Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 22, 2018
“Let America Be America Again”
2nd Samuel 7: 1-7 – The Message
1-2 Before long, the king made himself at home and God gave him peace from all his enemies. Then one day King David said to Nathan the prophet, “Look at this: Here I am, comfortable in a luxurious house of cedar, and the Chest of God sits in a plain tent.”
3 Nathan told the king, “Whatever is on your heart, go and do it. God is with you.”
4-7 But that night, the word of God came to Nathan saying, “Go and tell my servant David: This is God’s word on the matter: You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’
What are the signs that someone has too much time on their hands? The neighbor who puts up 100,000 Christmas lights? I did a little crowd-sourcing on Facebook for some ideas. Their replies included spending too much time on Facebook! Watching Rachel Maddow obsessively. Hey now! Shopping every day. Posting too many selfies. Keeping a white car clean. I have a white car but it is definitely not clean. By Friday morning my question had elicited more than 30 replies, including a colleague who explained, “In 12-step language, it's when someone else takes your 4th step inventory.” Lots of really thoughtful replies.
Of course, you may laugh at the idea that anyone could have too much time on their hands. But ask a student ready to go back to school. Why? To have some regular routine back in their life, and lunch. Ask someone who’s just retired. They haven’t yet discovered they’ll soon be busier than they’ve ever been. Too much time on his hands? Ask the king who has won all his battles and now has nothing better to do. That’s how my train of thought began on this passage; but more on that later.
I was at a meeting this week at which someone made the comment, “I hope things aren’t really as bad as they seem on the news.” It was a harmless statement. She didn’t mean anything more than to express hope. In my typically cheerful way, I replied, “No, they’re worse.” It kind of dropped the mic on the room! But while we’re overjoyed that the soccer team was rescued in Thailand, we can’t forget the kids locked in cages in America. They may not still be wrapped in foil blankets, but thousands are not yet wrapped in their parent’s arms. And some may never be. But the news media has moved on. It’s hard to blame them. There is too much to cover. There just isn’t enough time. Nor, perhaps, the will or even ability to pay attention to that much bad news. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically… Time is precious. And as Robin Wilkerson replied, “only worth the value we assign it.”
And yet time is also a privilege. It isn’t available in the same way for everyone, like anyone who has to take two buses to go from their first job to their second one. It isn’t available in the same way for those caring for their children one minute and their parents the next. You get the idea. Discretionary time can be just as valuable as discretionary money. Yet, supposing most of us have at least some measure of control over our time, how do we choose to spend it? Attending church is a choice you make, and I assure you, I take that into consideration every week. To try to make my sermons worth your time.
Since the election of 2016, I have been heartened by how many people have chosen to spend their time engaged in improving our communities. At the last Indivisible Denver meeting, there were more than 100 people in here on a hot, sweaty Sunday afternoon. Hot outside; sweltering inside. Just one group. How many hundreds of thousands of people have attended one march after another? Made phone calls, written letters. How many millions gathered for the Women’s Marches?
And yet, no disrespect meant, but Mexicans and Muslims and refugees and immigrants and people living paycheck to paycheck from Appalachia to the Zuni Pueblo have been asking for that same time and attention for a long time. The Rev. William Barber says, we need to “stop acting as though Trump is the first.” But then get to work because it’s still better to be late than never.
Langston Hughes is one of the poet geniuses of the Harlem Renaissance. His most famous poem asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Another poem from 1938, declares “Let America be America again” but adds, “America never was America to me.” “And yet,” he said,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Meaning, the dream of America.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
1938. He calls it “my land,” yet he reminds us, “There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” It never was America to me.
So what does it mean, then, to say, “Let America be America again?” A memory once dreamed? An unfulfilled promise? It’s a privilege to even ask. Is it a time that has already been or a time that has yet to be? It’s part of the conflict of being America in the time of Trump. It’s all of it. A few have already experienced America, yet it’s the paradox of Langston Hughes. Who are we?
So, back to King David. (It all ties together. I hope!) What caught my imagination as this story began was a man who had nothing but time on his hands. Who was he? Picture it: King David rambling around his immense mansion, wearing his robe and slippers, picking up objects, like vases and candlesticks, admiring each of them, putting them down. Walking out onto the veranda to view the scenes of his kingdom below, pacing a little, and then walking back inside his house. With too much time on his hands, he thought, let’s move God inside too. God needs a house.
