Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 8, 2019
“The Problem of Being ‘Not-Racist’
Luke 14: 25-33 – The Message
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
In our gospel reading for today, large crowds followed along as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem where he would ultimately have to follow his own advice. Don’t start something you can’t finish. He could have added a few more inspirational quotes like “winners never quit, and quitters never win” or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The crowds of people who followed Jesus did so for lots of reasons. Some enjoyed the show. He was entertaining. Imagine being there when two demon-possessed men approached Jesus. Imagine watching as Jesus ordered the demons to leave the men and enter a herd a pigs and then watch as those pigs race off a cliff and drown in the sea. Yes, it sounds absurd. And yes, someone should have called PETA to report animal abuse. But my faith does not hang on whether Jesus actually did literally cast out demons. Just set that aside and imagine being in the crowd and watching it happen. Wouldn’t you want to see more? To watch as Jesus healed people. To watch as Jesus called out the religious authorities as hypocrites and broods of vipers.
Some people followed Jesus because they believed sincerely that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Others opposed him and followed along trying to trap him in one heresy after another. I would be willing to bet, though, that the majority just followed him for the free entertainment. When street musicians or street magicians wow us with their talents, how many people actually put money the violin case or in their hat? There is no obligation to give them anything, and so when we tire of their talents, we can simply walk away. That is, if we even bother to notice them.
I love the story about Joshua Bell, the amazing, world-renowned, violinist. He played outside a Washington, DC, subway station one cold day as hundreds of commuters, thousands of people rushed by. Seven people stood to watch for between a few seconds and a few minutes. Several children tried to stop and listen, but they were pulled away by parents with a schedule to keep. After playing for 45 minutes, the case that held his $3.5 million dollar violin contained $32 in coins and small bills. At the time, to watch him play at a symphony hall cost $100 per ticket.
Jesus turned to the large crowd that was following him and said, “If you can’t carry your own cross, you can’t be my disciple.” Later he said, “If you can’t give up your possessions, you can’t follow me.” Those are the kinds of things we expect to hear from Jesus. Words that flow in one ear and out the other. Nice. Comforting. However, there is one more thing Jesus said in this passage, that does catch our attention.
We heard Claire read “Jesus told them, ‘Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple.” That’s not quite what he said, however. I didn’t want to hear the real words spoken from the mouth of a pre-teen because what Jesus really said was, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Hate is not a word we expect to hear from Jesus. Maybe hate evil, but certainly not hate family. Especially since one of the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s father and mother.
I started a new lunch and lectionary group on Thursday. Five of us ate noodles and discussed this passage. We spent a great deal of our time on our discomfort with the word hate. We didn’t mind “refuse to let go of.” Or, as a children’s bible translates this phrase, “you can’t love others more than you love me.” That sounds better. More Jesus-y. But pretty much every other translation from the original language uses the word hate. So, if the use of that word is consistent, what did the word hate mean in his context?
One scholar suggested that hate in this context meant “were you willing to bring shame upon your family?” It’s true that being a follower of Jesus at the time wasn’t exactly something that would make your family proud. It could bring ridicule from your neighbors. And that would, in turn, bring shame upon the family. Therefore, Jesus is asking, are you still willing to follow me even with those consequences? Almost every scholar proposes that the word hate here is simply hyperbole; an exaggeration to get our attention and the attention of the large crowd of mostly spectators following Jesus.
But whether it’s meant as an exaggeration or whether hate here is more about honor and shame, those interpretations may all be true. Logical explanations. And yet, we can’t help but read the word hate and have an emotional response. Hate is meant to evoke a response. Hate speech. Hate crimes. Tacit approval with a wink and a nod. It causes us to feel.
One reason so many of us are exhausted right now is the energy it takes to hear about hatred almost every day. Every act of cruelty in the news drains us of even more energy. Sadly, one way to protect ourselves is to either ignore such stories or even deny that hatred is the intent. How often do we hear the excuse, “that’s not what they really mean”? That’s a luxury, however, that the targets of hate don’t have. The targets of hate cannot ignore hate or simply wish that it didn’t exist.
The last line of today’s passage Claire read said, “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.” I like the line about plans or people. That is thought-provoking. But, the consistent word used across translations, just like hate, is “possessions.” To the large crowds following Jesus, he turned to say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We can take that to mean our stuff. Our things. Our closets and basements and attics and storage units filled with possessions. But I wondered what would happen if we tied those two words together. The word hate and the word possessions.
What do those who proudly endorse hate possess? Fear of losing power and privilege. Who openly promotes hate? People who feel they are losing something. Surely one easy answer is white supremacists.
Theo Wilson is a black man here in Denver who went undercover online with white supremacists – the alt-right – for 8 months. As a personal experiment, he created an online identity as John Carter and joined in to question President Obama’s birthplace and bemoan why black people can be proud but white people can’t. He later told CNN that what surprised him most was how hatred backfires on the hater. He noted that none of them was happy. Theo even felt some sympathy toward them. That their emotional entanglement in white identity caused them great suffering that comes out as rage, anger, and hatred. Most alarming, and ironic, he said, was that none of these guys were living their best lives. They spent most of their time focused on blame.
I met Theo a few weeks ago at the hostility-filled meeting of the Stapleton Master Community Association that ratified the vote to keep the name. We had coffee on Tuesday and talked about how people should just start using another name. He suggested Westbrook, the black man who infiltrated Stapleton’s Klan.
I found myself at Torpedo Café three times this week unintentionally providing pastoral care to people involved in the effort to ReName Stapleton for All. All were impacted in some way for their activism; most particularly the impact of time away from family. Following their efforts and the recent vote, I suggested to each one they could choose to step away. It would be OK to at least take a break. That is not an option any would choose, so we talked about how to take care of one another and how the church could help connect a broader community of activists in Park Hill and Stapleton.
One woman spoke about people who avoided taking a position on the name to keep themselves above the fray. The myth of neutrality, she called it. It reminded me of Desmond Tutu who said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As the Archbishop said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Dr. King had much to say about speaking up when it matters, including “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Or, a phrase that sounds very much like Jesus in our passage today. Dr. King said, “If a person has not discovered something they will die for, they aren’t fit to live.” Sounds almost as strident and uncomfortable as Jesus’ use of the word hate. Is it just hyperbole? Or is he asking something more of us than we have considered before? To stop being mere spectators.
Ibram X. Kendi is a professor and director of a research and policy center at American University. He has a new book called How to Be an Antiracist. He has a problem with people who declare they are “not racist.” How many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist?” and then list black friends and causes they gave money to in the 1960s. Or claim, “I’m the least racist person in the world.” He said even alt-right leader Richard Spencer and KKK wizard David Duke insist they are not racist. I’m not sure why they would care.
So what’s the problem with being a ‘not racist’? Kendi said, it’s the neutrality. “I’m not a racist” is a term of denial. It doesn’t have any other meaning. A not-racist allows racial inequities to persevere. Doesn’t challenge them. Doesn’t try to change them.
An anti-racist does. The term has a very clear meaning. An antiracist works, for example, to eliminate mass incarceration, reform the criminal justice system, bring equity to public education and health care. And provide humane treatment of families at the border escaping violence and terror. Any way that black and brown people are disproportionately negatively affected. An antiracist believes in racial equality and works toward racial equity.
I thought this was a really powerful way to consider our own lives and our church’s approach to racial justice. It’s not good enough to be “not racist.” Not-racists are spectators who don’t want to miss the entertainment. We must also be anti-racist. Not anti-people but anti-racist power. Cruel and hateful policies. Therefore, what are some of the possessions we hate enough to get rid of them to move from spectator to follower of Jesus? Privilege and neutrality.
Like the privilege to think it is a neutral statement to say “it’s just history”. Which also says, “The Klan wasn’t really that bad.” Which made me think that the name Stapleton will not be removed until those who claim to be “not racist” decide to be anti-racist. Then they will understand the importance of removing a symbol of racial terror. Casting out the demons of terror.
But Jesus is right. To do so, they will have to first consider the cost – in friendships, in status, in power, and in their family. And then, if they cannot and we cannot pay the price, to admit it. We all have to do this.
To weed out the spectators from the large crowds, Jesus told any would-be followers to recognize the cost. But importantly, we also remember the joy of discipleship.
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
As we begin a new year, on Homecoming Sunday let’s embrace a deepening interplay of discipleship’s cost and joy. More important than gathering a larger crowd of spectators is that each of us become more deeply committed followers of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 1, 2019
“Don’t Invite Everyone”
Luke 14: 1, 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus[a] said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’
I love watching people prepare for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. People are genuinely happy when it’s the Sunday we “get to” go down to the Fellowship Hall and set up the cots because it’s another WHI month. I love that when the Tuesday set-up crew comes, they are concerned to set the utensils on the proper napkin on the correct side of the plate. And who gets the honor of putting chocolates on all the pillows?! Then I watch as the cooks bring in the meal for that night. Piles of homemade food, the best they can make. I love the desire to make it a banquet feast. I love that some months there are more people who want to provide the meal than there are openings. I’d love it if we had some competition for the overnight angels too. Always having two or three people to stay overnight is the most difficult and urgent of the tasks for which to recruit volunteers. And ultimately the most important since providing a place to sleep is the purpose!
But it’s those mealtimes that really touch my heart. It is our desire to make 20 women feel like they are honored guests. This year it will be our privilege to host the women overnight on Christmas Eve. If you want to have best Christmas of your life, plan to sleep here that night, or on New Year’s Eve. I’d love it if a whole group had to compete for the pleasure of being an overnight angel.
The same is true every third Thursday when we serve a meal at the Senior Support Center to low-income and homeless senior citizens. The whole idea that there are homeless senior citizens is abhorrent, but for the 50-70 who are served that night, we hope they feel the love and compassion of Jesus Christ through each casserole, salad, roll, and bowl of ice cream served.
In October we will host a group of Nicaraguan boys and young men for four nights, providing their meals every day. A dozen young men with healthy appetites. We will want them to feel like our honored guests too.
In our passage today, Jesus has two pieces of advice. One, invite those who cannot give you anything in return. And two, it’s better to start from a lower position and be invited to a place of honor than to take a place of honor and risk the shame of being asked to step down.
Despite the fact that I’m standing in front of you, I prefer relative invisibility. I don’t like it, for example, when I’ve attended funerals where all the clergy in the room, even those without any official role to play, are called up to sit on stage. It’s a cultural thing, but early on in Cleveland, I learned to arrive late and sit in the back.
Therefore, today’s gospel reading is fine with me. Be a good host and don’t seek out places of honor. Jesus as Miss Manners, Dear Abby, and Ann Landers all rolled into one. And yet, it seems quite unlikely that Jesus was simply offering wisdom about banquet protocols. What else is going on? Theologically.
First of all, there are little details to notice. He is eating at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. We may have a one-dimensional idea about Jesus and the Pharisees, but their relationship wasn’t always adversarial. More than the other gospels, Luke provides a bit of a more nuanced position. Just a few verses earlier, some Pharisees actually tried to protect Jesus from King Herod, warning him of Herod’s intentions. Some Pharisees, including Nicodemus, became his followers.
