Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 29, 2020
“These Are Inspiring Times”
Romans 8: 5-9a – Common English Bible
People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.
9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you.
These are inspiring times. Yes, these are also difficult and exhausting times. Especially for anyone wondering how they will pay their mortgage or rent and utilities and buy food. I don’t mean to dismiss anyone’s anxiety and weeks more of uncertainty. But I will say it again, these are inspiring times.
By now we all know the evidence: Doctors and nurses running into the fire, not from it. Like members of the military, we should greet every one of them: “Thank you for your service.” And respiratory therapists, intake workers, and those who mop the floors and take out the trash, wishing those garbage cans were more full of masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment. They’re not in it for the glory, and I wish their sacrifice wasn’t necessary, but they prove, these are inspiring times. And think of all the people at home making masks to protect health care workers. Think of all the students and retired medical professionals who have answered the call to sign up for service.
Who knew that working in grocery stores and pharmacies and pot shops and liquor stores would require front-line heroism? Everyone of them deserves to hear thank you. In fact, I said that to a worker at Costco the other day. “Thank you for working for us.” She gave me a curious look, and then nodded her head. She understood what I meant.
Workers at Amazon distribution centers, shipping clerks at FedEx, UPS truck drivers, postal service workers – on the front lines of the war against the coronavirus. They didn’t sign up for this either, they don’t qualify for hazard pay, but the fact that they’re still going to work is a sign. These are inspiring times.
We are witnessing levels of heroism and sacrifice from everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes. And exemplary leadership from mayors and governors of all political persuasions around the country, Republican and Democrat, willing to do what is necessary for public health and safety. These are inspiring times.
I’m grateful for every virologist, disease specialist, lab worker. Scientists are the new rock stars. And at the top, Anthony Fauci. Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, every American should stand at the ready to offer Anthony Fauci a kidney, a liver transplant, a heart, lung…here, anything you need it, you take it. Anyone willing to stand at the podium after the president and say “No, don’t do that,” when this is over, should be honored with a statue at the center of every city and town in America. With the biggest statue reserved for in the front of the White House with a plaque: “This man saved us from the president.”
One of the readings from the lectionary assigned for today is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s surprisingly relevant to our times. It reads: “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.”
The contrast between selfish and self-less couldn’t be more stark than it is today, more life threatening or life giving.
Peter Wehner described what we need of leaders during a crisis: “calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; the capacity to think and carefully weigh competing options and conflicting needs. We need leaders who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than she or he does. We need leaders who can draw people together, people whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.”
He then added, “There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities” than our president. The good news is that there are nearly 325 million people in America willing to save the lives of their fellow citizens by sheltering at home. Well, almost that many…
Among the unwilling is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Unlike most colleges and universities around the nation, Falwell brought Liberty University students back to campus after spring break. In order to prove that liberals are hysterical, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of students in dorms. Furthermore, he ordered professors who normally teach their online classes from home to come to teach from campus instead. Faculty who question that, like Professor Marybeth Davis Baggett, are immediately terminated.
Trump has said he wants to pack churches on Easter. Why? In order to prove he is winning over the virus. To be the savior of the country. What will happen if his followers do precisely that to protect his ego?
Well, Paul told the Romans exactly what will happen: “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death.” I don’t normally interpret scripture literally. Rather, I ask about the meaning behind the text? What is the metaphor? As progressive Christians we often say, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” But if Trump wants Christians to pack churches on Easter to show that he is smarter than the experts, well, I don’t fear metaphorical death but literal death.
Paul said, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death. But the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.” Like the heroes and every day citizens I mentioned above.
There are numerous lists of the gifts of the Spirit among Paul’s letters. In First Corinthians, he spoke of knowledge and wisdom. To the Romans he spoke of mercy and generosity. First Peter, not written by Paul, includes anyone who offers service and hospitality. Various lists include teachers and pastors.
These are inspiring times as we watch teachers learn overnight how to provide online instruction. But even more so, I got a little teary eyed when I saw a news clip of children and parents standing in front of their homes in Dallas holding homemade signs and pompoms. They waited along the sidewalk like sports fans. But instead of athletes, they were cheering on their favorite teachers. Teachers threw a car parade for their students who were stuck at home. A young boy on his bike yelled, “They’re coming!” as the first car turned the corner. Horns blared while children called out their teachers’ names and held up their signs. The normally quiet street was filled with people — keeping their safe distances, of course — laughing and yelling kind words to each other. The teachers blew kisses and yelled: “I miss you so much!” “Make sure you’re reading!” and “We will get through this together.” Yes, these are inspiring times.
