Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 29, 2017
“What it Means to be a Progressive, Protestant, Christian”
Matthew 21: 28-32
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Growing up in North Dakota I didn’t encounter much in the way of diversity. There were Lutherans and there were Lutherans, meaning, there were a lot of white people and there were a lot of white people. The town where I went to school had two churches. Lutheran and Lutheran. My sister told the story that when she was a little girl, the school teacher helped the students fill out some form. The teacher wrote Lutheran on the black board to help students spell the answer to the question “what religion are you.” Mona raised her hand and said “I’m not Lutheran.” “What are you,” the teacher asked. “Evangelical United Brethren.” The teacher looked at her in disbelief and said, “Just write Lutheran.”
One more funny story: There was a big billboard on the interstate between Grand Forks and Fargo. It proudly proclaimed there were 100,000 Lutherans within 50-miles. There weren’t that many more than 100,000 total people within that radius, so we didn’t know whether that really was pride or a threat.
We were among the few non-Lutherans but I wasn’t too concerned, especially after I learned there was another group considered much more threatening. Catholics. They were so “other,” in fact, that most towns, no matter how small, had two cemeteries. Catholic and everyone else. What could possibly be so different about us that we not only didn’t worship in the same church but we couldn’t be buried in the same ground?
The formal breach happened on Tuesday, 500 years ago, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. From a Lutheran point of view, it was 95 reasons he said “Enough” to the leaders of the church in Rome.
Luther is credited with the Reformation, but neither was he wasn’t the first nor certainly the only. Today we mark 500 years, but the Waldensians in Italy were founded almost 850 years ago. A reformer in Bohemia named Jan Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic for some of the same ideas 598 years ago. And while Luther was in Wittenberg, others like John Calvin worked in Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich – their followers became known as the Reformed Church.
As the United Church of Christ, we are more descendants of Calvin and Zwingli than Luther, although one of our four predecessor denominations was known as the Evangelical Synod. (Not the small “e” of American conservative Christianity.) The Evangelical Church in Germany really meant it was a “united church” of Lutherans and Reformed, but get this, their union was ordered by the Prince to stop them from feuding. Yes, reforms led to reforms led to reforms – led to conflicts and even wars.
That’s one reason why Catholics are marking today’s historic event not as a celebration but a commemoration. I might agree, because Christianity remains deeply divided. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. About 50% are Catholic, 12% Orthodox (which represented a schism about 500 years before Martin Luther), and 37% Protestant. But Protestants are further divided into thousands of denominations. Not like a few thousand, but upwards of 40,000 or more different denominations worldwide. Catholics, and others, can rightly say, “What is WRONG with you people!!!” And rightly ask, how could we celebrate such division? I believe Jesus would shake his head with tearful disbelief at what has happened to his simple movement. That, or he would come through the doors angrily overturning the tables.
Yet, divisions are fading. On their own, lay Protestants and Catholics are increasingly adopting the positions of “the other side.” For example, one of the biggest arguments of the reformers had to do with the belief in “salvation through grace by faith in Jesus alone.” Faith alone, with no merit. That’s basic Protestantism 101. On the other hand, Catholics believe a combination of both faith and good works are necessary. And probably to the horror Martin Luther, so now do a majority of American Protestants.
Similarly, Catholics believe that religious guidance comes through both the Bible and church teaching. For Protestants, the Bible alone. Except that a majority of American Protestants now agree that one needs other sources too. The Methodist formula says it well: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
But after that brief history lesson, I have to wonder, “Why does any of this matter to us?” So, I want to explore the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian today?”
To answer I look at some of the protests of the Reformation. In particular, I embrace these five things. See what you think:
Those are some of the values held in common as Protestant Christians. But, the Reformation also means we must always be reforming, and for us, that means we are also Progressives. Among other things we believe…
1) Jesus is the way for Christians. But that does not mean that non-Christians are consigned to hell. Each person must choose and follow the path of the religion of their heritage or choice to its ultimate end, whether it be heaven, nirvana, or by following Jesus, a way of life made meaningful by living with compassion and justice. Leave God to sort the rest out in the end. Isn’t that the meaning of grace anyway?
2) What we do with our life is more important than what we believe. Deeds before creeds. Not to mention, questions often hold more value than absolutes.
3) The end of the world, whatever that might mean, will not come because everything has gone to hell, for which some people inexplicably pray, but because everything has been made right – when the world is finally open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. But that might sound like we have to earn it. Rather, justice is the Jesus way of life that gives our lives meaning and purpose. And that is more important than what may or may not come later. And matters a whole lot more to the poor and oppressed of our world.
We can celebrate many things about the Reformation 500 years ago. As well, we celebrate the gifts Catholics bring to us today, including a deeper appreciation of the sacraments, the rhythm of the church year, their social justice tradition as well as the mystics and monastics.
