Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 21, 2021
“What’s on Your Heart Today?”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 – New Revised Standard Version
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their spouse, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock gave his first speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. In it, he spoke of his father. A World War II veteran told by a white teenager to give up his seat on the bus – while wearing his uniform. His father made the world safe for democracy. Except his own. You may not know that one of the worst periods of lynching in this country was of Black veterans coming home from World War I. But somehow, Rev. Warnock said, his father maintained his faith in God and in his family and in the American promise. And handed it down to his children.
He spoke of his mother who spent her teenage years picking somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton to make money. But, Rev. Warnock said, because this is America, that 82-year-old woman whose hands used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator. That’s why he loves America.
But, as we are all aware, that right to vote is under attack. Some 250 voter suppression bills have been introduced by state legislatures all across the country. And so in response, Congress is back to debating whether one person/one vote should still be at the heart of what Rev. Warnock called the “American covenant.”
I was struck by his use of the word covenant. It’s not surprising that a preacher would use such a scriptural concept, but he appealed to the American covenant – which, he said, found in our charter documents and Jeffersonian ideals, bends toward freedom.
He spoke of the preacher and patriot named King, Warnock’s predecessor in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, as well as John Lewis, a member of Ebenezer, along with Americans of all races who followed their hearts and gave their lives pushing us closer to our ideals, “to lengthen and strengthen the cords of democracy.” That is, the fundamental right to vote. He said, “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. It is not just another issue alongside other issues. It is foundational.” I found that helpful. Voting preserves all other rights.
The American covenant. There is something both beautiful and dangerous about using a scriptural concept like covenant to describe a nation as diverse as ours. The United States is not a Christian nation.
• If it were a Christian nation, we would not have stolen the land from its inhabitants, nor time after time attempted to exterminate Indigenous people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it never would have enslaved, lynched, segregated, or mass incarcerated a race of people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it wouldn’t have turned away ships with Jews fleeing the Nazis,
• put Japanese American citizens in concentration camps,
• passed laws to specifically exclude immigration by all Chinese people,
• decreed Muslim bans,
• or allowed kids to be ripped from their parent’s arms and placed into cages on the border.
Sadly, it may have been done by Christians, but all these actions were to declare and defend America as a white nation. Or at the very least, a nation with whites wielding the power to demean, diminish, and degrade those of any other race, color, or creed. And one way to ensure and enforce this power, when racial gerrymandering and dark money are insufficient, is to suppress the votes of non-white people.
It could be dangerous to appropriate the word covenant in the service of a national goal. To claim a religious justification. But it is also beautiful. Rev. Warnock said, “democracy is a political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine, to participate in the shaping of our own destiny.” He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our UCC ancestors. “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Makes the right to vote necessary.
Despite my warning about appropriating the word covenant, there is actually good reason to consider using this word for a collective purpose, such as a nation. The prophet Jeremiah was not talking about individuals when he spoke the beautiful line: I will write a new covenant on their hearts.
What’s the context? It was a dismal time in the life of God’s people. Walter Brueggemann describes it this way: “The capital city was in ruins. The temple had been violated. The assault on Jerusalem had put faith into a free fall, with endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. Was God dead or absent or just fickle? Was Israel rejected, no longer chosen?” Was any future possible? …because they couldn’t see any way forward.
And then, right in the middle of their despair comes Jeremiah. Oh no… He’s not a stranger, a wandering prophet from out of town, but a longstanding thorn in their side. He had been a fierce critic who matched his scandalous imagination with offensive poetic images, preaching dire consequences for their behavior. Surely, they expected Jeremiah would deliver yet another verbal whack at them when he started to speak. But he did not.
He said: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant. Not like the covenant with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt, a covenant they broke. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (the nation/the collective people): I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
These folks were frightened and weary. To hear such words of hope and comfort must have soothed a lot of wounded souls. This promise of a new covenant means that God has not abandoned us. God has not rejected us. God is not dead. In fact, Jeremiah’s vision is even more inclusive. A house of prayer for all people.
