A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on May 28, 2017
Ascension Sunday and Memorial Day
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Scripture: John 17: 1-11
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Please won’t you pray with me.
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?"
The man says, "Methodist."
St. Peter looks down his list and says, "Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. "Religion?"
"Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
A third man arrives at the gates. "Religion?"
"Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
The man says, "I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?"
St. Peter tells him, "Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."
“In my father’s house, there are many rooms,” Jesus says in the gospel of John. This is a multi-denominational church that looks a lot like the many rooms of the Father’s house. So I am just going to take a little informal poll this morning, just to get an idea who is here.
Who here in this room considers themselves to be a Unitarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers themselves a Trinitarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers oneself a not sure or a don’t care-itarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers oneself a religious Liberal? A religious conservative? A little bit of both?
Who considers oneself a member of the UUA? The UCC? The ABC? Another denomination? None of the above?
Who here considers oneself to be a theist? An atheist? An agnostic? A questioning believer? Who thinks it depends on the day?
Who here is visiting for the first time or one of a handful of times and finds this poll weird and uncomfortable?
Who here considers yourselves just a member or friend of the First Church in Sterling, no other category needed?
Who here believes in the power of Love to transform each other and the world?
Look around on that last one. Who here thinks that last question is the one that matters the most?
What unifies us is far more important than what divides us. And what unifies us is Love, which is another name for God.
We are this quirky multi-denominational church, a product of a 1949 merger of the three Sterling Protestant churches during World War II. We agreed to worship together when we merged, and still remain in separate societies. One of the reasons why we are able to hold together this beautiful theological and ideological diversity is because of this history. We are associated formally now with two denominations: the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. We are less formally associated with the American Baptist Church. We even have three separate annual meetings. This makes us special and strange.
We also do this funny thing and ask our newest members and our confirmands to choose a denomination when they join the church. So, after telling them about what we unify around, and what we do together for the community and the world, we tell our newest members to choose a sub group within our church that they most identify with. We ask them to say whether or not they are UU, UCC or “interdenominational”, (which essentially means none of the above). We used to ask them if they were Baptist, too, but we dissolved our formal relationship with the American Baptists in 2011 as our Baptists dwindled to fewer and fewer. We do still have some Baptists. (Be quiet when you pass them, they think they are the only ones here.)
Truthfully, this practice of asking people to choose a denomination upsets many of our newest people. They are like, “choose a denomination? What? I just want to join this church.” I have even had people who decided not to join once they found out they had to get specific in this way…it felt to them like an identity shift that they needed to think harder about, or that joining a denomination would make them no longer who they used to be. They knew they belonged at First Church, but they weren’t sure they could further define themselves without giving something up.
If anything, it is deeply confusing.
The fact that we are the product of three churches coming together is what makes us such a beautiful, flexible, diverse, community. It is why we are who we are. It’s what makes us a model for what the world should be like.
But what ultimately matters in the end is not our differences…what ultimately matters is that we UNITE for the worship of God, and the service of humankind.
Here is what I told the confirmands, perhaps a little too forcefully, and I want you to remember it, too.
“There are purportedly something like 21,000 denominations of Christianity in the world. A denomination is not a religion. Christianity is a religion. A denomination is a group of churches that have a particular way to organize themselves and worship God. The differences between the denominations of Christianity can be so minute in some cases that you wouldn’t even notice if you were in a United Methodist Church or a Presbyterian church. And God doesn’t care which one you choose, or which way you worship. God did not create denominations, people did.
Our denominations give us tools that we are lucky to have: they have buildings with offices that provide us with health insurance and job search help and clergy credentialing and some useful programming for religious education and social justice work. They give us coalitions of people to work with to make the world a better place.
They also distract us from our unity in the Body of Christ.
Denominations fight with themselves and each other over stuff we think must be really important like when to baptize babies and adults, and whether to eat unleavened or leavened bread at communion, the validity of high church worship vs. low church worship. They fight over who to let in, and who to keep out. They see themselves as the final arbiter of small things that seem identity-deep to us but are really just ways of separating us into categories. Religions act similarly, and they were also not created by God. Religions were created by people.
We need to organize groups of humans into groups of humans for our own tribalistic tendencies. But please remember that's a human desire, not a Godly one. Separation from one another is not God's dream for us. Fighting over the particulars of personal faith and trying to make those particulars universal is a distraction. The only thing that is identity-deep is our status as children of God.
I just want you to remember that, First Church in Sterling. The only thing that is identity-deep is our status as children of God. It seems more important than ever that we remember that.
I mean, there were 22 children and teenagers killed this week at an Ariana Grande concert in the UK, in the name of religion. There were 2 people stabbed and killed on a train in Portland, OR for defending a Muslim woman who was getting harassed by a white supremacist—in the name of religion. There are wars being fought all over the world, in the name of some perverted sense of religion.
None of this killing is done in the name of God.
God’s name is Love.
This is the last day of the Easter season, the Sunday before Pentecost. It is often called “ascencion Sunday”…the day in which Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father in Room 8 with the Baptists. Just kidding.
It is significant, though, to remember that this is the day Jesus officially leaves us alone to fend for ourselves down here, leaving us with the tools we need, if only we would remember what they are. This is the day we are supposed to remember who we are, so that we can continue Jesus’ work where he left off: the creation of heaven here on earth.
In our scripture we heard today, Jesus prays before his arrest. Jesus doesn’t pray very often in scripture. He prays with his actions, not his words: by healing, by feeding, by loving. So when Jesus prays with words, we sit up and take notice. In fact, we take it so seriously the few times that he prays in scripture that we pray his prayer every Sunday: the Lord’s prayer. Essentially, the scripture we heard today is the Gospel of John’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
So, in this prayer, Jesus is praying for his disciples. It is notable that Jesus is not praying by himself somewhere hidden away while the disciples nap. He is at table after a meal, with them. His friends can over-hear what he prays for them. Those of us who have been prayed for know how tender and intimate that experience is.
Jesus prays that his friends might have eternal life. It’s not often that we get a straight forward definition of eternal life in scripture either, but here it is according to Jesus: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).
Jesus says that all it takes to have eternal life is for us to KNOW GOD. Another time in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the lawyer asks what he has to do to receive eternal life, Jesus answers “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
All it takes to have eternal life is for us to KNOW LOVE, Jesus says. To know God is to know love. To Love God is to love one another.
Then Jesus prays for our protection. He prays that our protection come from our unity with each other and with God. He says: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So that they may be one.
I try to imagine what Jesus would pray for us if we could over-hear him now:
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
So why do they keep messing everything up?
I love them, but the humans aren’t listening again.
They have forgotten the most important teachings: Remember. Do not be afraid. Love one another. I swear to you, I littered this book with those words.
Don’t you think now might be a good time for me to go back down there?
You gave the humans this beautiful earth full of water and plants and animals for them to eat. You gave them companions for the journey, and hearts that love.
And they have made a disaster of it, all in the name of power, and collecting stuff, and getting more. How are they supposed to protect each other, when they cannot protect the earth that gives them life?
They are so sure they know the one true way to worship you, to know you, that they have created thousands and thousands of religions, 21, 000 denominations of Christianity alone, and far more than 21,000 ways to separate themselves from one another.
They have committed the sin of believing themselves to be right.
They have separated themselves into countries, and races, and genders and flags and languages and cultures.
They have forgotten that in you, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no slave nor free, for all are one. They have separated themselves into categories instead of uniting to protect one another.
In fact, instead of protecting one another, they keep killing each other, thinking that you would want them to defend you in this way. As if you need defending! You’re the one true God! I think you can defend yourself!
Meanwhile, there are toddlers drowning in the ocean, because their parents are trying to flee to countries on rafts where their children have the chance of survival.
The humans seem to believe that there is such thing as “other people’s children.” They have forgotten that we belong to each other.
I am no longer in the world. I left it in their hands. I’m not sure that was such a good idea after all.
And so, Holy Father, I pray that they remember me before it’s too late. I pray they remember my teachings: to love without limits, to heal without health insurance, to welcome the stranger, to visit the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to sacrifice, to lay down their lives for their friends, to teach this Gospel everywhere they go—if necessary, to use words.
I pray that these people, your children, know Love, that their works remain long upon this earth.
Beloved, it doesn’t matter what denomination you affiliate with or don’t affiliate with, whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, whether you are black or white, gay or straight, male or female, Muslim or Jew. What matters is that we believe in the power of Love to transform the world. Protect one another. So that all may be one.
A Homily by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on May 21, 2017, Confirmation Sunday
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen/heard. Watch this one here.
This week was one of those very full, very sad, very joyful, very beautiful weeks in the life of the church.
On Wednesday night we taught some of our oldest and most vulnerable congregants about the fraud we are all capable of falling prey to. We ate dinner together. We laughed at funny skits. We prayed together, and sang.
Then I went to the calling hours at Miles Funeral Home for Sue Quinn at 9:00 pm, because earlier the line was 3 hours long and approximately one million people were there. I saw half of our congregation still there waiting when I arrived.