Pastors are creating whole blooper reels of hilarious mishaps and accidents during their attempts to provide worship online. A priest in Italy didn’t realize he had enabled his filters, so as he spoke the words of the mass, googly eyes poked out and long tongues rolled out; at various times he was wearing a helmet and a space suit. A vicar in England leading his first online Bible study sat too close to some candles. As his sweater caught on fire, he calmly exclaimed, “Oh dear, I’m on fire.” If you watched our service last week on Facebook, you probably had a crook in your neck. The picture was sideways. We are all trying to learn as quickly as we can a new method for preaching the old gospel. But one of our viewers wrote, “Don’t worry, I could still hear you.” These are hilarious, and grace-filled, inspiring times.
I said it last week and will say again this week, these are inspiring times because you are willing to shelter at home in order to spare the lives of people we don’t even know. I posted a meme on our church Facebook page this week that I believe sums it all up:
“What we are experiencing is Lent. Giving up everything so that others may live.” It puts the inconvenience of sheltering at home into perspective. And reminds us to be grateful that we have a home in which to shelter.
Just as I was reflecting on this scripture about selfishness, I saw in the news how the Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save the economy for their grandchildren. Folks like Brett Hume on Fox thought it was a brilliant idea. Glenn Beck agreed, “I would rather die than kill the country” – meaning the economy. To be clear, that is NOT being self-less. And Bonnie Kristian summed up what many of us feel instead: “America without our elders isn’t the America we want to save.”
We talked about this on Thursday when we resumed our Lunch and Lectionary. Instead of Noodles and Company, we now sit in front of our computer screens on Zoom. The Lieutenant Governor’s comments, prompted by Trump’s demand to reopen the country, prompted our group to ask: what is the price of the economy? Are we really asked to pay with human life? Does the economy exist for humanity or humanity for the economy? In many ways, we are learning about core human values during this crisis.
Many people cringed at the sight of spring breakers on the beaches in Florida. We especially cringed at one young man who proclaimed “If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” He was condemned on social media by millions. But his response is inspiring:
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. I can’t apologize enough to the people I’ve offended. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, or pity. I want to use this as motivation to become a better person, a better son, a better friend, and a better citizen. Like many others, I have elderly people in my life who I adore more than anything in the world. Our generation may feel invincible, but we have a responsibility to listen and follow the recommendations. Simply apologizing doesn’t justify my behavior. I’m simply owning up to my mistakes and taking full responsibility for my actions.”
Taking full responsibility!? How about this young man for president? I trust that these times are inspiring young people to consider lives of service to their fellow citizens. Back to JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
These are inspiring times. They’re also difficult and dangerous for many. Yet they remind us of the essence of the life of Jesus who demonstrated why and how to give up everything so that others may live.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 22, 2020
“I Want to Do Something”
John 9: 1-41 – Common English Bible
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
Follow the rest of the story through the sermon.
I want to do something. I feel for all of you parents with children at home – whether a toddler or a teenager or a few of each. There are only so many Steve Spangler science experiments you can do in your kitchen. All while you are supposed to also be working, too. I feel for you.
So there’s “I want to do something.” And there’s also “I want to do something!” Something meaningful. Something purposeful. Something to make a difference during this dreadful pandemic.
I’m grateful to all of you who have reached out to ask what you can do – does someone need groceries? Does someone need something. Anything? Well, I’ve got an idea for you. But first, the gospel. Let me finish telling the story.
Jesus saw a man blind since birth. His disciples asked, “who sinned, causing this man to be born blind. Him or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
What a ridiculous question, right? Disabilities are not the result of sin or some form of punishment. They are not consequences for some misbehavior in a previous life.
That’s what I wish Jesus had said to his followers. I have to tell you – I don’t like the answer Jesus gave. Or I just don’t understand it. He said, “The man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus suggests, or seems to suggest, that there is some purpose behind the man’s blindness. But what kind of terrible God would make a man live without sight for decades, consign him to live as a beggar, so he could be an object lesson?
But if that’s not bad enough, the blind man then heard Jesus spit on the ground. Gross. But imagine his shock when he felt Jesus take that spit mixed with some dirt and spread it on his eyes. Super gross. Then, Jesus told him to go wash his face in a nearby pond. Miraculously, when the man came back, he was able to see.
