Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 30, 2020
“I Hear Their Cries in Kenosha”
Exodus 3: 1-15 – Common English Bible
A Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro,[a] Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.[b] So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Last week we began the Great Liberation narrative with the story of the birth of Moses, and before that, the reason why the Hebrew people were living in Egypt in the first place – to escape starvation in their homeland. We heard about the rebellion of the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who tricked Pharaoh and refused to cooperate with his order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys – because he was paranoid that there were too many of them. We heard about the clever plans of his mother Jacoybed and sister Miriam to put him in a basket on the Nile so he could be discovered. And we learned about the rebellious compassion of the Pharaoh’s own daughter who, despite her father’s orders, rescued Moses from the Nile and raised him as her own. And today, we heard his encounter with a burning bush. But what happened in between?
Like Jesus, we can only speculate on his childhood upbringing. But I do wonder, what was that moment like when he realized he was a Hebrew but living the privileged life of Egyptian royalty? Like anyone adopted, he must have had so many questions, such as, who did he really belong to? Where did he fit in?
Well, one day, Moses did indeed face a choice. He looked down from his palace and saw the cruel labor that was forced on the Hebrews. He saw an Egyptian slave master beating a slave. In that moment he realized that these were his people. In that moment he was seized by outrage. And in that moment, he looked around to make sure no one saw what he was about to do. He killed that slave master and buried him in the sand. But someone did see him, and word spread, even to the Pharaoh. So, Moses fled as far as he could to save his life.
Moses kept running until he eventually settled in the land of Midian. He married Zipporah and became a shepherd for her father. He settled into a peaceful, obscure life – but always with a dark secret no one else knew. Moses might have always worried that one night there would be a knock at the door, dragging him back to Egypt to face the consequences of his crime. When word came years later that the Pharaoh had died, he was relieved. He was free from his past and he could die in peace.
That’s when today’s story interrupts Moses’ plan for comfortable obscurity. He was tending his sheep, far from home beyond the wilderness, when he saw that infamous “burning bush.” When he stepped toward the curious sight, a voice called Moses, Moses.
The voice from the burning bush proclaimed, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Yes, it was that Jacob, the dirty-trickster scoundrel who cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. It was that same God now talking to Moses.
The voice of God made seven “I” statements before declaring God’s name is “I am who I am.” God said:
1)I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt
2)I have heard their cries for deliverance from the cruelty of their slave masters
3)I know their suffering and pain
4)I have come down to deliver them
5)And repeated, I’ve seen for myself how the Egyptians oppress them
Again, God said,
I have seen their misery
I have heard their cries
I know their pain
And I will deliver them.
Just as Moses was about to say, “Good for you, God. Go for it!” Right before Moses could say thank you to God for promising to free his kinsfolk from their suffering, God said, 6) “And so… I am sending you.” “Wait. What?”
And with that we learn how God works in the world. “I will deliver my people from slavery means you will save my people from slavery. From cruelty. From oppression.” We also learn that God doesn’t choose people for that work who declare “I alone can save you. I alone can fix the system.” We all know how badly that works out. No, God works in the world through people who say, “Wait. Who me? Why me?”
God’s seventh statement in this dialogue is meant to make Moses feel better. I am sending you. But 7) “I will be with you.” Moses, however, just continues with a list of reasons why God has chosen the wrong person. After all, Moses was a murderer who fled the scene of the crime; he was a stutterer with a stunning lack of self-confidence, claimed people won’t believe him; and, after all, at 80 years old, he was content watching sheep in a pasture until it was time to put him out to pasture.
But God doesn’t care about excuses. In fact, I think with God, the more excuses the better. Or rather, the more strikes against you the better.
You might think this is just a fairy tale about Moses. You may think, this isn’t a story that relates to my life because I’ve never seen a burning bush. Or a dancing bear. Or a talking fish or something else supernatural.