I love this text. But I have a big question. If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? Words etched into our hearts should make following basic, fundamental commandments like love and loving your neighbor easier, right? More natural. It’s not in a book. It’s in our heart.
So, my big question is, then why do we still go to war? Why are refugees turned away at the border? Why would the powerful filibuster to stop non-white citizens from voting? You can’t tell me that comes from the mouth of Jesus or certainly not the heart of God.
I mean, why do we even need to worry about a filibuster? How could any of 100 senators vote to strip people of the right to vote? How could any of the 435 members of the house of representatives support any voter suppression tactic? How could any of the 50 state legislatures go along with assaulting our fundamental basic American covenant? Why do they? Well, one answer is that whiteness has a more powerful claim on the hearts of some Christians than Jesus.
If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? I asked this question of our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday. They reminded me, of course, of free will. And to strip away our right to choose, to surrender free will, even for a good cause, means we would not be free people.
And as Brueggemann said, “God’s power to make new is not like the power of a bulldozer that pushes things aside, nor like a tyrant who signs an executive order. God’s power to make new is rather like the painful love of a parent who suffers the hurt of her child, in order that the child may be restored to hope and joy.”
The good thing is that as individuals within the collective, our relationship with God is imprinted upon our hearts. What’s on your heart today? God is. We don’t have to go searching in books, take a class to understand, or rely on some complicated formula. God is in the simple impulse to generosity. God is in the heartfelt inclination to compassion. God is in the fierce passion for justice.
This assault on the American covenant is on my heart today – having to fight again despite the blood that so many humans have shed to enact and protect fundamental rights for all citizens. Of course, also on all our hearts today is the suffering of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans whose cries for justice have long been neglected and ignored.
The love of God is in the flesh of human life – ours and our neighbors. And when we collect together all that capacity for generosity and justice and compassion, we can love a new world into being. Together, we can love a new world into being.
Rev. Warnock told his Senate colleagues that he is the flesh and blood embodiment of what happens when the experiences of his parents meet the American promise. A living example of America’s “history and hope, pain and promise, brutality and possibility.” He said, “I love America because we always have a path to make it better.” Of course, we have to choose it.
In Jeremiah’s time, the capital city was in ruins. There was endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. They couldn’t see any way forward. When we look at our own nation, or at our own lives, we can be grateful for the prophet’s words.
Thanks to God’s imprint on our hearts, the right thing, the next right step, is always right there. (pointing to heart)
 Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons Volume 3, WJK, 2020
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 14, 2021
“One Year Later: Blessings and Praise”
Psalm 107: 1-9 – Common English Bible
Give thanks to the Lord because God is good,
because God’s faithful love lasts forever!
2 That’s what those who are redeemed by the Lord say,
the ones God redeemed from the power of their enemies,
3 the ones God gathered from various countries,
from east and west, north and south.
4 Some of the redeemed had wandered into the desert, into the wasteland.
They couldn’t find their way to a city or town.
5 They were hungry and thirsty;
their lives were slipping away.
6 So they cried out to the Lord in their distress,
and God delivered them from their desperate circumstances.
7 God led them straight to human habitation.
8 Let them thank the Lord for faithful love
and wondrous works for all people,
9 because God satisfied the one who was parched with thirst,
and filled up the hungry with good things!
What’s the last thing you did? You know, before all of this. The last thing you did before you didn’t know it would be the last time you did it. Before all of this.
Julie Beck said that for her it was a work trip to Florida. She didn’t know it would be the last trip she’d take. She’s grateful that while others went out to dinner, she decided to go for a swim in the ocean. When she changed into her bathing suit, she didn’t know it would be for the last time. She still remembers exactly what the water felt like. When she closes her eyes, she can still see the vivid colors of the sunset.
What was the last concert you went to? Or play, or game at Coors Field. The last hug with a grandparent or grandchild, a loved one. The last trip you took, unafraid.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of our pandemic separation, I looked back at my calendar. The last time I went out for lunch was with our conference minister, Sue Artt, on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. We talked about the UCC congregations in Washington state that had just cancelled in person worship for the rest of the month. She said, you should get ready for that too. She had just spoken with an epidemiologist who said this was much more serious than we think.