At times Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. But notice, here he is eating with those who criticized him. “Eating with” is a big deal in this culture. This passage avoids turning the Pharisees into perpetual enemies.
Theologically, what else is this passage about? I see dynamics related to charity vs. hospitality. Hospitality is harder and more complex. Providing hospitality to women who are homeless or low-income senior citizens or young men from Nicaragua is intermingled with difficult issues of privilege and unequal status that often go unexamined in acts of charity. Hospitality is not giving something away. It is being present to offer mutual respect. Or honor. Jesus isn’t talking about charity. This text is about the kind of hospitality that changes people’s lives.
I believe we miss some of that intent because he spoke in the context of a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. In contrast, we read this text and live in the context of a modern democratic society in which we claim that all persons are created equal. Reality may be different. Status and hierarchy are still very much at work. Even so, collectively, our national story is that we believe people can transcend their station in life by climbing a ladder and pulling up bootstraps. There is plenty to criticize in that. We know its limitations. But, the point is, in our cultural setting, it is not inconceivable that persons born poor can become billionaires. Think Oprah. But we must read this text recognizing that people in Jesus’ time couldn’t just change their own social status. Hospitality changed lives.
There’s another way to think about this passage. Recall Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Conservatives, liberals, moderates and everyone in between, except for a few of those “very fine” neo-nazis and white supremacists; we all love that Dr. King speech. At least the part about being judged by character instead of skin color. But, of course, that ignores any of Dr. King’s social critique. His skin color mattered. The fact is, his whole speech is or can be rather difficult to hear if you live with privilege.
And that’s true in this passage too. Sure, we like the message about not seeking places of honor. I don’t want to be the center of attention anyway. And inviting those who cannot repay you. That makes us feel good. But charity changes nothing. Hospitality transforms people because we have to see each other. In the end, Jesus is neither talking about social graces nor advocating some form of generic equality. When we generalize Jesus’ words, they can mean nothing. For example, “be nice to everyone.” Or, invite everyone. That’s not what Jesus was saying here.
The Bible is often very specific, for example, by naming strangers, foreigners, aliens, and immigrants. The Bible uses those specific words over and over. It doesn’t say welcome everyone. It says welcome them. In today’s passage, Jesus names specifically “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Culturally, they may not be words we use or like, but think of the concept behind them. Outsiders. Excluded in a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. Jesus said invite who?
Eugene Peterson describes “the people who never get invited out, and the misfits from the other side of the tracks.” Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Another commentator puts it into concrete back-to-school terms: the kid who waits at the bus stop alone, the girl who eats in the cafeteria alone, and the boy who is always picked last. Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Or put it into church terms: the person who doesn’t know anyone so they stand alone during the passing of the peace and watch friendly people be friendly to each other. Or, the guest everyone walks past without looking at them. We are too accustomed to walking past people on the sidewalk or in the mall without looking at each other. In church, everyone should look at everyone. Well yes, and not exactly. In keeping with the theme, think of changing the hierarchy: Not rushing to visit with our friends but first looking for someone you don’t know to make sure they feel welcome. To take their needs into consideration before our own. Only then will we have lived the real intent of today’s gospel. Not to welcome everyone, but to welcome our guests.
Jesus doesn’t disregard people with generic “everyones.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t say:
Blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be comforted.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will inherit the earth.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be filled.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
No. What did he say?
He said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
He said, “blessed are people who mourn, because they will be comforted.”
He said, “blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the earth.”
He said, “blessed are people who hunger and thirst for justice, because they will be filled.”
He said, “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Somehow that might not quite sound fair. Why not everyone? Or perhaps it doesn’t quite sound fair because we fear something might be taken away from us. In our passage today, Jesus said, “when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors.” I guess we could think of them as “losers” in this story. But Jesus isn’t trying to identify losers. He is showing us the meaning of the Kingdom of God: a banquet feast of those previously not invited.
Jesus isn’t saying the feast won’t be ready to serve until everyone is seated around the table. He is saying the feast won’t be ready until the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are seated at the table. And the stranger, foreigner, alien, and immigrant. And the kid at the bus stop, the girl alone at lunch, the boy picked last on the playground. And the visitor watching others pass the peace of Christ with each other. And the poor in spirit, people who mourn, the meek, people who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who are persecuted for seeking justice. And the WHI women, homeless senior citizens, and young Nicaraguans.
Somehow, when you put it that way, I feel more included than if you simply said, “everyone is welcome.” Saying everyone’s welcome means little without being challenged by Jesus to “invite them.” And challenges me to think how we can practice that in our personal lives. At work, at school, walking the neighborhood, on the playground… and church. On this Labor Day weekend, with workers at stores, restaurants, our offices, and more. Where else?
In the same vein, I don’t want to simply say “thank you to everyone” who helped with the Women’s Homelessness Initiative in August. I want to specifically name and say thank you to:
Carol and Skip Spensley
Billie and Sid Smith
Blake Chambliss and Sheila Kowal
Patty Crew and Ray Allen
David Conger and Harriet Milnes
Jayme, Susannah and Addison Willie and friends
Deborah MacNair and Shari Wilkins
And especially our overnight angels:
Karen Truesdell – our three coordinators
As well as Mark Winkel
Bill and Eileen McCarron
That’s 44 different volunteers in August alone.
And in June, in addition to many of these folks, 10 other volunteers:
Juliann Jenson and Charlie Martin
Bob and Marlene Lederer
54 people involved in providing hospitality. And these are just the folks who signed up. I think Leo and Kathy were there. And other regulars were busy this summer, like the Formans. But if I start going down that road, I will surely forget someone. I went through the directory and found at least 31 more people who have participated in WHI in the last year. The worst thing about naming specific people is the possibility of leaving one name off. So, in the end, I guess I should maybe just thank everyone! If I didn’t include you, I apologize.
But wait, one more thing. People who provided and or served dinner on the third Thursdays this summer at the Senior Support Center, coordinated by Joan Root. Many were already named above, but there are 11 more people:
Cami Learned and Karen Klein
Mary Jo Young and Matt Appleman
Nancy McDonnell and Kerri Reid
Terri and Brian Bowen
65 different people this summer alone, each demonstrating the difference, that while we can offer charity to a generic everyone, true hospitality changes both of us. And that changes the world.
And that’s also how we want to change the world this fall. Starting later this month, we will be engaging in a relational campaign. Big words to say that six times this fall, during the Second Hour, we’ll engage in one on one conversations with one another. Hearing one another’s stories. Discovering our shared experiences. Finding common ground on which to build stronger and deeper and more transforming relationships. Moving from surface level interactions to more deeply meaningful and satisfying connections. And when that happens, you and I and the world will all be changed.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 25, 2019
“Waiting to ReName Stapleton for All”
Luke 13: 10-17 – New Revised Standard Version
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
The authorities asked Jesus, “What’s your hurry?” Pointing to the formerly bent-over woman, they asked, “Why couldn’t she wait? It’s against the law to heal today. Do it tomorrow. It’s just one more day.” As though they really cared. After all, hadn’t she been standing there, standing bent-over, for 18 years? According to their logic, that’s 5,634 days on which she could have been healed. But no one cared about this woman with no name, no one saw her, until Jesus healed her on the wrong day. Now, they would no doubt scoff to hear that they were uncaring. “How dare you accuse us?” And claim to be the real victim, not her. “We care deeply about her suffering. But if she wants healing, she needs to wait, and do it legally.”
This story made me think of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign that sought to bring national attention to the efforts of local black leaders to desegregate public facilities. On April 3rd, a series of actions began – lunch counter sit-ins, sit-ins at the library, kneel-ins at churches, marches on city hall and the county courthouse, and a boycott of downtown merchants.
Eight clergymen in Birmingham issued an “Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” published in the local paper, which read in part, “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized.” But demonstrations to realize those hopes, to gain their rights, they said, are “unwise and untimely.” Adding, “when rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
On April 10th, the city obtained a state court injunction against the protests and two days later, on Good Friday, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for violating the anti-protest injunction and placed into solitary confinement for 10 days.
While he was sitting in jail, Rev. King used the margins of the daily newspaper to scribble a letter to that group of fellow clergymen. In what I consider one of his most brilliant writings, known as Letter from Birmingham Jail, he asked why the clergymen deplored the demonstrations but not for the conditions that made them necessary. The clergymen blamed outside agitators for riling up the local population, unconcerned they would need assistance with their cause. The clergymen said they were unhappy with the demonstrators’ willingness to break laws against mass gatherings but, why then, did they refuse to obey the Supreme Court decision to outlaw segregation in public schools. Why one law and not another, Rev. King asked.
He expressed frustration that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t their greatest stumbling block but the white moderate who is “more devoted to order than to justice, who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom; who constantly advises to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
It was a similar sentiment in a letter written to King by a man in Texas which read, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry?”
You have no doubt heard pieces and parts of the Letter from Birmingham Jail before. I was struck by the similarities with the gospel text. Jesus was told to wait until it was technically legal to heal, citing laws about sabbath observance. He asked, why is ok for you to untie a donkey so it could drink water on the Sabbath but it is not OK to untie this woman so she can be free from her bondage? Remember the words “freedom from bondage.” It is key to understand this interaction.
We may be most familiar with concept of keeping the sabbath holy from the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus. Honor the sabbath because God rested on the 7th day. But Jesus was referencing a second list of Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy. The same commandments, but in this case, why one was to keep the sabbath holy was different. It is tied not to the creation story but to freedom from bondage. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath.”
Jesus wasn’t disregarding the importance of the Law. He reminded them of its entire interpretation. He wasn’t saying the Law is uncaring but that their interpretation was too limited. Jesus noted that the observance of the sabbath was to commemorate the freedom of slaves from their bondage in Egypt. Therefore, freeing this woman from her bondage is completely in line with the intention of the sabbath commandment.
Would it feel differently to you if keeping the sabbath holy wasn’t just about rest but about liberation from that which keeps us in bondage all week? To what are we held in bondage all week? Take a day off from that every week. That’ll preach!
I want to stress an important distinction. Sermons on this text can easily stray into anti-Semitic tropes about how the Law is legalistic and the Gospel is about love. It’s a slippery slope from a character assassination of the synagogue leader to an accusation against all Jews. And charges of disloyalty retweeted from neo-nazis. In fact, it’s something I had to take into careful consideration when talking about Dr. King’s time in Birmingham Jail – I don’t mean to compare Bull Connor and the rest of the segregationists with the synagogue leader. Rather, the similarity I want to suggest is the insincere misuse of law and to imagine the woman’s reaction to hearing, “you should’ve waited.”
Imagine how she would have felt: “Wait. Just a little bit more.” When have you been told “Wait. Just a little longer.” What was their intention to make you wait? As Dr. King said, wait almost always means never. We even used to tell Lance “we’ll see” when the answer was really “no.” After a while, he figured it out!
I thought about what must have been going through the woman’s head. Ironically, she didn’t go to Jesus asking to be healed. She was simply standing in the crowd, as she likely did every day, bent-over. Then the text says, “Jesus saw her.” Think about how important it is to be seen. He called her over and said, “You are set free from your ailment.” It’s a beautiful moment. Until the criticism that it was one day too early.
