Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 2, 2016
“Failing to Notice and Then Making Excuses”
Luke 17: 5-10 – The Message
“The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.”
6 But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.
7-10 “Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
Life on a dairy farm is hard work. Unrelenting. Cows don’t take a Sabbath day. Every day at sunrise and sunset, cows must be milked. Not to mention, fed and cleaned up after. On the day of a wedding, someone still has to milk the cows. On the day of a funeral, someone still has to milk the cows. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter… there is simply no break. At least for the small family farmers like ours who didn’t have the means to hire additional laborers to help. That’s why you had children!
But no one’s job is harder on a small family farm than the mothers. Which I only realize now. Today, looking back, I can see that when my father and brother were out in the fields during planting and harvesting seasons, added to everything else my mother had to do, she had to milk the cows by herself.
Milking is hard, physical labor. First you have to get the cows in from the pasture, which many times meant walking up to a half a mile and back, coaxing and shoving stubborn animals who weigh an average of 1,500 pounds. Then coaxing and shoving them into the barn. Then coaxing and shoving their heads in a stanchion. Then, cleaning their utters with warm water, while avoiding their kicks and swatting tails. Then you put a strap around their back, lift a heavy stainless steel container onto the strap, and attach the suction cups. But if you thought the container was heavy when it was empty, add ten gallons of milk. And once it’s full, then try dumping it into a larger 30 gallon stainless steel container – without spilling. Then carry that to a separate room, avoiding a misstep into manure, and then lifting it high enough to fill a 500 gallon cooler. And then run back and repeat 25 more times.
On the days when my mother did it alone, before I was old enough to help, she still had to time supper perfectly so that when my father and brother came in the from field they had something to eat. After which they would sit down to rest and put up their feet while my mother began washing the dishes. That was her job. My mom reads all my sermons, so let me pause for her right now to read “thank you.” I now see how hard it was for you.
Variations of this story can be told by many here – especially single parents who understand the unrelenting demands of work and family life with no help and no break. Getting off the bus after a double shift but still expected to feed and care for hungry, tired, and cranky children – and help with their homework, wash their clothes, pack their lunches… And then do it again the next day. Sometimes with the needs of an elderly parent added to the list. Nurses who go the second mile without thanks. Teachers who come early and leave late without thought of a thank you, before preparing their own family’s dinner.
I notice you in this story – called here “servants” or “slaves.” Under the old norms of job responsibilities in the home, no matter what else had been going on that day, when it was time for dinner, it was mom’s job. In the story, Jesus seems to ask, “Why would you thank someone for just doing their job?” I’m sure Mother’s Day was invented to assuage some of this guilt.
This story needs telling again, this time from the New Revised Standard Version: “Who among you would say to your slave (various translations debate whether the Greek word here means slave or servant)… Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here and take your place at the table?’ Would you not instead say, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; then later you may eat and drink?’ Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”
This is awful. Yuck. So I have to just pause for a moment in discomfort and anger, at least for me, to notice how effortlessly, casually, it reinforces the worst of social hierarchies. Surely that is not the point Jesus is trying to make but I simply can’t leave unsaid that who we are in our own social hierarchy, then and now, affects the message we hear. Imagine hearing this text in a predominantly white, middle class American congregation – that’s us, so it’s not too hard to imagine! But then imagine hearing this text and its interpretation in a Black Church, or a church full of Latino farm workers, or Filipino maids. In our context, we might miss this subtext. Or, if we do, explain it away.
I read at least 20 interpreters and commentators as I tried to make sense of this passage. Not a single one said a single word to call into question this “matter of fact” statement about how one treats a slave. It was just assumed. Well, yes, of course: Slaves shouldn’t be thanked for doing what is expected of them. Such “logic” is right up there with “slaves be obedient to your master” and “wives submit to your husbands.”
A protest was called for yesterday about a basketball game between Black youth and law enforcement over at New Hope Baptist on Colorado Boulevard. My first reaction was “What a great idea. Engage two communities often in adversarial relationships. Especially now, with tensions so high.” Others heard the same news and cried foul. “You can’t use our children to promote a false peace, not until there is real reconciliation.”
Rev. Dawn and Rev. Tawana immediately called upon organizers to cancel the event protesting that this is cheap reconciliation, on the backs of our children. “Is law enforcement providing grief and trauma care to those they want to play basketball with? What is law enforcement doing to build relationships with Brown and Black adults? Where are the attempts by law enforcement to create effective de-escalation practices so they don't keep killing us? But we are expected to trust law enforcement to play games with our children? Please. We should expect and demand substantive and effective work, and not be pacified by such superficial tactics.” They saw this event and said, “This is just a PR stunt, a media opportunity.”
I have to say, I didn’t see that at all. What’s wrong with a basketball game? But then again, I’ve never had to question my safety. My life is not at risk should I forget to use my blinker. Or sit in a car reading a book, waiting to pick up my children. If I’m having a stroke or seizure, I expect to be helped. Not shot. The event was postponed, but the issues not settled.
But before committing to attend, I had to pause and re-read my own sermon last week. Racial Justice work begins by listening. Not debating, questioning, or providing rationales for the experiences of Black and brown people. Not arguing, “Well, that’s not what they meant. They’re just trying to do good. They had good intentions.” Listening is number one. And amplifying Black and brown voices is number two.
To stand as an ally is to look and see and listen and hear things beyond our own experience. So then, when I finally stopped arguing about intentions, I could hear the plea: We do not in any way support cheap reconciliation, especially when it's on the backs of our children. Bishop Desmond Tutu says it best, "Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing." How often the first reaction of the comfortable is “Well, they’re only trying to…”
So Jesus didn’t mean what he said about the slave? Deserved or not, I have to stop to say thank you to those who do their jobs and play their roles without notice. There is no excuse for not seeing what you do and the sacrifices you make – and saying thank you.