But you have, we certainly all have seen the misery of God’s people. We have watched over and over and over again, one year after another after another as if on a loop, the killing of black men, women, and children. We watched as an officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 long minutes as he cried out for his dead mama to save him. It is through my eyes and your eyes, God says, I see the misery of my people. Don’t look away.
We have certainly all heard the cries of God’s people treated with cruelty. The guttural cries of the mother of Jacob Blake’s children sitting in the back of the car watching as seven bullets discharge one by one into his back as the officer tugged on his t-shirt to keep him from leaving. But we also heard as people pointed and shouted that the 17-year-old white boy walking down the street with a rifle hanging off his neck had just shot people. But instead, in the ultimate example that “law and order” is about maintaining white supremacy, officers thanked him for being there. Asked, would you like a drink of water. And waved as he went home that night to sleep in his own bed. It is through my ears and your ears that God says, I hear their cries in Kenosha. Don’t turn away.
We certainly all know the pain and suffering of God’s people – the way our stomach ties in knots witnessing the gleeful cruelty of this administration and the silence of its enablers. 180,000 dead from Covid, each of them with a family mourning what didn’t have to be so tragic with a little common sense and some leadership from the one who brags “I alone can fix it,” but doesn’t or can’t. Can’t, won’t, or incapable of seeing or hearing or feeling anything that isn’t about himself. But it is through my body and your bodies that God says, I know their pain and suffering. Don’t walk away. The I AM will save them.
We might cheer, “Good for you, God! Because someone has got to do something about this.” What happens when we realize that God is talking directly to you? Who me? Why?
Well, it’s precisely for these reasons:
That’s all the right stuff for God:
God needed a stuttering murderer with a stunning lack of self-confidence to deliver God’s people from slavery. Who me? But we’re simply responding to that which we can see, hear, and feel in our body.
You may have heard of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
Let’s go through our list of reasons to pick someone else:
What else do you have?
But you still have eyes to see.
You still have ears to hear.
And you still have a body through which you feel.
And that’s how “I am who I am” works in the world to save God’s people from their misery. What have you done wrong that makes you exactly the right one?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 23, 2020
Exodus 2: 1-10 – Common English Bible
A man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out[a] of the water.”
Today’s story actually begins a little earlier than the birth of Moses and his rescue from a basket on the Nile. The first line in the lectionary is “A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” So, that means we have to go back even earlier than Moses – like 500 years earlier.
Remember the story I told a few weeks ago about those twin brothers named Jacob and Esau? Joseph was Jacob’s son. His favorite son. Much, much younger than his 11 brothers, he was annoying to them. In part, because Jacob made it known that Joseph was his favorite, born of his favorite wife, Rachel.
And you may have heard of the special gift: Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream-coat? To be fair, he really was a twerp and eventually his brothers grew so tired of his prancing and preening, they threw him in a hole. And they kept him there until they sold him as a slave to some folks on their way to Egypt. Then gave his shirt, covered in goat’s blood, to their father so he would think his beloved Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.
Years later, great story but too long, Joseph ascended to the role of trusted official in the Pharaoh’s government because he interpreted a dream that foresaw a great famine. He convinced the Pharaoh to build vast storage barns to prepare. Back home, that famine hit so hard that many people emigrated to Egypt, including Joseph’s brothers, to avoid starvation.
Again, long story short, Joseph saved his brothers. But more than that, he saved Egypt. Despite being a foreigner, he was a hero. Except after they forgot about him. He was a hero until they began to resent all those families who had moved to Egypt to avoid starvation. 500 years later, there were “too many” of them. This new king who didn’t know Joseph said, “We’ve got to do something because they might turn on us.”
They forgot. It’s not good when a nation loses its corporate memory because when a nation loses its memory, suspicion and prejudice can take over. Frightened or paranoid leaders conveniently turn “others” into a threat to “our” way of life. But isn’t it interesting that, even now, “our way of life” only applies to those trying to protect their privilege and power?