She might have thought to herself, just as King wrote from the bondage of his jail cell, “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear with a piercing familiarity.”
Imagine her sitting in the audience in a hot, humid, Alabama sanctuary one night, listening to a sermon by Rev. King, waving her fan and nodding her head in vigorous agreement when he said, “We have waited for more than 340 years. We still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining the right to simply have a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” He continued: “I guess it’s easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of [racism] to say ‘wait.’
The results finally came in last week. Property owners in the Stapleton neighborhood voted not to change the name in order to stop honoring a man who was a member of the KKK. But, not simply a member of the KKK. He filled his cabinet and police forces with members of the KKK. This was a man whose election to mayor of Denver was celebrated by cross burnings on the top of South Table Mountain. Despite any other accomplishments, Jews, Chinese, Catholics, immigrants, and African Americans were all openly terrorized with impunity during his reign. People who have recently moved to Denver should read about the history of the Klan here and around the state.
Even decades ago, people knew that using his name was a problem, but ultimately nothing was ever done. Which was one reason given for not doing anything now. Black Lives Matter brought it back into public discussion in 2015. I remember thinking, aren’t there more pressing issues? I concluded it was not my business deciding what is important to people terrorized by the KKK. An interracial group, including members of our congregation, has been working for the past two years to ReName Stapleton for All. They made us see it. They hoped that when people saw the truth, they would be moved by compassion. Instead, it made people uncomfortable and defensive. They came up with excuses. The Master Community Association was particularly annoyed by the group, calling them “outsiders coming in.” They were impatient to get this off their agenda, so they pushed for a vote before everyone was ready. They considered the ReName group’s concerns overhyped and accused advocates of bad behavior. A decision was made to exclude anyone from voting who lived in Stapleton but did not own property. Only property owners. Who do you suppose was disenfranchised by such a decision?
No one was surprised by the outcome to keep things the way they are. Changing would be an inconvenience. I went to the MCA meeting on Tuesday where the vote would be ratified and was struck by the tones of hostility in the room and defensiveness that sounded shockingly like 1950s Birmingham. This 100% white group told the ReName people over and over: “You should have done it a different way.” Yet, they had no power. It was surreal. And deeply saddening.
Meanwhile, as property owners voted to keep the name Stapleton, students at Denver School of Science and Technology voted to change their name to DSST Montview. Denver Parks and Rec just removed his name from the rec center in Globeville. The Stapleton Foundation changed their name to The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Living. Other groups and business owners are dropping the name. And this will continue to happen until the embarrassment is too great. Then it will change too. It could have been an occasion of enlightenment. A collective, “Oh, we see it now!” Rather, it will fester. While we wait.
A name change may seem trivial compared to issues, for example, of affordable housing in Denver, but the root is still racism. Red-lining 60+ years ago still has generational impacts on the accumulation of wealth. Racism must not just be cut out but be pulled out from its roots planted by the KKK before other issues here can be dealt with fully.
I happened to be reading Letter from Birmingham Jail in preparation for today when I came across a passage that I shared to console the disappointed members of ReName Stapleton:
Dr. King wrote to the Birmingham clergymen, "I had hoped that the white moderate would see this [injustice]. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers and sisters have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality."
And that’s good news. More people have been mobilized. More people of all races see the issue now – 35% of the 35% who voted were enlightened. The bent-over woman’s life was changed when someone saw her. Really looked at her and felt compassion. She was no longer nobody. In honor of the sabbath, not in disregard for it, Jesus freed her from bondage. This is our legacy as his followers. Jesus taught us that things change – people are freed from bondage – when we see each other. When we stop looking away and really see.
Post Sermon - Additional background according to Robert Goldberg, a University of Utah historian who wrote a 1981 book “Hooded Empire – the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado:
On the surface, Stapleton renounced groups like the Klan, saying that “True Americanism needs no mask or disguise. Any attempt to stir racial prejudice or intolerance is contrary to our constitution and is therefore, unamerican.”
Such statements were standard practice for politicians of that era, Goldberg said. (Think Trump and teleprompter speeches)
But in practice, Stapleton had formed a friendship with John Galen Locke, the Grand Dragon of the Klan in Colorado, Goldberg said.
And Stapleton had joined the Klan. He was listed on a Klan roster as member No. 1128.
Goldberg noted people joined the Klan during that time for a variety of reasons.
Some were anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic or racists. But many joined for other reasons, Goldberg said. Denver had a crime problem at the time and the Klan offered a law-and-order platform.
He said the Klan also wielded economic power. It published a list of merchants who had joined the Klan and displayed them at meeting with the letters KIGY, meaning “Klansman I greet you.’’
And Stapleton was more than simply a member of the Klan. As mayor he appointed Klansmen to several top posts including manager of safety, clerk and recorder, city attorney, parks manager and city accountant, Goldberg said.
He said Klansmen also infiltrated the police department and controlled the lower courts, inserting the Klan roster into the jury pool.
While facing a recall election in July 1924, Stapleton’s support for the Klan was full-throated, according to a story in The Denver Post.
“I have little to say,” The Post quoted Stapleton as saying. “Except that I will work with the Klan and for the Klan in the coming election heart and soul. And if I am re-elected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.”
The Klan’s grip on Denver began to fade in 1925 and the alliance between Stapleton and Locke came to an end, Goldberg said.
On Good Friday 1925, Stapleton ordered a series of raids on bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes that exposed a system of bribes and payoffs that involved a Klan vice squad, Goldberg said Locke was removed from his Klan position by the Grand Wizard in Georgia.
The Colorado Klan split into two factions. Once led by Locke called itself the Minutemen and dressed like soldiers in the American Revolution.
The Klan relocated from Denver to Cañon City, where by 1930 Goldberg said its funds were exhausted and its members dispersed.
Historians note that claims that Stapleton was reformed are revisionist history.
 Exodus 20: 9
 Deut 5: 12-15
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 18, 2019
“Rejecting MAGA Christianity”
Luke 12: 49-53 – New Revised Standard Version
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
It's time for back to school and I can’t resist offering a few corny jokes:
The teacher asked, “Tommy, can you tell us where the Declaration of Independence was signed?” (You know, right?) Tommy replied: “Yes, ma’am. At the bottom.”
Jane came home from her first day of kindergarten, and her mother asked, “What did you learn today?” “Not enough, I guess. They told me I have to go back again tomorrow.”
OK, that’s enough, but it reminded me of Robert Fulghum’s famous book – All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You might remember some of his simple wisdom:
There are more, like taking a nap every afternoon. Perhaps my favorite is “When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
Fulghum said, “Take any of those and extrapolate into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work life or to the government and to the world and it holds true and clear and firm every time. Ecology and politics and sane living through love and basic sanitation.
OK. Just one more corny joke:
Marci’s Mom asked, “How did you do in school today, dear?” Marci replied, “We did a guessing game.”
Her mom said, “But I thought you were having a math test.” Marci replied: “Yes, exactly!”
I wanted to get you laughing (or at least try!) because what comes next is no laughing matter. Jesus asked, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No! I have come instead to bring division.” It’s not a joke about mathematics. Division. Get it?
And if we don’t get his point right away, he makes it clear: “A household of five will be divided – three against two and two against three.” Father against son and son against father; mother against daughter, etc., etc.
This is one of the most difficult of the difficult sayings of Jesus. It’s offensive. It’s especially offensive during this polarized time in our national life, often divided by religion and between people of the same religion. We don’t need more of that.
How is it that the Gospel of Luke can begin chapter one with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” and now he promises the opposite. I thought he was the Prince of Peace.
For that matter, how does the parable of the prodigal son make any sense without healing the division between son and father? His father could have told him, “you made your bed, now lie in it.” Divided, father against son, son against father. They reconciled. That’s the point of the parable. But then again, their reconciliation now caused division with the elder brother who became angry. No good deed goes unpunished.
Today’s text is offensive and perhaps it should come with a trigger warning for anyone whose family used it as justification for rejecting them.
These are all true stories. And unfortunately, there are many, many more. Forty percent of homeless teens are LGBTQ or questioning. And the primary reason? Religious rejection. Some of us worship here because we were rejected by another church – some “politely asked to leave” and others very publicly shamed. And somehow this text is twisted to justify that Jesus would be OK with it. After all, he didn’t come to bring peace but “righteous” division.
My first reaction is to simply ignore texts like these and find something else in the lectionary for today. But we can’t simply refuse to engage texts like these because on first reading they seem offensive or trigger pain. Ignoring it doesn’t help – at least until we try to understand it first.
So, on one hand, I reject rejection via this text. On the other hand, it would seem like a perfect text to justify the rejection of MAGA Christianity, that Make American Great Again form of “religion” practiced by those who blindly support anything and everything the president says, does, or tweets.
For religious reasons, I believe we have no choice but to voice vigorous opposition. Not for the long list of indiscretions and the president’s personal immorality. Whether or not he paid off one, two, or ten porn stars really doesn’t bother me. Cheating on a succession of wives? I honestly don’t care, other than how that kind of casual disregard for women as objects enables abuse.
The issue, however; the urgency I feel is to keep up the opposition and active resistance on behalf of all who suffer the enactment of all his policies. But in fact, he isn’t as offensive as those who cheer on his bullying – his most unfailing loyal supporters – evangelical “christians.” Who wish to make America white again. “christian” again. Straight again. Where men rule and women submit to their place.
I read today’s gospel and think, instead of sitting back and watching such things as families forcibly separated, rather than be quiet about it to maintain the peace, I’d rather be divided from my Christian siblings. Now, I wouldn’t drive them to the edge of the forest and kick them out of the car. I wouldn’t summon a priest to drive the devil out of them. I wouldn’t rather they die in the street in front of my house than allow a MAGA christian inside. But would I rather risk family unity than allow chants of “send her back” to go unchallenged?
I would be appalled if a school child acted as immaturely as those rally goers. But Rev. Dennis Episcopo said he hasn’t seen anything objectionable in the president’s behavior. The Wisconsin mega-church pastor hasn’t seen anything worthy of mention to denounce. Nothing in his behavior to be dissuaded from supporting him again. He said, “There could be something, where society really crosses the line on something that I feel as a pastor I have to get up and say something about. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Charlottesville. Kids in cages. The Muslim ban. Providing the justification for the mass shooting of “invading” Mexicans at a Walmart?
I’d say Jesus is right about bringing division to our houses. That it’s better for families to be divided rather than to proclaim a false peace. To value the pursuit of justice over “let’s all just get along.” The prophet Jeremiah warned against those who cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
We can probably all agree that we don’t want phony peace. And yet, is division the goal? Is the goal, as the text might seem to suggest; is the answer of Jesus to bring division? As one commentator asked, “Is he prescribing division or describing it?” Suggesting we should be divided or saying that we are?
Surely division is one way to describe our current times. But that’s not all there is, is it? Not to simply describe and then denounce injustice, feel better about ourselves, and go home. A deeper question asks: Is even justice the goal?
But what is justice? There’s retribution and revenge and retaliation. And there is redistribution and reconciliation.
