Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 26, 2020
Luke 24:13-35 – Common English Bible
On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.
17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
19 He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. 29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
A little boy packed a lunch and decided to go on a journey by himself longer than he had ever been on before. It was the day after his grandmother died. For this extra-long trip he packed a larger than usual lunch – four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer. He walked by himself to a park at least four blocks beyond where he had ever gone alone. He took a seat on a bench where an older woman was already sitting. Together, they watched the pigeons. After a while, he took out a pack of Twinkies. As he was eating, he glanced over at the woman and offered her one. She gave him a big smile and accepted it gratefully. He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world and wanted to see it again, so he offered her a can of root beer. Once again, she gave him the most beautiful smile he had ever seen.
For a long while, the two of them simply sat together on that park bench eating Twinkies, sipping on their root beer, and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word. Finally, the boy realized it was getting late and he should be on his way home. He took a few steps and then turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was bigger and brighter than ever.
His mother had started to worry, so she was relieved to see him walk back in the house. She also noticed his mood had changed. “What did you do today?” she asked. “Oh, I had lunch in the park… with God.” Before she could reply, he added, “And you know what? She has the most beautiful smile in the world!”
Meanwhile the woman arrived back home – or rather, at her son’s home. Her husband had died recently, and she had moved in with him and his family. It was the first time in a long time that her son had seen her smile. He asked, “What did you do today, mom?” “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park… with God. And you know what? God’s a lot younger than I ever imagined.”
I suspect encounters like this are much more common than we think. I mean, I suspect – I’m sure – we meet God a lot more often than we would ever imagine. We just may not have noticed very much during ordinary times – swallowed up by schedules that actually controlled us. Work and sitting in traffic, school and homework and lessons and sports, shopping and work outs, volunteer obligations and ski weekends. God has always been present. And yet, consumed by our busy lives, we may have failed to notice. In fact, so certain of being in control of our own normal, we may have felt little need.
Things are definitely different today. All of us are living with a collective sense of loss. Whether normal was good or bad, we miss “normal.” Perhaps some patience and good will too. We may be missing things we never even had. Missing things we didn’t even know were “a thing.” Like smiles now hidden by masks. Hugs. Man, do I miss hugs. Heck, I’d even settle for a good old handshake. And regular routines. Who ever thought routines were “a thing” we could miss? That’s grief. And it’s normal. We are all grieving normal.
Not that normal was always so great. Some of it was horrible. We have come to think it’s normal that when the president speaks, half of it will be a lie and half of it will be cruel – interspersed with absurd moments about injecting disinfectants that leave us speechless. Even for this guy, that’s not normal. It’s not normal to have a president like this, but we have come to believe it is normal when he parrots white supremacy and calls them good people. It is normal that he will look for every opportunity possible to make money off the presidency – even hawking dangerous drug therapies. And it is normal that we don’t know how to handle this. Should we be perpetually angry? Taking to the streets? Should we simply turn off the news and wait until November 4th to hear how it all worked out?
There is some good news in all of this, however. We may be open to changes we would never have been before. Jeremy referenced an article on Friday that has been making the rounds for a few weeks entitled Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting. The author said, “What has happened to us is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. What the crisis has given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views.” The Great Pause.
He asks under what other circumstance would our lives come to a complete standstill and give us a wide-open view of the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, how we live wastefully and wonderfully. But, he cautioned, we better hurry up and decide what we want to keep and what we want to get rid of because before we are ready, marketers will flood the airwaves with their ideas of what we can buy to make our lives feel normal again. To even make us to forget the promise of the Great Pause. The opportunity is now. Like never before. Except, that’s a lot to ask of people experiencing collective loss. It’s hard to make decisions while you are grieving.
The article is a seriously good read. I will caution that it is full of middle-class privilege. Not everyone has the opportunity to make significant changes in their lives. Even so, take the time to check it out. I’ve put a link on our social media.
And, I see this promise in the church, too. The church can never only be what we were. We have the unique opportunity to pause so we can choose what we add back to our normal life as a congregation. But, grief alert. Some of what used to be normal will not be part of our new normal –because we will have no choice.