As we begin to interpret this passage, one key to translation is a single word that might be “if” or it might be “since.” It makes a surprisingly big difference.
If you have faith like a mustard seed… OR
Since you have faith like a mustard seed.
If you had this kind of faith, you could… OR
Since you have this kind of faith, you can…
Today’s passage began by saying: The disciples implored Jesus to give them more faith. Increase our faith, they pleaded. Jesus had just laid a lot on them. In particular, an expectation about forgiveness. Keep forgiving, keep forgiving, keep forgiving. Seven times a day if necessary. Yes, if that’s what Jesus expects, I’ll definitely need an extra dose of faith for those times when my willingness has run dry.
But, is the issue that I don’t have enough faith? If only I had more I could? Or, is Jesus saying, since I have faith enough already, I can even make a tree jump into the sea? So get to it already. What are you waiting for?
As a progressive Christian I probably err on the side of interpretation that says “If only I had more faith. Then I could…” be more involved, take more risks, choose the side of justice, make a decision, forgive a friend. If only… Perhaps, however, Jesus is trying to say that “since you have faith, therefore you can.” More faith doesn’t matter. Faith is faith – and faith the size of a mustard seed is just as powerful as faith the size of a mountain.
And yet, if only Jesus would give us more. Which plays into our American obsession with more. More is better. Meaning, we don’t yet have enough. But I think of Marianne Williamson’s quote attributed to Nelson Mandela:
Yet, "...our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.”
So, as I see it then, the question isn’t “If” I had more faith I could… That’s an excuse for inaction. Jesus is trying to say that “Since” you have faith, you can… Since I have faith, for example, I can forgive. I can love my neighbor as myself. The awkward connection, the casual disdain, is that slaves don’t need to be thanked for doing what is expected of them. Just like, there’s no extra credit for forgiving. Or loving. It is simply what is expected of a disciple. Love without expecting a thank you.
But this story is a bizarre way to make that point. And the teller doesn’t seem to notice that they are reinforcing the hierarchies of slave and master, just like husband and wife or Black and white. That’s not only unhelpful, it risks solidifying such relationships as “gospel-truth.”
Yet, I think, the whole point is as simple as this: Faith isn’t that special. It’s just doing what is right. It is doing what is expected. Mother Teresa said our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love. The scripture might be saying something similar to us: we do not need more faith; we need to use the faith that we have! We can look around and do what is right, right in front of us. Have you ever said, If only I had more faith?
I heard a story this week about the Detroit Mower Gang. When Detroit declared bankruptcy, they stopped taking care of the neighborhood parks. They soon became overgrown with weeds and tall grass and children stopped playing in them. One man saw it and said I can do something about that. He took his riding lawnmower to the park and cut the grass himself. He noticed that as soon as the area around playground swing set was cleared, children were already on the swings. He told his neighbors who wanted to get involved. There is now a whole gang of riding lawn mowers cutting grass in parks around the city twice a month. They aren’t looking for appreciation. Their motivation is simply: every kid deserves a place to play. They didn’t say, If I had a lawnmower I could. They said, Since I have a lawnmower I can.
Thomas Merton said start where you are, and deepen what you already have, and then you will realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we may not know it and so we don't experience it. Everything has already been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.
So the question Jesus raises isn’t whether or not you have enough faith, no matter who you identify with in the story. Since you have faith, any amount of faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, you can do what is right, right in front of you.
However, we not might see what is right in front of us – from our limited, privileged, and biased perspective. That’s why it is especially important to listen to the voices of those who see what we often don’t notice. Or excuse. That’s why I was ultimately willing to protest yesterday. What is important is not that I feel safe, but that others are not.
But there is so much resistance to things as simple as facts and statistics in our world. A company hired two consultants for a workplace dialogue about race. It was a hostile room. A white man finally pounded his fist on the table. His face was red and he was furious. “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years. A white person can’t get a job anymore.” He hadn’t bothered to see that of the 40 people in the room, all were white. In fact, the company had zero employees of color.
We can’t always see what is obvious to others right in front of us. And if we do, excuses are often made about intentions. So once again, we are called to look deeper and listen harder and open ourselves more sacrificially. We don’t need more faith to do it. We already have enough to sustain us, so what can we do?
Do you feel like you lack something? I can’t, but I could? Whenever you think “I need more,” take a look around. Since you have what you need, so you can.
 One late exception was Jane Anne Ferguson at www.sermon-stories.com/blog
 From an excellent article by Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journey of Critical Pedagogy, 2011
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 25, 2016
“Time to Get Our Panties in a Tuff”
Luke 16: 19-31
“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
22-24 “Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’
25-26 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’
27-28 “The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’
30 “‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’
31 “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”
“Just because I don’t get my panties in a tuff and stand on my soap box doesn’t mean I condone what’s going on out there.” That one really tore at me this week. More than the usual “before you complain about the police, stop blacks from killing blacks.” And “all lives matter.” And “If only they had…” Or “If only they would…”
Even this one didn’t get under my skin as much: “There's been too much chatter about ‘institutional racism and institutional bias.’ ‘We ought to set aside this talk’ because it's the ‘rhetoric of division.’ Well, OK, that one is pretty bad. Chatter? As though Terrance Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, and I learned just yesterday at our Soul2Soul retreat of another – 13 year old Tyre King in Columbus, Ohio. Were they all just the subject of gossip and rumors and innuendo? Chatter? Really?