And so, all those outsiders were rounded up and organized into work-gangs. They tried to crush them with slave labor, making it worse and worse. But, as the story goes, the harder they worked them, the more children they produced. No matter how much they oppressed them, nothing worked to contain them, so Pharaoh told the two midwives for the Hebrew people to kill all the boys as they delivered them.
The midwives agreed but wouldn’t do it. When Pharaoh realized they were not carrying out his orders, they lied and said the Hebrew women are so “vigorous,” they have their babies before the midwives can arrive. So, Pharaoh extended the order beyond the midwives. Pharaoh ordered all of his people to participate in infanticide – to drown every infant Hebrew boy in the Nile River.
Why would anyone agree to do that? To victimize someone, you’ve got to turn them into a threat. As one liberation theologian said, that’s only possible if those in power can “skew or even obliterate the corporate memory of the people. Ordinary people do not set out to oppress and exploit, unless someone can frighten them and point to a scapegoat.” It’s a playbook that is thousands and thousands of years old. But then as now, just one person at a time can interrupt the narrative.
As we heard in the story read, the life of Moses was miraculously spared. Great heroes often have stories of miraculous births – in fact, stories of other great leaders include being placed in a basket on the Nile River. But this is not just a story about the birth of Moses. This is the beginning of the liberation narrative, the story of freedom from slavery. The escape. The wilderness. The complaining. Lots of complaining about how life was better back in Egypt. We’re going to follow this story of God and the people for several weeks going forward.
As liberation theologians declare, “The point of this story is to demonstrate how the seeds of freedom for the slaves were sown years before through simple disobedience by women – the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who tricked and defied Pharaoh, by Moses’ mother Jochebed (jo-quay-bed) and sister Miriam who carefully plotted a way for him to be rescued, and then by the daughter of the very Pharaoh who decreed his death. As the text points out, the princess, whose name we don’t know, knew she was saving a Hebrew boy. She made a fool out of her father – whether she intended to or not.
He decreed death out of his fear, and she co-opted life out of her compassion. The courageous actions of Moses later in his life cannot be divorced from these women, whose compassion defeated fear.
It inspires in me once again an appreciation for how small acts of compassion really are acts of resistance in the face of fear, which multiply into greater acts of liberation. Moses was a great leader, but he’s not the reason they escaped. Liberation is not the result of one grand gesture or one great leader but thousands of actions and millions of people that destroy dubious fear with rebellious compassion.
And I think that’s an important reminder in this presidential season. We should not aspire to elect a Moses-like leader who will deliver us and lead us out of our national crisis. That would be great, but ultimately someone else can’t heal us. We need to inspire one another. Because our acts of rebellious compassion multiplied will become the greater acts of liberation that defeat fear and fearmongers. Along with the providence of God, it is we, not someone we elect, who will save our nation.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 16, 2020
“Thank God for Nasty Women”
Matthew 15: 21-28 – Common English Bible
From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.
Big surprise. A bunch of men annoyed by a woman asserting herself. She’s aggressive. Difficult. Bossy. Jesus, she won’t listen to us. So, you tell her to shut up.
A centuries old tactic. She’s a nasty woman. Too ambitious. Angry. Emotional. How many times have women been told they speak with a shrill voice like an angry school teacher scolding her students? Or, here’s a new one, sounds like Marge Simpson. Called the most meanest, most horrible, most disrespectable woman ever – because she dares take up space in the world.
The fact that this particular gospel story was assigned in the lectionary (readings for every Sunday set back in 1974); the fact that this story was assigned for today is amusing. We’re a few days away from the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution providing angry, nasty, too ambitious white women with the right to vote. It’s an event to rightfully celebrate, as long as we acknowledge that women of color were sold down the river to achieve that right.
It wasn’t until 1947 that all Native Americans could vote.
It wasn’t until 1952 that all people of Asian descent could be granted citizenship, and therefore the right to vote.
And of course, 1965 when all African Americans could vote without literacy tests and poll taxes and other suppression tactics. That is until new suppression tactics could be invented, such as requiring photo IDs.
