Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 22, 2019
“What to Do with Dishonest Wealth”
Luke 16: 1-13 – Common English Bible
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. 2 He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
3 “The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
5 “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ 7 Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for 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, most confounding and perplexing, and most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand. Good luck.” Phyllis Tickle, a highly respected scholar said, “Oh no! Is it really time for that parable again?” It comes around every three years. Most years I look to see what other options I have in the lectionary.
Many parables are repeated in other gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often contain the same parables, sometimes told in slightly different ways, depending on their audience and purpose. But what does it say that Matthew and Mark took a pass on this parable too!?
Six of us gathered to eat noodles for lunch on Thursday. Our practice is to read three different translations to ourselves as we eat and then discuss. This week, I watched each person finish reading with a “what?!” look on their face. This text raises a lot more questions than answers.
It starts by Jesus telling his disciples that an accusation was made against the household manager of a certain rich man. His income came from a cut of his boss’s income. Not an unusual practice. Perhaps someone thought he was taking too much and tried to get him in trouble by telling the rich man he was squandering his property. Most focus on his alleged dishonesty. But I want to go back to first ask, how did this rich man get so rich? And what had he done to stay so rich.
As the text begins, it seems odd but OK. “We can work with this.” Until we come to its most perplexing line. Kathy read: “use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.” A little weird. But the New Revised Standard translation of that same verse isn’t just weird. It’s offensive. It says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Surely an editorial error was made somewhere along the way. Jesus would never say something like that. And if he did, why?
What do you think of when you hear the phrase dishonest wealth? I can’t help but think of emoluments clauses and the small business people who were contracted to build and furnish casinos in Atlantic City and golf courses in Florida, and probably everywhere else too. When they went to collect their money, they were told they would have to accept less. Small businesses that couldn’t afford to join among the 60 who filed lawsuits or the 200 who placed liens were paid as little as ten, twenty, thirty cents on the dollar. And subsequently forced out of business. Some claim it was just a shrewd business practice. Sadly, we could spend the next hour sharing such stories of cabinet makers in Philadelphia, drapery installers in Las Vegas, and a toilet company in New Jersey.
Jesus, does this have anything to do with why some Christians have made friends with people of dishonest wealth? Yet, in the end, Jesus did say, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.”
This weird and offensive line about dishonest wealth is even more curious given the topic Jesus talked about more than any other in the Gospel of Luke. Despite the odd line about being welcomed into eternal homes, Jesus spoke of economic justice more than heaven and the afterlife. More than healing. What does this perplexing story have to do with justice for the poor?
The verse that immediately follows says, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” If we are perplexed and confounded by this parable, somehow the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was saying. And they didn’t like it. Jesus then told the parable about Lazarus and the rich man, which is not a super popular parable among the accused “money-lover” class either.
Does it matter how this certain rich man got so rich?
Was he like the man who promised God, “If you solve my problem, I’ll sell my house and give all the money to the poor?” One day he realized he would have to make good on his promise. He put his house on the market for $1. But anyone who bought the house would also have to take his cat, which came for the bargain price of $100,000. When the house sold, the man promptly gave everything he received from the proceeds of the house to the poor. He had said nothing about the cat in his promise.
Was he being shrewd? Was it dishonest, or worldly, wealth? Perhaps more importantly, what does any of this have to do with us?
There is not one person in this room, myself included, who doesn’t live a relative standard of wealth above most people in the world. We may not be guilty of something devious or have committed a crime to get it, but we certainly have some responsibility for all the access and advantages and privilege that comes with it.
All of us benefit to some extent from wealth gained by dishonest practices. After all, we live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples. Every time we travel to the Pine Ridge Reservation, we are reminded that the United States has never kept even one treaty in order to get wealthy from mining gold and silver and every other mineral we wanted. As the gold on the dome of the state capitol glimmers in the sun, it should serve as a reminder of the benefits we receive from dishonest wealth.
