Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 10, 2016
"What Do You Mean ‘We Can’t’?"
Genesis 1:1-2:3 – Common English Bible
See the end of this sermon for the full text
The Bible begins with a litany of abundance – it was good, and, the second day, it was good, and the third day, it was good, and the fourth day, it was good, and the fifth day, it was good, and the sixth day – it was very good. So good, in fact, that God took a break. “I gotta get out of the office.” And why not? There was enough. Plants had enough. Wildlife had enough. Humanity had enough. Everything in all of creation had enough. It was very good!
Litanies of abundance infuse creation from the beginning. And it continues into the story of Genesis. One example: Abraham and Sarah, who at 100 years old were far too old to have children; well, they were promised children who would become so numerous, they could no more be counted than all the stars in the sky or sands on the beach. Sarah laughed at that. She scoffed. Nine months later she gave birth. And it was very good!
Cracks in creation’s litany of abundance, however, began to appear, and it all came to an end not too much further into Genesis. In chapter 47, Pharaoh dreamed there would be a famine, so he got organized. Now, preparing for a famine is a good idea. But he wasn’t primarily interested in organizing relief for his people. He decided to control and monopolize the food supply, affecting every other nation around him. “If there’s not enough, let’s get everything!” He effectively starved everyone out until he ultimately created a class of people who were slaves.
With this insight from Walter Brueggemann, he points out that first he took people’s possessions as collateral to get food – to survive. The second year he took the people’s land as collateral to get more food – so they wouldn’t starve to death. The third year he took their lives – their freedom. They had nothing left to give. And so that’s how the Hebrew people became slaves. A greedy Pharaoh who thought “There’s not enough, so let’s get everything.”
But was that just about greed? Control? Power? Or was it also about fear? And what happens when your motivation is fear? I am afraid of people who are afraid. Or rather, people with power who are afraid.
On Friday morning I had to start my sermon over a third time. I had been planning to preach today to celebrate the abundance with which you and I gave to make our church home safe, functional, energy efficient, and hospitable. Radically hospitable.
But Wednesday I knew I had to at least add mention of Alton Sterling. Shot for selling CDs outside a convenience store. Terribly reminiscent of Eric Garner and his loose cigarettes. Then I had to make another adjustment on Thursday morning. Philando Castile, Mr. Phil, as the children affectionately called him at the school where he worked. Shot for having a broken taillight. Terribly reminiscent of Sandra Bland. Alton and Mr. Phil were shot by police officers who seemed terribly afraid.
I was struck by the terror in the voice of the officer who stood over Mr. Castile, his gun shaking while pointed through the window. Shaking as four bullets pierced the flesh of a man sitting in the car with his girlfriend, as his 4 year old daughter watched. As I tried to process this for a sermon today, as the whole string of killings on video this past year, I left on Thursday having written, can we just stop and scream right now?
When I came in Friday morning, a whole new twist. Eleven officers shot in Dallas; five dead.
1) Patrick Zamarripa, 32, father of a 2 year old, an Iraq War vet
2) Brent Thompson, 43, married only two weeks earlier to a fellow officer
3) Michael Krol, 40, living his dream to be a police officer
4) Michael Smith, father of 2, former Army Ranger, at age 55 not interested in retirement
5) Lorne Ahrens, a former semi-pro football player with two children ages 8 and 10
Their murders were not accidental in the context of racial bigotry. This was a coordinated attack by someone/someones who knew what they were doing.
On Wednesday and Thursday morning, the continuing outrage of African Americans and other People of Color feeling long under siege by cops. On Friday morning, officers feeling under siege by African Americans. Others fanning passions and peddling fear. Both communities feeling battered by the other until we are all black and blue.
I hesitate to say it, but you can quit your job. You can’t quit being a black man in America. Similarly, I respect those who have told me that I can keep being gay a secret. It’s not a choice I would want to make, but I have that privilege. In fact, I do use that privilege all the time. When we stop at a truck stop in the middle of Montana or Wyoming on the way to my mother’s, I don’t wave a rainbow flag. But when Art and Lance walk into the same store with me, I know it’s different. I stand and watch Lance at the candy counter to make sure that the employees who are watching Lance won’t label him a suspect and shoot him over a bag of skittles. Such caution is warranted in a world that sees him and is afraid. White people who see 12 year old black boys and think they are 18 year old men, and dangerous. Such fear.
I don’t want anyone to be afraid. Not police officers, whom I respect for doing a dangerous job. In fact, thank goodness thousands of men and women are willing to do it. I don’t want Muslims or Mexicans to be afraid; or immigrants – standing in front of a Pharaoh begging for food to survive; nor queer people at a club…
This morning I could also have preached about 44 dead at the airport in Istanbul. Or 200 killed in Baghdad. 23 killed at a café in Bangladesh. Or Medina – terror at the second holiest mosque during the holiest last week of the holiest month of Ramadan. So, I think, can we just stop and scream right now? Or weep.
We were not meant to live in fear. When we were created, we had enough. Everyone had enough. And it was good. It was so good. Instead, today people we love are black and blue from fear. Manufactured and manipulated. How can we get past living with fear?
Author Jamila Diallo said, “Do not walk away. Fear is just the beginning, it is not the end. We were not meant to live in fear, so do not let it cripple you.” Fear is just the beginning, not the end. Of course, that’s easy to say since I have a nearly zero chance of being shot during a traffic stop. And easy to say when in the performance of my job, I don’t have to worry that someone here will kill me in the line of duty.