But rather than choosing to celebrate or commemorate, some have suggested we should be repenting today for the abuses that resulted, such as war and division. And include Luther’s rampant, ugly Anti-Semitism. And the fact that Christians looked the other way, for example, at the Holocaust because that was not their business, not the role of Christians to resist. We should remember the root of Protestant is protest.
But more than repent for the sins of our fathers and mothers in the faith, I believe we should review our own Christian path to evaluate and be judged by the standard set by Jesus when he was asked:
36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
If the reforms of the Reformation don’t fulfill these commands, then was it all a waste? What’s the point? Except that God is God and God can redeem anything – including you and me. And since I am a saint and a sinner, inspired by the Bible, I recognize I need the kind of grace that I can’t earn through my justice life. Don’t you?
 The “United” part when the EUB merged with the Methodist Church in 1968. I was raised as a United Methodist.
 Opposition to them and persecution by the Church almost annihilated the group, but nevertheless they persisted http://www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/
 I’ve read articles ranging from 28,000 to 45,000 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/02/33000-protestant-denominations-no.html
 The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
 Source material from the booklet published by the UCC, 500: A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, The Stillspeaking Writers Group, 2017
 Just Mercy
 UCC booklet
 There is a document listing 8 Points, however I do not agree with all of them, and though prominent, it is only one of such lists https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 22, 2017
“Be Senseless, Impractical, and Unreasonable”
Matthew 22: 15-22 - Common English Bible
“Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked. 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.”
April 15th is the day we render unto Caesar. Today, the fourth Sunday of October is when we render unto God – or at least pledge to. But that comes later.
We may not like everything Caesar does with our money, but part of the American deal is paying our fair share. Some things we are happy to pay for – I’d like to direct all my taxes toward national parks, please. Some things, not so much. Like me, President Calvin Coolidge wasn’t a fan of paying for war planes either. He said, “Why can’t we just buy one and let the pilots take turns flying it?” I’m a fan of schools being fully funded and the Air Force holding bake sales – no disrespect meant for members of the military, who I wish were better paid and certainly better cared for after their service. In fact, I’d pay more for that if you gave me a choice.
April 15th isn’t the worst day of the year, even though it is also the day the Titanic sank when it hit an iceberg and; even though April 15th is also the day Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre. And it isn’t the worst thing in the world to pay taxes. In fact, Arthur Godfrey once said, “I feel honored to pay taxes in America. The thing is, I could probably feel just as honored for about half the price.”
But it wasn’t an honor to pay Caesar in Jesus’ day. The Imperial Tax paid the cost of Rome occupying their homeland. Kind of like paying your lunch money to the bully for the privilege of him not beating you up on the way to school. First century Jews also paid land taxes, customs and trade taxes, a temple tax. But anyone would agree that paying a tax to your oppressor to support the costs of your oppression is pretty diabolical. Residents of places like Ferguson, Missouri, have expressed similar feelings for quite a while.
And so, if Jesus had answered “yes” to the question about paying taxes to Rome, a certain percentage of his followers would have likely started to back away from him. “He’s just like the rest of them. He talks a good game, but he’s not really on our side.” That’s what the Pharisees and Herodians hoped.
As the text makes clear, they didn’t actually care about taxation. They were trying to trip him up – first with flattery and then to get him to say something that would get him into trouble.
Under no other circumstances would these two groups have cooperated with each other, let alone be seen with each other. One, the defenders of traditional Judaism, the other, supporters of the Roman empire’s puppet King Herod. At best, they could barely tolerate each other. But as we’ve often heard, the enemy of my enemy is my best friend. Politics makes for strange bed-fellows.
The Pharisees and the Herodians both had the same agenda and it had nothing to do with taxes. It was to silence the rabble-rousing, trouble-making Jesus. If he answered yes, it could be blasphemy – having to do with the image of Caesar imprinted on the coin. Paying taxes with that coin required contact with graven images. If he said yes, let the Pharisees take him down. If no, let Rome handle it. Bottom line: Just get him to shut up or force him to lose face among his followers because then he would just fade away. It didn’t matter who succeeded. In fact, when today’s tactic didn’t work, the very next story in Matthew is about how the Sadducees tried to trip him up with a question about resurrection, including a bizarre scenario about a woman being forced to marry a succession of seven dead brothers. A future sermon on the topic of #metoo. But the Sadducees failed as well.
Today’s question: “Does the Law, the Torah, allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Yes or no. Take your pick. Treason or blasphemy. There was no intention of dialogue, of learning from each other, no wisdom seeking from this teacher they claimed had integrity, didn’t show partiality, and didn’t pander. Just a trap to place him on the defensive.