It’s past time, way past time, to get our panties in a tuff. I’m sorry if that sounds vulgar. It isn’t really church language. It’s kind of sexist. And I don’t mean to offend. But I was offended and I am offended. Panties and Black Lives and chatter?
“Hey Abraham. Tell Lazarus to fetch me some water. It’s too hot down here.”
Last week’s parable about the Shrewd Manager was difficult to understand. Hard to interpret. This week’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is easy to understand. It’s just hard to swallow. In fact, it’s so easy to understand that instead of trying to interpret it, commentators and preachers often just jump to assuage any guilt by saying “Well, he didn’t really mean it.” Or “Hell isn’t literal, after all.”
This is certainly one Bible reading that prove that literalists are only literalists about the things they want. The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. Scripture forbids women from being priests and pastors. But the rich are going to hell is just hyperbole. It’s a metaphor.
Sometimes I wish I believed in hell. And that it was hot. Superhot. And the people there were really thirsty. Perpetually thirsty. A home for racists and birthers ordered around by Muslims, Mexicans, and refugees. But like the rich man, deluded by still thinking they could appeal to some higher authority to order a formerly lowly servant to fetch for them. “Hey Abraham. Tell Lazarus I’m thirsty. Bring me some water. Or wait. No. I’ll take a sweet tea.”
Can you blame the oppressed for telling stories about a better life in another world? Streets paved with gold. Gates made of pearls. But just for those who haven’t already lived with gold-plated chandeliers and pearl necklaces. I understand the sentiment: If we can’t get justice today, then ya’ll better watch out in the next.
But comfort for one group is just an excuse for another. And the thing about the next world means that whatever happens in this one doesn’t matter. There’s a line in our benediction every Easter that says:
“No pie in the sky bye and bye when we die
but something sound on the ground while we’re still around.”
That line by Kenneth Samuel, pastor of Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Georgia, has explained my theology ever since I first heard it.
Jesus was always aware of two audiences listening to him. The money-lovers and those without any money to love. Before today’s parable starts, the verses preceding it say “You can’t serve both God and the Bank. When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch (or “money-lovers” in other translations), heard Jesus say this, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.” I bet they did more than roll their eyes. I mean, ultimately they met behind closed doors to plot his execution.
Jesus knew exactly how to tell stories that both audiences could easily understand. You can’t hear the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man without knowing which side you’re on. Heaven or hell. Sheep or goat. A story of encouragement or a statement of indictment.
Except… there are some of us in the middle, there are some of us like me, who might be called “money-likers.” I like money. I’m not obsessed with it. I don’t love it but I like to have enough of it to live in a nice neighborhood and afford a nice car and take some nice trips. What is someone like me who stands in the middle supposed to take from this parable? I’m not the rich man and I’m not Lazarus.
Actually, Jesus always addressed at least three audiences. He included the ones who stood by and had sympathy for Lazarus but since they were neither rich nor poor, it didn’t affect them personally. The ones who could choose what side they were on. Like me.
I’m not a person of color and I’m not a raging racist. One of “those” people who fly confederate flags and flirt with racist politicians. I’m what I might call an occasional… “accidental racist.” Who, too often, tries to prove he’s not really a racist, except that I’ve been through enough training to know that the best I’ll ever be is a recovering racist. I’m not one who harbors hatred in my heart, but I will never escape the privilege that comes with being white. And with that, I can choose when and if I want to take sides. I’m in the middle watching Jesus address those were represent the Rich Man and those who represent Lazarus without realizing Jesus is talking to me too. A money-liker and occasional accidental racist. In the middle. Kind of a lukewarm spot. But Jesus didn’t like lukewarm faith.
In the Book of Revelation it says “To the angel of the church in Laodicea: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Well that’s not very nice! Especially for anyone comfortably in the middle…
Last week I lamented to myself, “I think people have moved on.” The deaths of African American men, women, and children had been moved out of the headlines. The outrage had passed. It was way, way back in July that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered. Michael Brown was years ago. How quickly those in the middle can think that the problem today isn’t that bad.
But it’s time, if we haven’t already, to get our panties in a tuff. I really am sorry if that’s offensive to you. But there is something else that feels worse.
Lance bought his first car last week. He’s been saving half his salary since he started working when he was 16. Of course, now he wants to drive it. It’s to get to and from work on weekends when the bus doesn’t run. But as can you imagine, and some of you already know, we are scared that one day he’ll actually use his car to go to the movies or to the mall? Not because he’s less experienced but because he’s black. It’s a nice respectable Volkswagen SUV. No scratches and dents. No low riders or duct tape on the bumper. But that doesn’t mean he still won’t be stopped and have an encounter with the police who see him and are afraid, even those who might not be raging racists. Bias is so tightly woven into the fabric of society, I’m susceptible to fear too.
Alex Landau, a friend of many in our congregation and a neighbor, won an Emmy this week. He’s actually downstairs right now at an all-day meeting of the Denver Justice Project. The Emmy was for a video short of a story that originally aired on NPR’s StoryCorp when he told the story of his near death experience at the hands of Denver Police – a few blocks from here seven years ago. He was pulled over for making an illegal left turn. A white friend was found with some weed. Alex didn’t have any, but when police demanded to search his car, he calmly asked for a warrant. Brutality rained down on him until his face was unrecognizable, for stating his rights, except that obviously as an African American he didn’t have the same rights.
All the distraction of whether Keith Lamont Scott or Terrance Crutcher had a gun, they were in the South! Who doesn’t have a gun? John Walter was shot inside a Walmart in Ohio – an open carry state – for wanting to just buy a BB gun. Obviously, even the sacred Second Amendment does not extend that far.
But I’m not rich nor am I Lazarus, so I can stand and watch. Or I can just shake my head and move on.