Thursday I went to the one hundredth birthday party of one of our beloved congregants, Ken Day, at the Sterling Senior Center. Ken, almost every time I see him, says "can you believe how lucky I am? People like you keep me alive." The truth is, he keeps us alive. His eyes twinkle, and he's in better shape than all of us. He still drives his car around town. He even frequently posts on Facebook! So next time people tell you that social media is only for young people, please remind them that we have 100 year olds on Facebook.
On Thursday afternoon, we laid beautiful Sue Quinn to rest in a service of memory and hope. She was just 50 years old, and there were approximately one million people squeezed into this, the hottest sanctuary in America, fanning themselves with programs and trying to sing through tears. She was the kind of person who collected people because she asked them questions and really listened to the answers. And she was a beloved member of this church. She taught Sunday school and served on the preschool board and raised her children here.
She died of a terrible wretched disease that makes me angry with God because there is no one else to be angry with. But she wasn't angry. She was tough and peaceful and still funny at the end.
She so desperately didn't want to leave her teenaged kids and her adoring and adorable husband. Why she had to makes no goodly or Godly sense to me, I’m just being honest. She didn’t believe in a God who willed her to suffer and die for a reason, so we will never invoke that God in her name. She believed in a God who shows up in people, and in Love, and in the midst of suffering, so it is absolutely no surprise to me how much she loved this place. She was the first person from this generation of parents of teenagers in this church to die, I think, and so all of that crowd was at the reception at Chocksett Inn afterward, crying and hugging, trying to imagine what it must feel like to say goodbye to their children and spouses, loving and supporting one another through the horror.
And then, last night, we raised like one million dollars for the church and its ministries at a celebratory Treasures of the Community auction, put on by volunteers who worked every day for a full year to make this happen.
This morning, we confirm our 10th graders in the love of God, and welcome them into the Church.
Confirmands, you may want to know why I want you to hear all of this. I want you to know that the work and life of the church matters. Going to church matters. Being the church matters. It matters more than virtually anything else that you will ever do. It matters more than your grades. It matters more than soccer games. It matters more than getting asked to the prom. It matters more than the degree you get, the college you go to, the job you get, the stuff you acquire. I’m not saying this because I’m a minister. I’m telling you this because Church contains the full catastrophe; the full beauty; the full reality of life. It will change, transform and orders yours’, if you let it.
I want to tell you this today because too many people treat confirmation like a graduation ceremony. Like after this, “I’m done! I don’t have to go to church again ‘til I get married. Woo hoo! Where’s my diploma?”
Well, kids, this is the opposite of a graduation. This is your welcome into the church. This is the day you make a deeper commitment to the church. This is the day you say, “yes! I will show up…to all of it. From the baby baptisms to the funerals, the turkey suppers to the worship services.” This is your day to remove your bib and put on your apron. This is the day you become a host for those who are hungry for what we have here, which is nothing less than extravagant love. This church needs you. Our hurting world needs you.
You may think that this place, if you’re being honest, is a little boring, or irrelevant. You are wrong. Places like this save lives and mend hearts. So don’t leave. If you leave, don’t leave for long. If you move, find a place like it. Not because your parents want you to. Find a place like this wherever you go for the sake of your own survival. And not the survival of your mortal soul. Please. A God that would send you to some firey pit to suffer because you don’t worship the right way is no God I would worship.
Stay because there are very few places that will move you to awe despite your anger, confusion and depression over the state of the world and God's seeming refusal to fix it. Stay, not because of the strange words we use, or the songs we sing, or the funny rituals we take part in, but because of the people who show up. These will be the people you can count on to show you what God’s face looks like. These will be the people who will show up with casseroles and cards and macabre humor when you need reminders that you will survive because they did, too. They will wipe your tears. They will celebrate your marriage and your babies. They will be there when there’s an illness or an addiction or a divorce and a death. They will offer forgiveness. They will keep you alive.
So, beloved confirmands, welcome to the church. Now show up. Keep other people alive. And when the going gets hard, don’t leave. You’ll miss too much of what life and love and God are all about. You’ll miss being part of the Love Revolution.
May it be so, and amen.
Susan Westwood Seed Quinn:
Words for a Service of Memory and Hope
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
May 18, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Good afternoon, beloved.
I just want to begin by saying thank you. As Sue’s pastor, I am privileged to know about the many ways in which this community of love showed up for Sue in the past two years. There were so many prayers, healing services planned, cards, meals, parties, welcome home signs, books of messages, visits, flowers, letters, gifts, about 1 million people gathering last night at Miles Funeral Home….so much love.
I believe it was Ram Das who said that we are all just walking each other home. Thank you for all the ways you helped to walk Sue home.
Welcome to First Church in Sterling, which is made sacred in this season of loss with the spirit of love and friendship that you bring as you gather to remember Sue Quinn.
Welcome to Sue’s beloved church home, where she taught Sunday School and served on the preschool board, and infused these hallowed walls with her love. She is now among the saints in light.
You come together as family, friends, neighbors—co-creators of a community that includes those present and also family and friends who could not be here today, but who are with us in spirit.
We come together that we may honor Sue in our hearts, and hold her dear in our memory. This task of remembering is particularly poignant for us because Sue, phenomenal woman—wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, kind friend, speech pathologist, consummate hostess, life of the party—created so many beautiful memories for her friends and especially for her family. And she died too young, with so much love left to give the world.
So today we must remember for her; on behalf of her; to honor her.
Ecclesiastes says that:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;…
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance;…
Today we must grieve Sue’s death. But this service must also be a celebration of Sue, and her remarkable life.
This is still the season of Easter in the Christian Church. Giles Frasier says: “The resurrection is not an argument, still less a philosophical argument. That’s why rational skepticism about the empty tomb just bounces off the surface….Resurrection is who we are – our word for how we go on in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian term for defiance…This Easter rising is not just some fancy intellectual idea, it’s a form of praxis.”
We need that defiance now, as we seek to go on in the face of the overwhelming, impossible, almost drowning grief.
We need an Easter rising today in defiance, and as a form of praxis. And so we raise Sue up in our story and song, in our prayer, in our tears, in our laughter. We raise her from the dead by remembering her as so very much alive. That is how we defy death; with life. That is how we practice resurrection; by pointing to the ways in which Sue’s love will be carried on in all of us—in our bodies, in our hearts, in our actions.
That is how we turn the shadow of grief into the shimmering light of hope.
Though our grief is strong and we must mourn, we will not let the shadow of death obscure the living person who touched us many times, in many ways, filling our lives with memories, meaning and love.
There’s a heartbreaking story in our Christian scriptures that takes place three days after Jesus died, on the road to Emmaus. Jesus’s friends walk aimlessly on that road to nowhere in particular, devastated with their grief. The resurrected Christ, it turns out, is walking with them, but in their overwhelming sadness they don’t recognize him. As he peppers them with questions, the disciples say some of the most painful words in scripture, “we had hoped that he was the one to save Israel.” “Had hoped,” past tense. In their impossible, overwhelming grief, their hope had been lost.
There were so many “had hoped” moments on this road for Sue, and for Sue’s family and for all of you. We had hoped that Sue would beat this cancer. We had hoped that she would live to see her children graduate from high school and college, get married, have babies. She had hoped to grow old with the love of her life who she called “Dickie.” Even when her family knew her death would come soon, they had hoped that Sue would have one more summer to spend on the Cape together.
I visited Sue several times in the last few months. Most recently, I sat and talked with her about hospice, which had been called in on the day I came.
She believed God showed up in people, so we reviewed her life and lifted up all of you, who she loved with genuine curiosity about who you are, great warmth and without judgment. Holy moly, that woman loved people with abandon.
We talked about what activities could still bring her joy, which wasn’t a lot since she was in pain, and she didn’t see much point in shopping or exercising.
We laughed together, saying that at least she didn’t have to wear sunscreen on the beach anymore. She still had a terrific sense of humor. We sang John Denver songs with Dick and Kim while the visiting nurse talked to Dick about hospice. Country Roads and Sunshine On My Shoulder.
Sue felt lucky, even as she was dying, to love the people she loved. She lived her life all the way to the end in deep gratitude for all of you.
Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.
We talked in those days about the difference between naïve optimism and hope. Sue was too realistic and smart to hope for a miracle. She was never in denial about what she was facing.
Similarly, Sue’s faith was not blind. It was the kind of deep faith that one acquires when one spends a lifetime listening more than talking, asking questions more than finding absolute answers. She never believed in a God who made her suffer for a reason, so in her honor, let us not invoke such a God.
But she didn’t lose hope. She hoped that she could find meaning and depth in her last days on earth. She hoped she could spend the days with her children and her beloved husband. She hoped that they would know how she felt about them, which was nothing less than extravagant love. She hoped that her siblings would be OK. She hoped that her adoring parents would be at peace, knowing that she was.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, sometimes when we are on the “had hoped” road, we understandably miss the way God shows up in the path. So I want you in the coming weeks and months and years, to recognize all the ways in which Sue shows up on this road from grief to healing with you. Think about what she would say in the moment when you need her most, remember the stories she told, lift her spirit up, play John Denver in the car, and then turn your face to the sun (but only when you’re ready.)