Like, why do you want to kill cops? Why do you hate America? I have to give him credit. Our president is brilliant at this. He is such a genius he could teach a class at Trump University. I wish I had half his talent. Though to be fair, people do it on all sides. Questions like “Why are you such a racist?” aren’t meant to engage in a sincere conversation about the history of race relations in America or a lesson on the subtleties of white supremacy. The default in our country has become taking hard sides and digging in. As George W. Bush said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
The Pharisees and Herodians didn’t give Jesus any room for nuance. Just yes or no. I’m one of those people who has watched congressional hearings and yelled at the TV “just answer the question!” If someone says, it’s not that simple, how often do you think, “he’s lying. She’s covering something up.” Sometimes the questioners are sincere. And sometimes they’re playing a trick, hoping to generate a headline or two. Maybe you’ve been in that position, knowing that answering “yes, but…” will only make things worse.
Jesus was in that exact position. And his response was brilliant. However, we might think his genius was a simple matter of splitting the world into two realms – each equal, or if not equal, at least as simple as Caesar gets some. God gets some.
A little like the boy whose parents gave him some money for church and some money for ice cream afterwards. But along the way he accidentally dropped some of it into the street drain. He looked up and said, “Sorry, God, there goes your money.”
Most of us would probably say it’s OK that Caesar gets some. The government isn’t perfect, but it’s the price we pay. And God gets some. The church isn’t perfect, but it’s the price we pay. But the best part is that the rest is mine. And with that, everyone’s happy.
But we often miss two important messages in Jesus’ brilliant answer. Render unto Caesar. Render unto God. The Herodians didn’t notice that Jesus just said Caesar isn’t God. Remember, Caesar called himself divine, the Lord, Savior, Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness. Jesus just said, “no he’s not.” The Herodians weren’t paying good enough attention because he just gave them the treason or sedition charge they needed.
But the Pharisees weren’t paying very close attention either. The Pharisees were meticulous. Jots and tittles were the name of their game. Every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. They would, therefore, be very concerned about the exactness of things like tithes and the offering of first fruits – percentages for this and that. To their credit, they cared deeply for tradition and someone does, in fact, have to watch out that our traditions don’t just go willy nilly. But that very precision can become the goal instead of what Jesus said in his answer – something they obviously didn’t notice. Because, hey Pharisees: Seriously, what isn’t God’s? They should have been embarrassed by accepting that answer. They were paying such close attention to find something to call blasphemy that they overlooked their own blasphemy. Everything belongs to God. How could you only render a portion?
What portion of you woke up this morning? Or better, how many of you woke up this morning? (Or maybe you’re not quite awake yet!) By the grace of God, 100% of us did. After breakfast, did you enjoy just 10% of the sunrise?
This text often gets used during stewardship season for sermons on tithing because it sounds reasonable. Give some to Caesar, give some to God, and keep the rest. Everyone’s happy. A tithe represents 10%, so the idea is giving 10% of your income to God’s work through the ministry of the church. The question is often asked, but, is that before or after taxes? Or, another good question, if I give to other charities, can I reduce that from my 10% - like 2% to church, 2% to the Dumb Friends League, 2% to the orchestra, etc. Those trying to be extra reasonable will say, don’t worry, it’s only 10% after your other bills are paid. But does that just mean the mortgage, or the mortgage and utilities and groceries and insurance? I once heard that Phil Campbell said your pledge should never be less than your cable bill. But a lot of us don’t have cable anymore. They are all attempts to make things seem sensible. Practical. Reasonable. Not too greedy.
But they all start to sound like: Be the church, a little bit. Or, instead of claiming our call to bold acts of compassion and justice, we’re called to sort-of bold acts of compassion and justice. To be clear, the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the work of God in the world. But the work of the church shouldn’t rest on it being sensible or practical or reasonable. That’s not inspiring. The Women’s Homelessness Initiative is a perfect example. It asks more of us than it is easy to give. Along with the many of us who participate, it requires sacrificial participation by some of us without whom it wouldn’t be possible.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. But Jesus never quite explained exactly what is God’s. That is, I realized, until a few verses later in the same chapter. First the Pharisees and Herodians tried to take him down. Then the Sadducees, with their seven dead brothers. Then a legal scholar tries. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” It was a question they hoped he couldn’t answer, though, by now, doesn’t that seem a little absurd? Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Eugene Peterson translates it “with all your passion, with all your prayer, with all your intelligence.”) Jesus said, “This is the first, and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”
I think this is the answer to “Render unto God what is God’s.” And what is it? All of it. This is not to give 5% of your heart, 3% soul, and 2% mind – carefully staying within a 10% tithe. And it’s not just the good parts of our neighbors but to love them as much as we should also love the bad parts of ourselves – our shadow and dark sides. It’s everything. It’s the first, last, and the best. To me it says our giving should be senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
There are plenty of times in our lives we should act with prudence, carefully, and wisely. But if we are to render everything unto God that is God’s, then, to “Be the Church,” for example, isn’t to:
Protect some of the environment
Care for the poor who deserve it
Only forgive as often as you think is right
Reject racism when it’s convenient
Fight for the powerless whose powerlessness fits our politics
Share 2% of your earthly and 3% of your spiritual resources
Embrace the good kind of diversity
Give God some Love
Enjoy 90% of this life
No, it’s everything – though at times it may seem senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
About five or six years ago we decided to do exactly that – something financially senseless, impractical, and unreasonable.