We have to ask how much of the wealth of our country was derived from slave labor? The South is rightly excoriated for their practice of owning slaves and then losing a war for the right to keep human beings enslaved. But the earnings of plantation owners filled the banks and increased the bottom line of the whole country. Unpaid labor made cheap goods possible for everyone. Wealth grew. People made rich off slave labor didn’t have to give any of that up. Inheritances grew, except for those upon whose backs this wealth was made. Given our history, I don’t know why reparations is even a controversial issue. There are debts to be paid.
The price of freedom for newly freed slaves was impossibly high. Their former owners told them to get off their land or now pay to live in the squalid quarters that had been their homes. With what were they supposed to now pay rent? Hence, a “new and improved” form of slavery began, called sharecropping. Those emancipated were supposed to start with nothing. Although, as one commentator said, “I refuse to be a victim in this scheme. I am the ancestor of those who survived the worst that could be thrown at them. My ancestors are the strongest. My ancestors are survivors. And so am I.”
It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s poem:
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Yet the legacy of an uneven playing field remains today. The gap between the net worth of the average black and white household in the United States has only continued to worsen – a greater wealth gap today by race than 1970 South Africa during apartheid.
Wealth buys access to a family home, and therefore credit, which generates wealth. Providing such things as access to higher education. The crisis of cripling student debt will have serious long-term effects on all of parts of our economy, but student debt is even worse for people of color.
This is the kind of stuff that Jesus talked about all the time. Far more than heaven, salvation, and family values, unless you define family values as food enough for children. He spoke of justice. Not retribution and retaliation but reconciliation and redistribution. Also known as reparations? Jesus didn’t say a single word about abortion or homosexuality but quite clearly, he said, “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” As Jesus said, “You will either hate one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other.”
For example, by serving wealth instead of God:
At the end of trying to understand this confounding, perplexing enigma of a parable wrapped in a riddle, I take away one thing: More than the admonition that “we can’t serve both God and wealth,” rather, I ask in the positive, “how do we use our wealth to serve God?” Why deny it. We have it.
Martin Luther King once said, “time is neutral. You can use your time for good or you can use your 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.”
Are you a servant of God or a servant of money? An easy question. Hard to answer.
We can be wealthy in many things – in friendships, in family, in kindness and acts of compassion. But this parable is about money. It’s not an anti-wealth parable. In fact, one way to understand it is that “we should not be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” Shrewd in the ways of the world. Not to forget, Jesus and his disciples depended on the wealth especially of women who financed his ministry.
But it does invite us to ask, is financial wealth the goal of our life? Or is our focus the wise, even shrewd, use of money? Again, let’s not bother denying we have it. How do we use it?
Whether obtained honestly or dishonestly, is your wealth making an impact on the people Jesus loved and talked about all the time? For some people, it is giving it all away. For others, how are you using your wealth to serve God? And if you wonder who is God, just remember that God is love. We can ask the question, how are you using your wealth to serve love?
 Luke 16: 10-12 in The Message
 A Sufi story, adapted http://bytesizesufistories.blogspot.com/2011/06/oath-man-who-was-troubled-in-mind-once.html
 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
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 15, 2019
“Grumblers and People of Doubtful Reputation”
Luke 15: 1-10 – Common English Bible
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
I have a couple of more stories:
Nasrudin rode the train to work every day. One day, as usual, the train conductor came around and asked for his ticket. He began fumbling around in his coat pockets, and his pants pockets, and then in other people’s pockets. He looked in his briefcase, in his bags, and then in other people’s bags. Finally, the train conductor said, “Nasrudin, I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That’s where most men keep their tickets.” “Oh no,” said Nasrudin, “I can’t look there. Why, if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.”
Another story about Nasrudin. One day he was seen out in the street frantically looking for something. People asked him, “What are you searching for?” “I’ve lost my key.” So a bunch of helpful people joined in to search for the lost key. Someone finally asked, “Where did you lose it?” He said, “In the house.” People looked at each other and one of them asked, “Then why are you searching for it on the street?” “Because there is more light out here.”
