Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 12, 2020
“To the Shiny Empire”
Matthew 27:59 – 28:10 – Common English Bible
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had carved out of the rock. After he rolled a large stone at the door of the tomb, he went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting in front of the tomb.
The next day, which was the day after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate. They said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive, he said, ‘After three days I will arise.’ Therefore, order the grave to be sealed until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.’ This last deception will be worse than the first.”
Pilate replied, “You [may] have soldiers for guard duty. Go and make it as secure as you know how.” Then they went and secured the tomb by sealing the stone and posting the guard.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. His face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
Here we are again. Another Sunday separated from each other. Instead of saying, gee, isn’t it terrible, I can hear my mother saying, “look on the bright side.” Thank God that we have the internet to keep us connected. Email, and social media like Facebook, and platforms like Zoom have saved the day.
I could say, gee, this is terrible. Or listen to my mother offer her wisdom to look on the sunny side of the street. Look at all the silver linings. Families eating dinner together. Less pollution. Many clergy colleagues are reporting increased engagement. Like them, I’m aware of our expanded reach, with people worshiping with us from their homes in Ohio, Virginia, Utah, Louisiana, North Carolina and more… Last Sunday at 10 am there were nearly 100 devices connected – and behind their screens were individuals, couples, and families. (Send me some examples of silver linings you have seen.)
Instead of saying, gee, isn’t it terrible that we aren’t gathered together, I could remind us what the first Easter looked like. The first Easter took place while the disciples were behind locked doors at home. The disciples were devastated. Jesus had just been executed, specifically by means of crucifixion, which, as I’ve said before, was a very effective way to send a message to others who might be inspired to take up Jesus’ cause of liberation for the poor and freedom for the captives. It would have been dangerous for the disciples to be out of their houses, so, to protect their families, fearing they could be next, the disciples sat at home behind closed doors. Today, as we sit alone in our homes, Rev. Emily Heath tweeted, Yeah, this Easter, “we’re keeping things pretty Biblical.”
The explanation that this year we’re just “keepin’ things biblical” is meant to help us cope with loss: meaning, it’s OK to let go of extraneous, though cherished, Easter traditions; for example, the pancake breakfast before worship and the egg hunt afterward. It means it’s OK to skip the pungent smell of lilies and daffodils and hydrangeas as we walk into crowded sanctuaries, looking for any places left to sit. All the things we associate with Easter. The energy and excitement. We should feel good about “keepin’ things biblical.” “Should” feel good. Should.
In the age of coronavirus, we’re all grief-counselors in training. Perhaps like me, your first instinct to someone who talks about what they’re missing is to try to lessen their pain. For example, “I miss my friends.” So, you might tell a child, “But honey, we’re so lucky that we’re not sick. And you’ll get to see your friends again soon enough.” Notice: Deflecting the pain – “be happy it’s not you” – and making a promise you can’t keep – how soon is soon? Thank goodness for all those professional grief counselors who are helping us lay practitioners come up with more helpful responses, such as “I know. I’m sad too. It’s a big loss.”
And so, taking that advice, I love my mom, but I’m going to stop deflecting about hidden blessings. Forget my comment about gratitude for social media. Forget my comment about trying to find the silver linings. Forget my comment about just “keepin’ things biblical.” No. Let’s be real. Do you wish we could be gathered in the sanctuary for worship today? Organ, trumpets, flowers, kids on their hands and knees looking for candy? “I know. I’m sad too. It’s a big loss.” (share how you feel with me)
This is the part of Christian faith that is harder to practice. I don’t mean this as a judgment, but for most Christians, the messages of Christmas and Easter are what really matter. “Christ Is Born and Now He’s Alive.” Sure, somewhere in there are stories about Jesus crucified, dead, and buried. But, today is Easter and now he’s alive, so don’t worry about that. That’s why we get sermon titles like: “It’s All Good.” “Move On.” “Get Over It.” Or the two-part special: “Move On and Get Over It Already.” Easter sermons are supposed to be variations of “Be Happy.” (what's your favorite example of an Easter sermon title?)
But today, this particular Easter Sunday, feels like a repeat of Saturday. A Ground Hog Day of Holy Saturday over and over again. They waited. They stayed at home. They grieved, some mix of uncertainty, mixed with some fear. They waited. They stayed at home… That’s why the coronavirus is in many ways a gift (?), or least an invitation, to examine the meaning of Easter more deeply. What’s really important? We’re paying attention today to what Easter means for us in a way we have never had to before. On the sunny side of the street, that’s a good thing.
One question we can ask is: what Easter is for. Maria Swearingen, a pastor in Washington, DC, reminds us, “Easter does not exist to make an Empire look better or shinier or healthier or stronger.”
As we all know, a few weeks ago the president wanted to see churches packed on Easter. Understandable and predictable. It’s all about projecting an image that he has everything under control. To use Easter to make everything look shinier, healthier, and stronger. To forget that people are still suffering, crucified by the lack of preparation for a pandemic, so his numbers don’t look bad, victims of a health care system designed for the privilege, not for the masses who are dying – disproportionately people of color.
The president wanted Easter with its organs and trumpets, or rather praise bands, and pretty dresses to display the well-being of systems of domination and inequity. Empire. Smiles and normalcy to cover up the violence and incompetence. To tell everyone to move on and get over it already. So, the question might be asked of us, what exactly are we missing today? I’m grieving the loss of our being together in person, but I might also have to ask: Have we fallen for the trappings of a triumphant Easter to cover over those still being crucified?
I read some verses this morning you might not have heard before – at least not on Easter morning. Have you ever heard about the time in between the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb? They have an enhanced meaning this morning too. “After sundown, the high priests and Pharisees arranged a meeting with Pilate, the Roman Governor. They said, “Sir, we just remembered that while that liar was still alive, he announced, ‘After three days I will be raised.’ We’ve got to seal that tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples will come and steal the corpse and go around saying, ‘He’s risen from the dead.’ Then we’ll be worse off than before, the final deceit surpassing the first.” Pilate told them he would provide a guard, so they went out and secured the tomb.” Why? To protect the powerful. To project an image of control.
But that’s exactly when Easter happened. Easter happened in between the burial and the empty tomb. While the Empire guarded the tomb, the one being guarded was transformed from death to life. I love that. I love how resurrection is subversive. Meant to overturn the power of Empire, not to prop it up and make it look shinier. That is the meaning of Easter.
And resurrection is happening even now. In our waiting. In between my sadness that we aren’t gathered in person and my gratitude that we can be gathered together like this.
In between the depth of my appreciation for health care workers and my profound sadness at the preventable loss of life – resurrection is happening even now. (do you have examples?)
In between my admiration for those willing to speak truth and my disgust for an Empire that would sacrifice its own citizens to make things look shinier – resurrection is happening even now. While the Empire acts like fools and plays dress up as guards at the tomb door, the ones guarded are being transformed from death to life. Yes, resurrection is subversive. Out of their control. But, of course, it’s also out of our control, too.
For example, as we gather on this unique Easter morning to express our hopes, we’re not quite sure what we are supposed to hope for. The health and well-being of our neighbors, for certain. But for things to go back to normal? Soon. However, even if we knew when, we’re not sure what normal will be? Or more importantly, what do we want normal to be?
For certain we can “take a hard pass” on letting Easter be a tool of the Empire, for everything to look like its back to normal and business as usual. In future years we’ll look back and never forget Easter 2020 and marvel at the desire to sacrifice people so things could look better, shinier, for Easter. But we’ll also remember that this particular Easter we stayed at home to demand healthier and stronger people, the ones whom Jesus especially loved. For whom he was willing to sacrifice his life. That’s the meaning of Easter. Just so we’re “keeping things biblical.”
Does that make this particular Easter different from any other? In some ways, nothing is different. There’s always an Empire looking out for itself. So, that may make the location of Easter worship different this year, but our calling is the same.
We gather on Easter to remember – and proclaim to the shiny Empire:
Love is stronger than hate
Goodness is stronger than evil
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Please turn to the litany in your bulletin:
One: Because the world is filled with fear, we ask God to strengthen our courage.
All: Because the world is drowning in lies, we won’t stop demanding truth.
One: Because the world is sick of despair, we choose joy – for ourselves and to share.
All: Because the world is not fair to everyone, we won’t forget the work of justice.
One: Because the world is under judgment, we accept and offer one another mercy.
All: Because the world is poor and starving, we will share our bread.
One: Because the world will die without it, we will persist in love. And goodness. And light.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!
 Archbishop Desmond Tutu
 Adapted from Carol White
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 5, 2020
“Let’s Be Awkward”
Matthew 21: 1-11 – Common English Bible
When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Brené Brown said, “This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.” You might call Brené the guru of vulnerability. She became famous after a Ted Talk a few years ago, which has now been viewed almost 48 million times. Perhaps you’ve seen it. And if you haven’t, I suggest you do. It’s brilliant. I’ll put a link on my and the church’s Facebook page.
Vulnerable. Yeah, she nails it. I feel various levels of vulnerability going anywhere, to the grocery store, to get take-out. Seeing someone sneeze 10 feet away causes us to give them the “stare.” I’m reminded of my vulnerability every time I watch the news. Chances are, you feel it too. Maybe that’s not the word you would use. Instead of vulnerable, in the face of a pandemic, how about defenseless? Helpless? Maybe a better word is exposed. Get too close to another human being and we risk being exposed. Vulnerable to something invisible.
Again, Brené said, “This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.”