But are you ready for some deeper, sacrificial, heart-opening, love-us-enough-to-expect-more, God-kind-of-work, engagement with racial justice?
There’s lots of ways to begin, but here are a few, along with a few beyond the beginning:
2) Amplify the voices of Black and brown people
3) Talk to your family and friends
4) Donate to anti-racism work
5) Know who you are voting for – in all races, not just the top
6) Be a witness
7) Demand accountability
9) Commit yourself to fixing this. You are not helpless
Number 1: Listen to Black people and do not debate their experience, their feelings, or their reality. Or share how bad you’ve had it too. Listen. And listen by reading. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson. Educate yourself by educating yourself, not by requiring African Americans to teach you. But in fact, the church is paying for you to gain this experience – every second Saturday until March.
2) Amplify, not speak for or instead of, Black voices. Don’t jump in to explain for an African American. It happens all the time by people of the best intention.
3) Don’t ignore or scroll past your family and friends who make or post either ignorant or hateful statements. You don’t necessarily have to debate or argue. You can simply say “I disagree” and that’s it. Enough said. But silence implies you condone or tolerate racist comments.
This is hard. We don’t want disharmony, but the world as is, is not harmonious and won’t get any better without all of us in the middle taking a side. The consequences to us are nothing in comparison with the agony the wives and children and parents and siblings and cousins of Terrance Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott are feeling today. And many others.
A mixed race group of fifth graders in Tulsa discussed the news the day after Terrance Crutcher’s murder. They had questions like “Why did they have to kill him? Why were they afraid of him?” But soon their questions were more personal. “What will his daughter do at father daughter dances? Who will walk her down the aisle?” They were innocent questions. Meanwhile the seventh grade boys, who were growing taller, their voices growing deeper, their shoulders broadening, were aware that the size of Mr. Crutcher made him look threatening. They asked, “Was it his size or his color?”
I don’t have to talk about all nine suggestions – and the many, many more options for action. This is a sophisticated congregation and you get it. Vote. Donate. By the way, when you donate to the church, you are supporting racial justice. We provide free space to any group working on racial justice. It’s part of our mission. We provide free space to Black Lives Matter for their weekly and monthly meetings. Free space to the NE Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice. Free space for a retreat day for the Denver Justice Project. Free space to the Interfaith Alliance racial justice cohort meetings. Word is getting out and other groups have begun calling. Not to mention, the expenses of our six month series on Soul2Soul. But there is one more thing I will mention.
Be a witness. Karen Ashmore has begun doing this. When you see a Black motorist pulled over, pull over too. Get out of the car and stand and watch. Video if you can. It is not against the law to do so. Don’t interfere. Don’t get in the way, but watch. A witness may save a life.
It’s time to get our panties in a tuff and stand on our soapbox and not let another death become a memory instead of an opportunity and call to action. Silence does condone “what is going on out there.” So, what are we, you, me, us, going to do differently, starting today?
What kind of
 Luke 16: 1-13, see www.davidbahr.weebly.com for the sermon (scroll down below today’s)
 Luke 16:13-14, The Message
 I highly recommend it https://storycorps.org/animation/traffic-stop/
 Between the World and Me, The New Jim Crow, Just Mercy – just three of many excellent choices, plus Waking Up White and White Like Me
 Post by teacher Rebecca Lee on Facebook
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 18, 2016
“Serving God, Not the Bank”
Luke 16: 1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Almost every scholar I consulted to help make sense of this story started by saying “This is the strangest and most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand.” Basically, “sorry, we can’t help.” Phyllis Tickle, a highly respected commentator said, “Oh no! Is it really time for that parable again?” My thoughts exactly.
Let me try to summarize: A man ran up huge personal debt – maybe from living too large, maybe from gambling, maybe… who knows. Bottom line: He owed a lot of money.
So far, not unlike a lot of Americans who have far more debt than savings.
He had been paying for his lifestyle by taking a cut of his boss’s income. But that’s not so unusual. Managers now and then were usually paid by taking a percentage. Maybe it was because he was taking too much.
For whatever unnamed reason, when the boss found out, he said, “You’re fired.” Since he was out of a job, quickly, before anyone else found out, he looked for sympathy from his former boss’s clients by reducing the amount they owed, hoping their gratitude would turn into dinner a few nights a week into the future. It doesn’t say he personally got any money out of those transactions. Just the hope that the people for whom he saved some money would take care of him.
When the boss man learned about what his former manager had done, instead of being angry that his invoices had been reduced, the boss praised him for being shrewd. The boss praised him for coming up with angles to take care of himself, for using his wits, using his smarts to prepare for his future. But with the caveat, using his smarts “for what is right.”
Jesus then concludes the story with the very famous line, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Or God and money. Or God and mammon. Variations on the translation. But the one that says it best, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, puts it this way: “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.” That really makes a pointed statement.
But I’m still left with the question why. What’s the relationship between his shrewd preparation and Jesus’ admonition? There’s still a disconnect for me. So let’s dig into it a little more.
First of all, I have to say, I can’t read this story without thinking of Donald Trump. I can’t help but think of all those small contractors who worked to build Donald Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City and golf courses in Florida and probably a lot more. He was sued over unpaid bills at least 60 times, liens placed on his properties for unpaid bills at least 200 times. It’s not a partisan dig to state what even Fox News does not dispute as truth. They did their work but when it was time to get paid, those contractors were told there wasn’t enough money, so you’ll have to settle for less; like 30% to 70% less than they were owed. Jack O'Connell, former president of Trump Taj Mahal, said "Part of how [Mr. Trump] did business as a philosophy was to negotiate the best price he could. When it came time to pay the bills," Trump would say "'I’m going to pay you but I’m going to pay you 75% of what we agreed to.'" Small business owners who couldn’t afford to sue were left taking as little as ten, twenty, thirty cents on the dollar. And were subsequently forced out of business.