One of our affirmations of faith describes Jesus as God’s way to reconcile the world to God’s self. Second Corinthians 5 says, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” If we look at the totality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is for the goal of reconciliation with God, our neighbors, and our enemies. It includes reconciliation within, as well.
As progressive Christians we struggle with the question of whether it needed to happen so violently. Did Jesus have to be crucified and die on a cross for reconciliation to happen? Like today’s text about division, we can ask: Was violence a necessary prescription or an apt description? Was the violence of an Empire like Rome necessary? Or does violence best describe the Empire running Washington, DC, today?
I propose that Jesus is describing division. And that we have to understand our division before we can begin the work of reconciliation.
Some people are licking their chops for the opportunity for some righteous payback, believing that an election will make a difference. But let me suggest that, as Christians, the justice we seek is reconciliation, remembering, of course, that reconciliation without justice is worthless. And that justice without reconciliation can be simple brutality. And that reconciliation isn’t complete without redistribution.
I can’t even fathom how hard it will be for our nation to be reconciled to one another. In fact, I fear it will take longer than our lifetimes. But, for the sake of the school children whose backpacks we blessed today, that is our call to action. Our Christian vocation.
At just the moment I feel like giving up, that it would be surely easier, let alone better for my mental health, not to care so much about what is happening to our fellow human beings, I need to remember that the Christ who suffered violence walks alongside us. Jesus knows in his crucified brown-skinned body the worst of what humanity can do when MAGA-style religion and state collude to maintain their own power and privilege. He knows it. He exposed it. And then he defeated it. That’s why I want to follow him. And ask, would you like to come along too?
So, when we feel tempted to give up and need the fuel to keep going, I offer these words of the Franciscan Blessing:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
Continuing to name and then heal our divisions, to fight for justice and the redistribution of resources (you know, the first thing we learned in kindergarten – share everything,) that we may be reconciled as a nation.
 Villard Books, 1986
 Luke 1:79
 Stories were drawn and adapted from https://www.aliforneycenter.org/_aliforney/assets/File/1265.pdf
 Audrey West, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 358-362
 Sister Ruth Fox, OSB, 1986
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 11, 2019
“All the Stuff We Really Need”
Luke 12: 32-34, 48b – New Revised Standard Version
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
This is a story by Byrd Baylor:
If you could see us sitting here at our old, scratched-up, homemade kitchen table, you’d know that we aren’t rich.
My father tries to tell us we that are, but can’t he see my worn-out shoes? Or that my little brother has patches on the pants he wears to first grade?
“You can’t fool me,” I say to him. “We’re poor. Would rich people sit at a table like this?”
My parents made this table out of the lumber someone else threw away. They even had a celebration when they finished it.
My mother pats the table and agrees with my father. “We’re rich because we sit here every day.”
Sometimes I think I’m the only sensible one in my whole family.
Now understand, I like this table just fine. All I’m saying is, you can tell that we didn’t pay anything for it. That it didn’t come from a furniture store. It’s not a table where rich people would sit.
I called a family meeting and the subject is money and I tell my parents we don’t have enough of it.
I tell my parents they should both get better jobs so we could buy some nicer things.
And add, “I hate to bring this up, but it would really help if both of you had a little more ambition.”
My parents have some strange ideas about working. They think the only jobs worth having are outdoors. They want cliffs or canyons or desert or mountains around them wherever they work. They want a good view of the sky.
They want to always work together, and their favorite thing to do is to pan for gold – piling us into a beat-up old truck and heading for the rocky desert hills or back in some narrow mountain gully where all the roads are just coyote trails.
They love to walk the wide arroyos, the dry streambeds, where little flecks of gold are found.
After a month or two out there, they always find a little bit of gold to sell, but it’s never made us rich. And as far as I can see, it’s just an excuse to camp in some beautiful wild place again.
They also like to pick chilies and squash and tomatoes. They don’t mind planting fields of sweet corn or alfalfa. They’ll put up strong fences or train wild young horses.
My father asks, “How many people are as lucky as we are?”
But I’ve called this family meeting to say, “You could make more money working in a building somewhere in town.”
“But,” he says, “our number one rule is that we have to see the sky.”
“You could look through a window.”
But they won’t even think about it. Do you see what I mean about being the only sensible one in this family?
My mother hands my brother and I a pencil and some yellow paper. “OK, let’s add up our assets. You be the bookkeeper.”
We start with $20,000. That’s how much my father says it’s worth to him to work outdoors, where he can see sky all day and feel the wind and smell rain an hour before it’s really raining. He says it’s worth that much because, if he feels like singing, he can sing out loud and no one will mind.
I have just written $20,000 when my mother adds, “You better make that $30,000 because it’s worth at least another 10,000 to hear coyotes howling back in the hills.”
So, I write down $30,000.
Then she remembers that they like to see long distances and faraway mountains that change color about 10 times a day. “That’s worth around $5,000 to me,” she says.
I scratch out what I had written and put down $35,000.
My father thinks of something else. “When a cactus blooms, you should be there to watch it because it might be a color you never see again.” He asks my brother, “How much would you say that color is worth?” “50 cents?” But they decide it’s worth another $5,000. So now I write $40,000 on the yellow pad.
My father loves to make bird sounds. He can copy any bird, but he’s best at white-winged doves and ravens and red-tailed hawks and quail. He’s good at eagles too, and great horned owls. So, of course, he tells me to write down another $10,000 for having both day and night birds around us.
I cross out what I had. The total is now $50,000.
My mother asks me how much I’m worth to them. I suggest they could add another $10,000 to the list of assets.
But my father said, “Don’t underestimate yourself. Remember how good you are at making lists for us.” He’s right. I am very good at making lists. Someone in this family has to.
They end up deciding I’m worth about a million dollars. I tell them that’s a little high, but I smile and write it down anyway. Naturally I have to add another million for my brother, though at 7 years old, he doesn’t do much yet to add to our bottom line. And then add one million each for my parents.
So, I scratch out all the previous numbers and write 4 million, $50,000.
My brother says we should add $7 for all the nights we get to sleep outside under the stars. We all agree that’s really worth more like $5,000. Then I decide I want to add $5,000 for the pleasure of wandering around in open country alone, free as a lizard, not following trails, not having a plan, just turning whatever way the wind blows me.
Now my yellow pad says we have 4 million, $60,000. And we haven’t even started counting actual cash. But by then I realize the cash part doesn’t really matter. And suggest it shouldn’t be included on our list of riches.
So, I declare the meeting is over. The rest of them go outside to see the sliver of a new moon while I sit at our beautiful, hand-carved, homemade kitchen table.
I think, no one is rich enough to ever afford something as nice as this.
This beautiful story is entitled The Table Where Rich People Sit. It might be an interesting exercise for your family to sit down with a pencil and a pad of yellow paper to make your own list of assets.
Last week in our text from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the crowd, “Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions.” He asks them to consider the ravens. “You are worth so much more than birds.” Jesus said, notice how the lilies grow. Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed as beautifully as those. He points to the grass in the field and exhorts his followers not to chase after what we will eat or what we will we drink, but instead, desire the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.
I can only imagine the girl in the story I told, at least at the beginning, rolling her eyes. “Let’s be sensible about this, Jesus.”
In today’s reading, he goes even further. Yes, considering the ravens and noticing the lilies and admiring the grass is a lovely idea. But then he said very directly, “sell your possessions and give to those in need.” And adds the familiar phrase, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” which is the lesson of the family.
But it’s the last line of today’s scripture that speaks most directly to me. It’s the disconnect I feel in our country. It’s the disconnect and it’s the solution.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Sit with that for a few seconds.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” The disconnect and the solution. For our country. And maybe for you too.
Jesus isn’t speaking spiritual-eze. This isn’t about heaven. And not just about ravens and lilies and grass but specifically about possessions. Our stuff. Jesus is talking about our stuff. Because your stuff reveals your heart.
What if we think about all our stuff, stuff that’s stuffed into corners and stuffed down in basements and up in attics and in all those storage locker facilities that keep going up everywhere… What if we think about all our stuff and realize our stuff has nothing to do with our heart? What if our stuff is just about having stuff? And more stuff to go with it. And if so, wouldn’t we be better off selling it and giving away the proceeds? To help people who need stuff? Wouldn’t that liberate us? And in the process, help liberate others?
Art and I did the Marie Kondo thing – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – asking of every possession, does this bring me joy? He was much better at it than I. I drew the line at a few things, like when he wanted to part with our first season DVD set of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. I hid it in a drawer.
But after all, how much stuff do we really need? In essence, Jesus said, desire the kingdom of God – a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate – and we’ll find ourselves with all the stuff we really need.
Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon and Schuster, 1998
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 4, 2019
“Knowing God in an Era of Domestic Terrorism”
Luke 12: 13-31
I’m going to read our gospel text today by combining three translations – the New Revised Standard Version, the Common English Bible, and The Message – along with a little interpretation of my own. Listen for the Word of God.
Someone cried out from the crowd to Jesus, “Teacher, order my brother to give me my fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus had a good comeback, “Friend, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?
Then turning to the crowd, Jesus said, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed, because the quality of your life is not determined by your possessions.”
(Or said another way,) “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
(Or, said another way,) “The good life does not consist in the abundance of stuff.”
He then illustrated his point by telling them a parable: “The fields of a certain rich man produced an overly abundant crop. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? My barn is not big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said to himself, ‘This is what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, enough for many years, and I’ll say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve done well. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”
Just then, God showed up and said, “Fool!” (All three translations use the word ‘fool!’) “Fool! Tonight, you will die.” (Not a judgement that he will die tonight because he’s a fool but rather a way to pose these questions:) Tonight you will die. And that barnful of grain? What good will that be to you then? Who will get all of that?
(Then, in his concluding statement, Jesus said:)
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Or, “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” (The image of hoarding in this translation is powerful.)
(But my favorite conclusion of the three,) “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self, and not with God.”
“When you fill your barn with Self.” Note that in this parable, the rich man speaks of himself or to himself 13 times: He said to himself: What should I do. My barn is not big enough. Here’s what I will do: I’ll tear down my barns. I’ll gather in all my grain, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, “you’ve done well. You’ve got it made. Take it easy and have the time of your life.”
So, Jesus just talked about greed and possessions and this rich guy’s self-centeredness: “Then he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. And you are worth so much more than birds! Who among you can add a single moment to your life by worrying?” (Or as some translations of the original text say, “Has anyone standing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as one inch by fussing about it?” which really gets to his point about the absurdity of worrying!)
Jesus continues: “If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even King Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed as beautifully as one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and dead tomorrow, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. God knows you need them. Instead, desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
Stop worrying. Dose Jesus knows us well, or what?! Fretting and fussing and stewing and agonizing about all kinds of things… Although I get what Jesus is saying here, I wish he would have clarified that we still need a job. Don’t we? We can easily miss that he is talking about greed. He asks: What do we spend our time chasing after? Or maybe I’m missing the point completely. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of this last section:
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends. God wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”
Quote: “People who don’t know God fuss over these things.” I’m not sure that’s a fair statement about people who do not believe in God. Don’t we all worry? I get plenty stressed out too. Yet I can identify. And so did Dr. King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story about how he grew up in the church. The son of a preacher. The great-grandson of a preacher. The great-great-grandson of a preacher. His only brother and his uncle were preachers. Dr. King laughed that he didn’t have much of a choice but to go into the family business. But, he said, though the church was something very real to me, “it was kind of an inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God” of my own.