We keep calling these times unprecedented. There are many things about this pandemic that are unique in our lifetimes, but one of the exceptionalisms is that no one is exempted. It doesn’t matter who we are. No race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality… no amount of money or political influence will exempt us from this massive experiment in collective vulnerability. Yes, but the truth is also that some people are more vulnerable than others. Some people have more ability to limit their exposure than others. For example, people without homes in which to shelter. People in overcrowded jails. Asylum seekers, already extremely vulnerable, living in tents. Our elders in retirement communities and nursing homes. Anyone confined to close living quarters. And of course, exposure is the profession of health care workers. And store clerks. First responders.
But while some people can limit their exposure to a certain extent, there’s no option of being vulnerable or not vulnerable. As a human race, living in a red state or blue, a developing country or an industrialized one, in a democracy or under a dictator, we are globally, all collectively vulnerable. There is some comfort in our equality. And something terribly frightening.
To her statement of collective vulnerability, Brené added, “We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid. Or, we can be our very best, our bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little distance in between because when we are uncertain and afraid, our default is self-protection. But, when we’re scared, we don’t have to be scary in return.” So, she said, “Let’s choose to be awkward, brave, and kind. And let’s choose each other.”
In the face of our collective vulnerability, let’s be awkward, brave, and kind. I like that, although I would never have thought to put those three particular words together. Perhaps, “Let’s be bold and compassionate.” Or courageous and generous. But to add awkward?
Awkward, brave, and kind. Bold and compassionate are synonyms of brave. Those are good descriptions of how to be in these vulnerable times. And courageous and generous are synonyms of the word kind. This is how we should be in any times and at all times. But awkward? So, like the other two words, I searched for synonyms and got some pretty surprising and unexpected results. My Word document thesaurus only showed words for awkward like stubborn, uncooperative, obstinate, and difficult. That doesn’t seem quite right for this situation.
When I think of the word awkward, I visualize a baby donkey trying to stand up for the first time. I think awkward and I visualize a teenager looking in the mirror, grimacing at all the pimples on their face. Someone who is clumsy, lanky, and gangly.
So, why in the world would she suggest being awkward as a response to our collective vulnerability? I was somewhat at a loss. So, I thought about how these words might apply to Jesus on this day we remember his entrance into Jerusalem.
We admire that Jesus was brave and kind. He was bold and compassionate, courageous and generous. But, it seems, awkward fits well here. Palm Sunday and Holy Week symbolize ways that he was awkward.
Palm Sunday is a veritable lesson in vulnerability. We sometimes talk of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We hear stories of Jesus riding into town, palm branches waving, garments thrown on the road, shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” But, upon closer examination, those were not acts of triumph. That was going on across town.
As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote in their book The Last Week, “there were two processions that entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession.”
Picture it: On one side of town, from the east, Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives on a donkey, cheered on by a scraggly, odd collection of misfits and outsiders, who shouted and had nothing else to give so they threw their old coats on the ground and tore some branches off a tree.
Then picture the opposite, on the opposite side of town. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, riding in on a chariot, the head of an imperial cavalry, surrounded by soldiers. Flags waving, dust rising, the ground shaking under their stomping feet. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of Roman imperial power. They came to town for any major festival for crowd control; that is, to control anyone who might use these occasions, such as Passover, to disrupt order and commerce. Pilate entered to proclaim the power of the Empire. To protect that power and the status quo. That’s a triumphant entrance.
Again, on the other hand, here comes Jesus, a donkey, and some peasants waving branches. To the enforcers of Roman rule by force, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, to protect people from that power. To disrupt that kind of status quo.
According to Borg and Crossan, that was the central conflict of the week. That’s what led to the crucifixion, the execution, of Jesus on Friday, just a few days later. Crucifixion on a cross was something Rome generally reserved for those who questioned imperial authority. A warning to other would be prophets – as Cornel West said, similar to the image and message of a lynching. A symbol of their terrible power.
But in the face of their terror, Jesus stood awkward – in the best sense. He did in fact interrupt their commerce. Immediately after entering Jerusalem, he went straight to the Temple where he famously overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Later in the week, when Pilate asked Jesus, are you the King of the Jews, he said, “You say so.” He wouldn’t give direct answers. “What is truth?” Jesus asked. When told to explain himself, Jesus infuriated the authorities with questions back. In the face of Rome’s power, Jesus was awkward. Meaning, he was stubborn, difficult, and obstinate.
He might not have been executed if he had just been a little more cooperative. But Jesus’ mission was to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to protect the poor, not prop up the powerful. And, he taught, the only way to do that is to be vulnerable, to stand with, not over; to seek the power of love, not the love of power. And so, in the face of Roman imperial power, Jesus was brave and kind. And awkward.
But in the end, I doubt that’s quite what Brené Brown had in mind for us. She probably meant the kind of awkwardness that is like, I’m not sure what to do now. Uncertain. More full of doubt than defiance – although, given the constant lies and recklessness of the administration, the playing of favorites with political friends… “You can have these ventilators if you say you like me…” Well, we need a good bit more awkwardness.
Yet, the truth is, many of us simply feel awkwardly inadequate for the challenge of this pandemic. Exposed and perhaps self-conscious, and ill at ease. That kind of awkward. So why, then? Why would Brené encourage us to feel awkward? We already do. Or at least, I know I have.
Talk about awkward. Technology is the area of life I feel most awkward. But these times confront us with indifference. Who cares if you feel awkward? Do it! Right?! So, thanks to Mindee’s help, we have been learning on the fly how to do worship by live streaming and pre-recording. We’ve learned how to have meaningful conversations on Zoom – something many of us had never even heard of a month ago. Out of necessity, each of us has had to learn new skills, but with each new accomplishment, I feel a little bit more grounded and prepared for the long days that stretch out before us.
As we were figuring out all these technical challenges, our staff discussed the need to also create a system to help people in the congregation stay connected. We came up with the name of Care Connection Groups and set off to recruit more than a dozen people to be Care Connectors. And a dozen people said YES! From idea to inception, Terri had this up and running in a couple of days.
But, that was the easy part. You have the hard part. You have to do one of the most awkward things any of us can do – talk to someone about how you are feeling. Talk to someone you may hardly know about fear, and anger, and despair. To go beyond chit chat. Making phone calls is HARD! It’s not easy to “sit with” one another in our brokenness. It’s awkward. And yet you have been doing it. You have been awkward, brave, and kind. Thank goodness for the training we have received as part of the relational campaign. You’ve got the skills!
Terri has shared how seriously you have been taking the responsibility to care for one another, so that none of us is left alone. If you haven’t been connected to a group yet, reach out. And we can always use more Care Connectors, if you are willing. More than anything, as this gets harder, and this will get harder, don’t withdraw. Stay connected!
Together, Brené Brown said, “Let’s choose to be awkward, brave, and kind.” What initially sounded odd, and frankly, pretty weird, is exactly right. To be brave and kind is one thing – not necessarily easy, but we can understand it. But the willingness to be awkward… If we are willing to be awkward with each other, choosing vulnerability, not running from it, not frightened of it, choosing vulnerability means we will have the support to survive this crisis. You understand how important that is!? Could you ever imagine how important a church community would be to actual survival!? But we can do it if we all agree, “let’s choose each other.” Amen
 Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Harper San Francisco, 2006
 Cornel West, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis, 2001
 Matthew 21: 12-14
 John 13:38
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 29, 2020
“These Are Inspiring Times”
Romans 8: 5-9a – Common English Bible
People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.
9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you.
These are inspiring times. Yes, these are also difficult and exhausting times. Especially for anyone wondering how they will pay their mortgage or rent and utilities and buy food. I don’t mean to dismiss anyone’s anxiety and weeks more of uncertainty. But I will say it again, these are inspiring times.
By now we all know the evidence: Doctors and nurses running into the fire, not from it. Like members of the military, we should greet every one of them: “Thank you for your service.” And respiratory therapists, intake workers, and those who mop the floors and take out the trash, wishing those garbage cans were more full of masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment. They’re not in it for the glory, and I wish their sacrifice wasn’t necessary, but they prove, these are inspiring times. And think of all the people at home making masks to protect health care workers. Think of all the students and retired medical professionals who have answered the call to sign up for service.
Who knew that working in grocery stores and pharmacies and pot shops and liquor stores would require front-line heroism? Everyone of them deserves to hear thank you. In fact, I said that to a worker at Costco the other day. “Thank you for working for us.” She gave me a curious look, and then nodded her head. She understood what I meant.
Workers at Amazon distribution centers, shipping clerks at FedEx, UPS truck drivers, postal service workers – on the front lines of the war against the coronavirus. They didn’t sign up for this either, they don’t qualify for hazard pay, but the fact that they’re still going to work is a sign. These are inspiring times.
We are witnessing levels of heroism and sacrifice from everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes. And exemplary leadership from mayors and governors of all political persuasions around the country, Republican and Democrat, willing to do what is necessary for public health and safety. These are inspiring times.
I’m grateful for every virologist, disease specialist, lab worker. Scientists are the new rock stars. And at the top, Anthony Fauci. Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, every American should stand at the ready to offer Anthony Fauci a kidney, a liver transplant, a heart, lung…here, anything you need it, you take it. Anyone willing to stand at the podium after the president and say “No, don’t do that,” when this is over, should be honored with a statue at the center of every city and town in America. With the biggest statue reserved for in the front of the White House with a plaque: “This man saved us from the president.”
One of the readings from the lectionary assigned for today is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s surprisingly relevant to our times. It reads: “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.”
The contrast between selfish and self-less couldn’t be more stark than it is today, more life threatening or life giving.