The neighbors didn’t believe it, though. Some said, “That’s not him.” Others said, “Yes, it is.” While they argued, the man tried to chime in, “It’s me.” Someone said, “No, it’s not.” These neighbors demanded an explanation. So, he told everyone that Jesus put some spit and mud on his eyes, gross, he went and washed his face. “And now I can see.”
They marched the man to the Pharisees and proceeded to complain that Jesus opened his eyes on the Sabbath. “Well,” the Pharisees retorted, “clearly that man is not from God because it’s not OK to do that.” But the Pharisees were divided. Some of them said, but “a sinner could never heal like that.” So, they asked the man his opinion. He said, “He’s a prophet.”
The Pharisees didn’t like that answer. So, they marched the man to his parent’s house, with all those curious neighbors tailing behind. They demanded an answer. “Is this your son, whom you claim has been blind since birth.” They nervously replied, “Yes, this is our son, but we don’t know why he can see now. Ask him.” They were afraid to displease the Pharisees.
Their son simply reiterated, “once I was blind, but now I can see.” The Pharisees went back to complaining that Jesus is clearly a sinner and demanded answers to whole bunch of questions. The man actually dared to throw a little shade back at them. “What’s your problem? Do you want to become his disciple too?” They weren’t amused. “How dare you!” And they drove him out of the village.
Now, Jesus was absent for all this drama but when he heard what was going on, he returned to the scene. He asked the man if he believed. “Yes, Lord, I believe.” Jesus told him, and everyone standing around, “I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees were angry. “Surely you’re not suggesting we are blind.” Jesus replied, “Well…” If it talks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck. Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but you get the point.
It’s a pretty long story and a little more complex than my simplification, but you can read it for yourself in John chapter 9. There’s probably a dozen different things I could say about the story, but I want to share two connections at the very beginning that I believe relate to this bizarre world we are living in and through right now.
First, the initial question of the disciples: who can be blamed? And second, what has been revealed about our nation, ourselves, and something we can do?
Who can we blame? Sometimes we engage in blaming because there’s a certain satisfaction to it when we’re tired of other emotions. There’s plenty of it going around. Hoaxers point fingers at the liberal media and claim it’s all an excuse to make the president look bad. Trump calls it the Chinese Virus. Blame them for making him look bad. Therefore, his weakling sycophants fall into line and dutifully call it the Wuhan Virus, while Fox News doesn’t think that’s racist enough. They prefer Kung Flu. On the other hand, others gain a sense of satisfaction blaming the chickens for finally coming home to roost, calling an out of control pandemic the consequence of the president’s deadly narcissism. “I take no responsibility for my ineptitude or downplaying it as a hoax for too long.” And then can’t even be bothered to offer the country a moment of empathy. Boy, I sure do hope those who have been blind begin to see clearly what a dangerous man he is.
Fingers pointed. Blame in every direction. But notice, Jesus dismissed the talk of blame by his disciples. They asked who do we blame? But, Jesus just moved on, looking for a deeper meaning to the man’s blindness. So, on to my second question.
Jesus said the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It seems a little insensitive, but let’s ask, what is the deeper meaning he trying to reveal?
What has this pandemic revealed so far? That fear causes people hoard toilet paper. But one thing, certainly, is that our social safety net is in shreds. Advocates have been saying this for years, but the deadly consequences have never quite been so exposed. Unique among nations, we prioritize the interests of health care profits over the goal of healthy people. The coronavirus has hopefully revealed to more people what should have already been clearly obvious: not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. Not to mention, it’s simply cruel.
As our modern-day prophet, the Rev. Dr. William Barber said, “When we get a handle on this virus, we can’t return to the apathy that has for far too long ignored the moral crisis of poverty and the racial disparities that mark American inequality.” That’s one revelation.
Back to those uncomfortable words of Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That sounds like another type of cruelty. But here’s what I think he might have meant, or I hope he meant, and how that can apply today. We don’t wish for tragedy, but we can’t waste one, either. What do we learn from this?
Yet, largely, it’s still too early to know. And frankly, are we really ready for such analysis? It’s only been a few days – although, with the level of stress we’ve been under, it feels like we’ve been at this for months.
How many different emotions have you felt this week? Sadness, anger… Basically, anything related to grieving. Exhaustion. Moments of hopelessness. Lots of questions, like, will this really last for 8 weeks? Or through the summer?
In a matter of days and then hours we were forced to separate from one another. All of a sudden, we lost opportunities to gather – at school, at work, at church, and even at grandma’s house. Community was ripped away from us precisely at the time we needed it most – when things are uncertain and frightening. For all its faults, at least social media is allowing us to keep social. It reminds us that we belong to one another. We are part of a community, even when it is invisible.