And it wasn’t until 1975 that so-called language minorities could ask for ballots in their own language, thereby fully enfranchising Spanish speaking citizens and other voters.
It is doubly amusing, or perhaps providential, that the gospel story of the aggressive, difficult, bossy Canaanite woman was assigned for today, given that just a few days ago the first woman of color, a daughter of immigrants, was named a major party vice-presidential candidate. Cue up another round of birtherism. Cue the sexism. Eric Trump tweeted that Kamala Harris was a “whorendous pick,” spelled with a “w,” as in, she’s a whore. It makes nasty sound like a compliment, which of course it actually is.
Bur first, who was this Canaanite woman? In her book African Women in the Bible, LaVerne McCain Gill reminds us that the Canaanite woman is of African descent, and is in a line with other African women in the Bible whose story expands the limits placed on who is included, among others, Hagar and the Queen of Sheba. The Hebrew’s first convert is a Canaanite woman named Rahab. Jesus has a Canaanite great-grandma in his own ancestral line, ten to 20 generations ago… But sometimes we forget where we came from. However, more than forgetting where he came from, Jesus forgot his manners. He compared this nameless Canaanite woman to a dog under the table.
The fact that the disciples were dismissive of the woman is not surprising. Disappointing but not surprising. The fact that Jesus not only ignored, then dismissed, and then degraded the woman is not just disappointing but shocking. This is not what we expect of a Jesus we associate with compassion and kindness.
Some commentators say that Jesus acted this way to shock his disciples. That he intended this to get their attention. It seems kind of cruel to use the woman in such a way.
I agree with others who suggest that the meaning of this text is that even Jesus has bias, and when confronted, can be changed. Jesus can grow in understanding and wisdom. Although, what does that say about those who are dehumanized so he can learn a lesson?
We can start with the labels we use. She wasn’t being aggressive. She was being assertive. She wasn’t being difficult. She just kept asking hard questions. She wasn’t being bossy. She just kept telling the truth. And because of that, she changed the heart of Jesus. She persisted until she converted Jesus to a more broad and inclusive mission, not just to his own people, but to all of humanity.
I guess you could say that there is no better compliment to make about the Canaanite woman than to say, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” As LaVerne Gill said, “persistence is often the only tool of the disenfranchised.” What mother won’t do whatever is necessary for her children? So, she talked back to Jesus, argued with him, and got what she came for – healing for her daughter.
What does this story say to us? First of all, we owe a debt of gratitude to women who acted “unladylike,” who persisted through beatings and brutality, arrests and imprisonment to incrementally expand the rights of all people to participate in civic life. And everyone who is still fighting to keep those rights available to all people.
Secondly, it reminds us that even Jesus must be schooled, face his bias, and change. But that’s good news: even Jesus must be and can be changed when confronted by prejudice. As Steve Garnaas Holmes said, "It was the change that brought forth the miracle."
Lastly, to all the women who have been called aggressive – keep being assertive.
To all the women who have been called bossy – keep on leading.
To all the women who have been called difficult – keep telling the truth.
To all the women who’ve been told they’re “too much” – keep taking up space.
To all the women who’ve been called nasty, angry, and ambitious, thank you! Thank you for being leaders, agents of change to make our world more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate for all of us.
 LaVerne McCain Gill, Daughters of Dignity: African Women in the Bible and the Virtues of Black Motherhood, Pilgrim Press, 2000
 Gospel of Matthew chapter 1
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 9, 2020
“Waiting for Normal or Creating It”
Matthew 14: 22-33 – Common English Bible
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. 33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
The weather started getting rough,
the tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
the Minnow would be lost.
The Minnow would be lost.
With Thaddeus, and Bartholomew
With Matthew, James, and John
and all the rest
Were scared right out of their minds
Our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday suggested that’s how I should begin!
