Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 10, 2020
“A Polar Plunge Baptism”
Mark 1: 4-12 – The Message
John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.
7-8 As he preached, he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”
9-11 At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”
12-13 At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested.
When you picture a baptism, what do you see? Maybe memories of a smiling family, the pastor sprinkling a few drops of water, perhaps enough for a little to run down the face. I can picture a cooing baby, to which we respond with awes, or screaming, to which we laugh. Most baptisms in our tradition are of infants, perhaps young children, and occasionally adults, like Lily last year and Shaun. They are delightful occasions. Covid baptisms have included humorous suggestions that pastors should stand across the room with super soakers to maintain social distance.
Some of you may have been present for baptisms by immersion – perhaps even some of you were baptized by immersion. It’s a much more dramatic representation of dying and rising to new life. And I would imagine it would take a little more consideration, and for me, trepidation. I don’t like when my head goes below water – when it gets in my ears and nose. And I would definitely emerge from the water coughing and gasping for air a little more dramatically than necessary.
Some years ago, a Connecticut pastor suggested that baptism should involve something terror inducing – like skydiving. After making your vows, step out of a plane thousands of feet in the air and free fall plummet to the earth before pulling a cord to land safely on solid ground. To kiss the ground and cry Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Or some other equally frightening activity. Like bungee jumping off a bridge. I suspect he wasn’t suggesting that for infants but rather adults about to be baptized.
If that were the case, everyone in the church would have had a shared experience of overcoming sheer terror as part of their common Christian experience. Young people would look at their elders with walkers and canes and marvel that they too once jumped from a plane. What if baptism meant confronting your fears?
Of course, standing here next to freezing water gives me another idea. A polar plunge baptism!
(Note: This is recorded in Rocky Mountain National Park next to freezing/frozen water)
When David Aromin moved from Philadelphia to Anchorage, he jumped into 32-degree water. He and some fellow transplants did it as part of a fundraiser for Special Olympics. He said, "I'm new to Alaska, and this is one way to be baptized." Interesting choice of words for this signature Alaskan experience. Of course, Special Olympics holds polar plunge fundraisers all over the country. One of the most famous in Chicago, however, like many other things this year, will be entirely virtual. They suggest jumping into a snowbank instead of Lake Michigan or running through a sprinkler in the back yard, which sounds pretty lame in comparison.
Remember the ice-bucket challenge? One of the co-creators of the challenge died last month. That viral sensation raised $220 million worldwide for ALS research since 2014. Among the participants were George W. Bush and Britany Spears. And I’ll give credit where credit is due, pre-president, Donald Trump did it too.
What if we made this a baptismal rite? No more droplets and dribbles, but do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able? Yes? Then, here, pour this bucket of ice and water over your head as a symbol of your vows. Or jump out the door of this plane. Or plunge into this freezing water.
There’s some rhyme to my reason – or reason to my rhyme. Michele’s reading from the Gospel of Mark said that when Jesus came up out of the water, “he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down upon him.” I can picture the clouds parting, revealing the rays of the sun and a gentle dove descending, landing sweetly on his shoulder, cooing a lovely song. But that’s not what’s going on here.
This is one passage where Eugene Peterson’s translation doesn’t quite capture the whole message. In the New Revised Standard Version, it says, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove.” The dove still sounds like a gentle breeze rather than, more appropriately, one of those birds that divebombs for fish. That’s because the words “torn apart” mean much more than we give credit. The Greek word Mark used here is skhizein. (sky-zen) Some translations say, “ripped apart” or “torn open.” There’s something almost violent in its imagery. It should get our attention.
This word is used as a bookend to the life of Jesus. You may recall that Mark doesn’t tell a birth story. Mark just plunges right in and by chapter 1, verse 9, Jesus is already emerging from the water of his baptism. At that moment, the heavens were “torn apart.” It’s not like the heavens opened and the sun emerged after a thunder storm. It’s skhizein. The only other time Mark uses that specific word is when Jesus hung from a cross and took his last breath. At that very moment, the curtain of the Temple was torn apart, skhizein, ripped from top to bottom. Matthew adds an earthquake. But ripping the Temple curtain wasn’t like pulling a bed sheet apart. The curtain that hung in the Temple was as thick as a rug or as dense as tapestry. Human hands could have never torn it apart. Only with God could such a thing be accomplished.