The disciples finally recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus as soon as he breaks bread and offers it to them. Let Sue be present with you at every meal, every time you sit down at the table with one another, see her face looking back at you.
The last time Sue sat in this, her beloved church--in that back pew--was Easter Sunday a few weeks ago. I had written my Easter sermon as a prayer for her: about finding the smallest glimmers of light even in the darkest of darkness.
I know that God made Sue to be a light in the darkness, for all of us who have gathered today. That light has not been extinguished. Her love lives on in all of you. Hope never dies because love doesn’t die.
Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.
So beloved friends, we must grieve this impossible grief: of a life that is over far too soon following a death that was painful, devastating and cruel, by a disease that steals the life of so many, indiscriminantly and with no mercy. And for those reasons, we must grieve well and long, because our tears are holy: a testament to how much Sue was truly and deeply loved; a testament to how unfair her suffering was, and that the world now has to go on without her in it.
And we miss her. Sue made every person feel like they were Beloved, which is God’s work. She was a living example of what it means to honor the light of God in each and every person she met. She was tough and brave. She was kind and good. She had an a thousand-watt smile, and a sense of humor that lasted right until the very end. Her marriage was a model for what good marriage should be. She left these beautiful, bright, loving children, who undoubtedly will make this world a better place, just like she did.
And so we must honor Sue by living as she lived—with passion and compassion, kindness and humor, with great adventure and great fun. We must listen well, make other people feel as though each and every one of them is our best friend, we must love our families and friends with tenderness and gratitude. We must affirm for Sue that her death does not have the final word. Her life does.
Sue Quinn: well done, good and faithful servant. Amen.
Dear God who is eternal and ever lasting Love:
In this lonely time of grief over the shocking and breath-stealing death of our friend, Sue
We look to you for peace and assurance that the world will still spin, and we will still go on, despite the hole that the death of our wife, mother, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, friend, leaves in our lives and in our hearts.
Comfort those who mourn today,
We pray especially for Sue’s beloved husband of 21 years, Dick, her daughter Cammie and son Brian and her parents Roland and Barbara, who cherished her. We pray also for her sister, Kim and her husband, Robert, and their children Benjamin, Matthew and Daniel, her brother, David and his wife, Deborah and their children, Nate and Amanda; her sister-in-law, Beth and her children, Kate and Caleigh, her sister-in-law, Jeannie and her husband Cliff and their children, Jay and Matthew. We pray also for her beloved golden doodle, Gracie, who rarely left her side, especially when she was sick.
We pray that Cammie and Brian and Dick feel her presence in every new accomplishment they make, every rite of passage, every triumph and trial, when the sun rises and when it sets.
This is the family that love made. God help them to know that we hold each other, and we hold each other up. When they feel like they can’t breathe, let us breathe for them. If they need help when it is time to roll away the stone of mourning, we will help them kick it away, and turn their faces toward the sun.
O God, who brought us to birth,
And in whose arms we die,
In our grief and sadness and shock,
Contain and comfort us;
Embrace us with your love,
Give us hope
And grace to let go into new life.
We pray all this for love’s sake.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett preached on Mother's Day, May 14, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
My husband thought my sermon title this morning lacked ambition. It’s mother’s day, so I decided to go easy on myself in celebration. Everyone else is probably having brunch.
You all may know this already, but mother’s day is not just a Hallmark holiday. The first mother’s day began in 1870 with the Mother’s Day proclamation we read today by Julia Ward Howe, who is most famous for writing the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War after visiting a union army camp in 1861.
Despite writing one of the most patriotic war hymns in American history, Julia Ward Howe was also known for her work for peace. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Howe began a one-woman peace crusade. She translated her proclamation into several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872 she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress but was not able to pull it off. Back in Boston, she initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held the meeting for a number of years. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mothers' Day holiday now celebrated in May.
So, in honor of the original Mother’s Day, I am preaching about war and peace, which is the Treasures of the Community auction sermon topic, as well. (The Treasures of the Community auction is coming up next weekend! You’re all coming, right?) For those of you who have never been, you should know that every year for three years, I have auctioned off a sermon topic. This year is no different. So bid high and bid early and often.
Allison and Eric Darlington bid hundreds or thousands or even millions of dollars (I can’t remember) last year to hear me preach this very priceless sermon this morning.
The Darlingtons are both veterans. They both served in the military immediately before and following September 11th, 2001. And they served, though not in active combat, in the Iraq war. Their military experience led them to many religious questions.
“The Bible says a lot about peace, and non-violence. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Jesus said to love the stranger, the neighbor, even the enemy. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of the ten commandments handed to Moses by God according to our sacred texts. Eric asks: “What, then, does the Church have to say to veterans who come home from war? Is there ever a time when it is OK to kill? What is the healing message that the Bible has for those of us who have served our country in war?
Thank you, Eric and Ally, for this question. In so many ways, I am inadequate to the task of answering it. I have never served in the military, nor have I lived during a time of compulsory military service. Biblically, just like always, there are no easy answers to this question. But I do believe the church needs to respond to this question. In fact, I believe a good response saves lives.
In 2013, I gave birth to my first and only son, Isaac. And because you asked me this question, the other day I watched Isaac tenderly put his baby doll, Megan, down to sleep in a crib, singing her a lullabye. And the realization hit me like a ton of bricks that he would have to sign up for the draft when he turns 18.
The idea that I may one day send my precious child off to kill or be killed was like a knife to my heart. Just like you and Ally, we are teaching our children Christian non-violence, love, kindness, hospitality, to pray for and even love their enemies. We hope these core values make up who they are. And one day, they may be asked to fight on behalf of their country. I don’t believe my children will unlearn the values of charity, mercy and patience as Julia Ward Howe suggests. They may instead feel as though they are forced to betray them.
I know this because I am also the daughter of a Viet Nam vet. And like many Viet Nam vets, the war still haunts my father. He was never comfortable marching in Veteran’s day parades, or being asked to stand and thanked for his service. He never told me much about the experience, but I believe going to Viet Nam is one of the great regrets of his life. It is a quiet, omni-present sadness he carries.
Regardless of one’s religious or political stance on war, I think almost everyone who serves in combat agrees that it is hell on earth. It is common for the experience of war to shake one’s religious faith. In a 2004 Yale University Study of Viet Nam veterans, almost 90% Christian, researchers found that 1/3 of the participants said the experience of war had shaken their faith in God and that the church no longer provided comfort for them.
This spiritual crisis requires a religious response. It is our sacred task as the church to care for and heal the spiritually wounded, and we are too often inadequate to the task. If the Christian church acknowledges war at all, it is often with a shallow patriotism that glorifies it, or a moralistic stance that unintentionally shames and further wounds those who have participated in it.
There is a middle way that honors and heals. First we need to understand the depth of the wounds.
At the Eat, Pray, Learn we had on race last year, I was in a small discussion group. One of you had a friend who served in Viet Nam. He came across a member of the Viet Cong in the path he was walking in the jungle. He had no choice…it was kill or be killed, so he shot and killed the enemy combatant. He realized afterward that the soldier he killed was a 12 year old boy. He came home haunted by this experience. He eventually committed suicide, unable to live with what he had done.
It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide per day in this country, an alarming statistic.
William Nash, retired psychiatrist for the US Navy says that it is not post traumatic stress, but “moral injury” that explains the increase in suicides. Moral injury is defined as “damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you – but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty.”
Nash says that he has “heard it over and over again from marines – the most common source of anguish for them was failing to protect their ‘brothers’. The significance of that is unfathomable, it’s comparable to the feelings I’ve heard from parents who have lost a child.”
Jesus calls us to care for the anguished and the lost. The church’s job the redemption, love and hope of a God who makes all things new.
It is notable that though Jesus undoubtedly preaches and teaches peace and non-violence, he does not judge soldiers unworthy of his care in the Bible. In fact, he even honors and heals them.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus heals the servant of the Centurion at his request. This is the only time in the whole of the Gospels when it says that Jesus is “amazed” by someone’s faithfulness. This is significant because of who this character is. The Centurion is a Roman soldier of the army occupying Israel—an enemy of the Jews. The Centurion would have been raised Pagan, so he is from a different religion. He may or may not even believe in the God of Israel Jesus teaches about.
Jesus recognizes and is amazed by the special spiritual gifts the soldier has. Because of his service in the military and his rank and authority within it, the Centurion understands and respects hierarchy. He doesn’t even come to Jesus directly because he feels he is “unworthy” to be under Jesus’ roof. So he sends others in his stead to ask for a healing of his servant. His faith in Jesus’ power is so strong that he believes Jesus can heal, even from afar. And Jesus is astounded by both the soldier’s humility, and his desire to care for people far below the soldier’s rank. Jesus says “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Soldiers have much to teach us about the practices of faithfulness.
On Veterans day week last year, I told you that we gathered for a forum with veterans of combat, to talk about how we can take care of their hearts now that they are home.