So, how can we get past living with fear of each other? One thing is to see that our struggles are one, not separate, not either or. Not fighting that either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter.
There’s an old Aesop’s fable that says: An old man lay on his deathbed worrying about the future of his family. He had three sons who could not stop fighting. They couldn’t see eye to eye on anything and quarreled all day and all night. The man worried, what will become of my family? Whenever he tried to speak to them, begging them to forgive each other and live in peace, they just ignored him.
One day he had an idea. He called all three to his bedside. He asked the eldest to bring a bundle of sticks. He untied them and asked each son to break one in half. They assumed their dying father was cold and the sticks were to be put in the fire. Each son easily broke his stick in half.
Then he asked his sons to tie the bundle back together. They did. The father told them, “Now break it in half.” The first son tried, but couldn’t. The other two laughed at him uproariously. So the second brother said, “I can do it.” But he couldn’t. So the third said, “Here. Watch a man do it.” Each one tried but couldn’t.
The father said, “You are like these sticks, my sons. If you stick together, no one and no thing will be able to harm you. But if you continue to quarrel and divide yourselves, your enemies will easily break you in half and destroy you.”
That’s a beautiful story, but I’m not sure how practical it is in our polarized and divided context. I can and do have hope. I refuse to let the fearful stop me from being hopeful because our God is bigger than that.
But, then again, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1966: "[The] law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also." Our hopefulness must take its place in action. And there are actions, some even simple to implement if enough pressure by hopeful people is applied.
Creation began with a litany of abundance. Of course, the six day creation story, seven if you count resting, is a myth. But a myth doesn’t mean that something isn’t true, just that truth isn’t necessarily literal.
The truth of creation is that God’s original intention was of goodness and abundance. The world began in Original Blessing, not Original Sin. To live as people of faith means to live into God’s intention for us.
When fear rules society, some people’s lives matter less. When fear rules in churches, for many people, the church stops mattering at all.
There is a lot of fear in churches today. The predominant narrative in churches is decline – fewer people, fewer resources. Litanies of “We can’t.” Survival has become the main mission of too many faith communities. And as one would expect, when survival is your mission, you won’t survive.
Three years ago we chose a different narrative. We embraced God’s original intention for us. A litany of abundance. And so you and I made sacrificial pledges. Fear that “we can’t” had played a role long enough.
We laid out a big, hairy, audacious goal. A capital campaign of $800,000, plus mission giving. Few people believed we could do that. Even our consultant said we could only do half. And sure enough, pledges came in at just over one half - $438,000. (Some doubted we could reach 200k) But that’s not the whole story. Those pledges plus additional gifts bumped our total receipts in three years closer to $500,000.
But that’s still not the whole story. When we were presented with the opportunity to host 20 women 26 nights per year, a huge undertaking, we could easily have decided, “We can’t. We’re too small. That’s asking too much…” Instead, leaders stepped forward and we followed.
And because of the Women’s Homelessness Initiative, Energy Outreach Colorado agreed to add to our already underway capital improvements. Now, had there been no capital campaign, there would have been no grant. They invested in us because we had invested in ourselves. And so, with their grant, the total spent on our home climbed to $600,000.
But we decided there was another “we can’t” that we could. Let’s put solar energy panels on our roof! But with so many other things going on at the same time, how could we do that too? We figured it out. We trusted in God’s litany of abundance and now share in the absolute abundance of sun in the Colorado sky. And with a little hail coming out of that beautiful blue sky – well, it actually must have been some pretty big hail – the insurance company gave us a new $150,000 roof. In the middle of that, we said farewell to Temple Micah. Montessori expanded into their space and spent $40,000 on improvements.
Somehow, in the end, when we add it all up, we find ourselves with a total investment in our home of over $800,000, plus mission giving. Plus the Women’s Homelessness Initiative, plus bloom!, plus a second paid Sunday School teacher, plus a renewed effort at faith formation with a Family Day @ La Foret, not to mention ongoing and increasing support for our monthly mission partners, senior support suppers, orphans in Ethiopia – we can’t possibly support 20 orphans on top of everything else…
What do you mean “we can’t?” We just did. This is a litany of abundance from God, not the fear that there’s not enough.
And if we could do all that, then we can also help change our world’s seemingly intractable climate of fear and systems of racial injustice. And gun violence. And neighborhood re-segregation. We can be people of faith, not relying only on our own sense of good will, and therefore subject to burn out or compassion fatigue, but opening ourselves to the power of the Living God. If we do that, there is enough.
What do you mean “we can’t?” God can. And that’s enough.
Genesis 1:1-2:3 - Common English Bible (CEB)
1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth—2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— 3 God said,
“Let there be light.”
And so light appeared. 4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
There was evening and there was morning: the first day.
6 God said,
“Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.”
7 God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. 8 God named the dome Sky.
There was evening and there was morning: the second day.
9 God said,
“Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.”
And that’s what happened. 10 God named the dry land Earth, and named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. 11 God said,
“Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.”
And that’s what happened.12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.
13 There was evening and there was morning: the third day.
14 God said,
“Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.”
And that’s what happened. 16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.
19 There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.
20 God said,
“Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.”
21 God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. 22 Then God blessed them:
“Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”
23 There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.
24 God said,
“Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.”
And that’s what happened. 25 God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. 26 Then God said,
“Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them,
“Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
29 Then God said,
“I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.”
And that’s what happened.31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.
There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.
2 The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. 2 On the sixth day God completed all the work to be done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work which God had done. 3 God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.
 Walter Brueggeman, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999
 Credit Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman
 You Don’t Learn That in School
 “The Bundle of Sticks,” Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world