This is one of those “love it or leave it” texts. If the idea of walking on water is implausible, like all the luggage Mr. and Mrs. Howell brought with them for a three hour cruise; if the idea of walking on water is implausible, we may choose to walk away. But this text is so full of things that are plausible, I choose to love it.
I do want to acknowledge the difficulty of texts that involve miracles. I don’t want to offer suggestions that Jesus just walked out on a sandbar, exposed by the blowing wind. The faith of progressive Christians doesn’t depend on denying science. But neither should the faith of progressive Christians depend on denying mysteries that are deeper than we can understand with logic.
There is much to love in this story. And so, I asked our group on Thursday which parts of the text spoke to them. Jon liked how Jesus needed to go away by himself to recharge. Laura liked the question, “Is it really you?” Kat liked how when Peter lost his nerve, he began to sink. That’s real. But Pam noted that while Jesus didn’t prevent Peter from trying, he didn’t let him sink either. Which led Bob to ask, “Will you drown without faith?” While Marlene got to the point. “What’s this got to do with anything today?”
So, among the relatable parts: First, there’s fear in this story and the ever-present message in the Bible of “Don’t be afraid. Be encouraged.” Although, since I can’t swim, telling me not to be afraid while in a boat tossing from side to side seems unlikely. More like absurd, but I appreciate the message, especially in times like these.
Secondly, haven’t you ever been ready to do something and then lost your nerve? Ready, but can’t step forward. Although, in this case, Peter lost his nerve while he was successfully doing it.
And third, there are times when all we can do is cry out, “Help me.” Crying out for help is not a lack of faith. Crying out for help is an act of faith that means we know there is help.
There really are so many things going on in this text that I need to choose one focus that I find relevant today. As Marlene would say, “Get to the point!” And that’s Peter stepping out onto stormy water.
I’m not usually a big fan of Peter, among other things, the one who denied Jesus three times. I can forgive him for that, as Jesus did, and yet this isn’t the only time he’s acted like a show-off searching for attention. Impulsive. Hot-headed at times. But Paul Garret suggested, perhaps he truly just wanted to be near Jesus. I honestly don’t know his motivation. But I do know that, despite what I can only imagine were pleas from the other disciples to not rock the boat, Peter refused to stay in his place. And I like that.
I’ll never forget the sermon we watched together a few weeks ago by Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC. One of the lines that still sticks with me is “stay in your place.” Lynching was a message to African Americans to “stay in your place.” Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white supremacists because they thought a young Black jogger didn’t belong in that place. Stay in your place, boy. Just like that was the message to Sandra Bland who was pulled over for not using a blinker. Stay in your place, girl. Fire hoses and dogs were used on children so they would learn their place in the world. Like 12-year-old Tamir Rice should have known while playing in a park by himself in Cleveland.
When John Lewis stepped out of place, Alabama State Troopers cracked his skull. Lewis and Annie Lee Cooper and Hosea Williams and Diane Nash and thousands of other nameless women and men stepped out of their place onto a bridge named for a Confederate soldier and Grand Dragon of the KKK to cross over the river used to transport slaves to auction in Montgomery. But don’t forget, the first time they tried, they failed to get across. And that failure became a successful turning point for the nation.
Peter didn’t stay in his place, either. And then he failed. Peter should have known better and stayed in the boat. The storm hadn’t yet calmed. The tiny ship was tossed in a violent storm. That’s not when you get out of a boat, right. Shouldn’t we wait until the time is right? Until the sea is calm? But in the midst of a raging storm, that’s when Peter walked onto stormy waters.
Impulsive, a show off, or whatever… he was doing it. But while he was walking on the water, he became afraid of walking on the water. He was doing it and then doubted whether, or why, he could do it. And that’s when he began to sink. He failed to make it. But, you may say, Jesus saved him. Yes, and Peter still failed to make it to Jesus on his own. But Peter’s failure was not the end of Peter’s story.