Yet, some good news, because of all this loss and upheaval, we are looking. Searching, perhaps like never before. Seriously looking for hope. And meaning. And depth. Connections and real relationships. We are looking for encouragement. And God. We are looking… Today’s scripture invites us to ask what, if anything, prevents us from seeing. Why were the disciples on the road to Emmaus “prevented” from recognizing Jesus?
Edward Hayes, author of Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, offers another version of the Emmaus story. His story goes like this: “On the first day of the week, the apostles Peter, James, and John, were afraid they would be arrested next, so they fled from Jerusalem for their safety. At sunset, they stopped at a small inn along the road, at the edge of Emmaus, for something to eat. They slipped in quietly and took their seats in a dark corner. They spoke in hushed voices about the death of their Master, discussing all the things that had happened in just a couple of days. And how they had hoped he was the one who would liberate their people.
A Greek slave woman came over to their table and poured wine into their cups. She asked, “Why are you men so sad? You look like you’ve lost your best friend.” Peter replied impatiently, “Woman, we have, but that’s no business of yours. Go and do your work.” “Sir,” she replied, “I too know the pain of a broken heart; I too know the great pain of losing a dear friend. But death is not the end of love.”
And then, to their surprise, she took one of those wine-filled wooden cups and pronounced a blessing over it and said, “Take and drink, this is…” John jumped to his feet, “Master!” In an instant, the woman vanished from their eyes.
I have always loved this story of the encounter between Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Although today, I immediately want to know if they were walking six feet apart. And did Jesus use hand sanitizer before breaking the bread?
They walked together for about three miles, talking through their grief. Jesus had just been executed on Friday. The next day was Sabbath. On Sunday morning the women disciples discovered an open tomb. Dazed and unbelieving, this was their first opportunity to walk back home. When they arrived at the edge of town, they invited the stranger who had been accompanying them to eat with them. It was in their offer of hospitality that Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
I don’t know why they may have been prevented from understanding before. Was there some divine purpose? Was it the fog of grief? But clearly words weren’t enough. And I can appreciate that. When my mind wanders, when I’m distracted, uninterested, unmotivated, there are moments of grace. For example, the taste of communion bread can surprise our dulled senses with a word of God’s grace; a sacrament that says, “I’m here with you.” There’s no need to understand it.
Janet Weiblen said, “It’s a gift, when we see; never a demand to see. The fact that Jesus disappears as soon as the disciples recognize him is a reminder that God’s presence is always dancing at the edge of awareness and perception.” At the edge, and always there.
But just know that, if you can’t see it, if you can’t feel it, if you can’t taste it, or you can’t believe it right now, it’s normal. It’s OK. And I’m right there with you. Me too. Like with any grief, sometimes I bounce back and forth between hope and anger and acceptance several times a day. Jeremy described our times as living with spiritual whiplash. Yes, these times are full of promise. The Great Pause is a real thing. Yet that doesn’t make us any less full of loss and a longing for normal. And impatient to know when we finally are going to get to a place we can call normal. When will our new normal get here? Whether it’s good or bad, I can’t help but want it to get here sooner than later.
But, bottom line, whether our lives are on a Great Pause or as boring as ever, Jesus walks alongside us. Surprising us with moments of grace. Not bright flashes of light. But something as simple as sitting on a park bench, eating Twinkies, sipping root beer… with God.
Photo by Sarah Crossan from Resurrecting Jesus
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 19, 2020
“Go to Hell”
John 20: 19-31 – Common English Bible
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Jesus appears to Thomas and the disciples
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus,[a] one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Happy Easter! Today is Easter day for Eastern Orthodox Christians. So, we say “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!”
And then ask, why. Why are our Easters on different days – although, to add a twist, on rare occasions, sometimes they are on the same day – like in 2017 and again in 2034. For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no set date for Easter. Churches could celebrate the resurrection any day they wanted. In 325, the Council of Nicaea sought to bring some uniformity and decided that:
Easter is on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, but also, always, and only, after Passover. Did you follow that? To avoid any confusion, the vernal equinox was set as March 21. This system would guarantee that all churches would forever celebrate Easter together on the same day.