Peter Wehner described what we need of leaders during a crisis: “calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; the capacity to think and carefully weigh competing options and conflicting needs. We need leaders who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than she or he does. We need leaders who can draw people together, people whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.”
He then added, “There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities” than our president. The good news is that there are nearly 325 million people in America willing to save the lives of their fellow citizens by sheltering at home. Well, almost that many…
Among the unwilling is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Unlike most colleges and universities around the nation, Falwell brought Liberty University students back to campus after spring break. In order to prove that liberals are hysterical, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of students in dorms. Furthermore, he ordered professors who normally teach their online classes from home to come to teach from campus instead. Faculty who question that, like Professor Marybeth Davis Baggett, are immediately terminated.
Trump has said he wants to pack churches on Easter. Why? In order to prove he is winning over the virus. To be the savior of the country. What will happen if his followers do precisely that to protect his ego?
Well, Paul told the Romans exactly what will happen: “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death.” I don’t normally interpret scripture literally. Rather, I ask about the meaning behind the text? What is the metaphor? As progressive Christians we often say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” But if Trump wants Christians to pack churches on Easter to show that he is smarter than the experts, well, I don’t fear metaphorical death but literal death.
Paul said, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death. But the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.” Like the heroes and every day citizens I mentioned above.
There are numerous lists of the gifts of the Spirit among Paul’s letters. In First Corinthians, he spoke of knowledge and wisdom. To the Romans he spoke of mercy and generosity. First Peter, not written by Paul, includes anyone who offers service and hospitality. Various lists include teachers and pastors.
These are inspiring times as we watch teachers learn overnight how to provide online instruction. But even more so, I got a little teary eyed when I saw a news clip of children and parents standing in front of their homes in Dallas holding homemade signs and pompoms. They waited along the sidewalk like sports fans. But instead of athletes, they were cheering on their favorite teachers. Teachers threw a car parade for their students who were stuck at home. A young boy on his bike yelled, “They’re coming!” as the first car turned the corner. Horns blared while children called out their teachers’ names and held up their signs. The normally quiet street was filled with people — keeping their safe distances, of course — laughing and yelling kind words to each other. The teachers blew kisses and yelled: “I miss you so much!” “Make sure you’re reading!” and “We will get through this together.” Yes, these are inspiring times.
Pastors are creating whole blooper reels of hilarious mishaps and accidents during their attempts to provide worship online. A priest in Italy didn’t realize he had enabled his filters, so as he spoke the words of the mass, googly eyes poked out and long tongues rolled out; at various times he was wearing a helmet and a space suit. A vicar in England leading his first online Bible study sat too close to some candles. As his sweater caught on fire, he calmly exclaimed, “Oh dear, I’m on fire.” If you watched our service last week on Facebook, you probably had a crook in your neck. The picture was sideways. We are all trying to learn as quickly as we can a new method for preaching the old gospel. But one of our viewers wrote, “Don’t worry, I could still hear you.” These are hilarious, and grace-filled, inspiring times.
I said it last week and will say again this week, these are inspiring times because you are willing to shelter at home in order to spare the lives of people we don’t even know. I posted a meme on our church Facebook page this week that I believe sums it all up:
“What we are experiencing is Lent. Giving up everything so that others may live.” It puts the inconvenience of sheltering at home into perspective. And reminds us to be grateful that we have a home in which to shelter.
Just as I was reflecting on this scripture about selfishness, I saw in the news how the Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save the economy for their grandchildren. Folks like Brett Hume on Fox thought it was a brilliant idea. Glenn Beck agreed, “I would rather die than kill the country” – meaning the economy. To be clear, that is NOT being self-less. And Bonnie Kristian summed up what many of us feel instead: “America without our elders isn’t the America we want to save.”
We talked about this on Thursday when we resumed our Lunch and Lectionary. Instead of Noodles and Company, we now sit in front of our computer screens on Zoom. The Lieutenant Governor’s comments, prompted by Trump’s demand to reopen the country, prompted our group to ask: what is the price of the economy? Are we really asked to pay with human life? Does the economy exist for humanity or humanity for the economy? In many ways, we are learning about core human values during this crisis.
Many people cringed at the sight of spring breakers on the beaches in Florida. We especially cringed at one young man who proclaimed “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” He was condemned on social media by millions. But his response is inspiring:
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. I can’t apologize enough to the people I’ve offended. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, or pity. I want to use this as motivation to become a better person, a better son, a better friend, and a better citizen. Like many others, I have elderly people in my life who I adore more than anything in the world. Our generation may feel invincible, but we have a responsibility to listen and follow the recommendations. Simply apologizing doesn’t justify my behavior. I’m simply owning up to my mistakes and taking full responsibility for my actions.”
Taking full responsibility!? How about this young man for president? I trust that these times are inspiring young people to consider lives of service to their fellow citizens. Back to JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
These are inspiring times. They’re also difficult and dangerous for many. Yet they remind us of the essence of the life of Jesus who demonstrated why and how to give up everything so that others may live.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 22, 2020
“I Want to Do Something”
John 9: 1-41 – Common English Bible
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
Follow the rest of the story through the sermon.
I want to do something. I feel for all of you parents with children at home – whether a toddler or a teenager or a few of each. There are only so many Steve Spangler science experiments you can do in your kitchen. All while you are supposed to also be working, too. I feel for you.
So there’s “I want to do something.” And there’s also “I want to do something!” Something meaningful. Something purposeful. Something to make a difference during this dreadful pandemic.
I’m grateful to all of you who have reached out to ask what you can do – does someone need groceries? Does someone need something. Anything? Well, I’ve got an idea for you. But first, the gospel. Let me finish telling the story.
Jesus saw a man blind since birth. His disciples asked, “who sinned, causing this man to be born blind. Him or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
What a ridiculous question, right? Disabilities are not the result of sin or some form of punishment. They are not consequences for some misbehavior in a previous life.
That’s what I wish Jesus had said to his followers. I have to tell you – I don’t like the answer Jesus gave. Or I just don’t understand it. He said, “The man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus suggests, or seems to suggest, that there is some purpose behind the man’s blindness. But what kind of terrible God would make a man live without sight for decades, consign him to live as a beggar, so he could be an object lesson?
But if that’s not bad enough, the blind man then heard Jesus spit on the ground. Gross. But imagine his shock when he felt Jesus take that spit mixed with some dirt and spread it on his eyes. Super gross. Then, Jesus told him to go wash his face in a nearby pond. Miraculously, when the man came back, he was able to see.
The neighbors didn’t believe it, though. Some said, “That’s not him.” Others said, “Yes, it is.” While they argued, the man tried to chime in, “It’s me.” Someone said, “No, it’s not.” These neighbors demanded an explanation. So, he told everyone that Jesus put some spit and mud on his eyes, gross, he went and washed his face. “And now I can see.”
They marched the man to the Pharisees and proceeded to complain that Jesus opened his eyes on the Sabbath. “Well,” the Pharisees retorted, “clearly that man is not from God because it’s not OK to do that.” But the Pharisees were divided. Some of them said, but “a sinner could never heal like that.” So, they asked the man his opinion. He said, “He’s a prophet.”
The Pharisees didn’t like that answer. So, they marched the man to his parent’s house, with all those curious neighbors tailing behind. They demanded an answer. “Is this your son, whom you claim has been blind since birth.” They nervously replied, “Yes, this is our son, but we don’t know why he can see now. Ask him.” They were afraid to displease the Pharisees.
Their son simply reiterated, “once I was blind, but now I can see.” The Pharisees went back to complaining that Jesus is clearly a sinner and demanded answers to whole bunch of questions. The man actually dared to throw a little shade back at them. “What’s your problem? Do you want to become his disciple too?” They weren’t amused. “How dare you!” And they drove him out of the village.
Now, Jesus was absent for all this drama but when he heard what was going on, he returned to the scene. He asked the man if he believed. “Yes, Lord, I believe.” Jesus told him, and everyone standing around, “I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees were angry. “Surely you’re not suggesting we are blind.” Jesus replied, “Well…” If it talks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck. Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but you get the point.
It’s a pretty long story and a little more complex than my simplification, but you can read it for yourself in John chapter 9. There’s probably a dozen different things I could say about the story, but I want to share two connections at the very beginning that I believe relate to this bizarre world we are living in and through right now.
First, the initial question of the disciples: who can be blamed? And second, what has been revealed about our nation, ourselves, and something we can do?
Who can we blame? Sometimes we engage in blaming because there’s a certain satisfaction to it when we’re tired of other emotions. There’s plenty of it going around. Hoaxers point fingers at the liberal media and claim it’s all an excuse to make the president look bad. Trump calls it the Chinese Virus. Blame them for making him look bad. Therefore, his weakling sycophants fall into line and dutifully call it the Wuhan Virus, while Fox News doesn’t think that’s racist enough. They prefer Kung Flu. On the other hand, others gain a sense of satisfaction blaming the chickens for finally coming home to roost, calling an out of control pandemic the consequence of the president’s deadly narcissism. “I take no responsibility for my ineptitude or downplaying it as a hoax for too long.” And then can’t even be bothered to offer the country a moment of empathy. Boy, I sure do hope those who have been blind begin to see clearly what a dangerous man he is.
Fingers pointed. Blame in every direction. But notice, Jesus dismissed the talk of blame by his disciples. They asked who do we blame? But, Jesus just moved on, looking for a deeper meaning to the man’s blindness. So, on to my second question.
Jesus said the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It seems a little insensitive, but let’s ask, what is the deeper meaning he trying to reveal?
