Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 27, 2020
“Why Is This Happening?”
Exodus 17: 1-7 – The Message
Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?”
4 Moses cried out in prayer to God, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!”
5-6 God said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel. Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. And go. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.”
6-7 Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. He named the place Massah (Testing-Place) and Meribah (Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of God when they said, “Is God here with us, or not?”
Yup. They’re still in the wilderness. Still complaining – still griping and grousing and groaning. Moses is still exasperated. And God is still providing exactly enough for their needs every day.
Today’s reading is part of the Great Liberation Narrative. From the birth of Moses through his death, this foundational story of the Israelites of the exodus from slavery to freedom gets only 10 weeks of attention during our three year cycle of assigned readings, called the lectionary. And two of the 10 involve complaining – last week food, this week water. I was tempted to look at other options in the lectionary for today. Who needs another story about complaining and being stuck in the wilderness? And then I thought of our own.
And yup. We’re still in the wilderness, too. We have food and water, but the isolation. Separation. Church from home. Some still work from home. Some still go to school from home or some combination. And the complaining. People are still griping, grousing, groaning about masks and social distancing instead of realizing what a wonderfully simple way it is to save lives. I don’t mean to shame the Israelites for their complaining. And I don’t mean to shame any of us for feeling tired and frustrated. All of us just want this to end.
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? Not in the sense of some conspiracy theory, but a deeper “why”? Why is this happening?
One of the commentaries I read asked a really good, very basic, question: why not lead the people straight from slavery to the Promised Land? Hadn’t they suffered enough? Yes, still stop in Palm Springs for six weeks, but then get on with it.
Among the explanations for why it took 40 years in the wilderness is that it takes a long time to unlearn being enslaved. It takes a long time to learn freedom. So, they underwent a series of trials meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people with a shared story and experience of what it takes, how hard it is, to live with freedom. Matthew Myer Boulton said, “They had to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.” I like that.
We have been following the narrative in the Book of Exodus, but this story of liberation is also told in the Book of Deuteronomy which gives an explicit reason for their 40 year sojourn: “by letting you hunger, then by feeding you manna,” the people would understand personally, viscerally, that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cites this exact verse during his own 40 days of testing in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
So, I get this. I understand this explanation – sort of – that their trials and testing were meant to train them for a life as free people, to turn their longing into trust, to turn their doubts into faith, to turn their complaints into food and water.
I get it, but it makes me uncomfortable. And that’s because I’ve seen it lead to people making hurtful and ridiculous claims to people who are suffering. For example, You were given cancer so that you come to value life.
Kate Bowler writes about being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 35, mother of a young child, and in the midst of a promising academic career. She’s heard it all, including a neighbor who came to the door and told her husband, “everything happens for a reason.” He said, “OK. What is it?” The neighbor looked stunned as he waited. “What’s the reason my wife is dying?” Kate wrote a book about it. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Christians were particularly insistent that God had a plan for her – abbreviated – life.
A month into our pandemic separation, she was interviewed by the New York Times and asked about the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this.
She replied, “The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. The good part is: It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — it expects that people are always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances. The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering, by requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful.”
But the most poignant statement of the entire interview is this: A pandemic is not a judgment. “The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson.”
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? The explanation: we were given the pandemic so that… fill in the blank. I get the attempt at explanation. To be honest, I’ve also tried to rationalize, to redeem it. But, again, it negates the suffering of people in the wilderness, whether 40 years then or 6 months and counting now. Can you believe it? Six months and counting…
I was curious so I went back and looked at some of the sermons I wrote at the beginning of our pandemic separation. In the beginning we thought it would only last a few weeks. Take a break, flatten the curve, and we’ll be back in the sanctuary by Easter.
On our first Sunday apart, I said, “If we ever thought being a church member was just coming to church on Sunday, this moment is teaching us the value of community. So, reach out to one another.” We created Zoom meetings to stay connected.
The next Sunday I asked, “what has this pandemic revealed so far?” For one, not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. But, I said, it has also revealed the blessing of belonging to a community. I said, “I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But, because of Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other.”
I asked what things we will never take for granted again. Like a handshake. Full shelves at the store and enough toilet paper at home. The mad rush to school in the morning. Dinner with friends. And finally, the question: Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become? Looking back, it’s funny we thought we could answer that yet. We had no clue what was still coming.
The third week I spoke of these being inspiring times, praising the heroism and sacrifice of everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes.
On Palm Sunday I asked us to choose vulnerability, like Jesus. To be awkward, brave, and kind. And on Easter, to be real with one another. It’s OK to be sad and long for normal.
Six months ago we had no clue we would still be worshiping like this. Nor do we know when it will end. And neither did the Israelites. Why did they spend 40 years in the wilderness? We are told it was meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people who live with freedom. And part of that is to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.
Perhaps that’s why freedom feels so fragile for us right now. For freedom to work, we must trust in institutions to work, we must trust in the constraint of laws, and we must trust in our fellow citizens and neighbors. The real or imagined threat of tyranny in the land of the free right now is not only frightening, the destabilizing power of mistrust makes some fear our democracy could topple over. Can the republic survive?
How do we explain the wilderness of the past 4 years? Perhaps historians will suggest: you were given Donald Trump so that you would come to understand the value of democracy and the rule of law – not the kind of dog whistle slogan of law and order, which is to uphold the order of white supremacy, but how the rule of law is meant to constrain wanna-be dictators. The explanation is that without this disruption of norms, you wouldn’t appreciate them and guard them, protect them.
So, I get this. Like scripture attempts to do with the Israelites, I understand this explanation – sort of – that the trials and testing of today are meant to train us and form us into a people with a shared story and purpose. But it still makes me uncomfortable. Again, the terrible suffering of so many already vulnerable people.
Therefore, I risk suggesting, perhaps there is no lesson to be learned. Instead, however, I embrace what Kate Bowler said: “The trick is to find meaning without being ‘taught a lesson.’”
And not worrying about whether we can redeem this suffering. But rather, as the Israelites finally learned: to trust and let God redeem this suffering. And leave our task to keep caring for each other and remain present in this moment, as the song we’ll now sing says:
“You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”
Thank you for meeting us in our anxiety, dear God.
Thank you for always walking alongside us.
Thank you for welcoming our questions - like why is this happening.
And it's not only the pandemic, God -
the 200,000 of your precious souls in our county,
but also the 76,000 people in Mexico,
93,000 in India,
and 13 people in Sri Lanka - each with families devastated by their loss.
And only the pandemic of Covid 19,
but the pandemic of racism,
and not just 6 months of deaths like George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks captured on cell phones,
but 401 years of enslavement,
and lack of justice for Breonna Taylor who can't even sleep in their own homes,
for whom on one will take responsibility.
For families still separated at the border.
Why is this happening?
We have questions, like
where is the integrity among our elected leaders
Where is the sense of fair play and civility
Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will fight for our rights?
The wandering Israelites asked, is God here with us, or not?
Yet, when they cried out,
you opened the sea for them to pass.
When they cried out,
you provided manna in the wilderness.
When they cried out, water gushed forth from a rock.
And if you can produce water from a ROCK!,
you will quench our thirst for justice,
our hunger for righteousness,
our demand for the liberation of all who are enslaved today.
You will, despite our question - WHEN!?
When, O Lord?
But in between, you never leave us alone.
You walk with us through our illnesses and death.
You walk alongside us when we lose patience,
when anger threatens to overwhelm.
You walk alongside those today who pray,
who ask our community to pray,
and you give us sighs to deep for words
when we don't know what to say.
And you invite us to prayer the words Jesus taught...
 Deuteronomy 3:8
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 20, 2020
“Exactly Enough. Every Day.”
Exodus 16: 2-16 – The Message
The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness. The Israelites said, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!”
4-5 God said to Moses, “I’m going to rain bread down from the skies for you. The people will go out and gather each day’s ration. I’m going to test them to see if they’ll live according to my Teaching or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they have gathered, it will turn out to be twice as much as their daily ration.”
6-7 Moses and Aaron told the People of Israel, “This evening you will know that it is God who brought you out of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the Glory of God. Yes, he’s listened to your complaints against him. You haven’t been complaining against us, you know, but against God.”
8 Moses said, “Since it will be God who gives you meat for your meal in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, it’s God who will have listened to your complaints against him. Who are we in all this? You haven’t been complaining to us—you’ve been complaining to God!”
9 Moses instructed Aaron: “Tell the whole company of Israel: ‘Come near to God. He’s heard your complaints.’”
10 When Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud.
11-12 God spoke to Moses, “I’ve listened to the complaints of the Israelites. Now tell them: ‘At dusk you will eat meat and at dawn you’ll eat your fill of bread; and you’ll realize that I am God, your God.’”
13-15 That evening quail flew in and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, man-hu (What is it?). They had no idea what it was.
15-16 So Moses told them, “It’s the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God’s instructions: ‘Gather enough for each person, about two quarts per person; gather enough for everyone in your tent.’”