At a time when we were struggling to pay our own bills, we decided that we would give away all the cash in the offering plate to an outside organization – a mission partner – plus any designated gifts. And that we would do this every Sunday. Not only might our own offerings go down, among the possible objections could be that people would get tired of being asked every Sunday. Instead, we keep being inspired by the stories of people overcoming suffering or injustice. Inspired by our ability to make a difference in the world. And instead of people giving less to the church, we’ve discovered that visitors and new people appreciate that we aren’t keeping their money for ourselves and that after a while, they ask how can I support the church too? Not to mention, we’ve seen offerings to our mission partners increase year after year. $6,000, $11,000, $14,000, $18,000. And in just 10 ½ months so far, we have already surpassed $20,000 this year. To God be the glory – to whom it all belongs.
A traditional stewardship campaign would have sent a little chart in the mail to you along with your pledge form. It would show how much 2% of your income would be, and therefore an example of how much to give. Or 3%, 4%, along with encouragement to move up one row after another until you reached 10%. Practical information to help make decisions.
Kathy’s letter to the congregation encouraged us all to increase our pledge by 5%, following her generous example. A reasonable amount that can help us close the gap we face this year from the loss of pledges from long time, dedicated members who have died during the year or moved away.
And then, with all the pledges compiled, we will craft as sensible a budget as we can for 2018 – incremental shifts as expenses increase. Oh, except for one. Gas. Thanks to Energy Outreach Colorado and all of Ray Allen’s efforts, we received $100,000 in energy efficiency upgrades, including new boilers. As I examined our 9 month report year to date this week, listen to this: Last year at this time we spent $4,000 on gas. This year, $3,000. Ray isn’t here today, but give him a hug the next time you see him.
My encouragement to you and to myself this stewardship Sunday is that instead of trying to explain or understand, let us simply be inspired by the imprudent and illogical generosity of our Creator. And then, when you come to render unto God that which is God’s, be as senseless, impractical, and unreasonable as God is.
 Gratitude to John O’Neal for some great story ideas
 Matthew 22: 34-40
 See the real list be above https://www.uccresources.com/products/ucc-be-the-church-banner-vertical
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 15, 2017
“Down on One Knee”
The lectionary passage today is from Matthew 22: 1-14. But first read the version found in the Gospel of Luke.
16 Then Jesus 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.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
I can’t read that story without picturing a group of nuns in their habits singing on TV in the 1960s: “I cannot come to the banquet, don’t bother me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum, pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.”
An advice columnist explained the right way to decline invitations so you don’t look like a jerk or seem anti-social. Among the mistakes people often make is offering a string of excuses, such as I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. The columnist advised to avoid making excuses. And never lie, because you can get caught. And don’t try to avoid an invitation by blaming someone’s health – like, “poor little Johnny doesn’t feel well.” Just say I am unable to attend and leave it at that. She advised sending a text that says SICMI. “Sorry, I can’t make it.” Frowny face.
I’m not so sure about using a text… but in fact, the method of declining an invitation is not the problem here. Because the real problem is that I’ve been avoiding the real problem. I gave Jess the wrong text to read – by intention. And when you hear the real text, you’ll understand why. It’s essentially the same story, but not quite. Listen and compare.
Matthew chapter 22
2 “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
(so far so good)
3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
(No excuses, just SICMI, frowny face)
4 So the king tried again and sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But the invited guests made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,
(notice they didn’t make excuses, they just walked away to do other things – but get this, so now listen to what those who didn’t walk away did. Yes, some walked away to their farms or businesses…)
6 but the rest of them seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
(they really, really didn’t want to come to the wedding banquet. Naturally,)
7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned down their city
(Over a banquet! Talk about escalating the situation).
8 Then the King said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
(so, after that brutal attack, the story ends with a nice positive note – everyone in town, both good and bad, was invited. Happy ending! If only Matthew stopped the story there! Listen:)
11 “But when the king entered and saw the guests, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding robe. 12 He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ The man was speechless
(or chose nothing to say).
13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
(So, let me get this straight. You instruct your servants to go out and bring in everyone you can – good and bad – from the hedges and the highways and then he’s upset because someone is wearing the wrong thing?
Then the conclusion: the excuse, or rather the explanation, for this parable:)
14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So, can you see why I avoided this parable as long as I could!? It’s dark. It’s violent. It’s absurd. And in our world today, we get enough of that kind of thing in the news. Who needs more on Sunday morning?
I immediately went to one of my go-to commentators, who basically advised skipping it. He said, listen “let’s just admit it: this is an ugly parable. So, either tell the truth or choose one of the other three far more attractive and certainly more edifying passages appointed by the lectionary for the day.” But, I like a challenge. Someone once said, sometimes you have to squeeze the text hard enough until you get a drop of gospel. There has to be a drop of gospel in this somewhere, right? We’re going to try.