His days were full of memories, the battles were done, a nation at peace. Prosperity was clearly evident as he wandered the hallways of his beautiful house made out of cedar. He might have actually preferred being in the pasture with his stinky, obstinate sheep. He might have missed the thrill of protecting them by fighting off lions and tigers and bears on moment’s notice. Or the danger of battle, starting out when he was just a boy using a simple sling shot on Goliath.
But with too much time on his hands he pondered: How about a special home for God? I live in house made of cedar. God lives in a box covered by a tent. In our text, it’s called the Chest of God, more commonly it’s known as the Ark of the Covenant. He was excited to tell Nathan his plans.
On the other hand, however, maybe, as he rambled the hallways, every time he picked up a vase or a candlestick, he was haunted by the memories of each home plundered to take those precious items. Troubled by the scenes of so many battlefields strewn with dead bodies – under his order. Perhaps he recalled the trauma of killing Goliath. We never think about what that must have been like for a young boy. Lions and tigers and bears are one thing, but that was his first human life. Maybe he was filled with regrets, like he is about to be over Bathsheba’s husband Uriah whom he sends, like a mob boss, to be killed on the front lines to cover-up David’s indiscretions. Once again, too much time on his hands.
His life may have appeared to be filled with peace and prosperity, but under it all, maybe he desperately longed to atone for his misdeeds. Forgiveness for his transgressions. So, therefore, as he rambled the hallways, he thought: I can make it up to God by building a grand house for the Almighty.
On the other hand, or I guess, now, on the other foot, maybe this was all an act of arrogance to further solidify his power. The kings of many nations surrounding Israel had built glorious temples for their gods, not out of devotion but in order to enhance their positions of power. Maybe David masterminded the idea of a grand house just like what all self-serving autocrats did, and do. Mine is bigger than yours, believe me.
Whatever the motivation, whether it was because he loved God (which he did), or because he was bored (which he probably was), or because he was tortured by his character flaws (which he definitely had)… Whether it was a power grab, an act of contrition, an act of devotion… or all three, it didn’t matter to Nathan because, as he observed, God loved David in way like no other. So, without even stopping to think about it, Nathan said to David, “If you want to, God will approve.”
What was his motivation? Boredom? Ego, regret, love… In the age of Trump, it’s probably a good idea to ask those questions of ourselves too. Who are we? And what are our motivations?
One of the positive results of the election is the number of white people who have begun to see white supremacy. Willing to understand white privilege. But it’s another paradox of our times that such motivation includes some mix of ego, regret, and love. Among writers who are grateful for this “new” awareness are some increasingly frustrated by those who are well-meaning but exhausting – people falling over themselves to prove how not racist they are; almost like a competition about who can be the most “woke.” Are they motivated by dismantling such privilege, confronting and tearing down the foundations of white supremacy, whether it be through the means of mass incarceration or Muslim bans or kids in cages? Or is it about not looking bad? What are we trying to achieve? Destruction or accommodation?
And what was King David trying to achieve? Building a house for God sounds like a nice idea. Even the Prophet Nathan thought so. Until God spoke. “What do I need this for? Have I ever asked for this?” Did David understand the implications of what he was proposing? We might think it is primitive to imagine God as living in a box. Quaint and silly. But what that meant, theologically, is that God went everywhere the people went. This represented a God who dwelt in the midst of them. Moving God’s residence to a grand permanent house meant the people now had to go to God. God would become unmovable. And soon, inaccessible but to a few.
Do you see why this matters? Who benefits from confining God to one place? The person who controls that place. The people seeking to build and impose restrictions on a once free people. Those invested in the power and wealth of an empire, a monarchy. All of these motivations were disguised by the promise of a pretty pink palace. Disguised just like how much of what passes for patriotism in America has nothing to do with respecting the flag or saluting the troops but for power and control. Just like, who dare question a beautiful palace for God? All without asking, is that really who God is? Not what God wants, but who God is. And all without asking, is that really who America is? We’re just flags and anthems?
I agree with Langston: Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Whether it’s ever really been true before or not, out of the rack and ruin… the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies – We the People say No:
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
You know what: That’s all the Prophet Nathan is saying too. Let God be God again. Free, not confined.
So, as the text continues, after saying, “I never asked for a house built of cedar,” God told Nathan to tell David, “this is what I’m going to do instead – for you. I will build you a house. Not a house for you. But you as a house for generations to come and guarantee your kingdom’s permanent rule. And I will never take away my love. I will discipline and correct the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, but I’ll never remove my gracious love.”