“The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness.” Temple Beth Shalom developed a voice mail system for dealing with this kind of thing. “Thank you for calling. If you’re calling from a touch tone phone and would like our service schedule, please press one. For membership information, press two. To complain to the rabbi, press three. To complain about the rabbi, press four, five, or six.”
“The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron out there in the wilderness.” After all, what had Moses done for them lately? He had only left his comfortable and obscure life as a sheepherder in Midian, followed a voice he heard from a burning bush to confront the most powerful man in the world, usher his people across the Red Sea, turn bitter water into sweet, and even gave them a vacation to the original Palm Springs. Yes, soon after crossing into freedom-land, they came to a place with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees, where they “vacationed” for six weeks. “Yes, we’ve been there and done that. But, what have you done for us lately?”
Moses took their complaints to God, added a few of his own about ungrateful people, and retorted back, “You know, when you complain against me, you’re really complaining against God. And you don’t want to do that, do you?” Moses clearly hadn’t been to customer management school, because if he had:
And he did. In addition to God’s promise to provide manna, God promised quail every day. But couldn’t we have chicken instead?
And yet, it really isn’t my place to criticize people for being hungry and thirsty and frightened. Or ungrateful. They were truly at the mercy of God. It’s hard to know what that feels like. The bigger question is why I do it every day? How many days go by that I don’t find something about which to grumble, gripe, groan, murmur – or down right complain about? Even though I have everything I need – every day.
I shouldn’t blame and point fingers at the Israelites and say they shouldn’t complain. Think of their existence under Pharaoh, hundreds of years of Pharaohs. Naturally, they picked up his habits. They existed as an example that even when the Pharaohs had more than enough, they wanted more, or rather, demanded more. Walter Brueggemann describes this is how the Israelites became slaves in the first place.
Because Joseph foresaw a great famine, Egypt built barns and storehouses, so much so that they became the great superpower of its time. As a result, Egypt had more than enough and saved their neighbors from starvation. We might hear that and think they had mercy upon their neighbors. But Egypt didn’t have mercy on their neighbors, they bankrupted them. Pharaoh demanded that Joseph ask hungry people, “Where’s your collateral?” The first year they gave up their cattle. The second year they gave up their land. The third year, they had no collateral left but themselves. They descended into slavery as the result of debt, a trade deal for survival from which there was no escape, an economic transaction to avoid starvation with someone who never believed he had enough. Brueggemann said, “by the end of Genesis 47, Pharaoh owned all the land except that belonging to the priests,” because, after all, “he needed somebody to bless” what he was doing.
So now, after 500 years, thanks to Moses, the children of Israel are free, and out in the wilderness with too much time on their hands, looking back and thinking, “Should we have really left? All of the world’s riches are in Egypt and with the Pharaoh.” Fish, cucumber, leeks, onions…
How many people falsely equate wealth with divine blessing? In Egypt they could see all the ostentatious displays, even if it wasn’t theirs. But now, they look out into the emptiness of the wilderness and think there can’t be enough for them. Let’s go back, not realizing that if they went back, it would have been to Make Egypt Great Again. The Israelites would see no economic benefit for themselves, only to continue to further enrich the Pharaoh. But they might have gotten an overpriced red MEGA hat (Make Egypt Great Again).
Out there in the vast wilderness, God heard their cries and began providing the Israelites with manna every day. It addition to their complaining, it’s not surprising that some people tried to take more than they needed. That’s what Pharaoh would have taught them to do. But two things happened. When people tried to hoard manna, they discovered in the morning that their excess was rotten and had a terrible sour smell. But those who hadn’t taken enough found themselves with exactly enough. Both had exactly enough. Every day. Just like today. God provides. Exactly enough. Every day. Which sounds like a good place to say, Amen.
Except, something’s not quite right. It’s one thing for me as a white, English-speaking man in America to say God provides exactly enough every day because I do have exactly enough every day. Well, let’s be honest. Most of us have more than enough.
So then, tell me, what am I to say to the family living behind the fence of a refugee camp for years? What about countries suffering from famine and starvation today? What are we to say to those who don’t have enough to feed their families, so they risk their lives to cross into our country in order to pick the cucumbers, leeks and onions that grace our dinner table every night?
God provides enough? It makes God sound like a fraud. It sounds like God makes promises that God doesn’t keep. But if God does provide enough, which I believe, then what’s going on?
There’s a line in our communion liturgy that says, “We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.” There is enough. There’s just not enough sharing. Or, rather, a system of justice and equity. That lifts the poor and constrains the greedy.
It’s not surprising that the Israelites didn’t understand what “enough” meant. After all, do we? Were they ungrateful complainers? Are we? They are both difficult lessons to unlearn habits we aren’t even aware of, just like white privilege.
But this pandemic is teaching us some even more difficult lessons. During this time of uncertainty, of fear, of wishing we could go back even though “back” wasn’t so great, but at least it was normal. A time of stock market highs and record unemployment – and the rich complaining about people making too much money on unemployment… And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s too much. We have enough on our plate.
All of it is like wandering in a wilderness of in between spaces – 40 days to the election, in between the election and how many more days to the election results, anticipating chaos or calm, and imagining 79 more days to inauguration, or 4 more years of hell, all the while waiting for a vaccine, or hoping there is one. That’s a lot of lessons! You know what, perhaps we do understand what it means to be completely at the mercy of God.
And if that’s true, does God still provide manna today? Perhaps not some flaky white substance on the grass every morning, but I do believe that:
This day and every one of the next 44 days. And 79 more days. And 365 after that. Exactly enough and even enough to share.
Photo is from Death Valley, December 2019, by David Bahr
 Walter Brueggemann, “The Litany of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” The Christian Century, 1999
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 13, 2020
“Go Forward and Live or Turn Back and Die”
Exodus 14: 19-31 – The Message
19-20 The angel of God that had been leading the camp of Israel now shifted and got behind them. And the Pillar of Cloud that had been in front also shifted to the rear. The Cloud was now between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel. The Cloud enshrouded one camp in darkness and flooded the other with light. The two camps didn’t come near each other all night.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and God, with a terrific east wind all night long, made the sea go back. He made the sea dry ground. The seawaters split.
22-25 The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground with the waters a wall to the right and to the left. The Egyptians came after them in full pursuit, every horse and chariot and driver of Pharaoh racing into the middle of the sea. It was now the morning watch. God looked down from the Pillar of Fire and Cloud on the Egyptian army and threw them into a panic. He clogged the wheels of their chariots; they were stuck in the mud.
The Egyptians said, “Run from Israel! God is fighting on their side and against Egypt!”
26 God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea and the waters will come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots, over their horsemen.”
27-28 Moses stretched his hand out over the sea: As the day broke and the Egyptians were running, the sea returned to its place as before. God dumped the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. The waters returned, drowning the chariots and riders of Pharaoh’s army that had chased after Israel into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29-31 But the Israelites walked right through the middle of the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall to the right and to the left. God delivered Israel that day from the oppression of the Egyptians. And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses.
(After watching a clip from the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments.) I couldn’t resist showing the scene of Charlton Heston raising his hand over his head to part the Red Sea. It’s a little kitschy and over the top, but it certainly makes the point about the miraculous nature of their escape from slavery. In fact, I find it more compelling than such rational explanations that a stiff wind all night dried marshy land making it possible for people to walk across while the heavy chariots got caught up in the underlying mud. Sure, it may have been possible, but I root for the triumph of the impossible. But how they got across isn’t as important as the fundamental message: “Once you were slaves in Egypt, and now you are free.” That’s more than walking with wet shoes. It takes God for that to happen.
They were trapped. On one side, water prevented their escape, and on the other side, 600 rapidly approaching Egyptian army chariots. Imagine hearing the sound, seeing the dust rise from miles away, feeling the rumbling of the ground as those chariots advanced. Just before our passage today, verse 10 says, “They were totally afraid. They cried out in terror to God. They told Moses, “Weren’t the cemeteries in Egypt large enough? Did you have to take us out here in the wilderness to die? What have you done to us? Back in Egypt we told you, ‘Leave us alone—we’re better off as slaves than as corpses in the wilderness.’”
But, of what were they really afraid? Was it death or freedom? For those who had never experienced it before, what is that thing called freedom?
In 1937, 2,300 formerly enslaved African Americans were interviewed as part of the depression-era Federal Writer’s Project. 88-year-old Mary Crane said she was 14 years old “when President Lincoln set us all free.” She said, “I’m telling you right when I say that my folks and friends did not regard freedom as an ‘unmixed blessing.’”
Ezra Adams said, “I don’t remember when I first regarded myself as ‘free.’ Many of us just “didn’t understand what it was all about.”
Daniel Waring said, “The former slaves where I lived knew they had an abundance of freedom, but they could not eat, wear, or sleep in it. They soon learned that freedom is nothing unless you have something to live in and a place to call home.”