Except that in the year 1054, an event called “The Great Schism” split Christianity into eastern and western churches – Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. That’s a whole other story. And the reason for the great schism is different depending on who is telling that story. Suffice it to say, in the 1500s, the Western Church started following the Gregorian calendar while the East stayed on the Julian calendar. Plus, the Western church decided that Easter didn’t have to follow Passover. And forevermore, except occasionally! we don’t celebrate Easter together on the same day. Got it?
But, no matter how we got here, the point is, last Sunday we proclaimed “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!” And today, Eastern Orthodox Christians are proclaiming “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!” Except that in some Orthodox Christian communities they add a third phrase. “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! I can see him in your face.” Interesting.
Interesting, but more importantly, what it means that Christ is risen is fundamentally different. Like, totally different. I had never really paid attention to that “detail” until last year when Terri and I and Kat Gaskins attended a lecture series by John Dominic Crossan at the annual meeting of the UCC Rocky Mountain Conference.
He noted the big distinction: Western churches depict the resurrection as something that happened to Jesus as an individual. Eastern churches depict a universal resurrection of Jesus, an act that involves all of humanity, all the way back to Adam and Eve.
We might think of western Christians as more of a “me and Jesus” kind of thing. Or, more to the point, “Jesus saved me. To hell with the rest of you.” Maybe that’s a little extreme – hyperbole – but it points to a big difference. Broadly speaking, in the west, faith is more often about the individual. In the east, demonstrated in part by the difference in beliefs about resurrection, faith is about the community.
The gospels tell lots of stories about the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus; they describe every little detail about the crucifixion itself and then the women walking with their spices to the tomb, all their encounters with angels, or was it the gardener? Different names, different details… oh well, but, at least, they still are details. Indeed, stories like Jesus inviting Thomas to touch the nail holes in his hands and walking with two disciples to Emmaus are filled with detail and carefully explained. But the gospel writers provide absolutely no description of what happened in the resurrection. Obviously, no one saw it happen. So, that leaves us to imagine. And to rely upon artists.
The difference in meaning I described is most obvious when you see it depicted artistically. That’s the intent of a book that Crossan wrote filled with his wife Sarah’s beautiful photographs of icons in churches across the Byzantine Empire and beyond – from Turkey and Greece and Russia and Egypt. Icons that depict the resurrection as Jesus grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, often with prophets on either side, standing with his foot on top of Hades, who is the keeper of the dead. (Now, Hades is not to be confused with a Satan figure. Hades and hell are not the same thing. Hades is simply the keeper of the dwelling place of the dead, not a destination for bad people.)
The whole point is: by Jesus grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, these Orthodox icons portray the act of resurrection as Jesus rising up from the dead and taking all of humanity with him.
In contrast, Crossan notes, for Western Christians, nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Western artists often portray the resurrected Christ as a figure glowing in light, hovering slightly above, arms spread, as a lone individual. The personification of individualism, just how Americans like it. We saw this dramatically on display this week.
Right wing America has decided they have had enough of this public health crisis and have begun mass protests to assert their right to individual liberty. “Jesus saved me. To hell with the rest of you.” Wealthy patrons like Betsy DeVos have funded the organizations that sponsored a “spontaneous” Tea Party-inspired, Operation Gridlock demonstration in Michigan, replicated around the country, including later today here in Denver.
On Wednesday in Michigan, one woman brought her children to show them how to “fight for our freedoms.” The woman obviously didn’t realize she is simply a chess piece in a game played by the Betsy Devos crowd. Most demonstrators stayed in their cars, but others crowded around each other as they shouted – some in masks, some not. And handed out candy with bare hands. Those cars did indeed create a gridlock that resulted in an ambulance trapped in the middle, delaying their ability to get to the hospital by 10 minutes.
Dozens of people carried their assault rifles with them. Some protestors in MAGA hats carried flags emblazoned with “Don’t Tread on Me.” Some carried confederate flags too. What do confederate flags have to do with individual freedom? The majority of Covid 19 victims in Michigan are African American. It certainly seems like this all-white protest crowd is fine with more dead people of color as long as white people have the freedom to do whatever they want. To hell with everyone else.