That changed when he moved to Montgomery to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Things were going well, but one day a year later, Rosa Parks decided she wasn’t going to give up her seat on the bus any more. The famous Montgomery Bus Boycott began, and Martin was asked to serve as its leader. We can’t forget that he was a young pastor in his 20s.
Things went smoothly for the first few days. But then white people in Montgomery realized this boycott was not going to end any time soon. Among other things, “they started making nasty telephone calls,” and, he said, “it came to the point that some days more than 40 calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children.” He remained strong willed. But he said he would never forget coming home from a meeting one night very late, around midnight. His wife was sleeping. He had another early morning meeting, so he quietly got into bed next to her. But the phone rang.
Who do you suppose it was? Who would it be today? It would be one of those ‘send her back’ chanting, MAGA-hat-wearing, ‘very fine people on both sides’ folks. That late night caller was their hooded granddaddy declaring: “We are tired of you and your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” Particularly chilling words this morning after El Paso. But coming from the same domestic terrorism of white nationalists.
Dr. King said, “I’d heard these things many times before, but for some reason, that night it really got to me.” He made some coffee and sat at the kitchen table thinking about his beautiful daughter, born just a month before. He thought about his dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife sleeping in the other room. And how both could be taken from him. How he could be taken from them. And at that moment, he said, “I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer.”
That night, he said, all the theology and philosophy he had studied, all the theological and philosophical reasons for existence and the reality of sin and evil in the world had no meaning. Aristotle described God as the “Unmoved Mover.” Alfred North Whitehead described the “Principle of Concretion.” Spinoza defined God as the “Absolute Whole…”
But, that night, such a God didn’t matter. Instead he discovered that religion had to become real to him. “I had to know God for myself. And so, I bowed over my cup of coffee and prayed, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do right. I think the cause we represent is right. But I am weak. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And if people see me weak, they will begin to get weak.’”
At that moment an inner voice said, Martin, “’Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ And I knew in an instant that I would never be alone. God would never leave me. Never leave me alone.”
In that moment of surrender, God became more than something to believe in. “I knew God as a rock in a weary land, shelter in a time of storms, water when I’m thirsty, bread in a starving land.”
Sometimes we mainline Protestants do just as Dr. King had done. We talk about God, like Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” or C.S. Lewis’s “Inconsolable Longing, The Signature of Every Soul.” They’re all beautiful ideas, but detached.
We may try to convince people that there is a God – that all we need to do is look at a galaxy of stars or stare at the mountains to believe there is a God. And it does takes faith to affirm that God exists. But does any of that matter if God remains a distant idea instead of a present reality?
When Trump-inspired white nationalism manifests itself by yet another act of domestic terrorism, we don’t need explanations about the existence of God. We desperately need to know God. When justice is denied the Eric Garners of our world, the modern day victims of the lynching tree, we don’t need more clever ideas about God. Our hearts ache to know God.
When watching the news no longer informs us but rather frightens us and depresses us and causes us to worry, fret, stew, and agonize… When fears for our future keep surging and our hopes keep disappearing, I need to know God “as our rock in this weary land, shelter during this time of storms, water because I’m thirsty and bread because we are starving.” That’s what I need. Perhaps you feel that way too.
But not because we are looking for a way to escape. Some interpretations of Christianity, as we know, teach us to leave this dark and depressing world behind and claim what is ours at the pearly gates of a heaven with streets lined with gold. However, we are not looking for discharge from this world but rather for courage in the struggle for justice and peace. We are looking for meaning in the joy and cost of discipleship. Knowing God during this era of lies and deceptions and payoffs to porn stars means that we have the courage to stand up for truth and righteousness. To know God means we have the power to speak during a time of deafening silence. For if we desire the kingdom of God, all these things shall be added unto you.
When we feel weak, when we’re faltering, when we’re losing courage, if we know God, the God who stands with the downtrodden and depressed, the hopeless and the oppressed, the vulnerable and the frightened, then we need not worry. The rich man in the parable was declared a fool because he failed to realize he was part of a community. That, like us all, we depend on each other. Who harvested those crops in the hot sun? Surely not him. Who built his barns? Certainly not him alone. Who sent the rain and the sun for his grain to grow?
It’s hard to know God if we define success by what we have. Or if we are so full of self-assurance, certain that what we have is because we made it happen. That makes it really difficult to know God.
But it’s not hard to know God:
God is personal. And, like Dr. King, in all those moments, God becomes especially real when, in personal and national despair, we pray:
(Repeat after me)
 “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” Sermon delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, August 27, 1967
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 21, 2019
“When Not to Apologize”
Luke 10: 38-42 – New Revised Standard Version
As they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Last August, Zoe Fenson went to “feminist summer camp” for grown women. It was full of nostalgic activities such as making friendship bracelets, campfire songs, and s’mores. And three days of presentations and discussions on how to stop saying “I’m sorry” for everything. Women, she said, are taught to apologize for the slightest hint of trouble. “Bump into someone in line? ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Take too long to find your credit card to pay, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ We say ‘sorry’ to defuse tension, to express regret, to joke, and even try to ease pain caused by others – apologizing to the store clerk for the rude behavior of the person in front of her. Women, she said, say sorry when we fail and we even say sorry when we succeed. When Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open, she didn’t beam with joy. She apologized for winning.
Zoe decided to try an experiment when she got home. Seven days without letting the word “sorry” escape from her lips. The temptations came fast and furious. “I wanted to apologize to my husband for having to take a shower, to my cat for being away so long, to my friends for missing a dinner party the night I got back.” But she did it. She caught the words before they left her mouth and instead simply told her husband, “I’m getting in the shower.” She told her cat, “I missed you.” And to her friends, she explained, “I need to stay home tonight to catch up on some rest.” Over the course of the week she was tested over and over, wanting to say sorry for having a stomachache, for heavy traffic, and “I’m sorry my hips are too wide for that narrow diner booth.”
Zoe said, “no one else probably noticed but I felt lighter, less slouched, and more confident.” Instead of saying “I’m sorry I’m late,” I said, “thank you for waiting.” Instead of apologizing for another customer’s bad behavior, I said, “Wow, that person was rude!” But the best thing, she said, was that after a week of “sorry-detoxing,” when real apologies were needed, they meant something. Instead of a ritual “sorry,” now, when I say it, I mean it. “I understand why you are upset, I hurt you, and I’m sorry.” It’s liberating.
But overcoming a lifetime of conditioning is hard. “In a culture that teaches women to apologize for everything – whether they have done harm or not – not apologizing is a quietly radical act.”
It’s radical because men keep demanding it. As Melissa Blake writes, “Powerful men use it as a tool – a weapon even – to suppress strong, confident women by making them feel humiliated, ashamed, and small.”
We saw clearly this week that was the goal of the tweeter in chief. Without the slightest hint of irony, he demanded the “radical left congresswomen must apologize for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said.” The terrible things they have said?!!! Doesn’t this make your head want to explode?! And what are the consequences if they refuse to apologize? Especially women of color. A crowd of red hats will gleefully foam at the mouth and roar the familiar refrain of racists, “Send her back.”
What is one way we know that Jesus was human? Sometimes he could act like a jerk. Not presidential level, but nonetheless, sometimes he said things that were not cool. Jesus is a friend of mine, so I mean no disrespect, but sometimes we need our friends to be honest with us. And so I simply have to say: Jesus, how you treated Martha wasn’t ok. You chided her, you scolded a grown woman. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
You can affirm Mary without turning sisters against each other – saying one way is better than the other. It’s not a competition. But, once you said those words, what else could Martha have felt but diminished and ashamed, to lower her head, step back, and walk away repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” And Mary? I doubt she felt any better.
Scholars and commentaries offer all kinds of explanations and some excuses. With some of them, I agree. This short text has been rightfully used to argue in favor of women’s theological education. Mary clearly sat at his feet just like a rabbi in training would. This text has been rightfully used to support a balance of the active and contemplative life, to value being as much as doing. This is an exceptionally important text for that.
But it’s also true that it probably wasn’t good for Martha to involve her guest in what appears could be an ongoing dispute. One could argue that Martha breached hospitality by doing so. She made him feel uncomfortable. Which means, did Jesus deserve an apology from Martha?
Among the explanations and excuses is one that Jesus’ words were meant as an invitation rather than a rebuke. Jesus invited her into a new reality. But if that were the case, wouldn’t he have said, “Come over here, take a seat, and join us in our discussion. I’ll ask the other disciples to prepare the meal.”
His brusque words to Martha seem so out of character for Jesus. And yet he treated at least one other woman similarly. He was rude to the Syro Phoenician woman who asked for healing for her daughter. He said that “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Gasp. But she argued right back that “even little dogs eat crumbs from under the table.” And for her bold response, Jesus healed her daughter. The excuse for his behavior was that Jesus was just exhausted by all the demands placed on him, so he didn’t really mean to be rude.
“He didn’t really mean it.” Sound familiar? How often does that get thrown around. “He didn’t really mean it. He’s a good guy. I have known him for years.” Racist, sexist, homophobic language and abuse are constantly excused by “he didn’t really mean it.” Our new book club read Austin Channing Brown’s memoir about being a black woman in a world made for whiteness. As have others, she said white people have an uncanny need to excuse away the racist behavior of other white people. The words “he really didn’t mean it that way” have fallen off my own lips. And for that I must say “I was wrong and I’m sorry.” And stop doing it.
And yet otherwise, Jesus did repeatedly speak up and act out on behalf of women. He constantly challenged a deeply patriarchal world. Perhaps most notably, when men expected Jesus to denounce the woman who kissed and wiped his feet with her hair, a very sensual act, he not only defended but praised her. Men said, “Make her apologize! Proper women don’t do such things.” He said, “She understands the nature of my ministry more than any of the rest of you.” Judas chided the woman who bought expensive perfume to anoint Jesus. “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” This from the man about to sell Jesus down the river for 30 coins. Oh, but she’s the problem.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus honored women by revealing or confirming his identity to them. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well with 5 husbands. And Martha. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” She responded, the first person ever to do so, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Martha may be best remembered for being too concerned that her guests will be taken care of and well fed. But, we should never forget she was the first to boldly affirm that Jesus is the Christ. Some communities in southern France remember her exactly that way. They elevate her in a way I had never heard of before. I want to share some stories I learned this week.
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus began to spread the good news, but during a period of persecution in the year 45, they were among a small group put into a boat and left to drift on the Mediterranean without oars or a mast. In some traditions, they landed on Cyprus where they preached and taught until they died and were buried there.
But other traditions tell that the boat kept sailing until it reached the South of France. While others split off and went their own way, Mary found retreat near Marseille; a cave in a rock 2,800 feet high, where she spent the next 30 years in prayer and contemplation. Seven times a day, at each canonical hour, she “was raised in the air by angels to pray and afterwards placed gently on the ground where she ate the same heavenly food as the angels. Occasionally she left her place of solitude to ‘pour the honey of the words which flowed from her heart into the souls of the listeners.’” Sounds like Mary!