And yet, that might be cold comfort with the staggering pace of loss. What stages of grief have you passed back and forth, in and through, during the past week, or sometimes in just a few hours?
And therefore, we really have to think about how to pace ourselves. Or at least I do, and remember this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And even better, to make it a relay marathon.
So, back to: I don’t just want to do something. I want to do something. Something meaningful. Something purposeful.
Well, you are doing the most important thing that anyone could ever do right now. Your practice of social distancing is saving lives. One pastor in Connecticut, said “social distancing is a profound calling – a holy task of love.” You are saving someone’s grandma. You are saving the neighbor with a compromised immune system. You are saving a child with a life-threatening disease. You are doing the most important something anyone could do.
It may not seem like enough. But again, pace yourself through this. If we don’t, the rest of it won’t matter. Once you recognize the importance of what you are doing right now, that what you are doing is an actual “thing” we are doing, then we can start talking about what else.
In addition to revealing a grossly inequitable health care system; in addition to for making it as plain as day that competent leadership can never be taken for granted, this pandemic has revealed the perhaps never fully appreciated but absolute blessing of belonging to a community. Using the awkward words of Jesus, I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But that because of the Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other. I know I appreciate you and being part of this community even more.
One Episcopal priest in DC said, “While I am limited to phone calls and video chats, I have never felt closer to my people. We have whispered our fears, laughed at our misplaced anxieties, and committed ourselves to being church, even without our beloved building and cherished traditions.”
There are lots of great memes and stories going around online. I want to end with one of the most profound by Laura Kelley Fanucci, about what this pandemic could help us see more clearly:
When this is over, may we never again take for granted:
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Sitting with a group of neighbors and friends
The mad rush to get ready for school each morning
When this ends, may we find that we have become
More like the people we wanted to be,
We were called to be
We hoped to be.
And may we stay that way – better for each other because of the worst.
What will you never take for granted again?
Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 15, 2020
“Take a Deep Breath”
2nd Timothy 1: 3-7 – Verses 1-6 from the New Revised Standard Version; verse 7 from the King James Version
(NRSV) 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands;
(King James) 7 For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
It’s not like we needed something else to be afraid about. There’s already high blood pressure. Mass shootings. Aging. Climate change. Having enough savings for retirement. Identity theft. Presidential tweets.
There’s rattlesnakes while hiking. Spiders. And roller coasters. I can think of almost nothing else as frightening and terror inducing as getting on another roller coaster ever again. But fear, it seems, is ever present in one way or another. Some real, some imagined, and some thrust upon us.
Newspapers and newscasts have often attempted to spike ratings through fear. I’ll never forget one TV station in Cleveland tried to break through its mediocre place in the ratings by turning its newscast into crime reporting – in the morning, at noon, at 5 and 6 o’clock and again at 11. Every story was about a crime, a criminal, or any possibility for the potential of crimes and criminals, all in order to drive up their ratings.
The worst example was when the city tried to provide employment for people coming out of prison as garbage collectors. Channel 19 used every scare tactic they could – ominous music, big red letters, and every day, reporters stopping people on the street asking, “Do you really want felons walking down your street? Do you really want criminals going through your garbage?” Sufficiently frightened, citizens demanded the city end the employment program.
And of course, we all remember the candidate who descended down an escalator to blame Mexico for sending us rapists and drug dealers and, he assumed, a few good people. From the oval office on Wednesday night, we all hoped for even a sliver of leadership from the president, but in a classic move, he spoke instead of a “foreign” virus and closing borders. And then, after praising himself, ended his address with his favorite xenophobic, white nationalistic, dog whistle, “America First.” Talk about a crime. Calling an emerging public health crisis a hoax is a crime against humanity.
At some point, networks and newspapers realized Covid 19 wasn’t just another story to hype and they began to get serious. I appreciated it when 9News began describing their segments with the tagline, “Facts, not Fear.”
This all became more real for the church when last Sunday all of our UCC churches in Washington state either moved their services online or cancelled worship altogether for the month of March. On Tuesday afternoon, our Rocky Mountain Conference minister and 45 pastors had a Zoom call and agonized about whether this would be wise for us too. We were told to prepare, just in case. Tuesday night our Governance Team wrestled with the question – is this hype or caution. By the next day, our governor made it clear. Anyone over the age of 60 should not go to worship. It seems like this is finally something about which we should genuinely be afraid. This and roller coasters.