As much as the blatant racism infuriates me, to see people putting their own lives at risk to “protest” because rich people want their money to grow again is the height of who is deplorable. Although, trumping everything else is this weak and desperate president flailing to deflect blame. So, his dutiful sycophants rush to defend him. Like Dr. Oz telling Sean Hannity that having children return to school was an “appetizing opportunity.” “Opening school may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of mortality,” and spoke of it in order to get America’s “mojo back.” So, if I get this right, this week we can spare a few thousand children. A few weeks ago, remember, it was senior citizens. The Lt. Governor of Texas and some Faux News hosts thought that surely the elderly would be willing to die to save their grandchildren’s economic future. You know, to hell with them.
One Michigan organizer said that “quarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people.” But, as Joel Matthis asks, “What if the free movement of healthy people creates more sick people?” He raised the philosophical question: “What do we owe each other?” Apparently, he answered, “not much.” The freedom of the individual in America is so elevated and so hard wired, it doesn’t know what to do with our responsibility to each other. Or if there even is such a thing. Matthis concedes that not all the “restrictions being imposed are always smart or effective. But you can’t enjoy your liberty if you’re dead.”
The president wants a Covid Civil War. With his tweets about the second amendment, the president is inciting armed conflict. Given his utter incompetence and failure, his corruption and graft, this is the only path he sees to re-election. These demonstrations give him the rallies he needs as badly as oxygen and fried chicken. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, however, is much smarter. She declined to give the demonstrators too much attention, downplaying their size, and instead gave credit to the millions of people in Michigan staying at home. And across the country.
And that’s the true story. At the end of the day, ignore the temper tantrums of white men in their silly MAGA hats playing toy soldier. Forget them and give credit to all the brave Americans staying at home and those braver still who make sure we can stay at home – delivery people, trash collectors, power plant workers, cops and firefighters and their support staffs, telephone crews, TV station personnel, online tech people, the post office, the food supply chain, and on and on and on. My sister Mona shared a meme with me this week that said, “I never considered how many people I depend on to isolate myself.”
So maybe this health crisis is disproving my point about how Americans elevate individual liberty over the public good. The vast majority are choosing the good – willing to pay the price for it. Plus, I certainly can’t prove that cultures influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy are any less selfish.
But if, on this Easter Sunday, we consider a theological response to the pandemic, perhaps the idea of a universal resurrection is helpful. The visual of Jesus, surrounded by the prophets, grasping the hands of Adam and Eve to represent liberation for all of humanity from the power of death. God told Jesus to go to hell – And he did. To get everyone out.
The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis (anna-stay-sis). Anastasis literally means “up/rising.” The Operation Gridlock folks might like to think of their activity as an uprising against government tyranny. They make me so angry I want to tell them to go… somewhere really hot, like Florida.
But the universal action of Christ we celebrate today is a rising up with all humanity. Rising up by all humanity. Rising up for all humanity. That means, for his followers – western or eastern – no one, no one, is left behind. And means we cannot leave anyone behind if we want to be Christians known for their love.
And as I said before, staying home is a holy task of love. A sacred calling. Real bravery. That others might live. Therefore, “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Indeed, I can see him in your face.”
 Wes Granberg-Michaelson, https://sojo.net/articles/i-can-see-him-your-face
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 12, 2020
“To the Shiny Empire”
Matthew 27:59 – 28:10 – Common English Bible
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had carved out of the rock. After he rolled a large stone at the door of the tomb, he went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting in front of the tomb.
The next day, which was the day after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate. They said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive, he said, ‘After three days I will arise.’ Therefore, order the grave to be sealed until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.’ This last deception will be worse than the first.”
Pilate replied, “You [may] have soldiers for guard duty. Go and make it as secure as you know how.” Then they went and secured the tomb by sealing the stone and posting the guard.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. His face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
Here we are again. Another Sunday separated from each other. Instead of saying, gee, isn’t it terrible, I can hear my mother saying, “look on the bright side.” Thank God that we have the internet to keep us connected. Email, and social media like Facebook, and platforms like Zoom have saved the day.