Surely, we all have stories about losing something important. One of those frightful occasions for me was one cold winter night when I had to be at an event at Montview Presbyterian. I was in my office running late and in a rush to get there. I had my keys in my hands and then I didn’t. I retraced my steps in the areas where I had been. Lifting papers, opening drawers. You know the drill. Then I searched in areas where I hadn’t been, you know, just in case they walked off on their own. I searched and searched and finally I had to leave because I was part of the program. Joan Root gave me a ride. Afterwards, I sheepishly called Art to come and pick me up. It was cold outside, the kind of night where you can see your breath, so while standing on the corner, I put my hands in my coat pocket. I had never put my keys in my coat pocket before. I keep my keys in my right pants pocket. Always. But there they were. I was probably more embarrassed than relieved. I probably felt sillier than joyful at finding them.
But losing my office, house, and car keys are obviously just an inconvenience compared to the economic loss for the woman and the shepherd. In addition, I’ve never had to frantically search and search and search until I found a lost pet. I’ve never lost a child and had to desperately search and search and search until they were found. I’ve been a lost child. I’ve felt such panic that it’s hard to breathe. And I’m not sure which one of us was happier to be reunited. Who was more relieved? My mom or me? That’s one of the fundamental questions in the effort to understand this parable told by Jesus.
Is this a parable about being lost or being found?
Is this story about the woman who lost the coin or is this a story about the coin that is found?
Who do we identify with in the story? Are we the sheep or the shepherd?
Are we the searcher or the object of the search? The rescued or rescuer.
Most of us live relatively comfortable, privileged lives, so I think it’s likely we see ourselves in the role of searcher more than the searched. The doer of good deeds, not the recipient. Therefore, we may see this as a Dale Carnegie-type lesson to be persistent. The motivational guru said, “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” A sermon about the woman and the missing coin could be called “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
But why did Jesus tell this parable? Who was the audience for whom Jesus told this parable?
Euell read, “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So, Jesus told them this parable.” Who the “them” is here isn’t as clear as it could be.
I think the translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message draws a better picture. “A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation had started hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not pleased at all. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story.”
“Their grumbling triggered this story.” Hummmm…makes me wonder, who today’s grumblers might be. Like,
So, in our passage today, the people of doubtful reputation watched as Jesus told parables to the grumblers about searching for one lost sheep and one missing coin and then rejoicing when they are found. We may think that Jesus is encouraging the grumblers to be less grumbly about including people of doubtful reputation. We could read this text and then sing the song “Draw the Circle Wide.”
This story is an excellent counterpoint to the pastor who refused to serve communion to LGBTQ activists wearing a rainbow sash. To expose the hypocrisy, some folks went forward anyway. But instead of rejection, they experienced grace when an elderly man in front of them took the wafer he had been served and crumpled it up into little pieces and handed it out so everyone could receive communion. It’s a tear-jerker moment.
Jesus told a lovely parable. But it has a very weird ending. It doesn’t exactly seem to fit as a conclusion to joy over finding what was missing. What are we to make of the last verse about the joy of one sinner who changes both heart and life? “Joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Who is Jesus talking about? Is he talking about the doubtful reputation folks? The ones labeled sinners by the grumblers? But if you follow the text carefully, Jesus is still talking to the grumblers when he talks about the joy of sinners repenting. He’s not pointing over to those other folks. Jesus reverses our expectations and seems to be saying that joy will come to heaven when the Pharisees and religion scholars repent. Which would also mean that the Pharisees and the religion scholars are the lost sheep and the missing coin.
And following the same logic, God is the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. And God is the woman who will not stop searching until she has found the one who was missing. It is about God that we can say “Nevertheless, She persisted.”
Somehow, over the years, I’ve missed all of that. Or just skipped over the last line because it’s confusing. This parable is just as confusing as those “simple” Nasrudin stories, which, after hearing you go, “What?” All of these stories have depths of meaning that could be explored for years.