So, in any Bible study, you have to start with context. At the time Matthew is writing this, relationships among Jews about who Jesus was were at a low point. This is not a Jewish vs. Christian debate. This was an internal family affair. But sadly, over the centuries, this text among others has been used to divide Jews and Christians, to justify inquisitions, crusades, conquests, and holocausts. The argument is that Jews were the ones invited but they declined the invitation, which was met with severe consequences. For religious geeks like me, this is known as super-secessionism, or a replacement theology.
But scholars will rightly note that the anger expressed in this parable is simply like those times we have dreamed about final justice for people from whom we feel rejected. I can’t wait until they get theirs… As it was written originally, understand these are the fumings and frustrations of a powerless minority. But, centuries later, when Christians were in the power positions, they misused texts like these to justify their actions. This parable is dark and violent, yes. And absurd. And, as is true in other gospel texts, its very absurdity is part of the point. This isn’t real. This didn’t really happen. This is not literal. And it is also not, as often happens in the spiritualized interpretations of parables like this; this is not a story about God. God is not the murderous king.
Who is it about? The actual king. Who, at the time, was the murderous, paranoid King Herod… the Bible’s bloodiest tyrant. If you were among the first ones to hear this story, it would have made instant sense because he was one in a line of three king Herods who, like this one, didn’t just merely overreact by burning down a city but, like Herod the Great, killed a whole swath of innocent babies because he feared they might one day overshadow him. Focusing on the king helps the story start to make a little more sense.
It also makes sense, then, why people would decline an invitation to his palace – or just walk away. But it only explains so much. The bigger problem, to me, is the disturbing reaction to the guy wearing the “wrong clothes” to the wedding banquet.
Remember when you heard Jess read Luke’s version it was simply called a great dinner or a grand feast. In Matthew, it is specifically a “wedding banquet.” And that’s very important. It’s an interpretive clue. In biblical custom, when guests arrived, they would be given a wedding garment to wear. It’s not like not having a tux you pull out of your closet every time you need it. The wedding garment was provided by the host as you walked in. Which raises the obvious question: Why wasn’t he wearing it? What happened to the garment he was given? Even if he snuck in, the king’s representatives had compelled both good and bad to attend.
What’s going on here? It’s a form of protest. It’s not that he didn’t have the right clothes. He chose not to wear them. It was one thing this man who had been compelled to attend could do to register his dissent. And all of a sudden, this parable makes a lot more sense.
As I wrestled with the text, it reminded me of other invitations rejected recently, to another grand palace. Including the invitation to the national championship winning men's basketball team from the University of North Carolina. They confirmed a few weeks ago they will not visit the White House. A spokesman said the team was invited but "we couldn't find a date that worked for both parties. We tried about eight or nine dates but we couldn't work it out —we would have liked to but we are not going." Besides, they had just gotten married and “bought me a cow.” And, like the Golden State Warriors, had other stuff to do.
Why would anyone turn down such an invitation? To miss out on the chance to see the king’s palace and eat at a grand wedding banquet seems absurd. Imagine the food and wine and dancing and simply the chance to rub shoulders with the richest and most powerful people in society. But when the invitees had all turned it down, everyone else had no choice. There was nothing they could do about it, except the man who realized he could do one thing. He could refuse to wear the wedding garment.
It was such a relief that this ugly, dark, and violent parable finally made some sense, even though I still struggled to find the drop of gospel. I’m grateful that the Bible doesn’t shy away from darkness and violence. It’s not about fairy tales and happily ever afters. It reflects real and raw emotions, it knows our jealousies and the temptation of revenge, the things we feel when we struggle and fail, times when we feel lost and alone, as well as triumphs. And the ultimate triumph of God.
The Bible reflected reality then, and sometimes we’re surprised by how well it often reflects reality today. Including how human nature remains surprisingly consistent, despite thousands of years of experience in between. And how what one person could do in the face of a paranoid king and an oppressive Empire then is not that different from what we can now. One man provoked absurdly over-the-top outrage from the king for refusing to the wear the right clothes; while another man provoked Twitter outrage by simply getting down on one knee.
Not everyone admires Colin Kaepernick, or the growing number of those who have followed his lead. We can disagree about whether it is appropriate or not to use the occasion of the national anthem to protest. But can’t we agree that the reason behind it has been lost? Twisted and manipulated into false arguments about the honor of the military and the defense of flag, nation, and anthem. The intent of this distraction is to deflect the purpose of the protest in the first place. The country simply cannot own up to the extent to which we were founded on white supremacy and, more importantly, how our institutions continue to work to maintain the structures of white supremacy. Resulting in a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans. And telling brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking American hurricane survivors to “stop complaining, hurry up and fix it yourselves because we’re not going to help forever.” Imagine saying that to Kansans?
Dropping to one knee asks the country to honor the as-yet unrealized potential of our nation and its flag and anthem. It believes in our potential. In turn, the flag and anthem demand we answer the question: How can we create a more perfect union? Liberty and justice for all. It seems obvious that we have to ask, do we even want that?