Some would say it was a shrewd business practice – which America should adopt too. Others would say it was dishonest. But how could anyone dispute that it doesn’t pass the smell test? It wasn’t right. And it’s a simple affirmation of the statement: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
The story of the shrewd manager, or dishonest, crooked, or any number of other translations suggested, may be challenging to interpret, but it falls smack dab in the middle of a host of other texts about justice for the poor. The texts that precede this one include:
Jesus talks about economic justice more than any other topic in the gospel of Luke.
But the question remains, is the primary message of the Shrewd Manager that dishonest preparation is better than none at all, as one scholar suggested? Or is the focus on “the radical mercy of the boss?” as another scholar suggested? Is it a screed against the wealthy?
There is not one person, myself included, in this room who doesn’t live a relative standard of wealth above most people in the world. There is also not one person in this room, including myself, who did not gain our wealth from dishonest practices. After all, we live on land that was taken dishonestly from Indian tribes. But also, how much of the wealth of our country was derived from slave labor? The South gets excoriated for their practice of owning slaves, their fierce defense of owning human beings justified by twisted interpretations of scripture. But the earnings of plantation owners increased the bottom line of everyone, not the least of whom were banks. Cheap labor made possible cheap goods for everyone in the country. Wealth grew. Inheritances grew, except for African Americans who, upon emancipation from slavery, were left with nothing to start a new life. And to this day have less wealth to pass on to future generations.
According to 2011 census data, the net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,300, compared with $110,000 for the average white household. The gap has only worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did in 1970 during apartheid. The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.
If you haven’t seen the new version of Alex Haley’s Roots, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte from a very different perspective than the original. Instead of the focus on the cruelty of slave owners, and therefore a focus on them, this version tells the story from the perspective of the strength of character of Kunta Kinte’s family. It still has plenty of unimaginable violence, but instead of victimhood, the story is one of pride and survival.
But, to today’s point, I was particularly struck when the newly freed slaves were told to leave the land of their former owners. Get off my land or pay me to live in the squalid quarters that had been their homes. Having earned no money, with what were they supposed to pay rent? People who had been made rich off slave labor didn’t have to give any of that up. And those with no resources were supposed to survive, having to start with nothing. The legacy of such an uneven playing field remains today.
Wealth buys access to credit, to banks with free checking while those without resources go further into debt, relying on payday loan ventures that trap people into permanent debt over a few hundred dollars to pay an unexpected medical bill.
Tax breaks for the rich while white, black and brown food stamp recipients are drug tested to receive money to buy groceries for the week…
Jesus talks about economic justice more than any other topic in the gospel of Luke. More than healing, more than heaven and salvation; far more than family values, unless you define family values as food enough for children, not homosexuality, abortion, and one man, one woman. Curiously, Jesus didn’t say a single word about those things. Rather, quite clearly, he said “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”
What would it look like to serve God, not the Bank?
I’ve told this story before but it is so egregious I keep telling it. The city of Cleveland proactively hired ex-offenders for such jobs as garbage collection. An unscrupulous TV network made this into a scandal. With screaming headlines, an “exposé” claimed that ex-cons are going through your garbage looking for social security numbers. This scare tactic caused the city to end the program and force people back into the underground economy to survive, for which they would often be arrested and put in jail. And as repeat offenders, get even longer jail sentences. When religious leaders objected, we were branded as sympathetic to crime. The city acquiesced to the fear mongering and a permanent under-class was maintained. That’s serving the Bank, not God.
Meanwhile, private prisons are thriving on Wall Street. Payday lenders enjoy some of the biggest profits on Main Street. And the homeless are arrested for sleeping on 16th Street. That’s serving the Bank, not God.
What else can you think of? Jesus didn’t talk in theories. He looked around and said, “See over there?” Jesus didn’t wonder about economic injustice. He saw it and said something. And so should we.
Alyce McKenzie, one of those scholars who began her piece by saying “this parable is one of the strangest of the strange” concluded by saying “The parable’s commendation of shrewdness needs to be viewed in the larger context of Luke’s emphasis on God’s mercy, Jesus’ concern for the poor, and the reversal of fortunes the will come in the Kingdom of God. One’s best interest, in that larger context, means [how well we] act” with justice for the poor over “making wealth the goal of one’s life.”
It’s not an anti-wealth message. It’s a question of how we use it – whether we are serving God or the Bank, or more importantly, our own bottom line. Is it wealth that is the problem or the temptation that comes with it?
Daniel Harrell, pastor of Colonial UCC in a very wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, said provocatively, “Yes, Sometimes We Can Serve Both God and Mammon.” He claimed, “It’s not that prospering financially is a biblical vice. It’s just that greed, injustice and extravagance lurk in prosperity’s shadows.”
Colonial Church is likely one of the most prosperous in the whole denomination, and he makes an interesting point. The shadow side of money. Lurking. Ready to pounce on our vulnerabilities. After all, we are often much more easily convinced of scarcity than abundance. We are often more fearful of our own insecurity than angered by others. Yet, that’s serving the Bank, not God.
Martin Luther King once said “time is neutral. You can use your time for good or you can use time for evil.” But liberation theologian Justo Gonzales said “money is not neutral. It is either used for purposes that are just or purposes that are unjust. What we do with whatever wealth we have – however great or small – is of enormous importance. We are either servants of God seeking its wise use or servants of money, always seeking more.” If we have wealth, use it wisely, maybe even shrewdly, for God’s purposes – compassion, justice, and repairing the breach.