I could say, gee, this is terrible. Or listen to my mother offer her wisdom to look on the sunny side of the street. Look at all the silver linings. Families eating dinner together. Less pollution. Many clergy colleagues are reporting increased engagement. Like them, I’m aware of our expanded reach, with people worshiping with us from their homes in Ohio, Virginia, Utah, Louisiana, North Carolina and more… Last Sunday at 10 am there were nearly 100 devices connected – and behind their screens were individuals, couples, and families. (Send me some examples of silver linings you have seen.)
Instead of saying, gee, isn’t it terrible that we aren’t gathered together, I could remind us what the first Easter looked like. The first Easter took place while the disciples were behind locked doors at home. The disciples were devastated. Jesus had just been executed, specifically by means of crucifixion, which, as I’ve said before, was a very effective way to send a message to others who might be inspired to take up Jesus’ cause of liberation for the poor and freedom for the captives. It would have been dangerous for the disciples to be out of their houses, so, to protect their families, fearing they could be next, the disciples sat at home behind closed doors. Today, as we sit alone in our homes, Rev. Emily Heath tweeted, Yeah, this Easter, “we’re keeping things pretty Biblical.”
The explanation that this year we’re just “keepin’ things biblical” is meant to help us cope with loss: meaning, it’s OK to let go of extraneous, though cherished, Easter traditions; for example, the pancake breakfast before worship and the egg hunt afterward. It means it’s OK to skip the pungent smell of lilies and daffodils and hydrangeas as we walk into crowded sanctuaries, looking for any places left to sit. All the things we associate with Easter. The energy and excitement. We should feel good about “keepin’ things biblical.” “Should” feel good. Should.
In the age of coronavirus, we’re all grief-counselors in training. Perhaps like me, your first instinct to someone who talks about what they’re missing is to try to lessen their pain. For example, “I miss my friends.” So, you might tell a child, “But honey, we’re so lucky that we’re not sick. And you’ll get to see your friends again soon enough.” Notice: Deflecting the pain – “be happy it’s not you” – and making a promise you can’t keep – how soon is soon? Thank goodness for all those professional grief counselors who are helping us lay practitioners come up with more helpful responses, such as “I know. I’m sad too. It’s a big loss.”
And so, taking that advice, I love my mom, but I’m going to stop deflecting about hidden blessings. Forget my comment about gratitude for social media. Forget my comment about trying to find the silver linings. Forget my comment about just “keepin’ things biblical.” No. Let’s be real. Do you wish we could be gathered in the sanctuary for worship today? Organ, trumpets, flowers, kids on their hands and knees looking for candy? “I know. I’m sad too. It’s a big loss.” (share how you feel with me)
This is the part of Christian faith that is harder to practice. I don’t mean this as a judgment, but for most Christians, the messages of Christmas and Easter are what really matter. “Christ Is Born and Now He’s Alive.” Sure, somewhere in there are stories about Jesus crucified, dead, and buried. But, today is Easter and now he’s alive, so don’t worry about that. That’s why we get sermon titles like: “It’s All Good.” “Move On.” “Get Over It.” Or the two-part special: “Move On and Get Over It Already.” Easter sermons are supposed to be variations of “Be Happy.” (what's your favorite example of an Easter sermon title?)
But today, this particular Easter Sunday, feels like a repeat of Saturday. A Ground Hog Day of Holy Saturday over and over again. They waited. They stayed at home. They grieved, some mix of uncertainty, mixed with some fear. They waited. They stayed at home… That’s why the coronavirus is in many ways a gift (?), or least an invitation, to examine the meaning of Easter more deeply. What’s really important? We’re paying attention today to what Easter means for us in a way we have never had to before. On the sunny side of the street, that’s a good thing.
One question we can ask is: what Easter is for. Maria Swearingen, a pastor in Washington, DC, reminds us, “Easter does not exist to make an Empire look better or shinier or healthier or stronger.”