The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, "Do not depend on the hope of results. When you’re doing the sort of work you’ve taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if even not result in the opposite of what you expect. But as you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
Merton doesn’t identify what that work is. That’s a good thing because each of us has our own stormy water to walk out onto. Times when we are successful, until we doubt our success and start to sink. Times when we are blessed, and then doubt that we are worthy to be blessed.
It’s kind of hokey but true to say that “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Let’s look at this pandemic through which we are living. I know we all can’t wait for a vaccine. The result? Everything will return to normal and be OK again. It will? Are we waiting for normal, or trying to create it? What about all we are learning each day right now? We’ve been practicing patience. We’ve been learning to let go. We’ve been learning new ways to work and spend time with our families. You don’t want to simply wait for a vaccine, do you? I know that’s not what we’re trying to do as a church.
Some of you heard me share this week about how I felt when our pandemic separation first began. I felt like I’d been thrown in a river full of rapids. As I said, I can’t swim. I struggled to stay above water, grabbing onto one rock after another to avoid being swept down the river before drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I had to be reminded to breathe. Eventually I started to let go and made it to the next rock in the river. And the next. It wasn’t until later I looked back and realized we’re sailing on this river together. Now, if while sailing down the river, if I were to doubt and ask, how can I be sailing down a river, I might begin to sink. But with the Spirit as our guide, we won’t settle for what we’ve always accepted as normal. We will create a more open and inclusive reality.
However, of course, along this “Spirit guided adventure,” is the sobering fact that over 160,000 Americans, tragically, unnecessarily have died; 5 million are infected, and frightful millions more may become infected; doctors and nurses are exhausted caring for people who still think this is a hoax or demand it is a matter of personal privilege to infect others; businesses are closing… This adventure metaphor has serious limits.
And so, with all due respect, I pause to recognize the effects of this dreadful disease and willfully incompetant administration. And stop to thank scientists working around the clock, first responders serving at their own risk every day, grocery clerks and delivery drivers showing up to work. And to pray for children, teachers, parents, bus drivers, food servers, counselors, and administrators trying to make decisions about what is best for themselves and their communities.
Of course, unlike Peter, we’ve been dumped into stormy waters. We didn’t have the same choice, although we still have choices.
Whether to stay in our place or risk creating a better world for ourselves and others.
Whether to wait for calm or become calm.
And whether fear and self-doubt will cause us to fall back toward what we knew, to sit back down, to stay in your place. Or we can take our first water-slogged step toward Jesus to fulfill the command of love and compassion he taught. He’s there to help if we fail. In fact, we will fail. But the miraculous and implausible part of the story is that that’s when we’ll finally break free of what has always held us back.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 2, 2020
“A Wideness in God’s Welcome”
Genesis 32: 22-31 – Common English Bible
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[c] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[d] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
He’s a liar. He’s a cheat, even cheating members of his own family. He’s a deceiving dirty-tricks-scoundrel willing to stoop lower than anyone could imagine, stealing whatever he wants – especially money and power.
And yet Jacob is a patriarch of our faith, of three religions. He’s a man who demonstrates how unbelievably far God will go to show undeserved grace. There is a wideness of mercy in the One we call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How do we know? Because Jacob is one of the greatest dirty-trickster scoundrels in the Bible.
Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah and a twin with Esau. It took Rebekah 19 years to get pregnant and then had a difficult pregnancy. Her sons were constantly fighting in the womb and when they emerged, although Esau came first, Jacob was clutching his ankle as though he was trying to hold him back. But because Esau came out a few seconds earlier – he was the first born. Which meant Esau would inherit everything.
They were twins, but Jacob and Esau were nothing alike. Esau was a big brute covered in red hair who loved hunting – and he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. Jacob was smaller, quieter, “the brains” who preferred staying among the tents. Their father Isaac preferred Esau because he hunted for his favorite wild game – venison. On the other hand, Jacob was his mother’s favorite.