That same promise lives on today in people of God. In the pitfalls and obstacles of this mortal life, (boy o boy!) and those days when we feel bereft of optimism, and when things are not better but really much worse than we hoped, yet, the promise of God remains to make us God’s house, “a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, [like God, and] Equality is the air we breathe.”
Just let me say, worrying too much about all this is a sign that we have too much time on our hands. Better, instead, to listen to prophets like Nathan, when to stand up and show up and speak up. Instead of alphabetizing our spice rack one more time, can you spare some of your precious time, our privilege of time, so that America can be America again? Can is the wrong word. Will you?
 Paraphrased 2nd Samuel 7:11-16
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 8, 2018
“Hey Permit Patty (and all the rest).
This is Personal: Book of Job, Part 3”
Job 38: 22-30 – The Message
Have you ever traveled to where snow is made,
seen the vault where hail is stockpiled,
The arsenals of hail and snow that I keep in readiness
for times of trouble and battle and war?
Can you find your way to where lightning is launched,
or to the place from which the wind blows?
Who do you suppose carves canyons
for the downpours of rain, and charts
the route of thunderstorms
That bring water to unvisited fields,
deserts no one ever lays eyes on,
Drenching the useless wastelands
so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass?
And who do you think is the father of rain and dew,
the mother of ice and frost?
You don’t for a minute imagine
these marvels of weather just happen, do you?
It feels personal this time. I can’t help it. This feels personal. When I heard the news that Justice Kennedy was retiring from the Supreme Court, my heart sank a few extra feet. Not only my heart, but my toes felt heavy. My marriage was decided by his vote. Well, not really. We were married before the Supreme Court came to a 5-4 decision that it would be legally recognized. But, because of that decision, as an example, I have my health insurance as the spouse of a federal employee. Sloppy billing has even issued an invoice or two to Mrs. Pate. Nothing has actually changed, except the feeling of a looming threat. It had already been a tough week to read or listen to the news.
Working on this three week series, however, I eventually realized I was having a Job moment, because I had made it all about me. We often look at the Book of Job through the lens of the question: Why does a God who is just and good allow horrible things to happen to innocent people? We started two weeks ago by asking “why” about innocent kids locked in cages, ripped from their parents and scattered across the country. Rabbi Harold Kushner famously posed the question as: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But that’s not the only question or, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, even the central one. She said, Job’s essential question was “Why do bad things happen to me?” He made it personal.
She said, “For Job, there were only two alternatives: either 1) all of this terrible stuff was happening because there is something wrong with me, or 2) all of this terrible stuff was happening because there is something wrong with God. And since Job knew that number one was not true – backed up by verse one, chapter one about this decent upright man – the only alternative was number two. God is the problem, even though he wasn’t willing to say it out loud, at first. In fact, his wife tried to get him to blame God, all the way back in chapter two. “Why do you persist in your precious integrity? Curse God and be done with it.” He told her “No! We take the good days from God – why not the bad days also?” That’s a good point. Any day we wake up and think, “Why me?” is a good day to remember, “Why not me?”
Job said, “Why not me,” yet he continued to protest that it wasn’t fair because it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t deserve to be treated in such a way, especially as he had to defend himself against his three friends. They demanded that it had to be his fault. Bad things don’t just happen. They happen for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. And over and over, they said, that reason is you.
So, in the news this week, a judge ordered the administration to begin reuniting families, but they’ve discovered a clever, new twist on cruelty. Who comes up with these?! Families are reportedly being offered two choices: Leave the country with your kids or leave the country without your kids. They are dangling reunification as an incentive to get them to drop an asylum claim. A former ICE official stated, it becomes particularly difficult after a parent is no longer on American soil; in those cases, “there is a very high risk that parents and children will be permanently separated.” Immigration rights advocates say forcing parents to choose immediately between leaving with or without their kids means they are effectively prevented from seeking asylum. That’s against the law, not to mention, human decency.
Where does the fault lie? If we were to consider the two options presented by the Book of Job, according to Taylor, that would either be the parent or God. An analysis from a social justice perspective would add more options.
But first, let’s offer God an opportunity to “speak.” After more than 35 chapters of speeches and counter-speeches between Job and his three friends, chapter 38 begins: “And now, finally, God answered Job. ‘Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you are talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers.’”