How often have you heard the phrase Money is the Root of all Evil? That’s actually not correct. It actually says in 1st Timothy the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Wealth isn’t evil. It’s just that we must be careful because greed, injustice and extravagance lurk in prosperity’s shadows.
This parable may be strange, but perhaps more so, what it is, is uncomfortable. How many people would rather talk about their sex lives than how we use our money? And yet, Jesus boils it down to pretty simple terms. Choose this day. Shall I choose to serve God, or the Bank?
 Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-after-ferguson-race-deserves-more-attention-not-less.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article&_r=0
 Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, “Commentary of Luke 16:1-13” by Justo Gonzales
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 11, 2016
“Take Your Memories and Remember Them”
Exodus 32: 1-14 – The Message
When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”
2-4 So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” They all did it; they removed the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf, shaping it with an engraving tool.
The people responded with enthusiasm: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”
5 Aaron, taking in the situation, built an altar before the calf.
Aaron then announced, “Tomorrow is a feast day to God!”
6 Early the next morning, the people got up and offered Whole-Burnt-Offerings and brought Peace-Offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink and then began to party. It turned into a wild party!
7-8 God spoke to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshiped it. They’ve sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are the gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”
9-10 God said to Moses, “I look at this people—oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people! Let me alone now, give my anger free reign to burst into flames and incinerate them. But I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11-13 Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”
14 And God did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.
Some of you have memories of the moment when you learned that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. Perhaps you were standing at the kitchen sink and overheard it on the radio in the background. Or on the street as you witnessed a wave of grief overcome each person as they heard the news. Or not until the morning after on your way to school. And before that, Bobby Kennedy. And before that, JFK.
I was only three years old when Dr. King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I was alive, but I have no memory of what it was like to hear the news. So I understand but still find it hard to believe that there has been a decade and a half of children born who don’t have memories of seeing the Twin Towers fall, the Pentagon in smoke, and a field in Pennsylvania littered with debris from a plane crashed into the ground.
Where were you at this moment, this morning, 15 years ago? What were you doing? I recall the desk I was sitting at. The window I was looking out… of going home, driving in the car listening to the radio as announcers struggled to keep on top of fact and rumor. Nearly all of us have memories of 9/11 – Yes, the videos played over and over, but more importantly, gut reactions. Tears, confusion, anger… helplessness.
Diana Butler Bass asks a really compelling question. We may have memories. But have we remembered?
She says, “There is a difference between memory – the snapshots that stay in our minds always – and remembering. Remembering means to ‘put back together’ the pieces of the past, to rearrange the pictures of memory in order to make meaning, to heal, to forgive, to inspire. Memory and remembering are related, but they are not the same thing. Memory is simply ‘not forgetting.’ Remembering is the hard work of seeing, understanding, making sense of, and learning from the past.”
I can’t tell you how helpful this was when I first read it. I think of Alzheimer’s patients and the cruel loss of remembering, not just memories. I think of what it feels like after a loved one dies. There is a scattershot of memories, but in the moment, feeling like our lives are spinning out of control, it is difficult to catch hold of them to create a narrative. Rather, images race by, day and night, interrupting our thoughts and our sleep. Good memories and painful memories, times of joy and times of hurt and betrayal. Then slowly, frustratingly slowly, they come into focus until we can finally see the trajectory of their life – when the questions of why and how begin to make sense. Isn’t that the work of grieving? Grief work. It is when we can finally take our memories and begin to remember, which is, to make meaning, to heal, to forgive, to learn from. It takes time.
It takes time, and so perhaps that is why the slaves who had been freed from the grip of Pharaoh by the hand of the Lord were so quick to jump ship as soon as they were afraid. How long after they had crossed through the Red Sea; how long, from the freedom side of the Red Sea; How long after watching the Pharaoh’s chariots get stuck in the mud and the waters return did this incident happen, this debacle known as the golden calf?
They had been free for a little over a month.
They still had vivid and fresh memories of standing at the edge of the sea feeling trapped. They still had memories of the ground shaking, the noise getting louder, the pounding of chariots and horses coming closer and closer, ready to force them back to their captivity. Their memories were that close, mere weeks back, but they hadn’t yet remembered. They hadn’t yet remembered whose they are, who set them free. They hadn’t yet remembered why they were set free. So that’s why I believe scripture had to, still has to, repeatedly declare – Remember who brought you out of Egypt from the bondage of slavery. It was the Lord your God.
Remembering is the process, always continuing, of putting back together. All of us do it personally, collectively. And there is still a lot of work as a nation to put us back together. Not just memory but meaning.
We can’t stop remembering, trying to sense of these people, places, and events. Otherwise, such memories will overwhelm. We will not progress as a people. And we will keep repeating cycles that draw our attention away from that which has meaning. And all that really, actually, seriously, truly, matters. That which reminds us who we are. It is easy to be distracted. We will make silly choices or serious ones that lead to such false gods as a golden calf or war and waterboarding. One of the geniuses of Alcoholic Anonymous is the retelling of the stories of the darkest days in order to not repeat them.
Before they remembered, when the now-free Hebrew slaves became afraid, they did what we, unbelievably, still do. They turned to their possessions to save them. An equally afraid, or perhaps remarkably unscrupulous, leader named Aaron, within an instant, got the people to believe in the power of gold. Money will keep us safe. Something big and shiny and easy will protect us from being afraid, of feeling alone. Remember when we called our golden calf “Shock and Awe?” It may seem remarkable that the people were so quick to give up their personal possessions for this collective action, but it was still done for short-sighted, and manipulated, reasons. Because they clearly hadn’t yet remembered that it was God who saved them.