What does it mean that Mark equalizes the exact moments of his baptism and his death in this way? It’s really a disconnect from most of our images of baptism.
I suggest that baptism calls us to confront our fears – not necessarily skydiving, polar-plunging, but rather: Our fear that to actually follow the call of Jesus is to really, literally, resist oppression and hatred. It is to really, literally, show love and justice. Like two of my modern Christian heroes – Bree Newsome and Colin Kaepernick.
Bree Newsome is a devout Christian, daughter of the longtime Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. Following the murder of the Mother Emmanuel Nine in 2015, she climbed up a flagpole on the capitol grounds in South Carolina to rip down the Confederate flag. As she descended holding the ultimate symbol of white supremacy, she quoted scripture, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” She said, “I refuse to be ruled by fear. How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?”
Just like my Christian hero, Colin Kaepernick, enacting his faith every time he took a knee. Did you know that among his tattoos are scripture passages? On his left bicep, Kaepernick inked Psalm 27:3: “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear and though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” Baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, his meek non-violent act of kneeling makes the mighty and powerful feel threatened. He is a beautiful living representation of Mary’s Magnificat and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Polar plunging, skydiving, climbing a flagpole, taking a knee against injustice at the risk of everything. These may come to mind as dare devil activities, something beyond our grasp. But I want to suggest something even scarier. What would it mean for you to take a risk for love? For example, against whom are you holding a grudge? In this new year, dare you forgive, or seek forgiveness? Even forgiving yourself. What if baptism really did mean confronting fears like that? Not for the sake of a thrill but to stand for something or stand up for someone. What would that be for you? You’re capable of more than you think. Look at the year you’ve just been through.
So, get your water ready and I’m going to ask you to reaffirm your baptismal vows again: “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be a disciple, to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and hatred, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ, as best you are able?”
If that frightens you, remember what Bree Newsome said: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”
As Colin Kaepernick said, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear and though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
So, this year, as we remember the baptism of Jesus and our own, touch your forehead with water and repeat after me: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
 Maxwell Grant on day1.org
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
“To Show Us the Way”
Christmas Eve 2020
What is Christmas about? We heard Matthias, Aidan, and Kian read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke. We know the Gospel of Matthew tells a slightly different story, one that includes three wise people who followed a star in the East, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mark’s Gospel says nothing. And John says nothing except, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” That’s the story I want to fill in. Why did God do that? Why did God become flesh, human, to live among us? Listen to this story:
One Christmas Eve, Samantha looked out her window at the snow swirling down and listened to the frosty wind whistle through the cracks in the window frame.
She was home alone. Her family was at church for the Christmas Eve service, but as usual, Sam chose not to go. For many reasons and no reason in particular, church just wasn’t her thing.
Suddenly, she realized, "The barn! Oh, my goodness, I forgot all about the animals! What in the world’s wrong with me?" She quickly put on her boots and coat and opened the back door to a blast of frigid air. She carefully walked down the icy steps and across the yard. With a big pull on the wooden barn door, it creaked open and Sam walked inside.
It was almost as cold inside as out. Her breath hung in white clouds in front of her. She struck a match and began lighting the heaters and stood around one of them, rubbing her hands together. The animals welcomed the warmth and light too. Sam fed them and soon they were warm and full.
When Sam walked back outside, snowflakes danced around her head and she remembered when she was a girl running around in the snow trying to catch them on her tongue. She had the idea to try it again, except that Mrs. Crowder, their neighbor, would probably see her out the window and have some juicy news to share the next day.
It was so cold, the snow crunched under her feet. She looked up and noticed some sparrows perched on the bare limbs of a pear tree. The bitter wind ruffled their feathers. They seemed almost frozen to the limb. Some of them had fallen to the ground and were flopping around.
