to please God. And if that didn’t please everyone else… That can be hard. It can also be hard to know what actually pleases God. As a tangible way to please God, we might think we should please other people. Not such a bad idea, but just because others approve of us, doesn’t mean that God is pleased.
If we look at the whole of scripture, considering the life and teaching of Jesus, what is pleasing to God? Withholding an opinion others might disagree with or speaking an opinion for those without a voice or a place at the table? Sometimes ourselves. Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak for those who cannot speak; seek justice for all those on the verge of destruction.”
Instead of people-pleasing, shouldn’t our concern be pleasing God? It’s a good question on Labor Day weekend. Wages that pay enough money for food, clothes, and shelter or a golden parachute? The size of our 401k or a big enough safety net for widows and orphans? Not to mention, the Bible keeps talking about hospitality toward strangers and immigrants and foreigners and aliens living in your midst. Is it the strength of your patriotism that is pleasing to God or your defense of the voiceless and powerless? Which one matters? Although, shouldn’t they be one and the same?
Jesus surely didn’t spend all his time trying to please people. You don’t eat dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors to win brownie points. You don’t invite yourself to the home of Zacchaeus or allow Mary listen in on conversations between men. You don’t stop men from stoning a woman caught in adultery. You don’t pardon criminals or call religious people hypocrites.
Paul gets that because in Galatians, he asks, “Am I trying to win the approval of people, or of God? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Being a servant of Christ might not be pleasing to everyone, including expressing differences of opinion. Or standing up for ourselves. And most especially, standing up for the voiceless and powerless. Just look to Jesus as the instruction manual and take courage – tomorrow or next week or whenever you consider silence your best or only option.
 “The Father, the Son, and the Donkey” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.