I told you then that there is something that one of our veterans, Gabe, said that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He served in (Iraq) in 2005-2006. “You have to understand, he said, that in combat, we are trained to live together. We are all colors, guys and gals, gay, straight, all religions, all creeds. None of that matters. We sleep together, we wake up together, we eat together. And we are trained to save each other’s lives. We are trained to know that we hold each other’s lives in our hands. We have a sacred duty to keep one another alive. It’s the only thing that matters…the thing we must know best how to do.”
“And then we come home, he said. “And we realize how much we have missed while we were gone. How everything has advanced without us. Everyone has a small phone in their hand that we don’t know how to use, and everyone is in front of a screen all the time, and they are staring at those screens instead of seeing us, and each other. We go from being profoundly connected, our lives wrapped up in each other’s lives, to profoundly disconnected--to everything and everyone. In war, we were holding each other’s lives in our hands, and we come home to a civilian world that is holding screens in their hands. It is the most profoundly lonely feeling I have ever experienced.”
Our veterans know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. Frederick Buechner says: “Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.”
Eric, I hope this answers your question. God is with us when we take risks for each other. God is there wherever people love each other and are true to each other. And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
So, I’d like to make a new mother’s day proclamation, for 2017 by Robin Wilson Bartlett:
Arise, women and men of this day! All women and men who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will neither glorify war, nor denigrate the service of the men and women who serve our country on our behalf. We will welcome them home and enfold them in our care. We will remind them about God who makes even horror into beauty; even hell into heaven. We will honor what they have to teach us about Love, and what they have to tell us about human sacrifice and courage. We will make sure they are never alone.”
Let us teach our sons and daughters charity, mercy and patience. Let us teach them that peace is possible, and that their tender hearts are a sign of strength. Let us teach them love of country, and love for the world. Let us teach them that right and wrong are not always absolute. That there will be times that their deeply held values will be transgressed, and that we will be there to hold them in the love of God when this happens. Let us teach them about forgiveness and grace, redemption and resurrection, rather than moral and ideological purity.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “justice is nothing to take for granted. So lay down your very lives for it. Seek peace. Learn from those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Risk it all for Love.”
Let people of all genders come together in shared love of God. Let God be amazed by our faithfulness. Let us solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each worshipping God, not country. Let each person learn our sacred responsibility to keep one another alive, to hold each other’s lives in our hands. Let us fight against loneliness and fear as the greatest enemies to humankind.
Let the church who is the expression of Christ on earth love and heal the warrior, and all those who work for peace. Together, let us love the hell out of this world.
Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on May 7, 2017 at First Church in Sterling, MA
I was listening to NPR’s Story Corps yesterday, and heard an interview between two young boys named Josiah and Isaiah and their dad which was funny and beautiful and sweet.
Eventually, after asking him lots of questions about his childhood, Josiah asked his dad, Kevin, “What’s the hardest thing about being a dad?”
“The hardest thing about being a dad is having a drink that you want to drink, and small people put their nasty mouth all over it,” Kevin explained. “And then whatever they were eating is now in the drink, and then you don’t want it anymore. Or buying them food and they don’t want their food, but they want your food. You’re never just satisfied.”
At this point you might think the boys were pondering the heavy burden adults bear, but Josiah asked, “Why can’t I be in charge?”
His brother jumped in before Kevin could respond.
“Because then everything would be a nightmare,” Isaiah said.
Kevin cited a different reason and added some requirements for being “in charge.”
“You cant be in charge because you are missing four teeth and no one’s going to listen to somebody who doesn’t have teeth in their mouth,” Kevin said.
After that, they pelted him with questions. The final question Josiah asked his dad was “Are you proud of me?”
“I am very proud of you,” Kevin said. “You’re both fantastic children and I am happy and proud to be your dad.”
I think this interview sums up the message of the Gospel. We ask God all the time, “Why can’t I be in charge?” And God answers by saying two things: “you can’t be in charge because you’re not me. If you were in charge, things would be a nightmare.” And then God follows it up with “I am happy and proud to be your father.”
Or in more simplistic words, God says: I’m in charge. Follow me. You are loved.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
The truth is, there are too many people trying to be in charge. But abundant life, Jesus says, comes from following the sound of Love’s voice: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
EJ and Grace, today is your baptism day. I wanted to tell you something about what it means to have abundant life through your baptism. The truth is, abundant life is really a gift that you already possessed much before this day. Abundant life can be found in following Love’s voice. You learned that skill before you were born, when you could hear and recognize the sound of your parents’ voices from the womb. And I’m sure, EJ, you have learned that lesson over and over again during adolescence. Your mom tried to remind you countless times when she said things like, “If John told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”
Following Love’s voice is one of those lessons we have to learn over and over again before we truly get it. The adults in this room are still trying to master it.
So today I want to teach you a song. I want you to sing it in your head when you need to. Sing it to your future boss, or to a bully on the playground, or on the picket line someday, or when you are suffering in body or in spirit, or when you are trying to psyche yourself up for that next, big, bold thing someone’s telling you you can’t do:
If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. We recognize Good Shepherd Sunday every year, and read scripture texts about the Shepherd metaphor for God. We say in the words of the 23rd psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Or, as Bobby McFerrin interprets it: The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus uses mixed metaphor, which probably drives the English teachers in the room crazy. (We need many metaphors to touch the ineffable, English teachers, so leave Jesus alone.) He says that he is both the shepherd and the gate. The sheep know my voice, he says. And whoever enters by me will be saved.
Not all of us like to think of ourselves as sheep needing to be led, or as people needing to be saved.
But sheep are apparently smarter than we give them credit for. They are followers, but they are smart followers. They know the voice of their human caretaker, and they follow him or her. They can listen above the din of all of the voices trying to lead them astray and hear the voice of the one they should follow. They know there is strength and safety when they are following the right voice. Perhaps that’s what salvation looks like in this lifetime: harnessing divine strength to do hard things by following the voice of The One who Loves.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
But here is a caution, also from our Gospel text:
There is a different voice in our head that leads us astray—it is the voice of the thief or bandit. This voice is a thief because it tries to steal who we are. This voice tells us we aren’t good enough, or beautiful enough, or thin enough, or powerful enough, or normal enough, or strong enough or smart enough. Sometimes that voice comes from the echoes of an abusive parent or a bully or depression or addiction or from racism or sexism or homophobia, or from a world that tells you there’s never enough, and that there is everything to fear.
That voice is usually loud, and it’s an evil liar that comes to kill and destroy.
Tony Morrison, in her beautiful novel, “Beloved,” writes about knowing the voice of God, and letting it drown out the voices that come only to kill and destroy. She writes about the experience of slavery:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver--love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
EJ and Grace: Love your heart. For this is the prize. This is the place where God lives, where the Good Shepherd’s voice whispers to you: you are Beloved. Follow me.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
If any voice, internally or externally, tries to define you:
As a body limited to its parts
As a thug
As a trouble-maker
As stupid or ignorant
As too old or too young
As wrong or bad or un-holy
As a racial or homopobic slur,
As a pre-existing condition,
As a stranger or an enemy,
As anything less than human,
As anything that steals your worth,
Or if anyone tries to sum every part of you up with essentialist labels like woman, man, gay, straight, fat, thin, ugly, deserving or undeserving, young, old, poor, rich, democrat, republican, handicapped, immigrant, black, white, brown,
IF ANYBODY TRIES TO DO THAT.
Don’t let them tell you who you are. Tell them you’re a child of God.
Listen to the voice of the good shepherd instead, who reminds you of your worth and your call, and follow that voice. God loves your flesh: flesh that weeps, that laughs, that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Listen above the voices of thieves and bandits to the One who calls you beloved, who is happy and proud to be your Creator.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.
A Love Letter to First Church in Sterling
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached at the Regional Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association's New England Region on
April 22, 2017
“A new heart I will give you,” our reading from Ezekiel says, “a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
We are in constant need for God to reach into our chests, pull out our hearts of stone and replace them with beating hearts of flesh. That’s why we come together in religious community:
We need a heart transplant.
And you and I know that this whole nation needs a new heart right now; re-started by Love.
You and I have watched (helplessly, hopelessly, angrily, cynically, exhausted) this year as our collective hearts turned to stone. We know we need Love to repair what has been broken.
We need a heart transplant. We need a LOVE REVOLUTION.
So often we Unitarian Universalists believe that the problem is outside of our own communities. As liberals, we don’t need to change. As liberals, it is our politics that saves us. And so it is our job to fix and save others; to save the world. But the truth is, you and I need a change of heart, too.
I grew up UU from birth, at the UU church in Concord, NH in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I grew up in a congregation that—at the time—worshipped the holy trinity: Emerson, Humanism and the Democratic party. There were three words we were not allowed to say in church in those years: God, Jesus and Ronald Reagan.
I interpreted the message of Unitarian Universalism rather poorly as a kid. I was the 7-year-old mini-Richard Dawkins on the playground who told the other kids there wasn’t a God, and also that Santa wasn’t real. (I don’t blame this on you, UUs of Concord, NH. I’m raising my 7-year-old with Jesus, and she does the same thing. It must be genetics.)
In college, I had a bumper sticker that said, “the road to hell is paved with Republicans.” I didn’t even have a car, but I had that bumper sticker.
I needed a heart transplant.