It sounds like Job is about to receive a lecture. And God does, indeed, go on for the next 70 verses. Starting with, “Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you seem to know so much.” A lecture, yes, but really, it’s just a very, very long list of questions, such as, “Have you ever travelled to where snow is made?” Questions asked from a distance, by a distant God. At least, at first. The tone changes. If we stuck with only the verses assigned when Job comes up in the lectionary, we would only hear the words of a big, loud, demanding and impatient God, read in worship with a big, loud, demanding, and impatient voice: “Where were you when I created the earth?!!!” That’s one way to read it. But as God continues, the questions become less distant. Inquiries such as
Beautiful, intimate images. Can you imagine an angry God asking, “Have you ever watched a doe give birth?” Would an angry God ask, “Did you teach the eagle how to build her nest in the heights, perfectly at home on the high cliff face?” They are tender images. Inquisitive, not The Inquisition.
God made it personal. Not shouting at Job to understand but quietly, persistently, asserting that if God pays attention to such things as helping hawks learn to fly, then God is paying attention to you too.
As Job listened, he exclaimed, “I’m speechless, in awe – words fail me. I’ve talked too much, way too much.”
But his final words are the really powerful ones: “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand – from my own eyes and ears. I’m sorry – forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise. I’ll never again live on crusts of hear-say, and crumbs of rumor.”
The distance between God and Job had been bridged; God was no longer above but alongside. Now, does that prevent suffering? Maybe. Maybe not. But, regardless, it says to me, we may not be prevented from suffering, but we are not prevented from healing. And healing is as real as suffering. People of faith, remember, healing is as real as suffering. The truth is not just that we are a broken nation. The truth is that we will heal.
But, wait, this story is not over yet. God then turns to Job’s “friends.” God’s pointed question to Job – where were you when I created the earth – can be interpreted. At least the tone. Their interaction can be The Inquisition or simply inquisitive. But you can’t misinterpret God’s words to his friends: “After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, ‘I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up. You haven’t been honest either with me or about me – not the way Job, my friend, has.’” God went on to require acts of penance for the way they treated Job.
In the end, Job did not get an explanation for his suffering. Instead, God, originally only as distant as the farthest star, became as close to him as his breathing. Not a rumor. Nor some hear-say, but his friend. That’s who God is.
We often approach the Book of Job as a question of underserved suffering. Why me? In the beginning, Job asked a more mature question – why not me? But he still struggled with it. Yet in the end, perhaps this isn’t as much about why there is suffering but who is God. Yes, “the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost.” But when we keep reading, God also says, “I am the one who teaches eagles how to build their nest on high cliffs to avoid predators.” And the message is, if God will do that for them, God will do it for us too. God is Job’s friend. Yes, but God also has a message to his other so-called friends.
The election has revealed more about our country than we expected. Talk about an understatement. But, for example, how many white people have mused, “Who knew our country was this racist?” Who knew?! Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, and other people of color didn’t just discover the death grip of white supremacy. Or how, ultimately, the structures of society matter more than anyone’s personal animosity – although Barbeque Becky and Permit Patty and Pool Patrol Paula and all the others who call the police questioning whether a man, woman, or child of color “belongs” somewhere, still demonstrates the need to not just change systems but also change hearts. It’s personal. And it felt personal when the police showed up at our house because, I’ll call her, Playground Penelope complained that Lance, then 12 or 13, was talking to a white girl. Perhaps you missed the story this week about the police called out on Janelle Bynam, an African American legislator canvassing door to door among constituents in her own district. But she looked suspicious. Until such calls become punished, not on social media but behind bars, evidence will remain that people of color are still only 3/5th of a person.
Dr. King once said, “The myth is that legislation can’t solve the problem… because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation.
Certainly, if the problem is to be solved, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.
So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”
As I said at the beginning, this time the news felt personal, my body heavy from head to heart and knees to toes. And then I beat myself up a little, thinking, I shouldn’t be so selfish. How can I justify being afraid when children have been ripped from their parent’s arms and scattered around the country? This isn’t just fear but their reality. But, of course, must it be either or? Perhaps we can use the story of Job and God as a lesson in building friendships and solidarity.