The ever-energetic Martha, on the other hand, kept busy along the banks of the Rhone River and in the towns of Avignon and Arles “cleansing lepers, restoring paralytic persons, raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, a sound walk to the lame, strength to the feeble, and health to the sick.” And probably providing supper for some drop-in guests on occasion.
Among the stories about Martha: She ate only once a day and then only roots and the fruits of trees. Bare-footed, her head covered with a white turban made from camel skins, she wore sack-cloth and a hair shirt belted with a knotted horse-hair rope -which tore badly into her skin. Like a Desert Mother, her bed was made from branches and vine-shoots with a stone for her pillow.
But the most remarkable story is the one in which she tamed a dragon. A terrible dragon of incredible length and extraordinary size whose mouth exhaled deadly smoke and from whose eyes, flames shot forth. It tore everything it encountered to pieces with its teeth and claws. Terrified, the people challenged Martha to prove the power of the Messiah about whom she preached. So, undaunted, she walked right up to the dragon’s den. She made the sign of the cross and it immediately calmed down. She tied her belt around the neck of the dragon and forbade it to ever harm anyone again with its breath or its bite. Afterward it lay down and followed her around like a massive dog on a leash.
These stories were not made up to tell at a feminist summer camp in 2019. These traditions date back to the middle ages. Relics of Martha were found in a church in Tarascon. To this day there are ancient churches and shrines dedicated to Saints Martha and Mary in Provence and elsewhere in southern France that keep these stories alive.
But, like any legend or tale or fable, the point isn’t its historicity but its meaning. And so, we should at least remember, Martha is far more notable than to reduce her to a dispute with her sister.
But back to the scripture text, if Martha felt rebuked by Jesus for being preoccupied, it didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps she didn’t feel rebuked and simply brushed it off and got back to work. That doesn’t excuse Jesus. But she didn’t feel a need for an apology; No big deal. Afterall, tradition says that Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus had an especially close relationship. They were like family.
And yet, the encounter between Martha and Jesus still makes me feel a certain kind of way. It raised some questions about women and apologies and left me wondering:
 Matthew 15:21-28
 Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Convergent, 2018 – Highly recommended. One of the best books I’ve read all year.
 John 11:27
 Thank you for the idea to Jane Anne Ferguson and sermon-stories.com
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 14, 2019
“Why Has the United States Lost Its Capacity for Compassion”
Luke 10: 25-37 – Common English Bible
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Last week I preached about Naaman, the foreign army commander with a skin disease. He followed the instructions of the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the River Jordan and was healed. Naaman was an outsider, an enemy. He led battles that defeated Israel. As such, he was an incredibly unlikely recipient of grace and healing. But such is the wideness of God’s mercy, grace, and love. However, as I noted, that’s only half the story. The only half told in the lectionary. The story continues that Elisha’s protégé Gehazi attempted to make a profit off of Naaman’s misery. When he got caught, Gehazi was afflicted with the very skin disease Naaman had been cured of. It’s the promise of divine justice for those who try to profit off the misery of others. For example, how corporations such as the GEO Group make enormous profits from the secretive world of migrant detention centers, or how a certain politician uses the suffering of asylum seekers, kids in cages, to increase his poll numbers… There may be divine grace. But when Gehazi tried to profit off the misery of Naaman’s suffering, we also discover divine justice.
I like obscure stories like that. How many of you had heard of Naaman before? Just a few.
I also love the story of Queen Vashti in the Book of Esther, too. How many of you have heard of Vashti? One night the Queen was summoned by her husband King Ahasuerus. He told her to parade in front of a bunch of men who had been drinking for seven days so he could proclaim that she is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Ick, right! Some would make excuses for the king that he didn’t mean to degrade her. He just wanted to make the men jealous. Therefore, she shouldn’t be angry but be delighted by his pride. But Vashti refused the “honor” of being stared at by lustful men. So, for not playing along, she lost her crown and was banished from the kingdom.
A bombshell went off this week in progressive Christian circles when the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler announced she was leaving the esteemed Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is a glorious Gothic cathedral and a beacon of social justice – we’re proud, usually, to say it’s a federated church of the UCC and American Baptists. It’s where Dr. King gave his famous Vietnam speech. Many decades ago, it was the first church in the UCC to declare itself Open and Affirming to LGBTQ people. So, when Dr. Butler was named the first woman Senior Pastor of such a prominent church, finally, it was celebrated as a big crack in the stained-glass ceiling.
She is leaving, however, because she dared call out sexual harassment against her and other female staffers by, among others, a longtime leader in the church. Instead of taking her seriously, other leaders made excuses that he’s a good person, probably a large contributor, and, you know, he’s just “old school,” so you should understand and forgive him and move on… you know the drill. Dr. Butler was supposed to be grateful for the privilege of being the pastor of such a large, revered congregation and let sexual harassment wash over her shoulders like water off a duck. Instead, she followed the example of Queen Vashti. And as one author put it, “She was thrown off a stained-glass cliff.”
I like to tell the stories of people such as Naaman and Vashti and other more obscure characters from Anna the Mother of Mary to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. More than the heroes of the Bible, I like telling the stories of people with outrageous character flaws that demonstrate the depth, length, and breadth of God’s grace and love. Because, if them, then you and me too. When I tell their stories, I feel like I’m introducing you to interesting people at a dinner party. In contrast, who wants to chat with the Good Samaritan over cocktails? We already know his story.
How many of you have heard of the Good Samaritan? Even people who have never touched a Bible know that we’re supposed to act like Good Samaritans to people in need. It’s harder to preach on a story everyone already knows. And yet, we also believe that God always “has yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” It’s a story worth repeating for a reason.
So briefly, a legal expert, sometimes called the young lawyer, asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Was he just an antagonist testing Jesus or did he sincerely want to know? Well, Jesus replied to his question with a question for which the legal expert knew the right answer. What does the law command? “To love God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” To the original question, whether a trick or sincere, Jesus answered, “You want eternal life? Go do that.” He didn’t say, first you must confess your sins, then go to a class so you can learn to say the Apostle’s Creed, promise to stop cursing, and refuse to bake a cake for a same gender wedding. No, “You want eternal life? Go love your neighbor as yourself.”
But then the legal expert asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Was he being genuine or was he looking for some exceptions clause? Sure, love your neighbor, but only if they are citizens. Surely not the trans soldier. Surely not Colin Kaepernick or the US women’s soccer team. I don’t know if Jesus rolled his eyes about the question. He simply answered by way of a story about a man beaten by robbers and left for dead alongside the road, passed by on the other side by a priest and a Levite.
Levites, by the way, if you’re wondering, were temple helpers and musicians. They both walked by. Sometimes excuses are made for them that they had to stay away because touching a dead body would make them unclean for their jobs in the temple. Jesus doesn’t make note of any excuses.
He simply tells how a Samaritan stopped, not only to help bandage him up, but how he extended compassion so far out of the ordinary, we respond “no way.” The care and the cost of what he gave the man was so over the top, we’re meant to be incredulous.
But along with the incredulous actions of the man who stopped alongside the way, the “who” was meant to shock the crowd. We’re supposed to have a visceral reaction. Gut level. No!!! Not them! For example, imagine that the hero of the story is a confederate flag waving Trump supporter who listens to Rush Limbaugh and rails against flag-burning liberals ruining our white culture. That’s the hero of the story. Or, depending on the crowd, it’s like Jesus is saying, only Nancy Pelosi stopped to help. Whichever side, say the name and cue the rage.
These days we feel a lot of rage. There are a lot of people about whom we feel only outrage. It’s gotten so that frankly, if the president did something of which I approved, I doubt I would believe it. That’s the exact visceral reaction of hearing a story of a “good” Samaritan. No. There is no such thing.
It’s not hard to identify someone as a stand-in for the Samaritan. But as ICE makes it raids today, trying to distract us from the fact that kids are still being locked into cages (that doesn’t poll quite as well among the base), it’s also not difficult to recognize the immediacy of the question, “Who is my neighbor.” It’s the migrant family frightened of opening the door this morning. Or any family who might be mistaken for being undocumented. But in this complicated world, who also is my neighbor? It’s Gehazi too, making profits from his stock in private prison detention centers. It’s the men in church who harass women pastors with impunity. They are my neighbor too.
But wait a minute. I just did the classic false equivalency. The post-white supremacist Charlottesville rally at which “there were fine people on both sides.” No, Dr. Amy Butler and the man whose “apology” to her included a bottle of wine and a t-shirt, get this, both with the label “Sweet b.i.t.c.h.”, are not equally fine people. Nor those who excuse him. Those who demand kids be locked in cages, those who profit from it, and those kids and their families are not morally equal.
What does “love my neighbor” mean then? God’s mercy may be wide, but it does not offer excuses or defend abuse. To “go and love your neighbor” requires both grace and accountability. It doesn’t forget that love and justice are two sides of the same coin, but that in the end, reconciliation is always the goal.
The story of a Samaritan who did good is meant to arouse disbelief and rage. Sometimes when a story is too familiar, it loses its edge. But even then, it’s easy to remain fixated on the doubt that anyone who is a Samaritan can be good and forget the ways that he was good.
“While traveling, he came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’”
Do you hear how beautiful that is? To pause and imagine the whole thing is to tear up. He came near him. He saw him. He was moved with compassion. The tenderness of his care. It’s extraordinary. To see people suffering and care. It makes me all the more sad to wonder, why has the United States lost its capacity for compassion?
Reading this story over and over, year after year, reminds us that compassion is the ultimate vocation of Christians. I’m grateful the legal expert asked, because it invites us to keep asking, in every generation’s time and place, who is my neighbor?
So, in that vein, do you know the name of the person sitting next to you? Or two people away or three rows ahead or behind you? It might be hard to take seriously the question “who is my neighbor” out in the world if I can’t answer that question in this room.
Some of you who came today know that we have an exciting new venture to announce at our semi-annual meeting after worship. Late last year we began preparing to engage in a new strategic planning process, helping us to discern our future. To what is God calling us as a church? Along the way we learned that it is difficult to do a strategic planning process when most people say, “I like what we’re already doing.” In fact, healthy, growing churches often have a harder time doing strategic planning than a church that feels stuck. Ironically, our strategic planning process got stuck. What we have known all along, however, even before we started, is that whatever we do, we need to feel more connected – more deeply connected to God and to one another. The only way the church will remain healthy and keep growing is if we are growing together as a community. When I feel stuck in my personal life, I call a therapist. When a church feels stuck, you call a consultant for advice and guidance! And I’m sure glad we got stuck because a whole new possibility opened up. For the next six months we will be engaging in what is called a “relational campaign.”
We’ll introduce Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher a little later and she’ll better explain the how. I need as much help as you to understand how. That’s why you hire consultants. But the what and why? To know one another and our neighbors more deeply. Many of us struggle with how to talk to people whose beliefs and values differ so sharply with our own. Practicing that, preparing for that, will be powerful. The possibilities for circles of transformation beyond our walls for us as individuals and as a larger community are exciting.