Most of us know that Harriet Tubman was known as the Moses of her people. And you may recall she carried a gun with her as she led groups along the Underground Railroad. Not just to protect from slave patrols but to keep those who were afraid from turning back. Sometimes she threatened, “If you don’t follow me, I’m going to kill you. Go forward and live or turn back and die.”
Standing at the water’s edge, the escaping Hebrews cried out to return to what was familiar, even though it was bondage. Then the sea parted. They crossed and “The prophet Miriam took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her dancing. Miriam sang: ‘horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” It’s the earliest recorded song in the Bible.
But their first day of freedom wasn’t even over yet before they began to reminisce, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing? The cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic… but now?” Again, that was the same day as their miraculous crossing over. But of course, as Daniel Waring testified from personal experience, you can’t eat, wear, or sleep in freedom.
Freedom is center stage in many of our lives right now. Some people are demanding freedom from the tyranny of wearing masks. Some people are demanding freedom from getting shot by police. Some people just want freedom from quarantine to hug, to gather with friends. And, of course, to return to such normal routines as coming home on Homecoming Sunday. I recognize not all of these examples are equal. But it’s also not right to judge some grieving as worse than others. Grief is grief. Just like fear.
The Hebrews were now free. From slavery. From Egypt. Now the question is, for what? In their fears, freedom meant hunger, even though the promise was a land flowing with milk and honey. But of course, they didn’t know it would take 40 years to get there because it would take them 40 years to unlearn a lifetime of bondage.
Ask someone released from prison. Freedom from addiction. Freedom from an abuser can be hard if it’s all you’ve ever known. Oppression. Cruelty. Tyranny. How long does it take for a society finally free from a tyrant to recover? And not do it again.
Note that God’s great liberation narrative is always freedom from oppression, not accommodation to it. We don’t need tips and tricks for surviving. God’s great liberation narrative, “the primal, most simple, most elemental, and non-negotiable story at the heart of biblical faith,” as Walter Brueggemann describes the Exodus; God’s great liberation narrative is freedom from cruelty, not a series of lessons in how to live with it. But freedom from means freedom for something. And that’s hard. Harder than going back. It’s sacrificial. It’s for a purpose. What was God’s liberative purpose in opening the sea for them? And what liberation is God seeking for our world today?
Out in the wilderness, the former slaves had to learn to turn away from the tyranny of Pharaoh and resist the temptation to recreate it among themselves. In the place of Pharaoh’s wealth and absolute power, God gave them “some of the most radical socioeconomic laws in human history.” As Marcus Borg describes it, “no interest was to be charged on loans to each other. Every Sabbath year, every seventh year, all debts owed to each other were to be forgiven and any slaves they collected were to be released. Every Jubilee year, every 50th year, all agricultural land was to be returned at no cost to the original family of ownership. When they settled the land, every family was given a plot. Over time, families that ran into difficulties sometimes lost their land because of debt. In the Jubilee year, the land was to be restored to its original owner.”
In other words, they were freed from ancient systems built on injustice and domination. And with their freedom they were to create shalom – a world of wellbeing, peace, and wholeness. A world Jesus would describe as the Kingdom of God. A world we describe as open, inclusive, just, and compassionate.
What does all of this say to the church on Homecoming Sunday? In its best sense, Homecoming means going back, telling stories, laughing, reminiscing… and at Park Hill, the youth group cooking hot dogs. Lance in his Black Panther costume. It’s a regrouping and regathering in one place to be sent back into the world in courage and peace. Of course, not everyone’s home or childhood was peaceful and loving, so returning home isn’t equally nostalgic for everyone.
In its idealized sense, Homecoming may be a reminder of better times. It’s not unusual for some churches that after years of decline, its forward mission is actually a retreat, trying to recreate what worked well decades ago instead crossing the sea to freedom-land. Remember when the youth group sold those cucumbers and leeks and onions…
As we worship from home today, it may feel like the momentum of our church’s steady forward mission has been put on forced retreat. But, in contrast, instead of looking back and hoping for a return to what we once were, God is leading us to become something we’ve never been before, something more than we could imagine. Going forward, our congregation will be more than those who get in their car to drive to church, or did so when they lived here. Not one place, but one people. As of today, we are the church home of people no matter where their home is located. That’s a new concept. One that liberates us from location to our shared vocation as people who seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. Still in Park Hill, but now also everywhere that Park Hill lives.
It’ll take some time to get used to this new identity. But God will make a way for us. It may not take the power of Charlton Heston raising his hand, but it will require more of us than a dry-cleaning bill for our shoes if we are to fully include more than just those we can wave at in the next pew. We certainly didn’t know it then, but the intentionality we gave to building relationships last fall has prepared us for this grand experiment in being church – before, during, and long after the pandemic. And I believe that building relationships is that which will heal our nation when we’ve escaped the latest tyrant named Pharaoh.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 30, 2020
“I Hear Their Cries in Kenosha”
Exodus 3: 1-15 – Common English Bible
A Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro,[a] Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.[b] So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Last week we began the Great Liberation narrative with the story of the birth of Moses, and before that, the reason why the Hebrew people were living in Egypt in the first place – to escape starvation in their homeland. We heard about the rebellion of the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who tricked Pharaoh and refused to cooperate with his order to kill all newborn Hebrew boys – because he was paranoid that there were too many of them. We heard about the clever plans of his mother Jacoybed and sister Miriam to put him in a basket on the Nile so he could be discovered. And we learned about the rebellious compassion of the Pharaoh’s own daughter who, despite her father’s orders, rescued Moses from the Nile and raised him as her own. And today, we heard his encounter with a burning bush. But what happened in between?
Like Jesus, we can only speculate on his childhood upbringing. But I do wonder, what was that moment like when he realized he was a Hebrew but living the privileged life of Egyptian royalty? Like anyone adopted, he must have had so many questions, such as, who did he really belong to? Where did he fit in?
Well, one day, Moses did indeed face a choice. He looked down from his palace and saw the cruel labor that was forced on the Hebrews. He saw an Egyptian slave master beating a slave. In that moment he realized that these were his people. In that moment he was seized by outrage. And in that moment, he looked around to make sure no one saw what he was about to do. He killed that slave master and buried him in the sand. But someone did see him, and word spread, even to the Pharaoh. So, Moses fled as far as he could to save his life.
Moses kept running until he eventually settled in the land of Midian. He married Zipporah and became a shepherd for her father. He settled into a peaceful, obscure life – but always with a dark secret no one else knew. Moses might have always worried that one night there would be a knock at the door, dragging him back to Egypt to face the consequences of his crime. When word came years later that the Pharaoh had died, he was relieved. He was free from his past and he could die in peace.
That’s when today’s story interrupts Moses’ plan for comfortable obscurity. He was tending his sheep, far from home beyond the wilderness, when he saw that infamous “burning bush.” When he stepped toward the curious sight, a voice called Moses, Moses.
The voice from the burning bush proclaimed, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Yes, it was that Jacob, the dirty-trickster scoundrel who cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. It was that same God now talking to Moses.
The voice of God made seven “I” statements before declaring God’s name is “I am who I am.” God said:
1)I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt
2)I have heard their cries for deliverance from the cruelty of their slave masters
3)I know their suffering and pain
4)I have come down to deliver them
5)And repeated, I’ve seen for myself how the Egyptians oppress them
Again, God said,
I have seen their misery
I have heard their cries
I know their pain
And I will deliver them.
Just as Moses was about to say, “Good for you, God. Go for it!” Right before Moses could say thank you to God for promising to free his kinsfolk from their suffering, God said, 6) “And so… I am sending you.” “Wait. What?”
And with that we learn how God works in the world. “I will deliver my people from slavery means you will save my people from slavery. From cruelty. From oppression.” We also learn that God doesn’t choose people for that work who declare “I alone can save you. I alone can fix the system.” We all know how badly that works out. No, God works in the world through people who say, “Wait. Who me? Why me?”
God’s seventh statement in this dialogue is meant to make Moses feel better. I am sending you. But 7) “I will be with you.” Moses, however, just continues with a list of reasons why God has chosen the wrong person. After all, Moses was a murderer who fled the scene of the crime; he was a stutterer with a stunning lack of self-confidence, claimed people won’t believe him; and, after all, at 80 years old, he was content watching sheep in a pasture until it was time to put him out to pasture.
But God doesn’t care about excuses. In fact, I think with God, the more excuses the better. Or rather, the more strikes against you the better.
You might think this is just a fairy tale about Moses. You may think, this isn’t a story that relates to my life because I’ve never seen a burning bush. Or a dancing bear. Or a talking fish or something else supernatural.
But you have, we certainly all have seen the misery of God’s people. We have watched over and over and over again, one year after another after another as if on a loop, the killing of black men, women, and children. We watched as an officer put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 long minutes as he cried out for his dead mama to save him. It is through my eyes and your eyes, God says, I see the misery of my people. Don’t look away.