Some suffering is random. But not all suffering is random. Some is gleefully intentional. With recent executive orders meant to destroy affirmative action, with judicial decrees that downplay the need to protect voting rights, with the lack of legislation to protect Dreamers, or anything else to protect the assault on decency, or democracy, we must all find that place where our deepest fears meet in the solidarity of the suffering. To start with, to find what is personal and build bridges – from distance to friendship. From privileged bystanders to accomplices in resistance and accessories to dismantle this system of oppression and restrain the heartless.
As I said last week, we aren’t all called to the same task. But we are called to the same Christ. Job affirms, God is with us in our pain. And God is outraged, “I’m fed up with you” and those whose only mission is to cause more suffering. Like instead of asking, “who are these people and what are they fleeing?” deciding, “let’s make their life so miserable, they won’t come seeking refuge and asylum.” A big fat, “Who cares?”
But, like Job’s callous friends, they shall face their day and given the opportunity to repent. And then, “we the people,” damaged, shall heal. I am just as certain about that as I am that God knows the month when mountain goats give birth. And watches as the doe bears her fawn. And knows the season of her delivery, when she crouches down and drops her offspring.
I haven’t just heard rumors of this God. At my lowest point the other day, I felt this God, my God, your God, reside in that – personal – pain.
(What to get involved? )
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “On Not Being God,” Review and Expositor, 99, Fall 2002, page 609 http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=ed77c469-2848-4398-b072-2ec2f6695b97%40sessionmgr101
 Job 2: 9-10 – The Message (MSG)
 Job 39:1-3 MSG
 Job 29:27 MSG
 Job 40: 3-5 MSG
 Job 42: 1-6 MSG
 Job 42: 7-8 MSG
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 1, 2018
“Dinner at the Red Hen with Jesus and Jeremiah: Book of Job, Part 2”
Job 28: 1-12 – The Message
“We all know how silver seams the rocks,
we’ve seen the stuff from which gold is refined,
We’re aware of how iron is dug out of the ground
and copper is smelted from rock.
Miners penetrate the earth’s darkness,
searching the roots of the mountains for ore,
digging away in the suffocating darkness.
Far from civilization, far from the traffic,
they cut a shaft,
and are lowered into it by ropes.
Earth’s surface is a field for grain,
but its depths are a forge
Firing sapphires from stones
and chiseling gold from rocks.
Vultures are blind to its riches,
hawks never lay eyes on it.
Wild animals are oblivious to it,
lions don’t know it’s there.
Miners hammer away at the rock,
they uproot the mountains.
They tunnel through the rock
and find all kinds of beautiful gems.
They discover the origins of rivers,
and bring earth’s secrets to light.
12 “But where, oh where, will they find Wisdom?
Last week I started a three-week series on the Book of Job with a sermon some described as “gut wrenching” as they were leaving. As I preached, I did, in fact, look out onto a congregation of people with tears and red eyes. I reflected on the main question of Job: Why would a God who is just and good allow horrible things to happen to innocent people? Innocent people, such as children from toddlers to teens ripped from the arms of their parents seeking asylum, held in cages, and then scattered around the country.
It’s a question of undeserved suffering. I explained that the response of Job’s friends was to sit on the ground with him for seven days and nights. They cried together in lamentation, ripped their clothes, and poured dirt over their heads. They sat on the ground with him and didn’t say a word. If only they had stopped there. Packed up their things and returned home. But instead they began to speak.
His friends tried out every excuse they could think of to find blame. Each of his three friends made three long, extended arguments. Speeches, really. Including, speaking of his loss, “think of it as a blessing that God wants to teach you.” On the other hand, they also insisted that sin is the source of all suffering. “Explore the depths of your soul, my friend. Surely, you have sinned to deserve this.”
The speeches of Job’s friends are another way this remains a universal story thousands of years later. They offered the modern equivalent of such wisdom as “You’re better off without that job.” Or, “Better off without him.” Or, “Well, at least she didn’t suffer.” Or, “Well, it could have been worse,” except that the story of Job is about how, no, nothing could have been worse.
But as Eugene Peterson explains, “Sufferers attract fixers the way roadkill attracts vultures.” At my 2-year-old nephew’s funeral, the pastor comforted us with the vulture-like words, “God needed another flower in his garden.” Sure, we say things like that because we don’t want to see people suffer, we struggle to find words of empathy and understanding for our friends, yet saying nothing is often better than “Are you sure you didn’t do something to do deserve this? Really sure? Really, really sure, cross your fingers and hope to die?”