The only thing the wedding guest could do to register his protest was to refuse to wear the garment provided. One thing athletes can do is drop to one knee. And then stand back and watch how it causes an outrage on a scale similar to “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “If they won’t stand, fire them and take away their citizenship.” You might say, both are a tad bit of absurd overreaction.
Maybe the meaning of “many are called, but few are chosen” is about how all of us should be getting down on one knee, or some other form of protest in response to white supremacy, yet only a few will. Yet it’s how each of us affirm “I am the Church.”
Kaepernick speaks openly about his Christian faith. He said “God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, you can be happy about what you did.”
Back to the parable. Though perhaps it now makes more sense, does it still need a drop of gospel? So we go back to context. This story is one of the last told in the life of Jesus. This story is part of the build up to the end, part of the increasing outrage and one more example why those in power decided to kill him. Therefore, we have to remember that this parable is not simply a story unto itself but part of salvation history.
After Jesus was crucified but before he was raised from dead, some traditions claim he descended into hell. I’ve always been a little ambivalent to that but members of my last church in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction always told me how meaningful it was to them. That they experienced Jesus descending into their own personal hells to raise them with him. And it’s true. To all the rejected, all the condemned, Jesus came to lift us. To those judged and thrown into outer darkness, Jesus liberates the captive, releases the prisoner, and offers good news. There is no one suffering the weeping and gnashing of teeth today that Jesus leaves behind on the third day. The gospel proclaims: Though weeping may last through the night, joy shall come in the morning.
To me, the gospel message is that God will redeem all the trials we have been through and all that is still to come. The consequences of resistance might be severe, but still we shall claim our dignity and self-respect and declare our hopes and prayers. And affirm our discipleship to Jesus who chose the consequences for himself in him simple protests. To show the rest of us how. And that we’d be OK.
As I said last week, when we don’t know what else to do, we can get down on our knees to pray – for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our suffering world. And know that God hears and heals. And when we don’t know what else to do that would really honor the lives of those who died for our flag, we can get down on bended knee and pray that our country’s ideals matter more than blind allegiance to something that has not yet been realized for all people. And when we do that, we fulfill our calling and our actions affirm “I am the Church.” That’s who you are. That’s who I am. We are the Church. Together.
 Luke 14:16-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 David Lose
 http://day1.org/878-sorry_im_busy.print, http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-robe/
 Our stewardship theme this year is I am the Church, You are the Church, We are the Church, Together
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 8, 2017
“Thoughts and Prayers”
1st Timothy 2: 1-3 – Common English Bible
“First of all, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people. 2 Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior.”
On Monday morning, a pastoral colleague of mine posted on Facebook: “I'm not weeping. I'm not distraught. I'm not confused about how this happened.
I'm numb. I'm cynical. And I feel like we all know how this happened.
I long to feel shocked by mass violence, and I wish I could cry, but instead, right now, I feel numb. I'm so sick of this.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Mass shootings are so common we’ve ritualized our response. Just fill in the blank. Which city this time? Las Vegas. How many victims? “The biggest number in modern history.” And then, “what do you want for breakfast?” But actually, only super-sized, massive mass shootings are reported or even noticed today. By some reports, there have been mass shootings in America, involving at least 4 people, nearly every day of 2017.
Among the rituals we know who is going to say what, including “now is not the time to discuss policy.” The NRA’s ritual is to say nothing. But we especially know that we’re going to hear a lot of people promise their “thoughts and prayers.”
Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. But for an increasing number of people, what was once genuinely comforting has begun to sound not only insincere, but profane; obscene even. Not just empty or hollow, the promise of prayer without action is blasphemous. In fact, the Bible has something to say about that. The Book of James declares, “If a person says to those who are cold and hungry, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? Faith without works is dead.” Eugene Peterson translates that last line as this: “Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?”
The prophets frequently spoke of how God will stop listening to their prayers if the people won’t change their ways. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good;” Isaiah said.
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”
And if not, Isaiah said, Thus saith the Lord:
“When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.”
Again, Eugene Peterson cuts to the chase:
“Your hands are bloody.”
So, “When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.”
God is sick and tired of our thoughts and prayers.
The problem isn’t that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless. Far from it. Prayer is something real we can do. As a person of faith, I’m grateful that we are not helpless. Prayer is an action we can take – one that matters. When we are numb and in pain, we draw strength from getting on our knees. And survivors of tragedy often comment that they do feel comforted when they know people around the world are praying for them. When we can’t be in Mumbai or San Juan or Las Vegas, we can be together in prayer. It is a form of solidarity.
But not only when we can’t think of anything else to do, on a regular basis we can follow the instruction of 1st Timothy: 2 Pray for kings (or presidents or senators) and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. 3 This is right and it pleases God our savior.
Faith is one antidote to cynicism, although a healthy dose is not wrong. There is a time for everything under the sun. So I think the author of Ecclesiastes would agree, “There is a time for faith, and there is a time for cynicism.” But only for a time. But just so I’m clear: Prayer is not doing nothing.