We have certainly all heard the cries of God’s people treated with cruelty. The guttural cries of the mother of Jacob Blake’s children sitting in the back of the car watching as seven bullets discharge one by one into his back as the officer tugged on his t-shirt to keep him from leaving. But we also heard as people pointed and shouted that the 17-year-old white boy walking down the street with a rifle hanging off his neck had just shot people. But instead, in the ultimate example that “law and order” is about maintaining white supremacy, officers thanked him for being there. Asked, would you like a drink of water. And waved as he went home that night to sleep in his own bed. It is through my ears and your ears that God says, I hear their cries in Kenosha. Don’t turn away.
We certainly all know the pain and suffering of God’s people – the way our stomach ties in knots witnessing the gleeful cruelty of this administration and the silence of its enablers. 180,000 dead from Covid, each of them with a family mourning what didn’t have to be so tragic with a little common sense and some leadership from the one who brags “I alone can fix it,” but doesn’t or can’t. Can’t, won’t, or incapable of seeing or hearing or feeling anything that isn’t about himself. But it is through my body and your bodies that God says, I know their pain and suffering. Don’t walk away. The I AM will save them.
We might cheer, “Good for you, God! Because someone has got to do something about this.” What happens when we realize that God is talking directly to you? Who me? Why?
Well, it’s precisely for these reasons:
That’s all the right stuff for God:
God needed a stuttering murderer with a stunning lack of self-confidence to deliver God’s people from slavery. Who me? But we’re simply responding to that which we can see, hear, and feel in our body.
You may have heard of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
Let’s go through our list of reasons to pick someone else:
What else do you have?
But you still have eyes to see.
You still have ears to hear.
And you still have a body through which you feel.
And that’s how “I am who I am” works in the world to save God’s people from their misery. What have you done wrong that makes you exactly the right one?
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 23, 2020
Exodus 2: 1-10 – Common English Bible
A man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out[a] of the water.”
Today’s story actually begins a little earlier than the birth of Moses and his rescue from a basket on the Nile. The first line in the lectionary is “A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” So, that means we have to go back even earlier than Moses – like 500 years earlier.
Remember the story I told a few weeks ago about those twin brothers named Jacob and Esau? Joseph was Jacob’s son. His favorite son. Much, much younger than his 11 brothers, he was annoying to them. In part, because Jacob made it known that Joseph was his favorite, born of his favorite wife, Rachel.
And you may have heard of the special gift: Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream-coat? To be fair, he really was a twerp and eventually his brothers grew so tired of his prancing and preening, they threw him in a hole. And they kept him there until they sold him as a slave to some folks on their way to Egypt. Then gave his shirt, covered in goat’s blood, to their father so he would think his beloved Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.
Years later, great story but too long, Joseph ascended to the role of trusted official in the Pharaoh’s government because he interpreted a dream that foresaw a great famine. He convinced the Pharaoh to build vast storage barns to prepare. Back home, that famine hit so hard that many people emigrated to Egypt, including Joseph’s brothers, to avoid starvation.
Again, long story short, Joseph saved his brothers. But more than that, he saved Egypt. Despite being a foreigner, he was a hero. Except after they forgot about him. He was a hero until they began to resent all those families who had moved to Egypt to avoid starvation. 500 years later, there were “too many” of them. This new king who didn’t know Joseph said, “We’ve got to do something because they might turn on us.”
They forgot. It’s not good when a nation loses its corporate memory because when a nation loses its memory, suspicion and prejudice can take over. Frightened or paranoid leaders conveniently turn “others” into a threat to “our” way of life. But isn’t it interesting that, even now, “our way of life” only applies to those trying to protect their privilege and power?
And so, all those outsiders were rounded up and organized into work-gangs. They tried to crush them with slave labor, making it worse and worse. But, as the story goes, the harder they worked them, the more children they produced. No matter how much they oppressed them, nothing worked to contain them, so Pharaoh told the two midwives for the Hebrew people to kill all the boys as they delivered them.
The midwives agreed but wouldn’t do it. When Pharaoh realized they were not carrying out his orders, they lied and said the Hebrew women are so “vigorous,” they have their babies before the midwives can arrive. So, Pharaoh extended the order beyond the midwives. Pharaoh ordered all of his people to participate in infanticide – to drown every infant Hebrew boy in the Nile River.
Why would anyone agree to do that? To victimize someone, you’ve got to turn them into a threat. As one liberation theologian said, that’s only possible if those in power can “skew or even obliterate the corporate memory of the people. Ordinary people do not set out to oppress and exploit, unless someone can frighten them and point to a scapegoat.” It’s a playbook that is thousands and thousands of years old. But then as now, just one person at a time can interrupt the narrative.
As we heard in the story read, the life of Moses was miraculously spared. Great heroes often have stories of miraculous births – in fact, stories of other great leaders include being placed in a basket on the Nile River. But this is not just a story about the birth of Moses. This is the beginning of the liberation narrative, the story of freedom from slavery. The escape. The wilderness. The complaining. Lots of complaining about how life was better back in Egypt. We’re going to follow this story of God and the people for several weeks going forward.
As liberation theologians declare, “The point of this story is to demonstrate how the seeds of freedom for the slaves were sown years before through simple disobedience by women – the midwives Shiphrah and Puah who tricked and defied Pharaoh, by Moses’ mother Jochebed (jo-quay-bed) and sister Miriam who carefully plotted a way for him to be rescued, and then by the daughter of the very Pharaoh who decreed his death. As the text points out, the princess, whose name we don’t know, knew she was saving a Hebrew boy. She made a fool out of her father – whether she intended to or not.
He decreed death out of his fear, and she co-opted life out of her compassion. The courageous actions of Moses later in his life cannot be divorced from these women, whose compassion defeated fear.
It inspires in me once again an appreciation for how small acts of compassion really are acts of resistance in the face of fear, which multiply into greater acts of liberation. Moses was a great leader, but he’s not the reason they escaped. Liberation is not the result of one grand gesture or one great leader but thousands of actions and millions of people that destroy dubious fear with rebellious compassion.
And I think that’s an important reminder in this presidential season. We should not aspire to elect a Moses-like leader who will deliver us and lead us out of our national crisis. That would be great, but ultimately someone else can’t heal us. We need to inspire one another. Because our acts of rebellious compassion multiplied will become the greater acts of liberation that defeat fear and fearmongers. Along with the providence of God, it is we, not someone we elect, who will save our nation.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 16, 2020
“Thank God for Nasty Women”
Matthew 15: 21-28 – Common English Bible
From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.
His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”
24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”
25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”
26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”
28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.
Big surprise. A bunch of men annoyed by a woman asserting herself. She’s aggressive. Difficult. Bossy. Jesus, she won’t listen to us. So, you tell her to shut up.
A centuries old tactic. She’s a nasty woman. Too ambitious. Angry. Emotional. How many times have women been told they speak with a shrill voice like an angry school teacher scolding her students? Or, here’s a new one, sounds like Marge Simpson. Called the most meanest, most horrible, most disrespectable woman ever – because she dares take up space in the world.
The fact that this particular gospel story was assigned in the lectionary (readings for every Sunday set back in 1974); the fact that this story was assigned for today is amusing. We’re a few days away from the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution providing angry, nasty, too ambitious white women with the right to vote. It’s an event to rightfully celebrate, as long as we acknowledge that women of color were sold down the river to achieve that right.
It wasn’t until 1947 that all Native Americans could vote.
It wasn’t until 1952 that all people of Asian descent could be granted citizenship, and therefore the right to vote.
And of course, 1965 when all African Americans could vote without literacy tests and poll taxes and other suppression tactics. That is until new suppression tactics could be invented, such as requiring photo IDs.
And it wasn’t until 1975 that so-called language minorities could ask for ballots in their own language, thereby fully enfranchising Spanish speaking citizens and other voters.
It is doubly amusing, or perhaps providential, that the gospel story of the aggressive, difficult, bossy Canaanite woman was assigned for today, given that just a few days ago the first woman of color, a daughter of immigrants, was named a major party vice-presidential candidate. Cue up another round of birtherism. Cue the sexism. Eric Trump tweeted that Kamala Harris was a “whorendous pick,” spelled with a “w,” as in, she’s a whore. It makes nasty sound like a compliment, which of course it actually is.
Bur first, who was this Canaanite woman? In her book African Women in the Bible, LaVerne McCain Gill reminds us that the Canaanite woman is of African descent, and is in a line with other African women in the Bible whose story expands the limits placed on who is included, among others, Hagar and the Queen of Sheba. The Hebrew’s first convert is a Canaanite woman named Rahab. Jesus has a Canaanite great-grandma in his own ancestral line, ten to 20 generations ago… But sometimes we forget where we came from. However, more than forgetting where he came from, Jesus forgot his manners. He compared this nameless Canaanite woman to a dog under the table.
The fact that the disciples were dismissive of the woman is not surprising. Disappointing but not surprising. The fact that Jesus not only ignored, then dismissed, and then degraded the woman is not just disappointing but shocking. This is not what we expect of a Jesus we associate with compassion and kindness.