Each time, Job replied back, including some very understandable self-pity: “Let God squash me like a bug, and be done with me for good. Where’s the strength to keep my hopes up? What future do I have to keep me going? Do you think I have nerves of steel? Do you think I can pull myself up by my bootstraps? I don’t have any boots!”
Sprinkled among Job’s responses are such wistful sentiments as “Oh, how I long for the good old days” to an even more bleak, “Why didn’t I just die at birth, my first breath out of the womb my last.” To which his good friend Eliphaz responded, “It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble. Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?” Yeah, thanks for being so understanding.
But Job also made some very eloquent counter-arguments, like the today’s reading. I really resonated with Job’s statement: “Earth’s surface is a field of grain, but its depths are a forge.”
As I read through Job, that caught my eye. It might have been a dig at his friends for their shallow understanding of his suffering. If they looked deeper, they might better understand. But I also took it to mean that what’s on the surface is pretty. But what’s under the surface is beautiful. Job said, underground you can find sapphires and gold. Birds flying overhead will never see it. Wild animals will walk over the top of it but never know it’s there. Most humans too. But miners who hammer away at rock, who tunnel through the rock, will find all kinds of beautiful gems. They will discover the origins of rivers, and bring earth’s secrets to light. Yes, but where you will find wisdom?
You may find it amusing that these verses brought to mind how Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Wow, that’s a stretch, you might say! But, here’s how.
When I first heard the story, I found fault with the owner asking Sanders to leave. That’s too far. We can’t stoop to that level, I thought. If we want civility in our world, we can’t practice incivility, no matter how sincere the intentions. More to the point, our Christian faith teaches: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Taking our cues from Jesus – we are called to love our enemies, although I don’t want to get into calling someone with whom we disagree an enemy. But you get the idea. Ultimately, what our world needs is for people to act better, not more people to act worse.
It took me a minute to realize, however, that my response was only surface level Christianity. Pretty. Nice, polite. Might we not need something deeper? And might not even Jesus suggest something more than “Do unto others” at this moment in history? Perhaps it depends on whether you think our country is inching closer to… I’m not sure exactly what.
Back to the Red Hen. I was intrigued by a person who suggested an alternative response: “tell Sarah we will treat you tonight the way everyone who comes to America’s door should be treated.” Another person suggested an even more subversive statement: “If you want to eat here, we will feed you. We will treat you with dignity. We will offer you hospitality. But know this. Any money you spend here tonight will be given to a legal defense fund for kids in cages.”
That’s the kind of thing Jesus taught when he told his followers to go a second mile or turn the other cheek. As I’ve said many times in the past two years, Jesus wasn’t talking about how to be a doormat but how to confound the Empire.
This second set of responses begins to open our moral imagination, offering something between resignation and rage. And deeper, more beautiful, than “be nice.”
But is even that enough? A number of people I respect began questioning, tentatively, at first. For example, Diana Butler Bass shared on Twitter: “I’m going to say something controversial. I don’t believe in public shaming. But I also don’t believe in false civility.” I held my breath before beginning to read the responses, expecting the worst. Instead, I heard some very thoughtful comments. And by going below the surface, I learned that the restaurant owner actually didn’t publicly shame Sanders. She quietly pulled her aside and even paid for the food and drink already consumed. Sanders made it public and shamed the owner, demanding to be treated with civility.
Yes. Because ripping and scattering the children of asylum seekers is model behavior for civility. And trashing Muslims and Mexicans and transgender soldiers. If mocking a reporter with a disability is the definition of civility, we have a problem. But false civility is routinely demanded by those trying to disguise grotesque acts of violence.
I take seriously Dr. King’s admonition that we cannot return hate for hate. Hate won’t change things, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. But let’s look below the surface.
What did he say from Birmingham Jail that’s worth remembering today? "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Perhaps otherwise known as fake civility.
He continued his frustration with the white moderate who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Dr. King laments, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
Shallow understanding. So, to go under the surface and mine for some sapphires and gold, I’d like to invite Jesus to the Red Hen for dinner and ask, what would you do? And maybe a few of the other prophets too, like Jeremiah, or Amos or Micah. What would they do?