What has this pandemic revealed so far? That fear causes people hoard toilet paper. But one thing, certainly, is that our social safety net is in shreds. Advocates have been saying this for years, but the deadly consequences have never quite been so exposed. Unique among nations, we prioritize the interests of health care profits over the goal of healthy people. The coronavirus has hopefully revealed to more people what should have already been clearly obvious: not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. Not to mention, it’s simply cruel.
As our modern-day prophet, the Rev. Dr. William Barber said, “When we get a handle on this virus, we can’t return to the apathy that has for far too long ignored the moral crisis of poverty and the racial disparities that mark American inequality.” That’s one revelation.
Back to those uncomfortable words of Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That sounds like another type of cruelty. But here’s what I think he might have meant, or I hope he meant, and how that can apply today. We don’t wish for tragedy, but we can’t waste one, either. What do we learn from this?
Yet, largely, it’s still too early to know. And frankly, are we really ready for such analysis? It’s only been a few days – although, with the level of stress we’ve been under, it feels like we’ve been at this for months.
How many different emotions have you felt this week? Sadness, anger… Basically, anything related to grieving. Exhaustion. Moments of hopelessness. Lots of questions, like, will this really last for 8 weeks? Or through the summer?
In a matter of days and then hours we were forced to separate from one another. All of a sudden, we lost opportunities to gather – at school, at work, at church, and even at grandma’s house. Community was ripped away from us precisely at the time we needed it most – when things are uncertain and frightening. For all its faults, at least social media is allowing us to keep social. It reminds us that we belong to one another. We are part of a community, even when it is invisible.
And yet, that might be cold comfort with the staggering pace of loss. What stages of grief have you passed back and forth, in and through, during the past week, or sometimes in just a few hours?
And therefore, we really have to think about how to pace ourselves. Or at least I do, and remember this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And even better, to make it a relay marathon.
So, back to: I don’t just want to do something. I want to do something. Something meaningful. Something purposeful.
Well, you are doing the most important thing that anyone could ever do right now. Your practice of social distancing is saving lives. One pastor in Connecticut, said “social distancing is a profound calling – a holy task of love.” You are saving someone’s grandma. You are saving the neighbor with a compromised immune system. You are saving a child with a life-threatening disease. You are doing the most important something anyone could do.
It may not seem like enough. But again, pace yourself through this. If we don’t, the rest of it won’t matter. Once you recognize the importance of what you are doing right now, that what you are doing is an actual “thing” we are doing, then we can start talking about what else.
In addition to revealing a grossly inequitable health care system; in addition to for making it as plain as day that competent leadership can never be taken for granted, this pandemic has revealed the perhaps never fully appreciated but absolute blessing of belonging to a community. Using the awkward words of Jesus, I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But that because of the Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other. I know I appreciate you and being part of this community even more.
One Episcopal priest in DC said, “While I am limited to phone calls and video chats, I have never felt closer to my people. We have whispered our fears, laughed at our misplaced anxieties, and committed ourselves to being church, even without our beloved building and cherished traditions.”
There are lots of great memes and stories going around online. I want to end with one of the most profound by Laura Kelley Fanucci, about what this pandemic could help us see more clearly:
When this is over, may we never again take for granted:
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Sitting with a group of neighbors and friends
The mad rush to get ready for school each morning
When this ends, may we find that we have become
More like the people we wanted to be,
We were called to be
We hoped to be.
And may we stay that way – better for each other because of the worst.
What will you never take for granted again?
Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 15, 2020
“Take a Deep Breath”
2nd Timothy 1: 3-7 – Verses 1-6 from the New Revised Standard Version; verse 7 from the King James Version
(NRSV) 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands;
(King James) 7 For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
It’s not like we needed something else to be afraid about. There’s already high blood pressure. Mass shootings. Aging. Climate change. Having enough savings for retirement. Identity theft. Presidential tweets.
There’s rattlesnakes while hiking. Spiders. And roller coasters. I can think of almost nothing else as frightening and terror inducing as getting on another roller coaster ever again. But fear, it seems, is ever present in one way or another. Some real, some imagined, and some thrust upon us.
Newspapers and newscasts have often attempted to spike ratings through fear. I’ll never forget one TV station in Cleveland tried to break through its mediocre place in the ratings by turning its newscast into crime reporting – in the morning, at noon, at 5 and 6 o’clock and again at 11. Every story was about a crime, a criminal, or any possibility for the potential of crimes and criminals, all in order to drive up their ratings.
The worst example was when the city tried to provide employment for people coming out of prison as garbage collectors. Channel 19 used every scare tactic they could – ominous music, big red letters, and every day, reporters stopping people on the street asking, “Do you really want felons walking down your street? Do you really want criminals going through your garbage?” Sufficiently frightened, citizens demanded the city end the employment program.
And of course, we all remember the candidate who descended down an escalator to blame Mexico for sending us rapists and drug dealers and, he assumed, a few good people. From the oval office on Wednesday night, we all hoped for even a sliver of leadership from the president, but in a classic move, he spoke instead of a “foreign” virus and closing borders. And then, after praising himself, ended his address with his favorite xenophobic, white nationalistic, dog whistle, “America First.” Talk about a crime. Calling an emerging public health crisis a hoax is a crime against humanity.
At some point, networks and newspapers realized Covid 19 wasn’t just another story to hype and they began to get serious. I appreciated it when 9News began describing their segments with the tagline, “Facts, not Fear.”
This all became more real for the church when last Sunday all of our UCC churches in Washington state either moved their services online or cancelled worship altogether for the month of March. On Tuesday afternoon, our Rocky Mountain Conference minister and 45 pastors had a Zoom call and agonized about whether this would be wise for us too. We were told to prepare, just in case. Tuesday night our Governance Team wrestled with the question – is this hype or caution. By the next day, our governor made it clear. Anyone over the age of 60 should not go to worship. It seems like this is finally something about which we should genuinely be afraid. This and roller coasters.
But is fear really the appropriate response? If you haven’t yet already yelled at your computer screen, do it now – No! What is the appropriate response?
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
I love that. A sound mind. In other words, have common sense. What do we do in the midst of a global pandemic? Be smart. As I wrote to you earlier this week, we should practice an abundance of caution, but not fear. Hoarding at the grocery store like this is the corona-pocalyse is not common sense, but it is an understandable response to a lack of leadership and communication.
But we must remember. “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
That’s how the King James Version puts it. Listen to some of the other translations:
The Common English Bible: “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid, but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”
The New Revised Standard Version: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
But here’s a significant point not to overlook. This isn’t just about what we should do, i.e., have common sense. The text says we already have a sound mind as a gift from God. God already gave you the tools for coping: the power of love along with self-control and self-discipline. Or as Eugene Peterson says, “God gave you a spirit that is bold and loving and sensible.” Wherever and whatever fear and hype may be, it isn’t from God. Being smart about things is from God. Having common sense is from God.
As I wrote during the week, the Bible says “fear not” or “do not fear” 365 times. For example, despite the angel giving Mary some wonderful and absolutely terrifying news about having a baby out of wedlock, the angel told Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
The Psalmists talked about fear a lot. Let’s look at some of those:
Psalm 118: “The Lord is on my side! I shall not fear what mortals can do to me.”
Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?”
Some version of that occurs another 362 more times, including a text most of us know from memory. Say it with me, you’ll pick it up: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 23 can be a handy mantra when we feel our fear temperature rising. That and today’s text: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
In case you’re not sure you have the capacity, just a few verses before, Paul reminded Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Fun fact: Lois is the only grandmother named in the Bible. Paul told Timothy to be encouraged because their faith lives in him. And reminds him to rekindle the gift of God already within him. That gift? Not a spirit of fear but a sound mind.
Thank God for those today who are leading us with sound minds. Thank God for those who are helping us to do all the loving and sensible things we can do to protect our mothers and grandmothers and our fathers and grandfathers – the ones most at risk. We are having worship like this today because we love and value the faith of our elders. We pray for those at most risk. And for those who put themselves at risk to care for our most vulnerable members of the community. We offer a special word of gratitude for doctors and nurses and hospital workers and public health officials.
But to keep as many people safe as possible, we have to practice this most unfortunate term – social distancing. The term social distancing makes me gag every time I hear it, as though we need any more social distance. Isolation and self-quarantine are exactly the opposite of what we need when we are frightened and anxious. And yet, it is absolutely necessary.
So what can we do? I beg each of you to reach out to one another. Take the church directory that we emailed everyone this week and call people you know and call people you don’t know. One new member called me yesterday to ask the name of the older couple who lives near her and offered to call that. Yes, exactly. Do that! If you don’t think you have a directory, send us an email.
Randomly send an email to another church friend or member and say you are thinking of them. If we ever thought being a church member was about gathering for worship on Sunday morning, this moment offers a new opportunity to remember we are a community of people who gather for worship on Sunday morning, not individuals. This is the time to act like a community.
Please call Terri and me when you feel the need. And we’ll set up some Zoom meetings during the week so we can see each other face to face. The men’s group is meeting by Zoom on Thursday night. Create a group and we’ll help you move it online. And, of course, reach beyond our church community to neighbors and others who need a lift. Especially when it’s you who need a lift.
Despite our best attempts to say “do not be afraid,” these are indeed scary times. I don’t want to discount our real fears. Or any fears. And anger we may feel about the blaming finger-pointing and self-aggrandizement of the president. But I name all of this because when we name fear and anger, we take away their power to control. Because God gave you and me a spirit of power and of love and a sound mind. We have it already.
Now, to stay of a sound mind, even though we may have a little extra time on our hands, try limiting your time on social media. Limit your time on cable news. After an hour of Rachel Maddow, I need to turn on some reruns of 30 Rock or a good movie. Or read a good book. Go outside and enjoy the sunshine. Come over to the church and walk the labyrinth. Seriously, the labyrinth will help. It’s here 24 hours a day.