Some commentators say that Jesus acted this way to shock his disciples. That he intended this to get their attention. It seems kind of cruel to use the woman in such a way.
I agree with others who suggest that the meaning of this text is that even Jesus has bias, and when confronted, can be changed. Jesus can grow in understanding and wisdom. Although, what does that say about those who are dehumanized so he can learn a lesson?
We can start with the labels we use. She wasn’t being aggressive. She was being assertive. She wasn’t being difficult. She just kept asking hard questions. She wasn’t being bossy. She just kept telling the truth. And because of that, she changed the heart of Jesus. She persisted until she converted Jesus to a more broad and inclusive mission, not just to his own people, but to all of humanity.
I guess you could say that there is no better compliment to make about the Canaanite woman than to say, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” As LaVerne Gill said, “persistence is often the only tool of the disenfranchised.” What mother won’t do whatever is necessary for her children? So, she talked back to Jesus, argued with him, and got what she came for – healing for her daughter.
What does this story say to us? First of all, we owe a debt of gratitude to women who acted “unladylike,” who persisted through beatings and brutality, arrests and imprisonment to incrementally expand the rights of all people to participate in civic life. And everyone who is still fighting to keep those rights available to all people.
Secondly, it reminds us that even Jesus must be schooled, face his bias, and change. But that’s good news: even Jesus must be and can be changed when confronted by prejudice. As Steve Garnaas Holmes said, "It was the change that brought forth the miracle."
Lastly, to all the women who have been called aggressive – keep being assertive.
To all the women who have been called bossy – keep on leading.
To all the women who have been called difficult – keep telling the truth.
To all the women who’ve been told they’re “too much” – keep taking up space.
To all the women who’ve been called nasty, angry, and ambitious, thank you! Thank you for being leaders, agents of change to make our world more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate for all of us.
 LaVerne McCain Gill, Daughters of Dignity: African Women in the Bible and the Virtues of Black Motherhood, Pilgrim Press, 2000
 Gospel of Matthew chapter 1
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 9, 2020
“Waiting for Normal or Creating It”
Matthew 14: 22-33 – Common English Bible
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. 33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
The weather started getting rough,
the tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
the Minnow would be lost.
The Minnow would be lost.
With Thaddeus, and Bartholomew
With Matthew, James, and John
and all the rest
Were scared right out of their minds
Our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday suggested that’s how I should begin!
This is one of those “love it or leave it” texts. If the idea of walking on water is implausible, like all the luggage Mr. and Mrs. Howell brought with them for a three hour cruise; if the idea of walking on water is implausible, we may choose to walk away. But this text is so full of things that are plausible, I choose to love it.
I do want to acknowledge the difficulty of texts that involve miracles. I don’t want to offer suggestions that Jesus just walked out on a sandbar, exposed by the blowing wind. The faith of progressive Christians doesn’t depend on denying science. But neither should the faith of progressive Christians depend on denying mysteries that are deeper than we can understand with logic.
There is much to love in this story. And so, I asked our group on Thursday which parts of the text spoke to them. Jon liked how Jesus needed to go away by himself to recharge. Laura liked the question, “Is it really you?” Kat liked how when Peter lost his nerve, he began to sink. That’s real. But Pam noted that while Jesus didn’t prevent Peter from trying, he didn’t let him sink either. Which led Bob to ask, “Will you drown without faith?” While Marlene got to the point. “What’s this got to do with anything today?”
So, among the relatable parts: First, there’s fear in this story and the ever-present message in the Bible of “Don’t be afraid. Be encouraged.” Although, since I can’t swim, telling me not to be afraid while in a boat tossing from side to side seems unlikely. More like absurd, but I appreciate the message, especially in times like these.
Secondly, haven’t you ever been ready to do something and then lost your nerve? Ready, but can’t step forward. Although, in this case, Peter lost his nerve while he was successfully doing it.
And third, there are times when all we can do is cry out, “Help me.” Crying out for help is not a lack of faith. Crying out for help is an act of faith that means we know there is help.
There really are so many things going on in this text that I need to choose one focus that I find relevant today. As Marlene would say, “Get to the point!” And that’s Peter stepping out onto stormy water.
I’m not usually a big fan of Peter, among other things, the one who denied Jesus three times. I can forgive him for that, as Jesus did, and yet this isn’t the only time he’s acted like a show-off searching for attention. Impulsive. Hot-headed at times. But Paul Garret suggested, perhaps he truly just wanted to be near Jesus. I honestly don’t know his motivation. But I do know that, despite what I can only imagine were pleas from the other disciples to not rock the boat, Peter refused to stay in his place. And I like that.
I’ll never forget the sermon we watched together a few weeks ago by Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC. One of the lines that still sticks with me is “stay in your place.” Lynching was a message to African Americans to “stay in your place.” Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by white supremacists because they thought a young Black jogger didn’t belong in that place. Stay in your place, boy. Just like that was the message to Sandra Bland who was pulled over for not using a blinker. Stay in your place, girl. Fire hoses and dogs were used on children so they would learn their place in the world. Like 12-year-old Tamir Rice should have known while playing in a park by himself in Cleveland.
When John Lewis stepped out of place, Alabama State Troopers cracked his skull. Lewis and Annie Lee Cooper and Hosea Williams and Diane Nash and thousands of other nameless women and men stepped out of their place onto a bridge named for a Confederate soldier and Grand Dragon of the KKK to cross over the river used to transport slaves to auction in Montgomery. But don’t forget, the first time they tried, they failed to get across. And that failure became a successful turning point for the nation.
Peter didn’t stay in his place, either. And then he failed. Peter should have known better and stayed in the boat. The storm hadn’t yet calmed. The tiny ship was tossed in a violent storm. That’s not when you get out of a boat, right. Shouldn’t we wait until the time is right? Until the sea is calm? But in the midst of a raging storm, that’s when Peter walked onto stormy waters.
Impulsive, a show off, or whatever… he was doing it. But while he was walking on the water, he became afraid of walking on the water. He was doing it and then doubted whether, or why, he could do it. And that’s when he began to sink. He failed to make it. But, you may say, Jesus saved him. Yes, and Peter still failed to make it to Jesus on his own. But Peter’s failure was not the end of Peter’s story.
The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, "Do not depend on the hope of results. When you’re doing the sort of work you’ve taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if even not result in the opposite of what you expect. But as you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
Merton doesn’t identify what that work is. That’s a good thing because each of us has our own stormy water to walk out onto. Times when we are successful, until we doubt our success and start to sink. Times when we are blessed, and then doubt that we are worthy to be blessed.
It’s kind of hokey but true to say that “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Let’s look at this pandemic through which we are living. I know we all can’t wait for a vaccine. The result? Everything will return to normal and be OK again. It will? Are we waiting for normal, or trying to create it? What about all we are learning each day right now? We’ve been practicing patience. We’ve been learning to let go. We’ve been learning new ways to work and spend time with our families. You don’t want to simply wait for a vaccine, do you? I know that’s not what we’re trying to do as a church.
Some of you heard me share this week about how I felt when our pandemic separation first began. I felt like I’d been thrown in a river full of rapids. As I said, I can’t swim. I struggled to stay above water, grabbing onto one rock after another to avoid being swept down the river before drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I had to be reminded to breathe. Eventually I started to let go and made it to the next rock in the river. And the next. It wasn’t until later I looked back and realized we’re sailing on this river together. Now, if while sailing down the river, if I were to doubt and ask, how can I be sailing down a river, I might begin to sink. But with the Spirit as our guide, we won’t settle for what we’ve always accepted as normal. We will create a more open and inclusive reality.
However, of course, along this “Spirit guided adventure,” is the sobering fact that over 160,000 Americans, tragically, unnecessarily have died; 5 million are infected, and frightful millions more may become infected; doctors and nurses are exhausted caring for people who still think this is a hoax or demand it is a matter of personal privilege to infect others; businesses are closing… This adventure metaphor has serious limits.
And so, with all due respect, I pause to recognize the effects of this dreadful disease and willfully incompetant administration. And stop to thank scientists working around the clock, first responders serving at their own risk every day, grocery clerks and delivery drivers showing up to work. And to pray for children, teachers, parents, bus drivers, food servers, counselors, and administrators trying to make decisions about what is best for themselves and their communities.
Of course, unlike Peter, we’ve been dumped into stormy waters. We didn’t have the same choice, although we still have choices.
Whether to stay in our place or risk creating a better world for ourselves and others.
Whether to wait for calm or become calm.
And whether fear and self-doubt will cause us to fall back toward what we knew, to sit back down, to stay in your place. Or we can take our first water-slogged step toward Jesus to fulfill the command of love and compassion he taught. He’s there to help if we fail. In fact, we will fail. But the miraculous and implausible part of the story is that that’s when we’ll finally break free of what has always held us back.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 2, 2020
“A Wideness in God’s Welcome”
Genesis 32: 22-31 – Common English Bible
Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[c] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel,[d] “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
He’s a liar. He’s a cheat, even cheating members of his own family. He’s a deceiving dirty-tricks-scoundrel willing to stoop lower than anyone could imagine, stealing whatever he wants – especially money and power.