But we’ll have wait until the Red Hen reopens, hopefully sometime in July, because right now the street in front of it is full of good people carrying Confederate flags, and another guy handing out business cards for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a guy whose license plate reads “vigilante,” and a couple from Michigan holding signs that read “LGBT – Let God Burn Them,” a message to the restaurant’s gay employees. The Confederate flaggers, however, don’t want to be associated with the anti-gay people. “We don’t want anything to do with that crazy religious bigot stuff.” And here I didn’t think there really were good people on both sides!
What would Jesus do? Well, first it might help to ask what did Jesus do? Just look to his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. What did he say to them? Over and over, very publicly and to their faces he called them hypocrites and broods of vipers. Not as denigration to their religion but of their callousness to those who suffer. For example, they denounced Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. To which Jesus replied, as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, doing good is not against the law. It embarrassed them. Mark chapter 3 is one of the many times the Pharisees left such an encounter to go conspire against him.
I don’t think every occasion is one right for confrontation. Effectiveness is lost in constancy. That was a point made by Washington Gladden in the late 1800s, a Congregational minister credited as one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement. Among other things, Gladden fought for labor’s right to unionize and use its power of organization for the purpose of collective bargaining, a timely reminder this week. He also fought for such things as factory inspections, the regulation of work hours, the abolition of child labor, and the control of monopolies. This was 1886. He deplored violence in strikes, but he continued to uphold the right to strike, though he urged them to be “employed sparingly, lest in its overuse it lessen its own effectiveness as an instrument of justice.”
I’ve told the story before of how he went to the home of Mr. Jeffrey, a mine owner who was a member of his First Congregational Church in Columbus. It was the night before Rev. Gladden was going to give a sermon supporting the strikers at his mine. Mr. Jeffrey came to church the next morning as usual, listened to the sermon, and was moved to settle the strike that week. What if Gladden had said “Christianity is about being nice and polite to each other?” Of course, another lesson is, we have to be in relationship with people from all walks of life and points of view. And we can’t do that by indiscriminately being in everyone’s face all the time.
But again, I’m convinced we have to keep asking, what kind of time are we living in? Two writers from Sojourners Magazine put it well. We are living in a moment of “moral obscurity.” They asked, “Is this a Bonhoeffer Moment?” Pastor Bonhoeffer was one of the first to question what the new chancellor of Germany was really up to in February 1933, two days after Hitler took office. We have to be very careful about making comparisons, but we can cautiously observe Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the time and place in which he was living. He described the “huge masquerade of evil that has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion,” and in which “evil appears in the form of light and good deeds.” It was a time he described as requiring “a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state.”
Such as a time like this? Scapegoating minorities and refugees, calling the press enemies of the people, taking away worker’s rights, openly admiring dictators and wishing for more authoritarian powers. Should I keep going? Calling for limits on free speech? Showing preference for one religion, and only a narrow version of it?
We have a decision to make. Which Jesus do we follow?
The one who says, “be nice and polite?” Yes.
The one who is confrontational? Yes.
The one who heals the sick and comforts the wounded? Yes.
The one who went off to be alone? Yes.
The one who overturned the tables of the money-changers? Yes.
The one who was crucified? Yes.
The one whose death transformed the meaning of suffering, underserved as it was? Yes.
We aren’t all called to the same task but to the same Christ. Paul told us some are teachers, some are healers, some are bearers of good news. That’s why we are the Body of Christ and not just his hands or feet or liver, kidneys and gall-bladder.
At this moment in time, requiring ethical discernment, concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state, if you are called to public confrontation, we stand behind you as a living embodiment of Christian faith. If that is not your calling, we stand together offering a vision of love and hope to those undergoing great suffering, undeserved suffering, during these dangerous, morally obscure, times.
Job asked and then answered his own question: Where can wisdom be found? He said, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” I don’t love the use of the word fear. On the other hand, I appreciate the use of the word in 2nd Timothy: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
And with the power of God’s love, this world will be transformed. Although, it will take some time. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we listen to Jesus and ask, “What should I do?”
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Job 2: 11-13 The Message (MSG)
 Job 5:17 MSG
 Job 4:7-11 MSG
 Commentary on Job in Conversations: The Message with Its Translator, page 714
 Job 6:8-13 MSG
 Job 3:11 MSG
 Statements on Twitter in response to Diana Butler Bass
 John von Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, Pilgrim Press, 1992, page 377
 Told by current pastor Tim Ahrens, friend and colleague from my time in Cleveland
 1 Corinthians 12:28
 Job 28:28 NRSV
 2nd Timothy 1:7 KJV
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