Jacob could never get over how a brute like Esau would inherit the family fortune, so he came up with a way to trick Esau out his birthright. One day Esau came home from a long, unsuccessful hunt. He was starving. Jacob just “happened” to be cooking a batch of lentil stew that Esau could smell as he came near. Esau demanded some, but Jacob said not unless Esau swore an oath to give up his birthright. Esau agreed. He reasoned that a birthright would mean nothing if he had starved to death. When he later realized he had been tricked, Esau was enraged, but an oath was an oath. And so, Jacob will inherit the family fortune.
But Jacob wanted more. More important than the birthright, he wanted the power that came from being named the leader of the tribe. That comes in the form of a blessing conferred on a father’s deathbed. Without that blessing, Jacob may have gotten the money, but Esau, as the firstborn, would still have the power.
As Isaac lay on what he thought was his death bed, Esau wanted to make sure he didn’t get tricked out of this one. So, to seal the deal, he told his dad he would go hunting and bring back some venison. Rebekah overheard their conversation and conspired with Jacob to trick Isaac.
Isaac was blind, so while Esau was out on his hunt, Rebekah told Jacob to slaughter a goat and she would cook it to taste like venison. They dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and put goatskin on his hands and neck so Jacob would feel hairy like his brother. Isaac ate the fake venison, felt the hairy goat skin when they embraced, but he was curious that his voice sounded like Jacob’s. He asked if that was really Esau. Jacob lied and said yes. And so, Isaac conferred upon Jacob the irrevocable blessing intended for Esau. Esau returned home and realized he had been tricked again. This time he vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah sent Jacob away to live with her brother Laban.
While living with Uncle Laban, Jacob fell in love with his daughter Rachel – yes, his first cousin, but at the time not forbidden. His uncle agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel if he worked for Laban for seven years. Seven years later, Jacob and his new wife consummated the marriage, but when the bridal veil was lifted the first time, Jacob discovered he had just slept with Rachel’s sister Leah. Enraged, he asked why he had been tricked. In a little comeuppance, Laban said that it would have been wrong for the younger sister to be married before the older. But, if Jacob worked for his uncle for another seven years, he could also marry his beloved Rachel. Jacob did, but in the meantime, he also ran a scheme against his uncle to steal his best sheep. Can you say dysfunctional family?
Jacob and Laban lived with an uneasy peace for another six years. One day, Jacob decided it was time to leave and reunite with his estranged brother Esau – the one he had tricked out of both his birthright and blessing. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell Uncle Laban he was leaving, so while Laban was away, Jacob packed everything and everyone up, including Laban’s daughters. When Laban came home, he was angry that Jacob had simply left, but he was even more upset when he realized Jacob had stolen all the household gods. When Laban caught up with the traveling band, he demanded his idols back, but beloved Rachel sat on them to hide them and proclaimed it was her time of the month so they couldn’t touch her. I guess that a family that steals together stays together.
Jacob and Laban made a sort of peace with each other at a spot known as Mizpah: “May Yahweh keep watch between you and me while we are away from each other.” You may be familiar with this “Mizpah blessing,” but it’s kind of funny because it’s really a warning. “I can’t keep my eye on you, but God will know what you’re up to!” Uncle Laban went back home, without his idols. Or his best sheep.
So, all that drama aside, Jacob now focused on getting into his brother’s good graces. Jacob hoped he could pacify Esau with a grand gesture and sent him hundreds of sheep and goats and huge herds of cattle and camels. And a message seeking reconciliation. Esau responded back through a messenger that he was sending 400 men to greet him. But Jacob panicked, thinking that meant Esau was sending an army of 400 against him. That night Jacob sent everyone else across the river and he stayed back alone. And, as the story goes, Jacob wrestled all night long.
Got the picture? It was that night, after everything that had happened in his life, ready to finally face his brother, Jacob was alone. And a man came and wrestled with him all night long. A man or perhaps an angel or a demon. Or, I wonder, perhaps his conscience. This lying, cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel was about to reunite with the brother. I wouldn’t be able to sleep either.