On Thursday, six of us ate noodles and discussed today’s text from the Gospel of Luke. After making this very point that it would seem that the Pharisees are the “sinners” in need of repentance, Larry Ricketts said, “then, by us identifying today’s grumblers, we’ve just put ourselves in the position of the Pharisees.” And yikes! He’s right. I’m now the one in need of repentance.
Sure, the story is still a celebration of Jesus’ love for people of doubtful reputation. But they’re not the ones being saved here. They’re not the ones in need of salvation. The story is about the joy in heaven when a grumbler repents. When a grumbler changes both heart and life.
Long after we may have given up on people we label “the grumblers,” this is a story about how God will never stop searching for whatever or whoever is missing. Until we are all reunited. Every day, when I want to give up on “the other side,” this story speaks of joy upon our reconciliation. When we may be too quick to give up on the grumblers, God does not similarly lack patience. We are all too valuable. The “all lives matter,” “special rights,” “tax cuts for the wealthy,” “punish the asylum seeker” grumbler is never too lost for God to keep searching.
But, oops. I did it again. Notice, all of a sudden, I just turned into the grumbler about those people of doubtful reputation. And truthfully, I might be very unhappy seeing them hanging around with Jesus. But fortunately, this story also means that when we become the grumbler, God, the searcher, won’t give up on us either. And that means, we can’t give up on each other. Nasrudin was right to keep that ticket in his pocket. It’s too early to give up hope in each other.
In this story, we are not the shepherd in need of a lesson in persistence, but we are the object of the rescue. We are not the woman searching for what is missing but the one for whom she will never stop searching. Sometimes we’re the people of doubtful reputation and sometimes we’re the grumblers. Always in need of grace. Never too lost to be found.
As Bryan Stevenson said of the men he represents on death row, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 8, 2019
“The Problem of Being ‘Not-Racist’
Luke 14: 25-33 – The Message
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
In our gospel reading for today, large crowds followed along as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem where he would ultimately have to follow his own advice. Don’t start something you can’t finish. He could have added a few more inspirational quotes like “winners never quit, and quitters never win” or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The crowds of people who followed Jesus did so for lots of reasons. Some enjoyed the show. He was entertaining. Imagine being there when two demon-possessed men approached Jesus. Imagine watching as Jesus ordered the demons to leave the men and enter a herd a pigs and then watch as those pigs race off a cliff and drown in the sea. Yes, it sounds absurd. And yes, someone should have called PETA to report animal abuse. But my faith does not hang on whether Jesus actually did literally cast out demons. Just set that aside and imagine being in the crowd and watching it happen. Wouldn’t you want to see more? To watch as Jesus healed people. To watch as Jesus called out the religious authorities as hypocrites and broods of vipers.
Some people followed Jesus because they believed sincerely that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Others opposed him and followed along trying to trap him in one heresy after another. I would be willing to bet, though, that the majority just followed him for the free entertainment. When street musicians or street magicians wow us with their talents, how many people actually put money the violin case or in their hat? There is no obligation to give them anything, and so when we tire of their talents, we can simply walk away. That is, if we even bother to notice them.
I love the story about Joshua Bell, the amazing, world-renowned, violinist. He played outside a Washington, DC, subway station one cold day as hundreds of commuters, thousands of people rushed by. Seven people stood to watch for between a few seconds and a few minutes. Several children tried to stop and listen, but they were pulled away by parents with a schedule to keep. After playing for 45 minutes, the case that held his $3.5 million dollar violin contained $32 in coins and small bills. At the time, to watch him play at a symphony hall cost $100 per ticket.
Jesus turned to the large crowd that was following him and said, “If you can’t carry your own cross, you can’t be my disciple.” Later he said, “If you can’t give up your possessions, you can’t follow me.” Those are the kinds of things we expect to hear from Jesus. Words that flow in one ear and out the other. Nice. Comforting. However, there is one more thing Jesus said in this passage, that does catch our attention.
We heard Claire read “Jesus told them, ‘Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple.” That’s not quite what he said, however. I didn’t want to hear the real words spoken from the mouth of a pre-teen because what Jesus really said was, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Hate is not a word we expect to hear from Jesus. Maybe hate evil, but certainly not hate family. Especially since one of the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s father and mother.