"Poor little sparrows," she said out loud. Sam knew that without shelter, they might soon freeze to death, so she tried, again and again, to shoo them toward the barn, but as she moved toward them, they flopped away. They were afraid of this giant creature. They didn’t understand she was only trying to help.
Frustrated, she thought, "If only I could become a sparrow, I could help them. They could follow me and wouldn’t be afraid."
At that moment in the distance, Sam heard the bells ring from the church steeple. She stood up to listen. It was midnight. Christmas. When she looked back down, she had an idea.
She got a sack of seed from the barn and threw some onto the snow. Slowly, one sparrow after another moved toward the seed and began to eat. Sam made a path of seed that led them right into the barn. She closed the big wooden door and looked through a crack. The birds were frightened and confused at first, but soon they soared to the barn rafters and perched there, safe and warm. And Samantha smiled.
One of the ways Sam thought she could help the sparrows was by becoming one of them. In a very simple way, that’s the idea of Christmas. The angels kept saying, to Mary, to the shepherds, to everyone: “Do not fear.” God is becoming one of us to save us and show us a better way of life – a life of service and generosity and kindness and sacrificial love. Just as the gospels explain the life of Jesus.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” to show us the way of justice and compassion. Not merely for ourselves, for that wouldn’t be very Christ-like, but with families at the border, with the mass incarcerated and wrongly imprisoned, with those on death row and in Covid wards tonight alone. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us for them. And for us. To show us compassion, for us to be compassion. That’s why God did it.
And that is what will bring us all a Merry Christmas.
 Sam & the Sparrows by Bass Mitchell, adapted
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 20, 2020
“Mary's Radical Magnificat”
Luke 1: 46-55 New Revised Standard Version
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This is one of my favorite texts in the Bible. It is so hopeful. It’s how I got through the Trump administration. God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Mary the Revolutionary. In fact, some governments know that Mary wasn’t meek and mild. In the past century, in three separate instances, India, Guatemala, and Argentina all banned the public recitation of the Magnificat. Its message, they feared, was too subversive. Others of course ignore it completely. A poll of white evangelicals revealed only 8% percent had ever heard it read in worship. How many people take this passage from the Gospel of Luke seriously?
The one “benefit” of having Covid is that after my Covid brain fog lifted, I had time to read some good books. Among them, I read Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis. We all know Lewis’ story – or at least two major parts: one) how he was beaten and his skull cracked as he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and two) his long tenure as a Congressman from Georgia. John’s activism as a young person was through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, otherwise known as Snick, of which he was a founding member.
We are much more familiar with the men of the Civil Rights Movement than the women. Uniquely, Snick was one of the most egalitarian organizations, but even so, while John and Hosea Williams are known for their bravery at the front of the line in Selma, it was actually Diane Nash, another founding Snick member, and her husband who implemented it. After reading John Lewis, I realized I needed to know more about Diane Nash. I found a book called Hands on the Freedom Plow. It contains 55 personal accounts by women in Snick. It’s fascinating, inspiring – and I highly recommend it. And one piece of Diane’s story really spoke to me when thinking about Mary, the mother Jesus, today.
It was the summer of 1961. Diane and her husband Rev. James Bevell were providing workshops for young people in Mississippi to prepare them to join the Freedom Rides. She was 23 and five of her students were under 21 years of age. She was arrested and charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors by encouraging them to break the law to desegregate interstate buses. She was found guilty of five counts, each carrying a sentence of 6 months – a combined total sentence of 2 ½ years.
She appealed and the NAACP sent a $2,500 bond, but the appeals court deliberately didn’t inform her of the court date. So, when she didn’t appear, there was now a warrant out for her arrest. That warrant provided quite a dilemma – she could either leave the state and abandon the work she felt passionately called to do or go to jail. She and her husband planned to spend their lives in Mississippi working for the liberation of Black people. She said, “I didn’t want Mississippi white men or anyone else deciding for me where we could live and work. I didn’t want anybody to run me anywhere I did not want to go.” Furthermore, if she left the state, the NAACP would lose $2,500, which is worth over $20,000 today.