At 2 pm I met with the Pastor Parish Relations Committee to design the upcoming evaluation survey and then cautiously broached the subject of what may come. At 3:30 I had the first-ever Zoom call in my life with clergy across Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. We were told we must help “flatten the curve.” Remember when you first heard that?
At 7 pm that night I met with the Governance Team. We sat in a circle in the Common Room on a chilly night with the fireplace glowing. I remember the chair I sat in while we agonized. We decided to not to decide that night and wait for further guidance. That guidance came the next day when the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Conference asked churches to temporarily move worship online. I frantically called Mindee and said, HELP! “Now what?!”
My calendar, yes, still a paper calendar, then tells the story of the last 12 months. Lots of things crossed out. The first week: Coffee with a community leader. Coffee with a potential new member. My dentist appointment. The all-church work-day and youth group lock-in scheduled in April. Then the retreat scheduled in May. What should we do about Family Day at La Foret in July?
And a lot more things were added. Zoom calls. That next Tuesday, I had calls at 11, 2 and 6 – including our new Touchbase Tuesday. The following Tuesday I had Zoom calls at 10, 11, 12, 2, and 3. I quickly understood that new phenomenon called Zoom fatigue. And so I added a weekly Zoom call with my spiritual director for the next 8 weeks in a row.
And yet, who knew what a lifeline Zoom would become. And how much closer we could come together as a congregation during a year of physical separation. It’s far from perfect. I know we can’t wait to be together again, but who could have predicted we would be a stronger and larger congregation a year after we last met together in the sanctuary? A church whose walls have now expanded far beyond Denver – which wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic. But, of course it has come with a very high price.
Earlier this week I sent a letter to every household that articulated many markers of success from the past 12 months. For example, delivering 15,144 bottles of water to our former Women’s Homelessness Initiative guests. 1,045 meals served to guests at the Senior Support Center. And so many more countless acts of faithfulness by a generous congregation.
What I didn’t say in that letter is what I want to say today. To acknowledge that the price for such markers of “success” have been accompanied by much grief and loss. You can’t say “Look how far we’ve come” without acknowledging what it took to get here. The spiritual and emotional toll. The loneliness and isolation. As one author wrote, “It’s OK Not to Be OK.”
But the message of today’s scripture text from Psalm 107 also reminds us that we can’t say “Look how far we’ve come” without acknowledging who has delivered us.
Psalm 107 speaks of praise, but not in some generic sense – for example, thank you God for a beautiful day and for being alive. Psalm 107 is very specific.
In the first video we saw, Christine Valters Paintner said it so beautifully: Not just “Praise be the nurses and doctors,” but why. Praise be for showing up every day to offer care, whether lives were saved or lives were lost.
And not just praise for the seas and rivers, forests and stones. But praise for teaching us to endure.
Not just praise for teachers, but for finding new ways to educate children from afar. And blessings upon parents for holding it all together!
And my favorite line: Blessed is the water that flows over our hands and the soap that helps keep them clean, each time a baptism.
That kind of specificity is what Psalm 107 is like. Not the generic praise of an awesome God but specific praise for God whose invisible hand guided them through times of suffering. As they looked back, the Psalmist offers four examples:
1) Praise offered by those who wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town, hungry and thirsty. They cried for help and God led them straight through and satisfied their needs.
2) Praise from those who sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons. They cried for help and God shattered the doors that held them captive.
3) Praise from those who were sick from their own actions. They cried for help and God saved them from their distress, whether they deserved it or not.
4) Praise from people who almost drown in ships tossed about during terrible storms. But they prayed for help and God calmed the waters and hushed the waves of the sea.
They’re like case studies from people who found themselves in trouble. This is their story. They cried out to God. God delivered them. And the people responded with thanksgiving.