Kirsten Powers sums up the problem, however. Some people use “my thoughts and prayers are with you” as a sort of inoculation against any further action or responsibility – particularly as we have seen ritualized time after time after time when it comes to gun violence. When politicians say these words to prove they care, it just mocks God. It’s cowardice. It buys them time until people have moved on. But God is sick and tired of thoughts and prayers.
But, Powers adds, as nice as it sounds, “we didn’t elect politicians to pray for us. We elected them to find solutions, enact policies, and keep us safe.”
However, politicians are one thing. When Christians utter “thoughts and prayers” in response to Las Vegas and Aurora and Orlando and Virginia Tech and Columbine – moments of silence without the intention of any other action… Why are so many churches silent on gun violence? After a while, God, sick of thoughts and prayers, may stop listening. “Your hands are full of the blood of the innocent.”
But I really don’t want to give up on thoughts and prayers. “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you” are genuinely and sincerely meaningful when spoken with love and intention. I don’t want to give up that phrase, yet in the meantime, we may need to consider some alternatives or at least some additions.
But after Las Vegas, perhaps the most meaningful thing we could say to victims is “my thoughts and prayers are with you. And, in your honor, I’m going to join the effort to pressure Congress and the President, and keep it up, until they have no choice but to act in order to save lives.” To stop creating more widows and orphans.
Of course, we must remember that all our attempts at social change unaccompanied by prayer to sustain our resistance will lead to burning out. And we must remember that we can’t all do everything. We can’t each take on every issue. We have to be wise with our time, talent, and treasure. But we can support those whose passions include things we cannot do. Through such means as… our thoughts and prayers. And saying thank you. And I’m here to listen if you need to talk. After your next march or rally, could I stop by with a casserole?
As we struggle to understand tragedies and catastrophes – natural disasters or man-made ones – I keep asking “How can we redeem such a time as this?” Such times as we are living through as a nation…
Yet, I am grateful that the redemption of this horrific but all too predictable act falls not to you and me alone but in our asking, how does God redeem such a time as this? We are not saviors. We are disciples of the one who is. And isn’t that good news!? I am grateful to relinquish this burden to solve it on my own. Even as I know this is not an abdication of responsibility.
Because I am the church. And you are the church. But most importantly, we are the church – together. With each other and with God. Grateful for genuine and sincere thoughts and prayers. For I know that our church family, you, do act and will act.
 But by saying this, the media ignores mass violence against people of color. See further, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/entry/calling-las-vegas-massacre-deadliest-shooting-in-us-history-ignores-our-violent-past_us_59d24e68e4b05f005d35ae02
 James 2: 14-17 (NRSV)
 The Message
 Isaiah 1: 15, 17 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 1:15
 Common English Bible
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane/?utm_term=.b181f9569942. Another great article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/06/14/when-people-prayfororlando-is-it-empathetic-or-selfish/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.39c5ea11452b
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 1, 2017
“A Mother’s Example”
Matthew 21: 28-32
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
I want to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me on Facebook, by text, email, or with a card to offer condolences upon the death of my mother. To the announcement of her death on Facebook, I received 250 comments. I read and appreciated every one of them. I felt surrounded by a community of love. I know that many of you know personally that even when death can be expected, especially of a woman nearly 91 years old, at the moment it becomes reality, it is a shock. You can rationalize all you want about gratitude that your loved one went peacefully and quickly, but it still hurts. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
The hardest moment was during church on Sunday morning – not at the funeral. Our whole family of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren went to church together – filling 4 pews. Every time we began to sing, I couldn’t. I was too choked up. Plus, it was like they chose hymns intentionally to cut into my heart. Great is Thy Faithfulness, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less… Even the Doxology. But it was cleansing. Through the tears I felt healed by the music of the faith she and my father instilled in us. And by the community surrounding us. Worship triggered my grief and transformed it into gratefulness. When we got to the actual funeral a few days later and the burial a few days after that, I was in gratitude mode. The ritual of church provided a path for my grief.
At the funeral I spoke of my parent’s love of the church, including their approach to stewardship. I told the story of a moment in my childhood that was indelibly etched into my heart. And I realized it’s interesting timing as we enter our own stewardship month today.
Our home church in North Dakota is cut into the corner of a wheat field at the intersection of two gravel roads. It couldn’t be more country, complete with a cemetery out back, filled with the saints of the church dating back well more than 100 years. At the time it was a church almost exclusively of farmers, which affected how we raised money. We had an annual Harvest Festival. After the crops were sold, each family would write out a check to the church for the year. The plate was still passed every Sunday, but the vast majority of money was collected at the end of every harvest. Not surprisingly, some years were pretty lean. One year there would be crop failures from hail or drought or too much rain, the next, low prices because the harvest was too good. I don’t know how people stayed sane in the midst of so much uncertainty, except for their faith in God’s ultimate provision of all they would need, even if not necessarily all we might want.