Which royally ticked God off. Understandably. Can you imagine how betrayed you would feel? Taken for granted? I mean, remember, this wasn’t their first expression of ingratitude. The minute the people crossed over the sea to freedom they began to complain. Have you left us out here to starve? Remember how good we had it back in Egypt? When we were slaves we had enough to eat: watermelons, cucumbers, leeks… I’m hungry. Oh, but I don’t want that.
They were utterly dependent. And totally ungrateful. And easily led astray. Let’s worship gold – something pretty that we can see. Moses had to calm God down. And in a remarkable expression of grace, God understood and forgave them.
Memories and remembering. Today is Homecoming Sunday. Walking up the front sidewalk, through the narthex, and into the sanctuary after having been gone for a little while brings with it a flood of memories, although, with this new configuration, there are new memories to create. And yet, the rock wall, the colorful windows, and many of the faces, retain our connection to the past.
Do you have memories of the first time you came to this church – parking, entering, finding a seat? Who did you meet first? What did it feel like? Did it feel like home right away or did you have to give it some time? Did your first time here involve grief over another church you had to leave behind? Some of you don’t have those memories but your parents do of standing with you in their arms in front of this baptismal font.
But all those memories won’t mean as much without remembering – for example, to remember who we are and whose we are. We belong to the God of freedom and liberation. We are loved by the God of grace and forgiveness. We are given courage by the God who does not give up on us, no matter how understandable it would be that God would say – I’ve had enough of you. The God who says when we are weary and afraid, when we’ve lost what is most dear to us, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
And do remember why we’re here? Because here we are reminded of what really matters. Not our pretty possessions but the beautiful world around us. We are reminded of what we have, not what we lack. We are here to practice kindness and justice and humility before our God. We are here to remember. And when we remember, we can see, we can understand, we can make sense of our lives. And we can be called forward.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the sacrament of communion Jesus said “Do this to remember me.” Not to simply have memories. “Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup, re-member me.” Be my hands, feet, and face in the world.
Whether it be the 15th anniversary of 9/11 or recollecting the death of a loved one – a father or a mother, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a best friend; whether it’s coming home to church after a time away, aware of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us here… Whatever the situation, how can you take your memories and remember them?
 Diana Butler Bass, Patheos blog, “9/11: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
 Four girls killed in Birmingham church
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 4, 2016
Psalm 84 – Common English Bible
What a beautiful home, God-of-the-Angel-Armies!
I’ve always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
3-4 Birds find nooks and crannies in your house,
sparrows and swallows make nests there.
They lay their eggs and raise their young,
singing their songs in the place where we worship.
God-of-the-Angel-Armies! King! God!
How blessed they are to live and sing there!
5-7 And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!
8-9 God-of-the-Angel-Armies, listen:
O God of Jacob, open your ears—I’m praying!
Look at our shields, glistening in the sun,
our faces, shining with your gracious anointing.
10-12 One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship,
beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.
I’d rather scrub floors in the house of my God
than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
All sunshine and sovereign is God,
generous in gifts and glory.
God doesn’t scrimp with his traveling companions.
It’s smooth sailing all the way with God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
One day a farmer decided that his donkey was fat enough to take to market to sell. He told his son to bring him two poles. He said, “We’ll carry our donkey to market on these poles so that he won’t get too thin from walking the long distance.”
So they tied the donkey to the poles, hoisted it all on their shoulders, and headed down the road to the market. The donkey hung upside down in between them, braying and heehawing his displeasure.
They came upon a group of people in the road who laughed and laughed. “Look at you stupid fellows carrying a donkey like it was a pig. That donkey should be carrying you! Why don’t you get on its back and ride it?”
The father and his son were very embarrassed at all the laughing and jeering. The father said, “I guess we must look pretty strange carrying a donkey. Maybe we should put him down and ride. But, he’s too small for both of us.” He told his son that because he’s smaller, he should ride while the father walked out front carrying their packs.
The son agreed. So they untied the donkey and the son got on. They again began down the road toward the market.
A little farther they came upon another group of people. They called out to the son, jeering, “What kind of son are you? You ride in comfort while your poor old father has to walk carrying bags? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The red-faced son dismounted. He said, “Maybe you should ride, father, and I will carry the packs.” The father agreed. “Maybe that would be best.”
So the father got up on the donkey and the son walked out in front with the packs.
They crossed the river and entered the village. They came upon a group of young women alongside the road. “Look at that handsome young man walking like a servant while that old goat rides like a prince. You should ride, handsome boy, and the old man should walk.”
The boy turned and said, “Father, have we made a mistake again?” The father replied, “It seems like we have made several mistakes today. First we carried the donkey and the people said it was wrong. Then you rode and people said it was wrong. They I rode and people said it was wrong. Perhaps we should ride it together.”
“Splendid,” said the boy. So they both got up on the donkey and continued toward the market. When they reached their destination a crowd of people began pointing and staring at them. “How could you be so cruel? That donkey is barely old enough for one rider, and yet you have put two on him? It’s so little, you should be carrying it! Shame, shame,” the people cried out louder and louder.
The father and son got off at once, but the crowd wouldn’t let up. And they were so loud that it frightened the poor little donkey. It bucked and kicked until the father and his son lost grip of the rope and the donkey ran off, never to be seen again.
What a story! And, at least for me, it rings a little true. For any would-be people-pleaser, there’s probably a connection. Someone says, “You should do it this way.” So, you do. Someone else says, “You should do it that way.” So, you do. Then someone else, and on and on and on… Each time trying to please the person making the suggestion until everyone is upset. Your family. Your co-workers. Most especially, yourself. Your stomach. Your sleep patterns… What “should” we do?