And yet Jacob is a patriarch of our faith, of three religions. He’s a man who demonstrates how unbelievably far God will go to show undeserved grace. There is a wideness of mercy in the One we call the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How do we know? Because Jacob is one of the greatest dirty-trickster scoundrels in the Bible.
Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah and a twin with Esau. It took Rebekah 19 years to get pregnant and then had a difficult pregnancy. Her sons were constantly fighting in the womb and when they emerged, although Esau came first, Jacob was clutching his ankle as though he was trying to hold him back. But because Esau came out a few seconds earlier – he was the first born. Which meant Esau would inherit everything.
They were twins, but Jacob and Esau were nothing alike. Esau was a big brute covered in red hair who loved hunting – and he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. Jacob was smaller, quieter, “the brains” who preferred staying among the tents. Their father Isaac preferred Esau because he hunted for his favorite wild game – venison. On the other hand, Jacob was his mother’s favorite.
Jacob could never get over how a brute like Esau would inherit the family fortune, so he came up with a way to trick Esau out his birthright. One day Esau came home from a long, unsuccessful hunt. He was starving. Jacob just “happened” to be cooking a batch of lentil stew that Esau could smell as he came near. Esau demanded some, but Jacob said not unless Esau swore an oath to give up his birthright. Esau agreed. He reasoned that a birthright would mean nothing if he had starved to death. When he later realized he had been tricked, Esau was enraged, but an oath was an oath. And so, Jacob will inherit the family fortune.
But Jacob wanted more. More important than the birthright, he wanted the power that came from being named the leader of the tribe. That comes in the form of a blessing conferred on a father’s deathbed. Without that blessing, Jacob may have gotten the money, but Esau, as the firstborn, would still have the power.
As Isaac lay on what he thought was his death bed, Esau wanted to make sure he didn’t get tricked out of this one. So, to seal the deal, he told his dad he would go hunting and bring back some venison. Rebekah overheard their conversation and conspired with Jacob to trick Isaac.
Isaac was blind, so while Esau was out on his hunt, Rebekah told Jacob to slaughter a goat and she would cook it to taste like venison. They dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and put goatskin on his hands and neck so Jacob would feel hairy like his brother. Isaac ate the fake venison, felt the hairy goat skin when they embraced, but he was curious that his voice sounded like Jacob’s. He asked if that was really Esau. Jacob lied and said yes. And so, Isaac conferred upon Jacob the irrevocable blessing intended for Esau. Esau returned home and realized he had been tricked again. This time he vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah sent Jacob away to live with her brother Laban.
While living with Uncle Laban, Jacob fell in love with his daughter Rachel – yes, his first cousin, but at the time not forbidden. His uncle agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel if he worked for Laban for seven years. Seven years later, Jacob and his new wife consummated the marriage, but when the bridal veil was lifted the first time, Jacob discovered he had just slept with Rachel’s sister Leah. Enraged, he asked why he had been tricked. In a little comeuppance, Laban said that it would have been wrong for the younger sister to be married before the older. But, if Jacob worked for his uncle for another seven years, he could also marry his beloved Rachel. Jacob did, but in the meantime, he also ran a scheme against his uncle to steal his best sheep. Can you say dysfunctional family?
Jacob and Laban lived with an uneasy peace for another six years. One day, Jacob decided it was time to leave and reunite with his estranged brother Esau – the one he had tricked out of both his birthright and blessing. For whatever reason, he didn’t want to tell Uncle Laban he was leaving, so while Laban was away, Jacob packed everything and everyone up, including Laban’s daughters. When Laban came home, he was angry that Jacob had simply left, but he was even more upset when he realized Jacob had stolen all the household gods. When Laban caught up with the traveling band, he demanded his idols back, but beloved Rachel sat on them to hide them and proclaimed it was her time of the month so they couldn’t touch her. I guess that a family that steals together stays together.
Jacob and Laban made a sort of peace with each other at a spot known as Mizpah: “May Yahweh keep watch between you and me while we are away from each other.” You may be familiar with this “Mizpah blessing,” but it’s kind of funny because it’s really a warning. “I can’t keep my eye on you, but God will know what you’re up to!” Uncle Laban went back home, without his idols. Or his best sheep.
So, all that drama aside, Jacob now focused on getting into his brother’s good graces. Jacob hoped he could pacify Esau with a grand gesture and sent him hundreds of sheep and goats and huge herds of cattle and camels. And a message seeking reconciliation. Esau responded back through a messenger that he was sending 400 men to greet him. But Jacob panicked, thinking that meant Esau was sending an army of 400 against him. That night Jacob sent everyone else across the river and he stayed back alone. And, as the story goes, Jacob wrestled all night long.
Got the picture? It was that night, after everything that had happened in his life, ready to finally face his brother, Jacob was alone. And a man came and wrestled with him all night long. A man or perhaps an angel or a demon. Or, I wonder, perhaps his conscience. This lying, cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel was about to reunite with the brother. I wouldn’t be able to sleep either.
But the story doesn’t say he wrestled in a dream. For Jacob it was all very real. So real that he limped away from the encounter with a torn thigh muscle, or as some translations say, his hip deliberately jammed out of socket. At daybreak, Jacob wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. He demanded a blessing. And in the end was given a new name.
I’ve always liked this story as a metaphor. I can relate with wrestling in the night – perhaps a question of faith, perhaps a struggle before having to make a big decision. Or perhaps a question of conscience and how to make things right. Have you ever wrestled with questions like that in the night?
Lately, a lot of us have had difficulty sleeping. That’s why I now watch re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore as the last thing I see before going to bed instead of Rachel Maddow. That’s why I try to avoid “doom scrolling” before bed. Doom scrolling is checking the news feed on our phone to see what new outrageous thing has been done to destroy democracy. But that just leaves me rolling around the bed, tossing and turning, angry and wrestling with the question – what can we possibly do? How much worse it is going to get? Feeling helpless and hopeless is not a good way to fall asleep.
It would make sense that Jacob wrestled all night worrying about how Esau would greet him. But to his amazement, Esau came running to greet Jacob with affection and invited him to settle down on the same land with Esau’s clan. He welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms.
In the past I’ve always thought that the man wrestling with Jacob in the night was a representation of our struggle with faith. Or as I said, questions of conscience, priorities, decisions… And that’s one way to look at it. However, I hadn’t previously paid attention to Esau’s response. Something about that spoke to me. And so, as I wrestled with the text this time, I thought of parallels with the story of the prodigal son. Remember, in the end, the father of the prodigal son didn’t focus on what his son had done wrong. Instead, he welcomed him home with open arms. That upset his older son. But the father asked, should I be more upset for what was done or grateful that he is back? The one I once thought was dead is alive.
It’s a wideness of mercy, like Esau. Like God. A God of undeserved grace. A God who despite all the worst we have done comes running out to greet us with affection and invites us to settle down together. But of course, that brings up its own set of questions. What about accountability? What about the need for justice before reconciliation?
And that’s what I’m wrestling with today. As our nation descends further into dystopia, I keep coming back to the question of how and what we are going to do to start healing our country, whether six months from now or, God-forbid, after four more years. Esau welcomed his cheating, dirty-tricks scoundrel of a twin brother with open arms. Of course, I also have to remember that Esau had a couple of decades to think about their reunion before seeing Jacob again. It may take us 20 years to even explain the era in which we are living, let alone heal from it. And yet it is our hopes and dreams for healing and reconciliation that will help us move forward. I don’t want to forever live with a grudge or a chip on my shoulder.
When all is said and done, what will be more important? Focusing on what was done wrong or what we can build right together? I am not talking about accepting abuse – to forgive the abuser. I’m not suggesting we tell victims of white supremacy and violence against women and transphobia and asylum seekers, “Let’s all just get along.” Give up your demands for justice so we can have some peace. No.
And I’m not suggesting we ignore the actions of governors whose fealty to the president is enabling waves of infections and needless deaths. And those who are demanding that children be packed into schools, to see if it will work out OK. Just like they ripped children from their mother’s arms and packed them into cages. I’m not suggesting we disregard the actions of cabinet secretaries wantonly dismantling every regulation that protects our water and reduces pollution in the air. Half of the dirty tricks scoundrels in the administration should be put in jail to be held accountable for their enabling of a man only interested in amassing more money and power for himself. But then what?
There is a national reckoning to come. But in the meantime, what about our neighbor? What about my cousin whose Facebook posts get under my skin so much I have a hard time sleeping… should I forever hold that against him or should I hope for and be ready and grateful for the day when we can greet one another again as family.
And what about the consequences of my own bad behavior? The anger and hatred I’ve held in my heart? Will that forever be held against me? Will we be forgiven for our participation in incivility?
But as an old hymn says,
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There's a kindness in God's justice,
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind.