I started a new lunch and lectionary group on Thursday. Five of us ate noodles and discussed this passage. We spent a great deal of our time on our discomfort with the word hate. We didn’t mind “refuse to let go of.” Or, as a children’s bible translates this phrase, “you can’t love others more than you love me.” That sounds better. More Jesus-y. But pretty much every other translation from the original language uses the word hate. So, if the use of that word is consistent, what did the word hate mean in his context?
One scholar suggested that hate in this context meant “were you willing to bring shame upon your family?” It’s true that being a follower of Jesus at the time wasn’t exactly something that would make your family proud. It could bring ridicule from your neighbors. And that would, in turn, bring shame upon the family. Therefore, Jesus is asking, are you still willing to follow me even with those consequences? Almost every scholar proposes that the word hate here is simply hyperbole; an exaggeration to get our attention and the attention of the large crowd of mostly spectators following Jesus.
But whether it’s meant as an exaggeration or whether hate here is more about honor and shame, those interpretations may all be true. Logical explanations. And yet, we can’t help but read the word hate and have an emotional response. Hate is meant to evoke a response. Hate speech. Hate crimes. Tacit approval with a wink and a nod. It causes us to feel.
One reason so many of us are exhausted right now is the energy it takes to hear about hatred almost every day. Every act of cruelty in the news drains us of even more energy. Sadly, one way to protect ourselves is to either ignore such stories or even deny that hatred is the intent. How often do we hear the excuse, “that’s not what they really mean”? That’s a luxury, however, that the targets of hate don’t have. The targets of hate cannot ignore hate or simply wish that it didn’t exist.
The last line of today’s passage Claire read said, “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.” I like the line about plans or people. That is thought-provoking. But, the consistent word used across translations, just like hate, is “possessions.” To the large crowds following Jesus, he turned to say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We can take that to mean our stuff. Our things. Our closets and basements and attics and storage units filled with possessions. But I wondered what would happen if we tied those two words together. The word hate and the word possessions.
What do those who proudly endorse hate possess? Fear of losing power and privilege. Who openly promotes hate? People who feel they are losing something. Surely one easy answer is white supremacists.
Theo Wilson is a black man here in Denver who went undercover online with white supremacists – the alt-right – for 8 months. As a personal experiment, he created an online identity as John Carter and joined in to question President Obama’s birthplace and bemoan why black people can be proud but white people can’t. He later told CNN that what surprised him most was how hatred backfires on the hater. He noted that none of them was happy. Theo even felt some sympathy toward them. That their emotional entanglement in white identity caused them great suffering that comes out as rage, anger, and hatred. Most alarming, and ironic, he said, was that none of these guys were living their best lives. They spent most of their time focused on blame.
I met Theo a few weeks ago at the hostility-filled meeting of the Stapleton Master Community Association that ratified the vote to keep the name. We had coffee on Tuesday and talked about how people should just start using another name. He suggested Westbrook, the black man who infiltrated Stapleton’s Klan.
I found myself at Torpedo Café three times this week unintentionally providing pastoral care to people involved in the effort to ReName Stapleton for All. All were impacted in some way for their activism; most particularly the impact of time away from family. Following their efforts and the recent vote, I suggested to each one they could choose to step away. It would be OK to at least take a break. That is not an option any would choose, so we talked about how to take care of one another and how the church could help connect a broader community of activists in Park Hill and Stapleton.
One woman spoke about people who avoided taking a position on the name to keep themselves above the fray. The myth of neutrality, she called it. It reminded me of Desmond Tutu who said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As the Archbishop said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Dr. King had much to say about speaking up when it matters, including “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Or, a phrase that sounds very much like Jesus in our passage today. Dr. King said, “If a person has not discovered something they will die for, they aren’t fit to live.” Sounds almost as strident and uncomfortable as Jesus’ use of the word hate. Is it just hyperbole? Or is he asking something more of us than we have considered before? To stop being mere spectators.