As we all know, a few weeks ago the president wanted to see churches packed on Easter. Understandable and predictable. It’s all about projecting an image that he has everything under control. To use Easter to make everything look shinier, healthier, and stronger. To forget that people are still suffering, crucified by the lack of preparation for a pandemic, so his numbers don’t look bad, victims of a health care system designed for the privilege, not for the masses who are dying – disproportionately people of color.
The president wanted Easter with its organs and trumpets, or rather praise bands, and pretty dresses to display the well-being of systems of domination and inequity. Empire. Smiles and normalcy to cover up the violence and incompetence. To tell everyone to move on and get over it already. So, the question might be asked of us, what exactly are we missing today? I’m grieving the loss of our being together in person, but I might also have to ask: Have we fallen for the trappings of a triumphant Easter to cover over those still being crucified?
I read some verses this morning you might not have heard before – at least not on Easter morning. Have you ever heard about the time in between the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb? They have an enhanced meaning this morning too. “After sundown, the high priests and Pharisees arranged a meeting with Pilate, the Roman Governor. They said, “Sir, we just remembered that while that liar was still alive, he announced, ‘After three days I will be raised.’ We’ve got to seal that tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples will come and steal the corpse and go around saying, ‘He’s risen from the dead.’ Then we’ll be worse off than before, the final deceit surpassing the first.” Pilate told them he would provide a guard, so they went out and secured the tomb.” Why? To protect the powerful. To project an image of control.
But that’s exactly when Easter happened. Easter happened in between the burial and the empty tomb. While the Empire guarded the tomb, the one being guarded was transformed from death to life. I love that. I love how resurrection is subversive. Meant to overturn the power of Empire, not to prop it up and make it look shinier. That is the meaning of Easter.
And resurrection is happening even now. In our waiting. In between my sadness that we aren’t gathered in person and my gratitude that we can be gathered together like this.
In between the depth of my appreciation for health care workers and my profound sadness at the preventable loss of life – resurrection is happening even now. (do you have examples?)
In between my admiration for those willing to speak truth and my disgust for an Empire that would sacrifice its own citizens to make things look shinier – resurrection is happening even now. While the Empire acts like fools and plays dress up as guards at the tomb door, the ones guarded are being transformed from death to life. Yes, resurrection is subversive. Out of their control. But, of course, it’s also out of our control, too.
For example, as we gather on this unique Easter morning to express our hopes, we’re not quite sure what we are supposed to hope for. The health and well-being of our neighbors, for certain. But for things to go back to normal? Soon. However, even if we knew when, we’re not sure what normal will be? Or more importantly, what do we want normal to be?
For certain we can “take a hard pass” on letting Easter be a tool of the Empire, for everything to look like its back to normal and business as usual. In future years we’ll look back and never forget Easter 2020 and marvel at the desire to sacrifice people so things could look better, shinier, for Easter. But we’ll also remember that this particular Easter we stayed at home to demand healthier and stronger people, the ones whom Jesus especially loved. For whom he was willing to sacrifice his life. That’s the meaning of Easter. Just so we’re “keeping things biblical.”
Does that make this particular Easter different from any other? In some ways, nothing is different. There’s always an Empire looking out for itself. So, that may make the location of Easter worship different this year, but our calling is the same.
We gather on Easter to remember – and proclaim to the shiny Empire:
Love is stronger than hate
Goodness is stronger than evil
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Please turn to the litany in your bulletin:
One: Because the world is filled with fear, we ask God to strengthen our courage.
All: Because the world is drowning in lies, we won’t stop demanding truth.
One: Because the world is sick of despair, we choose joy – for ourselves and to share.
All: Because the world is not fair to everyone, we won’t forget the work of justice.
One: Because the world is under judgment, we accept and offer one another mercy.
All: Because the world is poor and starving, we will share our bread.
One: Because the world will die without it, we will persist in love. And goodness. And light.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!
 Archbishop Desmond Tutu
 Adapted from Carol White
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 5, 2020
“Let’s Be Awkward”
Matthew 21: 1-11 – Common English Bible
When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Brené Brown said, “This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.” You might call Brené the guru of vulnerability. She became famous after a Ted Talk a few years ago, which has now been viewed almost 48 million times. Perhaps you’ve seen it. And if you haven’t, I suggest you do. It’s brilliant. I’ll put a link on my and the church’s Facebook page.