But in the end, trusting the process, relying upon the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we will know much, much more about who we are and who are neighbors are – both down at the end of your row of chairs and down at the end of the block and around the corner. I hope you want to know more about “who is my neighbor.” Why? Because then we can work together for a world that is Open, Inclusive, Just, and Compassionate.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 7, 2019
“Profiting Off the Misery of Children
1st Kings 5 - see the story within the text
My sabbatical earlier this year was full of experiences that left me overflowing with joy. There was one notable exception. My friend Chris, the pastor at Sixth Avenue UCC, and I went on a mini-civil rights tour of Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. Our first stop was at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered by white supremacists who threw a bomb at the church on Youth Sunday. We remember their names: Denise, Carole, Addie, and Cynthia. Across the street there were memorials to the 4,000 nameless school children who braved police dogs and fire hoses, including a statue of children behind jail bars. In Selma, we walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
But the real reason for the trip was to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, otherwise known as the lynching memorial. It is a monument of stunning proportions including 800 coffin shaped steel boxes hanging above your head, engraved with the names of more than 4,000 documented victims – men, women, and children. Like 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi, accused of flirting with a white woman. Among that list of names there are a disturbing number of 14, 15, and 16-year olds, like Ernest, Charlie, Jesse, Willie James, and an 18-year-old pregnant Mary Turner. Accompanying the lynching memorial is the Legacy Museum, which shows the uninterrupted, ever-adaptable strategies of white supremacists to dehumanize – methods that morphed from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to the pre-school to prison pipeline of mass incarceration. One particularly brutal exhibit is a hologram of a woman crying out for her children who had been ripped from her arms and sold on the auction block.
Naturally, children are on many of our minds this weekend, this weekend of celebrations for our freedom and independence, all the while migrant children are still being locked in cages, now debating the necessity of soap (?), ripped from their parent’s arms as they flee violence and seek asylum. Didn’t I just preach about this? I looked back and found my sermon from one year ago entitled “Children Ripped and Scattered” in which I read from the poem Home, written by Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”), the British/Somali poet. Here is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore.
Those lines are so painfully poignant as we recall images of the father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande two weeks ago, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria.
A year ago, we were shocked that the intentional cruelty of this administration could descend to such an unimagined level as to lock kids in cages as a strategy. Now it doesn’t shock us at all. Just more business as usual for the administration which was forced to admit there was no registry created to reunite children with their families, despite reassurances, and that a year later, some 300 are yet to be reunited. There are fears that some may be adopted without permission of their parents. Those fears are not unfounded. Families who agree to foster migrant children are told explicitly that they may not adopt those children. That didn’t stop one family in Michigan from suing to do exactly that, claiming they feared for the girl’s safety.
They probably read the glowing reviews from Bethany Christian Services about the joy of fostering a migrant child. Like Juanita. When Juanita and her older brother were apprehended by immigration, they were separated, and Juanita was placed in detention with other minors. Her brother was sent back to Guatemala. Juanita was sent to a family in Michigan. She didn’t want to go, but the testimonial claims that “over time, Juanita realized how much her foster parents cared for her. She slowly began to trust them. And eventually, that trust turned into love.” “Now,” she said, “when I think of family, the first thing that comes to mind is my foster family.” Today Juanita is completing a college degree in social work to help others navigate their own difficult journeys.
What an absolutely lovely sentiment, an uplifting outcome. I am grateful for families willing to offer a loving home. And horrified at how absolutely normal such testimonials portray the role of organizations like Bethany Christian Services, the Betsy DeVos funded agency, well connected and extremely well-compensated for their work. It may seem necessary and justified, but one day we’ll realize it is just as complicit as all the Christian denominations that facilitated the efforts of the federal government to “kill the Indian and save the man” during in the boarding school era. Another example of black and brown children ripped from their families, including plenty of “success stories” about children who were “educated” in those nightmare schools to become doctors and other professionals, overlooking the generational trauma of forced family separation.
Today’s reading is one of those success stories too, although the Juanita-esque aspect of it can be easily overlooked. There is a detail we often miss from the story we tell of Naaman. My seminary friend Katy Hawker, however, isn’t one to miss such details.
But first, the story: Naaman was an exalted army commander who had successfully led his soldiers to win difficult strategic battles. But this valiant soldier had a skin disease – sometimes called leprosy, though this was probably not that. As the story goes, during one of his successful campaigns against Israel, he brought a young girl back to be his wife’s servant. That girl suggested to Naaman’s wife that he should go see the prophet back in Samaria, in the territory of Israel, to be healed. Naaman asked the permission of his king, who agreed to send a letter to the King in Israel. When the king received the letter, however, he thought it must be a trick. “I’m not God, I can’t heal someone.” Naturally suspicious of his enemy, the king pondered, “What does he really want?” Elisha told the king to send him over. So Naaman, with all his many horses and chariots full of jewels and gold and gifts, stopped in front of Elisha’s house. Elisha had his servant tell Naaman to simply go wash in the River Jordan seven times and he would be clean as snow.
But the valiant and exalted army commander was furious. He was insulted that a mere servant spoke to him, not Elisha directly, and that he would tell him something so ridiculous. For one thing, someone of his stature was surely capable of a regimen more demanding than dunking himself in a river seven times. For another thing, the Jordan was a mud pit. The rivers back in Syria ran fresh and clean and pure, fed by the melting snow of the mountains. He was doubly insulted and underwhelmed. In a rage, he turned to go back home. But one of his servants carefully approached Naaman and suggested that if Elisha had told him to do something difficult, he would have done it. Why not do it if it’s simple? So Naaman, the great warrior humbled himself and went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as he was told, and his flesh was restored and became as clean as a young boy.
It’s a great story with a happy ending. There are themes of humility and trust and what happens when you swallow your pride and ask for a little help. It’s a good story for fiercely self-sufficient people who proclaim, “I can do it myself, thank you very much.” It’s a story of international cooperation between enemies. It’s a story of “ask and you shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” It’s a story for anyone who has refused a simple instruction, such as, I want peace in my soul, but don’t ask me to forgive my neighbor. I want a better relationship with my spouse, but don’t ask me to go to counseling. I want better friendships, but don’t ask me to be a better friend.
It’s a great story because Naaman, though reluctant, listened. It’s an even better story, however, because it all started with a little girl suggesting it. She, with no name and no power, proclaimed faith in the God of Israel and demonstrated God’s great power – available to everyone, not just those in Israel.
But wait. The little detail Katie mentioned? That girl? She was war booty; a captive. She was kidnapped from her home and made to be a slave. The spoils of war. With news stories for the past year about children in cages, how could we miss the detail that this girl was ripped from her family, too? Perhaps it’s because we can too easily turn her into a Juanita “success story.” Thanks to the great faith of the little girl, everything is OK because the valiant soldier was healed and made whole again. But what about her? Was she set free? Allowed to go back home? All of this “success” without naming the girl’s pain and trauma from being separated. Katie notes this is a “familiar pattern – when those in power celebrate the “faith” of the little ones on whose necks they stand. Accolades from the mighty for the faith of those they disempower.”
All of this is terrible and true. So, then what? What do we do with this?
I don’t envy those who must figure out how to handle the humanitarian crisis at our border. But I can’t help but notice the familiar response to black and brown children is to remove them from their parents. And for “religious” people like James Dobson to call them such things as illiterate and unhealthy and declare them a threat to “our culture.” Another white supremacist ever-adapting strategy to dehumanize black and brown people that must be dismantled.
So, there is one last part almost always left out when this story is told. Even the lectionary leaves this last part out. After Naaman’s skin is made whole, he returned home. He had come prepared to pay for his cure, so he brought loads of jewels and gold and clothing. Elisha refused payment. Grace and healing are not commodities. They are gifts. Free. Well, Elisha’s protégé Gehazi saw an opportunity for a little profit for himself. He chased after Naaman and told him that Elisha had changed his mind and wanted payment after all. Naaman was more than happy to oblige and even doubled the amount Gehazi had requested. When Gehazi got back home, Elisha asked where he had been. Like a teenager, he responded, “Nowhere.” “What have you been doing?” “Nothing.” But Elisha knew exactly what Gehazi had been doing. And so, for using the situation of free grace and healing to make a profit, Gehazi was stricken with Naaman’s skin disease, which, Elisha proclaimed, will “now cling to you and to your descendants forever. And immediately, Gehazi’s skin became as flaky as snow.”
I don’t know which makes this ending “happier.” Whether it’s thanks to the faith of that nameless little girl so Naaman’s skin was restored or the divine justice for those like Gehazi who seek to profit off the misery of others?
Like politicians on both sides of the aisles. Like companies such as the GEO Group and CoreCiviv who earned $985 million from ICE contracts in 2017 alone. Or Southwest Key which in the past few years has amassed almost $1 billion in contracts. Just one in the lucrative, secretive world of migrant-shelters. 547 Wayfair employees had enough. They walked off the job, writing, “We believe that by selling products to contractors who enable the violation of children’s rights are complicit in furthering the inhumane actions of our government.” Now, Bethany Christian Services, which collects $700 per night per child, doesn’t seem similarly concerned, nor do they seem concerned about Gehazi’s skin disease for profiting off misery.
What can you do? Are you certain you don’t have stock in companies like the GEO Group that profit off the misery of children? Do you have social responsibility screens on your investments? You can join us on our week long border immersion experience in September. Several UCC churches in Metro Denver, including ours, are collaborating right now to create a sanctuary space for families facing deportation in the building of one of our recently closed churches. It will need funding and volunteers. Those are only a few things.
Forced separation is simply wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. And it should be understood by all to be unchristian. But if they must be in our care, temporarily, are the children well cared for? Do they have enough to eat? Do they have soap, a toothbrush? Is someone lifting them when they cry? Is someone wiping away their tears? Are the children well?
And is someone holding the adults charged with their care accountable for their crimes against humanity?
Oh Lord, we pray for your divine justice for those who profit off the misery of children. And pray for the children and their families.
"For Children at Our Borders"
By Alden Solovy
God of mothers and fathers,
God of babies and children,
Youth and teens,
The voice of agony echoes across the land,
As children are taken from their parents,
Perverting our values,
Perverting the ways of justice and peace.
So that a few may reap the political rewards of their suffering
By playing tough at our borders.
Source of grace,
Creator of kindness and goodness,
You call upon us to stand in the name of justice and fairness,
To witness against this abuse of power,
To battle the systematic assault on human beings,
To speak out against their suffering.
Bless those who rise up against this horror.
Bless those who plead on behalf of the oppressed and the subjugated before the seats of power.
Bless these children
Who wait in misery
To be reunited with their families
Bless those bondage at the hand of the U.S. government.
Grant comfort and consolation.
Release them. Free them. Heal them from trauma.
Reunite them with their families.
Hasten the day of their reunion.
Blessed are You, God of All Being,
Who summons us to oppose violence, slavery and injustice.
 https://medium.com/poem-of-the-day/warsan-shire-home-46630fcc90ab - I just used a short excerpt
 Slightly adapted - https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2018/06/19/3-prayers-children-our-borders
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 30, 2019
“If Not for the Drag Queens”
Stonewall at 50
I will hope to assume that everyone has heard of Stonewall. Who has heard of Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera?