In the story, what might they have done differently? They could have yelled “Mind your own business!” and kept moving on. Or “Thank you. I appreciate the suggestion” and kept moving on. Perhaps more the second than the first.
Scripture might actually contribute to the problem. In Philippians Paul says, “In humility, consider others above yourselves.” In Romans, “Honor one another above yourselves.”
What’s a Christian to do? Is people-pleasing even the problem? Or maybe the problem is when our behavior is motivated by the need for approval. Not doing the right thing but what most people will be happy with. Then we will have peace.
Apparently people pleasing is not a new phenomenon, recently realized through research in the fields of psychology and psychiatry and the like. Or in journals like the Harvard Business Review writing about the problem of people-pleasers in the workplace. No. Two thousand years ago, Jesus warned: "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them." (Luke 6:26, The Message)
So, if we wanted to evaluate our level of people-pleasing or approval-seeking, what are some questions we may need to ask?
But what’s wrong with being agreeable? Being easy to get along with? What’s wrong with seeking the peace?
One list I came across asked a question I hadn’t thought of before.
Which means, what might I be willing to do to achieve that? Wow. Do I believe, deep inside, that I can get most everyone to like me? Why, yes I do. How about you? And perhaps that’s why I made some of the choices I did, especially in high school? Or maybe even today?
Might that be one reason why some people are reluctant to get involved in social change? Someone’s not going to like it. Or worse, they might not like me! Expressing an opposing view might lower someone’s opinion of us. What is a frequent criticism of activists? Why must they be so disagreeable?
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is persona non grata number one right now. For expressing an unpopular opinion. Not for drunk driving or dog fighting or domestic violence or foul language to children.
An excellent article in Rolling Stone magazine noted that 70% of NFL players are African American (yet 6% of the population) while 83% of NFL fans are white. “These are people who pay staggering amounts of money to watch black men batter their bodies on the field. And as long as they run and tackle, keep their helmets on, and their mouths shut, then they are acceptable to the white mainstream public. However, when black athletes choose to point their aggression not towards each other but to larger, systematic inequalities, that's when the backlash begins.”
Fans posted videos of burning Kaepernick’s jersey, called him a disgrace and disrespectful, arrogant, ignorant, ungrateful. Those were the nice things. The same fans, most of whom, said not one single word about Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott… the list is too long. The pressure is always on African American athletes to tap dance and sing and say “thank you sir” for the privilege of living in America, which means white America. And to apologize each time someone is offended by the suggestion of anything else, not to mention hearing truth spoken.
But, to me, patriotism at its best is protesting the killing of people of color, not whether or not you stand for the national anthem. Which one matters more?
It may be hard to ask such questions if the goal in the end is to get everyone to like you and to agree with you. I risk bringing it up because I know we don’t all agree about Colin’s tactics.
Probably my dad too. My dad was far from what anyone – especially himself – would consider a social change guy. But occasionally he got in trouble. My dad was a Gideon – the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. When we think of Gideons they are often characterized negatively. Pushing their religion on us, advocating some kind of right wing agenda. My dad just loved the Bible. Read it every day. He wanted others to encounter it and love it too. Two weeks ago when we went through my mother’s entire household of belongings, we came across the Bible she had given him while they were dating in 1944 (courting, I suppose they might have called it then). It was so well worn it barely stayed together. And so full of notes, the pages couldn’t hold anymore. You get the picture.
But one day he got in trouble with the head Gideon in the state of Montana. The topic of homosexuality came up at a meeting, apparently everyone believing they were all on the same page – the condemnation of gay people. My father very calmly and clearly said that his son was gay and that he loved him. That was it. That night he got a call asking what kind of trouble he was trying to stir up in Miles City. From a man whose son was also gay, but of whom he had a starkly different opinion about the fate of his eternal soul. All of a sudden, in his late 80s, my dad was an agitator with a gay agenda.
My dad knew the Bible better than most people. He lived his life to please God. And if that didn’t please everyone else… That can be hard. It can also be hard to know what actually pleases God. As a tangible way to please God, we might think we should please other people. Not such a bad idea, but just because others approve of us, doesn’t mean that God is pleased.
If we look at the whole of scripture, considering the life and teaching of Jesus, what is pleasing to God? Withholding an opinion others might disagree with or speaking an opinion for those without a voice or a place at the table? Sometimes ourselves. Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak for those who cannot speak; seek justice for all those on the verge of destruction.”
Instead of people-pleasing, shouldn’t our concern be pleasing God? It’s a good question on Labor Day weekend. Wages that pay enough money for food, clothes, and shelter or a golden parachute? The size of our 401k or a big enough safety net for widows and orphans? Not to mention, the Bible keeps talking about hospitality toward strangers and immigrants and foreigners and aliens living in your midst. Is it the strength of your patriotism that is pleasing to God or your defense of the voiceless and powerless? Which one matters? Although, shouldn’t they be one and the same?
Jesus surely didn’t spend all his time trying to please people. You don’t eat dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors to win brownie points. You don’t invite yourself to the home of Zacchaeus or allow Mary listen in on conversations between men. You don’t stop men from stoning a woman caught in adultery. You don’t pardon criminals or call religious people hypocrites.
Paul gets that because in Galatians, he asks, “Am I trying to win the approval of people, or of God? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Being a servant of Christ might not be pleasing to everyone, including expressing differences of opinion. Or standing up for ourselves. And most especially, standing up for the voiceless and powerless. Just look to Jesus as the instruction manual and take courage – tomorrow or next week or whenever you consider silence your best or only option.
 “The Father, the Son, and the Donkey” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.
I love being the