Ibram X. Kendi is a professor and director of a research and policy center at American University. He has a new book called How to Be an Antiracist. He has a problem with people who declare they are “not racist.” How many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist?” and then list black friends and causes they gave money to in the 1960s. Or claim, “I’m the least racist person in the world.” He said even alt-right leader Richard Spencer and KKK wizard David Duke insist they are not racist. I’m not sure why they would care.
So what’s the problem with being a ‘not racist’? Kendi said, it’s the neutrality. “I’m not a racist” is a term of denial. It doesn’t have any other meaning. A not-racist allows racial inequities to persevere. Doesn’t challenge them. Doesn’t try to change them.
An anti-racist does. The term has a very clear meaning. An antiracist works, for example, to eliminate mass incarceration, reform the criminal justice system, bring equity to public education and health care. And provide humane treatment of families at the border escaping violence and terror. Any way that black and brown people are disproportionately negatively affected. An antiracist believes in racial equality and works toward racial equity.
I thought this was a really powerful way to consider our own lives and our church’s approach to racial justice. It’s not good enough to be “not racist.” Not-racists are spectators who don’t want to miss the entertainment. We must also be anti-racist. Not anti-people but anti-racist power. Cruel and hateful policies. Therefore, what are some of the possessions we hate enough to get rid of them to move from spectator to follower of Jesus? Privilege and neutrality.
Like the privilege to think it is a neutral statement to say “it’s just history”. Which also says, “The Klan wasn’t really that bad.” Which made me think that the name Stapleton will not be removed until those who claim to be “not racist” decide to be anti-racist. Then they will understand the importance of removing a symbol of racial terror. Casting out the demons of terror.
But Jesus is right. To do so, they will have to first consider the cost – in friendships, in status, in power, and in their family. And then, if they cannot and we cannot pay the price, to admit it. We all have to do this.
To weed out the spectators from the large crowds, Jesus told any would-be followers to recognize the cost. But importantly, we also remember the joy of discipleship.
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
As we begin a new year, on Homecoming Sunday let’s embrace a deepening interplay of discipleship’s cost and joy. More important than gathering a larger crowd of spectators is that each of us become more deeply committed followers of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 1, 2019
“Don’t Invite Everyone”
Luke 14: 1, 14-17 – New Revised Standard Version
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus[a] said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’
I love watching people prepare for the Women’s Homelessness Initiative. People are genuinely happy when it’s the Sunday we “get to” go down to the Fellowship Hall and set up the cots because it’s another WHI month. I love that when the Tuesday set-up crew comes, they are concerned to set the utensils on the proper napkin on the correct side of the plate. And who gets the honor of putting chocolates on all the pillows?! Then I watch as the cooks bring in the meal for that night. Piles of homemade food, the best they can make. I love the desire to make it a banquet feast. I love that some months there are more people who want to provide the meal than there are openings. I’d love it if we had some competition for the overnight angels too. Always having two or three people to stay overnight is the most difficult and urgent of the tasks for which to recruit volunteers. And ultimately the most important since providing a place to sleep is the purpose!
But it’s those mealtimes that really touch my heart. It is our desire to make 20 women feel like they are honored guests. This year it will be our privilege to host the women overnight on Christmas Eve. If you want to have best Christmas of your life, plan to sleep here that night, or on New Year’s Eve. I’d love it if a whole group had to compete for the pleasure of being an overnight angel.
The same is true every third Thursday when we serve a meal at the Senior Support Center to low-income and homeless senior citizens. The whole idea that there are homeless senior citizens is abhorrent, but for the 50-70 who are served that night, we hope they feel the love and compassion of Jesus Christ through each casserole, salad, roll, and bowl of ice cream served.
In October we will host a group of Nicaraguan boys and young men for four nights, providing their meals every day. A dozen young men with healthy appetites. We will want them to feel like our honored guests too.