And breathe. Take a deep breath. Not on each other! But you get it. In and out. Breathe in the spirit of power. Breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of love. And breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of a sound mind. And breathe out fear.
Let’s do that together. Take a deep breath.
Power in. Fear out.
Love in. Fear out.
Sound mind in. Fear out.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 8, 2020
Genesis 12: 1-4a – Common English Bible
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him.
One of my favorite childhood memories, I was probably about 8 or 9 years old, was one Saturday morning when my dad walked into the house and said, “pack up the car. We’re going to Winnipeg.” We only lived about an hour from Canada, but I had never been across the border. Mom looked at him, like, “thanks, a lot, for asking me! I’ve got things to do.” But Dad was often spontaneous. Perhaps a little irritated, Mom got right on it and called my favorite grandma to come along with us. I was so excited. I imagined Winnipeg was exotic. TV commercials from Winnipeg only played late at night, like during Saturday Night Live, which I wasn’t supposed to be up to watch anyway. Winnipeg was foreign and my mind spun wonderful fantasies. And sure enough, my fantasies came true when I turned on the TV in the motel and saw Bugs Bunny speaking French.
I was reminded of that magical weekend when I read the verse following our reading from Genesis today. We heard how Abram heard the voice of God say, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land I will show you.” Then it says, “Abram took his wife Sarai,” along with all their possessions and people, and set forth for the land of Canaan. At first, I thought, why doesn’t it simply say, “And Abram and Sarai set off together for Canaan.” But I realized, Abram probably never consulted with Sarai. “What do you think? Should we?” Just like my dad didn’t ask my mom. Dad announced it and “took us” and everyone else just went along.
Perhaps Sarai was accustomed to Abram saying, let’s pick everything up and leave everything behind. After all, they were nomadic. But not nomadic in the sense of a few tents and some sheep. Abram was the ancient counterpart of a wealthy Bedouin sheik ruling over hundreds of subjects and surrounded by “retainers,” small merchants who catered to their sizable community. Plus, all their animals, a symbol of their wealth.
So, they didn’t, nor could they, just spontaneously pick up and move regularly. But Abram’s family had made an especially big move before. He and Sarai were born and raised in Ur, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, in today’s Iraq. Later, Abram’s father moved the whole clan to what is Turkey today. Not a small move – about 600 miles, the distance of Denver to Des Moines. Try doing this 4,000 years ago. This next move to Canaan would add another 400 miles or so to that. And then to Egypt. And back again.
According to rabbinic tradition, Abram’s father was a maker and seller of various gods and idols. Somehow, somewhere along the way, Abram became convinced there is only one god. The story is told that Abram took an axe to his father’s idols and smashed all except one and then put the axe in the hand of the remaining idol. Abram pointed and blamed that idol for killing all the others. His father said that’s impossible because the idol was not alive. It’s only clay. Abram asked, “then why do you worship clay and not that which is living?”
A quick aside: I hope we see this not as an excuse to destroy other people’s religious objects but rather as an origin story for Abram’s embrace of monotheism.
And so it is that Abram is considered the father of all monotheists – one God. The three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Muslims, through Hagar and their son Ishmael. Jews and Christians through Sarah and their son Isaac. There’s never an explanation why, but he believed in a living God, the living God, one God not many. And it was from that one god that he heard a voice saying, move to the land I will show you. How did he know?
How, indeed. Last Sunday during the Second Hour, Jenny invited the 30 of us to tell about our experiences of the Holy Spirit. Once the first person got the courage to speak up, stories kept coming and I was struck by what I imagine were experiences similar to Abram.
Listen to a few of these descriptions from folks here last week:
Aren’t these amazing? All from a group of progressive, liberal, social justice Christians – sometimes accused of being more in our heads than our hearts.
But imagine what would happen if we lived exclusively in one or the other. I’m grateful for combinations of all the above each time another outrageous example of cruelty pops up on our news feed. What is it now? Who’s been targeted? Who’s been blamed? What is the lie now? And why is that lie even necessary? What river or ocean is going to be filled with mining debris? Every time I open the page or turn on the TV, my brain is assaulted by ignorance. And my heart is broken by gleeful brutality against people we love and people we don’t know. And despair for the earth.
Thank God the Holy Spirit is there to intervene with sighs too deep for words. We are not left powerless. Brain dead or heartless. The question isn’t just what should we do. But, what are we being drawn toward. What gift or talent have I been given for exactly this moment, just such a time as this? What is our unique gift and contribution? After all, Abram was called and blessed to be a blessing. I believe that if we pay attention, we will know. Some tug or push. Or, as one described it last week, a dummy slap. A slap upside the head. Pay attention.
Some might call these gentle, or less than gentle experiences, intuitions, not the work of the Holy Spirit. But I call intuition a gift of the Spirit. Or instead, you might simply say this is how I experience God – because we follow a Living God, active today, not just in history. Not just an idea. Or a story from long ago.
Even so, those stories inform us and encourage us. How did our ancestors, like Abram, know what to do? How to balance trust and risk. How to move forward without knowing what’s ahead – just knowing that we must. Often without knowing why.
Like for us, I would suggest some combination of paying attention to:
And, credit to my dad, a certain amount of spontaneity.
But, back to that command, or rather, a call. As one of our lunch and lectionary participants said on Thursday at Noodles and Company, “A call is anything you do that is outside your comfort zone that comes from something inside, like “I’ve got to do this.”
And how we do respond?
I’ve done every one of those more than once.
Or, “here I am, Lord, send me.”
But even if that’s our response,” the journey for Abram and Sarai wasn’t from point A to point B. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Nor is it for us. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in all of scripture is verse 9: “And they journeyed on by stages.”
Which reminds us, our journey is never complete, because here we are 4,000 years later and, thankfully, the Living God is still speaking.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 1, 2020
“Don’t Blame the Devil”
Matthew 4: 1-11 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only God.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
“The devil made me do it.” When the excuse that “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t work, or “the wind blew my assignment out the window,” just blame the devil. Like Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine. “Why did you buy that dress? The devil made me do it.”
Our lunch and lectionary group met on Thursday at Noodles and Company and the first response after reading the text for today was a sigh and an “ugh” about the devil. And it’s true. How can you take the idea of a devil seriously when popular culture has personified it as a red faced being holding a pitchfork? Or when the devil has so often been used as a simplistic means of condemning someone you consider evil. The idea of a devil brings out all sorts of issues for people who value science and reasoning. We’re not going to do that today.
But there is something to the whole idea of “devil” in the context of this story. Matthew is not attempting to personify evil or an evil force. It’s much simpler than that. Scholarly consensus is that the word more accurately means “the tempter.”
Following his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness where he was confronted by the tempter. He was specifically led to the wilderness to be tempted. It’s fascinating that following his baptism he wasn’t exempted from temptation. We might think, now that you’re baptized, you’ll be left alone. But rather, he was driven right into it. By the Spirit, no less. Then, 40 days and 40 nights later, at his hungriest and loneliest moment, he was offered what any of us might have thought was an angel bearing some bread and offering some help. Instead, at his lowest, here comes the tempter.
One scholar described the meaning of “the tempter” in this context as one who “misleads, deceives, diverts attention, discredits, or slanders.” Misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, slanders. And attacks.
I read that list to our lunch and lectionary group and everyone started laughing. And it could be right here that my sermon starts identifying examples of misleading, deceiving, discrediting, and attacking. For today, I’m simply going to say, “you get the idea” and move on. Except to say that once you have repeatedly misled and deceived the public, constantly attacked the media, and done everything in your power to discredit science, don’t be surprised if people don’t believe you about a public health emergency. But I’m not calling anyone the devil here nor am I blaming the devil for this mess. The devil didn’t do it.
My New Testament professor in seminary, Marilyn Salmon, translated the word here as “seducer.” She translated the Greek and argued that the devil was not just trying to tempt Jesus but to seduce him using flattery. We might think seduction is all about sexuality, but the art of seduction, she argued, is to persuade disloyalty and lead someone astray with false promises. “There’s no harm in a little bread. It’ll be our secret. There’s no harm if you’re just trying to do good things. Let me help you. There’s no harm in asking God to protect you. Look, it says so right here in scripture.” Imagine using scripture as a tool of seduction. But seduction has only one reality: for the seducer to get what they want.
I have a question for all the white evangelicals who are in lock step, offering their blessing to everything the president wants. Are you tempted by all the power and control the president has granted you? Or are you being seduced by all the power and control he wants from you?
I honestly can’t read today’s scripture without seeing the glaring parallels of Christians grabbing on to all the power they can get to control religious minorities under the false premise of religious liberty, along with a license to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and exert control over women, and demonize people of color to legitimate their incarceration, or exclude non-white immigrants, especially from s-hole countries around the world. But don’t blame the devil. This is simply cruel, wrong, unjust, and immoral. And Jesus wept.
But, wait. Have I not just played right into the temptation or seduction to consider progressive Christians more enlightened, better educated, more reasonable, more just? And ultimately, more righteous?
How many white progressives were seduced by the attraction of a black president meaning that America had truly become a post-racial society? Willing to believe, overlook, that all those confederate flags were really just about pride in one’s history? Not a symbol of hatred waiting to be seduced by right suitor. Or that a female president will make the country less sexist. How many liberals are tempted while on a trip to another country or to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to think or say out loud at some point, “Why don’t they just…” I’m quick to want to solve the issues of other cultures and countries because I believe our educational system is more evolved.