I found Jesus sometime in my late twenties at First Parish in Milton, Massachusetts. He taught me about Universalism, and was constantly challenging me to love religious hypocrites, the tax collector, and my enemies. But I rarely had to put those principles into practice since I surrounded myself with people I perceived to be exactly like me: white liberals. Ironically, I didn’t see myself as one of the religious hypocrites.
Then I moved outside of Boston.
You may have read that I am the minister of a UU church also affiliated with the United Church of Christ out in a town in Massachusetts you’ve maybe never heard of called Sterling. First Church in Sterling is what’s called a “federated” church: the result of the American Baptists, the Congregationalists, and the Unitarians coming together into one small town church during World War II.
As a result, this 300-plus member Christian church I serve is the most theologically diverse church I have ever encountered in my 40 years of being UU. We have progressive Christians, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, atheists and agnostics, and we have folks who believe that there is no way to be saved except through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. We are committed to above all else gathering in the spirit of Jesus, and we share in a commitment to re-make earth as it is in heaven. Because we believe that God is Love, we care for each other with a warmth I have rarely experienced, without parsing who’s worthy of it. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by remaining open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching, law-abiding Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together one day early in my ministry. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you, Cathie. And I held up a silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.” And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant!” I said. “The cup of salvation!” I never made that mistake again. She taught me a lot about ministry that day: reminding me that I’m not the one in charge, and that sometimes we need something a lot stronger than hope.
Ministry in a theologically diverse context provides ample opportunity for heart transplants.
The hard thing about my settlement in Sterling is not the theological diversity, though, it’s the ideological diversity. Sterling is a deep red rural farm town where Trump won the election. While liberals are overwhelmingly attracted to the church on the town green with the rainbow flag, so are conservatives. It’s the only mainline Protestant church in town, after all. In a small town, we have the beautiful problem of being stuck together, and so ours’ is a religion of welcome for all. I sometimes guess that we are about a 50/50 conservative and liberal mix in our congregation, politically. This is an unlikely scenario for a Unitarian Universalist church, I know. It’s a gift that even my colleagues in the United Church of Christ in New England don’t necessarily share. Church leaders, both conservative and liberal, are used to political orthodoxy in our congregations. We are far more likely to say that the reason we join a church is to surround ourselves with “like-minded people,” than we are apt to say we joined a church to worship a God who unites us across difference.
This political diversity in my congregation was a shock to my system, to be honest. And it has consistently and painfully necessitated my own heart of stone to be removed by God quite against my will and replaced with a beating heart of flesh.
The November 2016 presidential election hit our congregation hard. If we are being honest, it threatened to tear at the fabric of our congregation’s unity, and even tear some of my congregations’ families apart.
The day after the election, I didn’t want to face any of it. My colleagues on Facebook were posting comments saying things like, “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter. Even if they say they aren’t racist, they voted for one. You can’t be a UU and be a Trump supporter.” My experience with people I love in my congregation told me it was more complex than that. Many of my Trump voters worked for justice right alongside me, attending vigils for Charleston and Orlando, partnering with the Worcester Islamic Center to help refugees, going back year after year to build a hospital in the Dominican Republic, providing medical care and clean water for Haitian workers there. One of the African American men in my congregation voted for Trump.
And when it comes down to it, whether I like it or not, casting folks out of our circle of care is against my religion.
And so I spent the day, like so many of my colleagues did, in pastoral care with the grieving and terrified, trying to forgive. I mostly just listened, which ultimately I should do far more often.
We gathered in our sanctuary that same night in the candlelit darkness. 80 or 90 of us stood together united—conservatives and liberals, at a post-election communion service, open to the town. We shared a common meal at God’s table. We reminded each other to whom we belong—not a political party or a president, but to each other and to God. We sang “Imagine” together. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day, November 9, with beating hearts of flesh.
I gathered with my church’s board the next night. There are 6 of us on that board. Half of us are conservatives, half of us are liberals. 3 and 3. Two were on the Republican Town Committee, one a former chair. We voted differently in this election. We love each other a lot, this board and me. We laugh easily, and we have a great deal of trust in one another. Knowing them doesn’t usually change my mind, but it has absolutely changed my heart.
But that Thursday night, I was angry. We shared the story of one of our black teenaged congregants who had been harassed in the name of Donald Trump at her high school. We were told that a young adult child of a board member was sexually assaulted on the subway that day in New York City because “there’s a new sheriff in town, and we can grab women now.” A couple of us cried. Some of us just seemed numb.
And so we held hands before diving into our agenda, and Doug, our board chair, who I’m quite sure is not comfortable praying extemporaneously, prayed for us. He prayed humbly and with great tenderness, because he could tell how angry and defeated I was, and he could tell I had no words. I’m pretty sure he could tell I didn’t want to hold his hand, so he gripped it tighter.
Doug does not agree with me politically AT ALL. But we love each other, we respect each other, and we serve this place of profound unity together. We believe with every faithful bone in our body that Love builds bridges and tears down walls. We know we belong to each other. That’s what grace looks like in our context, and I do believe that’s how the world changes. Tears dripped down my cheeks despite my rage. Turns out what I didn’t know I needed was a Trump voter to pray for me that night.
My heart of stone was replaced that evening with a beating heart of flesh.
On the Sunday after the election, I got up into the pulpit with trembling voice. I told my people that I know we don’t watch the same news, and so I was only going to tell them news from our congregation. I told them about our children of color who have been harassed at school, our friends at the Worcester Islamic Center who need self defense classes, our young adult who was sexually assaulted on the subway, our congregation’s immigrants worried about deportation, and our people scared of losing health insurance. And I said directly to my Trump voters: “I know you didn’t vote for this—for any of this-- because I know you and I love you. “Tribalism got us into this mess, and it’s not going to get us out,” I said. I told them that no matter how we voted, we must now stand for black lives, for our children, for women, for Muslims, for Latinos, for queer people, for each other, because we stand for Jesus. We cried together, and then we chalked the whole town with messages of love for our neighbors. Some of my conservatives wrote me emails of gratitude. The emails said, in one way or another, “thank you for loving me. I will stand with you.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day with beating hearts of flesh.
Despite our ideological diversity, First Church in Sterling became an open and affirming, welcoming congregation to the LGBTQ community this January by unanimous vote. We hosted several conversations on race including with our police force, a forum on being LGBTQ and Christian, and a “Meet Your Muslim neighbor” gathering for the community, 100 people congregating in our parish hall for each event, of every political persuasion.
We are learning to listen to one another, searching not always for agreement but understanding. It is heart surgery. No one leaves unchanged.
At our path to membership class we had a couple of weeks ago, 90-year-old Charlie said, despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, once said to us that "If your concept of love serves only to reinforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
This is the Good News of Universalism, the SCANDAL of Universalism: we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether or not we are worthy.
Social scientists say that we haven’t been more divided as a nation since the aftermath of the civil war. And so 2017 is the best and most important time to be a religious leader in America. In fact, we have never needed communities of faith more.
Some people will tell you that the Church has a bad heart, and is coding on the table. You and I know a different truth, and that is why we are here this morning. The church is experiencing a shock to the heart unlike anything we’ve seen in history.
And so the church will be born anew. CHARGE UP YOUR DEFIBRULATORS and get ready to shock the church’s heart back into beating.
AND BEHOLD! The Church will rise again: to build bridges, not walls; to give us a new heart for each other and the world; to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
The Church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we welcome the stranger and pray for our enemies.
The church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we LOVE our neighbor as ourselves.
That’s because, in Barber’s words, the watchword of faith is ‘WE’.
We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
Beloved friends: may our hearts be shocked back into beating for each other, and for the God whose Love knows no limits.
Preached on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett at
First Church in Sterling, MA
The stone-cold guarded tomb Jesus was sealed in, like the world after he was crucified, was very dark. As the stone was slowly rolled away on Easter morning, I imagine just a crack and glimmer of light illuminating the darkness inside as the women realized he was no longer there. Like moonlight on water. God said let there be light; and there was light!
The smallest of lights can illuminate the deepest darkness.
Though the dark sometimes gets a bad rap in scriptures, it is not all bad. God creates in darkness. God spoke light into the darkness. Darkness is where seeds are planted and regenerate new growth deep in the earth. God resurrected Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb. Life is created and re-created in darkness. And darkness is where we begin, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knitted in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made.
Once they are born, we try to recreate the darkness and warmth of the womb for our babies for at least the first three months they are alive, sometimes longer. We swaddle them, we put light canceling curtains in their nurseries. We carry them around close to our bodies. This darkness helps them to eat and sleep and grow. The darkness is as generative as it is safe.
Some of us don’t necessarily get over this desire to cocoon in the safety of darkness as we age, either. For those of you who, like me, have been hiding underneath a blanket all winter wondering if it will ever be safe to come out again, you know what I mean.
We long to retreat into the warm safety of the womb, in order to shield ourselves from the darkness all around us that is cold and frightening like the tomb.