But even more complicated, or rather, much more complicated, she was six months pregnant, which would mean her child would be born in jail and she would lose out on the first two years of his life.
She wrote: “It was a dreadful, dreadful position, so I retreated to my bedroom. [I told Bevel I didn’t want to be disturbed by anyone.] I did nothing but eat, sleep, think, and pray. After three days I made the decision to surrender and serve the term. With intense meditation, I had tapped into a very powerful force that I can’t totally explain. I thought over every eventuality and was prepared to face anything. I knew I could handle it. There was really nothing anybody could do to hurt me. And if they killed me, I was ready. I had come to a place of strength and peace.” Bevel was very supportive, but faced a lot of criticism. “Oh, Rev. Bevel, you shouldn’t make your wife do that. That’s too much.” They only thought of me as “the Reverend’s wife,” and as a woman, incapable of making a decision like that on her own.
But part of why Diane wanted to serve her term was an issue Snick often highlighted: “jail-no-bail.” “Staying in jail focuses attention on the injustice. It puts the financial burden on the state, making the state pay the cost of enforcing unjust laws. Posting bond puts the financial burden on our community of supporters and takes the authorities off the hook, defeating much of the purpose for going to jail.”
So, she presented herself to the sheriff, ready to serve her sentence. He was clearly amused at her bulging midsection and told her to appear in Judge Moore’s court, the same Judge Moore who, by the way, found Byron De La Beckwith not guilty of killing Medgar Evers – with a gun Judge Moore kept hidden in his home.
Diane entered the court but wasn’t going to sit in the “colored section” so she walked right down to the front, along with two fellow Snick workers who accompanied her for moral support. For their “protest” of sitting in the front row, she was charged with defiance of local segregation laws and sentenced to 10 days in jail. The other two were sent to a prison farm for 40 days of repeated beating by prison guards.
The jail provided absolutely no accommodation for her advanced pregnancy, clearly wanting to make her stay as miserable as possible. No vitamin pills allowed, no change of clothes or even a toothbrush. She was kept isolated from other prisoners so as not to corrupt them with her talk of civil rights. Only one guard was willing to engage her in conversation and, one day, seemed genuinely interested when Diane told her about the discrepancy in public school funding. For example, in Holly Bluff they spent $191.77 per white child and $1.26 per black child. But the worst of her jail experience, she said, was the cockroaches, masses of them crawling up the walls at night, the clicking of their feet, and then falling from the ceiling right over her concrete slab of a bed.
After 10 days she appeared before Judge Moore. He proclaimed her sentence was complete and she was free to go. She asked, “aren’t you going to hear the case of my contributing to the delinquency of minors?” He said no. But she didn’t want to discover later that another warrant was out for her arrest on those charges. She told the judge very clearly that she was going to go right back to teaching young people how to do non-violent civil disobedience. She told him her full home address for the court records so they couldn’t say they couldn’t find her. “I want you to know I’m not hiding from you.” But that was it. What had happened?
Because their home phone had been tapped, fortunately, the Mississippi authorities were aware that every civil rights organization in the nation knew her case. She had been quoted in Jet Magazine saying, “This will be a Negro child born in Mississippi, and so wherever he is born, he will be in jail.” Therefore, the authorities decided that keeping her in jail was more of a public relations liability than they wanted.
Diane said, “I came away from the whole experience much strengthened. I grew spiritually through tapping into the power of an extraordinary force through meditation. In jail I learned that I could live with very little. The oppressive authorities imprisoned me and withheld basic necessities to frighten and control me, but it backfired. They are the ones who got scared. In the end, I was freer, more determined, and stronger than ever.” Doesn’t that sound like the Magnificat?
Today, Diane Nash is 82 and living in Chicago, still engaged in critical issues. The peacefulness which Diane brought to her revolutionary cause, her resolve to lift up the lowly and topple the powerful from their thrones reminds me of the time when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a son, the Son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David. She asked how. And then, full of the Spirit of God, fully aware of the consequences, Mary responded, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Despite the heartache and pain that she knew would come her way, this child would save the world. For God, through her willingness, so loved the world that God scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Yes, God loves the world that much.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor executed by the Nazi’s, realized the power of the Magnificat. He said, “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, most revolutionary hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary seen in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God…”
The power of God lived through people like Mary and Diane Nash who understood the meaning of these words and took them seriously.