But the story doesn’t say he wrestled in a dream. For Jacob it was all very real. So real that he limped away from the encounter with a torn thigh muscle, or as some translations say, his hip deliberately jammed out of socket. At daybreak, Jacob wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. He demanded a blessing. And in the end was given a new name.
I’ve always liked this story as a metaphor. I can relate with wrestling in the night – perhaps a question of faith, perhaps a struggle before having to make a big decision. Or perhaps a question of conscience and how to make things right. Have you ever wrestled with questions like that in the night?
Lately, a lot of us have had difficulty sleeping. That’s why I now watch re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore as the last thing I see before going to bed instead of Rachel Maddow. That’s why I try to avoid “doom scrolling” before bed. Doom scrolling is checking the news feed on our phone to see what new outrageous thing has been done to destroy democracy. But that just leaves me rolling around the bed, tossing and turning, angry and wrestling with the question – what can we possibly do? How much worse it is going to get? Feeling helpless and hopeless is not a good way to fall asleep.
It would make sense that Jacob wrestled all night worrying about how Esau would greet him. But to his amazement, Esau came running to greet Jacob with affection and invited him to settle down on the same land with Esau’s clan. He welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms.
In the past I’ve always thought that the man wrestling with Jacob in the night was a representation of our struggle with faith. Or as I said, questions of conscience, priorities, decisions… And that’s one way to look at it. However, I hadn’t previously paid attention to Esau’s response. Something about that spoke to me. And so, as I wrestled with the text this time, I thought of parallels with the story of the prodigal son. Remember, in the end, the father of the prodigal son didn’t focus on what his son had done wrong. Instead, he welcomed him home with open arms. That upset his older son. But the father asked, should I be more upset for what was done or grateful that he is back? The one I once thought was dead is alive.
It’s a wideness of mercy, like Esau. Like God. A God of undeserved grace. A God who despite all the worst we have done comes running out to greet us with affection and invites us to settle down together. But of course, that brings up its own set of questions. What about accountability? What about the need for justice before reconciliation?
And that’s what I’m wrestling with today. As our nation descends further into dystopia, I keep coming back to the question of how and what we are going to do to start healing our country, whether six months from now or, God-forbid, after four more years. Esau welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms. Of course, I also have to remember that Esau had a couple of decades to think about their reunion before seeing Jacob again. It may take us 20 years to even explain the era in which we are living, let alone heal from it. And yet it is our hopes and dreams for healing and reconciliation that will help us move forward. I don’t want to forever live with a grudge or a chip on my shoulder.
When all is said and done, what will be more important? Focusing on what was done wrong or what we can build right together? I am not talking about accepting abuse – to forgive the abuser. I’m not suggesting we tell victims of white supremacy and violence against women and transphobia and asylum seekers, “Let’s all just get along.” Give up your demands for justice so we can have some peace. No.
And I’m not suggesting we ignore the actions of governors whose fealty to the president is enabling waves of infections and needless deaths. And those who are demanding that children be packed into schools, to see if it will work out OK. Just like they ripped children from their mother’s arms and packed them into cages. I’m not suggesting we disregard the actions of cabinet secretaries wantonly dismantling every regulation that protects our water and reduces pollution in the air. Half of the dirty tricks scoundrels in the administration should be put in jail to be held accountable for their enabling of a man only interested in amassing more money and power for himself. But then what?
There is a national reckoning to come. But in the meantime, what about our neighbor? What about my cousin whose Facebook posts get under my skin so much I have a hard time sleeping… should I forever hold that against him or should I hope for and be ready and grateful for the day when we can greet one another again as family.
And what about the consequences of my own bad behavior? The anger and hatred I’ve held in my heart? Will that forever be held against me? Will we be forgiven for our participation in incivility?
But as an old hymn says,
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There's a kindness in God's justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind.
At the end of our dystopian nightmare, I pray to be more grateful for our reunion than stuck on the reason we were divided.
I love being the