In our passage today, Jesus has two pieces of advice. One, invite those who cannot give you anything in return. And two, it’s better to start from a lower position and be invited to a place of honor than to take a place of honor and risk the shame of being asked to step down.
Despite the fact that I’m standing in front of you, I prefer relative invisibility. I don’t like it, for example, when I’ve attended funerals where all the clergy in the room, even those without any official role to play, are called up to sit on stage. It’s a cultural thing, but early on in Cleveland, I learned to arrive late and sit in the back.
Therefore, today’s gospel reading is fine with me. Be a good host and don’t seek out places of honor. Jesus as Miss Manners, Dear Abby, and Ann Landers all rolled into one. And yet, it seems quite unlikely that Jesus was simply offering wisdom about banquet protocols. What else is going on? Theologically.
First of all, there are little details to notice. He is eating at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. We may have a one-dimensional idea about Jesus and the Pharisees, but their relationship wasn’t always adversarial. More than the other gospels, Luke provides a bit of a more nuanced position. Just a few verses earlier, some Pharisees actually tried to protect Jesus from King Herod, warning him of Herod’s intentions. Some Pharisees, including Nicodemus, became his followers.
At times Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. But notice, here he is eating with those who criticized him. “Eating with” is a big deal in this culture. This passage avoids turning the Pharisees into perpetual enemies.
Theologically, what else is this passage about? I see dynamics related to charity vs. hospitality. Hospitality is harder and more complex. Providing hospitality to women who are homeless or low-income senior citizens or young men from Nicaragua is intermingled with difficult issues of privilege and unequal status that often go unexamined in acts of charity. Hospitality is not giving something away. It is being present to offer mutual respect. Or honor. Jesus isn’t talking about charity. This text is about the kind of hospitality that changes people’s lives.
I believe we miss some of that intent because he spoke in the context of a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. In contrast, we read this text and live in the context of a modern democratic society in which we claim that all persons are created equal. Reality may be different. Status and hierarchy are still very much at work. Even so, collectively, our national story is that we believe people can transcend their station in life by climbing a ladder and pulling up bootstraps. There is plenty to criticize in that. We know its limitations. But, the point is, in our cultural setting, it is not inconceivable that persons born poor can become billionaires. Think Oprah. But we must read this text recognizing that people in Jesus’ time couldn’t just change their own social status. Hospitality changed lives.
There’s another way to think about this passage. Recall Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Conservatives, liberals, moderates and everyone in between, except for a few of those “very fine” neo-nazis and white supremacists; we all love that Dr. King speech. At least the part about being judged by character instead of skin color. But, of course, that ignores any of Dr. King’s social critique. His skin color mattered. The fact is, his whole speech is or can be rather difficult to hear if you live with privilege.
And that’s true in this passage too. Sure, we like the message about not seeking places of honor. I don’t want to be the center of attention anyway. And inviting those who cannot repay you. That makes us feel good. But charity changes nothing. Hospitality transforms people because we have to see each other. In the end, Jesus is neither talking about social graces nor advocating some form of generic equality. When we generalize Jesus’ words, they can mean nothing. For example, “be nice to everyone.” Or, invite everyone. That’s not what Jesus was saying here.
The Bible is often very specific, for example, by naming strangers, foreigners, aliens, and immigrants. The Bible uses those specific words over and over. It doesn’t say welcome everyone. It says welcome them. In today’s passage, Jesus names specifically “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Culturally, they may not be words we use or like, but think of the concept behind them. Outsiders. Excluded in a status-oriented, honor/shame based, hierarchical world. Jesus said invite who?
Eugene Peterson describes “the people who never get invited out, and the misfits from the other side of the tracks.” Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Another commentator puts it into concrete back-to-school terms: the kid who waits at the bus stop alone, the girl who eats in the cafeteria alone, and the boy who is always picked last. Don’t invite everyone. Invite them.