Are progressive Christians any less susceptible to conspiracy theories, especially ones that confirm our bias too? If you pander to my prejudices, no matter how educated, I’ll believe you.
Temptations. Seductions. And one more. At some point, advertisers realized consumers weren’t going to be convinced to buy their product because of cost or quality. They made it not a question of whether their product is better but whether our lives will be better… And not just better, people will think more highly about us. And our lives will be easier. But not just easier. Without it, our lives will be emptier. And who wants an empty life? Do you really want to miss out?!
Therefore, we are sold an idea:
Tide doesn’t clean our clothes. It liberates us from dirt.
Mastercard isn’t a method for payment. It brings us experiences in life that are priceless.
Almost 20 years ago, PBS Frontline did a documentary called The Persuaders about how successful advertising gives meaning to our lives. Or tries to.
Starbucks isn’t primarily about coffee. It creates community.
Nike is about transcendence, not merely shoes.
The documentary’s conclusion was that the ultimate triumph of “the persuaders,” are through “ministries,” interesting choice of words, “through ministries of data mining, focus grouping, ad-making, anxiety marketing, spin segmenting, and demo-graffiti — The ultimate triumph will be to get us to believe that they multiply and educate our choices instead of pouncing on and pandering to our prejudices and vulnerabilities.”
And then, of course, is all the fear-based political advertising. How can we resist? And how much more so if we’re lonely and haven’t eaten in 40 days.
40 days and 40 nights is simply shorthand for saying “a very long time.” Many of us feel like after 40 days of this administration, we’re at our lowest point, or at least a low point, in our democracy. If we’re not seduced to bury our head in the sand and chant “Everything is OK,” or to claim, “Everything will be OK,” then our temptation is to deflect, “I can’t do anything about it.”
Everything is OK or will be OK. For who?
I can’t do anything about it. Why not?
On Ash Wednesday, we collectively prayed:
“The truth is, we are not really sure about following the Way of Christ. We believe it is the right thing to do, but actually following Christ would turn our whole world upside down.” Things are really that bad, are they? The ultimate seduction of the privileged.
We went on: “We confess that sometimes what binds us can trick us into feeling safe and comfortable in the midst of our suffering. Divine liberation is so foreign that we fear it is unsafe and unwieldy.”
“And yet, inside of each one of us, your still-speaking voice pulls at our heart.” And with that comes the power to resist.
For Ash Wednesday, as we met to begin the journey of Lent, Jenny Whitcher re-imagined the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 58. It directly answers the challenge of the tempters, the seducers, and the persuaders of the world:
“Living out your faith will lead you forward.”
“If you remove the burdens and chains from among you,
stop pointing fingers,
and with hate-filled and hurtful words,
stop speaking of evil;
If you have the courage to open your hearts to deep and loving relationship with one another;
Minister to and heal one another,
use your God-given gifts and talents to live out the Gospel,
and seek the Spirit of God in everyone you encounter…
Then we will be in right relationship.
Then, the Holy Spirit will rise within you and guide you continually.
[God says,] I will meet your needs when you encounter times of wilderness and thirst.
I will make you strong, and I will nourish you.
You will be vibrant like a well-watered garden;
You will be full of eternal life like a fresh spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ruins will be rebuilt, and the broken places of your heart healed;
You will rise up with the power of love to implement justice and to transform everyone and everything that stands against love.
You will be the foundation of faithfulness for many generations to come;
You will be called repairers of the breach,
The restorers of the streets we live in.”
And with that I invite you to turn in your bulletin to our unison prayer:
Prayer of Confession
One: We call out to you, O God. It is not so much that we choose evil, but we often
pursue little goods and lesser gods. And we lose our way. Times when...
All: Our love becomes too narrow
Our excuses too wide
Our blaming too quick
Our forgiveness too slow
Our gratitude too rare.
By your mercy, deepen our longing into trust
Our pride into compassion
Our fear into courage
Our frustration into creativity
Our timidity into boldness
Our prayers into action, however simple and small.
Assurance of Grace
One: Hear the good news: God accepts our sincere hearts. We are forgiven!
All: Thanks be to God!
 Robert Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 47
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 23, 2020
“Vote as If Someone’s Life Depended on It”
Matthew 17: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”
One cold winter morning, the matriarch of a small New England church was nervous when she came to worship. Not that the sidewalks might be icy or that the boiler might not have kicked in early enough to warm the sanctuary. Betty was anxious because it was the first Sunday with their new pastor. It wasn’t a Congregational Church, so she had had no say in the pastor assigned to them. She and many others in her coffee klatch traded rumors that this pastor had been a troublemaker. Might try to shake things up. But by the end of the service, Betty was pleased. As she grasped the hand of the new pastor, Betty told her that all her fears had been relieved. “I listened carefully to your sermon and I am so happy. You were wonderful! You didn’t say a thing!” At least, nothing to make anyone uncomfortable.
In contrast, a white pastor in Alabama in the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement, began preaching about issues of race, every week, preaching from such passages as Ephesians, “in Christ’s flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” One by one, he preached the church down to a handful of people. The pastor remarked, “Good. Now we can become a Christian church.”
In seminary many of us were told we should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Among your group of peers, that sounds fun and exciting. In case Peter, however, thought the idea of following Jesus would be an exciting fun-filled adventure, Jesus afflicted him with some clarity.
The text today begins by saying “six days later.” What’s the first thing we have to do? Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. In return, Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church.” He promised Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But then Jesus told all of them about going to Jerusalem and how he would undergo great suffering and be killed and be raised on the third day. Peter responded by “rebuking” Jesus. “God forbid it,” he said. “This must never happen to you!” To that Jesus slapped back, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.” Ouch. All he said was, “I don’t want anything bad like that to happen to you.”
Then Jesus told the crowds of people hanging around him: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
That’s the context. Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and went with them up a high mountain.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew tried to link Jesus to Moses. “Up a high mountain” is an example of how, over and over, Matthew tells stories in a way that point to Jesus as the new Moses. For example, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, which only Matthew tells, is about how both Jesus and Moses escaped a tyrannical ruler who tried to murder infants, whether a king or pharaoh. There are many other examples. Moses received the commandments on a mountain, Jesus taught the Beatitudes from a mountain.
But our scripture reading this morning is especially notable. Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah on top of a high mountain where he is transfigured in a bright light. Today is known as Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Transfiguration is one of those odd words only used in the church. The Common English Bible tries to simplify the word as Transform. Jesus was transformed. To me, that’s not quite enough. Eugene Peterson tries to describe the indescribable as “His appearance changed from the inside out. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light.”
Of course, we are tempted to ask, did that really happen? But, what I do know is that it sounds a lot like how Moses encountered the magnificent light of God’s presence on a mountain – which, I think, is more the point Matthew is making.
In today’s reading, Elijah is added to the mix and, thereby, Matthew makes yet another linkage explicit. Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law, represented by Moses, and the Prophets, represented by Elijah. Matthew’s intended audience wouldn’t have needed any more explanation.
So, six days earlier, Peter declared Jesus the Son of the Living God. On top of this high mountain, God’s voice is heard saying exactly that. “Listen to my Son. My beloved.” It was the same voice heard at his baptism, the start of his ministry. This same voice is heard again, now at the start of his descent to Jerusalem and his suffering, persecution, betrayal, and death.
There’s a lot of symbolism going on in this text. Enough that we may we start to ask, “so what?” So, if I’ve lost you with all of this background and context, come back because I want to talk about what we do with this text. How does Peter respond to all of this?
How many times have you heard or thought to yourself: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” I don’t know if it’s true for you or not, but I feel like I was programmed by my parents just that way. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” In fact, isn’t there some saying like “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” My strict German grandmother probably said that. In German.
So, if I had been standing there with Peter, I would have heard the voice of my parents and said, “Yeah, we should do something.” Various translations of the specific word Peter used for his “let’s build something idea” include dwellings, booths, shrines, tabernacles, shelters, and more. Whatever exactly it was, it was something. Perhaps to remember or memorialize the moment with a shrine. Or another interpretation is “let’s build something up here,” like a shelter or dwelling, so we don’t have to go to Jerusalem. Let’s just avoid all that conflict. One of my favorite things to do.
Jesus was likely annoyed with Peter’s impulsive interruption, but before he could say anything, that voice from heaven intervened and said, “Listen to him.” Or, here is my translation of this verse: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
How does that phrase make you feel? “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” For all of us ever busy, overprogrammed people, driving our children across town from a soccer game to a piano lesson, continuously checking our emails, responding to texts, too much homework, busier in retirement than ever before – that sounds good. A relief. “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
And yet as we try to keep up with the newest outrage from Washington, feeling like we have to respond to each one of those newest outrages until we fall to the ground exhausted and tempted to give up… Paralyzed. When that happens, in the vein of Peter, and my parents, I need to hear, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.”
Which is it? Either way, that voice proclaims “listen.” To listen requires us to first stop. And breathe. In fact, let’s do that. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the burned out. Breathe in… Breathe out… Comfort for the broken down. Comfort for the afflicted.
But some folks, like Betty, our matriarch from New England, not to pick on her, they don’t want that comfort interrupted, to be afflicted by hearing about the needs of the world. But what happens when “don’t just do something, stand there” becomes the mission of the church? What happens when “don’t just do something, sit there” becomes the rationale for accepting the status quo? Which, of course, is a privilege only some communities are afforded.
When someone says, “Don’t bring politics into the church,” they’re not an immigrant community fearful of a raid any minute.
Is it politics to pray for guidance? To ask of your faith:
There are more actions, of course, than voting. It’s just that our Super Tuesday ballot is sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be completed. And I need to vote as if someone’s life depended on it.