But is fear really the appropriate response? If you haven’t yet already yelled at your computer screen, do it now – No! What is the appropriate response?
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
I love that. A sound mind. In other words, have common sense. What do we do in the midst of a global pandemic? Be smart. As I wrote to you earlier this week, we should practice an abundance of caution, but not fear. Hoarding at the grocery store like this is the corona-pocalyse is not common sense, but it is an understandable response to a lack of leadership and communication.
But we must remember. “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
That’s how the King James Version puts it. Listen to some of the other translations:
The Common English Bible: “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid, but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”
The New Revised Standard Version: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
But here’s a significant point not to overlook. This isn’t just about what we should do, i.e., have common sense. The text says we already have a sound mind as a gift from God. God already gave you the tools for coping: the power of love along with self-control and self-discipline. Or as Eugene Peterson says, “God gave you a spirit that is bold and loving and sensible.” Wherever and whatever fear and hype may be, it isn’t from God. Being smart about things is from God. Having common sense is from God.
As I wrote during the week, the Bible says “fear not” or “do not fear” 365 times. For example, despite the angel giving Mary some wonderful and absolutely terrifying news about having a baby out of wedlock, the angel told Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
The Psalmists talked about fear a lot. Let’s look at some of those:
Psalm 118: “The Lord is on my side! I shall not fear what mortals can do to me.”
Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?”
Some version of that occurs another 362 more times, including a text most of us know from memory. Say it with me, you’ll pick it up: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 23 can be a handy mantra when we feel our fear temperature rising. That and today’s text: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
In case you’re not sure you have the capacity, just a few verses before, Paul reminded Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. Fun fact: Lois is the only grandmother named in the Bible. Paul told Timothy to be encouraged because their faith lives in him. And reminds him to rekindle the gift of God already within him. That gift? Not a spirit of fear but a sound mind.
Thank God for those today who are leading us with sound minds. Thank God for those who are helping us to do all the loving and sensible things we can do to protect our mothers and grandmothers and our fathers and grandfathers – the ones most at risk. We are having worship like this today because we love and value the faith of our elders. We pray for those at most risk. And for those who put themselves at risk to care for our most vulnerable members of the community. We offer a special word of gratitude for doctors and nurses and hospital workers and public health officials.
But to keep as many people safe as possible, we have to practice this most unfortunate term – social distancing. The term social distancing makes me gag every time I hear it, as though we need any more social distance. Isolation and self-quarantine are exactly the opposite of what we need when we are frightened and anxious. And yet, it is absolutely necessary.
So what can we do? I beg each of you to reach out to one another. Take the church directory that we emailed everyone this week and call people you know and call people you don’t know. One new member called me yesterday to ask the name of the older couple who lives near her and offered to call that. Yes, exactly. Do that! If you don’t think you have a directory, send us an email.
Randomly send an email to another church friend or member and say you are thinking of them. If we ever thought being a church member was about gathering for worship on Sunday morning, this moment offers a new opportunity to remember we are a community of people who gather for worship on Sunday morning, not individuals. This is the time to act like a community.
Please call Terri and me when you feel the need. And we’ll set up some Zoom meetings during the week so we can see each other face to face. The men’s group is meeting by Zoom on Thursday night. Create a group and we’ll help you move it online. And, of course, reach beyond our church community to neighbors and others who need a lift. Especially when it’s you who need a lift.
Despite our best attempts to say “do not be afraid,” these are indeed scary times. I don’t want to discount our real fears. Or any fears. And anger we may feel about the blaming finger-pointing and self-aggrandizement of the president. But I name all of this because when we name fear and anger, we take away their power to control. Because God gave you and me a spirit of power and of love and a sound mind. We have it already.
Now, to stay of a sound mind, even though we may have a little extra time on our hands, try limiting your time on social media. Limit your time on cable news. After an hour of Rachel Maddow, I need to turn on some reruns of 30 Rock or a good movie. Or read a good book. Go outside and enjoy the sunshine. Come over to the church and walk the labyrinth. Seriously, the labyrinth will help. It’s here 24 hours a day.
And breathe. Take a deep breath. Not on each other! But you get it. In and out. Breathe in the spirit of power. Breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of love. And breathe out fear. Breathe in the spirit of a sound mind. And breathe out fear.
Let’s do that together. Take a deep breath.
Power in. Fear out.
Love in. Fear out.
Sound mind in. Fear out.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 8, 2020
Genesis 12: 1-4a – Common English Bible
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him.