It’s no wonder we are afraid. The world has gone very, very dark. And the still-approaching, encroaching darkness is threatening to plunge us deeper into despair. According to social scientists, the nation is as divided as it was immediately following the Civil War. We are not sure if we are on the brink of another major World War, but we do see increased military actions lately that make us wonder. We have lost faith in our institutions: our democracy, our healthcare system, our free press, our corporations, our schools, the Church. Hate crimes are at an all-time high, and radical hate movements from Isis to the KKK are celebrating victory. We know at the very least that we have entered an era of enormous rage. We feel as though we have been plunged into the tomb with Jesus on Good Friday, and we wonder if we will ever emerge victorious.
At an interfaith watchnight service this year, civil rights lawyer, award-winning film-maker, interfaith leader, and Sikh activist Valarie Kaur said:
“Yes, the future is dark. But the mother in me asks: what if. What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?.....What if this is our nation’s great transition?”
Valarie Kaur finishes her speech on that watch night by asking “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And push. Because if we don’t, we’ll die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor…for revolutionary love.”
So on this glorious Easter Sunday, breathe. And tomorrow, you and I will get back to laboring for the creation of God’s kingdom here on earth. Because the alternative, Jesus reminds us, is death. It may be scary, but there is no going back. This is the great transition. All we can do is breathe and then PUSH.
Because God doesn’t call us to safety, God calls us to life.
First, we have to follow the glimmer of light at the crack of the opening, roll that stone away and burst out of our tombs.
Kids, have you all been to the Museum of Science in Boston? There is an exhibit there that has been there for so long, it was even there when I was a kid: the lightning exhibit. I loved that lightning room, and I was scared to death of it. They had lightning shows every few hours, and children sit in the dark with their parents, waiting for a spectacular light show to light up the room with a loud zap and crackle. It is stunning and loud, and I jumped with fear every time the lightning zapped the metal conductor, just like I do every time thunder cracks after the lightning in a rainstorm. And yet, I couldn’t wait to go back every year. It was exhilarating. Lightning is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
In our scripture from the Gospel according to Matthew, the women go to the tomb on Easter morning, and there is a great earthquake. An angel of the Lord rolled back the stone sealing the tomb where Jesus had been, and sat on it. His appearance, the text says, was “like lightning.” The guards and the women must have been shaking with fear because lightning is as terrifying as it is beautiful. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay,” the Angel says. The story goes that the women left the tomb “with fear and great joy,” to go back and tell the others.
Fear and great joy.
So it is with all of us.
Like the women who came to the tomb that day, the resurrection has not eradicated our fears. Many of us will go home again today, still uncertain of where our next pay check will come from, still facing terrifying diagnoses, still living with domestic violence in our homes, still mourning broken relationships that can never be repaired, still struggling with the heartbreak of addiction, still mourning the loss of a loved one, still fearful of what the future holds for our children and our earth. Christ’s resurrection does not wash those realities away. It simply calls us to impossible joy in the midst of our greatest fears. That is what our resurrected God invites: joy anyway. Let there be light!
This Easter Sunday, let us greet with fear and joy the light of God that cannot be put out. The love of God that cannot be killed or swept away. You are the proof that God’s light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
So come out of your tombs! Raise up your lights. Turn them on and hold them up! Hold up your lights for all those loved ones we have lost, because they are not gone. Light perpetual shines upon them. Hold out your lights for the broken hearted, for all is not lost. The light of hope still shines. Hold out your lights for those who live in fear. Do not be afraid! The light shines in the darkness. Hold out your lights for all those waiting to be resurrected from the darkness of their tombs. Death does not have the final word, life does. Darkness does not have the final word, light does.
God has made you a light in a dark place….Alleluia! LET IT SHINE!
Let it shine on the darkness of your fears....the light of joy will illuminate it.
Say it with me: Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of illness...the light of hope will heal us.
Say it with me: Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of loss….the light of our loved ones will live on inside of us.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of lies and conceit...the light of truth will stamp it out.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of war and terrorism….the light of peace will reign.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of evil...the light of Love will DESTROY it.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of death....the light of life will overcome it.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Breathe, and then PUSH. For a new world is waiting to be born. God’s LOVE is ready to burst forth, from your hearts, and your hands. No grave can contain it. God has made you a light in a dark place. Alleluia! Let it shine.
Preached Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be seen, not read. Watch this sermon here.
Today is Palm Sunday. And thus begins our Holy Week journey with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem today, to the Last Supper and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, to the horror of Good Friday, the desolate mourning of Holy Saturday, and the triumphant resurrection of Easter Sunday. This is a great day in the life of the church, and so is Easter next Sunday. If you come to the 10 am service next Sunday…come early. It will be spectacular. But please do not just come to our Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services. You miss most of the story if you do. Just going from glory to glory leaves out the meat…the part that is hardest to face, yes, but also the part that makes resurrection that much sweeter. So join us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week, too.
The celebration of Palm Sunday is always a little mawkish and macabre because most of us have heard this story so many times, we know what happens next. Sort of like a movie we know the gruesome tragic ending to, and so we cringe even when we watch the happy part at the beginning.
First, Jesus, a newly popular prophet (which means truth-teller) has his disciples go and steal a donkey and a colt. That’s right, Jesus asks his people to swipe livestock. He says, if anyone asks why you are taking these, just say “the Lord needs them.” (And friends, please don’t try this at home next time you need a mode of transportation. Saying “the Lord needs this Tesla” at the car dealership probably won’t work as a method of payment.)
The disciples then bring the donkey and the colt to Jesus, and spread coats over them to soften his seat. Then they spread cloaks and palms on the road to soften his path. That is how the people show God honor: by softening the path he travels.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him. They cried out Hosanna! Which means “I beg you to save!” In the procession were all those in need of salvation: the religious outcasts and the inner circle, those on the margins, the lepers and the lame, the strangers, the aliens, the prostitutes, the homeless, the sick. Kind of a scrappy bunch of sinners and saints, hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women, the healed ones and the ones still in need of healing. You know, just like us. Just like our scrappy banged up band of sinners and saints here in this church. All being led by the blessed king who comes in the name of the Lord.
It truly was a great celebration, a pop-up merry band. And in hindsight it just looks shameful. Because this same crowd will spit on Jesus, jeer at him, mock him, and laugh at him while he’s crucified by the Roman authorities just days later.
I always think of the scene in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday. The ensemble in the musical sings a rather sinister-sounding song in celebration of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem: “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sannah ho sannah hey sannah, hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me, Sanna ho sanna hey Superstar?” T.S. Eliot says that “the last act is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
They sing that song as if they are cheering for him, but for all the wrong reasons. Smile at me, Jesus! Fight for me Jesus!
The real story of Palm Sunday is not about the crowds, though. It is about the Humble King they cheer for.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was different than others. There were no fancy saddles and horses and chariots for Jesus…just a donkey with some coats laid over it to ease his seat. This procession didn’t look at all like a kingly procession—there was no gleaming armor or guards or weapons. Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was.
And whatever the reason for their cheering, the crowd had the humility that day to make his path soft. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, they made the path soft. They didn’t care if their coats got ruined by donkey hoofs and excrement. They didn’t care if they never got the dirt and dust off of their fur coat or prized Patriots jacket or robe and stole again. They threw their palms and maybe even their hopes and their hearts into the path along with them. Hosanna! I beg you to save!
Today we make the path soft for Jesus, our Humble King, because we, too, are in need of salvation.
We start by admitting we are no different than the crowd gathered that day. We’d like to believe we’d make a different choice, of course. But humility requires admitting that we are just as likely to cheer for Jesus, as we are to turn on him. We are just as likely to raise up our leaders and then rip them down. We are just as likely to betray our deepest held values, and even the people we love the most.
What the world needs right now is more people admitting that they are capable of being wrong. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people who are willing to put aside their own pride. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people willing to admit over and over again that they are not God. Now, more than ever. Make God's path soft.
On this Palm Sunday, more than ever, we need a reminder that we serve and follow a Humble King. Make his path soft.
The problem is none of us particularly like humility, if we’re being honest. Humility is not a character trait we herald in our kings. We want our kings to be tough and raging. Manly. Invulnerable. Like we wish we were. We want our kings to fight with the people we think are wrong. To call the cheering crowd righteous, and the jeering crowd a basket full of deplorables. To take down our enemies in war, or on Twitter.
But the scriptures tell us that the easiest way to know God is through his Son Jesus. And so we know that raging, power-hungry, murderous Kings are not God. That’s humanity. Ann Lamott says that we can trust we have made God into an idol if God hates all the same people that we do. We are raging, jealous, and vengeful, but that’s not God. We worship a God who loves without stopping to inquire who is worthy of it. We worship a God who demands that we love each other the same wasteful way we are loved. We worship a God who forgives even as he empties himself on the cross. We worship a God who rides the road of humility.
So let us make his path soft.
And let us make the path soft for one another. The people sitting next to you here in this church, or out driving on the highway, or in line with you at the grocery store—these people are all opportunities to see and know Christ. And so we must make the path soft for one another. Throw off whatever you are hiding under that coat you are wearing and put it on the ground. Practice humility.
Of course this is easy for me, since I am the most humble person I know.