Malcolm was born in 1945 and at the age of 5, began wearing dresses, but stopped after being teased. After graduation from high school, Marsha went to New York City with a bag of clothes and $15, landing in Greenwich Village, which, although at the time it was one of the most tolerant places for people like her, it didn’t protect them from constant police harassment. Harassment ordered for anyone who didn’t conform to gender or sexual norms. For example, individuals had to be wearing at least three items of clothing that matched your gender.
Isn’t that interestingly specific? Three items of clothing. Not two, not four. And just what would have constituted the clothing of your gender? Real men only wear cotton briefs? And can you even imagine what it would feel like to have the police checking your body for the right clothing and counting out loud? One, two… Or can you imagine being the officer assigned to carry out this particular law, which they did not pass, but for which they were responsible to enforce? By anatomical exam if necessary.
Those were small indignities, however, in the face of the reality that no one would hire someone like Marsha. So, like a lot of the others at the time, Marsha was frequently homeless and often worked as a prostitute to survive. She was religious. She loved Jesus, she said, because, “he is the only man I [can] really trust. He listens to all my problems, and he never laughed at me.”
Marsha was generous to a fault and had a jubilant and open personality. She took in anyone in need. Which is how she met Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia’s father abandoned her at birth. Her mother killed herself when she was 3. Now living with her grandmother, whenever Sylvia was caught trying on her clothing and makeup, she was beaten. By 11, she ran away and became a child prostitute. That’s when she met Marsha on the street. Marsha had a habit of taking in young people and becoming the mother they never had, offering the stability and love of a home they had never experienced.
Both were at the Stonewall Inn that night 50 years ago, on the night of June 28, 1969, when police raided at 1:20 am, the second time that week alone. Interesting side note. The mob owned most of the gay bars in New York, running them as private clubs because such bars couldn’t get liquor licenses. It was a cash cow for the mob. Some claim that’s why Stonewall was raided that night. But the patrons didn’t care what the reason was. For whatever combination of reasons, this time, they had had enough.
Patrons had never fought back before. Police counted on it. But this time when police hit a black woman named Storme wearing men’s pants, she hit back. They tried three times to push her into the police car. She kept fighting her way out. Someone then yelled to turn over the car. Things escalated from there. Merely taunting the police became throwing coins, then beer cans; then cobblestones scooped out of the street to throw at the bar where police gone in to take refuge; to then pulling a parking meter out of the ground to use as a battering ram to force the door open; to setting trash cans on fire; to throwing lighter fluid and a match into the bar through broken windows. It was a riot.
Inspector Pine was within seconds of ordering his officers to use their guns, but backup finally arrived and began to haul rioters away. But not everyone. Tension remained high. Added by a growing number of people from the neighborhood and other bars who gathered around, all of them unaware that they were witnessing the birth of the modern LGBTQIA+ liberation movement. A riot by queer people. A riot, of course, as Martin Luther King, Jr, reminded us “is simply the language of the oppressed.” “Queer people,” a name now reclaimed by the descendants of those who fought back.
Stonewall wasn’t, however, the first time queer people fought back. There was the “Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot” in LA in 1959. The “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot” in San Francisco in 1966 and the “Sip-In” at Julius’s in New York City. The Cooper’s and Compton’s riots involved the same kind of crowd that gathered at the Stonewall Inn. Racially mixed, mostly poor, men who called themselves drag queens, women who dressed in shirts and trousers, and a collection of people who weren’t welcome anywhere else.
The Sip-In, however, was markedly different. A group of well-dressed gay men challenged the law against serving homosexuals by asking to be served. The bartender denied them, which ultimately led to a court case that overturned the law. One of the first gay rights groups ever formed, the Mattachine Society, in the 1950s, believed in the power of respectability. That kind of contrast over the means and method of social change has roiled in queer and other marginalized communities ever since. Is respectability inherently better?
Stonewall wasn’t a one-night event. Skirmishes continued throughout the weekend and into a sixth day. At “Gay liberation” marches and protests that followed in the days and years after, people like Marsha and Sylvia were pushed off stage. Literally. Things came to a head at the Pride March in 1973 when Sylvia was repeatedly blocked from speaking. When she finally grabbed the microphone, she shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queens, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”
Sylvia was booed and jeered, and she took the rejection hard. After the speech, she attempted suicide. Marsha found her and saved her life. Sylvia eventually gave up activism but not before she and Marsha co-founded an organization known as STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha pressed on and continued to mother kids who escaped the brutality of their homes seeking love and acceptance in New York City. In the 1980s she began caring for people with AIDS, disproportionally affecting exactly those same young black and brown people who looked up to her. Her life ended in tragedy when her body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. She had been the victim of repeated violent attacks. Police ruled her death a suicide. Friends believe she was murdered. To this day, the case is still open. There is a documentary about Marsha’s death and life on Netflix right now. Sylvia Rivera died in 2002.
New York City announced earlier this month that both will be honored with a monument. It will be among the first such dedications to transgender people in the world. The current statues outside Stonewall Inn, declared a national monument by President Obama, are rightfully criticized for not portraying real heroes like Marsha who was black, Sylvia who was Latinx, both of whom called themselves drag queens.
In the intervening 50 years, so much has changed and so little has changed. Denver’s first Pride event in 1975 was a small gathering. The first parade was the following year. Shari Wilkins was there. She said, “It wasn't much of a parade. But Purnell Steen and his band played on the back of a flatbed truck. Sweet.”
Quite unlike this year’s parade of hundreds of thousands, officially titled “The Coors Light Denver Pride Parade.” Those who have lived in Denver longer than I would testify to that unlikely alliance. Is that social progress or smart marketing? I saw a tiny little hand-printed sign along the parade route this year. “Queer Liberation or Rainbow Capitalism?” It’s nice to have “respectable” businesses show their support. There were hundreds of float entries, including from major banks, dentists, car dealers, insurance and accounting firms, Xcel Energy. But would any of them have allowed Marsha and Sylvia to ride on their elaborate and expensive floats? Indeed, how little has really changed.
Instead, trans women of color like Marsha and Sylvia are still among those most likely to experience violence and death. Rejected youth are still homeless and prostitution is still used as a means of survival. The murder rate for trans women of color is outrageous. Just as I was writing this on Friday morning, news came that Brooklyn Lindsay was found dead in Kansas City, on the same street corner where Tamara Dominguez was murdered four years ago. Last year, while President Bone-Spur was preparing to ban the proud and brave transgender soldiers already serving, 29 trans women of color were murdered.
At the same time, I have to say it feels good to have people want to support you. And for our power to have increased so exponentially. Especially in the United Church of Christ. During seminary in the late 1980s, I went out and spoke to churches who wanted to see a live homosexual. I would allow them to debate my humanity. I let them ask why they should accept me. I listened as they complained that next it will be the pedophiles asking for compassion. After guest preaching one Sunday, a woman walked around me looking me up and down. “I’ve never seen one of you in person before.” She was actually very nice and genuinely curious. If not a little creepy. But it was soon after that I decided to end being the Gay on Parade, declaring the debate over. On the national setting of the UCC, the debate has also been largely settled. At least we thought it was until a new kind of resolution was debated at General Synod this past week in Milwaukee.
Over the last 15-20 years, a significant number of the most conservative UCC churches have left, especially after General Synod declared support for marriage equality in 2005. Though to be fair, conservatives have been leaving since 1948 when they formed a separate denomination called the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. After 2005, a group remained, however, and organized themselves into the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” movement to encourage “UCC churches, pastors, and members who consider themselves ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional) to remain in the UCC rather than separating.” About 70 churches formally declare this affiliation while, on the other hand, over 1,500 churches have formally declared themselves Open and Affirming – about 1/3 of all congregations. The other 2/3 are on a range from being open and affirming in practice but not name; to ones which simply won’t talk about it for fear their churches would split; to ones who have more in common with folks who call themselves Faithful and Welcoming.
So, a resolution came to General Synod to deny the Faithful and Welcoming folks a booth in the exhibit hall. The reason? Their promotional materials said 1) marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, 2) churches should change their bylaws to disallow practicing homosexuals as clergy and same sex marriages in the church, and 3) use a litmus test in clergy interviews whether they would consent to officiate at same sex ceremonies.
The argument was that if they are banned from the exhibit hall, then attendees would be spared the trauma of encountering their “emotionally and spiritually hurtful” message. Should a denomination whose resolutions call for marriage equality and affirm LGBTQ clergy include space for a group whose values are at odds with that?
But what would that say to conservatives within the church? This is not about letting Focus on the Family have a booth. These are our siblings in the UCC. They came out with a response that included these two statements in particular: “We affirm the civil rights of and believe in an extravagant welcome for LGBTQ persons in the life of church. And we acknowledge with deep regret past and present pain inflicted on LGBTQ persons by self-identified people who are evangelical, conservative, orthodox, and traditional (ECOTs) within and beyond the UCC.” They removed the three objectional items from their website and materials and asked to remain in relationship. At a hearing before debate, the founder offered an apology. It was a stunning reversal.
In advance of formal debate, the Open and Affirming Coalition offered its own written response opposing the exclusion of Faithful and Welcoming Churches, stating that “as a movement and a church, we need to stay in relationship with non-Open and Affirming churches, because otherwise there is no possibility of transformation,” calling for “graceful engagement.”
That did not settle the matter, however. The floor debate was painful as queer youth, in particular, shared very emotional testimonies that the church should be a safe space. The counter-arguments in support of conservatives were often by other LGBT people, including one pastor whose own ordination was subject to painful delays. Ultimately, the matter was tabled and sent to the United Church Board, seeking to craft some alternative, middle ground. Naturally, that was not a satisfactory answer for some who felt that meant we were backing down from our commitments to LGBT people.
My perspective is that it is better for us to stay engaged. I am grateful for the presence of anyone in our denomination who wishes to be in graceful engagement. At this moment in our country’s history, as we struggle to speak to one another across hard lines, we can demonstrate that it is possible. That we are transformed by being in relationship. It is also a sharp contrast with the United Methodist Church right now on the brink of schism because conservatives want to force progressives and moderates out of the church. Very angrily, “just get out already.”
I was pleased that we agreed to a temporary pause. And yet, as we commemorate 50 years of Stonewall, I wonder whether Marsha and Sylvia would agree. Have they been once again sacrificed on an altar of respectability? If marginalized people tell us that they have been hurt, whose voice shall we heed? In the end, conservatives have other options. For many queer people, the UCC is one of only a few places of spiritual refuge. Even then, honestly, how many of our 1,500 Open and Affirming Churches would be comfortable having Marsha or Sylvia speak from the pulpit?
How powerful would it be to hear Marsha testify that Jesus “is the only man I [can] really trust. That he listens to all my problems,” and in particular, “he never laughed at me.”
A final word. The officer who led the police into the Stonewall Inn that night, Inspector Pine, formally apologized for his role, 15 years before the police department gave an official apology. He also said, understanding the power of redemption, the possibility of transformation, “if what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.” But, nothing would have happened that night if not for the drag queens.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world