One of my favorite childhood memories, I was probably about 8 or 9 years old, was one Saturday morning when my dad walked into the house and said, “pack up the car. We’re going to Winnipeg.” We only lived about an hour from Canada, but I had never been across the border. Mom looked at him, like, “thanks, a lot, for asking me! I’ve got things to do.” But Dad was often spontaneous. Perhaps a little irritated, Mom got right on it and called my favorite grandma to come along with us. I was so excited. I imagined Winnipeg was exotic. TV commercials from Winnipeg only played late at night, like during Saturday Night Live, which I wasn’t supposed to be up to watch anyway. Winnipeg was foreign and my mind spun wonderful fantasies. And sure enough, my fantasies came true when I turned on the TV in the motel and saw Bugs Bunny speaking French.
I was reminded of that magical weekend when I read the verse following our reading from Genesis today. We heard how Abram heard the voice of God say, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land I will show you.” Then it says, “Abram took his wife Sarai,” along with all their possessions and people, and set forth for the land of Canaan. At first, I thought, why doesn’t it simply say, “And Abram and Sarai set off together for Canaan.” But I realized, Abram probably never consulted with Sarai. “What do you think? Should we?” Just like my dad didn’t ask my mom. Dad announced it and “took us” and everyone else just went along.
Perhaps Sarai was accustomed to Abram saying, let’s pick everything up and leave everything behind. After all, they were nomadic. But not nomadic in the sense of a few tents and some sheep. Abram was the ancient counterpart of a wealthy Bedouin sheik ruling over hundreds of subjects and surrounded by “retainers,” small merchants who catered to their sizable community. Plus, all their animals, a symbol of their wealth.
So, they didn’t, nor could they, just spontaneously pick up and move regularly. But Abram’s family had made an especially big move before. He and Sarai were born and raised in Ur, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, in today’s Iraq. Later, Abram’s father moved the whole clan to what is Turkey today. Not a small move – about 600 miles, the distance of Denver to Des Moines. Try doing this 4,000 years ago. This next move to Canaan would add another 400 miles or so to that. And then to Egypt. And back again.
According to rabbinic tradition, Abram’s father was a maker and seller of various gods and idols. Somehow, somewhere along the way, Abram became convinced there is only one god. The story is told that Abram took an axe to his father’s idols and smashed all except one and then put the axe in the hand of the remaining idol. Abram pointed and blamed that idol for killing all the others. His father said that’s impossible because the idol was not alive. It’s only clay. Abram asked, “then why do you worship clay and not that which is living?”
A quick aside: I hope we see this not as an excuse to destroy other people’s religious objects but rather as an origin story for Abram’s embrace of monotheism.
And so it is that Abram is considered the father of all monotheists – one God. The three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Muslims, through Hagar and their son Ishmael. Jews and Christians through Sarah and their son Isaac. There’s never an explanation why, but he believed in a living God, the living God, one God not many. And it was from that one god that he heard a voice saying, move to the land I will show you. How did he know?
How, indeed. Last Sunday during the Second Hour, Jenny invited the 30 of us to tell about our experiences of the Holy Spirit. Once the first person got the courage to speak up, stories kept coming and I was struck by what I imagine were experiences similar to Abram.
Listen to a few of these descriptions from folks here last week:
Aren’t these amazing? All from a group of progressive, liberal, social justice Christians – sometimes accused of being more in our heads than our hearts.
But imagine what would happen if we lived exclusively in one or the other. I’m grateful for combinations of all the above each time another outrageous example of cruelty pops up on our news feed. What is it now? Who’s been targeted? Who’s been blamed? What is the lie now? And why is that lie even necessary? What river or ocean is going to be filled with mining debris? Every time I open the page or turn on the TV, my brain is assaulted by ignorance. And my heart is broken by gleeful brutality against people we love and people we don’t know. And despair for the earth.
Thank God the Holy Spirit is there to intervene with sighs too deep for words. We are not left powerless. Brain dead or heartless. The question isn’t just what should we do. But, what are we being drawn toward. What gift or talent have I been given for exactly this moment, just such a time as this? What is our unique gift and contribution? After all, Abram was called and blessed to be a blessing. I believe that if we pay attention, we will know. Some tug or push. Or, as one described it last week, a dummy slap. A slap upside the head. Pay attention.
Some might call these gentle, or less than gentle experiences, intuitions, not the work of the Holy Spirit. But I call intuition a gift of the Spirit. Or instead, you might simply say this is how I experience God – because we follow a Living God, active today, not just in history. Not just an idea. Or a story from long ago.