Vulnerable. Yeah, she nails it. I feel various levels of vulnerability going anywhere, to the grocery store, to get take-out. Seeing someone sneeze 10 feet away causes us to give them the “stare.” I’m reminded of my vulnerability every time I watch the news. Chances are, you feel it too. Maybe that’s not the word you would use. Instead of vulnerable, in the face of a pandemic, how about defenseless? Helpless? Maybe a better word is exposed. Get too close to another human being and we risk being exposed. Vulnerable to something invisible.
Again, Brené said, “This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability.”
We keep calling these times unprecedented. There are many things about this pandemic that are unique in our lifetimes, but one of the exceptionalisms is that no one is exempted. It doesn’t matter who we are. No race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality… no amount of money or political influence will exempt us from this massive experiment in collective vulnerability. Yes, but the truth is also that some people are more vulnerable than others. Some people have more ability to limit their exposure than others. For example, people without homes in which to shelter. People in overcrowded jails. Asylum seekers, already extremely vulnerable, living in tents. Our elders in retirement communities and nursing homes. Anyone confined to close living quarters. And of course, exposure is the profession of health care workers. And store clerks. First responders.
But while some people can limit their exposure to a certain extent, there’s no option of being vulnerable or not vulnerable. As a human race, living in a red state or blue, a developing country or an industrialized one, in a democracy or under a dictator, we are globally, all collectively vulnerable. There is some comfort in our equality. And something terribly frightening.
To her statement of collective vulnerability, Brené added, “We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid. Or, we can be our very best, our bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little distance in between because when we are uncertain and afraid, our default is self-protection. But, when we’re scared, we don’t have to be scary in return.” So, she said, “Let’s choose to be awkward, brave, and kind. And let’s choose each other.”
In the face of our collective vulnerability, let’s be awkward, brave, and kind. I like that, although I would never have thought to put those three particular words together. Perhaps, “Let’s be bold and compassionate.” Or courageous and generous. But to add awkward?
Awkward, brave, and kind. Bold and compassionate are synonyms of brave. Those are good descriptions of how to be in these vulnerable times. And courageous and generous are synonyms of the word kind. This is how we should be in any times and at all times. But awkward? So, like the other two words, I searched for synonyms and got some pretty surprising and unexpected results. My Word document thesaurus only showed words for awkward like stubborn, uncooperative, obstinate, and difficult. That doesn’t seem quite right for this situation.
When I think of the word awkward, I visualize a baby donkey trying to stand up for the first time. I think awkward and I visualize a teenager looking in the mirror, grimacing at all the pimples on their face. Someone who is clumsy, lanky, and gangly.
So, why in the world would she suggest being awkward as a response to our collective vulnerability? I was somewhat at a loss. So, I thought about how these words might apply to Jesus on this day we remember his entrance into Jerusalem.
We admire that Jesus was brave and kind. He was bold and compassionate, courageous and generous. But, it seems, awkward fits well here. Palm Sunday and Holy Week symbolize ways that he was awkward.
Palm Sunday is a veritable lesson in vulnerability. We sometimes talk of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We hear stories of Jesus riding into town, palm branches waving, garments thrown on the road, shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” But, upon closer examination, those were not acts of triumph. That was going on across town.
As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote in their book The Last Week, “there were two processions that entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession.”
Picture it: On one side of town, from the east, Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives on a donkey, cheered on by a scraggly, odd collection of misfits and outsiders, who shouted and had nothing else to give so they threw their old coats on the ground and tore some branches off a tree.
Then picture the opposite, on the opposite side of town. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, riding in on a chariot, the head of an imperial cavalry, surrounded by soldiers. Flags waving, dust rising, the ground shaking under their stomping feet. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of Roman imperial power. They came to town for any major festival for crowd control; that is, to control anyone who might use these occasions, such as Passover, to disrupt order and commerce. Pilate entered to proclaim the power of the Empire. To protect that power and the status quo. That’s a triumphant entrance.