For those of you who are new to us, this 300-plus member Christian church is the most theologically diverse church I know of. We are the result of all of the town churches coming together during World War II—the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Unitarians. As a result, we have every denomination here. We have atheists, agnostics, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists. We have rather Conservative Christians who believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, and your average progressive Christians who love hippie Jesus. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We even have some Jews and Buddhists. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by being open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
When I first got here, I thought I was pretty awesome. The first called and settled female minister to serve First Church, I was right out of divinity school and feeling pretty smart and holy.
I was just getting to know everyone, and the quirkiness of First Church. “Oh, I can do theological diversity,” I kept saying to everyone. “It’s fun.” I think I prided myself in being able to like, minister to the whole world with the ease of Jesus himself. I was disabused of that myth quickly.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons who shall remain nameless described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together by intinction one day early in my ministry here. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you. And I held up the silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.”
And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant,” I said quickly. “This is the cup of salvation.”
I never made that mistake again. She taught me something about humility that day, and therefore brought me closer to God. She reminded me that I’m not the one in charge; none of us are. She reminded me that maybe we all need a little saving. She reminded me that like the grape juice we serve instead of wine, sometimes hope’s not always a strong enough cure for what ails us. Hosanna! I beg you to save.
We make the path soft for Jesus when we make the path soft for each other.
St. Paul’s letter to the Phillippians instructs us:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
As we journey with Jesus on Holy Week, follow the humble path. Follow a savior who would enter Jerusalem to preach and heal and save, despite his fate. Follow the path of a God who would rather climb up on a cross and die to show us how loved we are than to save himself. Follow the path of a savior who instead of choosing anger and scorn at the tormenters in the crowd, instead said, “forgive them, father. They know not what they do.”
Make his path soft.
This Holy Week, remember how much you are beloved by God despite your tendency toward pride and hypocrisy. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Listen to one another not always for agreement, but for understanding. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let us not regard our belovedness by God as something to be exploited.
Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. His steadfast love endures forever.
A sermon for new member Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on March 19, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. You can hear this sermon here.
New members: My admiration for you is unending. It’s vulnerable and brave to join a church. It takes guts just to walk in the front doors the first time. Almost every time I meet with a new person, when I ask them why they came, tears almost immediately begin to flow. The journey here is always different, but it almost always involves pain, rejection, loss and no small amount of mourning. It is brave to trust your tender hearts and your stories to these admittedly imperfect fellow humans who you are only just beginning to know.
Also, I admire you because people will look at you a little funny when you say you joined a church. (I was single for a little while there in between husbands, and let me tell you, telling men at the bar what I did for a living was a surefire way not to get a free drink, much less a date.) Your atheist cousin, your Crossfit enthusiast brother in law, your best friend who yogas on Sunday, your teenaged kids …they all maybe secretly think you’re weird.
And you’ll say to them, “Oh, it’s not that kind of church. And, I promise, it’s not a cult.” And truthfully, they’ll wonder.
Anyway, we delight in your presence here. We welcome you and everything that makes you weird, because we’re weird too. Don’t stop inviting your friends, not in a creepy way to win more hearts for Jesus, but because you’re certainly not the only one who needs a place like this.
Today’s scripture reading so beautifully reenacted by Drew, Janice and Xan, the Woman at the Well, is thought to be both the lengthiest and most theological text in the entire New Testament.
So let me say that the most remarkable thing about this text is not the content of their conversation, but the fact that Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman at all. Jesus, who was a very pious Jew at the time, should not have been talking to a woman in public. Public conversation between the sexes was forbidden by religious and cultural laws. He also should not have been talking to a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
It’s also important to know that women at the time, and in this area of the world would have gone to the well very early in the morning to fetch water before the sun rose, together as a group. The Samaritan woman in our story comes to the well midday at the hottest time of the day. This is a sign both that she is desperately thirsty, and that she is an outcast in the Samaritan community. If she had not been, she would have been allowed to travel to the well with the other women, before the sun made it hard to travel, and exacerbated her thirst. It is thought that her outcast status is the result of her “many husbands.” And still, despite the rather extreme difference in status, the Samaritan woman is not scared to talk to the Rabbi Jesus, to tell him about her thirst, to question him, even. (Jesus likes bold women. He listens to them. He sees them.)
So despite the fact that she is of a different religious persuasion, gender and social status than he is, Jesus meets her as conversation partner. Despite the fact that she is a different race, Jesus sees her as kin. Despite the fact that he clearly knows her story, Jesus offers to share God’s love with her. In fact, he asks to share her drinking vessel, an action that makes him unclean according to Jewish law. Jesus was crossing every boundary.
In God’s family, there are no lines drawn between people, and the well of God’s mercy is deep and unending.
Like the disciples, every time we turn around, we find Jesus is talking to a person who you and I would rather not befriend. We happen upon Jesus at the well again on our way home from work, and he’s hanging out with that smelly homeless person who kinda scares us, or the boss who we despise, or a Fox News commentator, or our ex-mother in law, or a member of a gang, or a flamboyant drag queen, or a guy with the red #MAGA hat, or whoever we are referring to these days as a “snowflake.” Jesus always seems to see the people no one else notices. He hangs out with the people you and I have de-friended on Facebook because of their political memes. He offers them mercy, depth and belonging. He offers them living water, a font of the spirit that never runs dry.
And as such, he messes with our institutions, and the boundaries we have drawn around them.
Jesus tells the woman at the well that a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here--
when the importance will not be placed on the time and place of worship
but on the truthful hearts of worshipers.
He says, in essence, it doesn’t matter whether you fit the mold of what other people think a faithful person should look like. What matters is your authenticity. What is in your heart matters far more than what you have done, who you voted for, where you came from, or what the label affixed to your outside is.
New members, with truthful hearts and from many different places, you are joining this congregation in a glorious new day for the Church. If you have been cast out, we welcome you back in. If you have been a stranger in a strange land, or de-friended on Facebook, or made to walk to the well alone, here may you find citizenship and love in the kin-dom of God.
You are here at the exact right time. This is the best time in our nation’s history to join a religious community, the year 2017.
These are hot mess times of unprecedented disunity, divisiveness, instability and a crazy-making war on Truth. These are hot mess times defined by the crumbling of our storied American institutions, including healthcare, schools, the press, democracy itself. And so we need Jesus the boundary-crosser; the truth-teller; the healer. And yet, if you listen to pew reports and academics and sociologists--the institution of the church is crumbling before our eyes, as well. You will hear from people who study religious institutions and nostalgic friends say that the hey-day of the Christian church in America was back in the 1950s when America was great, the pews and Sunday School classrooms were full, and the (white) women stayed home from work and kept the church’s ministries running.
So maybe you think I’m crazy when I say that today is the hey day of the Christian church. But it is.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
Here’s why: the statistics say most people don’t go to church in New England at all, much less regularly. This is because nobody has to be here. Nobody pressures you to go, except maybe your grandma. The malls are open on Sundays now, and so are delicious brunch restaurants selling mimosas. I can smell the hot coffee brewing from here. Our jobs are requiring more and more hours out of us, and Sunday is sometimes our only family day; our only day to sleep in or ski. Soccer practice happens during church services, and truthfully, most parents choose sports as the priority for their kids. Church is a choice among many.
And church is seen as boring, outdated, a thing of the past. Worse, the Christian Church is associated with hypocrisy, discrimination and hate, largely due to its own….well, hypocrisy, discrimination and hate. (The church has to get better at being the church, or it will deserve its own death.)
We who sit here in these pews with our questions and our tender hearts: we are here despite all of that. In other words, we’re here for no other reason than because we choose to be. We are here because we still thirst for water from a deeper well, and our thirst is not satisfied by consumer culture, surface-level friendships, buying more stuff, winning soccer games or elections, and mindless entertainment.
We are here only because of a yearning for God and each other. We are here because we choose to be a part of the love revolution, starting with ourselves and one another, and radiating out into the world.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
It’s already here because there is unity in the family of God, and we crave unity despite difference. At our path to membership class, 90-year-old Charlie said despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
A new day is coming—in fact it’s already here!
This new day is already here at First Church in Sterling because we are proud to be theologically and ideologically diverse. Atheists sit next to Theists. Conservatives sit next to Liberals. Gay people sit next to straight people. Young people learn from elders, and elders learn from young people. We serve our community together, regardless of our differences. We reach out to our Muslim and Jewish and immigrant neighbors. We hug each other. We even like it.
That’s because our thirst is consistently quenched by the living water of a shared faith in Love—something deeper than the arbitrary lines that divide us.
Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from a place of an authentic love, not tribalism. Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from an authentic experience of God, not rote practice, or habit, or compulsion. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its prayer.
A new day is coming for the church—in fact it’s already here.
Rachel Held Evans says that "For much of my life, being a Christian was all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life. My faith had, in many ways, been reduced to intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It took watching that faith completely unravel in the midst of the doubts, questions, and frustrations of my young adulthood to realize that you never really arrive at "right." Right is not the point. What I longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time. What I longed for was sanctuary -- a place to breathe, to be myself, to wrestle with the mystery, to confess my sins and explore my doubts, to experience God rather than simply believe in God.”