Even so, those stories inform us and encourage us. How did our ancestors, like Abram, know what to do? How to balance trust and risk. How to move forward without knowing what’s ahead – just knowing that we must. Often without knowing why.
Like for us, I would suggest some combination of paying attention to:
And, credit to my dad, a certain amount of spontaneity.
But, back to that command, or rather, a call. As one of our lunch and lectionary participants said on Thursday at Noodles and Company, “A call is anything you do that is outside your comfort zone that comes from something inside, like “I’ve got to do this.”
And how we do respond?
I’ve done every one of those more than once.
Or, “here I am, Lord, send me.”
But even if that’s our response,” the journey for Abram and Sarai wasn’t from point A to point B. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Nor is it for us. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in all of scripture is verse 9: “And they journeyed on by stages.”
Which reminds us, our journey is never complete, because here we are 4,000 years later and, thankfully, the Living God is still speaking.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 1, 2020
“Don’t Blame the Devil”
Matthew 4: 1-11 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only God.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
“The devil made me do it.” When the excuse that “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t work, or “the wind blew my assignment out the window,” just blame the devil. Like Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine. “Why did you buy that dress? The devil made me do it.”
Our lunch and lectionary group met on Thursday at Noodles and Company and the first response after reading the text for today was a sigh and an “ugh” about the devil. And it’s true. How can you take the idea of a devil seriously when popular culture has personified it as a red faced being holding a pitchfork? Or when the devil has so often been used as a simplistic means of condemning someone you consider evil. The idea of a devil brings out all sorts of issues for people who value science and reasoning. We’re not going to do that today.
But there is something to the whole idea of “devil” in the context of this story. Matthew is not attempting to personify evil or an evil force. It’s much simpler than that. Scholarly consensus is that the word more accurately means “the tempter.”
Following his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness where he was confronted by the tempter. He was specifically led to the wilderness to be tempted. It’s fascinating that following his baptism he wasn’t exempted from temptation. We might think, now that you’re baptized, you’ll be left alone. But rather, he was driven right into it. By the Spirit, no less. Then, 40 days and 40 nights later, at his hungriest and loneliest moment, he was offered what any of us might have thought was an angel bearing some bread and offering some help. Instead, at his lowest, here comes the tempter.
One scholar described the meaning of “the tempter” in this context as one who “misleads, deceives, diverts attention, discredits, or slanders.” Misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, slanders. And attacks.
I read that list to our lunch and lectionary group and everyone started laughing. And it could be right here that my sermon starts identifying examples of misleading, deceiving, discrediting, and attacking. For today, I’m simply going to say, “you get the idea” and move on. Except to say that once you have repeatedly misled and deceived the public, constantly attacked the media, and done everything in your power to discredit science, don’t be surprised if people don’t believe you about a public health emergency. But I’m not calling anyone the devil here nor am I blaming the devil for this mess. The devil didn’t do it.
My New Testament professor in seminary, Marilyn Salmon, translated the word here as “seducer.” She translated the Greek and argued that the devil was not just trying to tempt Jesus but to seduce him using flattery. We might think seduction is all about sexuality, but the art of seduction, she argued, is to persuade disloyalty and lead someone astray with false promises. “There’s no harm in a little bread. It’ll be our secret. There’s no harm if you’re just trying to do good things. Let me help you. There’s no harm in asking God to protect you. Look, it says so right here in scripture.” Imagine using scripture as a tool of seduction. But seduction has only one reality: for the seducer to get what they want.
I have a question for all the white evangelicals who are in lock step, offering their blessing to everything the president wants. Are you tempted by all the power and control the president has granted you? Or are you being seduced by all the power and control he wants from you?
I honestly can’t read today’s scripture without seeing the glaring parallels of Christians grabbing on to all the power they can get to control religious minorities under the false premise of religious liberty, along with a license to discriminate against LGBTQ folks, and exert control over women, and demonize people of color to legitimate their incarceration, or exclude non-white immigrants, especially from s-hole countries around the world. But don’t blame the devil. This is simply cruel, wrong, unjust, and immoral. And Jesus wept.
But, wait. Have I not just played right into the temptation or seduction to consider progressive Christians more enlightened, better educated, more reasonable, more just? And ultimately, more righteous?