At the end of our dystopian nightmare, I pray to be more grateful for our reunion than stuck on the reason we were divided.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 19, 2020
“We Need Each Other”
Matthew 13: 24-30 – New Revised Standard Version
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. 25 While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’
28 “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.
“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’
29 “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”
Never read the comments, right? Never read a news story and then say, “I wonder what people are saying about this.” Not unless you’re prepared to be severely disappointed by the utter lack of impulse control and civility by our neighbors. On Thursday, I read an article about the Colorado governor mandating the wearing of face coverings in public, joined that day by the governor of Arkansas and the day before by the governor of Alabama. Twenty plus states and growing. Among the comments, the majority agreed. Combined with social distancing, wearing a mask in public is the best way to slow the spread of Covid 19.
There was a cartoon this week depicting God speaking to a human from the clouds. “I have something for you that will greatly prevent Covid 19.” The human looks up excitedly. “What is it? A vaccine? A miracle cure? A gift from heaven?” In the next panel, you can see God’s hand reaching through the clouds holding a mask.
So, again, most comments expressed appreciation for the governor’s order. There was a smattering of objections to personal liberty, which, I’ll be honest with you, I just don’t understand. And to be even more honest with you, I don’t want to understand. Just wear the damn mask.
But there was one comment that really stuck out. “Let the anti-maskers get Covid and die.” Wow. Someone actually wrote that in a public forum. That’s how far civil discourse has fallen, that someone would feel it acceptable to say such a thing in public. Someone who advocates the wearing of masks to save lives, someone on “my side,” just suggested letting people die so they can learn a lesson.
But I don’t think he or she is alone, not literally wishing death, but kind of like a parable. Which made the parable of the wheat and the weeds a little more relevant for today.
Jesus told a parable to the crowds who gathered around:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who planted good seed in their field.” Last week he told a parable about a farmer who just threw seed everywhere, carelessly letting some fall on the road, some on rocky ground, some that got choked out by weeds, and some on good soil. Today’s parable sounds more reasonable, like someone who carefully prepared the ground and chose just the right seed to plant a beautiful crop. Except it had become spoiled by weeds.
The 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel is full of stories about farming and fishing. Jesus takes parables right out of the personal experiences of the crowds. For example, everyone could visualize a beautiful field of wheat with a bunch of weeds mixed in. Or, in our own experience, we might think of weeds in a carefully kept garden, or weeds that spring up in the middle of a perfectly manicured lawn. What should you do? Perhaps you know from personal experience that if you pull out the weeds, you might also pull out the very thing you’re trying to grow. It’s a dilemma understood by many of us. What should you do?
Jesus said, let them all grow together. And then, when you go to harvest, collect the weeds into bundles to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. The image of burning here is not necessarily judgment. People did in fact gather bundles of weeds to build fires to keep themselves warm at night.
But imagine the headline the next day. “Preacher advocates growing weeds.” And imagine the comments. Some might say, “He’s just one of those itinerant nut-balls.” Others might say, “That’s a prudent idea.” And one might add, “Let the preacher’s family starve to death while they try to eat weeds for dinner.”
What should we do? Jesus said, don’t pull out the weeds because you will pull out the wheat too. Be patient and let it be sorted out in the end. But lest we begin to analyze the literal wisdom of letting wheat and weeds grow together, we have to remember that this is a parable. And parables are supposed to make us think, not tell us what to do. And as soon as we are certain what a parable means, we’ve likely lost the meaning. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of the parable, we’re probably getting closer to the heart of its meanings.
There’s a detail I don’t like to mention in this parable. Jesus didn’t just describe a field of wheat mixed with weeds. He said, “an enemy deliberately planted the weeds.” So, clearly this isn’t just a literal story. And the parable just got uncomfortable. “An enemy did this to you.”
We’re not comfortable with talk of enemies in polite civil circles. Or people who do. But in the later explanation of the parable it gets worse. “The good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” And with the end of the harvest comes “weeping and gnashing of teeth in the furnace of fire. While the righteous will shine like the sun.” Uncomfortable yet?
Notably, no other gospel includes this parable. And let me add that, like last week, scholars’ debate whether Jesus said that last part. It’s likely that this “explanation” was added later when Matthew was written, around 50 years after the death of Jesus. The early church was not quite as harmonious anymore. They were divided and struggling, feeling like some in their community were like weeds – we should get rid of them. With division often comes comparisons of us and them, pure and impure, good and evil. Note, this isn’t a conversation about the Roman Empire and Israel. This is about people sitting in the next pew.
Whether Jesus said it or not, we can relate. People just down the street, or the next town over. People with whom we have kids in the same school. We're living in a world of us/them. Public health vs. personal liberty. A partisan pandemic. We live in a world where the president labels people good and evil. And he won’t even pretend that he wants to bring people together. And therefore, a lot of “us” can’t wait for “them” to be out of power. And face some harsh consequences. And vice versa. There’s little love lost on either side – and I hate to even talk about being on sides. What is a community that’s supposed to be built on love supposed to do?
Well, Jesus said, “Let the wheat and weeds grow together.” That’s good news. That’s really good news because it is just as likely that I am a noxious, invasive weed as it is a beautiful blade of wheat. And we are all a mixture of weed and wheat. Of light and shadow. The truth is we are all weed and wheat. Good and evil coexist, though it’s almost always easier for us to recognize the evil in others than it is to see it in ourselves. Even Paul agonized, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do.” No one is all good and no one is all bad. Bryan Stevenson said of men and women on death row, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a beautiful recreation of this parable: “One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed one of her fields. No sooner had they begun, however, than they began to argue about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds. And what real threat could Queen Anne’s lace pose to wheat. Can’t it stay as decoration? And the honeysuckle smelled so sweet, it would be a shame to pull it out. And the blackberries. They’ll be ripe in a few weeks. Can’t we let them stay? But in a field of wheat, they might as well be weeds.
Just then the owner showed up and ordered them out of the field. It looked like a mess, a discredit to them and their profession. She took away their machetes and told them to sit down and watch the sun’s light pass over the field. They marveled at the profusion of colors. The brown-eyed Susans mixed in with milkweed and Cherokee roses and tall goldenrod. All mixed in with the amber waves of grain.
At the end of the summer, the reapers came and carefully, expertly, gathered the wheat and turned the rest of the “harvest” into bricks to build an oven and kindling for fire to bake that wheat into bread. At the end of the harvest, the neighbors were all invited for a banquet. As the farmer broke bread with them, that gathering became the final distillation of that whole messy, gorgeous field of wheat and weeds. Everyone agreed, nothing had ever tasted so good before.” Isn’t that a great story!?
The kingdom of heaven is like a field of wheat and weeds. What should we do? Let them grow together because somehow God is able to miraculously take this mess we have made of things and bring forth from it both excellent flour and excellent fire to produce life-giving bread. Let them grow together because in Ephesians we are told, “God’s power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Let them be and let God sort it out.
I’ll admit, however, that today’s parable leaves me with lots of unanswered questions, like shouldn’t we be ripping out white supremacy from the root? Racism is a toxic weed that if not removed will choke the life of everything else out. Shouldn’t we be uprooting the fear of immigrants and instead be planting a garden of welcome and love? And Jesus, what do you mean about an enemy planting the weeds deliberately?
But, for today anyway, the parable makes me think that every time I’m tempted to say, “I hope they get what they deserve,” I should remember: we need each other, because to remove others is to remove ourselves.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew
 Image from Jan Van Pelt
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 12, 2020
“Park Hill 2.0: From Curious to Committed”
The passage is Matthew 13: 24-30, which is read at the end
Our passage today begins, Jesus left the house to go sit on a beach. Haven’t you ever been at a party or a family gathering, maybe on Thanksgiving, when you needed to get away from a talkative uncle or just get some fresh air? Jesus wanted, needed some space so he went to the beach. But no sooner had he sat down and felt a cooling breeze on his face than crowds pressed in on him. So many, in fact, that he might have been tempted to escape back into the house. But, as we might expect of Jesus, instead he met the crowd in their need.
He got into a boat and pushed offshore so he could speak to them. He pointed to a farmer planting seeds. “See that guy over there?” That’s often how he taught. He’d see something and point, see that woman over there. See those sheep? And tell a parable. To those of us who want answers, instead of giving definitions, Jesus gave parables. For example, see that shepherd over there. That’s what God is like.
Not quite a riddle nor a satisfactory explanation, parables give you enough wiggle room to never quite know if we’ve gotten it exactly right. C.H. Dodd said parables are stories that tease our mind into thinking without us ever knowing it. Clearly, God is not a literal shepherd, so what do you mean?
So, from a boat that day he told them this parable: There once was a farmer who just threw seeds everywhere. He didn’t carefully cultivate just the right patch of earth, prepare the ground, measure out the seeds to go into perfect rows. He just threw them. As the crowd listened, everyone would have laughed and thought that was ridiculous, but their curiosity would certainly have been piqued.