Again, on the other hand, here comes Jesus, a donkey, and some peasants waving branches. To the enforcers of Roman rule by force, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, to protect people from that power. To disrupt that kind of status quo.
According to Borg and Crossan, that was the central conflict of the week. That’s what led to the crucifixion, the execution, of Jesus on Friday, just a few days later. Crucifixion on a cross was something Rome generally reserved for those who questioned imperial authority. A warning to other would be prophets – as Cornel West said, similar to the image and message of a lynching. A symbol of their terrible power.
But in the face of their terror, Jesus stood awkward – in the best sense. He did in fact interrupt their commerce. Immediately after entering Jerusalem, he went straight to the Temple where he famously overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Later in the week, when Pilate asked Jesus, are you the King of the Jews, he said, “You say so.” He wouldn’t give direct answers. “What is truth?” Jesus asked. When told to explain himself, Jesus infuriated the authorities with questions back. In the face of Rome’s power, Jesus was awkward. Meaning, he was stubborn, difficult, and obstinate.
He might not have been executed if he had just been a little more cooperative. But Jesus’ mission was to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to protect the poor, not prop up the powerful. And, he taught, the only way to do that is to be vulnerable, to stand with, not over; to seek the power of love, not the love of power. And so, in the face of Roman imperial power, Jesus was brave and kind. And awkward.
But in the end, I doubt that’s quite what Brené Brown had in mind for us. She probably meant the kind of awkwardness that is like, I’m not sure what to do now. Uncertain. More full of doubt than defiance – although, given the constant lies and recklessness of the administration, the playing of favorites with political friends… “You can have these ventilators if you say you like me…” Well, we need a good bit more awkwardness.
Yet, the truth is, many of us simply feel awkwardly inadequate for the challenge of this pandemic. Exposed and perhaps self-conscious, and ill at ease. That kind of awkward. So why, then? Why would Brené encourage us to feel awkward? We already do. Or at least, I know I have.
Talk about awkward. Technology is the area of life I feel most awkward. But these times confront us with indifference. Who cares if you feel awkward? Do it! Right?! So, thanks to Mindee’s help, we have been learning on the fly how to do worship by live streaming and pre-recording. We’ve learned how to have meaningful conversations on Zoom – something many of us had never even heard of a month ago. Out of necessity, each of us has had to learn new skills, but with each new accomplishment, I feel a little bit more grounded and prepared for the long days that stretch out before us.
As we were figuring out all these technical challenges, our staff discussed the need to also create a system to help people in the congregation stay connected. We came up with the name of Care Connection Groups and set off to recruit more than a dozen people to be Care Connectors. And a dozen people said YES! From idea to inception, Terri had this up and running in a couple of days.
But, that was the easy part. You have the hard part. You have to do one of the most awkward things any of us can do – talk to someone about how you are feeling. Talk to someone you may hardly know about fear, and anger, and despair. To go beyond chit chat. Making phone calls is HARD! It’s not easy to “sit with” one another in our brokenness. It’s awkward. And yet you have been doing it. You have been awkward, brave, and kind. Thank goodness for the training we have received as part of the relational campaign. You’ve got the skills!
Terri has shared how seriously you have been taking the responsibility to care for one another, so that none of us is left alone. If you haven’t been connected to a group yet, reach out. And we can always use more Care Connectors, if you are willing. More than anything, as this gets harder, and this will get harder, don’t withdraw. Stay connected!
Together, Brené Brown said, “Let’s choose to be awkward, brave, and kind.” What initially sounded odd, and frankly, pretty weird, is exactly right. To be brave and kind is one thing – not necessarily easy, but we can understand it. But the willingness to be awkward… If we are willing to be awkward with each other, choosing vulnerability, not running from it, not frightened of it, choosing vulnerability means we will have the support to survive this crisis. You understand how important that is!? Could you ever imagine how important a church community would be to actual survival!? But we can do it if we all agree, “let’s choose each other.” Amen
 Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Harper San Francisco, 2006
 Cornel West, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis, 2001
 Matthew 21: 12-14
 John 13:38
I love being the