May it be so in your spirit too.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 6, 2020
“May the Peace of Christ Be with You”
Isaiah 40: 1-9
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
“The peace of Christ be with you.” I miss saying that and hearing the rumble of 100 people saying back “And also with you.” I guess, like a lot of other things, a lot of other things, I took that for granted. So, let’s do the next best thing: When I say, “the peace of Christ be with you,” type “And also with you” in the comments or chat on Facebook or YouTube or Zoom. Or, if you’re watching on a big screen TV with no keyboard, send me an email later. I’d love to “hear” those words from 100 of you again. It would feel like a little bit of normal. I’ll give you a minute.
And now, like we do in the worship service, if you are watching with someone, turn to your neighbor and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.”
Today is traditionally Peace Sunday on our Advent journey, words set by the opening line from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures for today – also known as the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah proclaims “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” Speak tenderly. Peacefully.
Let me quickly point out that the “Book” of Isaiah is really three documents put together from three distinct periods hundreds of years apart. First Isaiah is a warning to the nation to change its ways, to end injustice toward widows and orphans and so much more, or they will suffer the consequences. They didn’t. So, in Second Isaiah, in the midst of suffering the consequences of their inaction, having been dragged off to exile to sing songs of Zion in a foreign land, the prophet now promises that one day they shall return home, with this beautiful imagery: through valleys lifted up and mountains made low, where uneven ground has become level and rough places plain.
Our reading today from chapter 40 is the beginning of Second Isaiah. It is that promise of their return home one day. Unfortunately, Third Isaiah is how they returned home and found everything in ruins.
But back to Second Isaiah. The promise. As the text says, her debt has been paid. Eugene Peterson translates verse two: “She’s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.” Doesn’t that sound good!?
Yes! It’s over! Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Hallelujah! We made it! At noon on January 20, having held our collective breath for four years, we will finally breathe again. What a relief! As Isaiah said, “We’ve been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.” Amen.
The president-elect even promised on Thanksgiving, “Life is going to return to normal.” That feels so good. Peace in the land. Fewer tweets. But as Robert Reich said, returning to normal would be disastrous for America. An end to the constant lies will be wonderful, but do we really want “normal?”
Everyone has heard of Dr. King’s March on Washington speech, “I Have a Dream.” We call it his “I Have a Dream” speech. But do you know what its actual title was? “Normalcy – Never Again.” Wow. Did you know that?
Therefore, God forbid we ever consider “normal” acceptable again – especially if we equate normal with peace. Perhaps what we really want are boring politicians. Boring, competent people doing their jobs without scandal. But boring doesn’t bring about peace, or at least, the peace of Christ.
As you’ve no doubt heard before, peace is not the absence of tension. Peace is the presence of justice.
Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor of Jesus’ time, could bring about peace – through conquest, through violence and force. He even called himself the Prince of Peace, among other titles like Divine, Son of God, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. But living under Caesar’s peace meant Roman domination. His “peace” was one of brutality, poverty, and oppression.
That’s one reason to for us to say, “The peace of Christ be with you;” not just peace be with you. Other forms of peace might require the subjugation of those who say, “And also with you.”
Caesar’s peace required the silence of suffering people. Silence about suffering will make things appear peaceful. Protesters are often charged with “disturbing the peace.” The peace of Christ, however, requires health and wholeness – shalom. Not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.
So, when I say, “May the peace of Christ be with you,” I don’t want us to simply celebrate and settle for an end to drama in our land, quietness, but a renewed commitment for a noisy push for that which will bring justice. There can be no peace without an end to suffering, without holding those who cause suffering to be accountable.
The church in America, the white church in America, has often tried to trade silence for peace. That is not the peace of Christ.
May that peace of Christ be with you – and the whole world – now and every day forevermore.
I love being the