Jesus told them, the sower threw the seeds so carelessly that some fell on the road, where excited birds ate a wonderful snack. Can’t you just see happy pigeons gorging on cast off bread? Not such a great way to grow the wheat that makes that bread.
Some of the seed fell onto rocky ground without enough dirt to develop roots. They began to grow but can’t you just imagine what happens to poor little shoots in heat of the Colorado sun in July. They tried but they were fried.
Some of the seed fell in a patch of weeds, and we all know what happens to seeds we want to live. Surrounded by weeds, they often can’t survive. And if they do, their root systems may get so intertwined, if you pull the weed out, you’ll likely kill the thing you’re trying to grow. In fact, Jesus tells a parable about exactly that next week.
And finally, finally after all that waste, some of the seed fell on good earth. And it produced a harvest beyond the farmer’s wildest dreams.
That’s it. He said, “If you have ears, listen.” And then he got out of the boat and walked away.
The story leaves us with lots of questions. Why was the farmer so wasteful? Who was that farmer? We might ask, who are we in the story? Are we called to be wasteful farmers? Or maybe the point of the story is that at various times we’re all different kinds of soil. Some days nothing seems to sink in through our hard heads or rough exterior. Or are we seeds? After all, some days I feel picked on like birds pecking at me. And some days I feel fried. Or I get tangled up in weeds. And, of course, I have some good, productive days too. What are we supposed to do with this parable? Jesus walked away for the crowd to wrestle with their own questions.
The disciples came to Jesus later and asked him to explain what he meant. Some commentators suggest that second part never happened. That Matthew or an editor felt the need to end it with a more satisfactory explanation. Either way, nothing more is said about going back to the crowd to offer them clarity.
But I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is actually found in our curiosity. The good news is found in statements like “I wonder…” “I wonder if…” More than answers and explanations, the blessing of the gospel is questions like “why” and “who, me!?” Parables are meant to raise lots of questions and especially to question lots of assumptions.
For example, questions we never thought to ask before the pandemic. We may get stuck asking questions like “When can we meet back in person again?” But the pandemic offers us the opportunity to ask bigger questions, like: What if. And who, me? What is church to you if your church that doesn’t meet in person? Or what if you’re attending a church where you’ve never met anyone? What does it mean to belong? Why do we do what we’ve always done? And once we come back, should we go back to what we’ve always done?
The vision we call Park Hill 2.0 grew out of our pandemic experience of separation. Brian McClaren says, change often only begins with pain. We quickly took everything online and some surprising things happened. Right away we noticed that people who don’t live in Denver joined us for worship – in fact, to this day, around 20% of our congregation every Sunday doesn’t live in Denver. Or they live in Metro Denver but have never set foot in our building. Clearly, even in Denver, our front door is not for people passing by on 26th and Leyden anymore but on the worldwide web.
In addition to worship, we moved all our existing groups online and started a new Touchbase Tuesday to ease some of our separation. It gave us a chance to see familiar faces and share stories and laugh. It felt so good. One Tuesday, Jack and Ellen joined us from Connecticut. And then Tammy from Texas. And John from his cabin near Salida. A nice side benefit of our separation was that we could see people we knew who moved away. And Chris and John and Larry and others could keep participating from their homes in the mountains.
But then there were others, like Patti and Ann in South Carolina, who had no prior connections to Park Hill. They were in worship every week and then joined us for our Maundy Thursday service. Many, many years ago I was their pastor in Cleveland. Living now in a very red state, the nearest progressive church is two hours away, so they said they’re grateful to have Park Hill, like a lifeline, accessible to them – whether in person or not.
Accessibility is a big thing for others too, although in a different way. Kathy and Mike live near Roxborough State Park and Tom and Laura live in Brighton. Those are really long commutes. They look forward to continued online access especially when the weather turns bad this winter. Lindsay and Shaun like this option since their toddler always seems to want to nap at 10 am. Online worship any time of the day and any day of the week is a welcome convenience for some people.
But for others, it’s much more than that. One couple lives in eastern New Mexico, “think west Texas,” she said. They belong to a church of very nice people, but, she said, their church is silent about important things in our world, in our country, in our government. And, she said, “your church seems unafraid to meet issues head on. So, during such turbulent times, your church is a safe refuge for us.” It’s not that we would want to take them away from their home church, but how wonderful that we can support and encourage their faith where they are. Just like for Chris in Louisiana, Bette in Texas, and Berneda in Iowa.
And that’s an important distinction. We don’t want to take people away from where they may belong but if we can partner together for a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate, what a blessing for us all. Yet for others, this can be a place to belong, especially LGBTQ people, with few places to belong.
Park Hill 2.0 started out as a desire not to leave anyone behind when we return to worship in person. We didn’t fully realize what it meant, what a sacred calling it is, to be a lifeline or a safe refuge for lonely progressive Christians. Bottom line: This means investing in good quality equipment for livestreaming in the sanctuary – video, sound… and people capable of running it.
But church is more than coming to worship on Sundays – whether in person or online. So we want people watching or observing to fully participate in faith development and community life. And so, Park Hill 2.0 envisions ongoing gatherings and studies online, each of us now in our homes, but eventually capable of including groups both in the church and anywhere people live. This further benefits people who don’t wish to go out for health or mobility reasons or driving across Denver in rush hour is so aggravating, it prevents participation in weekday activities. So for now, both Inez ten blocks away and Sally in Steamboat Streams can keep participating in our book group’s study of How to Be an Antiracist. And in the future, with some folks gathered in person at the church. Or leadership meetings, or Sunday School… Bottom line: This means investing in video conferencing equipment.
But what comes next? We have developed a strategy for Park Hill 2.0 that envisions a path for someone who is curious, who observes us online, to become a participant in some group or gathering, like Susan and Carole, have. They participants who have never been in the church. From observer to participant and then to become a supporter of ministry through prayer or giving and to become a fully committed partner in ministry, perhaps even serving in leadership. A path from curious to committed – the same for someone who worships with us in person, but previously more assumed than articulated. The pandemic has taught us to put more time and attention into each stage and offering meaningful experiences that help each of us grow in our faith and for our faith community to grow. And, as we began last fall, to nurture growing relationships, just as we learned in our relational campaign.
We’ve greatly increased our social media ministry to invite people to observe. Now to invite greater participation, I’m excited to announce some new programming we’ve developed for exactly that purpose. In addition to our ongoing groups, in two weeks, we’re going to add a weekly evening option – a course called “Gratitude During Difficult Times” for six weeks on Tuesdays at 6 pm Mountain which I will co-lead with Lori Fell who lives in Pittsburgh, for whom it will be 8 pm. And in the fall Terri will begin an evening group called “P-Squared: People and Prayer.” Again at 6 pm here so people across all the time zones can reasonably participate – one of the things we have to think about going forward.
The possibilities are endless. In fact, they may be overwhelming! On Thursday, people at Lunch and Lectionary, which has more than doubled during the pandemic, talked about healing our country’s urban/rural divide and perhaps partnering with a church somewhere for dialogue on Zoom. That prompted me to reach out to a pastor friend at a Black UCC in Virginia and we’re exploring a joint Bible study. We could invite an author, like we did with John Pavlovitz, over Zoom, saving the cost and carbon of a flight. In fact, so many things are possible, we have to remember to be strategic and call upon our mission – not to do everything but to ask, how does this help us build a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate?
Although, on the other hand, Jesus did tell that parable about throwing seed wherever it might fall. Surely we don’t want to limit God’s grace from leading us places we wouldn’t have expected. I’m not sure Jesus wants us to be wasteful, but perhaps not so cautious that we don’t try new things, which would be a terrible waste of this opportunity the pandemic handed to us.
In many ways, the vision of Park Hill 2.0 isn’t that exceptional or ground-breaking. It just embraces methods that increase our reach and widens our welcome. Sadly, however, it is exceptional in that others aren’t, or haven’t yet, embraced or articulated a vision like this. And that’s why one of our online worshipers in Arizona has donated $10,000 for our efforts. She heard our vision for Park Hill 2.0 during worship on Pentecost and said, “I want to invest!” She was excited and frustrated that her own church doesn’t have this kind of vision. She doesn’t want her own pastor to know about her gift, but she does want you to know and invites you to join her and make that kind of investment in Park Hill 2.0 as well.
There’s so much more I could say, but like Jesus, I’m going to step away leaving you with more questions than answers. At 11:30 we’re going to break into small groups, break out rooms on Zoom, so we can discuss what this means to you. While there is so much that remains unknown in our world right now, these things seem certain: we value relationships, we value growing in our faith, we value worship, and we seek a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. And if you value that too, be more than curious, commit to joining us.
And now for the parable from Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23, The Message
At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.
3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
9 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
“Study this story of the farmer planting seed. When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it just remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. This is the seed the farmer scatters on the road.
20-21 “The seed cast in the gravel—this is the person who hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm. But there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.
22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.
23 “The seed cast on good earth is the person who hears and takes in the News, and then produces a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.”
I love being the