Or put it into church terms: the person who doesn’t know anyone so they stand alone during the passing of the peace and watch friendly people be friendly to each other. Or, the guest everyone walks past without looking at them. We are too accustomed to walking past people on the sidewalk or in the mall without looking at each other. In church, everyone should look at everyone. Well yes, and not exactly. In keeping with the theme, think of changing the hierarchy: Not rushing to visit with our friends but first looking for someone you don’t know to make sure they feel welcome. To take their needs into consideration before our own. Only then will we have lived the real intent of today’s gospel. Not to welcome everyone, but to welcome our guests.
Jesus doesn’t disregard people with generic “everyones.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t say:
Blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be comforted.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will inherit the earth.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because everyone will be filled.
He doesn’t say, blessed is everyone, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to everyone.
No. What did he say?
He said, “blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
He said, “blessed are people who mourn, because they will be comforted.”
He said, “blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the earth.”
He said, “blessed are people who hunger and thirst for justice, because they will be filled.”
He said, “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Somehow that might not quite sound fair. Why not everyone? Or perhaps it doesn’t quite sound fair because we fear something might be taken away from us. In our passage today, Jesus said, “when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors.” I guess we could think of them as “losers” in this story. But Jesus isn’t trying to identify losers. He is showing us the meaning of the Kingdom of God: a banquet feast of those previously not invited.
Jesus isn’t saying the feast won’t be ready to serve until everyone is seated around the table. He is saying the feast won’t be ready until the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are seated at the table. And the stranger, foreigner, alien, and immigrant. And the kid at the bus stop, the girl alone at lunch, the boy picked last on the playground. And the visitor watching others pass the peace of Christ with each other. And the poor in spirit, people who mourn, the meek, people who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who are persecuted for seeking justice. And the WHI women, homeless senior citizens, and young Nicaraguans.
Somehow, when you put it that way, I feel more included than if you simply said, “everyone is welcome.” Saying everyone’s welcome means little without being challenged by Jesus to “invite them.” And challenges me to think how we can practice that in our personal lives. At work, at school, walking the neighborhood, on the playground… and church. On this Labor Day weekend, with workers at stores, restaurants, our offices, and more. Where else?
In the same vein, I don’t want to simply say “thank you to everyone” who helped with the Women’s Homelessness Initiative in August. I want to specifically name and say thank you to:
Carol and Skip Spensley
Billie and Sid Smith
Blake Chambliss and Sheila Kowal
Patty Crew and Ray Allen
David Conger and Harriet Milnes
Jayme, Susannah and Addison Willie and friends
Deborah MacNair and Shari Wilkins
And especially our overnight angels:
Karen Truesdell – our three coordinators
As well as Mark Winkel
Bill and Eileen McCarron
That’s 44 different volunteers in August alone.
And in June, in addition to many of these folks, 10 other volunteers:
Juliann Jenson and Charlie Martin
Bob and Marlene Lederer
54 people involved in providing hospitality. And these are just the folks who signed up. I think Leo and Kathy were there. And other regulars were busy this summer, like the Formans. But if I start going down that road, I will surely forget someone. I went through the directory and found at least 31 more people who have participated in WHI in the last year. The worst thing about naming specific people is the possibility of leaving one name off. So, in the end, I guess I should maybe just thank everyone! If I didn’t include you, I apologize.
But wait, one more thing. People who provided and or served dinner on the third Thursdays this summer at the Senior Support Center, coordinated by Joan Root. Many were already named above, but there are 11 more people:
Cami Learned and Karen Klein
Mary Jo Young and Matt Appleman
Nancy McDonnell and Kerri Reid
Terri and Brian Bowen
65 different people this summer alone, each demonstrating the difference, that while we can offer charity to a generic everyone, true hospitality changes both of us. And that changes the world.
And that’s also how we want to change the world this fall. Starting later this month, we will be engaging in a relational campaign. Big words to say that six times this fall, during the Second Hour, we’ll engage in one on one conversations with one another. Hearing one another’s stories. Discovering our shared experiences. Finding common ground on which to build stronger and deeper and more transforming relationships. Moving from surface level interactions to more deeply meaningful and satisfying connections. And when that happens, you and I and the world will all be changed.
I love being the