What I can’t explain is why that is not the experience of everyone. This pandemic has been grossly inequitable, affecting women, Black, indigenous, and people of color much more severely. Essential workers couldn’t do their jobs from home, the majority of whom are women. And if necessary for child care or to care for elderly family members, many of them had to quit their jobs or put their careers on hold. And the staggering death toll. Where have you been God?
If you recall from a few weeks ago, I explained that Walter Brueggemann categorizes the Psalms in roughly three ways:
1) Psalms of orientation – grand praise of the creator, praise for wisdom. Lots of singing and dancing and trumpets and stuff.
2) Psalms of disorientation – when life doesn’t make sense, when life isn’t fair. “How long, O God, will you forget me.” Songs of distress. Perhaps sung by marginalized and vulnerable communities during a pandemic?
3) And psalms of reorientation – when we have experienced God as our rescuer. When we can look back and see how the hand of God has delivered us.
Where would you describe us today? One year from the beginning of the pandemic. 500,000 dead. Again, Black, indigenous and people of color disproportionately affected. Thousands of small businesses closed. Children who have missed out on education. We are clearly still in a time of disorientation. We’re still asking, God, why have you let this happen?
And yet, as more and more people are vaccinated, as the economy comes back to life, as children return to school, we are beginning to gain perspective. We can look back at both what we have lost and gained during the pandemic. It’s still too soon to understand fully, but we can feel our lives start to ever so slowly re-orient. And to acknowledge the hand of God that has and is still guiding us through. But please hear me: This is not a story we force unto others.
It’s an interesting place to be. Not so far removed that we have fully recovered from our fears and loss. Grief is not yet a distant memory but a present reality. We still remember what it felt like the last time to touch the ocean, we still have vivid memories of that last sunset, remember exactly what and where and with whom we last ate our last lunch in a restaurant.
And as excited as we are to move on, we are still limited – we’re still not going to large gatherings, still fearful of planning our first vacation. Those who have now been vaccinated are grateful to gather with family but still cautious. It’s right now, while it’s still fresh, while we still face the unknown; this is the right time to take stock of the year. And recognize how little we were able to accomplish on our own. How staggeringly vulnerable we were, and remain, in ways most of us have never felt.
Walter Brueggemann would encourage us to embrace it and learn from it, because, he said:
1) American culture measures us, values us, by how self-sufficient we are. We’re taught that we earn what we have.
2) We’re taught that we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps
3) We’re taught that wisdom is getting ahead in whatever way we can without getting caught
4) And we’re taught that our security results from careful planning, investment, and management.
Psalm 107 calls us away from the illusion of self-sufficiency. We’re taught to be self-made persons, but what has the pandemic taught us? We didn’t make it through the past year because we did it on our own. More than perhaps ever in our lives, we depended on each other to live. What we did and didn’t do for our neighbors directly impacted who lived and who died. Literally. And as Psalm 107 teaches: “there is ultimately no such thing as self-sufficiency, because human life depends on God.”
A psalm of orientation praises God with grand gestures. A psalm of disorientation cries out for help from the middle of the storm. Where are you God? Psalms of reorientation offer praise for how God answered, explains very specifically where God has been and what God did to rescue us. But it’s not a story we force unto others.
And so, thank you for being the congregation you have been during what could have been a quite disastrous year. As I said in my letter, “Our building may have been closed for a year, but thank you for keeping the church open and for widening the door of welcome even wider.” Thank you isn’t enough. But in it, hear my deepest and most sincere gratitude and appreciation for you being you.
But most especially, thank you God. Blessings and praise be upon your name. Because you kept us together and led us during the most frightening time we’ve ever experienced.
From the Benediction:
Psalm 107 ends with these beautiful images: God turned a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. God let the hungry live and established towns where they can sow fields and plant vineyards. When they were brought low through oppression, God poured contempt on princes and made the powerful wander in trackless wastes. But God raises up the needy. Let those who are wise give heed to these things.
We know these things to be true. We have experienced it! Now let us be wise not to move on so quickly that we don’t appreciate what we have learned and who we have become in the many ways we would have never known. You know, before all of this.
 Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), Cambridge Press, 2014
I love being the