This week we saw the proof of Bryan Stevenson’s assertion – that the rich white and guilty will be treated better than innocent poor people of color. Every new day of this presidential administration is another outrageous example of corruption this and law-breaking that. We can’t keep up with it all to respond to everything. We could, but we wouldn’t last long. That’s what they count on. That’s what they laugh about on Fox “News.”
Therefore, the concern is how to avoid burnout or how to recover from burnout. Not to just to do something, but stand there. To comfort the afflicted by listening and supporting one another, knowing that each one of us is carrying a heavy cross. To listen and pray for that voice from deep inside the cloud. Then to listen to each other so that we don’t just stand there but begin to do something – as if someone’s life, including yours, depended on it.
The lesson I see from Peter is not just to react in the moment and do something. Or stay upon the mountain to avoid doing anything. First, listen. And then do the one thing you especially can do. That thing for which your gifts and your talents make you uniquely qualified.
And what is that thing? That’s what we are going to do together during Lent this year. We’re going to explore and discover our gifts and talents as we deepen our relationships and connections with God and each other. The second phase of our relational campaign from last fall starts Wednesday night during the Ash Wednesday service, continues every Sunday in March during Second Hour, will take place during more intimate meals in homes and small gatherings in April, and will end with a daylong retreat in May. Lots of listening before we start more doing.
We often think of Lent as a time when we give something up. That’s appropriate because when we listen and act accordingly, we may need to say “no” to some things, give something up, in order to say “yes,” to take something else up. Known as our own cross.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must say no to yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, you will find it. For what will it profit if you to gain the whole world but lose your life?”
As followers of Jesus, that’s our invitation. I’m curious whether you think that’s a comfort or an affliction.
 Story adapted from Will Willimon
 Matthew 16: 24-26 - adapted
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 2, 2020
Micah 6: 1-8 – New Revised Standard Version
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
What God Requires
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The lectionary today provides us one of the most familiar half-verses in the entire Old Testament. But what’s the rest of the story? The context.
It starts by God telling the people, if you have a problem with me, please tell me. God tells them to take their contentions to court. And then God invites in a jury. Tell it to the mountains and hills, the eternal foundations of the earth. Let them decide the verdict. That’s the setting.
Then watch as God lays out a defense. God pleads, what have I done to you? Please, how have I wearied you? It’s the not the voice of an angry God demanding an answer. It is the voice of a God who agonizes and is filled with sorrow. Notice: God doesn’t complain or say they are wrong. God doesn’t deflect and instead accuse them of unfaithfulness. God simply replies by asking the people to remember their history:
In sharp contrast, the responding party from the people explodes and blows everything out of proportion. “What do you want from us!?” And goes into a litany of the most preposterous examples he or she could imagine.
Animal sacrifice was a way to honor God. An offering, for example, of one sheep or a ram. But the lawyer for the people asks, “What do you want? Would a thousand rams be enough for you?”
Imagine that you’ve lent $10 to a friend who promises to pay you back by the end of the week. Months later, you finally ask your friend if you can have your money back. I’m sorry to ask, but could you… But, instead of being embarrassed, apologetic for having forgotten to pay you back, they respond “I suppose you want interest from me too. What do you want? Ten million dollars? Will that be enough to finally satisfy your greed?”
That’s the answer from the lawyer for the people. Will a thousand rams be enough for you? How about not just one jug of oil but rivers of oil? How about my first-born child? Will that be enough to satisfy you? You see: Rant, rave, deflect – and now you’re the bad guy. An unnecessary litany of increasingly absurd defenses.
It’s like the rants and raves and deflections of increasingly absurd defenses offered by the lawyers for the president. From “he did nothing wrong” to “everyone does it, get over it” to “anything the president does is, by definition, not wrong.” Or, the more reasonable explanation, “it’s wrong, it’s just not wrong enough.” Which I have to admit, I might agree. If sexually assaulting multiple women isn’t bad enough, this is nothing. If ripping children from their mother’s arms and placing them in cages isn’t bad enough, well, this does, in fact, pale in comparison. Another litany of increasing absurdity – absurd that any of it is OK.
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t been able to watch the impeachment trial; barely a few minutes here or there. Just enough news coverage to feel like I had a sense of what happened that day.
This week, I read a blog post by John Pavlovitz, the author we invited to speak here last year, that felt so spot on, I feared he had entered my dreams and taken dictation.
Back in September which, emotionally, feels like ten years ago, long before the events of the past few weeks, Pavlovitz said:
There’s more, but no need to read more of the stuff we all know all too well. These must-be-a-dream real-life nightmares are exhausting. I’m trying to hang in there. How about you? Every time I think we must have reached the bottom, the bottom drops further.
Yet, as I write this I wonder if this isn’t just the depression of the privileged. I’m used to thinking that things generally work out. But how often has the notion of the Common Good been much more about the Common Good for people like me? With a good job, a good education. I can show up at the doctor’s office any time I want because I have insurance. I have a passport to go anywhere in the world I want. And a pension that benefits from a strong stock market. And I’m white. Things have generally been pretty good. Better than for most.
I have to admit, the idea that Americans have had shared values in the past and this is just an aberration reveals my privilege, and ignorance. I remember back to something I said in my first sermon after the election. DaShawn Mosley asked what was wrong with white progressives. How could you be surprised. How couldn’t you see that this would happen? “Every time African Americans get a little bit closer to equality, a wave of white resentment comes hurtling around the bend to wash all of the progress away.”
Columnist Leonard Pitts described the election as a “slap down to women and people of color and LGBTQ folks. A vicious and painful reminder so we’ll know our place.”
So, when I think our nation’s increasing diversity is a good thing, and start thinking that things will finally get better when the country becomes a minority majority, I need a dose of reality. Like that from Dr. Jennifer Richeson who told the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The Era of White Anxiety is Just Beginning.” She’s a researcher who said tolerance likely won’t increase but rather an even “more propulsive acceleration” of desperation from “a historically white majority [which] will [not] quietly cede power.” For example, the kind of actions we are seeing today from white, evangelical Christians who are both fearful and angry that their cultural dominance is passing from the scene. Willing to do literally anything to debase themselves to hold on to their power.
Black History month should remind us how this has happened over and over again throughout our country’s history. Absurd and intentional acts of cruelty. But we also remember heroes and how many people have not only survived but done such things as establish thriving businesses and colleges and so much more. Leonard Pitts added to his slap-down comments, “to those who wish to crush my spirit and the spirit of others like me, hear this – it will not work.”
And John Pavlovitz says exactly what the privileged need to hear, those for whom things have generally worked out: “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.”
I’ve always liked that line about the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” It was made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr, but it’s actually a line from a sermon from a Unitarian preacher in 1853. Pavlovitz interprets it for our time. Stop trusting that it will happen, leaving it to fate and chance, and instead “decide to be arc benders.” “Stop trusting that the arc of the moral universe will simply bend toward justice.” He said, “The only way things are going to be OK, is if good people make them OK.”
That means: 1) people of faith must stop abandoning the conversation about religion to those who are loudest about their vision of exclusion. We have to push louder and harder against Christian supremacy, male superiority, and white nationalism. Progressive Christians must learn how to speak about our deeply held religious convictions, the reasons we are passionate about the Common Good. (That’s one of the goals of our relational campaign this spring.)
2) Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and Agnostics and Hindus and Buddhists and Humanists and anyone committed to the Common Good must realize our combined power and offer a unified voice. (That’s why we support mission partners like the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado last month.)
3) Progressives and moderates must realize that one election every four years isn’t the way to make change to benefit the Common Good. It will take every person in every profession every day, from students and teachers and bankers and bus drivers and those who have retired, every person in every profession every day deliberately working for the goal of shared prosperity – using whatever skill, gift, or talent we have. (That’s another goal of our relational campaign this spring.)
And, 4) frankly, it will take the 100 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 to decide they give enough of a damn to register and show up. Question: Who is going to register them?
This may all strike you as too hyperbolic. Too exaggerated. Too pessimistic. In fact, it may start to sound like the lawyer for the people in today’s reading from Micah.
What do you want from us? A thousand rams?
What do you expect from us? Rivers of oil?
What if we give up our first-born children? Will that finally be enough?
And what does the prophet Micah then say in response? He is the last to speak. The jury has listened, God has spoken, the people replied with increasing absurdities, and now the prophet says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s the context. The rest of the story. In the 8th century BCE, under King Hezekiah.
That also happens to be the context of the 21st century, CE, under a different system, but, so OK, mortals, what does the Lord require of you? You already know what is good.
Well, then as now, it’s not as simple as we might like. It’s not as easy as one ram or even one thousand. Then as now, it’s not as simple as a jug of oil or even rivers of oil. Then as now, it’s not as extreme as child sacrifice.
But what is required is a change to the way of life for the privileged: Not to be “hopers” in arc bending. Not an observer of arc bending, or a commentator on the slowness of it. We must not let the absurdity of our country’s defenseless cruelty and the lawlessness of our leaders go unanswered.
So together, we are going to bend the arc and do justice. We’re not going to simply believe that our leaders will do what is right. Anymore, that’s irresponsible.
And we going to love kindness. At this point, trusting that everything will work out is a fool’s delusion.
Of course, to be arc benders, that also means the sacrifice of our time, skills, gifts, talents, effort, and money.