So, my memory. One year at Harvest Festival time, I watched my parents sit at the kitchen table to determine the amount they would give to the church for the upcoming year. It had been an awful year for everyone in the community – worse than most. I listened to them discuss their fear that if too many people held back, the church would really suffer. They decided they needed to sacrifice for the greater good. I selfishly wondered how that would affect me, but wisely, I didn’t say anything. Instead I marveled at their conversation which has stayed with me over 40 years.
At the lunch following the funeral at her church in Montana I lamented with her pastor their loss of a major donor – money she didn’t give out of wealth but out of her deep faith that God would provide. I knew it had already been a hard year for them. It’s a United Methodist Church. When an out lesbian had been named a bishop last year, some people left the church, including a couple that gave over $40,000 a year. But the real problem had started some years before. Every time a long-time faithful member of the church died, they faced a deficit due to the loss of their contributions. This couple generously stepped forward to fill the gap – every time. It was a lovely gesture but it didn’t address a long-term solution and contributed to a crisis at their sudden departure. The church’s first response was to consider making the pastor part-time. Or to share a pastor with another church 75 miles away.
I knew that part of the story but I didn’t know what they ultimately decided to do. He said the congregation spoke honestly with each other that too few people were doing too much and they could only continue to be the church if they became the church together. Sufficiently awakened to their reality, members stepped forward and not only filled the gap but went over it. The capacity had been there all along but no one had wanted to be so honest about the need before their crisis.
Their story convinced me that I should be honest about our reality too. We are far from a crisis. That’s not our story. But our reality is that, like many churches, a significant number of our contributions come from our older members. And with every death we face bigger pressures. Last year we received 11 new pledges, which is amazing, but the collective amount was less than that of two people who died and a couple of others whose life circumstances changed. Thanks to our solar panels and other energy efficiencies, we have been able to keep things steady. But this next year makes me nervous. Between more of our faithful members who died this year plus a few people who have moved away, we have a big hill to climb. We could face some really difficult decisions. That is, if we weren’t honest with each other about it. The irony of this is that we have more people but the reality is that in every church, members with histories of 30, 40, 50 years and more have sacrificed for the rest of us. That’s not a judgment. It’s gratitude for our elders and ancestors in the faith. But it’s also an invitation for all us to embrace that we are the church today. And we must be in it – each of us, and all of us together.
I debated whether this would be too much of a Debbie-Downer sermon – I mean, my goodness, a sermon about death and money, but with inspiration from my mother who was very stoic about faith and money through hardships, I realized I probably haven’t been as clear about this as I should have been for years.
But why not be? We have a great church. God has blessed us with a powerful legacy and an even more powerful mission – to be an unapologetic witness to an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. We’re here because we are hungry for justice, we thirst for love in a cruel world. We’re a voice of the Christian left with bold actions to back it up. Among our important ministries is shaping the lives of children and youth to be Open and Affirming to LGBTQ people. Unlike the churches some of us grew up in, they are being taught the unconditional love of Jesus Christ – for others, and for themselves. How wonderful it would be to grow up without the wounding words of judgmental Christians.
I could keep going on and on but the bottom line is I believe in the power of a church like ours. My mother believed in it too, which is why she was so generous to us. You may be sitting on one of the chairs she purchased. We kept trying to constrain her generosity, knowing she was on pace to outlive her money. And yet, among her last contributions were ones to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and for her church’s disaster relief efforts. All after she had first tithed to her church. How can you argue with her about that?!
Today’s gospel text is a story in which Jesus asked the chief priests and elders of the people, “Which would you rather?” “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I’ll go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Which would you rather?
The answer is so obvious, it shouldn’t need much more comment. Which would you rather? Someone to say, “Sure,” and not do it? Or someone who says “No,” and then does. Who among us hasn’t been disappointed like this. Maybe by a teenager – “Cut the grass.” “No.” But later does. Or a co-worker with a deadline looming. “I’ll get it done.” But from experience, you know, never does. A family member, a friend. Promises made, not always kept. Which would you rather? Maybe you’ve done it or maybe you’ve experienced it with someone we serve with on a school community or a neighborhood group or even in the church. The one whose response every month is “I’m still working on it.” We may think “Just say no in the first place,” while at the same time pleading, “please say yes.” Clearly it is a quirk of human nature – and often born of a desire to please. It’s hard for people-pleasers to say no.
But which would you rather? A church where all of us are in it together or one in which a few provide for the rest of us? I thank those of you who sacrifice and have sacrificed for decades. And I invite all of us to turn this gratitude into the affirmation that We are the Church – but it has to be Together. We must be the church of together. Along with the cloud of faithful witnesses from whom we received this inheritance on behalf of the generations that will follow us. We are the Church.
I invite you to pray about this, to sit down at your own kitchen table and discuss, and then prepare your response on Stewardship Commitment Sunday – October 22.
I love being the