Broken and beloved people: Let us tell the truth to one another, taking it one day at a time. Let us experience this God that brings inside those who’ve been cast out. Let us long for Jesus to continually challenge our assumptions about who should be included in our circle. We thirst, like the woman at the well, to be part of one human family, united in Love. So for all of us who have spent our lives seeking after things that do not satisfy, a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
May Love’s living water that quenches thirst forever.
become a fresh, bubbling spring within you,
giving life throughout eternity.
May you never be thirsty again.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
based on John 3: 1-17, and "Born Again, and Again, and Again" by Kerry Egan
preached March 12, 2017 at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/heard.
What was it like? The day you were saved?
I wonder if you’ve ever been asked that question.
In our scripture text from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, Nicodemus is a religious leader genuinely puzzled by the question of salvation. Jesus tells him that he needs to be “born from above” in order to see the kingdom of God. “How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “I am old. I can’t be born again. I can’t squeeze myself back into the womb of my mother, and come out anew.”
“Yes, true, but you can start your life over in the spirit,” Jesus suggests. A spiritual re-birth is possible. The spirit is not like the flesh, it’s like the wind. And the wind is powerful. You can’t see it, but it rustles the trees and knocks out power lines, and you hear the loud howling sound of it wooshing through the wind tunnels the sky scrapers create in the cities. You can feel the impact of the wind when it touches ground in a tornado. And the spirit is also like water. It cleanses you, like a newborn baby bathed in amniotic fluid, as yet untouched by the world.
The passage we heard today contains John 3:16, perhaps the most famous scripture from the New Testament, the one often used as a purity test and a cudgel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Here’s what I want you to remember from these sometimes weaponized words. Here is what I want you to teach the children:
1. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD.
2. God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.
Love changes us like a tornado: indeed it reorders our lives; it turns things upside down, and we are never the same. Love washes over us like a cleansing: We are reborn in it again and again. And yes, Love saves us, and we don’t have to earn our salvation. (God is not a monster, and love is not a lie.)
So what was it like? The day you were saved?
Truthfully, this is a question that I don’t get asked that often, even as a pastor. It’s kind of a thing that people usually don’t talk about in polite company, at least in Massachusetts anyway.
And yet, I remember so clearly last year one of you came to me distressed. You were having a conversation with someone in a professional capacity, and you happened to mention how much you loved your church; this church.
And the question posed to you by this associate was, “Are you saved?”
And you panicked. You had no idea how to answer. You were sure that the question didn’t come from a place of love, but from a place of judgment. You were hurt, confused and angry that someone would question your faith; your Christianity.
You wanted to know how you should answer the next time you are asked this question. Maybe you could turn the question back on the asker like Kerry Egan did, from a place of genuine, loving curiosity and say:
“What was it like? The day you were saved?”
A few months ago, I was hosting some evangelical clergy colleagues here at First Church. They were from a Pentecostal church in Worcester. I happened to be wearing a clerical collar (which I hardly ever wear) that evening. One of them introduced himself to me and said, “are you a Catholic?”
Puzzled, I said with a wink, “I don’t think the Catholic Church is ordaining girls like me into the priesthood these days. Yet.”
Then I realized he was referring to my collar, which he said he’d never seen a “Christian” pastor wear. (Much less a lady pastor, though he didn’t say that.)
“Oh, you’re referring to my collar. I’m the pastor here,” I said with a smile.
“Is this a Christian church?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Protestant Christian church.”
“What denomination?” He asked.
“It’s multi-denominational,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, looking skeptical. “Do you believe in Christ? Is your church Bible based?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Christian church associated with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Bible is our foundational text.”
“Oh,” he said, eye-ing me a little sideways. “Good.”
The people I was standing next to were puzzled by these questions. “Aren’t we kind of obviously a Christian church? We’ve been here on the town green since Christianity was, like, invented.”
But I knew that these were coded questions. He was gauging our purity. “Are you saved? Is your congregation saved?” He was asking me. This is the way some Christians parse believers from un-believers, based on the scripture text from John that we read today. Are you born again? Are you John 3:16 Christians? Which is another way of saying “true”, “saved” Christians?
I want you to know that in preparation for this sermon, I googled yesterday morning the question “am I saved?” Because when Jesus said to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, I felt sure that Google was one tool Jesus placed in my tool box. I found a quiz online called “Am I Saved?” It asked me the following questions:
1. What is your age?
2. What is your gender?
3. Are you born again?
4. How do you feel after you've become born again
I’m born again and a new creature in Christ
I’m born again but the same person
I’m not sure
I’m not born again
5. Do you love your children, parents, or your own life more than Jesus?
I have to think about that
6. How do you feel about your sins?
I hate sin and I flee from sin
I don’t want to sin but I cant stop
I love my sins
7. Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
8. Do you forgive others who have sinned against you?
I forgive and forget
I forgive, but don’t forget
I only forgive those I love
I don’t forgive
9. Could you die for Christ? ie...decapitation
I don’t know
No, I cant
10. Do you believe the bible to be 100% true?
11. How often do you pray and read scriptures
Whenever I have time
12. Who is Jesus?
A good man
God in the flesh
One of many gods
My result was, in a nutshell, that I am only 33% saved. (Which I suppose is better than 0%, but still seemed kind of low for a pastor).The internet doesn’t always have all the answers, because it is wrong, at least in this case. I am 100% saved. So are you. Every single one of us is 100% saved by virtue only of our birth.
For God so loved the world that God came not to condemn, but to save it.
My colleague Rev. Chris Buice, in his meditation manual, "Rollerskating as a Spiritual Practice" (Skinnerhouse Books) writes:
Occasionally I am stopped on the street and asked the question, “Are you saved?” Even though I am a minister, I am never sure how to reply. Then I remember a story from my own childhood. When I was a child, four or five years old, I took my brother’s pocket knife and began carving some words into the wooden headboard of my bed. When my mother discovered my creative work, she was justifiably angry.
I think normally vandalism of furniture would have gotten me into deep trouble. But my mother was a minister’s wife, and the words I had carved into the bed were “Jesus Loves Me.” In this kind of situation it is true that “Jesus saves.”
Of course I was saved not only by Jesus. I was saved by a mom who knew who to balance accountability with forgiveness. I imagine that it is difficult to know how to discipline your children when their religious expression does damage to the furniture. But through a gentle talk, my mom was able to help me see the error of my ways and I changed my behavior for the better.
Another time I was saved when I was swimming in the ocean. I went out into water way over my head and was caught in the undertow. Fortunately my brother Sam noticed that I was struggling. He jumped into the water and came out to get me. He hauled me in to shore.
Once again I was saved by a grace, both human and divine.
When I hear the word saved, I think of being rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm. And in many ways I have been saved. Sometimes this experience of salvation has a human hand and a person’s face. At other times I encounter it when I am alone in the woods and there is no sound except the whispering of the wind playing in the leaves or water flowing over rocks in a stream.
And as I remember these things I know the answer to the question, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” I reply, “I am definitely saved.”
So what was it like? The day you were saved? The day you were rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm?
What was it like the day you got sober, the day you left the abusive marriage, the day your babies were born, the day you got your health back, the day you survived that car accident, the day you were told your cancer was in remission, the day you realized you survived--bruised and battered, but alive--the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship? What was it like, the day you were given a new chance at love? What was it like the day you were welcomed—truly welcomed—for all of who you are for the first time? What was it like, the day you forgave a friend or enemy, the day you yourself were forgiven, the day you lost your old life, and found a new one?
If you ask me if I’m saved, I would say: “Yes, I’m saved. I’m saved every day that I’m alive. I’m born again every time the sun rises again in the east, every time the shadow of death turns to the light of morning. I am born again every time I am given the opportunity to see Christ’s face in another human being. I am saved by grace, which has nothing to do with what I have done or have failed to do. Every day I am alive is my salvation day, every person I meet who has a lesson to teach me, a savior.”
If the colleagues visiting our church asked me outright if my congregation is saved, I would have said “Oh yes, my congregation is saved. We are saved by each other, by our children and each other’s children, and by the love of God which is so powerful and so extravagant, that this love doesn’t parse who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. No bible based purity test or internet quiz can measure it. And what’s more, my congregation is responding to the wasteful love of God by saving others, and that salvation is reverberating throughout the community and the world.”
I got an anonymous card this week with $25 in cash sent to the church office. Here is what the card says:
"Dear Reverend Bartlett,
In today's Item, I read with interest the article about your parish and the reverse offering. One of the stories was of particular interest to me. One member donated her offering to the lunch account of a needy child he knew at Clinton Elementary School. I taught school at the elementary level for 25 years and I am retired. I am hoping that you will be kind enough to find that teacher and ask them to use my enclosed donation to add to that child's lunch fund."
Salvation spreads, like grass in the wind; like the spirit of God that blows upon it. For God so loves the world that God came to save it through flesh and blood humanity. We are born again of the spirit with every act of this salvific love; creating a heaven here on earth.
Anne Lamott says “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Beloved, be a beacon bringing light to the dark places. You are the light of the world. Stand there shining.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.
|Rev. Robin Bartlett||
Copyright Robin Bartlett, 2013. All rights reserved.