We’re not going to do it alone, however, but humbly with our God. With God and our church family learning how to be more articulate and proudly progressive Christians committed to the Common Good that is good for everyone.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 26, 2020
“Invited to Be”
Matthew 4: 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
The Ramones sang about the “Job That Ate My Brain.” Johnny Paycheck proclaimed, “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dolly Parton sang about tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen, pouring a cup of ambition, and folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
If only Simon and Andrew had to worry about working from 9 to 5, maybe the offer by the stranger walking by wouldn’t have been so enticing. But fishing wasn’t a job. It was the life into which you were born. It’s what your father did and it’s what your children will do. Even if they wanted to sing “Shove This Jay Oh Bee” how could they have simply walked away?
James and John may not have been listening to country music while cleaning their nets, but if you combine some wisdom from Kenny Rogers as Jesus stands there, maybe we can understand why they jumped. After all, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” But to what?
There seems to be no scholarly consensus whether those four brothers knew who Jesus was. Or certainly, what they would be getting themselves into.
Jesus had just moved to the area, leaving his home back in Nazareth. In the succession of Matthew’s story, Jesus, at about age 30, was baptized in the Jordan. A voice from heaven proclaimed, “this is my son, the beloved.” Immediately, he was sent into the wilderness where he spent the next 40 days and 40 nights alone and starving, repeatedly tempted with food, power, and success. After this period of testing, the next thing we know is that Jesus heard that John had been arrested. That’s when Jesus decided to leave Nazareth and settle in Capernaum. From that time on, Jesus went around announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s the entirety of what Simon and Andrew and James and John might have known. They might have heard about some guy going around saying “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” But they left poor Zebedee sitting in his boat wondering what happened. His sons left him to follow one of those itinerant preachers that came by periodically. Jesus wasn’t the only one out there gathering up disciples. So, what made him different? And how did those brothers know?
But sometimes, don’t you just know? I know that not everyone has had one of those “ah ha” moments, one of those epiphanies where things all of a sudden make sense. But those who do understand, who have experienced an epiphany, maybe it was something about which you had been thinking, dreaming about a change for years, and suddenly, the door opens right in front of you.
In fact, that’s how I got here. It took a while for Art and I to finally decide we were ready for a change, but when we did, I immediately went on the UCC website that lists job openings, hoping to see something in or around Denver. There were a few along the Front Range. And then I read the two line description for Park Hill. “Oh, my God.” I felt it in my body. I called Art and said, “that’s where we’re going.” Seems pretty presumptuous, but here we are 12 years later. And I still feel as certain as ever that this is where I was meant to come and where I still feel meant to be. Although, if I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, I could never have predicted what our time together would have entailed. And the process we have gone through to get from there to here. But, through it all, I may not have always been sure what to do, but I knew I was called to be your pastor.
Perhaps that was true for those four brothers too. Jesus told them, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He didn’t say much about what they were supposed to do. But he did say, I want you to be my disciples. They weren’t given a clear job description, (what in the world is fishing for people?), but they were given a new identity. And it’s better to know who we are first and then what we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s been made especially clear to us as a church in the past year. Ten years ago, we adopted a strategic plan. A year ago, we commissioned a new planning team – members who help us discern what we were supposed to do next. What is God calling us to do? I suspected that one goal would be a programmatic emphasis on helping people get to know each other. Relationships don’t develop by osmosis but by intention. We were seeing the effects of that. Without relationships, people will drift in and out without notice.
The process, however, never quite came together. Feeling stuck about next steps, Dwight Meyer and I, the chair of the strategic planning team, met with Jenny Whitcher, wondering if she could help get us unstuck. Instead, she proposed a totally different approach. She proposed a relational campaign. I didn’t quite understand it, but something felt right. She met with the Governance Team and proposed it to them. They didn’t quite understand it either, but something about it might, maybe, perhaps, sort of… It was difficult because she didn’t talk about what we would be doing. She talked about being in relationship with each other and our community. Not how to do authentic relationships but how to be in authentic relationships. Some of you heard this and knew immediately, I want to be part of it. Others waited, perhaps skeptical, but heard what was happening. And by the end of the fall, 75 folks had participated. And today, Jenny is here as we begin phase two. Going deeper.
But let me take a step back first. My apologies to our visitors today, but on annual meeting Sunday, I often give a sort of State of Church Address. I thought I’d make today’s, in part, a State of the Decade report, starting with some numbers.
In 2009, our average worship attendance was 82, up from 63 two years before. We had just had a Christmas Eve service attended by 128 people, 8 of those children. This year we had three Christmas Eve services attended by 293, of which 46 were children. Again, in 2009, average worship attendance was 77, up from 63. In 2019, it was 105. An increase of 42. At a time of churches in decline, when even the most faithful people attend worship less frequently, this is almost impossible. Humbling.
OK, more numbers. At the end of 2009, we had less than $9,000 in our savings and checking accounts. Plus, a loan and tons, a scary amount, of deferred maintenance. Today we have checking, savings, funds and investments of $150,000. That’s not because of a bunch of bequests but because of careful and wise stewardship. And we’ve turned all that scary deferred maintenance into $800,000 of improvements to our building and grounds in the past five years. Did you get that? Over 3/4 of a million dollars in pledges, gifts, grants, and special projects, including solar panels, the labyrinth, and more. Speaking of solar panels, ten years ago, our bill for gas and electric was $11,000. Last year, it was less than $6,000. How can utility bills be cut in half? And save the environment at the same time!
One more thing about numbers. We used to make contributions to our mission partners through our regular budget. In 2009, we budgeted $2,000, plus took the special UCC offerings. Then we started this every Sunday program in 2011. It kept growing. In 2019, our Sunday morning mission partners received a total of $24,000. Isn’t that extraordinary? And sales from the Fair Trade Gift Market for 20 non-profit groups literally doubled over the past decade.
Of course, there is always “on the other hand.” At the end of 2009, we had 183 members. Since just the 2016 election, we have received 62 new members. And at the end of this past year, we had a total of 184 members. An increase of one in ten years?! How do you explain that? Lots of deaths, relocations, and drifting away. But it’s the new cultural reality that more people participate willingly and fully in the life of the congregation without formally joining as members. Membership has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor of a congregation’s health, even though it still has a crucial function in a UCC church. It’s still important.
So, what happened in the past decade to explain our growth? One answer starts with that strategic plan ten years ago that articulated our mission and core values, such as compassion and justice.
We set seven goals, including a deepening spirituality that links head and heart, a focus on worship and youth, more effective social justice ministry, a simpler governance structure, and a decision about whether we should own our own building or sell and share with another church.
Those of you who were here for our move or stay decision know how hard it was. Painful. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, and yet without actually making a choice to stay and invest, I doubt we would be where we are today: A building that is welcoming, that we are proud to make available to our neighbors, and a worship space that feels transcendent. Gone are the rigid lines of pews that separated us from one another, forcing us to look at the front instead of at each other. Gone is the pulpit that was seven steps above the congregation, 20 feet away from the first person. Now we have a sense of community with communion at the center. Worship today is simply not what worship was like a decade ago. Which is one reason for our growth. In fact, worship attendance started increasing immediately after we removed the pews. I kid you not. Up 20% that fall.
Another important factor: Five years ago in April, we began our participation in the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. That wasn’t an easy decision either. Certainly, we thought we should but the question was more about whether we could. Could we sustain the level of volunteer effort necessary? And then, just as we were struggling with having enough overnight angels, Donald Trump was elected. Immediately, people wanting to bring light and love into the world stepped through our doors and right into service. 94 different individuals this past year alone, of which one third are neighbors and friends.
I wouldn’t welcome the pain of this world, but through it, during the past three years, the religious left has been reenergized. Today we understand more than ever what Jesus was talking about. In the face of a cruel empire, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, or, as Matthew describes it, the kingdom of heaven. Where the poor are the blessed ones, where people love their enemies, where our neighbors are fed, clothed, visited, and liberated from empires like Rome or America. We understand more than ever before how important it is to witness to a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world where Black Lives Matter, Love Wins, people take Me Too seriously, and borders are not littered with kids in cages. However, while the religious left has been energized, not every congregation has experienced the same kind of growth and vitality. Which makes all of this even more humbling.
In May 2016, we revisited our strategic plan and kept our mission statement and core values but adopted four new vision statements. Number one: “creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship.”
It was out of that first part of the statement that we began dreaming of a staff position for a Minister for Congregational Care. We started things in motion two years ago, to start last July with 10 hours per week and hope to grow it to a half time position one day – implementing the second part of the vision to connect people to their ministry. I’m happy to report that with today’s proposed budget, we will achieve this in September. In addition, among those four statements, we stated our vision to nurture individual spiritual gifts and talents. In a few weeks, as part of the second phase of our relational campaign, that is exactly what we will do.
The state of the past decade: vital worship, strong youth programs. Did you know that only 22% of UCC congregations even have a youth group? 2009 was the first of our many trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – on which 60 Park Hill youth and adults have participated. There have been lots of physical improvements to our building, thanks to your generosity, and lots of new opportunities for discipleship through the women’s homelessness initiative and racial justice ministry and other activities, thanks to the leadership of many of you. But it’s when Jenny suggested that our “task” is to be in relationship with one another, it all clicked.
Sometimes someone will come along and say exactly what you’ve been waiting to hear, even if you didn’t know it. Like when an itinerant preacher, declaring that heaven is near, comes by and says, “Come follow me.” Sometimes snap decisions are foolish impulse buys and sometimes snap decisions are easy because you know who you are and you’re ready when someone asks. No more fear. Just step out of the boat in faith.
The takeaway from the gospel for today: It’s not about what you are supposed to do. But who are you called to be? No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Jesus invites us to be his disciple. What we do will follow when the time is right.
 Matthew 4:17 Common English Bible
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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