How many white progressives were seduced by the attraction of a black president meaning that America had truly become a post-racial society? Willing to believe, overlook, that all those confederate flags were really just about pride in one’s history? Not a symbol of hatred waiting to be seduced by right suitor. Or that a female president will make the country less sexist. How many liberals are tempted while on a trip to another country or to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to think or say out loud at some point, “Why don’t they just…” I’m quick to want to solve the issues of other cultures and countries because I believe our educational system is more evolved.
Are progressive Christians any less susceptible to conspiracy theories, especially ones that confirm our bias too? If you pander to my prejudices, no matter how educated, I’ll believe you.
Temptations. Seductions. And one more. At some point, advertisers realized consumers weren’t going to be convinced to buy their product because of cost or quality. They made it not a question of whether their product is better but whether our lives will be better… And not just better, people will think more highly about us. And our lives will be easier. But not just easier. Without it, our lives will be emptier. And who wants an empty life? Do you really want to miss out?!
Therefore, we are sold an idea:
Tide doesn’t clean our clothes. It liberates us from dirt.
Mastercard isn’t a method for payment. It brings us experiences in life that are priceless.
Almost 20 years ago, PBS Frontline did a documentary called The Persuaders about how successful advertising gives meaning to our lives. Or tries to.
Starbucks isn’t primarily about coffee. It creates community.
Nike is about transcendence, not merely shoes.
The documentary’s conclusion was that the ultimate triumph of “the persuaders,” are through “ministries,” interesting choice of words, “through ministries of data mining, focus grouping, ad-making, anxiety marketing, spin segmenting, and demo-graffiti — The ultimate triumph will be to get us to believe that they multiply and educate our choices instead of pouncing on and pandering to our prejudices and vulnerabilities.”
And then, of course, is all the fear-based political advertising. How can we resist? And how much more so if we’re lonely and haven’t eaten in 40 days.
40 days and 40 nights is simply shorthand for saying “a very long time.” Many of us feel like after 40 days of this administration, we’re at our lowest point, or at least a low point, in our democracy. If we’re not seduced to bury our head in the sand and chant “Everything is OK,” or to claim, “Everything will be OK,” then our temptation is to deflect, “I can’t do anything about it.”
Everything is OK or will be OK. For who?
I can’t do anything about it. Why not?
On Ash Wednesday, we collectively prayed:
“The truth is, we are not really sure about following the Way of Christ. We believe it is the right thing to do, but actually following Christ would turn our whole world upside down.” Things are really that bad, are they? The ultimate seduction of the privileged.
We went on: “We confess that sometimes what binds us can trick us into feeling safe and comfortable in the midst of our suffering. Divine liberation is so foreign that we fear it is unsafe and unwieldy.”
“And yet, inside of each one of us, your still-speaking voice pulls at our heart.” And with that comes the power to resist.
For Ash Wednesday, as we met to begin the journey of Lent, Jenny Whitcher re-imagined the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 58. It directly answers the challenge of the tempters, the seducers, and the persuaders of the world:
“Living out your faith will lead you forward.”
“If you remove the burdens and chains from among you,
stop pointing fingers,
and with hate-filled and hurtful words,
stop speaking of evil;
If you have the courage to open your hearts to deep and loving relationship with one another;
Minister to and heal one another,
use your God-given gifts and talents to live out the Gospel,
and seek the Spirit of God in everyone you encounter…
Then we will be in right relationship.
Then, the Holy Spirit will rise within you and guide you continually.
[God says,] I will meet your needs when you encounter times of wilderness and thirst.
I will make you strong, and I will nourish you.
You will be vibrant like a well-watered garden;
You will be full of eternal life like a fresh spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ruins will be rebuilt, and the broken places of your heart healed;
You will rise up with the power of love to implement justice and to transform everyone and everything that stands against love.
You will be the foundation of faithfulness for many generations to come;
You will be called repairers of the breach,
The restorers of the streets we live in.”
And with that I invite you to turn in your bulletin to our unison prayer:
Prayer of Confession
One: We call out to you, O God. It is not so much that we choose evil, but we often
pursue little goods and lesser gods. And we lose our way. Times when...
All: Our love becomes too narrow
Our excuses too wide
Our blaming too quick
Our forgiveness too slow
Our gratitude too rare.
By your mercy, deepen our longing into trust
Our pride into compassion
Our fear into courage
Our frustration into creativity
Our timidity into boldness
Our prayers into action, however simple and small.
Assurance of Grace
One: Hear the good news: God accepts our sincere hearts. We are forgiven!
All: Thanks be to God!
 Robert Bryant, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 47
I love being the